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 News Briefs

NEWS BRIEFS Dec-11-2013

By Catholic News Service


To frack or not to frack: Debate examines America's quest for energy

PULASKI TOWNSHIP, Pa. (CNS) -- Pauline Beck looks out over her 30-acre farm and points to the east. It's there, not quite a mile away, where a natural gas well is likely to be built as Pennsylvania secures its place as a leader in America's burgeoning energy industry. And that saddens Beck, a member of nearby St. James Parish. Once construction begins, Beck, 63, envisages that the peacefulness and solitude that allows her to appreciate being part of God's creation -- the breezes rustling the trees, the wildlife, the food she raises, the star-studded night sky and yes, her two friendly goats, Pygmalion and Billy Budd -- will be disrupted by the hundreds of trucks, bright lights, roaring industrial machinery and unpleasant odors associated with well drilling. Eight miles to the south in the crossroads hamlet of Hillsville, Father James Downs, pastor of Christ the King Parish, is patiently waiting. He is eager to negotiate a deal on a lease for the natural gas rights under the two church properties that make up the parish. Father Downs, also the pastor of St. James, sees the lease as an opportunity to secure Christ the King's financial future so it can continue to serve Catholics in the economically depressed rural community a mile or so from the Ohio-Pennsylvania line. Neighboring property owners have signed leases, reaping thousands of dollars in payments. Two people, sharing one Catholic faith; two differing views on the natural gas boom that has swept across Pennsylvania since 2006. The stances illustrate the divide that exists over how to develop the vast natural gas deposits in shale formations deep underground in many areas of the United States. The divide falls along how the gas is extracted: an industrial process known as slick water hydraulic fracturing.

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Advances in drilling technology led to fracking's rapid expansion

BUTLER, Pa. (CNS) -- The history of slick water hydraulic fracturing extends back more than 60 years as America seeks solutions to its seemingly unquenchable thirst for energy. Also known as fracking, the process has been used to extract oil and natural gas since 1947, said Peter MacKenzie, vice president of operations for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. He and other industry representatives argued that the process is safe and even when problems occur, companies work to alleviate any concerns. Advances over the years have allowed the process to be readily duplicated across the country. These days the Marcellus Shale under Pennsylvania is among the most active natural gas plays in the country. Along with the rapid development comes questions about safety and environmental protection. "Certainly folks have questions and they deserve answers," Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, told Catholic News Service. He suggested, though, that all Americans benefit from the shale development through lower priced natural gas, while the people of Pennsylvania have seen more than $1.8 billion in tax revenues and $406 million in impact fees for wear and tear on infrastructure and increased demands on local communities.

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Religious community chooses nature over riches of a natural gas lease

VILLA MARIA, Pa. (CNS) -- With 761 acres of mostly wooded property nestled along the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary feel they have been entrusted with a special oasis. The land encompasses a 250-acre organic farm, grazing land for cattle and sheep, wetlands and shaded open space where members of the community, employees and visitors can relax, walk and pray, all to gain a deeper appreciation of creation. So when the landmen representing the energy companies approached in 2010, 2011 and 2012 with offers of thousands of dollars per acre for the natural gas rights in the shale formations deep below the surface, the sisters stepped back and asked themselves what the land they have nurtured for nearly 150 years really meant to the community. What they decided was to firmly tell the landmen, "No." Never mind that some of the sisters' 80 neighbors had readily signed on, likely bringing industrial-scale natural gas mining that uses the controversial slick water hydraulic fracturing process to the congregation's doorsteps. For now, explained Sister Barbara O'Donnell and Sister Mary Cunningham, who have been intimately involved in land and environmental concerns for their order, the 2012 decision to forgo signing any lease was the best way to protect the piece of creation the sisters call home. "We actually spent whole meetings going through the lease piece by piece," Sister Barbara recalled. "We had those lawyers work with us at those meetings, going through it piece by piece, enlightening us to what we were saying yes to. And point by point we had to say no because of our belief. And because we're a religious congregation, we're not in it for the money. We could have made lots of money and we have things that we could have invested that into. But at this time we just could not say yes to that because the land has sustained us from the time we came here in 1864," Sister Barbara said.

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Faith motivates Catholics to speak out on gas, oil drilling practices

CHERRY VALLEY, Pa. (CNS) -- The golden sunrise on crisp fall mornings reveals a shimmering silver-gray fog that enshrouds the farms in Cherry Valley below the homestead on Eakin Knob that Michael and Karen Bagdes-Canning have nurtured for the past 30 years. The Bagdes-Cannings rise early most mornings to care for the chickens and turkeys they raise and the vegetables that will find their way to their dinner table. Colorful flowers, the last vestiges of summer, fill the gardens along the walkway to their front door. One day a week they take care of their 2-year-old granddaughter, Lochlin, while their son and daughter-in-law are at work. On a mild fall day, Michael toured sites of natural gas wells and pump stations in Butler County, checking out new structures going up and existing ones that play an integral role vital to America's energy needs. He said wells seem to pop up almost overnight in some locales as energy companies seek to tap the Marcellus Shale formation thousands of feet below the Pennsylvania landscape. It's the placement of the wells and an industrial process known as slick water hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that the Bagdes-Cannings fear. They said they are afraid of the potential for groundwater and surface water contamination and polluted air caused by the release or escape of chemicals from the wells. And they are concerned about the hundreds of trucks that pass on narrow roads carting water from public reservoirs, rivers and streams to well sites to be used in the process. As leaders in the environmental group Marcellus Outreach Butler, the couple has joined with dozens of Butler County residents to call attention to the dangers they believe fracking poses to people's lives. They said their work is largely motivated by their Catholic faith and the legacy they leave their grandchildren. "I think we're called to be stewards of the planet," Michael, 60, a longtime member of the Cherry Valley Borough Council, told Catholic News Service.

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Families seek recourse in lawsuits for wells considered a nuisance

POINT MARION, Pa. (CNS) -- When David and Linda Headley bought their 116-acre farm in rural Fayette County near the West Virginia border in 2005, they thought they were buying their dream property, a place to build a home, raise a family and enjoy the outdoors. What they ended up with, they told Catholic News Service, was a nightmare. These days when David and Linda and sons Adam, 5, and Grant, 17 look out from their front porch they see the telltale signs of a natural gas well less than 600 feet away: condensate tanks, vent pipes, pipelines and control valves. The well was built in 2009, a few years after the Headleys moved to their new home. They find it unsightly and contend the invasive noises and toxic odors associated with it are a nuisance. Most worrisome is the periodic unexplained illness afflicting Adam when well operators arrive to vent the tanks. The process discharges volatile organic compounds and other byproducts into the air and onto the land. When the Headleys see the workers coming, they head indoors and turn on a specially installed ventilation system. The situation led the Headleys to join a civil lawsuit with five other nearby property owners. It charges that several natural gas companies and pipeline operators with operating a nuisance, negligence and recklessness. Filed June 13 in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court in Pittsburgh, the lawsuit is the last hope the plaintiffs have to resolve their grievances, David said.

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Catholic voices raise moral concerns in country's fracking debates

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In ongoing national discussions about the mining of natural gas, Catholic voices have emerged to raise significant moral questions while not necessarily taking sides. From New York to Colorado, from individual bishops to umbrella organizations, Catholic contributions to the discussions have decidedly held up the church's social teaching on the importance of protecting creation and promoting the common good. Blessed John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis all have addressed the need to protect the environment, saying that the health of the earth and its inhabitants must not be sacrificed in the pursuit of short-term economic gain. And the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development in May reaffirmed the moral principles from the bishops' 1981 statement on energy, "Reflections on the Energy Crisis," as a framework for examining key energy issues, including fracking. Such declarations raise important questions that can be applied to the growing push by energy companies to extract natural gas from deep underground, particularly through a process known as slick water hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. A heavy industrial process, fracking utilizes water mixed with sand and chemicals pumped under extremely high pressure to fracture shale formations and release the natural gas.

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As budget debates continued, needs of poor raised up again and again

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Fallout from the partial government shutdown in October and another looming round of automatic spending cuts in January kept congressional leaders busy at year's end to finalize a budget deal Republicans and Democrats could live with. Through a tumultuous 2013, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other Catholic advocates, including Catholic Charities USA, continued to press for a budget that does not adversely affect poor people. It's a message that Catholic leaders have consistently delivered in recent years under the banner of a "circle of protection" as concerns over growing federal debt led to proposals that discretionary spending on nonmilitary programs be cut in the face of the country's growing debt. Their concern centers on programs such as poverty-focused international assistance, affordable housing and community development, education, Head Start, workforce development and emergency unemployment compensation. The USCCB helped form the Circle of Protection coalition in 2011 to make sure budget policies protect programs serving poor, vulnerable and elderly people. On Dec. 10, congressional leaders announced a budget deal aimed at averting another government shutdown and stopping a second round of automatic budget cuts set to begin in mid-January. The two-year deal, announced by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairs of the Senate and House budget committees, respectively, would cap spending at slightly more than $1 trillion in each of the next two years -- a slight increase. The deal signals at least a temporary truce on the budget between Democrats and Republicans. Both houses of Congress managed to pass the Budget Control Act in 2011, which implemented a round of across-the-board cuts in military and nonmilitary programs early in 2013. However, serious disagreements remained and they led to a 16-day partial government shutdown in October.

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'Wave of prayer' to end world hunger sweeps over nation's capital

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The global "wave of prayer" to eradicate hunger reached the U.S. Capitol with participants in an interfaith prayer service asking God to guide all people to better see and understand the needs of people living in poverty. During the noontime service Dec. 10, many of the prayers focused on government decision-makers who have targeted various federal food programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, for decreased government spending. "We really need to pray that God will lead members of Congress, our nation's leaders and the people of this nation to make decisions on this and other issues that will help get us to the end of hunger," said the Rev. David Beckmann, a Lutheran minister and president of the Christian citizens' anti-hunger organization Bread for the World. The wave of prayer was one of hundreds of services that cascaded around the world at noon local time under an initiative of Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican-based federation of Catholic charities. The effort is aimed at prayer and action to relieve hunger around the world through May 2015. Across town at The Catholic University of America, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington led students in prayer at Caldwell Chapel: "Through your wisdom, inspire leaders of government and of business, as well as all the world's citizens, to find just and charitable solutions to end hunger by assuring that all people enjoy the right to food." Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and university president John Garvey joined the prayer service.

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Bishops lead protesters in prayer after night of police action in Kiev

ROME (CNS) -- In the deep of the freezing night, security forces moved into Ukraine's Independence Square intent on dislodging protesters who had spent weeks talking, singing and praying for their country. Members of the permanent synod of the Ukrainian Catholic Church went to the square at 8 a.m. Dec. 11 to lead morning prayer, and -- at about 10:30 a.m. -- fear of a violent crackdown gave way to cheers as the police withdrew. "This is tactical," said Ukrainian Bishop Borys Gudziak. "It's light outside now and evil likes darkness." In a statement issued before dawn Dec. 11, when the police were still trying to clear out the demonstrators and bulldoze their tents and barricades, members of the synod issued a statement saying, "We are profoundly disturbed by the actions of the state security forces on the Maydan (Independence) Square in the heart of Kiev conducted under the cover of the night." The bishops said in a statement released in English: "We condemn the action directed toward restricting civil liberties, especially the freedom of expression and peaceful civic manifestation of the citizens of Ukraine. We declare our support and solidarity with all those on the Maydan Square who are standing with dignity and witnessing to the dignity of their fellow citizens and of the whole nation."

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Pope says God is not afraid of tenderness

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- God is not afraid of tenderness and will reach out to console all in need, Pope Francis said during his early morning Mass Dec. 10. "In the eyes of the Lord each one of us is very, very important. And he gives with tenderness," Vatican Radio quoted the pope as saying in his homily during the Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae where he lives. When Christians lose hope, their lives become "senseless" and they have essentially "hit a wall," the pope said, but the Lord approaches his followers with tenderness and consolation. "He becomes tender, becomes a child, becomes small," Pope Francis said. He approaches his people with consolation, and "draws them forward with hope." The Lord "in his nearness gives us hope," he continued, and that hope is a "true strength in Christian life," the grace of God. "He does it with a special closeness to each one," he said. "Because the Lord comforts his people and comforts each one of us."

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Pope at audience: Americas, open your arms to poor, immigrants, unborn

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis prayed that Catholics throughout the Americas would open their arms to the poor, to immigrants, to the unborn and to the aged just as Mary opens her arms to all. Anticipating the Dec. 12 feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, Pope Francis said, "I ask all the people of the Americas to open wide their arms, like the virgin, with love and tenderness." Speaking in Spanish during his general audience Dec. 11, the first pope from the Americas explained that "when Our Lady appeared to St. Juan Diego, her face was that of a woman of mixed blood, a 'mestiza,' and her garments bore many symbols of the native culture. When the image of the Virgin appeared on the tilma (cloak) of Juan Diego," the pope said, "it was the prophecy of an embrace: Mary's embrace of all the peoples of the vast expanses of America -- the peoples who already lived there, and those who were yet to come."

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Vatican official says not to expect papal encyclical on poverty

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- An official at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace said that, despite widespread news reports and the statement of an Italian bishop, he does not expect Pope Francis to write an encyclical on the subject of poverty. "If you asked (the pope) he would probably say to you, 'Why do we need an encyclical? What is the encyclical supposed to tell us that we don't already know?'" said Jesuit Father Michael Czerny. In May, Bishop Luigi Martella of Molfetta, Italy, wrote that the pope had recently told him and other bishops of Italy's Puglia region that he was planning an encyclical on poverty, "understood not in an ideological and political sense, but in an evangelical sense." The bishop said the encyclical would be called "Beati Pauperes" ("Blessed Are the Poor"). But Father Czerny told Catholic News Service the church is still digesting retired Pope Benedict XVI's major contribution to the church's teaching on the subject. "Less than five years ago, we had a superb social encyclical, 'Caritas in Veritate,' and I'm sure that Pope Francis agrees with every word of it. There is an amount of material in it that we could work on," Father Czerny said. "It would keep us busy for 20 years."

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A Jesuit promotes human dignity, from Central America to the Holy See

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After the 1989 murders at the University of Central America of six Jesuit scholars, their housekeeper and her daughter -- one of the most notorious episodes in the 13-year Salvadoran civil war -- the Society of Jesus assigned members from abroad to fill the posts of their fallen companions. One of the substitutes was Father Michael Czerny, whose new duties included philosophy teaching, parish ministry and direction of the university's Institute of Human Rights. By documenting and denouncing human rights violations, the Jesuit says, the institute contributed to United Nations-led negotiations, between the government of El Salvador and the rebel coalition, that brought the war to an end in 1992. "My two years in El Salvador were an immense lesson in the many human dimensions of a historical crisis of injustice caught up in the geopolitics of the day," Father Czerny told Catholic News Service. "These are not abstract ideas. They are complex, lived, flesh-and-blood realities; they are the people, whom the church wants to be with." That experience was only one episode in Father Czerny's long career in the field of social justice, which he now pursues inside the Vatican as an official of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

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Restorer: Working on Church of Nativity like touching piece of history

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (CNS) -- Helping restore the roof of the Church of the Nativity is like touching a piece of the beginning of Christian history, said an Italian restorer who is heading work on the first phase of the long-awaited repairs. "I am not a practicing religious person, but working on this church is very emotional," said Marcello Piacenti, 53, the on-site project manager and a restorer with his family's company, Piacenti Spa, which began the work in September. "I have restored many old churches in the world, but when I arrived here I knew I had arrived to the center of everything." More than five years in the planning and researching, the restoration of the church's wooden beams and lead roof and its 38 windows represents the beginning of an ambitious project, said engineer Imad Nasser, technical representative of the Palestinian Authority's national committee for the restoration of the Church of the Nativity. Nasser said that, two years ago, it was estimated that the repairs would cost $15 million, not including the construction management fees. Repairs are being done in several phases, as the funds become available, he said, with essential repairs such as the roof given priority. The next stage will include the completion of protection of the stone facade of the external walls once the funds are acquired, he said, noting that more than $2.7 million is still needed for that phase.

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Central African leaders tell of humanitarian crisis in Bangui

OXFORD, England (CNS) -- Catholic leaders in the Central African Republic spoke of a humanitarian crisis and criticized attempts to fuel interreligious clashes in their nation. Msgr. Cyriaque Gbate Doumalo, secretary-general of the nation's Catholic bishops' conference, told Catholic News Service Dec. 11 that thousands of displaced civilians had taken refuge in Bangui's churches and parish buildings, creating "drastic humanitarian needs. Most have nothing left to eat and are sleeping outside on the ground -- we've nothing left to give them and our parishes can't cope," Msgr. Doumalo said. "All the roads are completely blocked, and it's too dangerous to go outside, so we're not receiving any supplies. Since atrocities are still taking place in the city suburbs, more people are arriving in search of shelter." He said French forces that arrived in Bangui Dec. 8 were gradually restoring order, although people were "deeply afraid of acts of revenge against the groups being disarmed. But Christian and Muslim leaders have urged their communities to remain calm and avoid branding people according to their religion. "Christians, Muslims and animists are engaged on both sides -- it's completely wrong to view this as a religious conflict," he told CNS.

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Pope Francis is third pope to win Time's Person of the Year honor

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis is not seeking fame or accolades, but being named Time magazine's Person of the Year will make him happy if it helps attract people to the hope of the Gospel, said the Vatican spokesman. "It's a positive sign that one of the most prestigious recognitions in the international press" goes to a person who "proclaims to the world spiritual, religious and moral values and speaks effectively in favor of peace and greater justice," said the spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi. The choice of Pope Francis "is not surprising, given the wide appeal and huge attention" to his pontificate so far, Father Lombardi said in a written statement Dec. 11, shortly after Time announced it had named the pope for the annual feature. "Rarely has a new player on the world stage captured so much attention so quickly -- young and old, faithful and cynical -- as has Pope Francis," Time said on its website. "With a focus on compassion, the leader of the Catholic Church has become a new voice of conscience." Blessed John Paul II was named Person of the Year in 1994 and Blessed John XXIII in 1962.


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