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How this Croatian cardinal saved thousands of Jewish lives

Zagreb, Croatia, Nov 22, 2019 / 04:00 am (CNA).- When Esther Gitman proposed a topic for a Fulbright Fellowship, the administrator taking proposals was incredulous.

In her 50s at the time, Gitman was already well past the age of most applicants to the prestigious fellowship. But what shocked the representative was not Gitman’s age, but her story.

“I'll write about the rescue of Jews in the independent state of Croatia (during World War II),” Gitman said.

“Why in the world would you like to write such a thing?” the representative asked. “Don't you know that all the Jews and many of the Serbs and Gypsies were murdered there?”

But Gitman was living proof that this was not the full story. She, her mother, and all the Jews she had known in her childhood, had been spared - protected in Italian-occupied territory while the Ustase, the facist puppet-state of the Nazis, controlled Croatia and the surrounding region.

Gitman could barely finish her story of survival before the Fulbright representative blurted out: “Look, I have never heard this story. This is an amazing story. Write a good proposal and then you can even send it to me for a review.”

The proposal was approved. But even when she arrived in Croatia to begin the project, Gitman faced serious doubts from her Croatian collaborators that the research would be fruitful at all. Gitman said she promised to write whatever she found, and if she found nothing, she would describe how she came to find nothing.

It wasn’t until Gitman was well into her research for her Fulbright fellowship in Zagreb, Croatia that she learned the name of the man to whom she and thousands of others owed their rescue: Archbishop Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac.

Learning of Archbishop Stepanic

When Gitman began her application for a Fulbright, she knew little about her own rescue as a Jew from Bosnia-Herzegovina (in the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia) other than that she and all the other Jews she knew during her childhood were spared.

She was spurred to learn more not, initially, out of her own curiosity, but her daughter’s.

“I really never asked my mother and my stepfather about it. I wasn't interested in it,” Gitman told CNA. Moreover, her family, like most others in the region, didn’t speak of their rescuers out of fear of retaliation from the Communist regime that took control of the region after the war.

“I remember that after the war my family had an expression, ‘the walls have ears,’” Gitman wrote in her book “Alojzije Stepinac: Pillar of Human Rights.”

But her daughter’s questions sent her down a road of research that led her back to school to earn her Ph.D. and a Fulbright fellowship to study those very questions. 

Gitman’s Fulbright research included combing through thousands of pages of documents - including 5,000 specifically related to rescues during the war - and interviewing 67 Croatian survivors and rescuers from the war.

As she amassed page after page on Jewish rescue in the region, Gitman’s husband encouraged her to narrow down her work by selecting a common denominator among the documents on which to focus.

One name, in particular, kept popping up: Archbishop Stepinac.

“When I started to hear the name of Stepinac, I, in my own biased mind, thought: it cannot be that a priest and still an archbishop would save Jews,” Gitman said.

But as she searched through the archives of the Catholic cathedral in Zagreb, where Stepinac was assigned during the war, “I couldn't believe what this man has done. I had a few hundred documents and I started to interview people and I just collected hundreds and hundreds of them and I saw...what an amazing thing this man has done.”

In total, and through various strategies, Stepinac directly and indirectly rescued more than 6,000 Jews from the Holocaust.

Who was Archbishop Stepinac?

Aloysius Stepinac was born on May 8, 1898 to a farming family in the village of Brezaric, some 30 miles south and west of the capital of Zagreb.

In 1916, he graduated high school and soon after was drafted to fight in World War I as an Austrian officer on the Italian front, where he was taken as an Italian prisoner of war from July-December of 1918. After the war, he briefly enrolled in a university to study agronomy, but soon returned home to work on the farm and further discern his vocation, and he found himself torn between the priesthood and farming.

“If I were a child again...I would still choose as my vocation either to be a priest or a farmer. A man is somehow closest to God there. Look at the peasant: he works and toils, but he sees how, in everything, he depends on God. He finds Him in nature. He observes His traces,” Stepinac once said. In 1924, Stepinac entered seminary and was sent to study in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. His ordination to the priesthood took place on October 26, 1930.

While his heart was that of a parish priest, Stepanic was brought to serve as a master of ceremonies at the archdiocesan chancery by Archbishop Antun Bauer in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. While there, Stepanic established the Zagreb branch of the Catholic charity Caritas, and founded the Caritas magazine, in which he advocated for better economic policies for the poor and urged the wealthy to donate generously to those in need.

In 1934, Pope Pius XI named Stepanic as the coadjutor to Bauer, effectively naming him as his successor. At the age of 37, Stepinac reluctantly became the youngest bishop in the world at the time, after begging Archbishop Bauer to change his mind.
“It shocked me so much that at first I thought that the old man had lost his reason...on the occasion of the consecration everyone cheered and rejoiced. But my heart bled,” Stepinac would later recall. 

Not long after being made a bishop, as early as 1936, Stepanic knew of the threat facing Jewish people in Europe and sought to raise funds to help those who were fleeing Nazi Germany and Austria.

He appealed to wealthy Croatian Catholics for their help: “Dear Sir, due to violent and inhumane persecution, a large number of people have had to leave their homeland. Left without means for a normal life, they wander throughout the world...Every day, a large number of emigrants contact us asking for intervention...It is our Christian duty to help them...I am free to address you, as a member of our Church, to ask for support for our fund in favor of emigrants. I ask you to write your free monthly allotment on the enclosed leaflet,” he wrote to them.

In an address to students in 1938, Stepanic condemned the racist ideologies of the Third Reich: “Love toward one’s nation cannot turn a man into a wild animal, which destroys everything and calls for reprisal, but it must ennoble him, so that his own nation secures respect and love of other nations.”

In 1939, he launched another fundraising campaign to help Jews and other persecuted migrants fleeing their countries because of the war, again emphasizing the Christian’s duty to help those in need regardless of their race or creed.

Stepinac and the rescue of Jews during World War II

War officially came to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (which was comprised of modern-day Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia) on April 6, 1941, when German forces invaded the region.

During the occupation, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was divided by the Axis powers, who thought that they could control the region better with divided countries that could be pitted against each other, Gitman said. The Independent State of Croatia was established as a puppet state of the Nazis, with Ante Pavelić at the head of the Ustase - the Croatian fascists loyal to Hitler.

Stepanic, as head of the Catholic Church in the majority-Catholic Croatia, had the difficult task of opposing the Ustase’s violent and inhumane policies while still attempting to maintain peace and order in his country.

“His duty as the head of such a big group (as) the Catholics was to go and establish a working relationship (with Pavelic),” Gitman said, a move that angered many Croatians at the time.

“They hated each other, but he had to establish a working relationship for the sake of peace and order,” she added. 

Stepinac found subtle and not-so-subtle ways to oppose Pavelic and the Ustase regime. Gitman said that, for instance, there were two priests and five nuns in the archdiocese who were of Jewish ethnicity, and therefore had to wear the Jewish star.

At one point, Pavelic decided it was embarrassing to the regime to have priests and nuns wearing the star, and so he absolved them of the obligation. But Stepanic urged the priests and nuns to continue wearing the star, as a sign of solidarity with the Jewish people. It humiliated Pavelic.

“This was an embarrassment to Pavelic that, Stepinac is telling them to wear the sign when they got permission not to wear (it),” Gitman said.

Gitman also learned that the Jewish rabbi in Zagreb came to rely on the friendship and help of Stepinac during the war. Unlike the rabbi, Stepanic was granted what were known as “Aryan rights” under the Ustase regime, which meant he was free to roam around the city like a normal citizen, while Jews were forced to wear a yellow star to identify themselves, and their movements were curtailed and monitored. Stepanic used this right to help those without such privileges.

“So whenever (the rabbi) needed something, he would send a request to Stepinac, and he always did whatever he could,” Gitman said.

Privately, Stepanic organized hiding places for an unknown number of Jews using Croatian Catholic connections he had throughout the country, or raised funds to help them escape to a safer place. When Stepanic’s own life was in danger, he warned all those that he had helped hide, and told them to find a different hiding place so that they would not be found out.

Stepinac also told his priests in no uncertain terms that they were to accept any requests from people who wanted to convert to the Catholic Church in order to try to save their lives - whether they were Jewish, Serbian, Gypsies, or other persecuted groups.

“He had a policy: when you (a priest) are approached by a Jew or a Serb whose life is in danger and they wished to convert, convert them, because the Christian duty is in the first place to save (their) life,” Gitman said.

“When you are visited by people of the Jewish or Eastern Orthodox faith, whose lives are in danger and who express the wish to convert to Catholicism, accept them in order to save human lives. Do not require any special religious knowledge from them, because the Eastern Orthodox are Christians like us, and the Jewish faith is the faith from which Christianity draws its roots. The role and duty of Christians is in the first place to save people. When this time of madness and savagery has passed, those who would convert out of conviction will remain in our church, while others, after the danger passes, will return to their church,” read a note distributed to parishes in Zagreb during the war.

Stepanic also stood up to the Ustase to protect Jewish people in mixed marriages with Christians. Stepanic told the Ustase that if they started sending Jews in mixed marriages to the concentration camps, that he would close his churches indefinitely and their bells would not stop ringing. He was able to save roughly 1,000 Jews in mixed marriages.

A 1943 letter from Nazi agent Hubner to Hans Helms the Nazi police attaché in Zagreb, later reviewed by Gitman, shows that the Nazi’s were aware of Stepinac’s tactic to protect the Jews:

“...the Archbishop promised protection and that he sent a letter to the Pope in Rome. According to the ‘dogmas’ of the Catholic Church, a couple in a mixed marriage cannot be separated. And if the Croat government undertakes action against mixed marriages, then in protest against such acts, the Archbishop will close all the Catholic Churches for a certain period. Such acts he [Stepinac] considers interference in the internal affairs of the church. Furthermore, the rumors circulating in Zagreb are that the Pope turned personally to the Fuehrer to obtain assurances that no actions would be taken against mixed marriages. For the time being, verification of this information cannot be obtained. But it is probable that this information is accurate because it is acknowledged that Stepinac is a protector of the Jews.”

The act of Stepinac that saved the most Jews - roughly 5,000 - from the Holocaust was his appeal to the Vatican to protect the Jewish refugees from Yugoslavia living in Italian-controlled territory.

When the war came to Yugoslavia, Gitman and her mother, along with thousands of other Jews, flocked to the Dalmatian coast, which was controlled by the Italians. Originally from Sarajevo in the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gitman’s mother had heard that Jews would be safe in Italian territory, because they didn’t have the same mentality toward Jewish people as Nazi Germany did. (Gitman’s father died before the war came to Yugoslavia.)

But by 1942, just a year after the start of the war, the governor of this Italian region, Giuseppe Bastionini, “decided that he cannot have so many people unemployed, roaming around his territory and so he will collect all of them and ship them off back to the Ustase, to the Croatian fascists,” Gitman said.

When Stepinac heard this, he knew it would be certain death if the Jews were sent back to the Ustase. Together with the apostolic visitor to Croatia, Benedictine abbot Dom Giuseppe Ramiro Marcone, Stepinac pleaded with the Vatican to help them negotiate permissions for the Yugoslav Jews to remain in Italian territory. According to Gitman, the men emphasized the terrible conditions for Jews under the Ustase, as well as the fact that many of the Jews living in Italian territory were actually Catholic converts.

“Many were (Catholics),” Gitman said, “but not by a large measure. But it helped, and they received the permit to stay and the Italian second army protected them until the capitulation of Italy in 1943.”

In 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allied powers, the status of the Jews in Italian territory was once again thrown into question. Germans were now invading Italy, and most of the Jews in Italian territory had to be transferred to other regions to stay safe, if they didn’t leave to fight on the Partisan front (comprised of Jewish resistance and local resistance groups).

Gitman and her mother, along with some of the other Jews, were transferred from Korcula (a Croatian island occupied by Italians) to Bari, Italy on the coast of the Adriatic by some fishermen. They remained there until the war ended in 1945.

Stepanic also saved a group of 58 elderly Jews who were living in “Lavoslav Schwarz,” a nursing home in Zagreb. In 1943, German authorities ordered the elderly people to evacuate the building or face deportation to Auschwitz. Stepinac relocated the group to nearby Church property, secured humanitarian aid for them from Switzerland, and frequently visited the home. The elderly Jews lived in the Church-owned building until 1947, and only five of them died during the war of natural causes, Gitman wrote.

Besides the Jews he rescued, Stepanic also spoke out against the Ustase and Nazi ideology in his sermons, which were banned by the Ustase from being printed and redistributed. But that does not mean the people of Croatia listened.

Stepanic’s defense lawyer wrote in 1946: “His sermons were attended in masses, not only by the Catholics but even by those who otherwise did not go to Church. Those sermons were spread, recounted, copied and propagated in thousands and thousands of copies among the people and even penetrated to the liberated territory. They became an underground press, a means of successful propaganda against the Ustase, a substitute for an opposition press.”

Glaise von Horstenau, a German general in Zagreb, said of the sermons: “If any bishop in Germany spoke this way in public, he would not come down alive from his pulpit!”

Stepinac’s activities earned him the ire of the Nazis and the Ustase, who called him and his collaborators “judenfreundlich (friends of the Jews) and therefore enemies of National Socialism.”

Angered by his sermons on the human dignity of all, including Serbs and Jews and Gypsies, a group of Ustase youth wrote to Stepinac: “You have to know that you are ‘Our greatest enemy’, but we are letting you know that if you go on speaking against us as you have been doing till now, and despite your red Roman belt, we will kill you in the street like a dog.”

In 1943, during a visit to the Vatican, Stepanic was informed that he had officially been labeled a traitor by the Nazis and that his life was therefore in danger. He had “no illusions” about the consequences of his words and actions, Gitman wrote, but stood by them, prepared to die. While in Rome, he met a famous Croatian sculptor, and told him he expected to be killed either by the Nazis or by the communist regime that would follow: “With God (a farewell), it is most likely that we will not see each other again. My life is threatened, either the Nazis will kill me now, or the Communists will kill me later.”

Trial and legacy of Cardinal Stepinac

Less than a month after the end of World War II, on June 2, 1945, the communist regime of Josip Broz Tito came to power and once again united Yugoslavia.

Threatened by the influential Stepinac, who also opposed communism, Tito tried to force Stepinac and other Catholic leaders in the country to cut ties with Rome and form an independent Catholic Church in Croatia - one that could be more easily contained and controlled.

Stepinac did not show up to the meetings where such negotiations were taking place, and instead continued to speak out against the regime, including against their imprisoning of priests, prohibition of religious marriages, and the confiscation of Church property, Gitman wrote.

Because of his obstinance towards the regime, and his popularity, Stepinac was seen as an obstacle to the regime’s success. Tito and his official launched a campaign to smear Stepinac’s reputation by trying to paint him as the main Catholic supporter of the Ustase during World War II.

Stepinac was first placed under house arrest, and then under actual arrest in on September 18, 1946, for the charges. After what many considered to be a “bogus” trial, Stepinac was found guilty on all charges and was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor on October 11, 1946.

At the time, Tito said: “It is not true that we persecute the church, we simply do not tolerate that certain people serve with impunity foreign interests instead of the interests of their own people.”

Gitman wrote that even many officials in Tito’s government recognized the trial and verdict as a sham, “because the Ustase had violated every precept of the church, and...Stepinac was not their supporter.”

Milovan Djilas, Tito’s former secretary of media and propaganda, later admitted as much.

“To tell you truthfully, I think, and not only me, that Stepinac is a man of integrity, a strong and unbreakable character. Although really innocent he was convicted; but then history frequently tells of innocent people being convicted for political necessity.”

A dispatch from the American embassy in Belgrade to the U.S. State Department noted on November 9, 1946 - before the trial’s conclusion - that it had been “fixed.”

“Everybody in Yugoslavia knows that Archbishop Stepinac was arrested and condemned by the Communist Party, and that his sentence was fixed outside the court and long before the trial itself took place. While the trial was still in progress, a highly placed Communist in the executive branch of the government said: ‘We can’t shoot him as we should like to do, because he is an archbishop;he will get a term in prison.’”

In 1950, American senators tried to negotiate for Stepinac’s freedom by making it a condition of American aid to Yugoslavia. Tito agreed to the deal but said that once freed, Stepinac must leave Yugoslavia.

But the Vatican rejected the arrangement according to Stepinac’s own wishes, Gitman wrote. “They will never make me leave unless they put me on a place by force and take me over the frontier. It is my duty in these difficult times to stay with the people,” Stepanic had declared. It was a wish he expressed repeatedly - to not leave his people as long as his country was not free. In December 1951, Tito released Stepanic and placed him again under house arrest in his hometown of Krasic, where he died in 1960 from illnesses he had contracted while in prison, according to the Blessed Aloysius Stepinac Croatian Catholic Mission.

“Tito’s acts against Stepinac made him both a Croatian martyr and a Catholic icon,” Gitman wrote. In 1953, Pope Pius XII made Stepinac a cardinal. On October 3, 1998, Stepinac was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

Nevertheless, to this day, there are many today who still oppose Stepinac and try to smear his reputation, Gitman said.

Beginning in the 1950s, many historians within Yugoslavia started arguing in their accounts that while Stepinac did some good during the war, he could have used his position to do much more, and that he dragged his feet in opposing the Ustase.

As an example Menachem Shelah, an Israeli historian from Zagreb, write of Stepinac that while it is true that he worked to save Jews “towards the middle of 1943” and saved Jews in mixed marriages, “Stepinac cannot be absolved because by his procrastination and public expressions he convinced the public that the Ustase were a lesser evil than the communists, because the Ustase crimes were a childhood malaise...Stepinac’s failure in taking action against dozens of priests who willingly took part in the murders.”

According to Gitman: “Historians who argued that Stepinac could have done much more are arguing in hindsight and on wishful thinking. Thus, such declarations are speculative because their claims could be neither evaluated nor substantiated by facts. Can any historian rightfully claim that if Stepinac had acted differently the outcome would have been substantially different and more Jews, Serbs and others would have survived? The answer clearly is no.”

Stepanic also continues to face criticism from many Serbians, in large part because of the propaganda promulgated against Stepinac in their country, and because of Croatia and Serbia’s hundreds of years of fraught history over border disputes, accusations of genocide against one another, and religious conflicts between the Catholic Croatia and the Orthodox Serbia.

“As I said, Stepinac is an icon. He represents in the Croatian psyche everything that is good, righteous and so on. And he believed that the Catholic church in this part of the world should remain and exist. He did everything to accomplish that,” Gitman said.

“Whereas the objective of King Alexander (a Serb), of Tito, and the communist regime...was  always to annex Croatia and make a greater Serbia. And I think without the glue, which is Stepinac, that keeps the people so loyal to him - and no matter under what circumstances, they believe in him - without his image, without his persona, they would be able to achieve it because there were many communists in Croatia also,” Gitman added.

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church has long held that Stepinac was a holy man who acted to uphold human dignity in some of the most difficult times his country had seen. Upon Stepinac’s death in 1960, Pope Pius XII called Stepinac “a shepherd who is an example of Apostolic zeal and Christian fortitude.”

At his beatification, Pope John Paul II called Stepinac an “outstanding figure of the Catholic Church” who risked his own life to help others.

“In his human and spiritual journey Blessed Alojzije Stepinac gave his people a sort of compass to serve as an orientation. And these were its cardinal points: faith in God, respect for man, love towards all even to the offer of forgiveness, and unity with the Church guided by the Successor of Peter,” Pope John Paul II said.

“He knew well that no bargains can be made with truth, because truth is not negotiable. Thus he faced suffering rather than betray his conscience and not abide by the promise given to Christ and the Church.”


Notre Dame conference to focus on call to lay leadership

South Bend, Ind., Nov 22, 2019 / 12:39 am (CNA).- A professor at the University of Notre Dame has offered his reflections on lay leadership in the Church, in preparation for a conference on the subject, which will be held at the university next year.

Leadership in the Church should not be understood merely as the hierarchy, insisted John Cavadini, McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life and a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Rather, he said, all members of the Church, especially the laity, are called to be leaders in the New Evangelization.

This idea of lay leadership will be a major theme at the “Called & Co-Responsible” conference taking place at the University of Notre Dame March 4-6. The conference will analyze the call for lay leadership issued by popes over the last 65 years, ranging from Pope Paul VI in Vatican II to Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium.

“Our conference hopes to make this ‘co-responsible’ form of leadership visible as such, and at the same time to make the theology that empowers it visible as such as well,” said Cavadini.

“Lay people do not have a responsibility for mission that is limited to participating in a governance structure already fully intact, in which they are then slotted into subordinate roles,” he said. “It means that lay leadership is not limited to (though it certainly includes) ‘lay ecclesial ministry,’ which is a subordinate participation in the ministry specific to the ordained.”

He pointed to an address from Pope Benedict XVI, who spoke at the 6th Ordinary Assembly of the International Forum of Catholic Action in 2012. The pope made an important distinction between the role of the laity as “co-responsible” for the Church’s mission rather than merely “collaborators” of the clergy, he said.

Benedict XVI defined the mission of the Church as “guiding people to the encounter with Christ” and “proclaiming his message of salvation,” Cavadini said, and this is a mission that belongs to all Catholics.

“This great challenge is not presented to only a few in the Church - it is not directed to the hierarchy alone - but instead is the challenge properly belonging to all the faithful,” Cavadini said.

He also pointed to the words of Pope Francis, who has stressed the importance of formation for the laity in order for them to be equipped to fulfill their responsibilities.

“Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the people of God. The minority - ordained ministers - are at their service. There has been a growing awareness of the identity and mission of the laity in the Church,” Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium.

“At the same time, a clear awareness of this responsibility of the laity, grounded in their baptism and confirmation, does not appear in the same way in all places. In some cases, it is because lay persons have not been given the formation needed to take on important responsibilities.”

The “Called & Co-Responsible,” conference will delve into these questions about leadership in the Church and formation of the laity. It will consider structures for consolidating lay leadership, the difference between governance and management, what it looks like for clergy to empower the laity for leadership, and how to ensure this leadership is ordered toward the sacramental life of the Church.

“Actually, we believe the answer is just under our nose!” Cavadini said. “It is already visible in the concrete and fully ‘co-responsible’ leadership of lay people and of clergy, already striving, almost instinctively, towards this new conception of leadership that Benedict introduced and Francis has developed.”

“We want to make this striving more visible and to reflect upon it consciously,” he said.

China pressures Trump to veto bill of solidarity with Hong Kong protesters

Washington D.C., Nov 21, 2019 / 05:19 pm (CNA).- After the US Congress passed a bill Wednesday showing solidarity with Hong Kong protesters, China threatened President Trump if he would not veto the legislation.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang demanded Nov. 20 that Trump veto the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act “before it’s too late,” adding that "If the US continues to make the wrong moves, China will be taking strong countermeasures for sure,” according to al-Jazeera.

The bill was passed in the House by a vote of 417 to one.

The act shows solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong, a special administrative region on China’s coast that for a century was a British colony, until its return to China in 1997.

The agreement of Hong Kong’s return was that the region would retain its own economy and legislature, although there have been ongoing concerns about Beijing’s efforts to influence and exert pressure on Hong Kong.

Massive protests in Hong Kong began in June over an extradition bill, but have morphed into larger actions against police brutality and in favor of democracy and greater freedoms.

The legislation passed by Congress on Wednesday directs sanctions against human rights abusers in Hong Kong. It would ensure that nonviolent protesters who have been arrested or detained would not have that record held against them as a primary reason for denial of entry into the U.S.

It also seeks to hold the island’s government accountable for any U.S. technology that is transferred into the Chinese mainland for mass surveillance or policing activities by the central government.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, authored the final bill S. 1838 in collaboration with the House, that passed both chambers.

Both the Chinese central government and Hong Kong’s government “continue to violate the basic rights of the Hong Kong people,” Rubio stated on Wednesday, and “the United States must make clear that we continue to stand with Hong Kongers fighting for their long-cherished freedoms.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) cosponsored the bill, saying it provides “additional tools to back up our long-time commitment to Hong Kong with action.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, authored the companion bill to Rubio’s legislation that passed the House in October. He first introduced the legislation in 2014 amid growing concerns over the increasing influence of the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong.

On the Hosue floor before the vote on Wednesday, Smith noted recent abuses such as “the kidnapping of booksellers, the disqualification of elected lawmakers, and the political prosecutions of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Benny Tai and others.”
“Today, Hong Kong is burning,” Smith said, warning that “the brutal government crackdown on democracy activists has escalated” and that Chinese president Xi Jinping has threatened “crushed bodies and shattered bones.”

“And the Hong Kong government prefers bullets and batons over peaceful and political dialogue that would address the Hong Kong people’s rightful grievances,” Smith said.

Around 1 million took to the streets of Hong Kong in protest of the extradition bill in June; the bill would allow extradition of alleged criminals into mainland China for trial.

Although the bill was soon suspended, and then finally removed from consideration in October, the protests—largely non-violent at the outset—have continued with some outbursts of violence against both police and protesters.

Crackdowns by police that have fueled serious concerns about brutality. Authorities have used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, and even live rounds in several instances as one protester was shot by police at point-blank range in a video taken Nov. 10.

Some protesters have resorted to violence against police or against other protesters, as evidenced in video showing protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at police and in one instance a masked protester setting a man on fire.

Two protesters have died in November, one falling from a parking garage during a clash between police and protesters, and another hit by a hard object from other protesters.

Some Catholics have participated in the protests as a means to fight for religious freedom. They have also expressed fears that the extradition bill could have been used by the central government to further control religion; some Catholics have been subject to a travel ban to the mainland by the central government, which is reportedly wary of mainland Catholics working with Hong Kong activists to fight for greater religious freedom on the mainland.

Local bishops have asked for an “independent commission of inquiry” to investigate police abuses and for the extradition bill to be pulled. The auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Ha Chi-shing, has also called for Catholics to pray the rosary and fast on Fridays for peace and reconciliation.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) was the lone “No” vote on the Hong Kong bill, saying on Fox Business on Wednesday that its use of sanctions against human rights abusers would “escalate” U.S.-China tensions. “You don’t pull a gun unless you’re ready to shoot it,” he said.

Federal executions put on hold while court case moves forward

Washington D.C., Nov 21, 2019 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- A federal judge on Wednesday issued a preliminary injunction halting federal executions in the U.S., saying that a challenge to the proposed execution method should be given time to receive a court ruling.

The Trump administration had announced over the summer that it was planning to resume federal executions, after a 16-year moratorium on the use of the death penalty for federal prisoners.

Attorney General William Barr ordered executions to be scheduled for five inmates on death row. Four of those inmates challenged the lethal injection protocol that was scheduled to be used. The fifth inmate had his execution halted separately in October.

U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan of the District of Columbia said Nov. 20 that the four death row inmates must have a chance to argue their case in court.

The challenge involves the use of a three-drug cocktail, which sedates, paralyzes, and stops the heart of the person upon whom it is used.

The drugs have been controversial. In several botched executions, prisoners took as long as two hours to die, and appeared to be in excruciating pain, leading to questions about whether the paralyzing drug simply gave the appearance of a peaceful death rather than actually ensuring one. Critics have argued that the execution method constitutes a form of “cruel and unusual punishment,” prohibited by the constitution.

After a series of rulings against the three-drug protocol, which was used commonly in state executions, the Obama administration in 2003 placed the federal use of the death penalty on hiatus, while the Justice Department revised execution protocols.

In resuming federal executions, Attorney General Barr announced that the adoption of a single drug protocol. However, Judge Chutkan pointed to a stipulation in the Federal Death Penalty Act requiring federal executions to be conducted “in the manner prescribed by the state of conviction.” Two of the men sentenced to die had been convicted in states using the three-drug protocol.

Pope Francis has called the death penalty a rejection of the Gospel and of human dignity, calling on civil authorities to end its use. Last year, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised to describe the death penalty as “inadmissible,” citing the increasing effectiveness of detention systems, the unchanging dignity of the person, and the importance of leaving open the possibility of conversion.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are currently 62 federal inmates on death row.

Archbishop Gomez: The Church belongs to Christ

Los Angeles, Calif., Nov 21, 2019 / 11:39 am (CNA).- Following his election as president of the US bishops' conference, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles has noted that what is of importance is not his own vision for the Church, but that of Christ.

“In interviews this week, I am getting asked a lot about my 'vision' for the Church. It is a good, sincere question. But I’m not sure it is the right question,” he wrote in a Nov. 19 column at Angelus News.

“The Church does not belong to any archbishop, even the president of the bishops’ conference. The Church does not belong to any of us. She belongs to Jesus, the Church is his Body and Bride.”

Archbishop Gomez said that the Church's mission and identity given her by Christ is “to tell the world about his life and what he has done for us, and to help them know that Jesus is the way that leads to the truth about their lives, to the love and happiness that they long for.”

The baptized “are called to be people who evangelize, disciples who are missionaries … this is the true nature of the Church. And our mission is urgent.”

The archbishop noted that our culture is confused “about the meaning of human life and freedom,” and that “there are many competing narratives now about how to find happiness and what is essential in life.”

The Church, he said, has a duty “to reach out to those who are no longer practicing any religion and also to those who come to church regularly but may not be sure what it means to be Catholic, or what the Church teaches and why.”

Archbishop Gomez called for the Church “to find new ways to propose Jesus Christ as the answer to the questions that every person holds in their hearts and minds. We need to call every man and woman to experience the full beauty of the gospel, the joy and newness of life that we have in Jesus Christ. We need to call them to find their home in the Church, in the saving mysteries of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.”

“So, my 'vision' is that we work together — priests, deacons, seminarians, consecrated men and women, lay people in every walk of life — all of us seeking to do God’s will, spreading the good news of Jesus and his salvation and calling everyone to holiness.”

This is possible only by God's grace and “in union with Christ’s vicar on Earth,” he recalled.

Pope Francis “is leading us and calling all of us in the Church to rediscover this idea: that God has created us, and in baptism has given us a part to play in his plan of salvation — to be missionary disciples.”

Archbishop Gomez said he is honored and humbled by the support and confidence indicated by his Nov. 12 election as USCCB president.

He said the election “is a reflection of the growing diversity of the Church in this country, and I also think it is a reflection of what we are doing here in Los Angeles.”

“Certainly, the bishops recognize the presence and importance of Latinos in the Church and in our nation,” he added.

The universality of the Church is seen “in the amazing diversity of the local Church here in Los Angeles,” the archbishop stated. “But more and more, the face of the Church is changing in dioceses across the country.”

He said this is beautiful, reflecting that “Christ intends his Church to be a home for all people, God’s family on earth, with children of God from every race and culture, every nationality and language all following him and living as brothers and sisters.”

“This is the only reason the Church exists: for this great mission of calling the family of God into being, building God’s kingdom on Earth.”

Archbishop Gomez solicited prayers as he takes on the responsibility of USCCB president, and entrusted his time in the role “to the maternal care of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

“May she intercede for us and inspire every Catholic to follow Jesus with deep love and a true desire to share his message of salvation with the people of our time,” Archbishop Gomez concluded.

Democratic candidates: Protecting abortion is ‘what we do and what we stand for’

Atlanta, Ga., Nov 21, 2019 / 10:37 am (CNA).- Democratic presidential candidates struggled to respond when asked if pro-life politicians have a place in the party during a debate on Wednesday night. The candidates, however, did pledge their support for abortion and exhorted voters to do the same.

“I believe that abortion rights are human rights. I believe that they are also economic rights,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), said at Wednesday night’s debate hosted by NBC News in Atlanta.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) challenged men to support abortion as a pro-woman issue. “Well let me just tell you that if there’s ever a time in American history where the men of this country must stand with the women, this is the moment,” he said.

Democratic presidential candidates faced off in the fifth debate in advance of the 2020 elections, in Atlanta, Georgia, on Wednesday night. They were questioned by moderators from MSNBC and NBC News on health care, immigration, voting laws, climate change, and other issues.

Towards the end of the debate, moderator and MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow brought up the topic of abortion.

Maddow asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) if, in the event Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court and the states have the authority to outlaw abortion, she would “intervene as president” to preserve abortion access in states where it “disappears.”

“Well, of course,” Klobuchar replied, calling for a codification of Roe into law at the federal level. Several candidates, including Warren and fellow frontrunner Joe Biden, have called for federal legislation on abortion rights in their campaign platform to prevent states from limiting the practice it in the event of a furture Supreme Court decision.

Maddow then asked if there is “room” in the Democratic Party for pro-life candidates, citing the re-election of Louisiana’s Democratic governor John Bel Edwards this past weekend; Edwards is outspoken in support of the pro-life cause and signed a “heartbeat” bill into law that banned abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around six to eight weeks in a pregnancy.

“Is there room in the Democratic Party for someone like him?” Maddow asked Warren. “Someone who can win in a deep red state, but who does not support abortion rights?”

Warren said that “abortion rights are human rights” but did not specifically address the matter of pro-life candidates in the party. She did say that the party is “fundamentally” about preserving abortion access.

“Protecting the right of a woman to be able to make decisions about her own body is fundamentally what we do and what we stand for as a Democratic Party,” Warren said.

Maddow followed up by asking “Is there room for [Edwards] in the Democratic Party with those politics?”

Warren answered, “I have made clear what I think the Democratic Party stands for.” She added that “I’m not here to try to drive anyone out of this party. I’m not here to try to build fences.”

“I want to be an America where everybody has a chance,” Warren said of abortion access.

In addition to calling for legislative codefication of Roe, Warren also called for federal laws to overturn state regulations of abortion such as “geographical, physical, and procedural restrictions and requirements” and “restrictions on medication abortion.” 

She has also supported taxpayer funding of elective abortions, coverage of abortion and contraceptives in health plans and in Medicare-for-All, services to educate and inform women about abortion access, and protections against workplace discrimination of abortion.

During the debate, the president of the organization Democrats for Life of America, Kristen Day, tweeted that in “talking to dems on the ground” in Atlanta, she was “surprised about how many people do not know that their candidate supports late-term abortion.”

The pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List tweeted that “79% of Americans OPPOSE late-term abortion” and that the “candidates’ abortion extremism is a major political vulnerability in November 2020.”

While late-term abortions were not a specific topic of discussion at Wednesday’s debate, candidates did not elaborate on any proposed limits to abortion access.

Sen. Corey Booker (D-N.J.) said that the matter of state abortion laws “is a voting issue” and “a voter suppression issue,” claiming that Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams lost her 2018 race against current governor Brian Kemp because of “voter suppression, particularly of African-American communities.”

“The ‘heartbeat’ bill here, opposed by over 70% of Georgians, is the result of voter suppression,” Booker said of Georgia’s “heartbeat” law that outlawed abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected. Gov. Kemp signed the bill into law in May, but the law was temporarily prevented from going into effect by a federal judge.

Booker implied that Gov. Kemp used the law as a weapon against the African-American community in Georgia. “When you have undemocratic means, when you suppress peoples’ votes to get elected, those are the very people you’re going to come after when you’re in office,” Booker said of the “heartbeat” bill.

Day tweeted in response that “If Stacey Abrams had taken a moderate position on abortion, she would have won,” referring to the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election.

“The only Democratic Governor in the south is a pro-life Democrat. Abortion extremism & an abortion litmus test suppresses votes,” Day tweeted, referring to John Bel Edwards in Louisiana.

Edwards won his race with a high turnout of the African-American vote.

In an interview with local NPR affiliate WRKF, Edwards’ campaign consultant Greg Rigamer said that the African-American turnout in the election was higher in number than in the previous gubernatorial race, although representing a smaller share of the overall vote. Edwards, he said, “got literally-- unequivocally-- over 98% of the African American votes.”

Pro-life stem cell research finds success—and seeks more support

Iowa City, Nov 21, 2019 / 03:03 am (CNA).- A Catholic medical research institute has claimed some successes in providing alternatives to research that harvest cells from human embryos--but it says such research needs more resources to compete.

“There aren’t very many research organizations that we have seen that have taken a pro-life stand that we have, namely we won’t either support embryonic stem cell research or participate in it,” Jay Kamath, president of the Iowa-based John Paul II Medical Research Institute, told CNA Nov. 7.

The research institute, now based in the Iowa City suburb of Coralville, was founded in 2006. It has a research staff of about 12.

In recent years, the institute has pioneered a new technique to create adult stem cells, and its products have helped explore treatments for at least one rare disease. The organization hopes to build on these successes and demonstrate the effectiveness of ethical stem cell research.

Stem cell research today relies on cells taken from either human embryos or mature tissue. Stem cells harvested from embryos have a high degree of potential because they are capable of developing into any other tissue type in the body. However, they require the destruction of a human life at an early embryonic stage, making them ethically controversial. In addition, these cells can show instability and have a propensity for developing tumors. Critics note that despite significant federal funding, embryonic stem cells have failed to deliver cures for any diseases thus far.

Research on adult stem cells is more limited because these cells have less capacity to develop into various types of tissue. However, this research does not destroy a human life, because it is taken from developed tissue rather than a human embryo.

In recent years, the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells has brought hope to researchers looking for additional options. These cells have the ability to become any type of cell but are created from adult stem cells, avoiding the ethical concerns posed by embryonic stem cell use.

Still, funding for embryonic stem cell research continues, Kamath said, contrary to what some people believe.

“The reality is that embryonic stem cell research is still being well-funded and still continues,” he said. “It is something that the large number of medical research organizations either participate in directly or support participation in. The National Institutes for Health and the like are funding this kind of research.”

The John Paul II Medical Research Institute hopes to be a leading figure in offering alternatives to embryonic research. Since the institute’s founding in 2016, it has seen a number of significant accomplishments.

“We’ve been able to differentiate these stem cells into every type of tissue that’s available in the human body,” Kamath said. “We have a huge repository of stem cells.”

While induced pluripotent stem cells are often created through the use of viruses or a type of tumor-creating gene called oncogenes, Kamath said, the John Paul II Institute has developed new, different methods.

Dr. Alan Moy, M.D., co-founder of the John Paul II Medical Research Institute, has co-authored papers on the virus- and oncogene-free process for creating stem cells in two different papers: one in Regenerative Medicine dated Nov. 28, 2018 and one in Future Science OA, dated May 12, 2017.

Research at the John Paul II Institute has also helped two sisters who suffer from Niemann-Pick disease type C, a rare disorder that affects the body’s ability to transport cholesterol and other fatty substances within the cells. The disorder can cause dementia-like problems at an early age, and can kill if left untreated.

Researchers harvested stem cells through a biopsy of the patients and used these cells to test a drug called cyclodextrin, in participation with a National Institutes of Health lab.

“We were one of the first to collaborate and show that this drug is effective in a laboratory setting through our clinical research,” Kamath said. Researchers were able to advance the drug to a small-scale clinical trial. That trial has grown and is “helping these children fight off this disease.”

The institute’s researchers presently are developing two separate adult stem cell lines, from placenta and cord blood. The cell lines are in a process called “immortalization” – a technical term for the state in which cells grow indefinitely in artificial cell culture conditions.

Human embryonic kidney cell line, numbered HEK-293, is widely used in medical research for gene therapy, vaccine production, pharmaceutical applications for drug discovery, protein development, and medical manufacturing.

Kamath hopes the institute’s two cell lines can advance some research “to displace or replace the human embryonic kidney cell line in drug development or vaccine development.”

He said the research institute aims to use adult stem cells to build a “platform” to research various types of diseases: cancer; neurological diseases, like Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Multiple sclerosis; chronic diseases such as pulmonary disease, heart disease and diabetes; and rare diseases that number in the thousands but affect few people in number.

The institute encourages people with rare diseases to sign up for its patient registry so that it can potentially help the latter if any relevant research moves towards clinical use.

Looking to the future, Kamath said securing continued funding and raising awareness about the ethical research at the institute is an ongoing obstacle.

In 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral on social media, asking people do dump ice water buckets on their heads and challenge others to do the same, while encouraging donations to the ALS Association, which funds efforts to cure amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Catholic commentators, including several bishops, noted that the ALS Association at the time was willing to use embryonic stem cells, and they referred potential donors to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute instead.

Still, the institute says, more support is needed.

Moy, the medical research institute’s founder, warned that there is little evidence that the pharmaceutical industry is interested in creating new ethical cell lines.

“This is going to create a moral and financial challenge for Catholic health care workers, Catholic medical researchers, Catholic hospitals, and a moral and health care challenge for Catholic patients and pro-life individuals who will someday need these advanced medicines that need to be free of cells that are created from abortion,” Moy said in an Oct. 19 YouTube video published by the institute.

“It’s our goal to someday validate that these cell lines can achieve and exceed the performance of aborted fetal cells currently used in biomanufacturing,” Moy said.

Kamath warned that if alternatives are not developed, Catholic hospitals could face compromising choices in what treatments they offer. If they offer such treatments, Catholic patients might be unwilling to undergo them. If they do not offer such treatments, he told CNA, Catholic hospitals could be perceived as failing to offer standard care.

The John Paul II Medical Research Institute’s Campaign for Cures seeks to raise $300,000 by the close of 2019. It is currently about one-third of the way to the goal.

The institute’s website is

U.S. Bishops’ Pro-Life Chairman Joins Pro-Life Coalition in Asking President to Oppose Amendment Enriching Global Abortion Providers

WASHINGTON – On November 21, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City and Chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities joined 17 other pro-life groups in urging President Trump to ensure that an amendment led by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), which would enrich global abortion providers, is not part of any final appropriations package.

In a letter to the president, the groups expressed “great concern” that the administration’s significant pro-life actions, “including [the] administration’s Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance policy (PLGHA), will be undermined by the Shaheen amendment which was included in the Senate’s State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs (SFOPS) appropriations bill.”  

The letter pointed to several problems, particularly that the amendment “increases a highly controversial earmark for international family planning by $57.55 million above current law, from $575 million to $632.55 million.” The groups noted that “more money for this earmark exploits an aspect of the PLGHA that allows this account to serve as a taxpayer-funded supplemental for U.S.-based NGOs that actively promote abortion overseas. In FY 2018, the U.S. provided nearly $280 million in foreign aid to groups involved in abortion activities overseas.”

The coalition strongly urged President Trump to communicate with the U.S. Congress that the amendment is a poison pill that violates the Budget Agreement and to oppose the inclusion of the amendment in any final appropriations package.

Keywords: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, Archdiocese of Kansas City, Pro-Life Activities, Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance, PLGHA, President Trump, appropriations, SFOPS, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen


Media Contacts:
Chieko Noguchi or Miguel Guilarte


Opposition activists hold hunger strikes in Nicaraguan churches

Managua, Nicaragua, Nov 20, 2019 / 05:01 pm (CNA).- Pro-government forces in Nicaragua have ended a siege of the Managua cathedral as mothers holding a hunger strike there were evacuated, though a similar hunger strike at a parish church in Masaya is continuing.

The hunger strikers in both churches – Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua and San Miguel in Masaya – have been calling for the release of their relatives, whom they believe to be political prisoners.

Anti-government protests in Nicaragua began in April 2018. They have resulted in more than 320 deaths.

Seven mothers entered Managua's Immaculate Conception Cathedral Nov. 18, and they were soon followed by the mob of government supporters. The mothers removed themselves to another part of the cathedral.

Msgr. Carlos Avilés, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Managua, stated that “there are a number of unjustly detained political prisoners in the country. Their mothers desperately tried to enter the cathedral to pray … then the government with the police helping them, let in a mob of government supporters backed by the police to violate the cathedral.”

The archdiocese said that “violent groups related to the government entered and took control of the Managua Metropolitan Cathedral. When reprimanded by Fr. Rodolfo López and Sister Arelys Guzmán, these people responded with violence, beating the priest and sister who are okay but who had to leave the church to protect themselves.”

The archdiocese also said that the pro-government forces “broke the padlocks of the bell tower and other padlocks, thus desecrating our Metropolitan Cathedral” during the night.

The mothers took shelter in the cathedral overnight, and were then evacuated Nov. 19 in a Red Cross ambulance, as part of a deal negotiated by Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag, apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua.

The pro-government forces lifted their blockade of the cathedral shortly thereafter.

The archdiocese condemned “the acts of desecration, siege, and intimidation, which do not contribute to the peace and stability of the country.”

The Managua archdiocese also asked president Daniel Ortega to “take immediate action that all our Catholic churches are respected and likewise that the National Police pull back their troops that are besieging and intimidating the cathedral and our parishes.”

Other churches in the country have been encircled by police in an effort to keep the demonstrations from spreading.

In Masaya,  fewer than 20 miles southeast of Managua, a group of women began a hunger strike in  San Miguel parish Nov. 13 or 14.

Authorities cut off electricity and water to the church and the National Police have surrounded the building, threatening to enter by force to end the demonstration.

Thirteen people who tried to bring water to the demonstrators Nov. 14 were arrested. They were charged Nov. 18 with weapons transport. Police say the 13 people were carrying guns and bombs, and that they meant to “continue carrying out terrorist acts ... against police buildings, city halls and monuments.”

A group of priests tried to enter San Miguel church Nov. 15, but police held them back.

Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes Solorzano of Managua has condemned the National Police's “siege and intimidation” of the hunger strikers in Masaya and their pastor, Fr. Edwin Román.

He called on the national police “to respect the free movement to demonstrate ... and the exercise of religious freedom.”

The Nicaraguan bishops' conference expressed “profound concern” Nov. 19 over the “indifference of the state for the rights of Nicaraguans who are expressing their sorrow and their needs.”

The bishops called on “those responsible for these sieges to change their stance. Nicaraguans have suffered too much pain. The besieged families suffer doubly: the lack of freedom for their incarcerated family members and, now, the state of siege that threatens their lives. We call on the government to hear their petitions which are at the same time their rights.”

Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua's vice president and Ortega's wife, criticized “those who claim to speak in the name of the faith,” calling them “repugnant wolves who spread hatred.”

Nicaragua’s crisis began last year after Ortega announced social security and pension reforms. The changes were soon abandoned in the face of widespread, vocal opposition, but protests only intensified after more than 40 protestors were killed by security forces.

The pension reforms which triggered the unrest were modest, but protests quickly turned to Ortega’s authoritarian bent.

Ortega has been president of Nicaragua since 2007, and oversaw the abolition of presidential term limits in 2014.

The Church had suggested that elections, which are not scheduled until 2021, be held this year, but Ortega has ruled this out.

Ortega was a leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had ousted the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and fought US-backed right-wing counterrevolutionaries during the 1980s. Ortega was also leader of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.

Knights of Columbus give hundreds of new coats to Denver’s homeless before snowfall

Denver, Colo., Nov 20, 2019 / 04:15 pm (CNA).- It was a pleasant November morning in downtown Denver when volunteers with the Knights of Columbus set up tents for distributing new puffy winter coats, as well as snacks, socks and water, to homeless people.

But while roughly 150 people waited in line for the giveaway to start Nov. 20, the temperature outside crept down. The coats were coming just in time; a forecasted snowfall seemed likely as the afternoon approached.

Serena waited in line with a friend. She was looking forward to a new coat, she said, because her old one was getting too small.

“I’m very grateful to be able to receive a coat today,” Serena told CNA. 

Ted, who was at the front of the line in a worn red Marlboro coat, found out about the coat drive at Holy Ghost Catholic Church in downtown Denver, which distributes food to the homeless.

“It means a lot to me. My coat’s dirty, I need a new coat. And it’s going to snow tonight,” he said. 

Ted was eyeing the more colorful coats that were laid out on white plastic tables in the tent, waiting to be tried on and given away. He might take the blue and orange one, he said, because those are the colors of the Broncos, Denver’s NFL team.

Tracey sported a pink hat and yellow sunglasses while she waited in line for her coat. She said was excited to see some of her friends from Christ in the City, a Catholic mission for the homeless, at the event.

The giveaway was held in Lincoln Memorial Park in front of the state capitol building at the same time as Christ in the City’s weekly Lunch in the Park, an event that is just as it sounds. Hundreds of people got in line for lunch and then a coat, or first got a coat and then some lunch.

The coat giveaway for homeless people in Denver was a pilot event for the Knights, who are looking at replicating the event in other cities.

The project is similar to the Knights of Columbus’ Coats for Kids project, a national coat giveaway for children that the Knights have sponsored in the United States and Canada since 2009.

“We just felt that we needed to expand this program to the homeless. We’ve listened to Pope Francis and his word about taking care of the homeless, and we felt that this was one way that we can give the gift of warmth to people in need,” Knights of Columbus Supreme Secretary Michael O’Connor told CNA.

“We’re going to be getting bad weather tonight, there are two inches of snow predicted for tonight, so it’s the perfect time to be giving people new coats,” he said.

The giveaway also came just three days after the World Day for the Poor, which Pope Francis celebrated in Rome by having a meal with 1,500 homeless people.

“We’re just bringing the World Day of the Poor to Denver three days later,” O’Connor said. “So it’s in line with the mission of the Catholic Church, and we believe that we need to take care of those in need.”

O’Connor was one of several Knights who came from the organization’s national office in New Haven, Connecticut for the event.

The Supreme Council paid for and shipped more than 600 new winter coats and other supplies to Denver for the event, where they coordinated with local Council #539, located roughly two blocks away from the park where the giveaway was held.

“We have a lot of history in Denver,” O’Connor said. “The first council in the west was in Denver, it’s over 119 years old, it’s located 2 blocks from here. So for us, it seemed natural to have this event in conjunction with that council.”

Denver is also rich in resources for the homeless. Organizers with the Knights told CNA that they coordinated with Christ in the City because of the mission’s extensive experience working with the homeless and putting on events in the city park.

Sean Pott, a Denver native who now works in the national office in the department of Fraternal Mission, said he had the idea to do an event for the homeless in Denver because of the resources available there. Pott chatted with those in line for coats as they waited for the event to officially start.

“Sean had the idea to reach out on another level,” Andy Wheaton, a managing general agent in the insurance program of the Knights of Columbus, told CNA.

“It’s faith in action, and Christ in the City has been doing this a long time, and Sean (knows) the missionaries so he coordinated with them,” Wheaton added. “We’re using their rules and how they do everything.”

Wheaton said the missionaries held a training for the Knights last night about best practices when working with the homeless, including safety tips and easy topics for conversation.

Wheaton, who is local to Denver, said he was excited to see the collaboration with Christ in the City, a mission familiar to his family, and to be able to partake in the charitable event.

“Even though I work for them, I joined the Knights for this reason,” Wheaton said.