ROME— Judging by news headlines and social media, one easily could be tempted to assume the Church is concerned only about a handful of issues, with most of the debates today focused on Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s document on the family, as well as immigration and poverty.
Yet broadening the focus, issues diversify with each region, be it on a continental, national or even diocesan level, with each local Church having its own struggles.
For instance, in many countries in Africa, the local bishops, and the laity, struggle with having enough religious vocations to respond to the growing number of people in the pews, and in most mission territories, making ends meet at the end of the month is always a struggle.
According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, African Catholics have more than tripled in number since 1980 to more than 200 million.
In other places, such as Germany, the number of new vocations is also a concern, but keeping the faithful in the pews is an even bigger one. In 2015 alone, according to the German Bishops’ Conference, 217,716 people left the Church, a 22 percent increase from the previous year.
However, finding a local church concerned over vocations and the faithful is like shooting fish in a barrel. If taking care of souls by bringing people to God is not a priority, then there’s something intrinsically wrong.
Yet there are several other matters which, though not necessarily of exclusive concern to one conference of Catholic bishops, are of particular importance for them, and Christmas and New Year’s messages often are the best mirrors of what those concerns will be for the next 12 months.
The Philippines: No to the death penalty and extrajudicial killings
According to the Vatican news agency Fides, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Philippines bishop’s conference, spoke out against President Rodrigo Duterte for supporting the revival of the death penalty and for the spate of drug-related killings in the Philippines.
In his New Year’s Eve homily, Villegas said: “If the law for the re-imposition of the death penalty is approved by Congress, the president of the Philippines will kill people, mostly indigents who cannot afford to pay lawyers in their judicial fight especially those accused in drug pushing and other crimes.”
The bishops urged the Catholic community, which represents 86 percent of the total population, to oppose not only this, but also the government’s war on drugs, which he said has victimized innocent people, most of whom are victims of injustice and poverty.
Duterte is a tough-talking populist who took office last June. He has earned international condemnation for ordering or encouraging thousands of extrajudicial killings intended to rid the country of illegal drugs and bragging about personally having killed people as part of this fight.
Venezuela: Get your act together
Venezuela, which boasts one of the world’s largest oil reserves, is currently sinking in a political, economic and social crisis that’s witnessing crime skyrocketing and thousands dying of starvation and treatable diseases. The government of President Nicolás Maduro and an alliance of the opposition were supposed to find a common solution to the crisis, with the Vatican aiding the conversations.
However, the negotiations went south last December, urging Archbishop Diego Padrón to make a call for both sides to put the country’s best interests, and not their political wellbeing, at the center of the discussions.
On Saturday, as he was opening the bishop’s general assembly, Archbishop Diego Padrón of Cumaná, president of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, said that 2016 “ended very badly” for Venezuela, with the people going through the “hardest, most uncertain and unfair” period of the last 50 years.
According to him, the “dialogue table” tanked because of a “malign juxtaposition of factors: there was no will among the sides to dialogue.”
Both sides, Padrón insisted, used the call to dialogue as a “simple political strategy” with no actual intention to fight the severe economic crisis, the “galloping inflation,” insecurity and food and medicine shortages.
“Sooner rather than later political leaders, in order to get this country out of the crisis that is destroying it, will have to resort, in the name of democracy, to dialogue, negotiation and agreements, the only antidotes to the irrationality of force, corruption and violence,” he added.
Nigeria: Put an end to the culture of death
“We are becoming so sadistic that we do not see that such brutality creates a culture of impunity, chaos, anarchy and doom; as if the needless killing by Boko Haram is not enough,” said Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, president of the Nigerian Bishops’ Conference, in his New Years’ message.
“A culture is developing that does not seem to know the difference between the lives of human beings and that of cows, goats, rams, chickens,” he added.
As archbishop of Jos, where the Islamic-inspired terrorist group Boko Haram was born, Kaigama knows firsthand the impact racial, ethnic and religious violence has, and in this year’s appeal he held nothing back.
“The scriptures say that God created man and woman and asked them to increase and multiply and fill the earth, not to depopulate it by acts of violence,” he wrote.
The archbishop added that the seeming insensitivity to the violent killings is “mind-boggling,” with pictures of dead bodies decapitated or disfigured being shown in social media, increasing the apprehension of the international community.
“The manner lives are being taken right now in Southern Kaduna and many other troubled areas of our nation is tantamount to a declaration of war against helpless and innocent Nigerians,” he wrote, before appealing to the government to find a lasting solution to the conflict and to those in security forces not to abuse their weapons.
Democratic Republic of Congo: Save the planet, one paper wrapper at the time
The country’s bishops used their Christmas message to deliver a strong appeal for the protection of the environment, denouncing that forests disappear little by little due to the over-exploitation of timber and reforestation policy throughout the national territory.
According to Fides, the bishops say Republic of Congo is “a Country blessed by God,” since it has substantial forest, agricultural, mining and maritime resources. However, they ask: “What do we do with all these good things?”
The prelates also denounce the absence of a waste collection system and sewage disposal in cities, which has turned roads and rivers into landfills. Lakes and rivers that provide water for drinking and bathing “have been transformed by some citizens into toilets and landfills with disastrous consequences for public health.”
After highlighting Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, released in 2015, the bishops call for an “ecological conversion” that leads to a respect for nature and education, proposing some ideas such as civic education programs in schools and radio and television broadcasts.
“But it all starts,” say the bishops, “by not throwing rubbish on the street but in containers.”
These are only four examples, but cases abound: The United States bishops, for instance, gave a strong pro-immigrant focus to their message while in Iraq the local Christian leadership got together to pray for peace.
In Francis’s home country, Argentina, several church leaders urged government to fight corruption and the impunity with which the growth of the illegal drug trade thrives, while the Brazilian diocese of Salvador de Bahia launched a two-month program destined to increase awareness among tourists of the country’s increasing child labor and its evils.
There is a saying that goes “show me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.” When it comes to the Catholic Church, however, it could become: “Show me where you are in the world, and I’ll tell you what your bishops’ priorities are.”