VATICAN CITY - A trip to Latin America, a Synod of Bishops on new evangelization, the start of the Year of Faith, creation of new cardinals and proclamations of new saints are all on Pope Benedict XVI's calendar for 2012.

Of particular interest to the United States, the pope will also continue his meetings with groups of U.S. bishops making their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican during the first half of the year. His talks to the bishops are expected to focus on themes of education, religious freedom and the relationship between culture and religion.

The 2012 highlights are only a small part of the pope's day-to-day schedule, which includes hundreds of meetings, speeches, messages and liturgies. The German pope, who turns 85 in April, also pursues a "private" agenda of writing whenever he gets the chance, as he works to complete the latest in his "Jesus of Nazareth" series of books -- this one on Jesus' infancy and childhood.

Castro says Cuba will free 2,900 political prisoners in spring


HAVANA - Cuban President Raul Castro announced his country will free 2,900 political prisoners in the spring, a move he partially attributed to Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit.

In a speech to the National Assembly, Castro said the Council of State had taken into account the papal visit as well as requests from prisoners' family members and top Catholic officials. He also mentioned the 400th anniversary of the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, patroness of Cuba.

New Jersey nurses don't have to assist in abortion in new hospital agreement


NEWARK, N.J. - A group of 12 nurses who sued the University Hospital in Newark over a policy requiring them to care for patients before and after abortions can no longer be compelled to assist in these procedures, under an agreement reached in federal court.

The nurses in the same-day surgery unit of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey can remain in their current jobs and will only be required to help patients with abortions in a life-threatening emergency when no other nonobjecting staff members are available and only until someone can be brought in to relieve them, according to the Dec. 22 agreement.

U.S. District Judge Jose Linares, who mediated the agreement, said the nurses would be allowed to remain in the unit and would not be discriminated against because of their stance on abortion. He declined to rule on how the hospital would configure its nursing staff, calling that a contract issue.

Pope condemns Christmas bombings in Nigeria


VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI appealed for an end to violence in Nigeria, condemning the Christmas church bombings that led to the deaths of at least 39 people.

The celebration of Christmas leads people to pray in an even stronger way that God would "stop the hands of the violent who sow death and that justice and peace would reign in the world," the Pope said Dec. 26 as he recited the Angelus with visitors gathered in St. Peter's Square.

A group called Boko Haram, which has been promoting the adoption of Islamic law across Nigeria, claimed responsibility for the bombings. News reports said at least 35 people died at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, just outside Abuja. Other deadly bombs were set off at the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church in Jos and at police stations in three other cities.

Pope to visit Mexico March 23-26, spokesman confirms


MEXICO CITY - A spokesman for the Mexican bishops' conference confirmed details of Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit to Mexico originally published by the newspaper Reforma, which reported the papal visit would occur March 23-26.

The spokesman, Father Manuel Corral, stressed that details of the visit "are not official," although he said the Pope would only visit the state of Guanajuato and its environs in west-central Mexico. Father Corral said specific details of the visit would likely be made public before the end of the year.

Midnight Masses canceled in Iraq because of growing security concerns


LONDON - Chaldean Catholic officials have canceled traditional Christmas Eve midnight Masses because of security risks.

Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk in northern Iraq told the agency Aid to the Church in Need that Christians will spend Christmas in "great fear" because of the risk of new attacks.

All services and Masses have been scheduled for daylight hours, he said in an interview with Rome-based AsiaNews.

Pope points to joyful lessons learned from World Youth Day, Benin trip


VATICAN CITY - Knowing one is loved by God gives life meaning and gives one the energy needed to carry on with joy, even in difficult personal or societal situations, Pope Benedict XVI told top Vatican officials.

Meeting members of the Roman Curia Dec. 22 for his annual exchange of Christmas greetings, the pope said the "faith fatigue" seen in various areas of church life contrasts sharply with the faith and joy he witnessed during World Youth Day in Madrid and during his November trip to Benin.

The two trips, he said, hold lessons for church leaders and for the faithful.

New homes help tsunami survivors adjust to changed circumstances


BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - Squatting inside his small home in the fishing hamlet of Alua Naga near the city of Banda Aceh, Hussein Sweid knitted together a fishing net, preparing for his next venture out to sea.

"This is a new life and I am slowly coming in terms with it," Sweid, 45, said, surrounded by his family: a wife of four years and two daughters, both now almost 3 years old.

Tears welled up in his eyes as he recalled how he lost four of his five children and first wife in the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami when the sea rose up to 38 feet, submerging much of westernmost Indonesia's island of Sumatra.

"Only my (10-year-old) daughter survived because she was with the grandparents (in another city) at the time," Sweid said.

Prague archbishop remembers Havel as friend, 'fellow prisoner'

PRAGUE — Calling former Czech President Vaclav Havel a "friend and fellow prisoner," the president of the Czech bishops' conference said the entire nation owes Havel a debt of gratitude for its freedom and the new flourishing of Czech life and culture.
Archbishop Dominik Duka of Prague, who was imprisoned with Havel by the communists, asked that the bells of all Catholic churches in the Czech Republic ring at 6 p.m. Dec. 18 in memory of the former president who died that morning at the age of 75.
The archbishop, who met Havel in prison in 1981 and continued to meet with him after the end of communism in 1989, was scheduled to celebrate Havel's funeral Mass Dec. 23 in St. Vitus Cathedral.
"He knew the loss of freedom, the denial of human dignity, oppression and imprisonment," Duka said in a statement posted Dec. 18 on the Czech bishops' web site. "I am convinced that everyone across the country, regardless of political or religious beliefs, owes him honour and thanks."
Havel, a playwright and essayist, was one of the founders of the Charter 77 movement, which began criticizing the communist government of then-Czechoslovakia, particularly for its lack of respect for human rights, in 1977.
He served four years of hard labour and nine months in prison for dissident activities before becoming head of state after the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" that toppled communism. He resigned in 1992 when Slovakia declared its independence, but was elected president of the Czech Republic six months later.
Havel met Pope Benedict XVI during the Pope's trip to Prague in 2009. He met Blessed John Paul II at least five times, three of them in Prague, and Havel attended the late pope's funeral at the Vatican in 2005. The two men admired one another and saw each other as participants in the same battle for freedom, human rights, human dignity and respect for the cultures of Eastern Europe.
In an interview with a Polish Catholic news agency in 2000, Havel said, "John Paul II is someone very close to me, who continually startles me with his personality and inspires me.
"His language, constantly stressing human dignity and recalling the rights of man, has been a novelty in the papacy's history. If the pope had been someone else, from another part of the world, without the historical experience of Poland, he probably wouldn't have had such a clear attitude to totalitarianism. John Paul II's services in this area are undeniable," he said.
He also told the interviewer that in April 1990 he made his confession to Pope John Paul during the pope's first Czech pilgrimage while under the spell of the pope's "charismatic personality."
"I suddenly realized I was in fact confessing in front of him, even though I'm not accustomed to going to confession, since I'm not a practising Catholic. I felt the need because of the great will to understand the other person that emanates from the person of the pope," Havel said.
L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, noted that Havel attended a Mass of thanksgiving in St. Vitus Cathedral immediately after his inauguration in 1989, restoring a practice Czech leaders had followed for centuries until the communists came to power.
"That ceremony was not only the recovery of an ancient liturgy that united politics and tradition, culture and religion, but represented the beginning of a new history, a history of freedom of which Vaclav Havel was the most important symbol," the newspaper said.

Bishops hope North Korea's regime change will bring peace, unification

VATICAN CITY — The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has opened a window of opportunity for renewed dialogue and possible reunification of the peninsula, said two South Korean bishops.
Bishop Peter Kang U-il of Cheju, president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Korea, said the leader's death Dec. 17 "may be the beginning of a turning point for the path of the reunification of the Koreas."
"We hope that the Lord gives the light and strength to the North Korean brothers so that there is a return for a policy focused on dialogue, peace and reconciliation," he said in an interview Dec. 19 with Fides, the Vatican's missionary news agency.
Bishop Lazzaro You Heung-sik of Daejeon, South Korea, told the Rome-based AsiaNews Dec. 19 that "we must focus on dialogue for peace but remain alert."
He said he feared the leader's death would prompt "a period of great confusion."
"Inside the regime, there will (be) a clash between the party and the army. The young age of the heir will not help a smooth transition," said You.
Kim's youngest son, 27-year-old Kim Jong-un, was declared the country's next leader.
Kim, who suffered a stroke in 2008, had ruled the reclusive communist state since 1994, following the death of his father, Kim Il-sung.
You said the new leader lacks the political experience needed to guide the country's relations with the United States, South Korea and China. He expressed concerns that the transition would not be smooth and that "a harsh conflict will break out now between the party, which is in the hands of the heir's uncle, and the military that are answerable to Kim Jong-un."
Too much political wrangling would mean the citizens of North Korea end up paying the price with continued poverty and deaths from hunger, he said.
"We must do our utmost to start sending humanitarian aid again and prevent more deaths from the situation. It is too soon to say what will happen on the Korean Peninsula, but we must pray and work so that peace wins," said You.
"We need to focus on dialogue now that a certain window of opportunity has opened up. We must pray for peace in Korea and the world, and use the Christmas season to remain vigilant but with a hand extended to our brothers in the North." 
Fr. Baptist John Kim Hun-il, executive secretary of the Korean bishops' Subcommittee for Aid to North Korea, expressed hope that Kim's death would not plunge North Korea into further chaos, the Asian Church news agency UCA News reported. He also said that the bishops want to continue the committee's aid program to the North and that there might be the possibility of more openness within the secretive state that could lead to progress in reconciliation efforts.
After Korea was freed from Japanese rule at the end of the Second World War, it was split into the Soviet Union-backed communist North and the U.S.-supported South.
There have been no permanent resident priests or religious in North Korea since the Korean War started in 1950. In 1988, the government created the North Korea Catholic Association and built a Catholic church the following year. Occasionally, when Catholic clergy are allowed to visit the North, they are permitted to celebrate Mass in the church, but no one knows how many Catholics remain in the North.
The North is deeply impoverished and although churches are tightly controlled, Caritas Internationalis — the Vatican-based confederation of national Catholic charities — has been working in the North for more than 15 years. The help began when a series of floods in 1996 led to severe famine that lasted for years.

Church agencies rush aid to thousands of Philippine flood victims


CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines - Church agencies teamed with international aid groups and the Philippine government to assist tens of thousands of people left homeless in northern Mindanao by flash flooding caused by an intense tropical storm that left at least 650 people dead and hundreds more missing.

The country's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported that about 135,000 people in 13 provinces were affected by Tropical Storm Washi, which unleashed floods and landslides as people slept in their homes across northern Mindanao late Dec. 16.

Casualty figures from the Philippine Red Cross Dec. 19 put the death toll at 652. But with another 808 people missing, that toll is expected to rise, reported the Asian church news agency UCA News.

Church sources in Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, two of the worst hit areas, say exact casualty figures are difficult to pin down because of the extensive damage caused by the storm.

Joe Curry, country representative for Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' overseas relief and development agency, told Catholic News Service Dec. 19 from Cagayan de Oro, a city of about 600,000, that about 35,000 people who lost their homes are being housed in evacuation centers in schools and outdoor covered gymnasiums

Overall, an estimated 75,000 of the city's residents living near a river that flows down from nearby mountains on its way to the ocean were affected by the flooding, he said.

"It looks kind of like the tsunami hitting," he said describing what he saw when he arrived in the low-lying area at the base of a mountain. "Everything was taken off the foundations. The water was 11 feet above its banks, and anything near it was wiped away."

Curry described survivors as stunned.

"People in the evacuation centers we've met have nothing left from their houses," he said. "Everything went with the house. They have no clothes. They have no kitchen items. They have nothing."

CRS, which sent a team of eight workers form Davao City, and other aid agencies met at the residence of Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, just outside the flood zone Dec. 19 to coordinate their response with the government. The representatives planned to meet every two days to report on their work and update their plan.

Curry said about 80 percent of the city is without water because water washed away the main water line through the city.

Beryl Tranco of the Panday Bulig Relief and Rehabilitation Center told UCA News that providing water to the city is the biggest challenge facing relief workers.

"Our priority was to distribute drinking water because there is no water, no electricity, the area smells of garbage and decaying bodies," she said.

Caritas Manila, church-run Radio Veritas and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines' national social action secretariat have appealed for relief supplies, clothing and money from dioceses across the country.

In Manila, Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle directed parishes to take up collection at Masses through Christmas for survivors.

Meanwhile, words of comfort and offers of assistance poured in from around the world.

After reciting the Angelus Dec. 18 at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI said he wanted to assure the people of the Philippines of his prayers. After the "violent tropical storm," he said, "I pray for the victims -- many of whom are children -- for the homeless and the numerous people who are missing."

Caritas Australia also announced the opening of an appeal for flood victims.

U.S. President Barack Obama offered condolences to the country and said the United States was prepared to assist in recovery efforts if needed.