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Welcome to Starting Seven, The Pillar’s daily newsletter.

I’m Luke Coppen and I aim to guide you each weekday morning to the most interesting Catholic news and comment.

😇 Today’s feast: St. Margaret of Hungary.

📜 Today’s readings:  Heb 7:1-3, 15-17 ▪  Ps 110:1, 2, 3, 4  ▪  Mk 3:1-6.

🗞  Starting seven

1: At today’s general audience, Pope Francis said that Catholics seeking to increase their apostolic zeal “must always think of the lost sheep” (full text, video, photos).

2:  The Vatican imposed restrictions on French psychotherapist Msgr. Tony Anatrella in December following an investigation into abuse accusations (French report, statement).

3:  A district court in Germany has reportedly paused proceedings in a civil lawsuit against Benedict XVI following the pope emeritus’ death (German report).

4: Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has confirmed details in Archbishop Georg Gänswein’s new memoir but described the book as an “improper indiscretion” (German report).

5:  Bishop James D. Conley, Archbishop Anthony Fisher, Dan Hitchens, Philippa Martyr, Fr. Josh Miechels, Edward Pentin, Fr. Brendan Purcell, Peter Rosengren, Tracey Rowland, Robert Royal, and George Weigel reflect on the life and message of Cardinal George Pell.

6: Msgr. Piero Coda, secretary general of the International Theological Commission, argues that the global Synodal Process “is not a tactical affair” and “has no ulterior motive.”

7:  And Sister André, the world’s oldest person, has died at the age of 118.

🇻🇦 Today’s Bollettino

🧐  Look closer

The danger list  At this morning’s general audience, Pope Francis highlighted the plight of persecuted Christians. He referred to the murder and burning of the Nigerian priest Fr. Isaac Achi in the early hours of Jan. 15.

  • “So many Christians continue to be the target of violence: let us remember them in our prayers,” the pope said.

He was speaking the day after the launch of the 2023 World Watch List, a global survey of religious freedom for Christians compiled annually since 1993 by the advocacy group Open Doors.

The list — widely seen as an accurate barometer of changes in the anti-Christian climate worldwide — was presented alongside some grim statistics.

  • According to Open Doors, more than 360 million Christians “suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith” (1 in 7 worldwide). More than 2,000 churches were attacked, looted or forcibly closed in 2022 (half in China) and around 140,000 Christians displaced “for faith-related reasons.”

The annual list ranks the world’s 50 worst countries in which to be a Christian. The latest edition contains some notable changes.

Who’s up, who’s down  The 2022 edition named Afghanistan as the world’s worst persecutor of Christians. In the 2023 version, the Taliban-ruled nation is in ninth place.

  • “Afghanistan looks like a significant drop, and it is. But the reality for the indigenous Christians that remain in Afghanistan is that life is just as dangerous and just as brutal as last year,” Lisa Pearce, interim CEO of Open Doors US, told The Alabama Baptist.

Reclaiming the top position is North Korea, deemed the world’s most anti-Christian country by Open Doors every year since 2002, with the exception of last year. This year, the “hermit kingdom” received a persecution score of 98/100, the highest ever on the World Watch List.

Open Doors cited sources saying that dozens of underground church members were executed in 2022 and their families sent to labor camps. “These reports show that life has got even harder for North Korean Christians,” it said.

In other changes, Somalia rose from third place in 2022 to second in 2023, war-torn Yemen from fifth place to third, and Eritrea from sixth to fourth, while Libya dropped from fourth to fifth.

Two newcomers made the top 50 list: Nicaragua (50th) and Comoros (42nd), an island nation off the East African coast.

Other trends  Open Doors also noted that violence against sub-Saharan Africa’s Christians has “hit new heights.”

  • “Around the world, 5,621 Christians were killed for their faith last year. That’s approximately 15 a day. Of these, 89% were in Nigeria (6) – a shocking 5,014 believers were murdered in the country where violence continues to escalate,” it said.

Another notable trend is a sharp increase in persecution in Latin America, with four countries — Colombia (22nd), Cuba (27th), Mexico (38th), and Nicaragua  — rising up the list.

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🔍 Stories to watch

🇺🇸  Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s attorneys have said that he may not be fit to stand trial due to a “significant” mental decline.

🇳🇮  A court in Nicaragua has sentenced a priest to eight years in jail for “conspiracy.”

🇳🇬  Protesters have burned down a local police station in response to the murder and burning of a Catholic priest in Nigeria’s Niger State.

🇨🇩  Officials have torn down makeshift market stalls in Kinshasa ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿  New figures indicate a sharp decline in Mass attendance in Scotland following the pandemic.

🇩🇪  German bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing has unveiled a “new structure” for his Diocese of Limburg (German report, press release).

🇳🇿  New Zealand’s bishops and heads of religious orders have issued a statement of commitments in response to the Royal Commission on Abuse in Care.

📅  Coming soon

Jan. 20  March for Life in Washington, D.C.; Pope Francis expected to receive Paraguay’s President Mario Abdo Benítez in private audience.

Jan. 21  Walk for Life West Coast; U.S. bishops’ annual collection for Church in Latin America; Pope Francis due to receive Ecuador’s President Guillermo Lasso; Cardinal Vincent Nichols celebrates Mass marking the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Jesuit’s British Province.

Jan. 22  Pope Francis celebrates Mass marking the Sunday of the Word of God in St. Peter’s Basilica at 9:30 a.m. local time; March for Life in Paris, France.

Jan. 23  Vatican press conference on the ecumenical prayer vigil ahead of the synod on synodality; U.S. Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children.

Jan. 25  Pope Francis presides at Vespers at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls at 5:30 p.m. local time.

Jan. 31  Pope Francis starts visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan; Portuguese-speaking bishops’ meeting begins in Nampula, Mozambique.

Feb. 2  Requiem Mass and burial of Cardinal George Pell at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Australia.

Feb. 3 Cardinal Domenico Calcagno turns 80.

Feb. 5  Europe’s continental synodal assembly begins in Prague.

Have a happy feast of St. Margaret of Hungary.

-- Luke

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