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Half of the world’s 1.28 billion Catholics are found in 10 countries

The global Catholic population grew by 7.4 percent from 2010 to 2015, rising to 1.285 billion, according to a Vatican estimate.

Interestingly enough, nearly 56 percent of the Catholic population lives in 10 countries, with the United States topping out in fourth place:

United States

Those numbers alone, however, don’t seem to paint a complete picture of the state of Catholicism. For one, the survey appears to tally baptized Catholics who could one day decide to leave the Church.

In many countries, the vast majority of the Catholic population doesn’t attend Mass weekly, which creates a fine line between counting who’s still Catholic and who left the faith.

Pew Research Center has its own counts as well, but it’s not a global survey. At the end of the day, it’s probably unlikely we’d get an accurate bean count for a billion people.

Devastating Palm Sunday attacks cast somber mood over Holy Week

Pope Francis on Sunday decried deadly suicide bombings that killed more than 40 people at two Coptic churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday.

The twin attacks, which were claimed by ISIS, happened on one of the most important days on the Christian calendar as billions around the globe marked Christ’s final entry into Jerusalem.

While Pope Francis was celebrating Palm Sunday Mass in Rome, a blast at St. George’s church in Tanta killed more than two dozen, Vatican Radio reported. A second attack later in Alexandria targeted St. Mark’s Cathedral, where the Coptic pope was celebrating Mass. Pope Tawadros II was not injured in the attack, which left 16 dead.

Following the Palm Sunday Mass, Pope Francis reacted to the bombings after being handed a note detailing the news.

“May the Lord convert the hearts of those who sow fear, violence and terror,” His Holiness said. “And that of those who produce and sell weapons.”

Pope Francis is set to visit Egypt later this month amid significant security concerns. The Holy Father has been the target of ISIS threats before, and Egypt has seen devastating attacks on Christians in the past several years.


The mysterious papal letter that went down with the Titanic

Catholic News Agency is out this week with a compelling look at the mystery surrounding a letter from Pope Pius X to President Taft that was lost to history with the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic.

The letter, which was carried by Major Archibald Willingham Butt, was to be personally delivered from His Holiness to the U.S. president.

The major was touring Europe and took with him a letter from the president to the pope. In turn, the Holy Father sent his reply back along the same route. Major Butt then boarded the doomed ship on April 12.

He then perished while helping board women and children onto lifeboats, reportedly while keeping desperate men from stealing the few seats. The papal reply also perished at sea, along with more than 1500 souls.

What makes this story particularly intriguing is that the Vatican houses some of the oldest — and most historically significant — archives on the planet. And yet, the contents of this intriguing letter are lost to history.

[Read more from Catholic News Agency]

SHOCK: Teen’s alleged ISIS-inspired plot to kill Pope Francis in Philly

A teenager in New Jersey pled guilty to a bizarre plot to kill Pope Francis during his papal visit to the United States in 2015, AFP reported.

Santos Colon, who was 15 at the time, sought to recruit a sniper to shoot the Holy Father during Mass in Philadelphia and allegedly planned to set off explosives, the Justice Department said in a statement, according to AFP. Court documents indicated he planned to carry out the assassination in support of the Islamic State.

“Colon engaged someone he believed would be the sniper, but in reality was an undercover FBI employee. Colon engaged in target reconnaissance with an FBI confidential source and instructed the source to purchase materials to make explosive devices,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

The teen was quietly arrested 12 days before the event, AFP reported, as federal authorities launched one of the largest security operations in American history to ensure that the popular pontiff remained safe.

Pope Francis began the first leg of the trip with a stopover in D.C., where he visited the White House and Capitol, participated in a parade and canonized St. Junipero Serra on the steps of Washington’s basilica. In a city accustomed to high-profile visits and threats, the security operation was nearly unprecedented. The visit virtually shut down business in the capital of the free world.

The pontiff continued on to New York City, and then Philadelphia, where the city was heavily criticized for its preparations ahead of the visit. While Washington and New York are well-versed in hosting high-profile events, security fears ran deep in Philly.

Vatican’s liturgy chief blasts ‘devastation and the schism’ of modern liturgy

A high-ranking cardinal who oversees the Holy See’s liturgy office has blasted the liturgical changes following the Second Vatican Council, saying that the Catholic Church had “abandoned her Christian roots,” The Tablet reported.

In a speech marking the 10th anniversary of Pope Benedict’s controversial decree that revived the old Latin mass, Cardinal Robert Sarah argued that Catholics promoting “modern liturgy” had reduced the Mass to a “simple convivial meal,” The Tablet reported.

“Many believe and declare loud and long that Vatican Council II brought about a true springtime in the Church. Nevertheless, a growing number of Church leaders see this ‘springtime’ as a rejection, a renunciation of her centuries-old heritage, or even as a radical questioning of her past and tradition.”

“…we cannot close our eyes to the disaster, the devastation and the schism that the modern promoters of a living liturgy caused by remodelling the Church’s liturgy according to their ideas. They forgot that the liturgical act is not just a PRAYER [sic], but also and above all a MYSTERY [sic] in which something is accomplished for us that we cannot fully understand but that we must accept and receive in faith, love, obedience and adoring silence.”

It’s no secret that the cardinal is a fan of the old-school Catholic Mass. Last summer, he caused quite a stir when he called on priests to face east when celebrating Mass. The Vatican had to take the extraordinary step of having the pope’s spokesman deny that changes were coming in what some had speculated would be the biggest liturgical change that the Church had seen in a decade.

Christ’s tomb is at risk of ‘catastrophic’ collapse, scientists warn

After finishing a year-long restoration project on a small shrine that is believed to enclose the tomb of Christ, scientists have discovered that the shrine and the surrounding structure are at “very real risk” of catastrophic collapse, National Geographic reports.

“When it fails, the failure will not be a slow process, but catastrophic,” says Antonia Moropoulou, chief scientific supervisor.

Christianity’s holiest site sits on unstable footing, and it requires additional work to shore up its foundation. To complicate matters, the current church is built upon the remnants of various other structures and tunnels that existed over the millennia, National Geographic reports.

But fixing Christianity’s holiest site is going to be an extremely complicated task for two major reasons:

1.) The space is mega political — and Christians sometimes come to blows over it. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a sprawling complex that is believed to house quite a few sites from Christ’s Passion — including the tomb, Golgotha, and the anointing stone. The site is shared by six different Christian denominations and fistfights break out on occasion over perceived slights.

Getting the six groups to agree on any changes to the site is daunting. A ladder has stood on a facade of the church since the 1700s because the six groups haven’t agreed to move it. So all these groups would need to sign off on any major foundation work.

2.) Archeologists are going to be livid if foundation work destroys or alters earlier sites. One expert told National Geographic that there are “four or five major archaeological stages” under the shrine and any restoration efforts without an archaeological excavation “would be an intellectual scandal.”

[Read more from National Geographic]

Death of Baltimore cardinal signals growing influence of federal government in Church life, priest says

Cardinal William Keeler was buried in the Baltimore basilica earlier this week, as the city marks the passing of the man who led the archdiocese for 18 years.

But Keeler’s death also marked another turning point: Baltimore is now without a cardinal. Keeler retired in 2007, and his successor hasn’t been elevated to the College of Cardinals even though the prelate in Baltimore is usually given the red hat.

The Baltimore archdiocese used to include Washington, D.C., but that changed in 1939 when the nation’s capital got its own archdiocese. Now, Washington has a cardinal and Baltimore — which has the special distinction of being the oldest archdiocese — is going without.

In a compelling op-ed in Crux, Father Raymond J. De Souza says the move signals “not so subtly that political power is valued more than ecclesial heritage.”

From Souza, via Crux:

Will the Church be reduced to just another non-governmental organization doing good works, a situation that Pope Francis has warned about since his first day as pope?

America had a good solution in the old Baltimore archdiocese. Baltimore was close enough to Washington that the Church could be present in political matters rather easily. At the same time it wasn’t immersed in the Washington culture, home to every conceivable industry association, activist group, campaign consultant and lobbying firm, all competing in the insalubrious craft of influence-peddling. The Church always needs to keep its distance from the seat of power; even geographically if possible.

The Archdiocese of Washington apparently exists for the purpose of having a cardinal in the nation’s capital. There are good reasons for that, but the reasons are more secular than sacred, more government than gospel, more power than piety.

Talk of the emergence of the ‘religious left’ exploded online this week

Religion news and commentary sites across the Internet are racing this week to hail the arrival of the “religious left”Christian activists who feel emboldened with the rise of President Trump and openly plan to challenge him on religious grounds.

While the impact of this loose collection of liberal Christians is likely overstated, there’s no denying that faithful progressives are having a moment. And nowhere is this truer than in the American Catholic Church.

For a long time, progressive Catholics sat quietly by as priests and bishops across the United States focused a large amount of homily time and resources on the abortion and contraception fight. It’s not that these progressives were necessarily opposed to Church teaching on these issues (Catholics are less ideological than most people give them credit for), but there was definitely a feeling that more time was spent on the pro-life causes and not enough on social justice causes such as poverty, health care and education.

Some progressive Catholics were particularly disheartened during the 2004 election when Archbishop Raymond Burke forbade Democratic nominee John Kerry from receiving Communion. It became clear that many clergymen were inclined to see the Catholic politician defeated by a sitting president that launched a war that Pope John Paul II called a “defeat for humanity.”

More than a decade later, things have changed considerably. With an ally in the White House on the issue of abortion, the American bishops have turned their focus to pet causes of progressive Catholics — namely immigration, poverty and healthcare — proving that in the Catholic Church at least, the “religious left is having a moment. All thanks to President Trump.

Related: Trump’s Catholic supporters come under fire over travel ban

Archdiocese of Mexico: Working on Trump’s border wall is treason

The Archdiocese of Mexico is out with another biting editorial that takes on Mexican companies that plan to assist the Trump administration in the construction of the controversial border wall.

An editorial from the archdiocese — titled “Treason against the Homeland” — says “what is most surprising is the timidity of the Mexican government’s economic authorities, who have not moved firmly against these companies,” the Associated Press reported.

Materials for the border wall will likely need to come from both sides of the border, as The Washington Post notes. Mexico’s largest cement company has come under fire after its chairman reportedly said he’d “gladly” consider a bid.

The archdiocese’s latest commentary follows harsh criticism leveled on Mexican leaders just last month. That editorial also decried Trump’s immigration policies as “migrant terrorism.”

Both heated editorials raise an interesting prospect: They seem to show that Catholic Church officials in Mexico are much more nationalist compared to their American counterparts, who have criticized some of President Trump’s policies without appearing partisan or outlandish.

An Ignatian retreat can literally change your brain, science suggests

Advocates who say that spirituality can alter your mind are getting a boost from science, at least according to one study.

Researchers studied brain responses of pilgrims on Ignatian retreats and found that the retreats appeared to cause “significant changes” to the brain with rises in serotonin and dopamine transporters, the Catholic Herald reported.

“Since serotonin and dopamine are part of the reward and emotional systems of the brain, it helps us understand why these practices result in powerful, positive emotional experiences,” said Andrew Newberg, M.D., Director of Research in the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, according to Science Daily.

“Our study showed significant changes in dopamine and serotonin transporters after the seven-day retreat, which could help prime participants for the spiritual experiences that they reported.”

The Ignatian spiritual exercises — which are composed of “prayer, meditation, and self-awareness” and form the basis of the retreats — were developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century and have become one of the most popular spiritual brands in Catholicism.

Jesuits around the world do one of the most popular of the spiritual exercises, the Daily Examen.

Here are the key elements of the Examen, via the Jesuits:

1. Place yourself in God’s presence. Give thanks for God’s great love for you.

2. Pray for the grace to understand how God is acting in your life.

3. Review your day — recall specific moments and your feelings at the time.

4. Reflect on what you did, said, or thought in those instances. Were you drawing closer to God, or further away?

5. Look toward tomorrow — think of how you might collaborate more effectively with God’s plan. Be specific, and conclude with the “Our Father.”

[Read more about Ignatian Spirituality]