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Ransomware attack cripples St. Louis archdiocesan websites

CNA Staff, Nov 25, 2020 / 02:00 pm (CNA).-  

A ransomware attack crippled the websites of the Archdiocese of St. Louis last week, but data has not been compromised by the attack, the archdiocese told CNA. Several archdiocesan affiliated sites have been taken offline in response to the attack.

“On November 16th, our website hosting company experienced a coordinated ransomware campaign. To ensure integrity of our data, the limited number of impacted sites–including ours–have been taken offline,” the Archdiocese of St. Louis informed Catholics last week.

“Upon further investigation and out of an abundance of caution, our hosting company took down their entire system to ensure that we were not compromised. Our hosting security team are working diligently to eliminate the threat and restore our website to full capacity.”

Seven urls are impacted, among them,, and pages for archdiocesan cemeteries and fundraising. A spokesperson for the archdiocese told CNA Tuesday “we do not have information regarding an expected timeline for the restoration of our website.”

“We have been told that none of the Archdiocese of St. Louis' information has been compromised, and the hosting company has taken down our sites to protect us,” the spokesperson added.

Ransomware is a kind of hacking measure by which websites are taken over unless a ransom is made. In some cases, hackers threaten to release confidential data gained from the attack unless the ransom is paid.

Maria Lemakis, archdiocesan multimedia manager, told CNA that because the attack happened with the company that hosts websites, a decision about whether to pay the ransom is not up to the archdiocese.

“Whether or not the ransom will be paid is at the discretion of the hosting vendor,” Lemakis explained.

 “It is our understanding that the vendor is working with federal authorities on the issue,” she added.

Priest jailed for theft blames Catholic doctrine, also facing sex abuse charges

Denver Newsroom, Nov 25, 2020 / 12:20 pm (CNA).- A South Dakota priest has been sentenced to almost eight years in federal prison, after he was convicted of 65 felonies related to stealing donations from Catholic parishes. Ordered to pay more than $300,000 in restitution, the priest said he stole in part because he disagrees with Catholic doctrine on homosexuality.

The priest is also facing federal criminal charges related to child sexual abuse and possession of child pornography.  

Fr. Marcin Garbacz, 42, was convicted in March of wire fraud, money laundering, and tax fraud — crimes he committed while serving as a chaplain and Catholic school teacher in the Diocese of Rapid City, between 2012 and 2018. Garbacz was ordained a priest in 2004.

Prosecutors said the priest stole more than $250,000 from parishes, spending some money on artwork, a piano, a Cadillac, liturgical items, and a $10,000 diamond ring.

In 2019, the priest was arrested at Seattle’s airport, shortly before boarding a flight to his native Poland, for which he had purchased a one-way ticket. He had more than $10,000 in cash in his possession, along with several chalices, diamonds, icons, pens, an expensive watch, along with cufflinks and other jewelery items.

He had withdrawn more than $50,000 from his bank account before the flight, according to court records.

According to prosecutors, the priest snuck into Rapid City parishes in the middle of the night to steal cash donations after Sunday Masses. He replaced the tamper-proof bags in which the cash was stored with new ones he’d purchased online, and told people that his mother sent him money each month. When he bought expensive chalices and other liturgical items, he told people they were gifts, and had false inscriptions engraved upon them as proof.

Before he was arrested, Garbacz had been suspended from ministry, apparently after he was caught stealing roughly $620 from a parish in 2018, and was convicted of misdemeanor petty theft. He was sent by the diocese for six months to a residential treatment program, but left early and then worked as a FedEx driver in Washington. He reportedly attempted to flee after becoming aware of the federal investigation against him.

At his sentencing Monday, Garbacz apologized to parishioners, and said he was angry with the Diocese of Rapid City and the Catholic Church. According to the Rapid City Journal, the priest said he was upset that Catholic doctrine considers homosexuality to be “intrinsically disordered.”

Garbacz, the Rapid City Journal reported, identifies as gay, and claims he was treated as a “second-class citizen” because of his dissent on the Church’s moral teachings.

After Garbacz was sentenced, the Diocese of Rapid City told CNA that “The diocese trusts in the judicial system and appreciates its dedication in making sure that justice is served in this case.”

Garbacz is also facing charges related to child sexual abuse and possession of child pornography.

He has been indicted on sex federal charges, and is alleged to have engaged in sexual conduct with someone a boy under the age of 18 while in 2011 traveling in a foreign country. An FBI agent also discovered, while searching a thumb drive during the financial crimes investigation, that the priest was in possession of child pornography. At least one pornographic video involving a minor appears to have been produced by Garbacz, according to the Rapid City Journal.

It is not yet clear what canonical charges the priest is facing, or if he is expected to be laicized.



Twitter criticized as ‘Burn the clergy’ hashtag trends in Spain

Rome Newsroom, Nov 25, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- On the same day that Pope Francis approved the beatification of 127 Catholics killed in Spain in hatred of the faith in the 20th century, a hashtag calling for Catholic priests to be burned was trending on Twitter in Spain.

Twitter permitted the hashtag #FuegoAlClero, meaning “Burn the Clergy,” to trend online in Spain Nov. 24, despite its message of hatred against Catholic priests. Twitter’s current user policy states that the promotion of violence on the basis of religious affiliation is not allowed on its platform.

Prominent tweets that used the hashtag included images of flames on priests’ heads and others that labeled priests as “pedophiles” and “thieves,” ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language sister agency, reported Nov. 24.

As of Nov. 25, these images of priests in flames with the hashtag #FuegoAlClero had not been removed from Twitter.

Users commented on the site that they were surprised that Twitter had not eliminated the messages in accordance with its hateful conduct policy. 

Spanish journalist Txomin Pérez Rodríguez wrote: “I thought that @TwitterEspana had put in place strict measures against posts that incite hatred. Then I see that #FuegoAlClero is TT [a Trending Topic] today and it is not clear to me that they have done something. Or do they only act against what interests them?”


Creía que @TwitterEspana había implantado estrictas medidas contra las publicaciones que incitan al odio.
Luego veo que #FuegoAlClero es hoy TT y no me queda nada claro que hayan hecho algo. ¿O sólo actúan contra lo que les interesa?@NathaliePicquot ... ¿por qué lo permitís?

— Txomin Pérez Rodríguez (@Txominperez) November 24, 2020  

Other Twitter users began using the hashtag #YoApoyoAlClero, which means “I support the clergy,” in response to the hateful posts.


Porque siempre están donde hace falta ayuda #YoApoyoAlClero

— Reyes Fdez-Villaverde (@ReyesFdez) November 24, 2020  

Some posts recalled that churches were burned and priests were executed during Spain’s Red Terror during the Spanish Civil War in 1936-1939. 

On Nov. 24, Pope Francis advanced the sainthood causes of Fr. Juan Elias Medina and 126 companions, who were killed during the Spanish Civil War. Declared martyrs, they will now be beatified. 

Fr. Juan Elias Medina was 33 when he was imprisoned and executed in 1936. Medina, a priest of the Diocese of Córdoba, shouted “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” and forgave his executioners before he was killed.

Seventy-eight other priests from the Diocese of Córdoba were also recognized as martyrs this week, along with five seminarians, three Franciscan friars, and 40 lay Catholics who were killed for their faith in Spain in the 1930s.

Hate crimes against Christians and Catholic churches are once again on the rise in Europe. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe published data last week documenting more than 500 hate crimes against Christians in Europe in 2019.

Incidents in Spain included attacks against Catholic priests, arson attacks on Catholic churches, the destruction of images of the Virgin Mary, and the theft of consecrated Eucharistic hosts from tabernacles.

One priest was the target of an attempted physical assault while he was offering Mass April 2019. Another was punched in the face as perpetrators threatened to burn down his church in Sept. 2019.

A shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary was defecated in. The church’s walls and a statue of Jesus Christ were smeared with excrement.

A convent was the target of arson a few days after it was vandalized with paint in Sept. 2019. A statue of Jesus was set on fire in November and a church’s altar was set alight twice in two weeks among other arson attacks.

The participants in the Catholic bishops’ conference in Spain also received numerous threats of an arson attack in 2019, according to the OSCE.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited Pope Francis at the Vatican last month.

In improvised remarks that were captured on video, the pope reflected on the vocation of politicians and highlighted the dangers of ideological thinking.

“It is very sad when ideologies take over the interpretation of a nation, a country, and disfigure the homeland,” he said.

Sánchez, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, has previously clashed with the Church in Spain over religious instruction in schools and euthanasia, among other issues. 

Spain’s bishops have criticized the government over its efforts to remodel the education system in Spain. They argued that the Celaá Law, named after Education Minister Isabel Celaá, would undermine parental rights.

Analysis: Will Gregory’s ‘dialogue’ with Biden undermine USCCB?

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 25, 2020 / 11:30 am (CNA).- Archbishop Wilton Gregory announced in an interview yesterday that he will not deny Holy Communion to Joe Biden, and committed himself to working with the president-elect’s administration. But the soon-to-be cardinal’s pledge could put him in tension with the work of the U.S. bishops’ conference, as it tries to speak to the White House with a unified voice.

Last week, USCCB president Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles announced the formation of a special committee, tasked with coordinating the U.S. bishops’ response to, and work with, the incoming Biden administration. 

Recognizing the unique “challenges” presented by a Catholic president pledged to several policies in opposition to Church teaching, the conference under Gomez set out to ensure a collegial and consensus approach to national issues for the Church. 

But yesterday Gregory suggested he planned to dialogue directly with Biden on issues, without reference to the USCCB, raising the question: who will speak for the U.S. bishops at the White House, and with whom will President Biden choose to deal?

In his interview Tuesday, Gregory said he hopes to “discover areas where [he and Biden] can cooperate that reflect the social teachings of the Church, knowing full well that there are some areas where we won’t agree,” the very work the committee set up by Archbishop Gomez intends to do.

Gregory is not a member of the U.S. bishops' committee, but the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington is nonetheless a player: As the hometown cardinal, he may well receive a more ready audience from the president than, for example, the Archbishop of Los Angeles; especially so if he has publicly pledged to strike a balance in conversations between the Church’s support for areas of agreement with Biden, like comprehensive immigration reform, and points of opposition, like the immorality of killing unborn children.

“I hope that I don’t highlight one over the other,” Gregory said Tuesday. His stated aim of not “highlighting” one over the other itself appears to be at odds with the U.S. bishops’ official position that ending legal abortion is the “preeminent” social concern of Catholics, underlining the likely tension between Gregory’s personal contact with the incoming president and the conference’s efforts to represent to position of the bishops and Church at a national level.

As Gomez noted last week, a Catholic president committed to opposing Church teaching on a range of issues on the national stage presents a “difficult and complex situation.” It was for this reason that the conference formed its committee, to ensure coherence collegiality in the bishops’ response, and it is for this reason that many may not warm to the idea of a soon-to-be Cardinal Gregory dialoguing on their behalf with a soon-to-be President Biden.

Gregory, who will be made a cardinal on Saturday, will be Biden’s diocesan bishop once the President-elect moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. As Washington’s archbishop, he is the local “pastor” who is responsible for sitting a Catholic like Biden down, in private, and addressing the president-elect’s various positions against Church teaching.

But, of course, as president, Biden will be more than just a local Catholic, and his actions and example are a national concern for the Catholic bishops. Gregory’s public statement could be seen by some as circumvention of efforts to work together in dealing with Biden and his administration.

While Gregory has every proper right to “dialogue” with an individual Catholic in his diocese about his individual status, it is less clear that the Archbishop of Washington is ex officio empowered to bargain with the head of state on behalf of the Church across the country. 

This tension is nothing new. The USCCB has in the past run into similar tensions with Washington’s archbishops over the White House. Those tensions have caused confusion. But since Biden is a Catholic, and the issues pertain not only to policy, but to pastoral decision-making, the issue could become more complex in a Biden administration.

While Gregory is Biden’s local bishop and has personal concern for Biden’s personal situation, it is the bishops’ conference that is charged with articulating the corporate voice of the hierarchy on Biden’s stances abortion, the Equality Act, and the HHS mandate as policy.

“These policies pose a serious threat to the common good, whenever any politician supports them,” conference president Archbishop Jose Gomez told the U.S. bishops on Nov. 17. “We have long opposed these policies strongly, and we will continue to do so.”

“But when politicians who profess the Catholic faith support them, there are additional problems. Among other things, it creates confusion among the faithful about what the Church actually teaches on these questions.”

Gregory, however, struck a markedly different tone yesterday, saying that there was no confusion among “informed Catholics” about the Church’s teaching on life issues.

“It’s not a matter of confusion,” Gregory said. “On my part, it’s a matter of the responsibility that I have as the archbishop to be engaged and to be in dialogue with him, even in those areas where we obviously have some differences.”

Many of his brother bishops would likely point out to Gregory that the confusion among “informed Catholics” like Biden is not about what the Church teaches, but whether it matters when they publicly and consistently dissent from it – and how the bishops should respond when a Catholic uses the machinery of government to threaten Catholic institutions and values, and the broader common good.

At the height of the Cold War, Henry Kissinger pointedly asked “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” to highlight the confusion that results from the absence of a common voice.

In theory, if the White House wants to “speak to the Catholic Church” it could – arguably should – call Gomez, who is the bishops’ elected president. But if Biden doesn’t like what he hears, Gregory’s is another number he might call.

Arkansas senate passes abortion ban in new challenge to Roe

CNA Staff, Nov 25, 2020 / 10:30 am (CNA).- Arkansas lawmakers have introduced a bill to ban nearly all abortions in the state in what lawmakers and pro-life advocates hope will serve as a new challenge to Roe v. Wade.

On Nov. 18, State Sen. Jason Rapert (R) and Rep. Mary Bentley (R) introduced Senate Bill 6, to create the Arkansas Unborn Child Protection Act. The bill criminalizes abortions except when done to save the life of the mother, but does not carry charges or convictions for mothers of unlawfully aborted children.

Doctors who perform an unlawful abortion would commit a felony punishable by a fine of up to $100,000, or up to ten years in prison.

According to KUAR, the bill will be considered during the legislature’s January session.

Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas-based Family Council, praised the bill in a statement this week.

“Many people have been saying for almost 50 years that abortion should be illegal. The time has come for us to make it so,” Cox stated.

“This is an opportunity for Arkansans to be the real leader in the effort to end abortion in America,” he said.

The proposed bill also allows for the use of emergency contraceptives if a pregnancy has not yet been determined.

A federal appeals court upheld other Arkansas state abortion restrictions in August. The Eighth Circuit court allowed a 2017 state law to go into effect, which banned sex-selective abortions and the “dilation and evacuation” abortion method used in the second trimester.

Senate Bill 6 is not expected to survive in court—a similar measure in Alabama was struck down by a federal district court in Oct., 2019.

Nevertheless, Arkansas is also seeking to force a reconsideration of Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court. The state has already passed a law outlawing abortion if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, a “trigger ban” that has also been adopted by several other states. 

“It is time for the United States Supreme Court to redress and correct the grave injustice and the crime against humanity which is being perpetuated by their decisions in Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey,” states one of the findings in the bill.

“New scientific advances have demonstrated since 1973 that life begins at the moment of conception and the child in a woman's womb is a human being.”

Arkansas and other states have passed various abortion restrictions in recent years. According to the Guttmacher Institute, five states in 2019 passed “heartbeat” bills, or bans on abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected. Other states, such as Missouri, have enacted abortion bans at different stages in pregnancy.

Swiss Catholic diocese reportedly rejects Pope Francis’ candidates for new bishop

CNA Staff, Nov 25, 2020 / 09:30 am (CNA).- A Swiss Catholic diocese that elects its own bishop from a shortlist drawn up by the Holy See has rejected all three candidates proposed by Pope Francis, according to local media. 

The Swiss daily newspaper Tages-Anzeiger reported that the cathedral chapter of the Diocese of Chur failed Monday to choose a new bishop from the pope’s list. 

CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, said it was unable to confirm reports that the cathedral chapter deemed the three candidates unsuitable. But it said that sources in the diocese accused other Swiss dioceses of attempting to interfere in the election of a new bishop.

Pope Pius XII established the present rules for the selection of bishops in Chur diocese in the 1948 decree “Etsi salva,” which accorded the cathedral chapter the privilege of electing a bishop from among three priests proposed by the Holy See. 

The 22 members of the cathedral chapter were due to elect a successor to Bishop Vitus Huonder, who retired in May 2019, on Nov. 23. The list of candidates was supposed to remain secret, but local media reported that the three people proposed for the vacant see were Msgr. Joseph Bonnemain, 72, a former episcopal vicar of the diocese, Abbot Vigeli Monn von Disentis, 55, and Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, 61, the former Cistercian abbot of Hauterive and current General Abbot of the Cistercian order.

Observers noted that Bonnemain, a member of Opus Dei, was the only candidate with a direct connection to the ancient diocese, which today covers seven of the 26 cantons of Switzerland, including the canton of Zürich. But at 72, Bonnemain could only serve for three years before reaching the age at which bishops must tender their resignations to the pope.

CNA Deutsch reported that Bonnemain was seen as a supporter of greater independence from Rome for the local church and as an advocate of the church tax system, which is controversial within the diocese. 

According to CNA Deutsch, a source in the diocese familiar with the process said that the cathedral chapter saw the list of three candidates as an “attempt at interference” by the neighboring dioceses of Basel and St. Gallen, as well as the abbot of Einsiedeln, in the canton of Schwyz.

CNA Deutsch quoted an insider as saying that the three names indicated that “the voice of the diocese of Chur, which has previously deviated from the social mainstream, is being silenced” -- a reference to the diocese’s reputation as a bastion of conservative Catholicism. 

A spokesman for Chur diocese declined to comment. 

Pope Francis encourages Argentine women opposing legal abortion

Vatican City, Nov 25, 2020 / 08:30 am (CNA).- Pope Francis has written a note to women in his homeland who asked him to help make known their opposition to a bill to legalize abortion introduced to the legislature by Argentina’s president last week.

Eight women signed a Nov. 18 letter to Pope Francis expressing fear that the abortion bill targets poor women and asking him “to help us by making our voice heard.”

The Argentine daily La Nacion published Nov. 24 the full letter of the women, together with the pope’s Nov. 22 response, which was sent through the national deputy for the City of Buenos Aires, Victoria Morales Gorleri.

In the handwritten note, Pope Francis said that abortion “is not a primarily religious issue but one of human ethics, prior to any religious confession.”

“Is it fair to eliminate a human life to solve a problem? Is it fair to hire a hitman to solve a problem?” he said.

He expressed his gratitude for their letter and said they were women “who know what life is.”

“The country is proud to have such women,” he added. “Please tell them for me that I admire their work and their testimony; that I thank them from the bottom of my heart for what they do, and that they keep going,” he said.

Fulfilling a presidential campaign promise, Argentine president Alberto Fernández introduced a bill to legalize abortion into the country’s legislature Nov. 17. The bill is expected to be debated in December.

In their letter to Pope Francis, the Argentine women, who come from three shanty towns in Buenos Aires, said that the introduction of the bill “once again puts us on the alarm about the future of our families.” 

They noted that they began to meet in 2018 amid a national debate to legalize abortion. The women organized demonstrations, made statements to congress, and conducted surveys among their neighbors with results of “more than 80%” opposing abortion.

“Today we are women who work side by side to take care of the lives of many neighbors: the baby that is in gestation and her mother, as well as the one who was born is among us and needs help,” they said.

The women told Pope Francis about being filled with “cold terror” after the abortion bill was introduced to the legislature last week, “just thinking that this project is aimed at adolescents in our neighborhoods.”

“Not so much because in the villa [shanty town] culture abortion is thought of as a solution to an unexpected pregnancy (Your Holiness knows well our way of assuming motherhood between aunts, grandmothers and neighbors),” the women wrote, “but because [the law] is oriented to cultivate the idea that abortion is one more possibility within the range of contraceptive methods and that even the main users must be poor women.”

“This is why we turn to Your Holiness,” they said, “with the desire to ask you to help us express to public opinion that we feel imprisoned in a situation where our own family, our adolescent daughters and future generations are compromised with the idea that our life is the unwanted one and that we do not have the right to have children because we are poor.”

Fernández said Nov. 22 that he hoped Pope Francis would not be angry because of his introduction of the bill to legalize abortion. 

Speaking to the Argentine television program Corea del Centro, Fernández, a Catholic, argued that he had to introduce the bill to solve “a public health problem in Argentina.”

The president’s reference to a public health crisis seemed to refer to unsubstantiated claims from abortion advocates in the country, who claim that women in Argentina die frequently from so-called “clandestine” or unsafe illegal abortions in the country. In a Nov. 12 interview, Bishop Alberto Bochatey, who heads the Argentine bishops’ conference healthcare ministry, challenged those assertions.

When asked if the pope would be angry about the initiative, Fernández replied: “I hope not, because he knows how much I admire him, how much I value him and I hope he understands that I have to solve a public health problem in Argentina.”

French bishops press government to review 30-person Mass limit

Rome Newsroom, Nov 25, 2020 / 07:00 am (CNA).- After a strong reaction by French Catholics to the government’s decision Tuesday night to limit Mass attendance to 30 people per church during Advent, bishops are in negotiations with the government to determine a more “realistic gauge” for a gradual resumption of public Masses.

The French bishops’ conference issued a statement Nov. 24, saying that the bishops were “both disappointed and surprised” at President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement that public worship would be limited to 30 people per church.

“This announcement is not at all in line with the discussions that have taken place in recent weeks with the ministers concerned,” it said.

“Indeed, this unrealistic and inapplicable measure is completely disrespectful of the reality of the religious practice of Catholics.”

The French bishops had originally proposed a protocol of reopening public liturgies at a third of each church’s capacity, with increased social distancing. 

Following Macron’s announcement, some bishops took to social media to express their incredulity.

Bishop François Touvet of Châlons wrote on Twitter: “30 people in my cathedral is ridiculous and absurd. It is 96 m long and 25 m wide (40m transept) by 30 m high. Total = 2500 m²: with 4 m² per person, we can fit 600 people! You have to learn to count!”


30 personnes dans ma cathédrale, c’est ridicule et absurde. Elle fait 96 m de long et 25 m de large (transept 40m) sur 30 m de hauteur. Total = 2500 m² : avec 4 m² par personne, on peut mettre 600 personnes ! Il faut apprendre à compter !

— MgrTouvet (@MgrTouvet) November 24, 2020  

Bishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the French bishops’ conference, spoke on the telephone with President Macron later that evening.

Following the phone call, the French bishops announced Nov. 25 that a more “realistic gauge” for the resumption of public Masses would be determined by the government the following day.

France has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than two million recorded cases and over 50,000 deaths as of Nov. 25, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

The reassessed restrictions on public Masses are expected be introduced in two stages, with the undetermined restrictions “remaining strict” from Nov. 28. They will then be evaluated on Dec. 15, according to the bishops’ statement.

French bishops added that they would remain in “dialogue with the office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of the Interior.”

France has been under a strict lockdown since the end of October, in which all public religious gatherings, including public Masses, were originally suspended until Dec. 1.

French bishops announced Nov. 2 that they were filing an urgent appeal with the Council of State to continue public Masses, arguing that the government’s coronavirus lockdown decree was “out of proportion” and “violates the freedom of worship which is one of the fundamental freedoms in our country.”

The bishops’ appeal was rejected by the Council of State on Nov. 7. But, in response, the judge specified that churches would remain open and that Catholics would be able visit a church near their homes regardless of distance if they carried out the necessary paperwork. Priests would also be allowed to visit people in their homes and chaplains permitted to visit hospitals.

Catholics took to the streets in major cities across the country to protest against the public Mass ban, praying together outside their churches. 

The French bishops said on Tuesday that Macron’s decision to reauthorize public worship with a limitation of 30 people seemed to “ignore this sense of responsibility which they [Catholics] have already demonstrated since the start of the epidemic.”

“Catholics are aware of the health issues and are capable of showing full responsibility in the application of the rules of protection,” they said.

“The Advent season which opens before us is a fundamental time of preparation for Christmas. The Sunday gathering is an essential step for the faithful during this period.”

‘We had no idea’: The hidden life of the reputed stigmatist tortured by Stalin’s secret police

CNA Staff, Nov 25, 2020 / 06:00 am (CNA).- Sr. Wanda Boniszewska led an extraordinary life. The Polish nun was a reputed stigmatist tortured by Stalin’s secret police. Her spiritual journal, published after her death in 2003, recorded her astounding mystical experiences. Her beatification cause opened earlier this month. 

But to one religious sister who lived with her in the last years of her life, Boniszewska didn’t seem outwardly remarkable.  

Sr. Halina Skubisz belongs to the same congregation as Boniszewska: the Congregation of the Sisters of the Angels, a habitless religious community founded in 1889. She lived twice under the same roof as the mystic, first in 1988 and then for a few years from 1997. 

“Sr. Wanda was a person who did not stand out from among our older sisters,” Skubisz told CNA. 

She described the frail and elderly Boniszewska as “rather withdrawn.” As she was bed-ridden and suffering from progressive dementia by the late 1990s, the younger sisters had limited access to her.

“What I remember is that I felt the atmosphere of peace in her room, as if the world around me was slowing down,” Skubisz recalled. “In her suffering, she was essentially calm, reconciled with the Lord’s will. Sometimes the younger sisters told me that they would come to Sr. Wanda when they needed to calm down...”

The younger sisters had no inkling of the exceptional nature of Boniszewska’s spiritual life. Her spirituality centered on offering her sufferings for the expiation of sins, especially those of priests.

At the age of 16, she had sought to enter the Congregation of the Sisters of the Angels in Vilnius, nowadays the capital of Lithuania. After her first profession, she said that she received a mission from Jesus to offer her sufferings for the expiation of the sins of “souls consecrated to Me.” She made her full profession in 1933. 

“The superiors knew her special graces and spiritual experiences and some of the older sisters also heard something about it, but we in the younger generation had no idea. Only after Wanda’s death did the secret come to light,” Skubisz said. 

She explained that when Christ had entrusted Boniszewska with her mission, which required her to share in the experience of his Passion, she asked to remain hidden and unknown until she died.

Boniszewska had asked her superiors to keep her secret and it was only after her death that Fr. Jan Pryszmont, who was close to her, began to publish works about her life and mission. Her “Spiritual Journal,” issued in 2016, recorded her mystical experiences between 1921 and 1980. 

A turning point in Boniszewska’s life came on April 11, 1950, the day she was arrested by the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB.

Skubisz said that the Soviet secret police seized the nun in connection with the arrest of a Jesuit priest, Fr. Antoni Ząbek. Boniszewska was then living in a community in Pryciany, around 20 miles from Vilnius. The authorities identified Ząbek as a Vatican spy seeking to undermine the Soviet Union. 

The priest served the sisters while hiding in a separate location in an underground shelter. When he was arrested, the police found documents in the shelter relating to Sr. Wanda and the Congregation of the Sisters of the Angels. The NKVD arrested 20 of the sisters, including Boniszewska. 

“From the beginning she was considered a charlatan, a false saint and an enemy of the system,” Skubisz noted. 

During interrogations, her captors beat her head against the wall, kicked her legs out from under her and forced her to stand all night answering questions. 

The ill treatment took its toll: she was transferred to a hospital, but the questioning continued. When she felt better, she would be taken on a stretcher for further interrogation. 

Finally, she was judged in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in a correctional camp as a Vatican spy and enemy of the system.

She was sent first to Chelyabinsk, in west-central Russia, then to Magnitogorsk, near the northern edge of the Russian steppe, and from there to the Urals. She spent much of her time in camp hospitals because of the injuries inflicted during interrogations and because of bleeding from her stigmata. 

Skubisz said: “This aroused consternation among the doctors. Some refused treatment, others carried out experiments including electroshocks.” 

“The interrogations were brutal, with the beating of the head against the wall and kicks. Many times she was condemned to stay in a cell and locked up in the ward of the mentally ill.” 

When she went into ecstasies, Sr. Wanda would say the names of people she prayed for. They included Stalin, the NKVD official Viktor Abakumov and the notorious secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria.

“This became the reason for the great brutality of the interrogators, their anxiety and curiosity,” Skubisz said.

She explained that Boniszewska inspired conversions among those who came into contact with her, including medical personnel and even her interrogators.

Boniszewska traced her stigmata back to the day of her First Communion, Sept. 29, 1919, when she began to feel pain in her hands and legs. In 1927, she felt pain around her head, while the discomfort in her limbs diminished. Her suffering would peak during Masses. 

According to her testimony, external marks of the stigmata appeared in Advent 1934 on her hands and legs. There was also a diagonal wound on her side. She attempted to hide them, but a priest noticed them while giving her the sacrament of the anointing of the sick in January 1935. In April of the same year, a religious sister who was also a nurse saw the wounds. But despite the nurse’s questions, Sr. Wanda remained silent.

“Before she was arrested in 1950, the external stigmata began to disappear, and appeared sporadically in prison, less often after she was released and returned to Poland,” said Skubisz. 

Commentators have drawn parallels between Boniszewska and St. Faustina Kowalska. Both were Polish religious sisters who experienced the upheavals of the 20th century and left written records of their intense spiritual experiences. But Skubisz believes that, despite these surface similarities, the two are quite different. 

She said: “Each of them had their own mission and unique relationship with the Lord. True, both were chosen and there are other similarities, but I do not think there are similarities between their diaries.” 

Skubisz pointed out that Sr. Wanda did not keep a spiritual diary as such. She wrote her memoirs retrospectively in obedience to a request from her superiors. While priests who came into contact with her made detailed records, she asked them to allow her to remain hidden and not to share the information until after her death. 

Skubisz believes that Sr. Wanda’s spirituality, with its focus on prayer for struggling priests, is highly relevant to the Church today. The opening of her beatification cause coincided with a series of high-profile clerical abuse cases in the Polish Church.

“I believe that the current experience we are going through as a Church is a cry for witnesses. Sister Wanda can be such a witness,” she said. 

“The Lord Jesus revealed her mission to her gradually: ‘for unfaithful priests, sacrifice yourself; you are the chosen sacrifice for priests and religious orders; I desire suffering; prayer without suffering is dead; I allow winds to strengthen faith in you and priests; I am the infallible truth in the holy Church; Believe, ask, trust, write, remain close. I make greater demands on you, because love expands the heart. Through you, I must pour Love out upon priests.’”

Skubisz continued: “Today Satan strikes priests with particular force. We know that a priest is for us believers a gateway to the sacraments, to the Eucharist, and without them no one will be strong in the spiritual struggle.” 

“That is why the message received by Sr. Wanda about the special dignity and great love that Christ gives to priests is so timely. Jesus desires their closeness and holiness, He is ready to forgive them and to bestow graces to draw them to His Divine Heart.”

She added: “Sr. Wanda had to suffer for the infidelity of priests and religious people, for the lukewarm and cold priests, for religious orders, including our Congregation, for the fading faith in His presence, for the sins of impurity. And as I described above, it was a very particular suffering. How timely this prayer and plea for strength are today.”

Skubisz said that the dialogue between Boniszewska and Christ recorded in her journal underlined how much Jesus loved priests and religious.  

“It is a great strengthening and call to faithfulness,” she said. “It is also a new light on the greatness and dignity of the priestly state, which is now so weakened. But at the same time, her suffering, its immensity, the brutality of her interrogation, the misunderstanding she suffered, show that sin is not a bagatelle. Sin costs and it costs a lot. It cost her a lot of suffering, a lot of blood…”

“I really believe that this message is extremely important and brings a lot of hope at this time. It rekindles gratitude, admiration for the love of God, in spite of everything and without limits. It is also a call to reparation for our sins and for the sins of others, to ask for mercy.”

World’s oldest bishop dies in Spain at age 104

Rome Newsroom, Nov 25, 2020 / 05:00 am (CNA).- Bishop Damián Iguacén Borau died Tuesday at his residence in Huesca in northeastern Spain. He was 104 years old.

After the death in June of 104-year-old Chilean Bishop Bernardino Piñera from pneumonia due to COVID-19, Iguacén was the oldest living Catholic bishop in the world. 

Iguacén’s last public appearance was in February for his 104th birthday. According to reports, his health had been in sharp decline since then.

The Diocese of Huesca said that his funeral would take place Nov. 26 in the Holy Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Lord in the city of Huesca. Iguacén will then be buried in the cathedral’s Capilla del Pópulo.

An important figure in the Church in Aragon, Iguacén retired in 1991 after seven years as bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de La Laguna o Tenerife in the Canary Islands. In his 22 years as a bishop, he also led the dioceses of Barbastro and Teruel.

Iguacén was born in the small town of Fuencalderas in Aragon on Feb. 12, 1916. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Huesca in 1941, at the age of 25. In addition to serving as a parish priest, he was also the vice chancellor of a seminary in San Lorenzo and was apostolic administrator of Huesca for a short time.

He held various positions within the executive committee of the Spanish bishops’ conference. He also wrote several books and articles, especially on the cultural heritage of the Church and Marian devotion.

At a Mass and celebration for his 100th birthday in 2016, Bishop José María Gil Tamayo, the then secretary general of the Spanish bishops’ conference, said that Iguacén was “an example of dedication to the Church. In him, over the years, remains that evangelical freshness of a shepherd, his delicacy, his affection, his closeness to the people, which in the background is the closeness to God that he has maintained.”

Pope Francis also sent a message for Iguacén’s 100th birthday, saying that he joined spiritually “in thanksgiving to God for the gifts received in his long life as a pastor and generous service to the Church,” assuring him “of a remembrance in his prayers so that the Lord may always accompany him in his goodness and grant him an abundance of peace and spiritual serenity.”