Opinion by Francis DeBernardo, special to CNN
(CNN) – I could hardly believe what I was reading as I saw the news Monday morning that Catholic clergy meeting in Rome said gay and lesbian people should be welcomed into the church more warmly.
After decades of hearing messages from high church officials that lesbian and gay people were a threat to humanity and a danger to children, I had to rub my eyes a few times to make sure that I was reading this new, more positive language correctly.
Was this really coming from the Catholic Church?
Most significantly, the document calls on Catholic communities to be “accepting and valuing” of lesbian and gay people's sexual orientation, and to recognize that lesbian and gay people “have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.'”
Quite simply, this is a total reversal of earlier church statements that labelled such an orientation as "objectively disordered," and which viewed gay and lesbian people in faith communities as problems and suspect persons.
The new language recognizes for the first time the reality that I have witnessed in more than 20 years of ministry with lesbian and gay Catholics: “they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home.”
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Editor
(CNN)– Will the World Cup final become a "Holy War"?
At the very least, Sunday's match could put millions of Catholics - not to mention Vatican employees - in a bit of a bind.
Will they root for Argentina, the homeland of Pope Francis, who is known to be an ardent soccer aficionado? Or will they back Germany, the native country of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, also a football fan?
And what about the Big Referee Upstairs? Whose prayers will he heed when the game is on the line?
Germany reached the final match on Tuesday by blowing out Brazil, the host country. Argentina beat the Netherlands on Wednesday afternoon.
Of course, both Popes (not to mention God) have more important things on their minds. But the pontiffs have also said that sports can be more than fun and games.
(CNN) - So, a rabbi, a sheikh and a pope travel to the Holy Land…
It might sound like the start of a trite joke, but it’s actually the entourage for one of the most highly anticipated papal trips in recent history.
As Pope Francis heads to Jordan, Bethlehem and Jerusalem this weekend, he’s bringing along two old friends from Argentina: Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who co-wrote a book with the Pope, and Sheikh Omar Abboud, who leads Argentina’s Muslim community.
The Vatican says it’s the first time that a pope’s official entourage has included interfaith leaders.
In a region roiled by competing religious and political visions, Francis’ chosen companions communicate an unmistakable message, church officials said.
“It’s highly symbolic, of course,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a consultant to the Vatican press office.
“But it also sends a pragmatic message to Muslims, Christians and Jews that it’s possible to work together - not as a system of checks and balances but as friends.”
The visit to the Holy Land is the first for Francis as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and just the fourth for any pontiff in the modern era.
With so much at stake - the stalled negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the plight of Christian refugees - the Pope’s every word, gesture and photo-op will be microscopically examined.
Already, some conservative Israelis are advocating against the Pope’s visit, scrawling anti-Christian graffiti on Catholic buildings in Jerusalem and planning protests outside papal events in Jerusalem.
While the protesters form a fringe minority, they underscore the tensions that simmer around the Pope’s short but substantial trip.
With those challenges in mind, here are five key things to pay particular attention to.
By John L. Allen, Jr. and Daniel Burke
(CNN) - On Sunday, for the first time in history, the Catholic Church will canonize two popes on the same day.
Pope Francis will preside over a special ceremony that is expected to draw upwards of a million pilgrims, who will gather in St. Peter's Square to witness Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII enter the celestial community of Catholic saints.
Here's a bit about the Catholic Church's canonization process.
What is a saint, and how many are there?
Catholics believe a saint is someone who lived a holy life and who’s already in heaven. Saints are considered role models for people still on Earth, and are capable of interceding with God on someone’s behalf when a request for help is made in prayer.
The actual number of saints is impossible to calculate. One well-known work called "Lives of the Saints" lists 2,565 Catholic saints, but that doesn’t count thousands of others celebrated in local regions all over the world. The Catholic Church has a feast, All Saints’ Day, on November 1 to honor the countless saints who aren’t formally canonized.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) - Pope Francis reaffirmed the Catholic Church's opposition to gay marriage on Wednesday, but suggested in a newspaper interview that it could support some types of civil unions.
The Pope reiterated the church's longstanding teaching that "marriage is between a man and a woman." However, he said, "We have to look at different cases and evaluate them in their variety."
States, for instance, justify civil unions as a way to provide economic security to cohabitating couples, the Pope said in a wide-ranging interview published Wednesday in Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily. State-sanctioned unions are thus driven by the need to ensure rights like access to health care, Francis added.
A number of Catholic bishops have supported civil unions for same-sex couples as an alternative to marriage, including Pope Francis when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 2010, according to reports in National Catholic Reporter and The New York Times.
Opinion by Laurence England, special to CNN
(CNN) - In the year since Francis was elected Pope, the media have told us a certain story about this man “from the ends of the Earth,” as he once described himself.
Francis, we are told, is warm and friendly, gentle and compassionate. He embraces the poor, the disfigured, the outcast.
These attributes pose a sharp contrast, we are informed, to his mean-spirited, judgmental and arrogant predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who was known for his fancy vestments and aloof, academic attitude.
If Francis has the common touch, the story goes, Benedict was firmly out of touch, perched on an ivory tower far inside the Vatican.
To many Catholics this media-driven contrast between the two Popes is laughable.
(CNN) – As Pope Francis prepares to celebrate his first Christmas at the Vatican, Americans' opinions of the pontiff appear to be as high as the dome on St. Peter's Basilica, according to a new survey.
A CNN/ORC International poll released Tuesday found that 88% of American Catholics approve of how Francis is handling his role as head of the 1.2 billion-member church.
The popular pontiff has also made a positive impression among Americans in general: Nearly three in four view Francis favorably. The new survey suggests that the Pope is arguably the most well-regarded religious figure among the American public today, said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
(CNN) – Pope Francis: Successor to St. Peter ... the people's pontiff ... Marxist?
That's what conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh suggests, calling the Pope's latest document "pure Marxism."
Limbaugh blasted the pontiff on Wednesday, a day after Francis released "Evangelii Gaudium" (The Joy of the Gospel), a 50,000-word statement that calls for church reform and castigates elements of modern capitalism.
Limbaugh's segment, now online and entitled "It's Sad How Wrong Pope Francis Is (Unless It's a Deliberate Mistranslation By Leftists)," takes direct aim at the pope's economic views, calling them "dramatically, embarrassingly, puzzlingly wrong."
The Vatican issued the English translation of "Evangelii," which is known officially as an apostolic exhortation and unofficially as a pep talk to the worlds 1.5 billion Catholics.
Francis – the first pope ever to hail from Latin America, where he worked on behalf of the poor in his native Argentina – warned in "Evangelii" that the "idolatry of money" would lead to a "new tyranny."
By Daniel Burke and Hada Messia, CNN
ROME (CNN) - The Italian branch of a Catholic sect with a history of anti-Semitism held funeral rites on Tuesday for a convicted Nazi war criminal, despite protests from Jewish groups and the local mayor.
Crowds packed the streets outside San Pio X Church in Albano, a small town south of Rome, chanting "Executioner!" and kicking the hearse carrying Erich Priebke's body as entered the church compound on Tuesday.
A funeral Mass was celebrated for Priebke but his casket was kept outside, according to a priest from the church who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
The absolution rite, which includes a prayer for clemency for the deceased, was also given outside the church, in the courtyard inside San Pio X's compound, the priest said.
Priebke's body is now being held in a military airport outside Rome.
The church funeral plans for Priebke sparked an outcry in the United States.
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-editor
(CNN) - Retired Pope Benedict XVI says he never tried to cover up the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, breaking his post-retirement silence to address one of the greatest threats to his legacy as a church leader.
In a lengthy letter published in La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, the former pope answered theological and moral arguments from Piergiorgio Odifreddi, an Italian atheist and mathematician who had written about Benedict in 2011.
Earlier this month, La Repubblica also published a letter to its atheist editor from Pope Francis, Benedict's successor.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.