Pope to Meet With Autistic Kids to End Stigma.

Pope Francis will meet with autistic children and their families in a bid to help raise awareness and end the stigma and isolation of people living with autism spectrum disorders.

The audience will cap an international conference on autism being hosted this week by the Vatican’s health care office. Organizers said it was the biggest medical conference of its kind on autism, gathering more than 650 experts from 57 countries.

The Rev. P. Augusto Chendi of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers told reporters the aim of the conference and the papal audience is to “help break the isolation, and in many cases the stigma, that surrounds people affected by autistic spectrum disorders.”

While autism is increasingly diagnosed in places like the United States, where about 1 in 68 children are said to be on the spectrum, it is still largely unknown and undiagnosed elsewhere, including in the Vatican’s own backyard of Italy, said Dr. Stefano Vicari, head of pediatric neuropsychiatry at the Vatican-owned Bambin Gesu hospital in Rome.

Francis, who has shown great ease around children with special needs, will deliver a speech to the hundreds gathered in the Vatican audience hall. The session will be punctuated by music and movement for the children.

Autism experts said parents of autistic children require particular pastoral care since they are at high risk of getting divorced due to the emotional and financial stress of dealing with their child’s disorder.

The Vatican’s top health official, Monsignor Zygmunt Zimowski, said his office chose to focus on autism for its conference this year to give families affected by autism hope and attention.

Pope Reinforces Traditional Family Values.

Pope Francis is seeking to reassure the church’s right-wing base that he’s not a renegade bent on changing church doctrine on family issues — weeks after a Vatican meeting of bishops initially proposed a radical welcome for gays and divorced Catholics.

Francis opened an interreligious conference on the “complementarity” of men and women in marriage and sex. He said marriage between a man and woman is a “fundamental pillar” of society and that children have the right to grow up with a mother and father.

It was the second papal speech emphasizing church doctrine in as many days: Francis pronounced some of his strongest words yet against abortion, euthanasia and in vitro fertilization, sounding more like his predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, than the Argentine Jesuit who famously said “Who am I to judge?” about gays.

Vatican officials concurred that the interventions could be read as a response to the conservative backlash that erupted after the recent meeting of the world’s bishops on family issues. The meeting’s organizers, who were hand-picked by Francis, initially proposed a revolutionary welcome toward gays and civilly remarried Catholics, following Francis’ exhortation that the church must welcome all.

Gay rights groups and liberal Catholics cheered, even though the bishops scrapped the welcome in their final document.

Conservative Catholics, already uncomfortable with Francis’ lack of emphasis on doctrine, reacted with outright alarm after the synod, fearing that Francis eventually might lead the church into uncharted territory that would compromise church teaching on homosexuality and the indissolubility of marriage.

In the heat of the synod, the recently demoted Cardinal Raymond Burke called on Francis to issue a statement clarifying his position, saying the lack of clarity had “harmed” the church and caused confusion.

Francis appears to be obliging.

“Complementarity (between men and women) is the basis of marriage and the family, which is the first school where we learn to appreciate our gifts and those of others and where we learn the art of living together,” Francis told the conference. “Children have the right to grow up in a family, with a mother and a father who can create a suitable environment for their development.”

While Francis has said such things before — he famously led the church’s opposition to legalizing gay marriage in his native Argentina — his comments now appear clearly aimed at calming conservatives.

The synod process will conclude with another meeting of bishops in October next year, after which Francis is expected to issue a document of his own.

The three-day conference gathers representatives from 14 religions to share their remarkably similar views about the complementarity of men and women in sex and marriage. Speakers include the Rev. Rick Warren, one of most prominent evangelical pastors in the United States, and the Rev. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, the biggest Protestant denomination in the U.S.

The conference is being organized by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose conservative prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, helped lead opposition to Francis’ radical agenda at the synod.

Conference organizers have stressed that this week’s meeting was not a response to the synod and was planned last year. But the timing couldn’t have been better to reinforce the conservative view on traditional family values.

During his remarks, Francis confirmed that he would travel to the U.S. next year to participate in a rally for families in Philadelphia. The Vatican said the other planned legs of the September 2015 trip to Washington and New York weren’t yet confirmed.

Pope turns Santa with Christmas giveaway for homeless.

Rome (AFP) – Pope Francis is raffling off unwanted gifts including a Fiat Panda, tandem bike and coffee machine to raise money for the homeless.

For just 10 euros ($12.50) those hoping to get their clutches on perfume, pens and even a panama hat given to the pope can enter a draw, the proceeds of which will go to a papal charity set up to help those who bed down nightly around the Vatican.

Tickets are to be sold throughout the upcoming festive season and signs have already gone up around the tiny city state advertising the draw, which will take place on January 8.

While the first prize is a gleaming Fiat Panda 4X4 in papal white, runners up could go home with racing bicycles, an HD digital video camera, a gentleman’s wrist watch, an umbrella or bottle of perfume — all of which will have much higher-than-usual value because of where they come from.

The Argentine pope — who chose his papal name in honour of Saint Francis of Assisi and his devotion to the poor — has cast off luxuries such as the ermine-trimmed cape and red shoes worn by his predecessor Benedict XVI and focused his efforts on helping the down-and-out.

He is also unlikely to have room to keep the hundreds of presents bestowed on him in his modest apartment, having opted out of moving into the spacious papal palace after his election last year.

In February the 77-year-old pope sold off his Harley Davidson — worth around 15,000 euros and inscribed with his name — for 241,500 euros at a Paris auction, giving the proceeds to a hostel and soup kitchen in Rome.

He also appointed a papal almoner, Polish archbishop Konrad Krajewski, who helps those who regularly sleep rough among the porticos near Saint Peter’s Square, or poor families struggling to pay their bills.

Krajewski announced last week that the Vatican would be installing showers for the homeless at public toilets just off St Peter’s square. The initiative followed an encounter with a homeless man who declined an invitation to dinner because he said he was too smelly to dine with a bishop.