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The annual Assumption tradition of blessing the sea

Denver Newsroom, Aug 13, 2020 / 02:43 am (CNA).- For hundreds of years, Catholic parishes in coastal cities have participated in the tradition of blessing the sea and praying for the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the Feast of the Assumption.

While believers in landlocked areas may be unfamiliar with the practice, it is a longstanding tradition that provides an opportunity not only to pray for safe travel at sea during the coming year, but also to profess one’s faith outside of church walls, one priest told CNA.

“Obviously, the prayers and blessings are good in themselves … I think it's [also] a good reminder that there is not simply a place for religion in public, but there's a hole that we needed to fill and it helps make us better people,” said Father John Solomon, pastor at St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Ocean City, Maryland, which has taken part in the tradition for more than 20 years.

The tradition of blessing of the sea dates back to 15th century Italy and has since become a custom in coastal cities throughout Europe and the United States.

According to the Trenton Monitor, the custom is believed to have begun when a bishop traveled by sea during a storm on the Feast of the Assumption. The bishop then threw his pastoral ring into the ocean and calmed the waters.

Some parishes throw a wreath of flowers into the sea and or conduct the blessing from a boat. Participants may go swimming afterward or use bottles to collect the seawater.

Parishioners at St. Mary, Star of the Sea typically begin the celebration with a Mass celebrated by the bishop. This is followed by a procession to the local beach, where holy water is sprinkled into the ocean as the community prays.

More than 60 people gathered at the event last year, said Solomon, noting that it had been his first year at the parish and first year attending the event.

“Then after the blessing, we also have a lot of international students who work here in the summer … We'll give them a meal and just an opportunity for them to come in and just relax.”

This year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, the parish will omit the Mass and procession. Instead, parishioners will meet on the beach, practicing social distancing and wearing masks.

Solomon noted that travel by sea was a dangerous means of transportation, especially hundreds of years ago. Even today, travel by sea carries risks.

For this reason, the priest said, it is fitting to pray for safe ocean travel to Mary Star of the Sea, a medieval title that emphasizes Mary’s role as a "guiding star” for those pursuing Christ.

“From pretty early times, there was an understanding of asking for Mary's intercession as the Star of the Sea,” he stressed. “She is one of the patrons of the ocean for keeping us safe as we travel … it's good to know that there is one who is a mother that is trying to keep us safe.”

Solomon said the event is also an opportunity to show the Catholic faith to the local community. While there may be a stereotype that religious people are simple or unintelligent, the blessing of the sea is a public chance to express the Catholic faith and show that normal people can have a devotion to Christ and his Church.

“To believe doesn't mean that one is less intelligent or less reasonable, but in a sense, the most reasonable because this is faith and this is truth,” he said.

“It's good to see we are not a bunch of crazy people going out, but these are people who are leaders in the community, these are people who are business people, these are people, who, at the same time, have a great love for Jesus. There's something true about that and something attractive as well. We are not here to destroy the American ideal but, instead, when we do actually live our faith correctly, we are some of the best citizens.”



Analysis: Will anything change on pro-choice politicians and holy communion?

Denver Newsroom, Aug 12, 2020 / 09:05 pm (CNA).-  

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has been working from home these last few months, like a lot of people have. Biden has been campaigning from his house in Delaware: livestreaming interviews, appearing on radio shows, and releasing videos.

But now that Biden has selected a running mate, and is less than three months from Election Day, the candidate is expected to hit the road again —  while respecting social distance, of course.

Biden, a Catholic, is in the habit of going to Mass while traveling. If he resumes that habit, it will soon raise questions familiar both to bishops and to pundits: Can pro-choice politicians like Biden receive the Eucharist? And will anyone stop Biden if he approaches the communion line?

The norm of canon 915 itself is clear: Catholics “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.” But debate over that canon, and its application to pro-choice politicians, has vexed the Church in the U.S. every election year since John Kerry’s presidential campaign, and often in between elections, too.

In 2004, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Church’s doctrinal office, wrote a memorandum to the U.S. Catholic bishops, explaining the application of canon 915 to the question of pro-choice politicians.

The case of a Catholic politician who is “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws” would constitute “formal cooperation” in grave sin that is “manifest,” the letter explained.

In such cases, “his pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist,” Ratzinger wrote.

If the individual perseveres in grave sin and still presents himself for Holy Communion, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it.”

Shortly after Ratzinger wrote that memo, the U.S. bishops agreed the application of those norms should be decided by individual bishops, rather than by the bishops’ conference, largely under the influence of Theodore McCarrick, then-Archbishop of Washington, who paraphrased the letter, which was not yet publicly available, but did not present it in its entirety to the bishops.

Some bishops have prohibited politicians advocating for “permissive abortion laws” from receiving communion, but others have demurred, or said outright they would not deny such politicians the Eucharist.

Asked by a journalist, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said in October that he would not deny Biden the Eucharist. Before that, in January 2019, Dolan had said that he would not deny the Eucharist to New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed into law one of the most permissive abortion laws in the country’s history.

Biden’s own shepherd, Bishop William Malooly, has said in the past that he does not want to “politicize” the Eucharist by denying communion to politicians. Washington, D.C.’s ordinary, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, has said that the Eucharist should be denied only as a last resort, and is not on record as ever having done so.

But while bishops are circumspect about the issue, many active Catholics are not. Practicing pro-life Catholics have in recent years lambasted bishops for their reticence to withhold the Eucharist from pro-choice politicians. Some have called the bishops’ approach a scandal. Many young priests have echoed those calls. 

In the frustration of not being heard, and in the wake of the McCarrick scandal, those calls intensified last year as several states passed expansive abortion laws. The controversy widened an already broad gap of distrust between many Catholics and their leaders.

Biden, who supports the federal funding of abortion and in 2016 officiated at a same-sex wedding, is likely to prompt similar calls from lay Catholics in the months to come.

So here’s what’s likely to happen:

At some point between now and election day, a young priest will find Joe Biden in his communion line. Because of the priest’s convictions about the unborn and his sacramental theology, he will deny Biden the Eucharist.

Someone will see it, a report will get out. CNA may well break the story (our reporters are the best in the business.)

Biden will say very little himself, and he won’t have to.

The priest will issue a statement explaining himself, and then be roundly criticized. A cardinal will appear on television, and he’ll disagree with the young priest’s decision. Pro-choice or progressive leaning Catholics will on social media call the priest a fundamentalist, and point out, correctly but as a distraction, that Trump also takes positions contrary to the Church’s teaching. The priest’s diocese will say very little. Other priests will wonder whether their bishops will support them, if they too act to follow the Vatican’s guidance on the matter.

After a news cycle or two, the issue will mostly die down, leaving those who continue to raise their concern ever more alone, and looking ever more like zealots.

In their frustration, some will turn to a growing chorus of anti-episcopal conservative media figures who make a living criticizing the Church’s leaders. Bishops will lament the popularity of those figures.

If that prediction sounds quite specific, that’s because it’s what happened in October 2019, the last time Biden was denied the Eucharist.

Some version of that story will happen again because, as things stand, the policy and the practice of the Church on this issue diverge from each other, dramatically.

That leaves priests who put the policy into practice standing often by themselves. It leaves some Catholics confused about how seriously the Church takes its own teaching and its own sacramental discipline. Other Catholics, those who have watched that cycle play out a few times, are less confused than demoralized, and cynical.

But if election pollsters have it right, this issue isn’t going away. Biden, who would be the second Catholic president, has a big lead over Trump. Unless something changes, he’s likely to be the first Catholic president since Roe vs. Wade, and the first to publicly support abortion.

The U.S. bishops decided on a patchwork, diocese by diocese, approach to canon 915 in 2004. In some senses, from an ecclesiological perspective, that localized approach might make sense.

But the country may soon find itself with an aggressively pro-abortion president who likes going to Mass, and a piecemeal approach to an important question of sacramental discipline. Practically, that situation is likely to foment further division in the Church, as bishops promulgate dueling policies under a national spotlight.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that any bishop will take up the project of making a nationwide change on this issue, and there are only a few positioned well to do so.

The Archbishop of Washington and the Bishop of Wilmington, both of whom have a platform as Biden’s shepherd, are among those who could.

If either of those bishops took the initiative to say that in his diocese the Church’s canonical discipline on the Eucharist would be applied fairly and consistently to politicians of all parties who break from the Church on grave and clear matters, a precedent would be set, and easily followed across the country.

Failing that possibility, if Cardinal Dolan had a change of heart, and announced that in the Archdiocese of New York the Church’s sacramental discipline would be applied in accord with the Church’s instructions, other bishops would likely follow suit. Church watchers would likely see that as a recovery of Dolan’s once praised legacy on pro-life issues, which was tarnished amid the controversy over Cuomo.

Bishops don’t like to go first, generally, but many are willing to follow the right leader. If a nationally leading Churchman set a change in motion, many would follow suit. Eventually, only a dozen or so bishops staunchly opposed to “politicizing” the Eucharist might be left.

Both Washington and Wilmington are led by bishops rarely characterized as conservative. Washington’s Archbishop Gregory is struggling to gain trust as a reformer, the job for which he was sent to Washington. Insistence on applying the Church’s law, as written, would likely bolster Gregory’s credibility on that front. But the archbishop led the U.S. bishops' conference in 2004, when he and McCarrick were seen to push for a permissive interpretation of Ratzinger's letter, and there is no evidence to suggest he has changed his thinking on the subject.

Bishop Malooly, who is almost 77, is even less likely to change his long-standing policy than Gregory is. But his successor, who could be appointed as early as September, might be of a different mind. And he would have to his advantage the unique window of time in which a new bishop can make a major change before getting bogged down in the myriad reasons he hears not to make any changes.

If he is appointed before the election, it would be all the easier to make his position clear.

There is one other bishop who might be expected to lead a charge on this issue: Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Gomez, who is both pro-life and a strong advocate for the Church’s moral teaching on immigration, has the credibility among a broad swath of bishops to call for a unified approach to a vexing problem. But the conference has not passed major, sweeping policies in recent years, and is still recovering from the shockwaves of McCarrick and 2018. Gomez would have little luck unifying the conference on anything so controversial.

But the L.A. archbishop has personal influence: If he decided to announce a policy for Los Angeles, after lobbying other prominent U.S. bishops to announce the same, a cadre of bishops would probably follow them.

For any of those bishops, the media blowback of such a move would be intense, and difficult to get past. But the support among many practicing Catholics, and among priests, who are looking to the Church for leadership, would also be significant. Such a move would not soon be forgotten.

By many estimates, the result of those bishops taking the lead, however unlikely, is that the integrity of the Church’s moral witness might be strengthened. Catholics might grow in respect for their embattled bishops. And, just maybe, a few Catholic politicians who defy the Gospel, from either party, might be moved to conversion.

Whether any bishop will actually decide to break the cycle, or whether Catholics will watch the ‘Communion Wars’ play on for the next several years, is up to the handful of bishops who could meaningfully change the narrative. It seems unlikely they’ll do so. But as America contemplates a change, the Church’s leaders have the chance to make one too.


This analysis has been updated for clarity.


Too few safeguards, opponents of New Zealand euthanasia, assisted suicide bill say

CNA Staff, Aug 12, 2020 / 06:01 pm (CNA).- A New Zealand bill that would legalize euthanasia and assisted suicide does not have enough protections against the possible coercion of vulnerable people, opponents of the bill said at a recent public forum.

Renee Joubert, executive officer of advocacy group Euthanasia-Free NZ, said Aug. 10 that she is concerned that the End of Life Choice Act 2019 would allow doctors to counsel patients whom they barely know, allowing them to approve their requests for assisted suicide without properly screening for coercion or without even being required to meet with the patient in person.

“If (doctors and patients) have not met someone before it is hard to know if they have been coerced. If (consultations) can be by phone video not face-to-face then how can they tell if they are free from pressure, their abuser may be out of sight,” Joubert said, according to an article from the Timaru Herald appearing on Stuff, a New Zealand news website.

Joubert was one of five people who spoke for and against the euthanasia and assisted suicide bill at a public forum on the bill, hosted in Timaru and organized by the Timaru Christian Ministers Association, ahead of a September referendum vote on the issue. Timaru is a coastal city in the South Island of New Zealand, located roughly 100 miles south of Christchurch.

The New Zealand Parliament voted in favor of legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide last November, sending the End of Life Choice bill to a referendum vote, which will be held Sept. 19.

If passed, it would allow terminally ill citizens or permanent residents of New Zealand age 18 and older, who have six months or fewer to live, to be euthanized or to themselves take a lethal dose of prescribed drugs, on the condition that two doctors agree the person is well-informed. An earlier version of the bill would have also allowed those with severe or incurable conditions to seek euthanasia or assisted suicide.

At the forum on Monday, Joubert added that there was no test to ensure the mental soundness of the person making the decision to end their life, and that unlike other countries with assisted suicide laws, the New Zealand bill did not require any witnesses for the signing of documents in which the patient would agree to death by euthanasia or assisted suicide.

Josh Taylor, a minister of St John’s Anglican Church, said at the forum that after New Zealanders went to great lengths to protect the elderly and other vulnerable populations from the coronavirus pandemic, legalizing assisted suicide would put those same populations at risk.

“The act undermines a caring society which protects the vulnerable, it is open to abuse,” Taylor said, according to the Timaru Herald.

Opponents of the bill at the forum also expressed concern that the 48 hour waiting period between receiving the lethal prescription and taking the medication was too short, the Timaru Herald reported.

Hospice groups have also been vocal in their opposition to the bill. Hospice NZ chief executive Mary Schumacher wrote in an opinion piece for Stuff that “people living with a terminal illness should be supported to live in whatever way is important to them, their family and whānau, and make the most of their remaining life and not be subjected to pressure to end their life prematurely.”

“People should have access to good palliative care support regardless of where they live, but we know that this is not the case currently in Aotearoa New Zealand. We need to address issues of access to care, social isolation, and lack of support for family carers before we give people the means to choose death,” she added.

A Christchurch surgeon wrote in a 2019 piece at Stuff that legalized assisted suicide would “erode the trust” between a doctor and their patients.

The Nathaniel Centre, which is the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Center, has posted resources on Church teaching on euthanasia and assisted suicide to their website and social media pages ahead of the referendum.

In 2018 the Catholic bishops of New Zealand released a resource that listed five key reasons to oppose assisted suicide legislation, and encouraged Catholics to stand up for life.

“It is a powerful witness when the entire Catholic community is united around a point of belief and action – the upholding of the dignity of human life – which is so central to our faith and pivotal to an inclusive and caring society,” the bishops said at the time.

In November 2019, leaders from varying religious traditions, including Catholic leaders, wrote a joint letter to members of Parliament to express seven concerns about the “unethical bill”, including the concern that assisted suicide is not a free choice when access to palliative care is not equal in the country.

“Until it is (equal access), there is a strong likelihood that New Zealanders will also choose assisted death because of a lack of other meaningful choices. In such a context, there is the real risk that people in lower socio-economic groups will find themselves being channelled unnecessarily and unjustly towards a premature death,” the leaders said.

Pope Francis has on multiple occasions spoken out against assisted suicide and euthanasia, both of which are “morally unacceptable” according to Church teaching. In 2016, Pope Francis told medical professionals that assisted suicide and euthanasia are part of the “throwaway culture” that offers people “false compassion” and treats human persons like a problem.

Dozens killed, missing after landslide in India

CNA Staff, Aug 12, 2020 / 05:16 pm (CNA).- A landslide in southern India has killed at least 52 people and destroyed dozens of buildings, including one Protestant church, in recent days.

For nearly a week, Kerala state has faced monsoon rainfalls and flooding, triggering a massive landslide in the Idukki district. Dozens of houses on a tea plantation were demolished, and about 70 people were buried by the mud when a hill collapsed.

More than a dozen people are still missing, and search-and-rescue operations are ongoing.

A 151-year-old Protestant Church of South India building collapsed during the flooding on Aug. 11, UCA News reported.

Local Catholics are now working to help those affected by the flooding.

The Archdiocese of Changanaserry is coordinating relief efforts, with priests, nuns, and lay volunteers assisting.

Fr. Jacob Mavunkal, an official with the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council, told UCA News that volunteers have “rushed food, drinking water and other immediate requirements to the affected people.”

Other areas of the state are also suffering with strong winds, heavy flooding, erosion, landslide, and falling trees causing damage, he said. Distributing supplies has been challenging, as many people are hesitant to approach relief camps due to fear of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Flooding during the monsoon season is an annual threat for people in certain parts of India. Last year, it was estimated that 17 million people were affected by flooding and landslides throughout the monsoon season.

Caritas India works with local diocesan-level partners throughout the country each year to offer food, shelter, and other assistance to those who have been displaced or affected by the flooding.


Analysis: Was a stack of Bibles burned in Portland, or was it fake news?

Denver Newsroom, Aug 12, 2020 / 03:35 pm (CNA).-  

If you perused the news online on Saturday, Aug. 1, you could be forgiven for believing that large-scale Bible burnings— the kind perpetrated by the Nazis in the 1930s— were taking place in the apparently Godless streets of Portland, Oregon.

Dozens of news stories from Aug. 1 repeated a claim from a Malaysia-based journalist that “a stack” of Bibles had been consumed in a bonfire, built by protestors in the middle of the street.

But after more than a week of those stories, the pendulum has swung the other way. Spurred by an extensive analysis of the incident by the New York Times, many media outlets have begun to dismiss the reports of the Bible-burning incident as overblown and misleading; one outlet even labeling the story “Russian propaganda.”

So what’s the truth? 

The evidence suggests that reports of a burning “stack” of Bibles were not accurate. But the Bible-burning incident was not completely fictional, and there is no evidence that what did happen was insignificant or meaningless.

Protestors burned at least two Bibles in the streets of Portland that night. A livestream filmed at the protest shows them burning. That fact is undisputed.

By Aug. 1, large-scale protests and riots had been taking place in Portland for over two months, protestors had set numerous fires amid the demonstrations. On July 26, police even reported that protestors had attempted to burn the courthouse itself to the ground.

The protests often have taken the form of crowds of hundreds of masked people protesting, ostensibly, against racism, police brutality, and fascism. Federal agents responding to the protests have garnered criticism for using tear gas and other forceful methods against protesters.

Some of the protests have been accompanied by riots and looting. In addition to extensive property damage in the city’s downtown, there have been incidents of violence within or adjacent to the protests, including shootings and stabbings.

Danny Peterson, a reporter for KOIN6, a Portland CBS affiliate, who was present at the Aug. 1 burning, told CNA that he personally only saw one book burned that night, and did not get a good look at its cover. He said multiple eyewitnesses told him that it was a Bible, and he reported that a Bible had been burned.

But the initial, widely-shared evidence for the Bible burning originated from a different source— a video released by Ruptly, a video agency whose sole shareholder is a non-profit organization controlled by the Russian government. (Warning: The video contains strong language.)

The Ruptly clip that went viral is a small, edited clip from a nearly five-hour livestream that the news agency posted from the July 31-Aug.1 protest.

The video caught mainstream attention after Ian Miles Cheong— a Malaysian journalist who is consistently active in American conservative political debates— retweeted the video with the caption “Left-wing activists bring a stack of Bibles to burn in front of the federal courthouse in Portland.”

Cheong’s tweet quickly made its way around the internet on Aug. 1, with such political figures as Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr. retweeting the video and adding their own commentary. Conservative sites picked up the story from there, almost all of them citing the Ruptly video.

In addition, several conservative commentators online repeated Cheong’s claim that the protestors had burned “a stack” of Bibles.

On the other hand, a NY Times’ Aug. 11 analysis claimed that the truth “was far more mundane”— the protestors had not burned “a stack,” but merely one or two single Bibles as “kindling to start a bigger fire.”

Pointing to the video’s source, and its framing, The Times’ analysis said that “the Portland Bible burnings appear to be one of the first viral Russian disinformation hits of the 2020 presidential campaign.”

According to the Times, Russia has for years been seeking to sow discord in the United States, in part, through what the Times calls “information laundering”— releasing stories and information through channels controlled by Russia, such as RT, which American social media users and news outlets then pick up and disseminate to their followers.

William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said in a statement last week that according to U.S. intelligence, Russia has been seeking to denigrate Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden, who is seeking to unseat incumbent President Donald Trump in November and who has been publicly supportive of the protests.

For its part, CNA reported at the time that in the early morning hours of Aug. 1, protestors burned at least one Bible in a bonfire in the street. CNA’s source was the KOIN report, but the story mentioned Ruptly’s video in its reporting, while adding the caveat that the video was unconfirmed, and its source was a Russia-controlled news site.

A representative from Ruptly contacted CNA shortly after the story published, requesting that CNA change its characterization of Ruptly as “Russia-controlled.”

The representative told CNA that Ruptly is an “entirely commercially-run, international news agency” that is based in Berlin and “wholly independent of any government.”

But Ruptly’s sole shareholder is ANO TV Novosti, a non-profit organization funded by the Russian government, which the U.S. Department of Justice has designated as a Russian government entity. Information on Ruptly’s ties to Russia is readily available and widely known.

CNA asked the Ruptly representative whether its financial ties to the Russian government make the characterization “Russia-controlled” appropriate. The representative told CNA again that Ruptly is a commercial entity that answers its CEO and its editorial team, “which is made up of 42 different nationalities.”

“Their role in this capacity is to deliver top-quality, neutral reporting on a diverse range of news items from around the world, according to the demands of Ruptly’s clients,” the representative said in an email.

The representative declined to comment directly on the question of Ruptly ties to Russia.

Ruptly’s characterization and promotion of the video may be part a broader disinformation campaign. It was at least misleading and incendiary, not meeting ordinary ethical standards for journalism. But it is not the only storytelling that raises questions.

The NY Times account also deserves scrutiny. The Times analysis argued that the Bible burning was merely an overblown, isolated incident.

“A few protesters among the many thousands appear to have burned a single Bible — and possibly a second — for kindling to start a bigger fire. None of the other protesters seemed to notice or care,” the NY Times said.

But it seems clear from the videotape that whoever set the first Bible alight intended to make a statement. One protestor standing around the burning Bible removed her mask and blew on the flames performatively, making a show of warming her hands from the fire’s heat.

“Best use of a Bible ever,” an unseen voice comments as the flames rise.

As the first Bible slowly burns, another voice can be heard saying: “Hey, there’s more free Bibles over there.”

“We need another Bible,” another voice says a few minutes later. “Let’s keep this s*** going,” another shouts.

Protestors later added several American flags, newspapers, a pizza box, and twigs to the fire, and chanted vulgar slogans, including “F*** the Police.”

The Times’ analysis reports that “there [was] no discernible reaction from the crowd as the [second] book is put in the flames along with twigs and branches, notebook pages and newspapers.” This is not true.

As the second Bible is ripped apart by a masked protester and added to the flames, a voice on the videotape can be heard saying clearly “A Bible, yeah!” in approval. There are also several excited whoops, and even a cry of “Hail, Satan.”

Yellow-clad members of the group Moms United for Black Lives Matter went over to the fire and put it out with bottles of water and stamping around 1 am, according to the KOIN6 report.

Protestors later built a new fire; it remains unclear whether the second fire consumed more Bibles.

A “stack” of Bibles was not burned in Portland Aug. 1. Nevertheless, Bibles were burned, and seemingly not by accident.

Whether “fake news” comes from Russia or from New York, misleading reports— whether exaggerating the truth, or downplaying it— are likely to intensify in months to come. Astute news consumers should be attentive to both.