Pope says US critics use ‘rigid’ ideology’ to mask failings

Pope Francis addresses journalists during his flight from Antamanarivo to Rome, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, after his seven-day pastoral trip to Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius.

By Nicole Winfield

Pope Francis said Tuesday he wasn’t afraid of a U.S. Catholic Church schism led by his conservative critics, but sees a “rigid” ideology opponents use to mask their own moral failings has already infiltrated the American church.

Francis said during an airborne news conference that he prays a schism in the U.S. Catholic Church doesn’t happen. He nevertheless doubled down on confronting outspoken conservatives in the U.S. and beyond who oppose his outreach to gay and divorced people and his concern for the poor and the environment.

Francis said he welcomed “loyal” criticism that leads to introspection and dialogue. Such “constructive” criticism shows a love for the church, he said. But he ideologically driven critics don’t really want a response but merely to “throw stones and then hide their hand.”

“I’m not afraid of schisms,” Francis told reporters while the papal plane was flying back from his trip to Africa. “I pray that there aren’t any because the spiritual health of so many people is at stake.

“Let there be dialogue, correction if there is some error. But the path of the schismatic is not Christian,” he added.

Francis’ comments are likely to inflame a heated debate roiling the Catholic Church in the United States and elsewhere. The pope’s mercy-over-morals emphasis irks some doctrine-minded Catholics who came of age during the conservative papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

During his flight to Africa last week, a French journalist presented Francis with a book about the pope’s conservative critics in the U.S. Francis acknowledged his right-wing opponents and said, “For me, it’s an honor if the Americans attack me.”

The book, “How America Wants to Change the Pope,” documents the growing criticism of Francis by a small wing of U.S. Catholics who question many of his positions. Some have gone so far as to accuse Francis of heresy and warned of the risk of schism, or a formal separation from the Holy See.

Francis’ allies, including German Cardinal Walter Kaper and the head of Francis’ Jesuit order, have said the conservative criticism amounts to a “plot” to force the first Jesuit pope to resign so a conservative would take his place.

Asked about the criticism and risk of schism, Francis insisted his social teachings were identical to those of St. John Paul II, the standard-bearer for many conservative Catholics.

And he noted that church history is full of schisms, most recently after the Second Vatican Council, the 1960s church meetings that modernized the church.

A group of traditionalist Catholics led by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre rejected the reforms and grew into what Francis said was the “most well-known” of recent church schisms.

“I pray there are no schisms, but I’m not afraid of them,” he said.

Francis said all schismatics share a common trait: They allow ideology to become “detached” from Catholic doctrine and distance themselves from the faith of ordinary Catholics.

“When doctrine slips into ideology, there’s the possibility of schism,” he warned.

He lamented that many bishops and priests were already engaged in a “pseudo-schism” but said ideas won’t survive.

He claimed doctrinal rigidity, or “moral asceticism,” masked their own personal problems. It was perhaps a reference to how some of the church’s most notorious sexual predators – the late Legion of Christ leader, Rev. Marciel Maciel among them – preached a highly conservative brand of sexual morals.

“You’ll see that behind rigid Christians, bishops and priests there are problems,” Francis said, adding that such rigidity showed a lack of a healthy understanding of the Gospel. “We have to be meek with these people who are tempted to attack (because) behind them there are problems and we have to accompany them with meekness.”

Opposition to Francis in the U.S. reached a fever pitch in the last year following the publication of accusations by a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. that Francis, and before him a long list of Vatican and U.S. prelates, turned a blind eye to the sexual misconduct of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Francis didn’t name Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano during his news conference. But he praised critics who spoke to him directly with openness to dialogue.

“At least those who say something have the advantage of honesty in saying so. And I like that,” he said. “I don’t like criticism when it’s under the table, when they smile at you and then then they try to stab you in the back.

“That isn’t loyal. That isn’t human,” Francis said.

If you’re a gay or divorced Catholic, the American National Catholic Church might be for you

Rev. George Lucey leads St. Francis of Assisi Church in Glen Ridge. Rev. Lucey, who is openly gay, has been at the church for twelve years.

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For years, Jim Hammill searched for a church where he could worship in the Catholic tradition that he loved. He grew up attending a Roman Catholic Church, but felt ostracized after his divorce and remarriage to a woman in a Lutheran Church.

The Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce and Hammill did not seek a Catholic Church annulment, a declaration by a church court that a marriage was never valid according to church law.

The Caldwell resident spent the better part of his adulthood considering himself a lapsed Catholic.

“I was convinced I was going to hell,” he said.

Then, about five years ago, he stumbled into St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Glen Ridge and he immediately felt the sense of belonging that he had craved.

The church is part of the American National Catholic Church, an independent religious movement established in 2009 by former Catholics who sought a more inclusive experience.

Like other breakaway Catholic-style churches across the nation, the ANCC is not recognized by the Vatican as a part of the Roman Catholic Church.

The movement has 11 branches around the country, including Kearny and Long Branch, New Jersey, as well as in New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Connecticut. ANCC leaders say more are on the way.

Nationwide, the ANCC has over 2,000 members. It is headed by Bishop George Lucey, who is also the pastor of the St. Francis of Assisi parish.The ANCC ordains its own priests and bishops.

The Church in Glen Ridge draws anywhere from 50 to 100 worshipers to its regular Sunday Mass.

Many of the group’s fundamental beliefs and rituals are similar to those of Roman Catholicism, yet it offers a more progressive approach that is in sharp contrast to Rome. For one thing, women can be ordained, priests can marry, and openly gay priests and LGBT worshipers are welcomed. There is full sacramental participation by all, and reproductive choice is supported.

“I immediately felt like this is what Catholicism was meant to be,” said Hammill. “It’s nonjudgmental. It’s welcoming. There are a lot of diverse people — we have people of different races and different sexual orientations, which is refreshing.”

“I grew up believing that you go to Mass on Sunday because if you don’t, it’s a mortal sin. Now I go because I really want to,” said Hammill, who recently began studying in a seminary.

Hammill’s refrain has become increasingly familiar to the church’s associate pastor, Father Geety Reyes.

“A lot of people come to us because they are dissatisfied with the Catholic Church, for a variety of reasons,” said Reyes. He added that many have recently left the church over its handling of the abuse scandals.

“We are an all-embracing parish and we welcome everyone regardless of who they are and regardless of their journey in life,” Reyes said. “We make the sacraments available to everyone.”

Reyes, who is openly gay, noted that in the early years of the church, most of its members were Catholics from the LGBT community, but now the church is drawing worshipers from traditional families and of all backgrounds, including non-Catholics.

The most famous breakaway movement in Christian history was the Reformation over 500 years ago, which gave rise to the Protestant churches. That break was as a result of theological differences. Protestants allow their clerics to marry and have children.

Another breakaway, the Anglican Church that includes America’s Episcopalian Church, grew out of King Henry VIII’s dispute with the pope over his divorces.

These days, though, dissatisfied Catholics are more likely to fade away from religious life — perhaps attending midnight Mass on Christmas and celebrating Easter in some way — than to join another church or start one.

The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that the percentage of Americans identifying as Catholic had fallen from 23.9 percent in 2007 to 20.9 percent (51 million) in 2014

The study found that 41 percent of all respondents who were raised Catholic no longer identified with Catholicism — and that 12.9 percent of all Americans were former Catholics.

A 2015 Pew survey also found that majorities of American Catholics wanted to see the church undertake some major changes, such as allowing priests to marry (62 percent) and women to be ordained as priests (59 percent). Almost half of respondents (46 percent) supported recognition of LGBT marriages.

For some disenfranchised Catholics, the answer has to been to break with the Vatican and join Catholic-style independent churches. These splinter groups generally utilize the Catholic liturgy and rituals, even if they reject the “magisterium” — the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, as dispensed by the pope and bishops.

Pat Brannigan, the executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which represents the bishops of the state, admitted that it can be a challenge to follow the teachings of Catholicism. “Even in the time of Jesus, some of his disciplines had difficulty accepting his teachings and turned away,” he said. “Why should we be surprised that some still turn away?”

He said he was not familiar with the ANCC but asserted that it is not considered part of the Roman Catholic Church.

Alison Shapiro, a middle school teacher from Bloomfield, grew up Catholic but “was not a big fan of the Catholic dogma,” she said. She immediately realized that St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church was different.

“It was exactly like a normal Mass, but without all the negative social stuff I didn’t agree with,” she said.

She became active in the church and is now the parish council president. A big part of its appeal, she said, is that it welcomes everyone. “You just come how you are comfortable and you are just accepted,” she said.

Like many of his parishioners, Reyes was brought up in the Roman Catholic Church but felt he couldn’t remain there because of his gay identity. The ANCC accepted him for who he was and allowed him to worship in the Catholic tradition, he said.

The 43-year-old Bloomfield resident was ordained as a deacon by the ANCC in 2012 and, several years later, as a priest.

“I never felt like I left the Catholic Church — I didn’t change anything I believed,” he said.

Complete Article HERE!

‘If ex-Catholic was a religion…’

Why independent Catholic churches are flourishing

by Jess Rohan

On Holy Thursday, a solemn day in the most sacred week in the Catholic calendar, St. Miriam’s felt like any other Catholic church: The altar featured a crucifix draped with white fabric and a tabernacle, and the Rev. James St. George, also known as Father Jim, was preparing the Flourtown church for a foot-washing ceremony, with towels and washbasins placed on the altar.

But St. Miriam’s is not Roman Catholic, nor affiliated with the Vatican: It’s catholic — with a lowercase c.

It’s one of at least four independent Catholic parishes that cropped up around Philadelphia between 2005 and 2010, nourished in part by the advantages of social media and email. Now with more than 600 parishioners, St. Miriam’s has become perhaps the largest such congregation; like the others, drawing Catholics eager for new ways to practice an old faith.

Its pastor last week noted the sad parallels between the worldwide Roman Catholic Church and the Paris blaze that seemed to rage untouched until it had already consumed part of its historic Notre Dame Cathedral.

“They don’t admit they’re on fire until it’s too late,” St. George said. “And now the whole church is burning.”

The Roman Catholic Church is still the biggest religious institution in the United States — and the world, with about 1.3 billion adherents, according to the Vatican. But fewer and fewer Americans are identifying as Catholic. The clergy sex-abuse scandals, conversion to other faiths, and declining religiosity in general all play a role, according to polls. A Pew study found that between 2007 and 2014, the Catholic Church lost more members than any other religious institution, by a wide margin.

“If ex-Catholic was a religion, it’d be the third-largest in the United States,” said Julie Byrne, a professor of religion at Hofstra University whose book, The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion, explores independent catholicism.

Alternative Catholic churches have existed for centuries. The Orthodox Catholic Church, which split with the Roman Catholic Church in 1054 and today maintains its seat of power in Istanbul, has more than 100 million members.

And not all are alike. Some are conservative, offering Mass in Latin. Others are characterized by an openness to concepts and stances that the Roman Catholic Church eschews, including female priests and gay marriage — both of which a majority of U.S. Catholics support, according to the Pew poll.

But most independent Catholic churches are filled with congregants steeped in the traditions of the religion. Byrne said 60 percent to 70 percent of parishioners at the independent Catholic churches she studied had come from Roman Catholic churches.

She said such a conversion comes at a price: The Rome-led Catholic Church has made sure to convey that independent parishes aren’t “the real thing,” suggesting that joining one could jeopardize a Catholic’s salvation.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia last week declined to wade into the debate, instead noting that though the church has been “uneven in fidelity to Christ and His word,” it is “the only place where Christ and His word continue to be passed on in all of its fullness and clarity.”

Monsignor James Michael St. George — “Father Jim” — the pastor at Saint Miriam Parish, and Sean Hall (left) greeting members of the congregation arriving for a traditional Holy Thursday service last week. St. Miriam’s is an independent (non-Vatican affiliated) Catholic church in Flourtown.

St. George said he encountered that sort of resistance in St. Miriam’s first year, when a listing for the church’s Catholic services in a local Roxborough paper triggered a letter from Roman Catholic clergy suggesting its use of the word Catholic might “mislead” people. Instead, attention from Roman Catholic churches only helped grow his congregation, he said.

Almost every year since, members of St. Miriam’s have worked to build its infrastructure — painting walls, restoring the stained glass windows, and maintaining the graves on the 12-acre campus along Bethlehem Pike that it inherited from a Lutheran church.

St. George began his path to priesthood at a Roman Catholic seminary, St. Mark’s in Erie, but said he had long felt unsettled by parts of church doctrine, including its positions on LGBT people and women. Such stances had even resonated inside his family’s Italian Catholic home in northwestern Pennsylvania.

“My sister couldn’t serve the altar or read at Mass,” St. George said, “and she would come home and cry.”

Now he’s a bishop in Old Catholic Churches International, part of an independent Catholic movement that split from Rome in 1870 and dates to an 18th-century Dutch separatist movement.

Mother JoEllen Werthman confronted the same kind of conflicts when she grew up Catholic on Long Island decades ago and then, in the 1980s, felt a religious calling.

“I couldn’t figure out how to have a boyfriend and be a nun,” said Werthman.

When it became clear the Roman Catholic Church would not accept women as clergy in her lifetime, Werthman began to look elsewhere, and found a seminary at the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch to ordain her.

“What will I say to God when I die?” she asked. “Did I follow the rules, or did I answer the call?”

These days, the 73-year-old cleric is married, and leads St. Mary Magdalen in Bensalem, a congregation of about two dozen people out of a building owned by an Episcopal church.

At Werthman’s church, her homily is followed by an open discussion with parishioners. The congregants appreciate being treated “like adults,” Werthman said.

“Most people have never been given the opportunity to explore their questions once they get past being a kid,” she said.

St. George said his church saw an increase in attendance after the wave of clergy sex-abuse scandals in the early 2000s. His parish, which also runs a preschool and kindergarten, has a program called KidSafe, a set of policies concerning child welfare.

Lorraine Cuffey joined the Flourtown church on Palm Sunday six years ago after learning that the church she had been attending failed to remove two priests accused of child abuse. Now, she’s the president of St. Miriam’s board of directors.

Her Episcopalian husband used to avoid Sunday Mass because he couldn’t receive communion with Cuffey. But now that they can receive communion together, “he comes every Sunday,” she said.

For Lewis Salotti and his wife, Ramona, who joined St. Miriam’s three years ago, the independent Catholic church is a perfect mix of tradition and flexibility.

“It was comforting to come here and see the same service and be familiar with it,” Salotti said. But with clergy who can marry and have families, he said, “they are living in the world just like us, and I think that really makes a difference.”

St. George says his church is about bringing everyone together under the “Catholic fold.”

“When the doctrine of the church harms people, you need to look at it again,” he said. “The church shouldn’t hurt people.”

Complete Article HERE!

Pope: Women have ‘legitimate claims’ for justice, equality

By Nicole Winfield

Pope Francis said in a document released Tuesday that women have “legitimate claims” to seek more equality in the Catholic Church, but he stopped short of endorsing recent calls from his own bishops to give women leadership roles.

In the text, Francis also told young adults they should try to help priests at risk for sexually abusing minors in what a Vatican official said was a great act of trust the pope has for today’s youth to help “priests in difficulty.”

Francis issued the document, known as an apostolic exhortation, in response to an October 2018 meeting of the world’s bishops on better ministering to today’s young Catholics.

The synod took place against the Church’s clergy sex abuse crisis and included demands for greater women’s rights. The bishops’ final recommendations called the need for women to hold positions of responsibility and decision-making in the church “a duty of justice.”

In the new document reflecting at length on the October meeting, Francis did not echo that sweeping conclusion. Instead, he wrote that a church that listens to young people must be attentive to women’s “legitimate claims” for equality and justice, as well as better train both men and women with leadership potential.

“A living church can look back on history and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence,” Francis said.

He continued: “With this outlook, she can support the call to respect women’s rights, and offer convinced support for greater reciprocity between males and females, while not agreeing with everything some feminist groups propose.”

An organizer of last year’s synod, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, was asked at a news conference Tuesday about Francis’ lack of reference to women in leadership positions and the need to welcome gay Catholics. Baldisseri replied that Francis couldn’t rewrite everything from the final synod recommendations.

Francis’ new document, a 299-paragraph booklet entitled “Christ is Alive,” covers a wide range of issues confronting young people today. In it, he notes that many feel alienated from the church because of its sexual and financial scandals, and are suffering themselves from untold forms of exploitation, conflict and despair.

A hefty chunk of the document focuses on both the promises and perils of the digital world and dedicates ample space to the plight of migrants. It uses millennial lingo, calling the Virgin Mary an “influencer” and describing relations with God in computing terms: “hard disk,” ‘’archive” and “deleting.”

Francis wrote that he was inspired by all the reflections from the bishops’ synod and refers readers to the 2018 recommendations. He said he wanted to use his new text to “summarize those proposals I considered most significant.”

Throughout, he urges young people to be protagonists in rejuvenating the church.

On the topic of child sex abuse and cover-ups in the church, the pope called for the “eradication” of traditions that allowed child sex abuse to take place and for a challenge to how church leaders handled cases with “irresponsibility and lack of transparency.”

He urged young people to call out a priest who seems at risk of seeking affection from children and youth, “and remind him of his commitment to God and his people.”

Asked if that message wasn’t putting young people in potentially dangerous positions with potential predators, another synod organizer, Monsignor Fabio Fabene, said it was the contrary.

The pope’s words showed Francis wanted to entrust youth with “showing closeness to priests experiencing difficulty” in their missions and for young people to help “rejuvenate the heart of a priest who is in difficulty.”

Such terms have long been used by church officials to minimize the criminality of priests and bishops who rape and molest children.

Asked why there was no reference to Francis’ frequent call for “zero tolerance” for abuse, Baldisseri said the pope doesn’t need to repeat the phrase in every document.

“You don’t need to say ‘zero tolerance’ every time you go to lunch and dinner,” he said.

The document acknowledges the importance of sexuality in the development of young people. As with the roles of women in the Catholic Church, Francis did not repeat the bishops’ wording in recommendations for deeper anthropological, theological and pastoral study on sexuality and sexual inclinations. The term “homosexuality” appears once in Francis’ text.

Women have often complained they have second-class status in the church. History’s first Latin American pope has vowed to change that, but he has done little that is concrete and counts no women among his own advisers.

Just last week, the founder of the Vatican’s women’s magazine resigned with members of the editorial board, citing what she said was a climate of distrust and de-legitimization in the Vatican. The editor of the newspaper that distributes the magazine denied efforts to undermine the women.

Nine nuns were invited to participate at the October synod on Catholic youth, alongside 267 cardinals, bishops and priests. None of the women had the right to vote on the final recommendations. The nuns publicly made clear their displeasure before, during and after the meeting.

The recommendations advocated making women a greater presence in church structures at all levels while respecting church doctrine that the priesthood remains for men only.

The Women’s Ordination Conference, which advocates for a female priesthood, blasted the pope’s document for ignoring the synod’s recommendation to make the whole church aware of the “urgency of an inescapable change” to put women in decision-making roles.

The document, the group said in a statement, “offers only lip service to the movement for women’s equality in the Roman Catholic Church.”

Complete Article HERE!

Gay priests ask Pope Francis to reconsider banning gay men from priesthood

Working Group of Catholic Gay Pastors warns scapegoating gay priests will not solve the causes of recent sex abuse scandals

An organization of gay Catholic priests has written a letter to Pope Francis asking him not to endorse efforts to ban gay men from becoming priests.

The letter, a copy of which was released Wednesday, comes a week before bishops from around the world are expected to convene a meeting in Vatican City to address the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Unfortunately, conservative interests are expected to hijack the meeting to push their own agenda: banning all gay men from the priesthood, based on an outdated stereotype that a person cannot experience same-sex attraction and be celibate.

The letter, signed by the chair of the Netherlands-based Working Group of Catholic Gay Pastors on behalf of the group’s members, objects to Francis’ past statements and a recent papal document advocating a continuation of policy (in place under Francis’ predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI) that prevents openly gay men from being ordained as priests.

“Although the document states that the Church deeply respects the persons in question, it also makes the arbitrary and unfounded statement that: ‘Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating appropriately to both men and women,’” the letter reads.

The group then enumerates and explains the reasons why it believes there should not be a ban on gay priests, noting that there are already countless numbers of priests who are gay, and that their sexual orientation alone does not disqualify them from living a celibate life or being able to provide religious guidance to their congregations.

“Heterosexual and homosexual seminarians and priests who are aware of the nature of their sexuality, who accept it as given by God, who are not ashamed about it, who can (learn to) speak about it in an appropriate and meaningful way, and who (learn to) deal with it properly in their role as a priest (or seminarian, are not the problem in our opinion,” the letter reads. “On the contrary, they can and do function well and have a valuable role to play within our Faith and Church.”

In contrast, the group argues, it is priests who “deny, disown, or suppress” their sexuality who are more likely to have problems, which can manifest themselves in the form of abuse or sexually inappropriate conduct.

“We have the distinct impression that the Vatican and the Congregation for the Clergy and perhaps even you yourself, tend to suggest that those priests who are openly gay are the ones responsible for the sexual abuse of children and minors. We disagree with this,” the letter continues.

“We believe that the current major crisis with respect to this context is primarily the result of the disapproval, suppression, denial and the poor integration of sexuality, and especially homosexuality, on the part of many individual priests and within our Church as a whole. One is simply unable or unwilling to discuss it, or banned from mentioning it, except within the sacrament of confession. In our view this is detrimental to the Church as a whole and to the priests themselves in particular.”

The priests also thank Pope Francis for showing consideration and compassion to gay and lesbian Catholics, but the current policy banning gay priests is in conflict with that consideration. As such, they ask Pope Francis to “review and correct the stipulation in Il dono della vocazione presbiterale that by definition disqualifies homosexual candidates to the celibate priesthood.”

Francis DeBernardo, executive director, New Ways Ministry, a national Catholic ministry of justice and reconciliation for LGBTQ people and the Church, says that, after a summer of headlines exposing several major abuse scandals, it has become apparent that the church hierarchy — and particularly conservative elements within it — are positioned to blame the presence of gay priests as one of the roots of the sexual abuse crisis.

Cardinal McCarrick’s case, which received the most attention, was not a case of pedophilia. It was a case of adult non-consensual sex,” DeBernardo says. “So it quickly got labeled that this was not pedophilia, but a problem with gay priests. And a lot of the anti-gay forces in the Church quickly glommed onto that, and saw it as an opportunity. And it has since snowballed to becoming one of the issues that will be discussed [at next week’s meeting].”

DeBernardo says that, even though Catholic Church teaching is not to condemn homosexuality, but only homosexual acts, there has been a deliberate conflation of being gay with being sexually active.

“There are anti-gay advocates in the Church who have, since a long time ago, believed the myth that if you are gay, you are sexually active, which is a totally ignorant and irresponsible definition,” says DeBernardo. “While there are some gay priests who have not been able to live up to vows of celibacy, there are many heterosexual priests who have not as well. And there are many more gay priests who have lived up to that promise.

“The other reason I think they’re trying to rid the Church of gay priests is that they do not want to admit that gay people have lived holy lives and lives of service to the Church,” he adds.

DeBernardo worries that the Church risks failing to address the underlying causes of the sexual abuse crisis if they are obsessed with scapegoating only gay priests. Instead, he says, bishops and clergy should be looking at the secretive culture of the church, its treatment of priests as better or holier than they lay people in their parishes, a lack of support systems for priests — including discussions of what healthy celibacy looks like — and the lack of a screening process that might raise warning flags about would-be abusers.

DeBernardo also adds there may be more sinister motivations behind the scapegoating, including a desire to push the Church in a more authoritarian or conservative direction.

“The ones calling for scapegoating of gay priests are same ones who want to bring down the papacy of Pope Francis, because they see him as too liberal,” he notes. “Making the charge that he’s protecting gay priests is a way of weakening his authority. And it’s effective, because how do you prove there aren’t gay priests? It’s like the bogeyman in the closet. If you bring it up, it’s assumed that it’s real.”

Complete Article HERE!