Obama meets with pope at time of ‘tense’ relations with Church

VATICAN CITY (CNA/EWTN News)–U.S. President Barack Obama’s March 27 meeting with Pope Francis comes at a time of tension between his administration and the Church over religious liberty, several Catholic leaders have said.

“There has been a great deal of acrimony over issues related to religious freedom. This is something new and quite serious, since it affects the ability of the Church to carry out its mission,” V. Bradley Lewis, a philosophy professor at the Catholic University of America, told Catholic News Agency March 26.

He said relations between the U.S. government and the Catholic Church are “quite vexed … I don’t believe they have been this vexed in my memory.”

Many Catholic dioceses, charities, universities, health care systems, and even the Little Sisters of the Poor, have filed legal challenges against the Obama administration’s mandate requiring most employers to cover or aid access to procedures and drugs that violate Catholic teaching: sterilization and contraception, including some abortion-causing drugs.

Lewis said that the contraception mandate has been “a source of great tension,” it is “not an isolated incident.”

The Obama administration has revised conscience protection rules in federal health care law, and argued against protecting the hiring decisions of religious groups before the U.S. Supreme Court – an argument rejected in a unanimous decision by the justices.

The administration also ended a contract with the U.S. bishops to help human trafficking victims. Its allies opposed the grant because the program would not facilitate access to abortion and contraception.

Lewis commented that Pope Francis is in a “very strong position” to make a case to the president about the importance of religious freedom, “in a way that cannot be perceived as politically motivated.”

“I hope the president will listen.”

Chad Pecknold, a religion professor at the Catholic University of America, agreed with Lewis that the Obama administration’s relationship with the Catholic Church has been “tense.”

“Some bishops have described the administration as hostile to the Catholic Church, and coercive of conscience.”

He attributed these hostilities largely to the government’s agenda, rather from “any hostility of the Church toward the duly-elected government.”

Pecknold said Pope Francis is not unaware of these tensions, and though he will have wanted to diffuse them, “he will almost certainly seek to stand with the fight for religious liberty, to defend the weak and unborn against the unjust exercise of free choice.” He said it was unusual for U.S. presidents to visit the pope until after the Second Vatican Council; but since John F. Kennedy’s presidency, every U.S. president has met with the pope.

“This particular meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis is significant as their first meeting, and because of perceived symmetries between them on questions of economic justice,” Pecknold reflected.

However, he added that such meetings are “so often symbolic,” and it is uncertain whether substantive discussions take place.
Lewis said the pope is a “unique world leader” who has “no particular political or geopolitical agenda or interest.”

“His agenda is the Gospel and his authority is moral and spiritual in nature,” he added, suggesting other world leaders value discussions with the pope because “he has no ulterior motives” and because so many of their citizens consider him a spiritual leader.

Maryann Cusimano Love, a fellow of the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, said the Church and the U.S. government have “many areas of common concern” in foreign policy and Pope Francis and Obama were likely to discuss these.
She noted their shared concern for peace and anti-poverty work, and suggested they could discuss nuclear weapons, since Obama is in Europe to host the Nuclear Security Summit.

“For the first time, a U.S. president … has agreed to the Catholic Church’s call for a world free of nuclear weapons,” Love said.
She noted the United States and the Holy See can find common ground in opposition to world hunger and human trafficking. Immigration issues are another point of discussion.

However, she noted that the U.S. government is arming and funding the military capacities of governments such as Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, as well as non-state combatants in Syria, while the Church has emphasized the need to reduce trade in guns and conventional weapons that can worsen conflicts.

“Bishops in Africa and Latin America will tell you that their countries are awash in guns that were ‘Made in the USA,’” Love said.
According to Love, both the Holy See and the U.S. government “work for peace in the Middle East,” though the Holy See supports stronger protections for Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians.

And Msgr. Anthony Figueiredo, director of the North American College’s Institute for Continuing Theological Education, told Vatican Radio March 26 that while “the Church … is looking for points we have in common,” the Holy See is “very concerned about questions, for example, of religious freedom.”

The Church is “concerned about ethical issues such as the destruction of the family by laws which propose gay marriage or ‘liberty’ in so many ways.”

“We believe in something else: We believe that there is a law placed in our hearts by God, and no one has the right to change that law. In fact, when one lives that law, one finds true freedom and true joy.”

“That’s what the Church wants, and certainly that is what this pope wants.”

Following Obama’s meeting with Pope Francis, and later with officials of the Secretariat of State, the Holy See press office stated that “views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.”
“In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in (the U.S), such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.”

 

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”