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On Pentecost, Pope Francis says Holy Spirit can bring harmony to ‘a polarized Church’

Pope Francis presides over Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 28, 2023. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

Vatican City, May 28, 2023 / 05:15 am (CNA).

On the Solemnity of Pentecost, Pope Francis urged Catholics to invoke the Holy Spirit daily to bring harmony to a divided world, a polarized Church, and to broken hearts.

Speaking in St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope explained that the role of the Holy Spirit, both at the beginning of the creation of the world and at all times, is to make “created realities pass from disorder to order” and “from confusion to harmony.”

“In our world today, there is so much discord, such great division. We are all ‘connected,’ yet find ourselves disconnected from one another, anesthetized by indifference and overwhelmed by solitude,” Pope Francis said in his homily on May 28.

People try to snap a photo of the pope on their phones at the Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 28, 2023. Vatican Media
People try to snap a photo of the pope on their phones at the Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 28, 2023. Vatican Media

“If the world is divided, if the Church is polarized, if hearts are broken, let us not waste time in criticizing others and growing angry with one another; instead, let us invoke the Holy Spirit. He is capable of resolving these things,” he said.

The pope added that without the Holy Spirit, “the Church is lifeless, faith is mere doctrine, morality mere duty, pastoral work mere toil. … With Him, on the other hand, faith is life, the love of the Lord conquers us, and hope is reborn.”

“Let us put the Holy Spirit back at the center of the Church; otherwise, our hearts will not be consumed by love for Jesus, but by love for ourselves,” he said.

Cardinals in attendance at the Vatican's Mass for the Solemnity of Pentecost on May 28, 2023. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA
Cardinals in attendance at the Vatican's Mass for the Solemnity of Pentecost on May 28, 2023. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

Pope Francis added that he sees the Holy Spirit as not only as the “soul of the Church,” but also as “the heart of synodality.”

He called for the Synod on Synodality, which will culminate in October with the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, to “place the Holy Spirit at the beginning and at the heart of the work of the synod.”

“The Synod now taking place is – and should be – a journey in accordance with the Spirit, not a Parliament for demanding rights and claiming needs in accordance with the agenda of the world, nor an occasion for following wherever the wind is blowing, but the opportunity to be docile to the breath of the Holy Spirit,” he pope said.

Pope Francis at Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 28, 2023. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA
Pope Francis at Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 28, 2023. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

Pope Francis, who canceled all of his audiences on Friday due to a fever, presided over the Mass but was not the main celebrant. The pope sat at the front of the congregation in a white chair to the right of the altar.

Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, the Brazilian prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, served as the main celebrant for the Pentecost Mass.

Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 28, 2023. Vatican Media
Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 28, 2023. Vatican Media

In his homily, Pope Francis underlined that the Holy Spirit also forgives sins, reconciles souls, and creates harmony in hearts that are “wounded by evil, broken by hurts, torn apart by feelings of guilt.”

“Only the Holy Spirit restores harmony in the heart, for he is the one who creates ‘intimacy with God,’” he said, citing St. Basil.

“Let's invoke the Holy Spirit every day. Let's start each day by praying to him. Let's become docile to him,” Francis said.

During the Mass, the Palestrina Choir from Dublin led the congregation in the traditional “Veni Sancte Spiritus” sequence for the Mass for Pentecost.

Pope Francis urged Catholics to invoke the Holy Spirit daily upon the whole world to bring unity and peace.

Pope Francis prays during Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 28, 2023. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA
Pope Francis prays during Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on May 28, 2023. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

The Solemnity of Pentecost, which is celebrated 50 days after Easter, marks the descent of the Holy Spirit. Thousands were gathered inside St. Peter’s Basilica for the Mass.

At the end of his homily, Pope Francis prayed: “Holy Spirit, Spirit of Jesus and of the Father, inexhaustible wellspring of harmony, to you we entrust the world; to you we consecrate the Church and our hearts.”

“Come, Creator Spirit, harmony of humanity, renew the face of the earth. Come, Giver of gifts, harmony of the Church, make us united in You. Come, Spirit of forgiveness, harmony of the heart, transform us as only you can, through the intercession of Mary.”

Everything you need to know about Pentecost

Depiction of the Holy Spirit in St. Peter’s Basilica. / Paolo Gallo / Shutterstock.

Denver, Colo., May 28, 2023 / 02:00 am (CNA).

This weekend, the Church celebrates Pentecost, one of the most important feast days of the year that concludes the Easter season and celebrates the beginning of the Church.  

Here’s what you need to know about the feast day.

The timing and origins of Pentecost

Pentecost always occurs 50 days after the resurrection of Jesus and 10 days after his ascension into heaven. Because Easter is a moveable feast without a fixed date, and Pentecost depends on the timing of Easter, Pentecost can fall anywhere between May 10 and June 13.

The timing of these feasts is also where Catholics get the concept of the novena — nine days of prayer — because in Acts 1, Mary and the Apostles prayed together “continuously” for nine days after the Ascension leading up to Pentecost. Traditionally, the Church prays the novena to the Holy Spirit in the days before Pentecost.

The name of the day itself is derived from the Greek word “pentecoste,” meaning 50th.

There is a parallel Jewish holiday, Shavu’ot, which falls 50 days after Passover. Shavu’ot is sometimes called the festival of weeks, referring to the seven weeks since Passover.

Originally a harvest feast, Shavu’ot now commemorates the sealing of the Old Covenant on Mount Sinai, when the Lord revealed the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Every year, the Jewish people renew their acceptance of the gift of the Torah on this feast.

What happens at Pentecost?

In the Christian tradition, Pentecost is the celebration of the person of the Holy Spirit coming upon the Apostles, Mary, and the first followers of Jesus, who were gathered together in the Upper Room.

A “strong, driving” wind filled the room where they were gathered, and tongues of fire came to rest on their heads, allowing them to speak in different languages so that they could understand each other. It was such a strange phenomenon that some people thought the Christians were just drunk — but Peter pointed out that it was only the morning, and said the phenomenon was caused by the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit also gave the apostles the other gifts and fruits necessary to fulfill the great commission — to go out and preach the Gospel to all nations. It fulfills the New Testament promise from Christ (Luke 24:46-49) that the Apostles would be “clothed with power” before they would be sent out to spread the Gospel.

Where’s that in the bible?

The main event of Pentecost (the strong driving wind and tongues of fire) takes place in Acts 2:13, though the events immediately following (Peter’s homily, the baptism of thousands) continue through verse 41.

Happy Birthday, Church!

It was right after Pentecost that Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, preached his first homily to Jews and other non-believers, in which he opened the scriptures of the Old Testament, showing how the prophet Joel prophesied events and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

He also told the people that the Jesus they crucified is the Lord and was raised from the dead, which “cut them to the heart.” When they asked what they should do, Peter exhorted them to repent of their sins and to be baptized. According to the account in Acts, about 3,000 people were baptized following Peter’s sermon.

For this reason, Pentecost is considered the birthday of the Church — Peter, the first Pope, preaches for the first time and converts thousands of new believers. The apostles and believers, for the first time, were united by a common language, and a common zeal and purpose to go and preach the Gospel.

Pentecost vestments and customs around the world

Typically, priests will wear red vestments on Pentecost, symbolic of the burning fire of God’s love and the tongues of fire that descended on the apostles.

However, in some parts of the world, Pentecost is also referred to as “WhitSunday”, or White Sunday, referring to the white vestments that are typically worn in Britain and Ireland. The white is symbolic of the dove of the Holy Spirit, and typical of the vestments that catechumens desiring baptism wear on that day.

An Italian Pentecost tradition is to scatter rose leaves from the ceiling of the churches to recall the miracle of the fiery tongues, and so in some places in Italy, Pentecost is sometimes called Pascha Rosatum (Easter roses).

In France, it is tradition to blow trumpets during Mass to recall the sound of the driving wind of the Holy Spirit.

In Asia, it is typical to have an extra service, called genuflexion, during which long poems and prayers are recited. In Russia, Mass-goers often carry flowers or green branches during Pentecost services.

This article was originally published on CNA June 2, 2017, and was updated May 26, 2023.

Pope Francis resumes normal schedule one day after fever

Pope Francis shakes hands with film director Martin Scorsese and his wife Helen Morris. One day after suffering from a fever, Pope Francis resumed his normal activities, including meeting with participants in a conference on “The Global Aesthetics of the Catholic Imagination,” organized by Jesuit magazine “La Civiltà Cattolica” and Georgetown University, in the Apostolic Palace on May 27, 2023. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, May 27, 2023 / 07:09 am (CNA).

Pope Francis resumed his normal schedule of appointments on Saturday morning after suffering from a fever the day prior, a Vatican communications official said.

Andrea Tornielli, the editorial director of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, wrote on Twitter on the morning of May 27 that Pope Francis had “resumed his regular audiences.”

A Vatican spokesman confirmed to CNA on Friday that the pope had canceled meetings in the morning May 26 due to a fever.

Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See Press Office, said that “due to a feverish condition, Pope Francis did not receive [anyone] in audience this morning.”

According to the Vatican’s daily news bulletin, Pope Francis had his regular Saturday morning meeting with the prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, Archbishop Robert Prevost.

He also met with delegations from the Orthodox Church of Athens and Loyola University of Seville, and with Father Wagner Ferreira da Silva, president of the Brazilian Catholic community Canção Nova.

The pope also had an audience with participants in a conference organized by the Jesuit magazine “La Civiltà Cattolica” and Georgetown University on “The Global Aesthetics of the Catholic Imagination.”

Film director Martin Scorsese and his wife Helen Morris attended the conference and took part in the papal audience.

On Friday afternoon, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, spoke briefly with journalists about the pope’s condition.

“The pope was tired. He had a very, very busy day yesterday,” Parolin said, according to the French-language media outlet La Presse. “They were telling me last night that he met with a lot of people, and in the context of this meeting with Scholas Occurrentes, he wanted to greet them all, and probably at some point the stamina fails.”

Pope Francis is scheduled to say Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the solemnity of Pentecost on May 28, followed by the recitation of the Regina Caeli antiphon.

The 86-year-old pope was hospitalized for four days at the end of March for a lung infection.

Here’s when Easter officially ends

Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov's Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene (1835) / null

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, May 27, 2023 / 06:00 am (CNA).

Catholics recognize Easter — when Jesus Christ rose from the dead after sacrificing his life for all of humanity — as the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the spring equinox. But, as it turns out, they can continue saying “Happy Easter” into May or, in some years, into June.

Easter lasts for a total of 50 days, from Easter Sunday until the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, Mary, and the first followers of Christ. 

This year, 2023, Easter was on April 9 and runs until this Sunday, May 28. 

Easter explained

Catholics observe Easter in different stages. Easter Sunday is the greatest Sunday of the year, and it marks the start of the “Easter octave,” or the eight days that stretch from the first to the second Sunday of Easter (also known as Divine Mercy Sunday). The Church celebrates each of these eight days as solemnities of the Lord — a direct extension of Easter Sunday.

The entire Easter season lasts 50 days and includes the solemnity of the Ascension of Christ, which falls on the 40th day of Easter, which this year was May 18 (or May 21 in some dioceses). It ends with Pentecost, which is derived from the Greek word “pentecoste,” meaning “50th.” 

“The 50 days from the Sunday of the Resurrection to Pentecost Sunday are celebrated in joy and exultation as one feast day, indeed as one ‘great Sunday,’” according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “These are the days above all others in which the ‘Alleluia’ is sung.”

The USCCB calls Easter “the most important of all liturgical times.”

“It celebrates Jesus’ victory of sin and death and salvation for mankind,” the U.S. bishops say. “It is God’s greatest act of love to redeem mankind.”

In the traditional Roman rite

In the traditional form of the Roman rite, Easter is known properly as Paschaltide, which includes three parts: the season of Easter, Ascensiontide, and the octave of Pentecost. It thus lasts one week longer than the Easter season in the calendar of the Missal of St. Paul VI.

The season of Easter begins with the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday and runs through the afternoon of the vigil of the Ascension. 

Ascensiontide begins the evening before the Ascension, with First Vespers of the feast, and ends the afternoon of the vigil of Pentecost — marking the first novena.

The octave of Pentecost is an extension of the feast of Pentecost, beginning with the vigil Mass of Pentecost and ending the afternoon of the following Saturday, which this year falls June 3.

This article was originally published April 21, 2022, and was updated May 26, 2023.

CNA freelancer recounts ‘horrifying experience’ of witnessing Nigeria firefight

null / Shutterstock

Washington D.C., May 26, 2023 / 16:15 pm (CNA).

A freelance journalist who has reported on a surge of violent attacks by radicalized Muslims in Nigeria for CNA recently found himself caught in the middle of a firefight between government soldiers and armed militiamen.

“With hundreds of bullets flying over my head, and the whizzing gunfire whipping past my ears, lying flat on the ground and crawling on we were swarmed by more than 200 armed terrorists who were dressed in black,” Masara Kim, an independent reporter based in Jos, recounted in text messages to CNA.

The exchange of gunfire, which lasted about an hour, took place on May 16 in Mangu City in Central Nigeria’s Plateau State. The region in and around Plateau has seen a series of deadly attacks by armed Muslim militia in recent weeks, a sign of worsening instability in Nigeria.

“The terrorists were shooting and advancing forward in a suicide fashion, despite a fierce resistance by a team of 100-200 armed soldiers and policemen. They were shouting ‘Allahu Akbar,’” Kim reported.

“They fired thousands of shots at us — a horrifying experience,” Kim related.

Independent journalist Masara Kim is based in Jos, Nigeria. Used with permission.
Independent journalist Masara Kim is based in Jos, Nigeria. Used with permission.

Another eyewitness to the fighting that day was Solomon Mwantiri, a Jos-based lawyer and human rights advocate. 

Mwantiri said as many as 1,000 armed militia fighters converged on Mangu City and surrounding villages and began burning houses. He told CNA that he arrived with a military convoy of 15 trucks at 11 a.m.

“The terrorists retreated to a small valley beneath the hilltop village called Jwak Maitumbi, where we saw approximately 500 fighters who were joined by reinforcements arriving by motorbike,” Kim said. 

“By late afternoon Tuesday [May 16] the convoy of trucks retreated after the soldiers ran low on ammunition,” Kim related. 

“There were more than 50 corpses found in area villages on Tuesday but many are believed to be still unrecovered in busy areas,” he wrote.

“By Friday, May 20, the death count stood at over 200, however many more are expected to be found, and the mass burials are continuing,” Kim said. “According to what security forces have told us, there are still 21 villages around Mangu that are occupied by terrorists,” Kim said. 

The Plateau police have arrested seven suspects in the attacks, the Associated Press reported. “It was a situation of sporadic shooting across a vast area of different villages,” Alabo Alfred, a police spokesman, told AP.

Columbus Diocese to close 15 churches; bishop calls for stronger Catholic engagement

The Vatican on April 2, 2022, announced that Pope Francis had appointed Father Earl K. Fernandes to be the next bishop of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio. / Courtesy of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

Denver Newsroom, May 26, 2023 / 15:40 pm (CNA).

Ohio’s Catholic Diocese of Columbus will close 15 churches as part of a parish reorganization and merger plan, but Bishop Earl K. Fernandes emphasized new possibilities for growth, especially if lay Catholics take on more responsibility for the Church’s future.

“When I arrived, I said I’m not interested in presiding over 25 years of decline in the diocese,” the bishop said in a May 25 video series at the diocese’s YouTube channel. “I want to grow the church, not for my glory, but for God’s glory,” he said.

Fernandes said the reorganization plan was an effort to “try to come up with the best possible solution for the whole Diocese of Columbus.”

The bishop stressed the need for “an engaged lay faithful” who take shared responsibility for the Church’s mission of evangelization and for the future of their parishes in “authentic collaboration” with clergy.

The diocese serves more than 278,000 Catholics at 108 churches in 23 counties of central Ohio.

The changes are needed due to declining church attendance and fewer young priests, as well as population decline in rural areas and population shifts in the Columbus area, according to WOSU 89.7 NPR News. Two Catholic schools will also close.

At the same time, there are signs of growth in the diocese. The bishop noted a “huge number” of Spanish-speaking people, compared with 10 years ago, as well as an influx of Africans, some of whom speak French. The diocese has 15 new prospective seminarians this year, but those who continue to ordination will still take years of study and preparation.

“Columbus is unique in that it’s growing in the Midwest as a city with lots of jobs coming here,” Fernandes said. “But also Columbus, like many other dioceses, has an aging clergy, so something needed to be done, not just for the retraction of the diocese, but for the mission of evangelization.”

The bishop said the population influx could even mean the construction of new Catholic schools in parts of the diocese.

He said he hoped the planned changes are the foundation for a better future for the diocese. He said he envisions, in 10 or 15 years, parishes that are not simply maintaining what they have but are “actually evangelizing” and “making new disciples.” Parishes should have a “culture of vocations” and “beautiful churches and liturgy.”

The bishop described the diocese as “top-heavy” in aging clergy, with 12 priests over age 70 still working as parish pastors.

“Priests should be able to enjoy their retirement,” he said. “We knew we were going to have to make decisions and have pastors who have the energy and the leadership abilities to help parishes come together, to evangelize and to pastor multiple parishes.”

Religious orders have a growing presence in the diocese and are serving at various parishes, especially if they are prepared to serve ethnic communities and Spanish speakers. Capuchin Franciscan priests will arrive this summer to staff two churches in a newly merged parish, the diocese’s newspaper The Catholic Times reported.

The diocese’s reorganization process, titled “Real Presence, Real Future,” began in 2019 under Fernandes’ predecessor, Bishop Robert Brennan. The first draft of the reorganization model was released in fall 2021 and final recommendations were presented to the bishop in fall 2022. Final recommendations to Fernandes slated 19 churches for closure, but the bishop said he made adjustments based on input from parishioners and priests.

CNA contacted the Diocese of Columbus for comment but did not receive a response by publication.

The Columbus Diocese borders the Diocese of Steubenville. A proposal to merge the two dioceses was put on hold in November 2022.

Canadian police ask for public’s help in identifying man who set fire at cathedral 

Photos of the man who allegedly set a fire at St. Mary's Cathedral and charged at two staff members on May 19, 2023. / Calgary Police Department

Boston, Mass., May 26, 2023 / 14:15 pm (CNA).

Local police in Canada are asking for the public’s assistance in identifying a man who allegedly set a fire and assaulted two men at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Calgary, located in the western province of Alberta.

Police responded early in the morning to reports of a “deliberately set fire” at the cathedral on May 19, the Calgary Police Department said in a May 25 statement.

Two staff members at the cathedral heard a “commotion” outside and opened the back door to see what it was, the statement said. When they opened the door, a man “aggressively charged at them,” according to police. 

The two staff members, both men, closed the doors before the man could reach them, police said. The man continued to attempt to enter the church, the statement said. 

Law enforcement was called and the Calgary Fire Department put out the fire when it arrived.

According to police, a description of the man says he is between 35 and 45 years old and bald. The man is about 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, police said. The police department’s Hate Crime Prevention Team is investigating for “hate motivation,” police said.

The cathedral referred CNA to the Diocese of Calgary for comment.

Cristina Marcil, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Calgary told CNA Friday that the diocese is aware of the incident and is cooperating with law enforcement to support the investigation.

Tips can be submitted to police by calling 403-266-1234. Anonymous tips can be submitted by calling 1-800-222-8477 and going online at www.calgarycrimestoppers.org

Morticians mystified by Sister Wilhelmina’s body: ‘Something special going on there’

A young man touches a religious statue to the body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, on May 18, 2023, at the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles monastery in Gower, Missouri. / Used with permission.

CNA Newsroom, May 26, 2023 / 13:45 pm (CNA).

Expert morticians are scratching their heads at the recently exhumed body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, a Benedictine nun who died in 2019 and now appears to be in an unexpected state of preservation.

The reactions come a week after the abbess and sisters of the community that she founded, the Benedictine Sisters of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, unearthed the 95-year-old African American religious sister’s simple wooden coffin on May 18 from the cemetery on the monastery grounds in rural Gower, Missouri, to relocate her remains to a final resting place inside their chapel.

The local ordinary, Bishop Vann Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, visited the monastery Monday to see Sister Wilhelmina’s remains. Johnston, who has communicated with Church authorities in Rome about the situation, issued a statement the same day, saying that a “thorough investigation” was needed to answer “important questions” raised by the state of her body.

Jack Klein, owner of Hixson-Klein Funeral Home in Gower, Missouri, who said he was present at Sister Wilhelmina’s burial and issued her death certificate, confirmed for CNA that the religious sister’s body was not embalmed and that the wood coffin was not placed into any outer burial container. 

Klein said he “can’t understand” how Sister Wilhelmina’s un-embalmed body is in the state it’s currently in, four years after her burial.

David Hess, program coordinator and associate professor in the mortuary science department at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, expressed similar surprise.

“If the body was not embalmed, and it was still intact after four years, that one kind of throws me,” he told CNA. “I would have expected the body to be decomposed, maybe not all the way down to bone, but at least severely decomposed.” 

Sister Wilhelmina’s body, which has been on display in the open air for pilgrims to visit, is reported to have no foul odor in recent days, as would be the case, morticians say, with a body that has undergone decomposition for four years.

One pilgrim, Peggy Tynan of Denver, even told CNA that while praying over Sister Wilhelmina’s body on May 24, she smelt a “sweet and flowery aroma,” which was so powerful she could taste it. A journalist from EWTN’s ACI Group who visited the body last weekend also noticed no odor of decomposition.

“It’s kind of strange, if the body was not embalmed, that there would be no odor,” Hess said.

A pilgrim venerates the apparently incorrupt body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, on May 20, 2023. Lancaster was recently exhumed in Gower, Missouri. Credit: Kelsey Wicks/CNA
A pilgrim venerates the apparently incorrupt body of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster, OSB, on May 20, 2023. Lancaster was recently exhumed in Gower, Missouri. Credit: Kelsey Wicks/CNA

There has been no official determination that Sister Wilhelmina’s remains are incorrupt, nor is there any cause underway for her canonization, a formal process in the Catholic Church that can take many years. Her fellow sisters plan to hold a procession on Monday on the monastery grounds and then place Sister Wilhelmina’s body under a glass case to accommodate the many pilgrims coming to the property.

An open question is if and how the foundress’ remains will be scientifically analyzed. A diocesan spokeswoman, Ashlie Hand, told CNA on Wednesday that the diocese isn’t aware of any specific Church guidelines for how to conduct such an investigation.

“Bishop Johnston has been in touch with someone in Rome. He’s definitely working on it and trying to find a careful process, a careful approach, that’s well thought through,” she said.

Hand said as many as 1,000 pilgrims reportedly visited the monastery on Wednesday. The diocese has been advising the sisters about how best to handle the influx of visitors, she said.

“The condition of the remains of Sister Wilhelmina Lancaster has understandably generated widespread interest and raised important questions. At the same time, it is important to protect the integrity of the mortal remains of Sister Wilhelmina to allow for a thorough investigation,” Johnston said in his statement.

“I invite all the faithful to continue praying during this time of investigation for God’s will in the lives of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles; for all women religious; and all the baptized in our common vocation to holiness, with hope and trust in the Lord.”

No explanation yet

According to the sisters, at some point after the burial Sister Wilhelmina’s coffin sustained a crack down the middle that let in moisture and dirt. Her body was discovered to be covered in what the sisters described as a layer of mold after being exhumed.

CNA asked Hess and another expert about the possibility that the body might have been preserved through a chemical process called “grave wax.”

“Grave wax” is an uncommonly seen but natural phenomenon that encases a corpse or parts of a body in a shell of soap-like fatty tissue, called adipocere, which slows or stops the normal decomposition process, which can preserve the human remains for many years — even centuries.

Two so-called “soap mummies” — dubbed “Soap Lady” and “Soap Man” — were exhumed in 1875 during digging for the foundation of a train depot in downtown Philadelphia decades after they died.

“This unusual preservation occurred because water seeped into the casket and brought alkaline soil with it, turning the fats in his body to soap through a type of hydrolysis known as saponification,” according to the Smithsonian Institution, which has kept the man’s remains in climate-controlled storage in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The woman’s remains are on exhibit in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum.

Hess said that grave wax typically only materializes in different parts of the body, but he said it could cover the entire body. He added that grave wax will break down over time.

Hess said that he “highly” doubts that grave wax could have preserved Sister Wilhelmina’s body to appear the way it currently does and without any foul odor, “unless she was in a highly alkaline environment.”

Mortician Barry Lease, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, told CNA that a soil analysis testing the pH, or point hydrogen, of the environment, would reveal whether Sister Wilhelmina’s former burial grounds are highly alkaline. According to the Mütter Museum, “Adipocere formation is not common, but it may form in alkaline, warm, airless environments, such as the one in which the Soap Lady was buried.”

Lease said that it’s difficult to project where the body would be in the decomposition process if it was covered in adipocere but added that the body’s decomposition “should be further than that,” referring to a photo of the body taken by CNA on May 20.

“You shouldn’t be recognizing her with just a little bit of mold on her face,” Lease said.

“An unembalmed body in the ground for four years should have some odor coming off of it that would be noticeable,” he added.

“If you’re telling me that this woman went into the ground unembalmed in a wooden box with no outer container in the ground and it was not sub-zero up in Alaska, I’m telling you, I’m going to start a devotion to this sister, because something special is going on there,” Lease, a practicing Catholic, told CNA.

Cordileone on Serra statue case: Prosecutor signaled attacks against Catholics go unpunished

A statue of St. Junipero Serra, which was defaced and torn down by protesters Oct. 12, 2020, at Mission San Rafael Arcangel in San Rafael, California. Courtesy photo.

Denver, Colo., May 26, 2023 / 13:15 pm (CNA).

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco said Thursday that prosecutors’ decision to reduce the charge against activists who destroyed a parish’s statue of a saint from felony to misdemeanor sends the signal that attacks against the Catholic Church can continue with impunity.

“It is clear to me that this course of action would not have been taken with anyone else. In fact, if the same kind of offense had been committed against another religious congregation or group, it would almost certainly have been prosecuted as a hate crime,” Cordileone said.

Cordileone’s statement follows a decision by the the Marin County District Attorney’s Office to reduce charges against five protesters who, on Oct. 12, 2020, defaced and tore down the statue of St. Junipero Serra on the grounds of Mission San Rafael Arcángel, the present-day home of St. Rafael Church in San Rafael, California.

“There have been more than 100 attacks on Catholic Church property across the nation, including in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, one of which was someone firing a bullet into our cathedral. Anti-Catholicism has a long and ugly history in this country.”

“Now, with this decision, the Marin County district attorney has given the signal that attacks on Catholic houses of worship and sacred objects may continue without serious legal consequence,” the archbishop said.

Before the activists attacked the statue, members of the Coast Miwok tribe held a planned hourlong protest to mark Indigenous People’s Day. Numerous statues of the saint were vandalized or destroyed in 2020, most of them in California, amid civil unrest in the wake of the Minneapolis murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer.

Dean Hoaglin, chair of the Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin, who was not charged in the vandalism, characterized the statue as “a continued reminder of the impact of colonization and genocide of our people,” Fox2 News reported at the time the statue was destroyed. 

A reduction in charges

In November 2020 the Marin County District Attorney’s Office filed felony vandalism charges against the five defendants, who now range in age from 25 to 40. 

On May 25, the district attorney’s office announced the case has been “resolved through an innovative restorative justice solution.” The felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors. 

The defendants must pay monetary restitution to the church to repair or replace the statues, complete 50 hours of volunteer work, apologize in writing, and participate in a community forum with “a credible historian who will give stakeholders a chance to have a meaningful dialogue about the issue.” They must also stay off church property.

“It is the district attorney’s office’s goal to achieve a fair result on all cases, and I strongly believe justice was served on this one,” District Attorney Lori E. Frugoli said Thursday. 

“While this issue has raised emotions because of the sensitivities around religion, community boundaries, and historic inequities, the fact is that a resolution through accountability has been reached through restorative justice and that is a victory for this community.”

A defense of St. Junipero Serra

Cordileone, in a May 24 letter to Frugoli’s office, said he has tried to “show goodwill and a desire to pursue a peaceful but honest resolution of this ugly affair.”

“I readily acknowledge, and have done so numerous times, that horrible atrocities have been perpetrated against the indigenous people of California,” he said. “While an honest reading of the historical record would clear Junipero Serra of perpetrating such atrocities — indeed, he gave his life to defending the native people of our land — the actual historical record is beside the point.”

Critics of Junipero Serra claim that he and his missions were responsible for a host of atrocities against native peoples. The claim has drawn strong objections from Catholics who say this is inaccurate and misrepresents Serra.

“Junípero Serra spent his life caring for and defending the indigenous people of California to the point of heroic virtue. Indian and Spaniard alike mourned when he died,” Cordileone said in September 2021 after the California governor approved the removal of a Serra statue from state capitol grounds. “We would do well to imitate his virtues. We ignore history to our peril.”

Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra during his 2015 visit to the U.S. He said the saint “sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

Amid the civil unrest of 2020 in which vandals tore down many statues, there was a massive four-alarm fire at the church at Mission San Gabriel near Los Angeles, which was founded by St. Junipero Serra in 1771. The alleged arsonist, whose trial is still pending, was known at the mission and had a history of conflicts with mission staff.

Do you understand the significance of this, and how it makes us feel?’ 

Cordileone strongly criticized the district attorney’s justification for the reduced misdemeanor charges on the grounds that the perpetrators had shown “active participation” in a “restorative justice process.”

“This point is, a felony crime was committed: The law does not allow people to trespass onto private property and destroy it, all the more so when the private property is a house of worship and the property being destroyed has sacred value to the members of the congregation,” the archbishop said.

Cordileone said he wanted a just punishment for the crime but did not want the defendants to go to prison. 

“I have asked that the vandals publicly repudiate their crime and acknowledge the harm they have inflicted on us. Acknowledging wrongdoing is the first step in restorative justice. A simple ‘I’m sorry’ falls pitifully short of reparation for the harm that was done,” he said.

He lamented that San Rafael Police Department officers stood by and watched the vandals commit the crime when the parish had an agreement with the department that the police would intervene if the protesters trespassed onto parish property. Cordileone wondered whether the officers stood by based on orders from their superiors.

“Do you understand the significance of this, and how it makes us feel?” Cordileone asked the district attorney. “Who gave the order to the police officers not to do their sworn duty, for which they put their lives on the line every day? Why has there been no investigation? Why has the person responsible for this injustice not been held accountable?”

Though the district attorney’s office indicated that the resolution to the case followed a “thorough case review” by prosecutors and “a long discussion” among church and community members, Cordileone’s letter indicated the archdiocese was not part of this discussion.

“The archdiocese was shut out of the conversation, and the mediator was treating the perpetrators as if they were the victims,” the archbishop said. He called this “a direct insult to the victims of this crime and only rubs the salt more deeply into our wounds.”

The archbishop cited Americans’ “growing mistrust” in government institutions.

“They perceive, and for good reason, that government officials do not have their best interests at heart but instead make decisions based on what is politically advantageous to them. I regret that when the Marin County District Attorney’s Office had the opportunity to rebuild trust, you instead further undermined it.”

“We will make our voices heard,” said Cordileone, who held an exorcism and offered prayers after the parish’s Junipero Serra statue was torn down.

History of the Mission San Rafael

The San Rafael parish website includes both English and Spanish sections. Its Spanish-speaking community includes people from Mexican, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran backgrounds. Hispanics make up about half of its parishioners. 

Though Serra himself did not found Mission San Rafael, it owes its existence to Serra’s legacy, as he founded the first nine missions in what would become California. The mission was founded in December 1817. 

According to the parish, the mission was named for the angel of healing and was founded as a hospital for neophyte Native American Christians. It also became an active farm and ranch worked by the Miwok Indians and helped convert 1,873 Native Americans. It served as a mission for only 17 years when the newly independent Mexican government decided to end the mission system and sell the lands to pro-independence Mexican citizens.

The mission fell into ruins. A new parish church was built near the old chapel ruins in 1861 and a replica of the mission chapel was built in 1949.

Unsolved murder of Cardinal Posadas is ‘an open wound,’ Mexican bishops say

Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo. / Credit: Archdiocese of Guadalajara

ACI Prensa Staff, May 26, 2023 / 12:15 pm (CNA).

On the 30th anniversary of the murder of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, the Mexican Bishops’ Conference recalled the “open wound” left by the unsolved crime.

Posadas was archbishop of Guadalajara from 1987–1993.

In a May 24 statement, the Mexican bishops recalled that the cardinal “was the victim of an act of unjustifiable violence that left an open wound in our hearts and in the history of our country.”

Posadas was shot to death on May 24, 1993, in the parking lot of the Guadalajara International Airport in the Mexican state of Jalisco. While some posit that he was killed in the crossfire during a confrontation between drug cartels, the authorities have not resolved the case.

However, Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, who succeeded Posadas as the archbishop of Guadalajara in 1994, has a different version of the story.

In a 2016 Facebook video, Sandoval, then archbishop emeritus, declared the murder was “a crime by the state, perpetrated by the Federal Judicial Police, that is, by the PGR police.”

Sandoval even named Rodolfo León Aragón, then director of the PGR, as the person in charge of the murder, who in turn most probably got his orders from then-Attorney General Jorge Carpizo, whose death in 2012 was “somewhat suspicious” and ended the investigation.

The Attorney General’s Office (PGR) at the time operated under the executive branch of the government and was in charge of investigating federal crimes. In 2018, it was replaced by what is now the Attorney General’s Office of the Republic, which is completely independent of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

In the 2016 video, Sandoval indicated that a possible motive for the killing was Posadas’ allegations of a link between the authorities and organized crime, as well as his work in favor of the constitutional reforms of 1992, which recognized the legal personality of the Catholic Church in Mexico.

In their May 24 statement, the bishops of Mexico remembered Posadas as “a man of unwavering faith and a courageous voice who stood up for Christian values and tirelessly fought for justice and peace in Mexico.”

“We remember his life and sacrifice with gratitude and admiration,” the bishops said. They recognized that “his commitment to those most in need inspires us to follow his example of love, service, and forgiveness.”

At the end of their message, the Mexican bishops encouraged that the “legacy” of Posadas “would be a guide for our lives and a constant call for unity and solidarity among all Mexicans.”

The Archdiocese of Guadalajara said on its Facebook page that the faithful of this city “continue to pray for his eternal rest” and also “that [Posadas’] murder be cleared up and that we may soon obtain justice and forgiveness.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.