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Update: Fundraising starts to aid victims of Southern California fires

IMAGE: CNS photo/David McNew, Reuters


LOS ANGELES (CNS) -- Six major wind-fueled wildfires in Southern California have destroyed more than 1,000 structures and forced the evacuation of 200,000 residents.

After he surveyed the damage in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, where the worst of the fires has raged, California Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters that the fires "may be the new normal." He declared a state of emergency for the area Dec. 6. 

U.S. President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for California Dec. 8. As of Dec. 12, officials had reported only one fatality.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has started a fund for victims of the wildfires that have raced through the archdiocese and spread to locations in the nearby Orange and San Diego dioceses.

"Friends, as the wildfires continue, the needs of our neighbors continue to increase," said Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles on the archdiocesan webpage that hosts the fundraising campaign,

"In this season of giving, let us open our heart to our brothers and sisters in need," he added. "Let us keep praying for an end to the fires and let us keep praying for the safety of our police, fire and emergency workers -- and all those who are in harm's way."

In a Dec. 8 statement from Washington, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked prayers for all those in danger, "both those whose homes are in the fire's path and those courageous first responders and firefighters who are putting their lives at risk."

The wildfires, which have stubbornly resisted most efforts to be reined in by firefighters, have hit Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in the archdiocese.

This is the second set of wildfires to have hit California this fall. Wildfires burned thousands of acres in the Sonoma and Napa areas in the northern part of the state in October, killing 31, scorching more than 128,000 acres and causing an estimated $3 billion-$6 billion in damage.

The Southern California series of wildfires had passed the 150,000-acre mark within four days of their starting Dec. 4. As of the morning of Dec. 8 local time, no fatalities had been reported despite the density of population in the region.

Four counties have already declared a state of emergency.

Archbishop Gomez on Dec. 5 called for prayers for the well-being of families, firefighters and rescue workers "facing devastating fires and high winds" in the wildfires.

"May God keep them all safe and put an end to these fires!" the archbishop said in a message sent via social media channels and posted on the archdiocesan news site,

On Twitter, Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron said the fires in Ventura County, which is in his pastoral region, had alone forced 30,000 people to evacuate.

"Join me in praying for all the evacuees, firefighters, officials, and everyone helping to subdue the flames," he tweeted. About 1,000 firefighters were working to contain the wind-driven flames.

Called the Thomas Fire, it is the biggest of the wildfires being stoked by dry conditions and high winds. Among the evacuees in Ventura County were students and faculty at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula.

In a message posted on its website and on Twitter, the Catholic college expressed "deep gratitude for the prayers of its many friends and for the heroic firefighters who battled all of Monday night (Dec. 4) to protect the Santa Paula campus."

The college canceled classes for the rest of the week as roads had been closed and power was out in some communities. "The college is hopeful that it will reopen in time for final exams next week," the college said in a Dec. 5 statement.

Students from California who had transportation were considering returning home for the time being; others planned to remain at the homes of local friends and faculty.

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Update: Washington Archdiocese appeals court decision on transit ad

IMAGE: CNS photo/Archdiocese of Washington


WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Archdiocese of Washington appealed a federal judge's denial of a request for an emergency injunction over the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's advertising guidelines.

The appeal was filed Dec. 10 with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson Dec. 8 denied the archdiocese's request that WMATA be required to post an ad promoting its annual "Find the Perfect Gift" initiative for the Advent season.

Transit authority officials had denied the ad based on 2015 policies that ban ads "that promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief."

In a statement released after the court filing, Ed McFadden, the archdiocese's secretary for communications said the church officials were concerned that the transit authority was too willing to promote "the secular half" of Christmas gift giving, "but not the 'religious half.'"

"Indeed it seems clear that while Macy's could advertise its extended holiday hours, the archdiocese could not advertise its own extended holiday hours," he said. Such a distinction, he added, amounts to discrimination based on earlier court decisions.

"A retailer offering to help consumers 'find the perfect gift' during the holiday season would be welcomed, but a message suggesting that the perfect gift can be found on altars rather than shopping aisles is verboten," the statement said.

"In a society concerned more with what's under the tree and where the birth of Jesus is treated as an elusive element to the season, we simply want to share the real Christmas story, the full joy of Christmas with our neighbors and share the Christmas spirit with those in need," McFadden said.

Berman found that while buses are controlled by a government agency, the authority's rules likely are legal and reasonable because WMATA's restrictions are not based on whether the agency opposes the advertiser's particular views.

The archdiocese contended WMATA's policy that "prohibits all noncommercial advertising, including any speech that purportedly promotes a religion, religious practice or belief," is a violation of the free speech and free exercise of religion clauses of the First Amendment and a violation of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The WMATA's prohibition, the archdiocese contends, "violates the free speech rights of the archdiocese because the prohibition creates an unreasonable and disproportionate burden on the exercise of the archdiocese's speech without any legitimate justification."

The archdiocese has in previous years advertised on WMATA's public buses. Up until 2015, the archdiocese purchased WMATA space for ads that, according to the lawsuit, "were explicitly religious in character."

"These advertisements included a campaign highlighting the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation during the liturgical season of Lent. This campaign, 'The Light Is on for You,' was remarkably successful for the archdiocese -- and lucrative for WMATA -- with advertisements on the backs of 85 buses throughout the metropolitan area."

The rejected ads highlight the archdiocese's annual "Find the Perfect Gift" campaign, which refers viewers to the website that includes Mass schedules, reflections on the meaning of Advent and Christmas, religious holiday traditions and opportunities for charitable service. The image is a silhouette of shepherds and sheep standing on a hill.

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Pope: Guadalupe feast shows Mary's closeness to those on margins

IMAGE: CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which mirrored that of the indigenous people of the time, is a sign of Mary's closeness to those who are marginalized, Pope Francis said.

Like St. Juan Diego, who felt of no importance at being chosen by Mary because of his indigenous heritage, marginalized people in today's world are often made to feel worthless by conditions imposed upon them, the pope said in his homily during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

"Among them are the indigenous and Afro-American communities, who often are not treated with dignity and equality of conditions; many women who are excluded because of their sex, race, or socioeconomic situation; young people who receive a poor education and have no opportunities to advance in their studies or to enter into the labor market so as to move ahead and establish a family; many poor people, unemployed, migrants, displaced, landless peasants, who seek to survive on the informal market; boys and girls subjected to child prostitution, often linked to sex tourism," he said, quoting a 2007 Latin American bishops' council document he helped write.

Processing into the basilica dressed in white, the symbol of purity, Pope Francis made his way to a replica of St. Juan Diego's tilma, which bears the image of Mary, who appeared to the indigenous saint in 1531. The pope stood before the image, bowing reverently and censing it three times.

In his homily, Pope Francis reflected on the reading from St. Luke's Gospel, in which the angel appears to Mary, informing her that she is with child.

"And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God," the angel said.

Elizabeth's sterility, the pope said, was considered at the time "a divine punishment for her or her husband's sin" and a sign of shame and guilt "for a sin she did not commit ... (she was) made to feel small for being unable to fulfill what was expected of her."

However, in Elizabeth -- who was the first to recognize the child in Mary's womb -- Christians can find a woman who is "fruitful and amazed" upon experiencing in her life "the fulfillment of a promise made by God."

"In her, we understand that God's dream is not nor will be sterile or to stigmatize or fill his children with shame, but rather bring forth through and from them a song of blessing," he said.

This fruitfulness can also be seen in St. Juan Diego, who was chosen by Mary to bear on his "tilma the image of the Virgin."

Mary, shown "with dark-skin and mestizo appearance," reflected a "mother capable of taking on the traits of her children to make them feel a part of her blessing," the pope said.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, he added, remains a symbol of the wealth and cultural diversity of Latin America and the Caribbean that must not only be cultivated, but also defended from every attempt to impose a way of thinking that "makes everything we inherited from our elders invalid or sterile."

"In short, our fruitfulness requires us to defend our people from an ideological colonization that cancels out the richest thing about them, whether they be indigenous, Afro-American, mestizo, farmer, or suburban," the pope said.

Pope Francis called on Christians to look to Mary and learn from her, to become a church with a "mestizo appearance, an indigenous appearance" that takes the form of the little ones.

It is "the appearance of a person who is poor, unemployed, of a boy or girl, old or young, so that no one may feel sterile and infertile, so that no one feels ashamed or worthless," the pope said.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.


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Blessed Oscar Romero continues to inspire listeners through radio

IMAGE: CNS photo/Melissa Vida

By Melissa Vida

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CNS) -- In San Salvador's traffic jams or at work, people turn on Radio YSAX to listen to Blessed Oscar Romero's homilies, just as they did over 30 years ago.

"I listen to this radio station in Romero's honor, because it is the one he used," Karen Larin, a radio listener, told Catholic News Service. "Hearing his voice is great; it's as if he were here, talking with us."

From the 1970s until his assassination in March 1980, Blessed Romero used the radio station YSAX to inform Salvadorans and the international community of the horrors of El Salvador's civil war. In a time when public media was self-censoring, Radio YSAX served as a spiritual guide as well as a news broadcast.

"Oscar Romero collected notes from his listeners and then disclosed when and where human rights were being violated," Father Edwin Henriquez, director of the radio, told Catholic News Service.

"Without the radio, there would be no Archbishop Romero," Father Henriquez said. "We wouldn't know the truth of what was happening at the time, and he wouldn't have been able to tell the world about the crimes committed against humanity here."

Reopened in 2015, the station has set itself one purpose: to keep Blessed Romero alive. Every weekday, at 1 p.m., the late archbishop's voice reverberates again through the speakers and draws radio listeners from all over the world. When the radio is cut for a few days, people from as far as Europe and Australia call to know what happened.

"This radio station gives us hope," Larin said. "Romero represents a father's love to us, but he was also a father who defended us, because he denounced the abuse of power." Larin said Blessed Romero helped his followers reconnect with a concrete, nearby God.

In developing countries, the radio as a means of communication remains influential. With only 20 percent of the country's households having internet access and more than 10 percent of the population being illiterate, the radio has a broad outreach in El Salvador. It answers the need for real-time information and reliable, interactive hosts.

For Estephanie Castillo, volunteer at YSAX, the radio is also a relevant tool to evangelize and raise awareness on everyday issues.

"Through the radio, we can transmit fundamental values to build a caring and just society," she said.

Radio YSAX speaks to people of all ages. Hearing Blessed Romero's voice reassures older generations, who recognize him and identify with the historical context of his speech.

"But the radio program also speaks to the youth," Larin said, "because they learn about (Blessed Romero) and our past, and that gives hope for our country."

Most radio volunteers are millennials.

"Our youth needs to bring the light of Jesus and remind others that there is still hope," Castillo said. Quoting Blessed Romero, she said, "We need to see the truth with open eyes and with our feet grounded, but with our hearts full of the Gospel and of God to look for solutions of justice."

For the listeners, Blessed Romero's message of faith and social justice is still valid in 2017. Yesterday's state-enforced violence and guerrillas became today's gang barbarism. As Father Henriquez recalled, Blessed Romero did not give in to political correctness when condemning such abuses.

"Romero did not seek applause nor praise and, indeed, some naysayers disliked him because the message of Jesus always has social consequences," Father Henriquez said. "It's not that we meddle with economics or politics, but we seek to touch people's hearts ... and that transforms society."

And El Salvador is in dire need of social change. Still hurt and polarized by the civil war that took place in the 1980s, the country suffers from the rocketing unemployment rates and the highest homicide rate in the world. Gang members extort, rob and kill civilians.

"The violence we have known during the war has been transformed, the culture of death is still prevalent and our youth is suffering the most," Father Henriquez said.

In this postwar context, Blessed Romero remains a beacon of hope.

"In my own personal hardship, I feel like he accompanies me and helps me," Castillo said.

"Romero continues to speak to us in the midst of violence, impunity and corruption: We should pay attention to him," Larin said. "Oscar Romero is alive."

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at


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