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Persecuted bishop in Nicaragua tells faithful to overcome evil with good

Bishop José Álvarez Lagos surrounded by police officers on Aug. 4, 2022. / Diocese Media TV Merced / Diocese of Matagalpa

ACI Prensa Staff, Aug 12, 2022 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

The bishop of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, Rolando Álvarez, who has been kept under house arrest by the Nicaraguan police for eight days, called on the faithful not to be afraid because evil never prevails.

Since Aug. 4, the regime of President Daniel Ortega has not allowed Álvarez to leave the chancery, with police officers stationed at the door and around the premises. The prelate remains inside with 10 other people, including priests, seminarians, and laity.

In his homily for the Aug. 11 Mass celebrated in the chancery chapel,  Álvarez recalled that Christ taught that one must not harbor resentment but must always forgive, defeating “evil with the force and power of good.”

“We are here, gathered together and under detention, already on the eighth day that we are spending today,” he said at the beginning of the Eucharist. “Our 11 lives are in the hands of the Lord.”

Álvarez said that thanks to God, they are in good health, living in community, and celebrating the Eucharist “with inner strength, with peace and serenity in our hearts” that “can only come from God.”

“We are experiencing a retreat in the presence of the Lord. All things work together for good for those who love the Lord, says the apostle St. Paul, and we are totally convinced that everything is happening for our good, because God loves us and because we love him,” the prelate said.

Álvarez assured that “painful experiences do not happen in vain; they don’t fall into a void. These experiences are offered to the Lord and God returns them in blessings for us.”

The bishop of Matagalpa, who expressed his gratitude for the thousands of expressions of solidarity, prayers, and rosaries, said in his homily that Christ calls his disciples not to harbor resentment and to always forgive.

The prelate said that when you want to harm another person, that “means that the devil has managed to penetrate your heart and has managed to enter in, infecting your heart. You shouldn’t allow that.”

“Evil is defeated by the power of good. Good is always more powerful. Good is eternally powerful. Evil is tremendously limited, even though it makes more noise,” he noted.

“Evil, by its demonic nature, always tries to confuse us by making us think that it’s the one that wins and that it’s greater than good, but this is a temptation from Satan to make us despair, to make men and women of good will despair,” he pointed out.

The bishop of Matagalpa encouraged Nicaraguans not to fall into despair, because “that’s another temptation we face, because a people without hope is a self-entombed people.”

Instead, he invited the faithful to be “inundated with the hope” of Christ, who defeated death.

“It is the hope of the grain of wheat that dies and that is the only way it can produce much fruit,” he said.

The Nicaraguan bishop recalled the Gospel account of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, when the apostles were frightened because they believed that the boat would sink. Christ, he affirmed, “always overcomes storms.”

Álvarez said that their hearts are “full of forgiveness” and of the “mercy of God” and that they are offering “this difficult situation that we are experiencing for you.”

“Don’t have the slightest doubt that the Lord is blessing you, because he is daily accepting our offering for you. And keep offering your prayers and supplications for us,” he encouraged.

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

Catholic parish in Nigeria struggles to feed thousands uprooted by violent attacks

Displaced Nigerians camped near St. Francis Xavier Parish in Agagbe, Nigeria, in 2022. / Courtesy of Adakole Daniel

Jos, Nigeria, Aug 12, 2022 / 13:00 pm (CNA).

The news that help was on the way didn’t come soon enough for Joy Akaa.

The 30-year-old mother of three lost her husband, Orguze Akaa, 50, when he was shot and killed in an ambush June 30 while scrounging for extra food for their family in embattled Benue State, located in north-central Nigeria.

Yet for Akaa and others attending Mass Aug. 7 at St. Francis Xavier Parish in Agagbe, it still came as a relief to learn that Benue's governor, Samuel Ortom, had decided to arm a 500-man volunteer militia to help defend communities like Agagbe from radicalized Islamic bandits.

“We are ready! We are ready to defend our people and our land,” Ortom vowed, as Channels Television reported.

“We cannot continue to play around and let them [terrorists] continue,” the governor said. “Benue is under siege.” 

Akaa only wished Benue's leaders had taken this step sooner.

"If there were security guards in the village, my husband would have still been alive," she told CNA. "But the lack of security was what cost his life."

Desperate for food

Akaa and her children are among the thousands of people uprooted by bandit attacks in surrounding villages and towns in recent years who have sought refuge at camps set up near St. Francis Xavier Parish, which oversees a network of dozens of smaller churches within the Diocese of Makurdi.

Joy Akaa and her late husband, Orguze (center), with one of the couple's three children. Orguze Akaa, 50,  a farmer from Benue State, Nigeria, whose family was uprooted by terror attacks in the region, was ambushed and killed on June 30, 2022, while seeking food for his family. Courtesy of Adakole Daniel
Joy Akaa and her late husband, Orguze (center), with one of the couple's three children. Orguze Akaa, 50, a farmer from Benue State, Nigeria, whose family was uprooted by terror attacks in the region, was ambushed and killed on June 30, 2022, while seeking food for his family. Courtesy of Adakole Daniel

Residents blame radicalized herdsmen from the Fulani tribe, a large ethnic group in West Africa, for the violence.

More than 1,700 people in Benue State have been killed in these attacks since 2018, a spokesman for the Idoma and Igede ethnic groups said in November.

According to the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law, militants “propagating an Islamic agenda” have killed 192 persons thus far in 2022 in Benue, making it the fourth most terrorized state behind Kaduna, Niger, and Plateau States.

More than 1 million people have been displaced by the violence, according to some estimates. The vast majority of these people — about 80% — are being cared for by the Makurdi diocese, Bishop Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe has said.

But places of refuge like St. Francis Xavier Parish are feeling the strain. Benue is known as the most productive agricultural state in Nigeria, often called the nation’s breadbasket. Yet many of the people in the camps go hungry.

“The federal government rarely sends anything to us,” said Ibaa Terna Jacob, who oversees the humanitarian effort at St. Francis Xavier. “The last time they sent us food was months ago.”

On June 30, Orguze Akaa felt his only option was to walk three hours and dig for mud-burrowing fish in a dried-up stream bed close to his abandoned town of Tse-anyion. It was a risky journey, but the once-successful farmer would not give up.

It cost him his life.

Seventeen others have met the same fate, said Adakole Daniel, a local youth leader.

“All the attacks occurred while the people were searching for their daily meals,” Daniel said in a phone interview.

Persistent attacks

Bishop Anagbe says the bandits are working in a coordinated fashion to clear out the densely populated state to make room for herding communities.

“The scale of killings, displacement and wanton destruction of property by these Fulani jihadists militia only buttresses the now revealed agenda to depopulate Christian communities in Nigeria and take over lands, “ Anagbe wrote in a report issued July 3.  

“Tellingly, the government in power in Nigeria at the moment continues to do nothing about these persistent attacks, save to give laughable reasons like climate change or that some Muslims, too, are sometimes killed in attacks by so-called bandits.“

“Having said the above, I would like to again say that, notwithstanding the threats to personal harm especially when people speak up against the evil Fulani herdsmen jihadists, we shall continue to draw the attention of the outside world to the plan by Islamists and their sponsors to Islamize Christian territories through these killings and occupation of lands,” Anagbe continued.

“Recall what I said in my previous report that from the time I became bishop of Makurdi in 2014 to the present day, hardly a day passes by that I don’t receive a sad story of killing and displacement of our people by barbaric Fulani herdsmen,” he wrote. “For some years now I have not been able to carry out pastoral activities in parts of my diocese.“

Thousands of Nigerians displaced by violent attacks by militant herdsmen have taken shelter near St. Francis Xavier Parish in Agagbe, located in north central Nigeria. Courtesy of Adakole Daniel
Thousands of Nigerians displaced by violent attacks by militant herdsmen have taken shelter near St. Francis Xavier Parish in Agagbe, located in north central Nigeria. Courtesy of Adakole Daniel

From May 1 to June 30, 70 unarmed persons across Benue State were murdered by Fulani terrorists, the bishop said.

The latest attack on July 14 killed three villagers working on a farm near Akakuma village in the Guma Local Government Area, or county, said Nyiakaa Mike, the county chairman.

“They were seven working in their farms when the herdsmen shot three dead and kidnapped four others,” Mike said in a phone interview.

His colleague who heads Gwer West Local Government Area, Ayande Andrew, said attacks by terrorists in his county occur daily. “They [terrorists] have sent people out of their villages and each time they [villagers] try to access their farms to feed, they are killed,” Andrew said in a phone interview.

“They move freely with their guns and have taken over more than 30 communities,” he said.

Sacraments disrupted

Father Cletus Bua, the priest in charge of St. Francis Xavier Parish, said attacks by Fulani militias since 2018 have blocked close to 20,000 congregants from attending Mass and receiving other sacraments in his parish.

“In Agbage [parish], we have 50 outstations and all of them have been displaced by the Fulani militias,” Bua said.

“These are churches with members ranging from 200 to 400 each. Many more are folding up in other parishes as the attacks are increasing,” he said.

“Even the parish headquarters in Agagbe itself is not safe because they have attacked the community in 2019,” he added.

The parish is one of 15 in the Makurdi diocese, which is home to some 1 million Catholics. The diocese has been the hardest hit of the four dioceses in Benue State.

“This is where the Fulani started their genocide in Benue,” Mike, the county leader, said.

Will armed volunteers make a difference?

Joy Akaa expressed some optimism to CNA. “If these [militia volunteers] will truly work, then maybe what happened to my husband will not happen again,” she said.

Salman Rushdie attacked at lecture in New York

Salman Rushdie speaks at the Frankfurt Bookfair, Oct. 12, 2017. / Markus Wissmann/Shutterstock

Denver Newsroom, Aug 12, 2022 / 12:01 pm (CNA).

The author Salman Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” led to a call for his assassination from Iran’s Supreme Leader in 1989, was stabbed in the neck on Friday while onstage in New York state.

The Associated Press said one of its reporters “witnessed a man confront Rushdie … and begin punching or stabbing him 10 to 15 times as he was being introduced” Aug. 12.

Rushdie, 75, was preparing to speak at the Chautauqua Institution, an educational center and resort in Chautauqua, New York, about 70 miles southwest of Buffalo.

Henry Reese, who was to interview Rushdie about the U.S. as a haven for exiled writers and artists, also suffered a minor head injury. Reese is co-founder and president of City of Asylum, a nonprofit housing exiled writers.

The attacker has been arrested, and Rushdie has been taken to hospital.

Rushdie, who was born in Bombay in 1947, won the Booker Prize in 1981 for “Midnight’s Children.”

“The Satanic Verses” was published in 1988. The book of magic realism, set in the present day, includes dream sequences involving Muhammad. These were considered blasphemous by some Muslims. 

Ruhollah Khomeini, then the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s killing the following year. There was an assassination attempt that year, and in 1991 Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of “The Satanic Verses,” was murdered. 

A bounty has been offered for Rushdie’s killing, and he lived in hiding for some time.

In Rome, a setback for Father Vincent Capodanno sainthood cause

Father Capodanno with fellow Marines in Vietnam / null

Denver Newsroom, Aug 12, 2022 / 09:40 am (CNA).

There is a new obstacle for the sainthood cause of Father Vincent Capodanno, the “grunt padre” who died on a Vietnam battlefield as a military chaplain to U.S. Marines. Consultants to the Vatican body tasked with judging possible saints have recommended the suspension of Capodanno’s cause, though his backers are appealing the decision they say is only preliminary.

“It is the firm conviction of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, that Father Capodanno is enjoying the bliss of heaven and it is felt that raising the exemplary service of this distinguished priest to the altars would serve the Church and especially the Chaplain Corps of the USA,” Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services told CNA Aug. 11.

Broglio’s archdiocese is responsible for launching the priest’s canonization cause.

At the Vatican, the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints is responsible for canonization decisions. 

In May, an advisory panel of theological consultants considered the “positio” document prepared by the postulator and its arguments in favor of and against Capodanno’s beatification.

The consultants voted to recommend to the dicastery that Capodanno’s cause be suspended.

Broglio characterized the recommendation as “a consultative vote” for the dicastery, previously known as the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

“The body only makes a recommendation to the congregation,” the archbishop said. “The postulator has already petitioned the congregation to appeal the decision and allow the postulation to respond to some of the questions raised by the theologians.”

Broglio said the dicastery has the responsibility “to determine if the process can continue.”

Capodanno, a member of the Maryknoll religious order, was a U.S. Navy chaplain who served in the Vietnam War with U.S. Marines. Enlisted Marines are informally known as “grunts,” and he acquired the moniker “the grunt padre.” 

When in combat he would put the well-being of Marines above his personal safety. The priest would move among the wounded and dying on the battlefield to provide medical aid, comfort, and Last Rites.

He died on the battlefield Sept. 4, 1967 after shielding a Marine from enemy machine gun fire.

In 2006, the Congregation for Saints declared him a Servant of God, a first step to possible beatification or canonization.

The Father Capodanno Guild, a private Catholic association that promotes the priest’s canonization cause, also responded to the consultants’ recommendation to suspend the beatification cause.

The recommendation is “not what we have been praying for,” the guild said on its website Aug. 8. Nonetheless, it added, the decision is “not the end of our journey.”

“Other causes have had to struggle through the process in Rome,” the guild said. “Let us pray for the will of God and arm ourselves with faith, hope, and trust.”

“Initial engagements with congregation leaders have emphasized the widespread interest in the cause,” the guild said. “These leaders have responded that the possibility to move forward exists and should be pursued.”

The theological consultants have written individually to Dr. Nicola Gori, the postulator of Capodanno’s cause to express any concerns.

The Fr. Capodanno Guild summarized these concerns and suggested possible responses to them.

One consultant voiced concern that the positio focuses mainly on the last year of Capodanno’s life and shows little evidence of his spiritual growth. The guild said this focus is appropriate because it is proposing beatification under the standard that the priest gave freely of his own life.

For another consultant, the fact that Maryknoll has not pursued Capodanno’s cause is a matter of concern. To this, the guild suggested a reply that the Archdiocese for Military Services took responsibility for the cause of one of its own chaplains. “Maryknoll is now supporting our efforts,” the guild said.

Another concern about the priest being “fastidiousness about his appearance” prompted another possible explanation: “This reflects the strong Italian family that he grew up in and was reinforced by the Navy and Marine Corps. It is not an indication of sinful pride.”  

“With ongoing military actions in the world today (think Ukraine), raising someone from the military for veneration may not be appropriate for our Church,” one consultant wrote.

To this, the guild responded: “No one likes war especially those who serve their countries in them. One of the most important things for these serving men and women is to have access to the Sacraments. Our chaplains selflessly give of themselves to provide these Sacraments. Pope Francis pushes strongly to ensure that chaplain priests are available for militaries.”

If the appeal of the consultants’ decision is supported, there could be a chance to submit more evidence for Capodanno’s beatification cause.

Vincent Robert Capodanno was born on Staten Island in New York City to Italian immigrant parents. In 1957 he was ordained a Catholic priest by Cardinal Francis Spellman, then vicar of the U.S. Military Ordinariate.

He entered the Maryknoll religious order and served as a missionary in Taiwan and Hong Kong from 1958 to 1965. After he successfully petitioned his Maryknoll superiors to release him to serve as a U.S. Navy chaplain, he arrived in Vietnam during Holy Week of 1966.

He held the rank of lieutenant and took part in seven combat operations.

During the Operation Swift campaign, Fr. Capodanno was injured by an exploding mortar round which caused multiple injuries to his arms and legs and severed part of his right hand. He continued to tend to the wounded and nearly lost his hand to shrapnel. Despite his wounds, he refused care so that medical supplies could go to his injured Marines.

The priest directed Marines to help the wounded and continued to move about the battlefield, encouraging them with his words and example.

While seeking to aid one particular Marine, he put his own body between the wounded man and an enemy machine gunner who opened fire. He died from 27 bullet wounds.

He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Navy Bronze Star medal, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, and the Purple Heart Medal.

The Archdiocese for the Military Services has scheduled a memorial Mass for Fr. Capodanno Sept. 6 at the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

Germany denies refuge to Christian convert from Iran

European Court of Human Rights. / CherryX/wikmedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

CNA Newsroom, Aug 12, 2022 / 04:05 am (CNA).

The European Court of Human Rights has dismissed the case of an Iranian convert to Christianity, who is appealing his deportation from Germany back to Iran, on the grounds of religious freedom. 

Campaigners fear that the court’s decision means that the 44 year-old, will likely face prison or death, on account of his religious conversion.

Hassan – whose name has been changed to protect his identity and is recorded only as “H.H” in public records – is a cabinet maker who applied for asylum in 2018 and is currently residing in Germany where he can freely practice his faith. 

After he, his wife and his family converted to Christianity, security forces in Iran stormed their house confiscated their books, computer, passports and Bible. He then fled to Germany with his family via Turkey.

In a statement released August 11, Lidia Rieder, Legal Officer at ADF International, warned that Iran was one of the most dangerous places in the world for Christians. She said: “No one should be persecuted for their faith. Iran is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for Christians, and converts are particularly at risk. In the last year, religious persecution has greatly worsened. So-called “religious deviants” can be given prison sentences, national security charges are continuously used to target religious minorities. The courts in Germany must take this into account when processing asylum applications.”

Hassan’s conversion to Christianity was inspired by the witness of his brother-in-law who was imprisoned for his practicing his Christian faith and subsequently killed. His brother-in-law’s wife was also abused.

“My wife’s brother had become a different person by becoming a Christian. We wanted to see if we would get this feeling when we became Christians,” H.H. said in his application to the German authorities.

But the Greifswald Administrative Court, which heard Hassan’s case after it was rejected by the German authorities, said it was “not particularly likely” that a Muslim would convert to Christianity given what had happened to his brother in-law and his wife, following their conversions.

This week, the European Court of Human Rights then refused to hear arguments in Hassan’s defence, which campaigners claim leave him at significant risk of deportation.

In a statement prepared by ADF International, Hassan explained: “I had had many problems in Iran…I had many questions, but I was not allowed to ask them. When I asked questions, I was beaten at school. This led me to want to know which God I was facing. One day my brother-in-law said to me and my wife that he had good news. There is a treasure, there is a living God, Jesus Christ, we are His children and not His slaves…He said there is a free salvation available…In Germany I share the Gospel, I organize prayer circles here in the accommodation. I want to be a good example, to win the others to faith in Jesus Christ. My greatest goal would be for my children to be able to find Christ in freedom, and to do good.”

In August 11 statement, Kelsey Zorzi, Director of Global Religious Freedom at ADF International, said: “Iran systematically fails to protect its citizens’ right to religious freedom. Iranian law must be amended to be brought into accordance with international human rights law, which protects the right of every individual to choose and freely practice their faith. Until this happens, countries like Germany have a responsibility to help to protect vulnerable religious minorities when they have an opportunity to do so. Ignoring that responsibility can have fatal consequences.”

The history behind the persecution of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, is monitored by police in early August 2022. / Photo credit: Diocese of Matagalpa

Denver Newsroom, Aug 12, 2022 / 04:00 am (CNA).

A bishop under house arrest, priests harassed by the police, the Missionaries of Charity expelled, and numerous restrictions on worship: this is the situation that the Catholic Church in Nicaragua is experiencing today under the current government of President Daniel Ortega.

But how did the Central American country come to such a crisis?

This story begins in 1979 with the overthrow of the dictatorship of the Somoza dynasty and the first Sandinista government that led Nicaragua from then until 1990. And 40 years later, the hostilities and persecutions repeat themselves.

On July 19, 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a leftist guerrilla group, overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the third and last member of the so-called Somocista dynasty — following his father, Anastasio Somoza García, and his brother, Luis Somoza Debayle — who had ruled the country since 1937.

In November 1979, the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference published a pastoral letter titled “Christian Commitment for a New Nicaragua” that, among other things, saw this “revolutionary process” as an opportunity for the country and called on the population to make the necessary sacrifices and to experience a “profound conversion of heart.”

The bishops also called for “ample space for freedom allowing it (the Church) to carry out its apostolic work without interference.”

Shortly after Somoza’s fall, a five-member National Reconstruction Governing Junta was established: three from the FSLN and two independents, including Violeta Chamorro (widow of Pedro Chamorro, director of the newspaper La Prensa, who was assassinated by Somoza) and Alfonso Robelo. The coordinator was Daniel Ortega.

Violeta Chamorro resigned from the Junta in April 1980 due to the socialist direction the FSLN was taking and the influence of Cuba in the government. Robelo resigned for the same reasons and later joined the political directorate of the Nicaraguan Resistance (called the “Contras” for “counterrevolutionaries”) that, financed by the United States, fought a civil war with the Sandinistas throughout the decade.

The Junta governed Nicaragua until 1985 and handed over power to Ortega, who had won the 1984 presidential elections with the FSLN, which had become a political party.

Priests in the government and the intervention of John Paul II

With the inauguration of the Junta, three well-known priests who promoted Marxist liberation theology assumed positions in the Sandinista government: Miguel D’Escoto was minister of foreign affairs (1979-1990); Ernesto Cardenal was minister of culture (1979-1987); and Edgar Parrales was vice minister deputy director general of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (1979-1980), minister of social welfare (1980-1982) and Nicaraguan ambassador to the Organization of American States (1982-1986).

The participation of these priests in the government caused tensions with the bishops. Although the episcopate initially authorized this participation, in January 1980 the bishops’ conference decided that they could no longer be part of the Sandinista government.

In April of that year, Pope John Paul II received the Nicaraguan bishops at the Vatican and told them in an address that “an atheist ideology cannot be the guiding instrument of the effort to promote social justice, because it deprives man of his freedom, of spiritual inspiration, and of the strength to love his brother, which has its most solid and operative foundation in the love of God.”

A few weeks later, the bishops asked the priests to resign from their positions in the Sandinista government, but they refused.

In February 1984, John Paul II suspended ad divinis the three priests and Father Fernando Cardenal, Ernesto’s brother, who also participated in the Ortega regime. From that year until 1990, Fernando Cardenal was minister of education.

A courageous archbishop and an ambushed priest

During the first Sandinista period, one of the members of the Catholic Church who stood out for his denunciations of human-rights violations was the archbishop of Managua, Miguel Obando y Bravo (1926-2018), whom John Paul II made a cardinal in 1985.

The archbishop was already known for denouncing human-rights violations during the Somoza dictatorship and didn’t remain silent in the face of the abuses of the Ortega regime.

In addition, his role was decisive in preventing the spread of the so-called “people’s church” promoted by priests and religious subscribing to Marxist liberation theology.

The FSLN government retaliated and targeted prominent pastors. In August 1982, agents from the regime dressed as police officers arrested Father Bismarck Carballo, who was then a spokesman for the Church and the director of a Catholic radio station.

The agents entered a house where the priest was and fabricated an alleged sexual scandal with a woman. They stripped him naked, took him out on the street, and published the false story in all the official media.

In February 1986, the U.S. secretary of state published the testimony of former Sandinista lieutenant Álvaro Baldizón Avilés, a defector who stated that the scandal involving Carballo was staged by the Ortega regime.

Another of Ortega’s outrages against the Church was the expulsion of 10 foreign priests in July 1984. The priests were accused of violating national laws and participating in anti-government activities for attending a march called by Obando y Bravo in solidarity with Father Luis Amado Peña, a priest accused of terrorism by the regime.

The role of the Church in the peace agreement

In the 1980s, clashes between the FSLN and the resistance or the “Contras” left tens of thousands dead. On Aug. 7, 1987, the Esquipulas II Peace Accord was signed in Guatemala to end the civil war in Nicaragua and achieve a “lasting peace” in Central America. The document called for free multiparty elections and the establishment of a National Reconciliation Commission.

Obando y Bravo and the then auxiliary bishop of Managua, Bosco Vivas Robelo, participated in this commission.

Ortega ran for president in the February 1990 elections and was defeated by Violeta Chamorro. Ortega ran again unsuccessfully in 1996 and 2001.

On Oct. 18, 1996, two days before the elections, Obando y Bravo told a story — which the press called “the parable of the viper” — exhorting Nicaraguans to be prudent and think about what is best for the country.

Ortega makes peace with the Catholic Church

After losing the elections, Ortega — who was then leading the opposition — apparently made peace with the Catholic Church. In July 2003, the former guerrilla apologized for the “excesses” and “errors” of his government against Catholics in the 1980s.

In June 2004, Ortega proposed nominating Obando y Bravo for the Nobel Peace Prize, “in recognition of his struggle for national reconciliation” and the signing of the peace accords that ended the civil war.

That month, Obando y Bravo accepted Ortega’s request to offer the Sandinista-sponsored Mass for the thousands of dead in the civil war.

In July 2004, as part of the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, Ortega publicly apologized for the abuses against the Catholic Church during his first government and explicitly referred to Carballo.

Ortega returns to power in 2007

Ortega won the 2006 elections with 38% of the vote thanks to an electoral reform that lowered the percentage to win the presidency to 35% of the vote if there is a 5% margin over second place.

In February 2007, Ortega invited Obando y Bravo, then archbishop emeritus of Managua and 81 years old, to preside over the National Council for Reconciliation and Peace created by his new government. The cardinal accepted the position on a “personal basis” and had the support of the episcopate.

However, in September 2008, the bishop of Matagalpa, Jorge Solórzano, warned that while relations with the government seemed friendly, measures against the work of the Church were anticipated, such as the elimination of state subsidies for Catholic schools. 

In November of that year, violence broke out again in the country after allegations of fraud in the municipal elections that gave 62% of the mayor’s offices throughout the country to the FSLN. The bishops made a strong call for peace.

Ortega attacks the Catholic Church again

In early 2009, tensions resumed between the Sandinista government and the Catholic Church. At the end of April, an email from the Nicaraguan presidency sent a document to the media that described the Nicaraguan bishops as corrupt, prompting a formal reaction from the episcopate.

In June, Ortega tried to silence the criticism that several bishops made about his government by calling them to pray instead of commenting on politics. The prelates responded that it’s not enough to pray if one doesn’t work for justice.

In April 2010, when the possibility of Ortega running for re-election in 2011 was being debated, the bishops called on the country to dialogue and denounced the “acts of transgression” against the constitution that specifically prohibited successive presidential terms.

However, the Supreme Court of Justice, with Sandinista members, allowed Ortega to run in the elections held on Nov. 6, 2011.

In this context, the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio José Báez, warned that Nicaragua was on the way “to a visible or covert totalitarianism” and requested the presence of international observers.

The secretary of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Sócrates René Sandigo, said that with this candidacy, the country lacked the rule of law and that distrust among the population had grown.

Almost a month before the elections, several bishops reported receiving threats.

The Sandinista leader won the elections with more than 62% of the votes cast, amid allegations of fraud. The Carter Center report said that, according to the assessments of national and international observers, the elections “were not transparent.”

In a statement, the bishops said that the legitimacy of the results was “totally questionable.”

Catholic Church opposes indefinite re-election

After his third term, in which there was also friction with the bishops, Ortega decided to run for a fourth term.

In January 2014, the Sandinista majority in the National Assembly approved the constitutional amendment to allow Ortega’s indefinite re-election, which the bishops criticized. The legislature also gave the presidency the power to issue decrees with the force of law.

In June 2016, the episcopate called on Ortega to guarantee that the Nov. 6 elections would be transparent and with the presence of national and foreign observers.

However, Ortega won the elections again under allegations of fraud.

‘We are a persecuted Church’

The current crisis in Nicaragua began in April 2018, during Ortega’s fourth term. The reform of the health and pension system triggered numerous protests throughout the country, which were violently repressed by the police and during which numerous bishops and priests received death threats.

In this context, the archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes; his auxiliary, Bishop Silvio José Báez; and the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Somertag, were beaten by a pro-government mob while making a pastoral visit to the Minor Basilica of St. Sebastian in Diriamba, 25 miles from the capital.

On July 13, 2018, police and paramilitaries shot up Divine Mercy parish in Managua, where young people who had protested against the regime had taken refuge.

Báez condemned the “criminal repression” of civilians on Twitter and asked the international community not to be indifferent. The prelate said that “we are already beginning to be a persecuted Church.”

Shortly after, the Catholic Church agreed to participate once again as a mediator in the national talks to resolve the crisis that had already left hundreds dead, but the negotiations were suspended.

In 2019 there was another attempt at talks between the government and the opposition, but this time the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference declined to participate and asked that “the laity be the ones who directly assume responsibility” for this process.

In March 2019, Pope Francis received Báez in a private audience at the Vatican. Two weeks later, Brenes reported that the pontiff asked Báez to move to Rome. Currently the bishop resides in the United States.

A year later, on July 31, 2020, one of the most symbolic attacks against the Church occurred. An unidentified individual entered one of the chapels inside the Managua Cathedral and threw a firebomb that destroyed the famous image of the Blood of Christ, a 382-year-old crucifix beloved by Nicaraguans.

When the presidential elections were held on Nov. 7, 2021, the main opposition candidates had already been imprisoned. Days before, the bishops’ conference said that each citizen should act considering what was the most just and best for the country.

It is estimated that absenteeism was 81.5%. The bishop of León, René Sándigo, was the only prelate who went to the polls. Ortega was re-elected for the fourth consecutive time with 75% of the votes.

A bishop under house arrest

After ordering the dissolution of 100 NGOs, the expulsion of the Missionaries of Charity and the closure of several Catholic media outlets, the government now has the bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, one of its strongest critics, in its sights.

Since Aug. 4, the prelate has been kept under house arrest at the chancery along with five priests, two seminarians, and three lay people.

That day, when the Church celebrated the feast of St. John Mary Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, Álvarez came outside the chancery with the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance and denounced that the police sent by Ortega wouldn’t let his priests and collaborators enter his chapel to celebrate Mass.

After almost an hour of calling for dialogue and respect for the Catholic Church, the prelate returned inside the chancery and celebrated the Eucharist with his assistants.

However, that same afternoon, riot police blocked access to the chancery and would not let Álvarez, who had invited the faithful to go to the Matagalpa cathedral to celebrate the holy hour and Mass, leave the building.

The Sandinista regime has threatened to imprison the bishop, who has received expressions of solidarity only from the local episcopate and from a few other countries.

Attorney Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro, a member of the Pro-Transparency and Anti-Corruption Observatory, recently published an investigation titled “Nicaragua: a Persecuted Church? (2018-2022),” which documents 190 attacks and desecrations committed against the Catholic Church up to May of this year.

For experts like Molina, there is no doubt that the “dictatorship” of Ortega “has a frontal war against the Catholic Church of Nicaragua and its objective is to completely eliminate all those institutions related to the Church."

In the past, Ortega has called the bishops “terrorists” and “devils in cassocks.” 

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

Why the world’s largest cross and its custodians are under imminent threat in Spain

The cross in the Valley of the Fallen is erected over a granite outcrop, 150 meters over the basilica. / Estefanía Aguirre

Madrid, Spain, Aug 12, 2022 / 01:32 am (CNA).

In a move that could destroy the largest cross in the world, Spain’s government wants to turn the world’s longest basilica into a “museum of the horrors of Franco.”

The Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen lies at the center of a memorial site, about 45 km (28 miles) northwest of Madrid. 

The landmark under the towering cross includes an abbey and the basilica. The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco ordered its construction to honor the fallen of both sides during the Spanish Civil War. The bodies of more than 30,000 victims are buried in the complex.

A new law aimed at "the removal of Francoist symbols" could not only result in the removal of the cross at the memorial site — other public crosses in Spain have already been removed — but also force the Benedictine monks, the site’s custodians since 1958, out of the basilica’s adjacent abbey. 

The final resting place of martyrs and victims of both sides of the Spanish Civil War is equally at risk: Their graves are expected to be exhumed as part of the government’s plans.

The Catholic Church has already recognized 66 of the dead buried at the memorial site as martyrs and will recognize three more in November. 

There are also over 40 Servants of God whose beatification process is underway. The walls of the basilica’s side chapels, leading up to the main altar, hold relics of numerous saints.

The underground basilica at the Valley of the Fallen in Spain. Estefanía Aguirre
The underground basilica at the Valley of the Fallen in Spain. Estefanía Aguirre

In an interview with CNA, the prior administrator of the Valley’s Benedictine community, Father Santiago Cantera, said that “the problem is people’s great indifference and ignorance, but I think there are more people who are opposed to destroying this place than people who favor such a move.”

“Many people are fed up with [the government] stirring up issues about the war because what we really have in Spain are economic, social, and employment concerns,” he added on Aug. 3.

According to the prior, a former university professor with a Ph.D. in medieval history and author of 21 books, society needs to become aware of the Valley of the Fallen’s artistic, cultural, and religious values. To Father Cantera, these values are more important than political agendas.

“We cannot continue to use the Civil War of almost a century ago to argue in favor of political groups that do not have a project for the future and want to use the past to back up a Constitution for a new Republic,” the Benedictine said.

The ‘Democratic Memory Law’ was approved in July by the Congress of Deputies. It will be debated by the Senate this September.

The new law would enable the exhumation of the more than 33,000 victims from both sides of the Civil War. Some estimates believe the numbers to be as high as 50,000-70,000. The exhumation would also mean the destruction of about half of the basilica.

The Asociación para la Defensa del Valle de los Caídos (Association for the Defense of the Valley of the Fallen) is composed of 212 families who have relatives buried at the site. They come from both sides of the Civil War. Still, they are united in their firm opposition to any exhumation of their deceased family members. 

The Association’s president and fierce defender of the Valley, Pablo Linares, hails from the family of a Communist who worked at the Valley under Franco after the Civil War. 

The father, sister, and uncle of the monastery’s abbot emeritus, Father Anselmo Álvarez Navarrete, are also buried there.

The law will mandate the creation of a ‘National DNA data bank of victims of the Civil War’ and the eradication of foundations that “exalt” Franco’s regime – including the Foundation of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen. 

The law will prohibit teachers from speaking positively about Franco. 

The site’s name will also be changed from “Valley of the Fallen” to “Cuelgamuros Valley,” the area’s geographic name.

About the Valley of the Fallen

The basilica is an underground church carved inside a mountain within a precinct that covers 3,360 acres of woodland. The site also contains a Benedictine abbey and guesthouse adjacent to the basilica.

Franco ordered the construction of the basilica and the abbey to heal the wounds of the Civil War. The monks offer daily Masses at the basilica for the souls buried there and for Spain’s unity. 

The services are accompanied by the Gregorian chants of the Escolanía, a boarding choir school for boys operated by the Benedictines.

The Escolanía is the only place in the world that teaches children how to read Gregorian chant in its oldest form, Gregorian paleography. They learn to sing by reading the tetragram and two even older pneumatic scripts. It currently has about 50 students aged between 8 and 18.

According to historian Alberto Bárcena Pérez, Franco wanted to bury as many victims as possible within the basilica and obtained the help of town halls and written authorization from the victims’ families.

The main altar in the basilica at the Valley of the Fallen in Spain during Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec 8, 2019. Estefanía Aguirre
The main altar in the basilica at the Valley of the Fallen in Spain during Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Dec 8, 2019. Estefanía Aguirre

Franco was buried behind the altar, although he is said to have never requested it. The government exhumed his body, despite opposition from Franco’s family and the monks, on 24 October 2019. Bárcena claims the exhumation was part of a Freemasonic Scottish rite due to how the authorities positioned themselves at the event. The monks privately celebrated numerous Masses and acts of reparation afterward.

Once the law is passed, the government would exhume the body of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange, who is buried in front of the altar. He was shot to death by the Republicans, aged 33. 

Franco and Primo de Rivera died on November 20, though decades apart.

Earlier this year, the Guinness World Records recognized the basilica’s cross as the world’s largest free-standing cross. It was measured to be 152.4 meters (500 ft) tall. 

The book of records also features the basilica, 260 meters (853 ft) in length, the world’s longest. Built between 1940 and 1958, the church cost about $229 million to complete. Under Pope John XXIII, the church was elevated “to the honor and dignity of a minor basilica” in April 1960.

Due to the area’s excellent geological stability and isolation, it also has an underground laboratory of gravimetry and tides in two of its basements. Researchers from around the world use it to study earth tides, gravimetry, and absolute gravity.

The whole precinct operates through the Fundación de la Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos (Foundation of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen). The Foundation is owned by both the Government of Spain, managed previously by the Head of State but now by the government’s Patrimonio Nacional (National Patrimony) — and the Benedictine monks.

Patrimonio is in charge of obtaining finance, mainly by selling entrance tickets at the main entrance gate at the bottom of the Valley. The law states that it has to give part of this money to the monks to maintain the employees of the Escolanía and the guesthouse.

However, Patrimonio stopped paying the monks four years ago, creating economic pressure on the abbey, which is now maintaining the precinct with the help of private donations and other funds. 

Architects have estimated the damages at the Valley of the Fallen site would cost several million dollars to repair. Estefanía Aguirre
Architects have estimated the damages at the Valley of the Fallen site would cost several million dollars to repair. Estefanía Aguirre

Architects have estimated the damages to the abbey and basilica would cost several million dollars to repair.

Patrimonio also blocks any maintenance works paid through private donations. The complex is entirely run down.

Fifteen years of “ferocious harassment”

Ever since the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero passed the Historical Memory Law’ in 2007, tensions have been rising between the government and the religious community.  

“We've been ferociously harassed,” said Fr Cantera.

“I had a tough time four years ago, but I took it as a purification from which I came out strengthened,” he said.

“It was all because of the media harassment, the attempt to make a public mockery of me in the Senate when they summoned me on the subject of exhumations.”

“Since there were families who opposed the exhumation of the remains of other fallen, as is currently the case, at that time, we (the monks) were forced to intervene and present an appeal, and the courts decreed a series of precautionary measures suspending the procedure,” he continued. 

“From then on, as they had judicially lost the first battle, they began harassing me in the media and denigrating me as a person.”

Despite the struggles, the community has been receiving numerous young vocations. There are six monks under 30 years of age: three who have professed temporary vows, two with solemn vows, and one postulant soon joining.

The Benedictines take a vow of stability added to those of poverty, chastity, and obedience. When they go to a place, they usually remain there for life. Many have been martyred for this very reason throughout history.

Bishops urge passage of bill that would give same sentences to crack and powder cocaine offenders

null / Inked Pixels/Shutterstock.

Washington D.C., Aug 11, 2022 / 16:50 pm (CNA).

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pressed the U.S. Senate to make the penalty for distributing crack cocaine the same as that imposed on those caught dealing powder cocaine.

In an Aug. 1 letter to Congress, the bishops announced their support for legislation passed in the House of Representatives that would eliminate a disparity in federal sentencing the bishops say has a disproportionate effect on Black people.

“Although crack and powder cocaine are simply two forms of the same drug, crack cocaine is cheaper; therefore, it is more accessible than powder cocaine to persons experiencing poverty, many of whom are persons of color,” the letter read.

“We cannot ignore the racial impact of current federal cocaine sentences when Blacks are more than three times as likely to be convicted for crack cocaine trafficking as for powder cocaine trafficking,” wrote Bishops Paul S. Coakley and Shelton J. Fabre of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.

An amendment to add the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act to the defense authorization bill passed the House of Representatives on July 19 with bipartisan support. 

If approved by the Senate the EQUAL act would impose the same penalty on both forms of cocaine. In 1986 Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which established separate sentences for cocaine and crack cocaine offenses. If two individuals were caught with the same amount of cocaine, the one with crack cocaine would receive a sentence 100 times as severe as the person convicted of distributing powder cocaine. 

In 2010, Congress passed reforms to reduce that disparity to 18:1. Today, the penalty for 500 grams of powder cocaine is the same as for 28 grams of crack cocaine. The EQUAL Act would eliminate the disparity altogether.

In their letter, the bishops called for an end to long sentences for drug offenses and a focus on rehabilitation and treatment of offenders.

“As pastors, the Catholic bishops understand concerns regarding recidivism, substance abuse, and overdoses; yet public safety is not served by excessively long sentences. We believe these concerns would more effectively be addressed through programs that focus on root causes of crime through rehabilitation, treatment, education, literacy, and job-placement,” they wrote.

The EQUAL act has an uncertain future in the Senate. Since it has 11 Republican co-sponsors, it could pass as a stand-alone bill. However, the ranking Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, has his own bill to address disparities in drug sentencing. His legislation would reduce but not eliminate the disparity. 

The prospect of the legislation's passage as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is far from guaranteed even though the legislation enjoys bipartisan support. Unrelated amendments attached to the NDAA often get removed in the process of reconciling the House and Senate bills.

Cardinal Zen to stand trial in September over role with pro-democracy fund

Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong. / Yung Chi Wai Derek/Shutterstock.

Denver Newsroom, Aug 11, 2022 / 14:12 pm (CNA).

Cardinal Joseph Zen is set to stand trial next month, along with four other people, in connection to his role as a trustee of a pro-democracy legal fund. It appears he has not been indicted under Hong Kong’s national security law, which would have carried with it much more serious penalties. 

Zen, 90, is the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and an outspoken advocate for religious freedom and democracy, and a sharp critic of the Vatican’s 2018 agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops. 

Hong Kong authorities arrested Zen on May 11, and he was reportedly released on bail from Chai Wan Police Station later that day. At the time it appeared he would be charged under Hong Kong’s national security law, the Beijing-imposed measure which criminalizes broad definitions of sedition and collusion with foreign forces. Zen was arrested alongside several other prominent pro-democracy figures, including lawyer Margaret Ng and singer-activist Denise Ho. 

All were later charged in connection with a failure to register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped pro-democracy protesters to pay their legal fees until it dissolved itself in October 2021. The defendants’ lawyers are arguing that they had the right to associate under Hong Kong’s Basic Law — essentially the constitution. 

In addition to Zen, Ho, and Ng, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung and ex-legislator Cyd Ho are accused of failing to apply for local society registration for the fund between July 16, 2019, and October 31, 2021, the Hong Kong Free Press reported. All the defendants have pleaded not guilty; Cyd Ho is already jailed for a different charge. 

The Sept. 19-23 trial will be conducted in Chinese with the closing arguments in English, HKFP reported. Without the national security law indictment, the defendants could face only a fine. 

Cardinal Zen offered Mass after his court appearance in May and prayed for Catholics in mainland China who are facing persecution. “Martyrdom is normal in our Church,” Zen said. “We may not have to do that, but we may have to bear some pain and steel ourselves for our loyalty to our faith.”

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China with its own government, and its citizens have historically enjoyed greater freedom of religion than on the Chinese mainland, where religious believers of all stripes are routinely surveilled and restricted by the communist government. But in recent years, Beijing has sought to tighten control over religious practices in Hong Kong under the guise of protecting national security. In 2020, a sweeping National Security Law came into force, criminalizing previously protected civil liberties under the headings of “sedition“ and “foreign collusion.”

Millions of citizens of Hong Kong, including many Catholics, have in recent years participated in large-scale pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which came to a head in summer 2019. Catholic pro-democracy figures such as Cardinal Zen, media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and lawyer Martin Lee have all garnered media attention for their arrests at the hands of Chinese authorities. 

A Hong Kong priest told EWTN in April that the CCP is using ideological tactics such as re-education and propaganda to chip away at the freedom of religion in Hong Kong. A Reuters report from late December documented an October 2021 meeting at which Chinese bishops and religious leaders briefed senior Hong Kong Catholic clergymen on President Xi Jinping's vision of religion with "Chinese characteristics.” 

The Vatican has shied away from public criticism of the crackdown on democracy protests in Hong Kong since it first entered into a provisional agreement with China in 2018. That deal was meant to unify the country's 12 million Catholics, divided between the underground Church and the Communist-administered Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and clear a path for the appointment of bishops for Chinese dioceses. Despite the deal, persecution of the underground Church has continued and, according to some, intensified.

Olivia Newton-John attended Catholic Mass, said ‘favorite prayer’ daily

Olivia Newton-John arrives for G'Day USA Los Angeles Black Tie Gala Jan. 27, 2018, in Los Angeles. The singer and actress died Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, at age 73 after a decades-long struggle with breast cancer. / Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Aug 11, 2022 / 13:51 pm (CNA).

Singer and actress Olivia Newton-John, perhaps best known for her role as Sandy Olsson in the 1978 film “Grease,” shared her favorite prayer last year. She passed away Monday at age 73. 

The prayer was, she revealed in a 2021 interview, the Lord’s Prayer. 

She began reciting it daily after she became pregnant with her only child, Chloe, she said on the podcast “A Life of Greatness.”

“I was close to losing her at one point,” she recalled. “I asked God to please save Chloe and, if he did, I would say the Lord’s Prayer every night for the rest of my life.”

“So I have,” she said. “I think it’s a beautiful prayer. It’s a powerful prayer. I believe in prayer, I think prayer is very powerful.” Chloe was born in 1986.

Newton-John learned the Lord’s Prayer as a child, she said, adding that her family attended church while her father served as the head of a Presbyterian college — Ormond College at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

“I believe all the beliefs have validity and meaning to a lot of people,” she added, “but I find that prayer a very powerful one.”

In response to her death, which came after a decades-long struggle with breast cancer, Capuchin friar and deacon Brother Vince Mary remembered Newton-John on Twitter. He shared that Newton-John attended Catholic Mass.

Olivia Newton-John appears in the back pew at the Capuchin novitiate at San Lorenzo Seminary in Santa Ynez, California. Date unknown. Photo courtesy of Capuchin Brother Mick Joyce from Borromeo Seminary Cleveland
Olivia Newton-John appears in the back pew at the Capuchin novitiate at San Lorenzo Seminary in Santa Ynez, California. Date unknown. Photo courtesy of Capuchin Brother Mick Joyce from Borromeo Seminary Cleveland

“She was a frequent visitor to our Capuchin Novitiate in Santa Ynez for masses,” Brother Vince Mary tweeted. “God grant her eternal rest!”

He told CNA that Newton-John attended Mass frequently at the novitiate that has attracted other celebrity visitors — San Lorenzo Seminary in Santa Ynez, California. 

Newton-John lived near the friars. According to the Santa Barbara Independent, she passed away at her 12-acre residence in Santa Ynez Valley.

Father Jim Sichko, a papal Missionary of Mercy from the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky, called Newton-John a close friend of his whom he kept in touch with constantly. Among other things, she wrote the afterward to his book published in 2021, “Encountering God,” and supported his Catholic ministry and outreach in Kentucky.

He had intended to introduce Newton-John to Pope Francis, but the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted their plans. It was his hope, he told CNA, that the pontiff would bless or anoint her.

Sichko said he first met her and her husband, John Easterling, roughly four or five years ago on a flight to Melbourne, Australia. He initially did not realize who she was. She asked him to pray for her and he gifted her a cross blessed by Pope Francis. That’s when she began to cry and revealed who she was.

Olivia Newton-John and her husband, John Easterling, take a photo with Father Jim Sichko at a Catholic church in Cranbourne, Australia. Courtesy of Father Jim Sichko
Olivia Newton-John and her husband, John Easterling, take a photo with Father Jim Sichko at a Catholic church in Cranbourne, Australia. Courtesy of Father Jim Sichko


That evening, he spotted Newton-John and Easterling at a talk he gave at a Catholic church in Cranbourne. At the end of the talk, he found the couple kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament. She was still wearing, around her neck, the cross he gave her. She wore it regularly ever since that day.

He remembered Newton-John as a person with “such strong deep faith” and as someone “in tune with God.”

“She died with great grace,” he said. “There’s no doubt that she’s in communion with God.”

He told CNA that he plans to attend her memorial service in September.

In March 2020, Newton-John publicly shared her appreciation for one Capuchin Franciscan. Newton-John posted a poem on Instagram written by a Capuchin Franciscan in Ireland, Brother Richard Hendrick, where he wrote about responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was sent this poem by a friend and it said many things I was thinking — because I also believe that good things are coming out of this difficult time — which too will pass,” she commented. “Father Richard Hendricks says it so beautifully here.”

It is unclear what faith or religion Newton-John practiced before her death. During the 2021 podcast interview, she spoke about praying and chanting with her friends who are Buddhist and about experiencing spirits. 

She also talked about life after death.

“Most humans, we want to believe that we go on,” she said. “I don’t know if that is so and I hope that I can let people know when it happens if it is.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 12 to include comments from Father Jim Sichko.