Thursday, May 30, 2013

Gang truce in Honduras - second thoughts

I wrote yesterday on this blog about the truce between the two major gangs in Honduras.

I still hope that this will be a major step in controlling one aspect of the violence in Honduras.

Yet it is important to recognize that gang-on-gang violence is not the major source of violence in this country. It accounts for between 2% and 30% of the killings here, depending on what source you read.

Very significant are the revenge killings related to drug-trafficking, probably more than 23%. Drug cartels operate here – some very openly, some with the assistance of politicians, all with the consent and assistance of at least some of the police.

There are also concerns, expressed by the leaders of the gangs in their press conferences as well as by human rights organizations, of killings carried out by police and other government officials.

Some of these deaths are related to the land-struggles in the Aguan region of northeast Honduras and other areas.

There are also the killings of journalists and human rights advocates. The numbers may not be high proportionately but Honduras is a country where journalism and human rights advocacy carry risks of being killed.

But there are also the revenge killings, which I hear about more often than I would like.

Some are related to land.

I recently heard of the death of a woman by someone who was contesting a road on the woman’s property. The perpetrator was denounced and arrested. However, persons associated with the perpetrator threatened to kill all the family if they testified when the case went to court. All pulled back, except for one man. They offered him 5000 lempiras (abut $250) to shut up. He refused and was shot and killed a few days ago by three hooded men.

There are also cases when someone is killed and the family members kill the perpetrator because they see no way that he will be arrested and convicted.

These cases point to three of the most serious problems related to violence here.

First of all, there is the culture of revenge and the lack of cultural responses to conflict that don’t escalate into violence. Here there is a great need of work on developing a consciousness of alternatives to violence and transformative responses to conflict.

Secondly, people are reluctant to speak up in the face of injustice, in fear of suffering recrimination from the perpetrators.

But there is also, more seriously, the lack of a police and judicial system that deals with killings and violations of law. There is an investigative branch of the police, but very few cases of violence are investigated and even fewer result in prosecution. Impunity is rampant. People have very little confidence in the courts and the police.

In fact, some people fear the police as themselves perpetrators of violence. And the idea of militarizing the police could, I believe, cause even greater problems.

And so, the truce between the gangs is a tiny step in dealing with the violence here.

Where do we go from here?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Gang truce in Honduras - first thoughts

Yesterday, in a prison in San Pedro Sula, representatives of the two major gangs in Honduras announced that they were seeking a truce between them. One of the leaders promised “Zero violence,” but another leader stated, “"We're willing to work to lower the violence, but we need everyone to be on board, because we're not willing to be the only ones."  

This is good news, if it holds. A lot will depend not only on the actions of the two gangs but on the willingness of the wider society and the Honduran government to make major changes. More on this in a later blog entry.

San Pedro Sula is the city with the highest percentage of murders in the world and Honduras is one of the world’s most violent countries.

Where I am in western Honduras, we don’t see much gang activity, but the gangs are active in the major cities and on the north coast. To finance their wars they demand “war taxes” – protection money – from businesses, as well as bus and taxi drivers.

Central to this process was Monseñor Romulo Emiliani, the auxiliary bishop of San Pedro Sula. Adam Blackwell, a Canadian from the Organization of American States who has been involved in the gang truce in El Salvador, was also instrumental to arriving at an agreement.

Monseñor Emiliani, a Claretian from Panama, has been a major force in the church’s Prison Ministry throughout the country.

Monseñor Romulo Emiliani, August 2012

Last March, during a bloody prison riot in San Pedro Sula, he negotiated an end to the crisis. He assured the prisoners that the police would not try to end in by a violent attack. Though about 17 were killed in the riot, more deaths were prevented.

Last August at a meeting in Santa Rosa of the prison ministry in northern and western Honduras, he spoke of his trepidation when he entered the prison three times; in one sense, he did not know if he would come out alive.

I was impressed by his courage and his willingness to take risks. It became clear that he loves the prisoners, though he is realistic about the situation.

As he said in an interview in El Heraldo, “On the human level I’m not very optimistic, but seeing everything from the vantage point of faith, there is where one can maintain hope, and where God can intervene.”

There was a truce between the two gangs in 2005, but it only lasted two months.

I have a little more hope now, especially because Monseñor Emiliani is involved, a person of faith, committed to prisoners, who has gained their confidence by his courageous initiatives on their behalf.

In this situation we can pressure authorities in Honduras and in the US to respond to this initiative of the gangs and accompany our actions with prayer.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Opening the doors to baptism

"Think about a single mother who goes to church, in the parish and to the secretary she says: 'I want my child baptized.' And then this Christian, this Christian says: 'No, you cannot because you’re not married!' But look, this girl who had the courage to carry her pregnancy and not to return her son to the sender, what is it? A closed door! This is not zeal! It is far from the Lord! It does not open doors! And so when we are on this street, have this attitude, we do not do good to people, the people, the People of God, but Jesus instituted the seven sacraments with this attitude and we are establishing the eighth: the sacrament of pastoral customs!"
Pope Francis, May 25 homily

I’m in the middle of preparing materials for the preparation of parents and godparents for baptism of infants and children for the Dulce Nombre parish.

A few weeks ago Padre German asked me to work on materials for five sessions and a retreat, so that they are aware of the meaning of baptism and their responsibilities as parents and godparents.

A few days later I went to a meeting of one of the zones of the Dulce Nombre parish. The parish coordinator explained new policies for baptism. Those fourteen and old will participate in the catechumenate process. Those between seven and fourteen can request baptism and will be in a program to prepare them; they will be called pre-catechumens. (They were formerly called catechumens, which is not quite precise – nor is the term pre-catechumen.) Parents can request the baptism of their children from birth to seven years old.

Formerly children under seven weren’t baptized if their parents weren’t in base communities. This will change things.

The first question was whether parents living in fornication could have their children baptized. (I wrote on my reaction to this in an earlier blog, here.) The answer is yes, if they participate in all the pre-baptism sessions.

Single mothers? Yes.

Children of adultery?  Yes.

Is this just opening the church to be a dispenser of sacraments? No, since there are requirements.

It was interesting to hear the negative reaction by some, though I have also heard some positive reaction from some pastoral workers.

The hard attitude of some is motivated by a desire to have parents take baptism seriously and take responsibility for the raising of their children in the faith. But some of these also complained that people came to base communities only to get the sacraments and then left as soon as they had received the sacraments.

I hope that this new policy will actually encourage parents. I’m trying to design the sessions so that they stir up in their hearts questions and maybe even the desire to live their faith even more. Maybe even some who living together without being married will ask to be married in the church. At the very least I hope that the parents and godparents will work together to raise the children in the faith. It would be really a blessing if the parents and godparents decided that they wanted to be part of a base community to help them grow in their faith and raise their children.

In some ways, this is trying to open the doors, as Pope Francis urged in this morning’s homily in the Vatican.

May our efforts invite all to a life of faith in the community of the Church.

Our baptismal preparation sessions will cover these questions and topics related to the questions:
1.     Introduction
a.     Why do I want my child baptized?
b.     Who is Jesus for me?
c.      Where do I encounter God?
Scripture and the teaching of the church
The Eucharist, the sacraments, prayer
my neighbor in need
2.     The Church and Faith
a.     Why do I want my child baptized Catholic?
b.     What is the Church for me?
c.      In what does the Church believe?
            The creed
3.     How do we live our faith?
a.     How do I live my faith in my daily life?
b.     What sacraments have I received?
      What is a sacrament?
      What are the seven sacraments?
c.      What are the most important commandments?
Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
The ten commandments
The works of mercy
4.     The sacrament of Baptism
a.     How do you use water in your daily life?
b.     What does Baptism do to us?
5.     The rite of baptism

If anyone would like to see the materials after there are finished, e-mail me so that I can send you a digital copy.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Francis and Benedict — Subiaco

In February, I visited Italy — a combination of vacation, retreat, and pilgrimage — to celebrate my 65th birthday the previous June.

Florence, Ravenna, Assisi, Rome, and Subiaco were my destinations. Assisi was the highlight and my five days there were a real retreat, like hearty pasta and wine

But Subiaco was a delicate taste of heaven, like a delicious gelato.

It was easy to get to the town – a simple bus ride from Rome. But once in town, getting to the monastery of St. Benedict was a bit more complicated.

I bought a bus ticket that would take me part way – but by the time I got to the station, the bus had already left. I started walking. Luckily I got a ride up the hill from a man with a great long beard who looked like a monk but was a local forest ranger.

The monastery clings to the side of the mountain. It is built around the cave where St. Benedict spent several years as a hermit, subsisting with the provisions a monk sent down in a basket.

No photos were permitted in the church. Even though, there was no one around, I obeyed. And thus I have had to remember then with my eyes and heart, rather than with a camera.

The churches (since there are several levels) are adorned with incredible frescos. One of my favorites was the meal of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. Shortly before her death, they had met to talk but, as dusk approached, Benedict insisted he had to get back to the monastery since that was the Rule. Scholastica stopped and prayed; a great rainstorm came and prevented Benedict from leaving. Since Benedict didn’t listen, his sister sought the intervention of God.

There are also beautiful frescos of Benedict and two of his monks, Mauro and Placido, on the walls and ceiling of a lower part of the church.

Near these frescos is the cave of Benedict. I entered but I couldn’t pray well there. The marble statues – Benedict, the raven, and the basket – were distracting. I would have preferred a bare cave. (My visit to the cave of Brother Masseo in the Carceri was one of the most profound moments of my visit to Assisi.)

But the beautiful surprise is a little chapel nearby, at the end of a little hall. There on the wall is the oldest fresco of St. Francis of Assisi, probably painted by a monk about 1223.

As I sat beside the fresco, protected by glass, I gazed into the eyes of Francis and felt a sense of intimate connection with him. The conversation was wordless – heart speaking to heart, again calling me to live the Gospel in the footsteps of Francis. I have no idea why that face pulled me, almost into the soul of Francis. 

At one point I stood up and looked closely at the face of Francis. I noted that the iris of the eyes was not painted – but just the wall or some plaster.

I must have stayed there for almost 30 minutes. But, before I left a family entered and showed their two little girls the fresco of Francis. I soon understood that one of them was named Francesca. The loveliness of a child added to the sacred beauty of the tiny chapel.

I left and dropped by the gift shop.

Then I walked back down the hill to town, on a road through the forest. 

Walking along the river in town, I looked up and saw the back of the town’s church, several stories descending from the level of the upper city where one could enter the church proper.

I got a bus back to Rome – with a sense of peace that the presence of Benedict and Francis had engendered in me.

A few months later while reading Julien Green’s remarkable book on St. Francis, God’s Fool, The Life and Times of Francis of Assisi, I came across Green’s account of his visits to Subiaco. His account says much of what I felt (p. 181):

Where I am now, he once stood and prayed. His picture on one of the walls looks out at the visitor, smiling, youthful, joyous, with his bright eyes, his thin beard, and his protruding ears. Tradition claims that an unknown monk of genius painted that slender face and those hands not yet wounded by the stigmata. Next to his head an inscription bears his name: Fr. (Frater) Franciscus. Nothing more or less; he was still just a brother, a brother passing through, whom they loved.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Burning fields and mountainsides

Yesterday I went out with Padre German Navarro to the village of San Isidro La Cueva to celebrate the feast of their patron, San Isidro Labrador, Saint Isidore the Farm Laborer.

We were met by a small group of people waiting to begin a procession to the church, reciting the rosary as we went. Padre German insisted that they have a specific intention with each decade of the rosary. I spaced out and missed all the intentions but the third, which was for water.

It’s been hot and dry here, though it rained one day last week. It is a little cooler this week, but still no rain.

The rain is important for planting and though some communities like San Isidro will not plant until June, the lack of rain is a bit worrisome.

But worse are the fires and the scorched earth it leaves behind.

People, especially those with a lot of land, will burn the field to prepare them for planting, especially if they have decided to plant a new crop in an area that was formerly forested. This leaves the area vulnerable to land slides and soil erosion. At times the burning will affect other vegetation and I’ve seen dying pine trees because of the burning. The climatic effects – including affecting water sources – are very serious.

I saw some burnt areas in San Isidro but I was shocked as we drove from San Isidro toward El Zapote. The side of a mountain was burnt and trees had been felled. It was a black and grey wilderness. Near the road you could see that the fire had even affected some banana plants.

I was so shocked I didn’t pull out my camera to take a picture.

Whose land is this?

Who are those who are destroying God’s creation?

What can be done?

In some parts of Honduras municipalities have enacted “no burn” laws and, because the people were the ones who pushed for these laws, they are generally successful in eliminating the burnings.

Whether this could be done here is another question. Right now leaders, including Padre German, are talking to the people, urging them not to burn.

But the burning continues.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013


This post may offend a number of my readers but I feel called to write something about the two persons responsible for horrid deaths who were convicted this week. 

I will not give detailed accounts of what they did, since other, more knowledgeable, people have written about both cases.

On May 13, in Philadelphia, Kermit Gosnell was convicted of three murders, one manslaughter, and other charges. He received life imprisonment without possibility of parole for these charges which are probably only the tip of the iceberg of atrocious abortions, without regard to the pregnant women or the  unborn.

On 10 May, Efraín Ríos Montt , former president and general, was convicted in Guatemala of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 80 years imprisonment.

His regime was responsible for the killing of thousands of innocent civilians, mostly indigenous people, and the destruction of hundreds of villages. The massacres were brutal – men, women, children, and fetuses were killed, some after being tortured.

But Rios Mott as president was praised by US president Ronald Reagan who said, “President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment.” This was while the massacres were taking place. He also received the praise of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

The killings done under the presidency of Rios Montt are far more than those of Gosnell.

It is right that Catholics and pro-life advocates are horrified at what Gosnell did. But how many even know about the crimes of Rios Montt and US complicity in genocide.

What we need is consistency in our advocacy of life.

Otherwise we are hypocrites.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Blood of the Poor

Some who come to visit Honduras are very concerned about the security issues, especially since the two major cities, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, are among the five cities in the world with the highest percentages of killings.

This is not helped by the Honduran newspaper which often put bloody scenes on the front page and have three pages of “Successos,” reports of crimes and other violent events, replete with photos of bloody bodies.

Of course, most of those killed are the poor – caught in a web of organized crime, drug trafficking, police corruption, and a “justice” system in which very few crimes are investigated and very few killers are brought to trial and convicted.

But there is one aspect of the blood of the poor that is not seen – the effects of the extremely rich and the political and economic elites that profit from the poor. The world caught a glimpse of this in the bloody deaths in the Bangla Desh clothes factory. But it is much more pervasive, as people die from the effects of a society with glaring inequalities.

Dorothy Day once wrote about St. Ignatius of Laconi, a Sardinian Capuchin brother of the eighteenth century, whose feast is celebrated today by the Franciscans. He was the questor, the official beggar for his friary.

As Dorothy Day wrote in in May 1952 Catholic Worker:

      One way to keep poor is not to accept money which is the result of defrauding the poor. Here is a story of St. Ignatius of Sardinia, a Capuchin recently canonized [1951]. Ignatius used to go out from his monastery with a sack to beg from the people of his town, but he would never go to a merchant who had built up his fortune by defrauding the poor. Franchino, the rich man, fumed every time the saint passed his door. His concern, however, was not the opportunity to give alms, but fear of public opinion. He complained to the friary, whereupon the Father Guardian ordered St. Ignatius to beg from the merchant the next time he went out.
      “Very well,” said Ignatius obediently. “If you wish it, Father, I will go, but I would not have the Capuchins dine on the blood of the poor.”

The merchant received Ignatius with great flattery and gave him generous alms, asking him to come again in the future. But hardly had Ignatius left the house with his sack on his shoulder when drops of blood began oozing from the sack. They tickled down on Franchino’s doorstop and ran down through the street to the monastery. Everywhere Ignatius went, a trickle of blood followed him. When he arrived at the friary, he laid the sack at the Father Guardian’s feet. “What is this?” gape the guardian. “This,” St. Ignatius said, “is the blood of the poor.”

Here in Honduras there are church leaders who are tempted to receive the gifts of the rich and to curry favor to the political and economic elites. The temptation affects church leaders from bishops to rural pastors. 

I know of at least one case where a priest was offered money for the church from a local drug lord. He refused. Another priest was offered money by a local politician for himself, but he publicly made sure that the money went directly to the church

 But there are at least two towns that have gorgeous new churches which are probably paid for by drug trafficking or other organized crime leaders.  

And who knows how connected other church leaders are to the powers that support and conserve the radical inequality here in Honduras (and throughout the world). According to Monseñor Luis Alfonso Santos, bishop of Santa Rosa de Copán during the 2009 coup, the coup was the work of political and economic elites. Why was it that he was one of the few religious leaders to condemn it? Another prelate, in 2010, actually compared the leaders of the coup to the founding fathers of Honduras.

The temptation of money and power is strong – for all people, especially those who hold positions of power in the economic sphere, the church, and the state. But it is also a temptation for all of us.

Let us always remember “the blood of the poor.”


The quote from Dorothy Day can also be found in Robert Ellsberg's By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day,  pp, 108-109;

Wednesday, May 08, 2013


The other day a young guy working in a refrigerator repair shop came to take my refrigerator to get fixed and saw my books. His question, like that of so many others, was, "Have you read all of them?"

I do a lot of reading here in Honduras. Almost two years ago I invested in a Kindle and that has enabled me to find some good reads – some fairly cheap.

I also like a real paper book in my hands and slowly bring down a few more of the books I have stored with friends in Ames. Also I will occasionally order books when I’m going to the US or when someone is coming down and willing to bring them.

The Dubuque Franciscan sisters in nearby Gracias are also a source of books. We share books – often mystery and suspense novels, but also books on ministry and spirituality.

My reading interests are varied, as you can see in the list of books I’ve read in the last few years here. (To be totally honest, that list doesn't reflect all the books I've read since I've left off the novels by the likes of John Sanford, Anne Perry, James Patterson, Lee Child, and Jonathan Kellerman.) I also have a big wish list.

But I’m usually reading several books at the same time. Sometimes that due to some books being slow reads or my desire to have something lighter or easier to read while I'm plowing through a tough read.

Right now I’m reading:
     Paul Sabatier’s Life of St. Francis of Assisi
     Sigrid Undset’s Catherine of Siena
     Donal Dorr’s Option for the Poor and for the Earth
     George Lakey’s Facilitating Group Learning: 
                  Strategies for Success with Adult Learners.

Last fall, in preparation for a pilgrimage to Assisi, I started reading a lot of books on Francis. Right now I’m trying to finish Sabatier’s book which is slow reading. I find him verbose and he seems to be going off on moralizing tangents all too often.But i want to finish the book.

Before the feast of Catherine of Siena I started Sigrid Undset’s Catherine of Siena.  About forty years ago I read several of the large novels of this Norwegian Catholic novelist:  Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Her work on Catherine is intriguing. It’s not a straight-forward biography since Undset comments on the life and times in ways that have helped me understand and better appreciate this fourteenth century lay Dominican mystic.

To keep my mind (and heart) attuned to the spirituality that sustains me I recently began the latest edition of Donal Dorr’s  Option for the Poor and for the Earth. I read and enjoyed the earlier editions of his Option for the Poor and find this helpful in thinking through my social ministry here. What is significant is that this new edition added the option for the earth as a major theme.

A few days ago I began George Lakey’s Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Adult Learners. One of my concerns here is how I work in the countryside in the formation of pastoral workers and catechists. My approach has been much more participative than is normal here, where people sit for long talks on topics. But I’m always trying to find ways to better involve people here in the learning process. Lakey’s work with Training for Change and nonviolent education projects in the US, informs this work, which I am finding very helpful as I think about how we can structure training in the Dulce Nombre parish. Padre German’s concern for popular methodology has moved me to buy, read, and study this book.

What else?

I have several unfinished books, including Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith by Daniel Horan, OFM., Willam T. Cavanaugh’s  Migrations of the Holy, and the volume of book chapters, The Ten Best Books to Read for Easter, edited by Jim Martin, S.J. – all of these  are collections of articles. I may get around to finishing them sometime this year. I also started Don Di Lillo’s novel,  Underworld, which is interesting, but not an easy read.

Two other works partly read are Like A Hammer Shattering Rock: Hearing the Gospels Today by my friend Megan McKenna and Barbara E. Reid’s Reconsider la cruz: Interpretación latinoanericana y feminista del Nuevo Testamento.

What do I want to read in the next few months?

A few biographies or novels – but I don’t have any good ones here to read at this point. I’ll have to wait to get some from the sisters or from other visitors.

For my work, I’m planning to read a book by my long-time friend, Dan Ebener. Blessings for Leaders.  I haven’t read his earlier book, Servant Leadership Models for Your Parish, which I’ll probably get the next time I’m in the US. (I’ve know Dan since before 1980 and have long appreciated his commitment to peace and social justice.)

I have on my list of books to read Ultimate Price: Testimonies of Christians Who Resisted the Third Reich, edited by Annemarie S. Kidder, which reflect my long-held interest in those who stood up against Hitler.

There are two books in English related to Honduras I also hope to read: Jeffrey Jackson’s The Globalizers: Development Workers in Action and Robert Brenneman’s Homies and Hermanos:God and Gangs in Central America.

I also should finally get around to reading Ramon Amaya Amador’s  Prisión Verde, on the banana strike in the 1950s. It’s a classic Honduran “novel.”

I’ve had The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day  on my shelf for a while and need to get around to reading it – before it gets eaten more by some type of wood and book bug.

There are a few philosophy and theology authors I’d like to get around to reading – but they often require more concentrated time than I normally have: Hannah Arendt, Jon Sobrino, Gustavo Gutiérrez, José Antonio Pagola, among others.

Reading is a gift – and I’m glad I can take time to do it. I need to be a little more disciplined. My upcoming birthday might be a good time to again try to read in a more disciplined way.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Refrain from fornication

Today’s first reading from the Catholic lectionary is the early Christian community’s response to the presence of non-Jews in their community.

The big question was whether they should be circumcised.

The response was a compromise that opened the community to the presence of the Gentiles in the early church (Acts 15: 28-29):

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. (New Revised Standard Version)

‘It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. (New American Bible Revised Edition)

Yesterday I was took part in a meeting of one of the zones of the Dulce Nombre parish.

Padre German had gone to a village for Mass and a wedding. Professor Arnaldo, the parish coordinator, explained that there would be a new policy for infant baptisms. It would not be as limited as it was in the past. The parents would have to participate in five sessions and, possibly, a retreat. (I knew this since he had asked me to put together the materials for the pre-baptismal sessions.)

This surprised a few people and some asked whether this meant that single mothers or people “living in fornication” could have their children baptized.

I reacted strongly, objecting to the use of the word “fornication,” which for me has a strong sense of “living in sin,” “shacking up,” and promiscuous sexual behavior.

A dictionary definition of fornication is “sexual intercourse between people not married to each other.”

The Greek word, translated in several ways including “sexual immorality,” is derived from the word for prostitute.

I suggested that using this phrase was judgmental and that we should use a less “loaded” expression like “not married in the church.” I suggested that if we call all non-married couples “fornicators” that will not help us invite them into the Christian community and into marriage.

This doesn’t mean I am against marriage and would not encourage couples to get married. But I think we have to minister pastorally, with compassion and understanding.

I don’t know why there are many couples who, having several children, still haven’t gotten married by the church.

Is it the cost of a civil marriage, which is a precondition to church marriage?

Is it the sense that a church marriage should be accompanied by a costly celebration?

Some people have said that some don’t marry because they don’t want the commitment. That is probably true in some cases, but I wonder if that fits two interesting cases I know of.

Twice I accompanied the former pastor, Padre Efraín, to visit elderly couples who had not been married in the church. One woman was close to death. He asked them if they wanted to be married. In one case, the old guy – probably with a mind clouded by illness and old age – took some time to answer yes. The couples went to confession and were married by the church in their homes, with at least one grandchild present.

Were these couples fornicators? Did they not want the commitment of the sacrament of matrimony until they neared death?

I doubt it.

I suggest that we need to find ways to welcome unmarried couples into the community and  to encourage them to strengthen their relationships with the sacrament of matrimony.

But calling “fornicators” all couples living together but not married? I think that is too much and lacks pastoral sense

This comment of Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., in The Word Engaged,  p. 67, on today’s reading from Acts is pointed:
One of the most seductive temptations of the believer is to identify the will of God with the will of the believer, and not the other way around.