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Updated: Feb 18, 2020

As 2017 drew to a close, the potential for nuclear destruction was clearly on the mind of Pope Francis.

During the Christmas season, the Vatican circulated a card reproducing a dramatic photo from the aftermath of the U.S. bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. Taken by Marine photographer Joseph O’Donnell, it showed a boy carrying his dead brother on his back as he waited in line at a crematorium.

On the reverse of the card is the phrase “The fruits of war” and the pope’s signature.

The image reflected a deep concern that the pope has expressed on numerous occasions since his election in 2013: that nuclear deterrence, once seen as a necessary evil, may in fact be a path to global disaster.

In November, addressing a Vatican-sponsored symposium on disarmament, the pope condemned not only the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons, but also their possession:

"Nor can we fail to be genuinely concerned by the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental effects of any employment of nuclear devices. If we also take into account the risk of an accidental detonation as a result of error of any kind, the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned. For they exist in the service of a mentality of fear that affects not only the parties in conflict but the entire human race. International relations cannot be held captive to military force, mutual intimidation, and the parading of stockpiles of arms. Weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, create nothing but a false sense of security. They cannot constitute the basis for peaceful coexistence between members of the human family, which must rather be inspired by an ethics of solidarity."

This was a significant development in the church’s position on nuclear weapons. Reporters asked the pope about it in early December, and while characterizing it as his “opinion” and not a change in official church teaching, Francis said nuclear deterrence was “at the limit of what’s licit”:

"In 34 years, nuclear [development] has gone further and further and further. Today we are at the limit. This can be argued; it is my opinion, but my staunch opinion: I am convinced of it. We are the limit of what’s licit in regard to having and using nuclear weapons. Why? Because today, with so sophisticated a nuclear arsenal, we risk the destruction of humanity, or at least of a large part of humanity. For this reason I refer to Laudato Si’. What has changed? This. The development of nuclear weaponry. What has also changed…. They are sophisticated and also cruel [weaponry]; they are also capable of destroying people without touching the structures…. We are at the limit, and since we are, I ask myself this question – not as papal Magisterium, but it is the question a Pope asks – today is it licit to maintain nuclear arsenals, as they are, or today, to save creation, to save humanity, is it not necessary to go back? … We are reaching a point at which man has in hand, with this culture, the capacity to create another form of lack of culture: let’s think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And this was 60, 70 years ago. Destruction. And this also happens with atomic energy when we aren’t able to have complete control: think about the incidents in Ukraine. For this, getting back to weapons, which are to win by destroying, I say that we are at the limit of what’s licit."

This is not an issue that will go away soon, and it’s one that raises an implicit challenge in U.S.-Vatican relations – particularly with a U.S. president who has said he wants a big increase in the country’s nuclear arsenal.

It was Pope Francis who, when addressing the United Nations in 2015, called on nations to work for a “complete prohibition” on nuclear weapons, a line that drew applause and was quickly forgotten.

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Pope Francis’ urbi et orbi blessing on Christmas day checked the expected boxes of global trouble spots, but added several other areas of tragic suffering that often don’t make the nightly news.

Most of the coverage focused on the pope’s comments about Jerusalem: “On this festive day, let us ask the Lord for peace for Jerusalem and for all the Holy Land. Let us pray that the will to resume dialogue may prevail between the parties and that a negotiated solution can finally be reached, one that would allow the peaceful coexistence of two States within mutually agreed and internationally recognized borders.”

President Trump recently announced that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a decision that prompted the pope to appeal for preserving the “status quo” of the city. Israel has declared the entire city of Jerusalem to be its eternal capital, while Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Trump’s move was criticized by much of the international community.

In his Christmas address, the pope turned attention to the suffering of children, particularly in Yemen, where he said “there is an ongoing conflict that has been largely forgotten, with serious humanitarian implications for its people, who suffer from hunger and the spread of diseases.” Saudi Arabia, with U.S. backing, has been bombing rebels in Yemen for more than two years, leaving an estimated 10,000 people dead and millions facing hunger or disease.

The pope also cited civilian suffering, especially among children, in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Nigeria.

Francis’ broader target, however, was what he called “an outdated model of development" that "continues to produce human, societal and environmental decline.” (For a fuller treatment of this theme, see Chapter 2 of his 2013 document Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel.”)

On Christmas, he linked this larger issue of economic inequality to problems of global unemployment, widespread migration and human trafficking – injustices that inevitably impact children.

“Through their eyes we see the drama of all those forced to emigrate and risk their lives to face exhausting journeys that end at times in tragedy,” he said.

Here is the full text of the pope’s Christmas blessing:

"Dear Brothers and Sisters, Happy Christmas!

In Bethlehem, Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. He was born, not by the will of man, but by the gift of the love of God our Father, who “so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

This event is renewed today in the Church, a pilgrim in time. For the faith of the Christian people relives in the Christmas liturgy the mystery of the God who comes, who assumes our mortal human flesh, and who becomes lowly and poor in order to save us. And this moves us deeply, for great is the tenderness of our Father.

The first people to see the humble glory of the Savior, after Mary and Joseph, were the shepherds of Bethlehem. They recognized the sign proclaimed to them by the angels and adored the Child. Those humble and watchful men are an example for believers of every age who, before the mystery of Jesus, are not scandalized by his poverty. Rather, like Mary, they trust in God’s word and contemplate his glory with simple eyes. Before the mystery of the Word made flesh, Christians in every place confess with the words of the Evangelist John: “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).

Today, as the winds of war are blowing in our world and an outdated model of development continues to produce human, societal and environmental decline, Christmas invites us to focus on the sign of the Child and to recognize him in the faces of little children, especially those for whom, like Jesus, “there is no place in the inn” (Lk 2:7).

We see Jesus in the children of the Middle East who continue to suffer because of growing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. On this festive day, let us ask the Lord for peace for Jerusalem and for all the Holy Land. Let us pray that the will to resume dialogue may prevail between the parties and that a negotiated solution can finally be reached, one that would allow the peaceful coexistence of two States within mutually agreed and internationally recognized borders. May the Lord also sustain the efforts of all those in the international community inspired by good will to help that afflicted land to find, despite grave obstacles the harmony, justice and security that it has long awaited.

We see Jesus in the faces of Syrian children still marked by the war that, in these years, has caused such bloodshed in that country. May beloved Syria at last recover respect for the dignity of every person through a shared commitment to rebuild the fabric of society, without regard for ethnic and religious membership. We see Jesus in the children of Iraq, wounded and torn by the conflicts that country has experienced in the last fifteen years, and in the children of Yemen, where there is an ongoing conflict that has been largely forgotten, with serious humanitarian implications for its people, who suffer from hunger and the spread of diseases.

We see Jesus in the children of Africa, especially those who are suffering in South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and Nigeria.

We see Jesus in the children worldwide wherever peace and security are threatened by the danger of tensions and new conflicts. Let us pray that confrontation may be overcome on the Korean peninsula and that mutual trust may increase in the interest of the world as a whole. To the Baby Jesus we entrust Venezuela that it may resume a serene dialogue among the various elements of society for the benefit of all the beloved Venezuelan people. We see Jesus in children who, together with their families, suffer from the violence of the conflict in Ukraine and its grave humanitarian repercussions; we pray that the Lord may soon grant peace to this dear country.

We see Jesus in the children of unemployed parents who struggle to offer their children a secure and peaceful future. And in those whose childhood has been robbed and who, from a very young age, have been forced to work or to be enrolled as soldiers by unscrupulous mercenaries.

We see Jesus in the many children forced to leave their countries to travel alone in inhuman conditions and who become an easy target for human traffickers. Through their eyes we see the drama of all those forced to emigrate and risk their lives to face exhausting journeys that end at times in tragedy. I see Jesus again in the children I met during my recent visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh, and it is my hope that the international community will not cease to work to ensure that the dignity of the minority groups present in the region is adequately protected. Jesus knows well the pain of not being welcomed and how hard it is not to have a place to lay one’s head. May our hearts not be closed as they were in the homes of Bethlehem.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The sign of Christmas has also been revealed to us: “a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes” (Lk 2:12). Like the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, like the shepherds of Bethlehem, may we welcome in the Baby Jesus the love of God made man for us. And may we commit ourselves, with the help of his grace, to making our world more human and more worthy for the children of today and of the future."

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

The Vatican this month issued tighter norms governing how relics are obtained, authenticated and venerated by the faithful.

It might seem an arcane topic to many Catholics, but the Vatican takes it seriously, especially in an age in which relics can be bought and sold online and are vulnerable to other forms of abuse.

The rules were published by the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, the Vatican agency that oversees canonizations, and confirms two trends at the Vatican: greater control over validating relics of saints, and discouragement of cutting up saints’ bodies.

The congregation also emphasized that relics are not to be displayed in “profane” places, a concern that has increased in recent years as saints’ relics have been taken on popular exhibitions through countries around the world. For example, the right forearm of Saint Francis Xavier is about to go on a month-long, 12-city tour of Canada.

I wrote extensively about the Vatican’s treatment of relics in my book, The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age. It was clear to me that officials in Rome are today trying to preserve the ancient practice of relic veneration (which has never really gone out of style) but at the same time move away from the wholesale splicing and distribution of bone fragments.

The new instruction states that “dismemberment of the body” is not allowed unless the congregation gives specific permission to a local bishop.

When I was researching my book, I spoke with Monsignor Zdzislaw Kijas, a Polish Franciscan who worked in the sainthood congregation, who kindly explained many of the modern concerns about relics. Here is an excerpt from my book’s chapter, “A Piece of Holiness”:

Traditionally, most relics have not been removed at the time of a holy person’s death, but only with the approach of beatification, when a tomb is moved to a more dignified location or during an exhumation to verify the condition of the body. This latter ceremony, known by the Latin term recognitio, is still generally performed today. And once the tomb is unsealed, it’s open season on relics – in theory, at least. Each sainthood cause has an appointed postulator, whose job is to guide the cause to the finish line and take care of documentation. It’s generally the postulator who, with the approval of the Vatican’s saints’ congregation, orders the removal of body parts for relics. In past centuries, such exhumations were the occasion of abuses, usually well-intentioned but over-the-top by modern standards. To give just one example, when the tomb of Saint Teresa of Avila was opened a year after her death in the late 1500s, the saint’s spiritual director, Father Jerónimo Gracián, cut off her left hand and had it sent to a Carmelite convent – except for her left ring finger, which he removed and wore around his neck for the rest of his life. In subsequent years, Saint Teresa’s relics were dispersed piece by piece, including the heart, the right arm, a foot, her left eye and a piece of jawbone. It became the focus of a bitter conflict among Catholic groups, and church officials sometimes cite the episode to illustrate the potential dangers of relic veneration.

That wouldn’t happen today, Monsignor Kijas said. “If the body is intact, you can take some bone. But there is a hygienic element in all this, as well as respect for the body. You can’t just cut off parts at will. In some cases, there may be no relics removed.”

Once the material is taken out, it’s carefully maintained and dispensed to pastors and church communities who follow the application procedure. Typically, a local parish will ask for the relics of a saint when dedicating a new church, for placement under the altar. When the archdiocese of Anchorage wanted a relic for the Saint Andrew Kim Taegon Church, dedicated to a Korean-born priest and martyr of the nineteenth century, they waited two years before authorities in Rome finally FedExed a piece of bone from the spine of the saint.

Obtaining first-class relics has become more and more difficult, reflecting the trend away from carving up bodies. Increasingly, “officials are not taking bones from the tombs of prospective saints,” said Monsignor Enrico Viganò, a Vatican liturgist. Those asking for relics are more likely to receive an article of clothing or a prayer book used by the saint. In some cases, the relic falls into a gray area. In 1999, the Saint John Cantius Parish in Chicago received a relic of Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, a widely venerated Italian Capuchin priest who died in 1968. It was not exactly a body part but a square of linen stained with blood from a laceration in the saint’s side, a wound known as the “transverberation of the heart” – in mystical tradition, a bleeding of the soul inflamed by the love of God. The Chicago parish proudly proclaims it a first-class relic.

The size of relics has been a matter of debate among Vatican experts. When it revised its rules twenty years ago, the Vatican recommended that relics venerated in churches be big enough to be recognized as parts of the human body. That policy seems to have been ignored, in part because most of the relics in circulation today are fragments, and also because the severing of a saint’s arm or leg would strike many today as mutilation.

“What we say now is that a relic should be visible. In other words, that it’s not powder, that it be visibly recognizable as a relic, something that can be seen or touched. In the past, we’ve had relics so small that you needed a magnifying glass to view it,” Monsignor Kijas explained. Especially in recent years, the trend of drawing blood or cutting hair immediately after death has won favor precisely because it does not require slicing up a body.

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