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The hidden message in ancient ‘O Antiphons’ of Advent

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Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 4, 2022 / 07:00 am (CNA).

An emeritus Texas bishop is highlighting an Advent message hidden in the O Antiphons — prayers that are recited or chanted in an ancient tradition leading up to Christmas.

“Composed in the sixth or seventh century, the seven O Antiphons are drawn from the Book of the prophet Isaiah and the first letters of each antiphon form the Latin word SARCORE, which read backwards is ERO CRAS, which means ‘Tomorrow I come,’” Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer, OMI, bishop emeritus of San Angelo, wrote in a December statement.

Pfeifer, who served as the bishop of San Angelo from 1985 to 2013, listed the O Antiphons, which are said Dec. 17–23 during Vespers (the Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours) and Masses. The first letters spell the message in an acrostic:

Dec. 17 — “O Sapientia”/“O Wisdom” (Isaiah 11:2-3; 28:29) 

Dec. 18 — “O Adonai”/“O Lord” (Isaiah 11:4-5; 33:22)

Dec. 19 — “O Radix Jesse”/“O Root of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1; 11:10) 

Dec. 20 — “O Clavis David”/“O Key of David” (Isaiah 9:6; 22:22) 

Dec. 21 — “O Oriens”/“O Dawn of the East” (Isaiah 9:2) 

Dec. 22 — “O Rex Gentiu”/“O King of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 2:4; 9:7) 

Dec. 23 — “O Emmanuel”/“God with Us” (Isaiah 7:14)

Together, these antiphons spell out “a hopeful message about the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, of Jesus as we prepare for his birthday each year on Dec. 25,” Pfeifer said.

He went on to explain why they end on Dec. 23.

“Traditionally feasts were said to begin on the eve of their celebration, so Christmas begins at sundown on Dec. 24,” he wrote.

The message in the antiphons holds true today, Pfeifer emphasized.

“Each Christmas Jesus fulfills the promise ‘I will come tomorrow’ by being born again as a tiny baby, the Godman, Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “We can make the following O Antiphons part of our Advent preparation for the birth of Christ by using them in our prayers or Advent scriptural readings.”

He added: “Then in gratitude and joy we celebrate the birth of our long-awaited savior, Jesus Christ — Christmas.”

The seven prayers accompany the Magnificat canticle, or the canticle of Mary, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The USCCB lists the text of the O Antiphons, each asking the Messiah to come and, together, spelling out his response in the acrostic.

“They are a magnificent theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but present ones as well,” the U.S. bishops say on their website.

Pfeifer shared other recommendations to help prepare for Christmas.

“My strong pastoral message for Advent each year is ‘don’t forget the baby!’” he told CNA.

“First, when we think of a gift, let us open our hearts to receive the gift the baby wants to be for us,” he said. “Then, before all other gifts, we find in our hearts the gift we want to give the baby on his birthday.”

Pope Francis: It’s never too late to begin again

Pope Francis gives his Angelus address on Dec. 26, 2021. / Credit: Vatican Media.

Vatican City, Dec 4, 2022 / 06:15 am (CNA).

St. John the Baptist reminds us that Advent is a privileged time to turn back toward God — something it is never too late to do, Pope Francis said Sunday.

“And let us remember one thing: with Jesus, there is always the possibility of beginning again. It’s never too late,” the pope said in his Angelus message Dec. 4.

“Let us listen to John the Baptist’s appeal to return to God,” he continued. “And let us not let this Advent go by like days on the calendar, because this is a moment of grace, a grace for us too, here and now.”

In his speech before the Angelus prayer, Pope Francis reflected on the message of St. John the Baptist to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

“There is always the possibility to begin again. Be courageous,” the pope urged, adding that Jesus “is near to us and this is the time of conversion.”

Pope Francis said “everyone might think: ‘I have this situation inside, this problem that I am ashamed of.’ But Jesus is next to you. Begin again. There is always the possibility of taking a step forward. He is waiting for us and never gets tired of us. He never gets tired.”

The pope’s message, spoken from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, focused on the day’s Gospel from St. Matthew.

He explained that St. John the Baptist, who “wore a garment of camel’s hair” and ate “locusts and wild honey,” was inviting everyone to conversion.

John the Baptist “was an austere and radical man, who at first sight might appear to be harsh and could instill a certain fear,” Francis said. “But then again, we can ask ourselves why the Church proposes him each year as our primary traveling companion during this Season of Advent. What is hidden underneath his severity, behind his apparent harshness? What is John’s secret? What is the message the Church gives us today with John?”

John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, was “allergic to duplicity,” he said, pointing out that when the Pharisees and Sadducees, known for their hypocrisy, approach him, John had a strong “allergic reaction.”

St. John the Baptist’s response to the Pharisees can give us a lot to think about, Francis said, including asking ourselves if we are like the Pharisees, who judge others, and think we have our lives under control, who think “that we don’t need God, or the Church, or our brothers or sisters on a daily basis.”

“Advent,” the pope continued, “is a moment of grace to take off our masks — every one of us has them — and line up with those who are humble, to be liberated from the presumption of the belief of being self-sufficient, to go to confess our sins, the hidden ones, and to welcome God’s pardon, to ask forgiveness from those whom we have offended.”

“This is how to begin a new life. There is only one way, the way of humility — to be purified from the sense of superiority, from formalism and hypocrisy, to see ourselves, along with our brothers and sisters, as sinners, and to see Jesus as the Savior who comes for us, not for the others, for us, just as we are, with our poverty, misery and failings, above all with our need to be raised up, forgiven and saved,” he said.

PHOTOS: Vatican Christmas tree lighting ceremony 2022

The Vatican’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony on Dec. 3, 2022. / Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Vatican City, Dec 3, 2022 / 13:10 pm (CNA).

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at the Vatican. A large hand-carved wooden nativity scene was unveiled in St. Peter Square on Saturday night at the Vatican’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

Cardinal Fernando Vérgez Alzaga presided over the ceremony on Dec. 3. Due to heavy rain and thunderstorms, the celebration took place inside Vatican City’s Paul VI Hall with a video live-stream from St. Peter’s Square of the Christmas tree lighting .

The Christmas tree is a nearly 100-foot-tall white fir from Rosello, a mountain village with around 182 inhabitants in the central Italian region of Abruzzo.

The tree was adorned with ornaments made by children at a psychiatric rehabilitation center in Italy. Other decorations for the tree were crafted by residents at a nursing home and schoolchildren from Abruzzo.

The tree is adorned with ornaments made by children at a psychiatric rehabilitation center in Italy. Other decorations for the tree were crafted by residents at a nursing home and schoolchildren from Abruzzo. Daniel Ibanez/CNA
The tree is adorned with ornaments made by children at a psychiatric rehabilitation center in Italy. Other decorations for the tree were crafted by residents at a nursing home and schoolchildren from Abruzzo. Daniel Ibanez/CNA

The outdoor nativity scene is made of life-sized figures hand carved out of alpine cedar trees from Italy’s northeasternmost region, Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Vatican nativity scene 2022. Daniel Ibanez/CNA
Vatican nativity scene 2022. Daniel Ibanez/CNA

The scene includes a wooden grotto with an ox, donkey, angel, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. The wooden figures will also have tradesmen and tradeswomen typical of the area where the nativity was made, a shepherdess, and a family and children.

Vatican nativity scene 2022. Daniel Ibanez/CNA
Vatican nativity scene 2022. Daniel Ibanez/CNA

The Vatican has placed a nativity scene in front of St. Peter’s Basilica for the Christmas season since the 1980s. For about a decade, the Vatican has asked different countries or Italian regions to lend the nativity to be displayed. In 2021, the scene came from Peru.

This year the Vatican is also displaying an indoor nativity scene donated by the government of Guatemala inside the Paul VI Hall, where Pope Francis receives many audiences in December.

Pope Francis spent time in silent prayer in front of a nativity scene handmade by artisan craftsmen in Guatemala on Dec. 3, 2022. Photo courtesy of the Embassy of Guatemala to the Holy See
Pope Francis spent time in silent prayer in front of a nativity scene handmade by artisan craftsmen in Guatemala on Dec. 3, 2022. Photo courtesy of the Embassy of Guatemala to the Holy See

The Holy Family and three angels were handmade by Guatemalan artisans in the local tradition using large golden crowns for the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.

Pope Francis spent time in silent prayer in front of the nativity scene set up in Paul VI Hall on Saturday morning ahead of the ceremony.

In an audience with delegations from the communities that donated the nativity scenes and the Christmas tree, the pope said that the Christmas tree with its lights is a reminder of Jesus who “comes to illuminate our darkness, our existence often shrouded in the shadow of sin, fear, pain.”

The lights on the Vatican's nearly 100-foot Christmas tree were lit on Dec. 3, 2022. Daniel Ibanez/CNA
The lights on the Vatican's nearly 100-foot Christmas tree were lit on Dec. 3, 2022. Daniel Ibanez/CNA

“Yes, God loves us so much that he shares our humanity and our lives. He never leaves us alone; He is by our side in every circumstance, in joy as in sorrow. Even in the worst of times, He is there, because He is the Emmanuel, the God with us, the light that illuminates the darkness and the tender presence that accompanies us on our journey,” Pope Francis said.

Pope Francis blesses Nativity scene made by craftsmen in Guatemala

Pope Francis spent time in silent prayer in front of a nativity scene handmade by artisan craftsmen in Guatemala on Dec. 3, 2022. / Photo courtesy of the Embassy of Guatemala to the Holy See

Vatican City, Dec 3, 2022 / 12:00 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis blessed a Nativity scene on Saturday that was handmade by artisan craftsmen in Guatemala.

Guatemala’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mario Búcaro led a delegation that traveled from the Latin American country to be present for the Nativity scene’s inauguration in Vatican City’s Paul VI Hall on Dec. 3.

“It is the first time in history that our country presents a Nativity scene in the Vatican, a beautiful work of sacred art, personally delivered to Pope Francis and, therefore, also a gift from the people of Guatemala in anticipation of Christmas,” Búcaro said.

Guests of the Embassy of Guatemala to the Holy See at the Nativity's inauguration. Embassy of Guatemala to the Holy See
Guests of the Embassy of Guatemala to the Holy See at the Nativity's inauguration. Embassy of Guatemala to the Holy See

The Nativity scene was made by the combined effort of more than 30 artisans. It features the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, wearing large golden crowns, in a manger surrounded by angels.

Nativity scene handmade by artisan craftsmen in Guatemala. Embassy of Guatemala to the Holy See
Nativity scene handmade by artisan craftsmen in Guatemala. Embassy of Guatemala to the Holy See

At the Nativity’s inauguration, Pope Francis explained that the Nativity scene tells of “the birth of the Son of God who became man to be close to each of us.”

“In its genuine poverty, the Nativity scene helps us to rediscover the true richness of Christmas,” the pope said.

“Simple and familiar, the Nativity scene recalls a different Christmas from the consumerist and commercial one. … It reminds us how good it is for us to cherish moments of silence and prayer in our days, which are often overwhelmed by frenzy.”

In St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican has also displayed an outdoor wooden Nativity scene hand carved from alpine cedar trees from Italy’s northeasternmost region, Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

Pope Francis recommended silent prayer and contemplation of the Christ child in a Nativity scene as an intimate experience of God’s humility and tenderness.

Pope Francis blessed a nativity scene that was handmade by artisan craftsmen in Guatemala on Dec. 3, 2022. Vatican Media
Pope Francis blessed a nativity scene that was handmade by artisan craftsmen in Guatemala on Dec. 3, 2022. Vatican Media

“And if we really want to celebrate Christmas, let us rediscover through the Nativity scene the surprise and wonder of littleness, the littleness of God, who made himself small, who was not born in the splendor of appearance, but in the poverty of a stable,” Pope Francis said.

The Guatemalan Nativity scene will remain on display in Paul VI Hall until Jan. 8, when the Church celebrates the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Pope Francis: The Church has a duty to welcome people with disabilities

Pope Francis celebrates the International Day of Disabled Persons at the Vatican on Dec. 3, 2022. / Vatican Media

Vatican City, Dec 3, 2022 / 07:30 am (CNA).

Pope Francis celebrated the International Day of Disabled Persons on Saturday at the Vatican with a group of children with disabilities and their families.

In a private audience inside the Apostolic Palace on Dec. 3, the pope greeted each of the families present and said: “Your witness is a concrete sign of peace, a sign of hope for a more humane and fraternal world for everyone.”

Pope Francis underlined his desire for all Christian communities to be true places of “belonging and inclusion.”

“There is no inclusion if it only remains a slogan, a formula to be used in politically correct speeches,” he added.

The pope said: “Promoting recognition of the dignity of every person is a constant responsibility of the Church: it is the mission of continuing over time the closeness of Jesus Christ to every man and woman, especially those who are most fragile and vulnerable.”

The United Nations proclaimed Dec. 3 the annual International Day of Disabled Persons 30 years ago.

More than one billion people, about 15% of the world's population, live with some form of disability, according to the UN.

Pope Francis released an official message for the 2022 International Day of Disabled Persons in which he asked people to be “mindful of the sufferings of all those women and men with disabilities who live in the midst of war, or have been themselves disabled as a result of warfare.”

The pope also expressed gratitude for the participation of people with disabilities in the Church’s Synod on Synodality process.

“The Synod, above all by its invitation to journey together and to listen to one another, can help us understand how in the Church — also with regard to the disabled — there can be no us and them, but a single us, with Jesus Christ at the center, where each person brings his or her own gifts and limitations,” he said.

“This awareness, founded on the fact that we are all part of the same vulnerable humanity assumed and sanctified by Christ, eliminates arbitrary distinctions and opens the door to the participation of each baptized member in the life of the Church.”

Pope Francis added: “Encounter and fraternity break down the walls of misunderstanding and overcome discrimination; this is why I trust that every Christian community will be open to the presence of our brothers and sisters with disabilities, and ensure that they are always welcomed and fully included.”

The unlikely hero of India: St. Francis Xavier 

A 17th-century Japanese depiction of St. Francis Xavier, from the Kobe City Museum collection. / Public Domain.

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 3, 2022 / 04:00 am (CNA).

How far would you go to serve God? 

Would you be willing to travel to the ends of the earth, with nothing but the guarantee of hardship, deprivation, and persecution? 

Today’s feast celebrates the life of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries and missions, who led an unlikely life of adventure and heroism, full of unexpected twists and turns, taking the faith to the ends of the earth. 

Born in 1506 to a noble Navarrese-Basque family, Francis grew up in a land wracked with war. Wedged between the growing imperial powers of Castile-Aragon (Spain) and France, Navarre seldom knew peace during Francis’ childhood. 

As a member of the nobility, Francis was expected to lead a warrior’s life along with his father and brothers. 

But at the age of 10, Francis’ life took its first dramatic and tragic turn. His father died, his homeland Kingdom of Navarre was defeated by Spain, his brothers were imprisoned, and his childhood home, the Castle of the House of Javier (Xavier), was almost entirely destroyed. 

With his family disgraced and nearly wiped out, Francis’ prospects for a bright future were looking dim. But God still had incredible plans for young Francis. 

Hoping to rebuild the family’s legacy, Francis was sent in 1525 to the center of European theology and studies, the University of Paris.

In Paris, Francis quickly made a name for himself. Handsome with a keen intellect and an agile athlete with a particular gift for pole vaulting, the last thing on young Francis’ mind was a life of humble service to God and the Church. 

Yet Francis’ life took a second dramatic turn after he met a fellow Basque noble, Ignatius of Loyola. Headstrong and stubborn, Francis was initially repelled by Ignatius’ ideas of radical devotion to God. But Ignatius would remind him of Jesus’ words in the Bible: “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

Inspired by Ignatius’ piety and fervor, Francis finally decided to dedicate his life to the service of God. In 1534, along with Ignatius and five others, Francis took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a chapel at Montmartre in France.

Receiving Holy Orders alongside Ignatius in 1537, Francis had intended to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But war in the region had made such a journey impossible. Once again, God was about to unexpectedly and radically alter the course of Francis’ life.

Pope Leo III asked the newly founded Jesuits to send missionaries to the Portuguese colonies in India. Though he was originally not supposed to go, one of the Jesuits assigned to the mission fell ill, and Francis volunteered in his place. Through that courageous act of trust, God would use Francis to transform the entire Asian continent.

Francis set out for India in 1541, on his 35th birthday. Traveling by sea at this time was extremely uncomfortable, and those who dared to do so risked disease with no guarantee of ever successfully arriving at their destination. Francis had to sail all the way around Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope, almost to the very bottom of the globe, just to cross the Indian Ocean and arrive in Goa, a province in India.

Upon arriving in India in 1542, Francis immediately faced countless challenges in bringing the word of God to the people of this new and strange region. For seven years Francis preached in the streets and public squares, laboring tirelessly across India and the Asian Pacific islands, contending with persecution from warlords and at times even from the Portuguese authorities meant to help him. 

After converting tens of thousands and planting the seeds of a renewed and lasting Christian Church in India, Francis began to hear stories about an enchanting island nation known as “Japan.” Francis’ heart was set ablaze with the desire to bring the Gospel to Japan. After he had ensured the faithful in India would be properly cared for, Francis set sail for the mysterious new land, becoming the first to bring the Christian faith to Japan, on the complete opposite side of the world from his home in Navarre. He was truly going to the ends of the earth in service of God. 

In Japan, Francis and his companions traveled far and wide, often on foot and with almost no resources. Crisscrossing the nation, he built up a vibrant Christian community over 6,000 miles from Rome. 

Francis would later hear of the even more mysterious and closely guarded nation of China and here, too, he decided to bring the word of God. But before he could find a way into China’s heartland, Francis got sick and died in 1552, while on the Chinese Shangchuan Island. 

Now considered one of the greatest of all the Church’s missionaries, St. Francis Xavier proved that one life lived in complete trust in God can transform an entire continent and the whole world. 

More clergy accused of child sexual abuse in California as important deadline nears

null / Shutterstock

Boston, Mass., Dec 2, 2022 / 17:15 pm (CNA).

As California’s three-year window to file child sex abuse lawsuits past the statute of limitations nears its conclusion, 66 Catholic clergy and religious have been named in 116 lawsuits in Alameda County, which covers the area between San Francisco and San Jose.

Additionally, 14 of the clergy members and religious identified in the lawsuits are named for the first time, the law firm of Jeff Anderson & Associates announced Nov. 28. 

The law firm said that the 116 lawsuits may be a small percentage of the total number of suits filed under the California Child Victims Act, which was passed in 2019.

The legislation allowed a three-year period in which victims of child sex abuse could come forward with claims that would have expired under the previous statute of limitations. The window began Jan. 1, 2020, and will expire in less than a month. The bill was signed by Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The legislation allows one to file a civil lawsuit for child sexual abuse up to the age of 40, or within five years from the date that the plaintiff “discovers or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness occurring” after the age of 18 was caused by the abuse.

Previously, claims had to be filed by age 26, or within three years of discovering damages from the abuse. Dec. 31 is the last day to file a lawsuit before the window closes.

“The California Child Victims Act has helped hundreds of survivors seek justice and healing,” attorney Jeff Anderson said in a statement. “This law is a major advancement in the child protection movement, and we applaud all of the survivors who have come forward. But time is running out. Survivors must act before the Dec. 31 deadline.”

Andy Rivas, the then executive director of the California Catholic Conference of Bishops, said at the the time the law, known as AB 218, passed that the Church viewed it as a “step forward."

“Ultimately, our hope is that all victim-survivors of childhood sexual abuse in all institutional settings will be able to have their pain and suffering addressed and resolved and so our prayers are that AB 218 will be a step forward in that direction,” Rivas said.

“The Catholic Church has confronted this issue of child sexual abuse for more than two decades now,” he said. “It is a legacy of shame for all of us in the Church, and we are aware that nothing can undo the violence done to victim-survivors or restore the innocence and trust that was taken from them.”

According to the law firm, the lawsuits allege that the abuse occurred within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the Diocese of Fresno, the Diocese of Monterey, the Diocese of Oakland, the Diocese of Sacramento, the Diocese of San Jose, and the Diocese of Santa Rosa.

Brother Salvatore Billante and Father Stephen Kiesle were accused most frequently, according to the law firm. Billante was accused at least 11 times and Kiesle was accused at least nine times, the law firm said. Billante’s alleged abuse took place at locations in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Kiesle’s alleged abuse took place at locations in the Diocese of Oakland.

Fourteen of the allegations named clergy members for the first time. Their names, reported by the law firm, are Father James Corley, Father Sidney Hall, Father John A. Lynch, Father John Francis Scanlon, Father William Dodson, Father Henry Hall, Sister M. Rosella McConnell, Father Joseph Watt, Father Elwood Geary, Father Domingos S. Jacque, Brother U Benedict Reams, Father Robert Gemmet, Father Robert H. Lewis, and Father Christian Sandholdt.

It’s unclear whether the 66 accused clergy and religious are living or deceased, and where they are living, the law firm said. The names of the 66 accused clergy and religious can be seen here.

“The vast majority of claims against these individuals have not been fully evaluated in a civil or criminal court,” the law firm said. 

“The allegations should not be considered proven or substantiated in a court of law. All individuals should be considered innocent until proven guilty.”

Several other states, such as New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Arizona, Montana, Hawaii, Vermont, and North Carolina have also passed legislation opening windows for lawsuits past the statute of limitations. 

Pope Francis’ watch auctioned off and proceeds set a world record

null / Credit: Shutterstock

CNA Newsroom, Dec 2, 2022 / 16:45 pm (CNA).

A watch worn by Pope Francis was sold Wednesday at a charity auction and set a new world record for the brand.

The LaViolette Scholarship Foundation auctioned off a Swatch Once Again watch Nov. 30 that Francis had worn for much of his pontificate.

The watch, which can be found at the brand's official store for $55, was finally sold for $56,250 — more than 1,000 times its retail value — making it the Swatch watch for which the most money has ever been paid.

Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, sent a letter to the Holy Father in May telling him about the life of Brian LaViolette, a teenage watch collector who died at the age of 15 in a swimming accident.

In the letter, Ricken asked the pontiff to donate one of his cheapest watches to be auctioned by the LaViolette Foundation, which offers financial help for students to go to college.

The Holy Father agreed to the request and the auction of the watch joins those of other famous people such as Fred Savage, Joe Theismann, Terry Bradshaw, Condoleezza Rice, and Randall Park.

It’s not the first time that Pope Francis has donated things for auction.

Less than a year after being elected pope, Harley-Davidson gave the pope a motorcycle that, after he autographed it, was sold for $285,000.

The money raised was used to renovate the “Don Luigi Liegro” shelter, which welcomes the homeless or jobless.

Then in November 2017, Lamborghini gave one of its most exclusive cars to the Supreme Pontiff, who decided to auction it off and allocate the money to numerous charitable works.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Vermont to allow religious schools to use state assistance after settling lawsuit

null / Stephen Kiers/Shutterstock

St. Louis, Mo., Dec 2, 2022 / 16:15 pm (CNA).

Religious private schools in Vermont will now be allowed to make use of a state tuition assistance program that previously excluded them, after the state settled two lawsuits on the matter Nov. 30.

Vermont’s Town Tuition Program provides tuition benefits for students who live in towns without public schools, and it previously allowed payments to secular private schools but not religious ones. As part of the settlements, state and local government officials agreed that Vermont’s exclusion of religious private schools from the program is unconstitutional and unenforceable.

The Diocese of Burlington, which includes the entire state and serves some 2,300 students at 13 schools, was party to both lawsuits, as were several private-school families.

“We are glad that our schools will finally be included along with the other private and public schools as a choice for students that do not have a school in their town,” Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington said in a statement to CNA.

The lawsuits were filed by attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal group. Thomas McCormick, a longtime Vermont lawyer who works with the ADF Attorney Network, is serving as local counsel on behalf of the families and the Diocese of Burlington.

On Wednesday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont entered a stipulated judgment enforcing the settlement agreement. Under the settlements, the plaintiff families who requested tuition but were wrongly denied by their school districts will be reimbursed for the tuition they paid out of pocket, ADF stated. The school districts will reimburse the plaintiff families directly; other families will have the opportunity to request reimbursement from the school districts. The state of Vermont and the school districts will also pay the families’ attorney fees, ADF said.

Vermont’s school choice program dates to 1869. The state has barred religious schools from the program since 1999, following a state Supreme Court ruling that held that public funds may not be used to "support any place of worship” under Vermont’s constitution. The lawsuits against the state were filed more than two decades later, in 2020.

The settlements in the present cases come in light of a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June in the case Carson v. Makin. In that decision, the court ruled 6-3 that Maine’s policy barring students in a student-aid program from using their aid to attend “sectarian” schools violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

In that decision, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that having chosen to fund private schools through its aid program, Maine cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious. The state “pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion. A state’s antiestablishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.”

Other recent cases before the Supreme Court have led to favorable results for advocates of school choice. In its June 2020 decision Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the court struck down as a violation of the free exercise clause a state scholarship program that excluded religious schools. And in 2017, the court found in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer that a church-owned playground can be eligible for a public benefit program.

Meet Lorie Smith, the Christian artist with a Supreme Court free speech case

Lorie Smith, owner and founder of 303 Creative / Credit: Alliance Defending Freedom

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 2, 2022 / 15:45 pm (CNA).

Ever since she was a young girl, Lorie Smith has loved weddings. Now, as an artist with her own studio, she says she wants to help others celebrate their big day. But she feels like she can’t — because she is a Christian who believes that marriage is between a man and a woman.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in her case303 Creative LLC v. Elenis — on Monday, Dec. 5.

The 38-year-old graphic artist and website designer from the Denver metro area is challenging Colorado’s anti-discrimination law that she says would compel her to use her artistic talents, or speech, to create messages celebrating same-sex weddings. At the same time, Colorado argues that the case is one about discrimination: If someone sells a product in the public sphere, he or she has to sell it to all people.

For her part, Smith stressed that she creates for everyone with her company, 303 Creative.

“I serve everyone, including those who identify as LGBT,” she told CNA. “I love to custom create and will work with anyone — there are simply some messages I can’t create regardless of who asks me.”

Her case, she said, is about freedom of speech for all artists.

“I want the LGBT graphic designer to be free to create consistent with her beliefs, and the Democrat speechwriter and the atheist photographer,” she said. “A win in my case is truly a win for all Americans.”

Represented by faith-based legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Smith is challenging Colorado officials, including Aubrey Elenis, the director of the Colorado Civil Rights Division. The case centers on the question of “whether applying a public-accommodation law to compel an artist to speak or stay silent violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”

Right now, Smith said that she is compelled.

“After I started my own design studio, I wanted to expand my portfolio to custom create art and websites to tell stories about weddings, but Colorado made it clear I wasn’t welcome in that space,” she said. “Colorado officials are censoring my speech and forcing me to speak messages about marriage that are inconsistent with my beliefs — the core of who I am.”

She added: “Not wanting to be punished for saying what I believe, I had no choice but to challenge this unjust law.”

Smith is optimistic that the Supreme Court justices will agree with her.

“I love to design art — every word I write, every graphic I design, and every website I craft expresses a unique and custom message,” she said. “I’m hopeful that the Supreme Court will ensure that the government can’t force myself or anyone to say something they don’t believe.”

While Smith considers her creative skills a gift to glorify God, she revealed that she was not always a Christian.

“My faith journey began after I lost my uncle, who was like a father to me, to a tragic accident,” she said. “I couldn’t understand why bad things could happen to good people, so I set out on a journey to try to disprove the existence of God.”

Instead, she said, she found God.

“I attended church regularly to equip my arsenal of evidence against him,” she said. “But God had other plans, and it was through this process that he brought me to faith, and that changed my entire life. Now, everything I do or say and how I love other people, I do for his glory.”

According to Smith, her case has only drawn her closer to God.

“As I’ve navigated the highs and lows of the past six years of litigation, including death threats, hate mail, and even having my home address posted on social media, I have grown much in my faith,” she said.

“I know that my stand for free speech is for everyone, regardless of who they are or how they identify,” she added. “I know my stand will protect even those who disagree with me or who say uncharitable things about me. I know the freedom of speech is worthy of protecting and I want all Americans — and the next generation — to be able to enjoy this incredible freedom.”

She concluded: “My faith has inspired me to continue to stand for this important truth.”

Lorie Smith, owner and founder of 303 Creative. Credit: Alliance Defending Freedom
Lorie Smith, owner and founder of 303 Creative. Credit: Alliance Defending Freedom

Jake Warner, senior counsel for ADF, explained how Smith’s art translates into speech.

“She creates words, pictures, and graphics. And all of those things are what the Supreme Court calls ‘pure speech’ because they express a message,” he said, adding that Colorado has conceded the same about Smith’s work.

Rather than having one product to sell to all, Smith’s creations are tailored to her every client, he said. Every website or graphic is custom-made, with different names, pictures, and details.

This is not the first time ADF has represented a Coloradan Christian artist at the Supreme Court. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled on a case brought by Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, after he refused to create a cake for a same-sex wedding. With that case, Warner said the court ruled that Colorado had discriminated against Phillips and that his free exercise rights were violated.

“It didn’t reach the free speech issue raised in that case, which is the one that the 303 case, or that Lorie Smith’s case, raises now,” he said. “Can the government force an artist to express a message that goes against their deeply-held beliefs?”