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St. John of the Cross

Dec. 14 is the liturgical memorial of Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century Carmelite priest best known for reforming his order together with Saint Teresa of Avila, and for writing the classic spiritual treatise “The Dark Night of the Soul.� Honored as a Doctor of the Church since 1926, he is sometimes called the “Mystical Doctor,� as a tribute to the depth of his teaching on the soul's union with God. The youngest child of parents in the silk-weaving trade, John de Yepes was born during 1542 in Fontiveros near the Spanish city of Avila. His father Gonzalo died at a relatively young age, and his mother Catalina struggled to provide for the family. John found academic success from his early years, but failed in his effort to learn a trade as an apprentice. Instead he spent several years working in a hospital for the poor, and continuing his studies at a Jesuit college in the town of Medina del Campo. After discerning a calling to monastic life, John entered the Carmlite Order in 1563. He had been practicing severe physical asceticism even before joining the Carmelites, and got permission to live according to their original rule of life – which stressed solitude, silence, poverty, work, and contemplative prayer. John received ordination as a priest in 1567 after studying in Salamanca, but considered transferring to the more austere Carthusian order rather than remaining with the Carmelites. Before he could take such a step, however, he met the Carmelite nun later canonized as Saint Teresa of Avila. Born in 1515, Teresa had joined the order in 1535, regarding consecrated religious life as the most secure road to salvation. Since that time she had made remarkable spiritual progress, and during the 1560s she began a movement to return the Carmelites to the strict observance of their original way of life. She convinced John not to leave the order, but to work for its reform. Changing his religious name from “John of St. Matthias� to “John of the Cross,� the priest began this work in November of 1568, accompanied by two other men of the order with whom he shared a small and austere house. For a time, John was in charge of the new recruits to the “Discalced Carmelites� – the name adopted by the reformed group, since they wore sandals rather than ordinary shoes as sign of poverty. He also spent five years as the confessor at a monastery in Avila led by St. Teresa. Their reforming movement grew quickly, but also met with severe opposition that jeopardized its future during the 1570s. Early in December of 1577, during a dispute over John's assignment within the order, opponents of the strict observance seized and imprisoned him in a tiny cell. His ordeal lasted nine months and included regular public floggings along with other harsh punishments. Yet it was during this very period that he composed the poetry that would serve as the basis for his spiritual writings. John managed to escape from prison in August of 1578, after which he resumed the work of founding and directing Discalced Carmelite communities. Over the course of a decade he set out his spiritual teachings in works such as “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,� “The Spiritual Canticle� and “The Living Flame of Love� as well as “The Dark Night of the Soul.� But intrigue within the order eventually cost him his leadership position, and his last years were marked by illness along with further mistreatment. St. John of the Cross died in the early hours of Dec. 14, 1591, nine years after St. Teresa of Avila's death in October 1582. Suspicion, mistreatment, and humiliation had characterized much of his time in religious life, but these trials are understood as having brought him closer to God by breaking his dependence on the things of this world. Accordingly, his writings stress the need to love God above all things – being held back by nothing, and likewise holding nothing back. Only near the end of his life had St. John's monastic superior recognized his wisdom and holiness. Though his reputation had suffered unjustly for years, this situation reversed soon after his death. He was beatified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and named a Doctor of the Church in the 20th century by Pope Pius XI. In a letter marking the 400th anniversary of St. John's death, Pope John Paul II – who had written a doctoral thesis on the saint's writings – recommended the study of the Spanish mystic, whom he called a “master in the faith and witness to the living God.�

House passes farm bill and controversial rule on Yemen debate

Washington D.C., Dec 13, 2018 / 07:00 pm (CNA).- An agriculture bill supported by a coalition of Catholic groups passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday with bipartisan support. During debate over the bill, lawmakers also passed a controversial rule regarding debate on US involvement in Yemen.

The bill now moves to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it.

The “farm bill” concerns agricultural programs and food assistance. It is renewed each year, and this process can sometimes be quite lengthy due to additions and amendments added to the bill by members of Congress.

The version of the farm bill passed Dec. 12 was a compromise that eliminated some of the more controversial aspects of an earlier version of the bill. Those controversial provisions included expanded work requirements for people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funds. That bill passed the House of Representatives in June, but only had the support of Republican members.

SNAP is used by approximately 38 million Americans each year to purchase food items. Currently, able-bodied SNAP recipients who are between the ages of 18 and 49 who do not have dependents under the age of six, must work or volunteer for 20 hours a week or participate in a job-training program in order to receive benefits. The proposed bill would have upped the upper age limit of this requirement to 59, but that provision was dropped in the compromise bill.

In a controversial procedural move, a mostly party-line passing vote on rules for floor debate of the farm bill also included a provision that would block legislators from forcing a vote on military aid to Saudi Arabia's intervention in the Yemeni civil war.

This effectively limits the Senate's Dec. 13 vote to withdraw military aid from Saudi Arabia to a symbolic gesture.

This amended bill passed by a vote of 369-47 in the House of Representatives, and 87-13 in the Senate. The Senate passed the bill Dec. 11.

The bill was praised by a coalition of Catholic organizations.

“Agriculture policies should promote the production and access of nutritious food for all people, using the bounty from the land God has called us to tend and steward to aid the least of our brothers and sister in this country and around the world,” read a Dec. 12 letter to the House of Representatives signed by several Catholic organizations, including the USCCB, Catholic Relief Services, and Catholic Charities USA.

“We are pleased that the recently released Farm Bill Conference Committee Report includes provisions that protect global and domestic nutrition programs and strengthens rural supports and employment training programs,” they added.  

The letter also stated support for the inclusion of two programs that contribute to rural development, as well as the bill’s changes to international food security programs. These changes will make the programs “more effective and allow them to serve more people.”

The Catholic coalition expressed disappointment with other parts of the bill, including subsidies to farmers and ranchers and a decrease in funding to conservation programs. Each year, one of the hotly-debated points of the farm bill concerns subsidies that are distributed to farmers, and critics of this say the money does not always go to farmers who are in need of assistance.

The farm subsidies should be “prioritized” for struggling farmers, says the letter.

“It is disappointing that the Conference report does not take modest steps to limit subsidy payments to farmers who are actively engaged in farming.”

 

 

Trial begins for priest accused of assaulting San Diego seminarian

San Diego, Calif., Dec 13, 2018 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- A trial began Tuesday for the San Diego priest accused of sexually assaulting a seminarian in February. The alleged victim testified Wednesday that the priest groped him in a restaurant bathroom.

The seminarian told the court that he and another seminarian had drinks with Fr. Juan Garcia Castillo at a bar and restaurant on Feb. 3, after an event at St. Patrick’s Parish in Carlsbad, where Castillo served as parochial vicar. He said they had several drinks, and that the priest encouraged him to drink to excess.

The seminarian testified that he went to the bathroom sick after midnight. While he was in the restroom, Castillo allegedly approached him from behind and groped his genitals, twice.

The seminarian said he told the priest to “get away.”

“I walked out of the stall, and I look at myself in the mirror and I said, ‘Oh my God, what has happened to me?’” the seminarian said, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

The alleged assault was reported to police and diocesan authorities almost immediately, sources say.

During his opening statement Dec. 12, Castillo’s attorney told a jury that there is no evidence for the seminarian’s claim.

"This is the uncorroborated word of a person who was throwing-up drunk."

"This is a 'he said/he said' where both he’s are drunk and there is no corroborating evidence," the attorney said.
 
Castillo, 35, is a member of the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, a religious community of priests also known as the Eudists. He was charged in May with one count of misdemeanor sexual battery.

The seminarian told the court that he is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, an attorney and former Judge Advocate General. He entered the seminary after retiring from the Navy.

Kevin Eckery, a spokesman for the Diocese of San Diego, told CNA in September that Castillo no longer has priestly faculties in the diocese.

Castillo was listed as a parish priest in the St. Patrick’s bulletin until late March, six weeks after the alleged assault, although Eckery told the San Diego Union Tribune that the priest was removed from his assignment on Feb. 4, the same day the diocese was made aware of the allegation.

Although Castillo was the subject of a criminal investigation at the time he was removed from the parish, the diocese did not disclose the circumstances of his departure to parishioners, or make any statement at the time Castillo was charged with sexual battery.

Eckery told CNA in September that the diocese did not disclose to Castillo’s parish the allegation of sexual assault because “it would be wrong for us to influence the case.”

“We need to see what happens to the criminal case because the issue of consent is so important and if it’s not clear, we wait for that to get made clear,” he added.

The diocese would not explain the priest’s removal from ministry to the parish where he served, Eckery told CNA, without trying first to determine if an act of sexual misconduct took place, and whether any sexual act was “non-consensual.”

Castillo was born in Honduras, and in 2011 was ordained a priest at St. Patrick’s Parish by Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa.

A spokesman for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office told CNA in September that if he is convicted, Castillo could face up to six months of incarceration, and be listed on California’s sex offender registry.

 

Ohio 'heartbeat abortion' ban advances toward governor's veto decision

Columbus, Ohio, Dec 13, 2018 / 04:40 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Ohio Senate has passed a modified bill to ban abortions when the unborn child has a detectable heartbeat, and backers could have enough votes to override a promised veto from Gov. John Kasich.

The 18-13 vote on House Bill 258 came Oct. 12, with four Republicans voting against the bill. Though 20 votes are required to override a veto, two absent Republicans’ votes could still help the bill become law.

An override vote would have to take place during the week of Christmas before the official end of the legislative session Dec. 31. Senate president Larry Obhof did not seem enthusiastic about the possibility of a Christmas week vote, the Columbus Dispatch reports.

Kasich, a Republican, has a strong pro-life record, signing into law at least 18 abortion regulations or restrictions, including a 20-week abortion ban. The heartbeat bill is the only one he has vetoed, doing so in 2016, when legislators did not have the votes to override him.

Kasich is about to leave office in January for Governor-elect Mark DeWine, a Republican who supports the legislation.

The Ohio Senate passed an amendment clarifying that the bill would not require the use of a transvaginal ultrasound to detect a heartbeat, which would extend the period of pregnancy before a heartbeat can be detected. It removed language that would have allowed the state to suspend a doctor’s medical license before a crime related to abortion is proved in court.

The law allows exceptions to prevent a woman’s death or bodily impairment, or in cases of medical emergency.

Republican votes in committee and on the Senate floor rejected several Democratic amendments, including one that would have added exceptions for victims of rape or incest.

The House of Representatives passed the bill last month by a vote of 60-38, exactly the number of votes needed to override. Once the House agrees to the Senate’s changes to the bill, the governor would have ten days from a bill’s passage to veto it, excluding Sundays.

During 2016 debates over the bill, some pro-life critics voiced concern it could result in a counterproductive Supreme Court decision that would strengthen legal abortion in the U.S. It is unclear how the Supreme Court will rule with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh replacing Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy, even if a legal challenge is made and progresses to the high court.

While groups like Ohio Right to Life have remained neutral on the bill due to constitutional concerns, backers of the legislation have said it is specially designed to pass Supreme Court scrutiny.

The Ohio Catholic Conference on Nov. 15 said it supports “the life-affirming intent of this legislation,” but stopped short of endorsement. The conference said it will continue to assist efforts to resolve “differences related to specific language and strategies.”

“In the end, the Catholic Conference of Ohio desires passage of legislation that can withstand constitutional challenge and be implemented in order to save lives,” the Catholic conference said.

Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, who is a past leader of Ohio Right to Life, said Dec. 12 that women who had testified against the bill spoke about their abortions with “tears in their eyes, pain in their heart,” the Columbus Dispatch reports.

“I have never had a woman cry when she said she chose life. Not once. Not a single time,” she said. “Because in our hearts we know this is a human life.”

Bill opponents like Sen. Charleta Tavares, D-Columbus, charged that the bill sends the message that women “don’t have the capacity to make decisions themselves.” Women would still have abortions, in “a cruel and very dangerous way,” she said.

The bill’s text makes clear that a pregnant woman who undergoes an abortion is not considered in violation of the law. Rather, it allows her to take civil action against the abortion doctor involved if it is proven he or she broke the law, on grounds related to the “wrongful death of the unborn child.”

A doctor who performs an abortion in violation of the law would commit a fifth-degree felony, punishable by up to one year in prison and a $2,500 fine, the New York Times reports. The bill requires state inspections of abortion facilities to ensure their compliance with reporting requirements. It also establishes more ways to promote adoption.

The legislature is expected to pass a bill to ban the dilation and extraction abortion procedure, typically used between 13 and 24 weeks into pregnancy.

Ohio law currently bars abortion 20 weeks or more after conception, based on when an unborn child can feel pain. Pro-abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio is considering a legal challenge to that law.

Australian PM promises bill to protect against religious discrimination

Canberra, Australia, Dec 13, 2018 / 03:51 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Amid competing claims of religious freedom rights and LBGT rights, the Australian prime minister said Thursday the government will next year introduce a bill to protect against discrimination based on religious belief or activity.

“Australia is a place where discrimination on the basis of a person’s identity – including their religious identity – is unacceptable,” the office of Scott Morrison said Dec. 13.

“It is also a place where we respect the right of religious institutions to maintain their distinctive religious ethos. Our laws should reflect these values.”

Morrison also plans to appoint a freedom of religion commissioner at the Australin Human Rights Commission.

The government wants to make religious belief and activity a protected class, like race or sex. It also hopes to ensure that groups rejecting same-sex marriage are not stripped of their charitable status.

The proposals are among the government's response to a review on religious freedom in Australia, which was finished in May.

Australia has seen debate over religious freedom in recent years with respect to the seal of the confessional, hiring decisions, and same-sex marriage.

The religious freedom review made 20 recommendations, of which the government will implement 14 as soon as practicable.

One recommendation, a Religious Discrimination Bill, will be “implemented following consultation to seek bipartisan support.”

Five more recommendations “require further consideration,” the government said. These include provisions relating to employment and enrolment in religious schools.

The head of the religious freedom review panel, Phillip Ruddock, told the Guardian Australia that it had “looked for examples of questionable conduct” against LGBT employees and students, but such examples were “few and far apart and ill-defined”.

Morrison's governing Coalition alliance has been at odds with the opposition Australian Labor Party over efforts to legislate regarding religious schools' ability to discriminate against LGBT students and staff.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney noted earlier this year that “we cannot take the freedom to hold and practice our beliefs for granted, even here in Australia,” and that “powerful interests now seek to marginalize religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life. They would end funding to faith-based schools, hospitals and welfare agencies, strip us of charitable status and protections.”

For example, in July, a group of trade unions in the country passed a motion saying that they will lobby to restrict the right of religious organizations to make hiring decisions based on adherence to Church teaching on sexuality.

And when same-sex marriage was legalized in Australia in 2017, efforts to include amendments that would protect religious freedom failed during parliamentary debate.

Bill recognizing 'reproductive rights' as human rights introduced in US House

Washington D.C., Dec 13, 2018 / 02:21 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A bill was introduced Monday in the US House of Representatives to require that the State Department include “reproductive rights” in its annual human rights report.

The Reproductive Rights are Human Rights Act of 2018 was introduced Dec. 10 by Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA-5), and was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The Trump administration's State Department included statistics on “coercion in population control” rather than “reproductive rights” in its 2017 annual human rights report.

The State Department's decision was applauded by pro-life leaders.

“‘Reproductive rights’ has long been a euphemism for destroying human life in the womb,” said Lila Rose, founder and president of the pro-life group Live Action, said when the report was released in April.

“A phrase that sounds like empowerment is a really only code for the subjugation of preborn children,” Rose added.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told CNA at the time that abortion is an “inappropriate indicator of human rights.”

The Reproductive Rights are Human Rights Act is a direct response to the State Department's decision.

A statement from Clark's office said that “removing women’s right from the annual report in 2017 was a dramatic and dangerous shift in U.S. efforts to protect the international rights of women.”

The State Department began including “reproductive rights” in its human rights report in 2011.

Clark commented that “documenting and reporting human rights violations is a major part of eradicating their existence. This bill would ensure that our State Department maintains its vital role as an international watchdog and protector of women’s rights no matter the ideology of our White House.”

Rep. Nita Lowey, a co-sponsor of the bill, characterized the State Department's decision as the US “turn[ing] its back on the countless women around the world who are deprived of basic reproductive rights.”

Another cosponsor, Rep. Lois Frankel, asserted: “Women’s rights are human rights. There is no greater right for women than to be in charge of their own bodies.”

Among the 45 organizations which have endorsed the bill are the Center for Reproductive Rights, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the American Psychological Association, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, stated that “when women’s rights are limited and they are unable to access basic health care like contraception, safe abortion, and maternal health care, their ability to achieve economic, social, and political empowerment is fundamentally hindered.”

The State Department's report currently includes a section on “Coercion in Population Control”, under a larger section titled “Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons”. The new section appears under the subsection for “women” and features reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization procedures, and “other coercive population control methods.” There are also links to maternal mortality figures as well as the prevalence of contraceptives in a country.

Michigan lawmakers approve ban on telemedicine abortion pill prescriptions

Detroit, Mich., Dec 13, 2018 / 11:14 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Michigan has passed a bill that would continue to prohibit doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing drugs through a teleconference call, permanently extending a ban that first took effect in 2012.  

The Detroit Free Press reports that the bill passed the legislature in the early hours of the morning Dec. 13 by a vote of 62-47, with one Republican joining all the Democrats in voting against.

The pro-life group Right to Life Michigan praised the decision to continue to disallow so-called “webcam abortions,” which they say the abortion industry uses as a cost-saving measure despite at least 22 women having died from the use of abortion-inducing drugs.

“The law poses a burden on the abortion industry, particularly Planned Parenthood,” the group wrote in a Dec. 13 blog post.

“They already utilize the abortion pill as a cost-saving measure over a surgical abortion. There are not many abortionists, due to the unattractive nature of the profession's involvement in taking human life...How much more money could the abortion industry save if the abortionist can be 500 miles away, dispensing abortion pills with the push of a button after a quick video conference?”

Michigan lawmakers had passed legislation in 2012 that allowed doctors to teleconference with patients on a wide variety of medical issues— a service particularly useful for rural patients who have limited access to hospitals and specialized doctors.

At the time, lawmakers banned the prescription of the abortion inducing drugs mifepristone and misoprostol via teleconference, in accordance with guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration.

Michigan’s ban would have expired Dec. 31, but the new bill, if it becomes law, will make the ban permanent.

The FDA’s guidelines regarding mifepristone, which was first approved for use in 2000, state that the abortion drug “may only be dispensed in clinics, medical offices, and hospitals by or under the supervision of a certified healthcare provider.” The FDA warns consumers not to buy mifepristone over the internet due to safety concerns.

The action to permanently extend the ban is one of many “lame duck” actions that the outgoing Republican-controlled legislature is undertaking in Michigan before a new group of lawmakers begin their terms on Jan. 1.

The bill now awaits a signature from outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder.  

 

Pakistani province announces plan to protect religious minorities

Lahore, Pakistan, Dec 13, 2018 / 10:40 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A Pakistani official announced this week a new “Minorities Empowerment Package” and the creation of a task force to ensure the rights of religious minorities in the province of Punjab.

According to Dawn, Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minority Affairs Ijaz Augustine said the package will include new legislation and implement existing laws to assist religious minority communities.

A newly formed task force will be composed of professionals in human rights, law, and academics from a variety of religious communities, with the purpose of monitoring the implementation of human rights policies.

Augustine made the announcement at the Alhamra Arts Council with the Christian Care Foundation, coinciding with Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.  The ceremony included the distribution of certificates for activists and employees of the human rights department.

The empowerment package will implement religious minority quotas in jobs, education, and housing. It also looks to establish a sentence remission system and skill development trainings. The money will be taken from a Minority Development Fund worth more than $3 million.

“We are also focusing on skills development and have kept aside Rs25 million (nearly $180,000) for scholarships. We are also working on development and housing schemes specifically for the minority community,” said Augustine, according to Dawn.

The minister said an action plan, drafted by the provincial Task Force on Human Rights, will aim to carry out the goals of the Punjab Human Rights Policy 2018.

“We have also established a web-based Complaint Management System designed by the Punjab Information Technology Board for effective communication and resolution of human rights issues,” he said.

A commission to oversee equality of religious freedom has been called for in the past. The Pakistani Supreme Court ordered the creation of a National Council for Minorities in 2014, but it was subsequently ignored by past governments.

The Pakistani constitution affirms Islam as the state religion, but articles in the document prohibit discrimination and aim to protect religious freedom of minorities.

In practice, however, “the government of Pakistan has not addressed the spread of sectarian or religiously motivated intolerant speech and has not prosecuted perpetrators of violent crimes against religious minorities,” according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The U.S. State Department this week declared Pakistan as one of 10 “countries of particular concern” when it comes to religious freedom. The designation allows for further actions, including economic sanctions, by the United States.

In July during his presidential campaign, the Pakistani President Imran Kahn said he supported laws imposing strict penalties for blasphemy – including desecration of the Quran or insulting Muhammad.

While no one has been formally executed for the crime of blasphemy in Pakistan, mob killings have followed public accusations of blasphemy.

Servant of God Shahbaz Bhatti was Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs and the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet. He was killed by the Taliban in 2011 after showing support for Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who in 2010 was sentenced to death for blasphemy. She was acquitted in October 2018, but her life is still in danger, as the ruling is under government review as part of a deal to appease groups that were leading riots in the streets.

Pope Francis tells Catholic TV journalists to be 'channels' of peace

Vatican City, Dec 13, 2018 / 09:55 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis told a Catholic media group Thursday to be avenues of God’s peace, sharing the stories of the poor, the least, and the voiceless.

“In your profession you can be ‘living channels’ of spirituality before God and before all your listeners and viewers,” the pope told collaborators of the Italy-based Catholic broadcasting network Telepace.

“I renew, then, the invitation to ‘promote a journalism of peace,”” he said, quoting his 2018 message for World Communications Day. “A journalism created by people for people, one that is at the service of all, especially those – and they the majority in our world – who have no voice.”

Francis addressed the group Dec. 13, for their 40th anniversary, in the Vatican's Clementine Hall. Since 1990, at the request of St. John Paul II, the network has broadcast Vatican events such as the general audience, the Angelus, and papal Masses.

Praising the network, the pope said he wanted to urge three commitments in journalism – the first, to be “antennas of spirituality.” The TV antenna has a beautiful symbolism, he said, because of its “dual function of emitting and receiving a signal.”

Broadcast journalism should be a voice for the voiceless, he stressed; above all for the poor, the least, and the excluded. “Never forget them, the poor next door!” he said, praising the network’s program about inmates on death row in Texas. This “is the spirituality of charity!” he said.

Urging journalists to consider how they can teach the Gospel to the young, he stated that he would like the media to “pay more attention to young people, not only by telling their failures but also their dreams and their hopes!”

Doing this, he said, is a matter of being witnesses of God’s Word.

He also warned the media against letting their storytelling ever devolve into gossip, which undermines human community and sows “envy, jealousy, and lust for power.”

“It is important, therefore, to communicate responsibly, also thinking about how much bad you can do with language, with chatter, with rumors,” he said.

Pope Francis to visit Mother Teresa's birthplace in 2019

Vatican City, Dec 13, 2018 / 05:39 am (CNA).- The Vatican announced Thursday that Pope Francis will travel to Bulgaria and Macedonia May 5-7, 2019, with a stop in Mother Teresa’s hometown of Skopje.

The pope will spend the bulk of the trip in the Bulgarian cities of Sofia and Rakovski before visiting Skopje, Macedonia, the birthplace of Mother Teresa, on May 7.

While Mother Teresa is commonly associated with Calcutta, India -- the city included in her heavenly title of Saint Teresa of Calcutta -- she spent the first 17 years of her life as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, Macedonia before receiving her call to a vocation as a missionary sister in 1928.

The Mother Teresa Memorial House in Skopje, the saint’s former home-turned-museum, has welcomed visitors who desired to learn about St. Teresa and venerate one of her relics since 2009.

Pope Francis will be the second pope to visit Bulgaria after St. Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2002.

The motto for Pope Francis’ Bulgarian trip is “Pacem in Terris,” recalling St. John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical of the same name. Before becoming pope, St. John XXIII was the first apostolic visitor and then apostolic delegate to Bulgaria from 1925 to 1931.

Church leaders in both Bulgaria and Macedonia invited Pope Francis to visit their respective countries, the Dec. 13 Vatican message stated.

According to the U.S. State Department, Bulgaria’s Catholics make up only 0.8 percent of its population. Seventy-six percent of Bulgarians are Eastern Orthodox Christian, mostly in the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The second largest religious group in the country are Muslims at 10 percent of the population.

In Macedonia, an estimated 65 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian and 33 percent is Muslim.

The Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis will also visit Panama, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco in 2019 before his trip to Bulgaria and Macedonia.