Anchorage, Alaska, Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - Wide-eyed figures, often viewed as “windows to the eternal,” have long peered from rustic churches and chapels inside of Alaska’s Russian Orthodox churches. More recently, however, a growing number are appearing in local Catholic parishes as well.
These haloed, somber-looking forms are sacred icons, believed to be capable of reflecting the holiness of heaven into the earth, explains the Catholic Anchor.
A gift from the East
Dating back to the first centuries of Christianity, icons gained increased prominence in Alaska after Russian Orthodox missionaries landed on Kodiak Island in 1794. The images spread to churches and missions across the state and then on into the Western United States.
While long familiar to Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic traditions of the East, the increased presence of icons within Western Christianity, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, is part of what Deacon Charles Rohrbacher sees as a renewed interest in sacred art.
An internationally respected Catholic iconographer who now lives in the Diocese of Juneau, Deacon Rohrbacher has observed a growing fascination with icons in Western Christianity over the past quarter century.
“I often ask theologians and church leaders why there has been a resurgence in icons,” he said in a telephone interview with the Anchor. “They most commonly tell me that it is due to a deep hunger for transcendence.”
It is a hunger that Deacon Rohrbacher has seen cut across denominational lines as modern Christians seek deeper spiritual realities in an increasingly secular world. “The icon is a healing image,” he said. “So many modern images we see do not heal — they wound us. They are of terror and abuse. In the icon, Christ, Mary and the saints look on us in love and invite us to contemplation.”
Expanded use of icons
In Alaska, Deacon Rohrbacher’s icons hang from Catholic parishes in the Anchorage and Juneau dioceses, as well as in several Orthodox churches farther north.
One of his most prominent works, completed in 2003, is an icon screen, which includes 38 interlocking images that span the entire width of the sanctuary at St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church in Anchorage. In traditional form, the screen depicts the salvation story through icon imagery.
Two of the largest Roman Catholic parishes in the Anchorage Archdiocese also have made recent moves to expand the place of icons within their communities. Most notably, a large four-by-six-foot icon of the Holy Family is under construction for prominent display in the sanctuary at Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage.
Dominican Father Francis Hung Le, pastor of the cathedral, said he hopes the icon will bridge the wide cultural and linguistic diversity within the church and point the faithful to the transcendent truth reflected in the sacred image.
“We have so many languages at the cathedral but icons can speak a universal language,” he told the Anchor.
Rediscovering a Catholic tradition
Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz sees the turn to icons as a positive development and one which might reconnect Catholics to part of their tradition which is often overlooked in the Western church.
“Icons are not new to us as Catholics,” he told the Anchor. “Icons were part of our church history in the first thousand years of Christianity before the split between Orthodox and Catholics.”
Several icons hang in Archbishop Schwietz’s private residence and prayer chapel in Anchorage. They are images which he said can “feed the spiritual life of prayer.”
“You don’t just look at icons, you pray with them, and we need to relearn that as Roman Catholics,” he said. “People find that sitting with an icon can help them focus and help them set aside the noise of this world.”
The Christian belief that heavenly realities can be experienced through physical forms and images dates back to the first centuries of the church. Theologically, icons are rooted in the understanding that God took on physical form through the incarnation of Christ. And while icons are not considered holy in their own right, they are believed to be sacred because of the spiritual realities which they reflect.
The icon is also linked closely to traditional Christian beliefs about the sacramental nature of the world, a world where bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ and where water becomes holy and spiritually transformative through baptism.
Beyond Catholic and Orthodox
Outside Catholic and Orthodox circles, icons are rarely seen in Christian churches. More commonly, though, they are found in private devotional practices.
Orthodox priest Father Mikel Bock sees this in his work as manager of the Russian Orthodox Museum in downtown Anchorage. There, he sells icons to Christians from various church backgrounds.
“It’s a combination,” he told the Anchor. “It is probably mostly Orthodox and Catholic, but an icon will sometimes strike someone and they will buy it because it affects them — it touches their heart.”
For those unfamiliar with icons, they serve as conversation starters, Father Bock added.
“People want to know the significance of them, who they are, what they mean,” he said.
In the years following the Second Vatican Council, Deacon Rohrbacher saw a number of Catholic parishes remove sacred art and statues from their sanctuaries in the 1970s and 80s.
“There was a tendency toward a kind of bare, stripped down minimalist church environment,” he said. “Many statues and pictures were shown the door but with nothing really to replace them.”
Deacon Rohrbacher remembers a moment in the 1970s, which inspired him to learn iconography. Walking into the new cathedral in San Francisco he was taken aback.
“It was very stark, very white and very, very bare,” he recalled. “Instinctively, it seemed that a Catholic Church without images of Christ and Mary and the saints was not fully proclaiming the Gospel,” he said. “It was a disincarnate environment.”
In more recent years, however, Deacon Rohrbacher thinks Vatican II has contributed to the reemergence of icons in some Catholic circles.
“Part of Vatican II was a return to original sources,” he explained. “That has been a part of the rediscovery of the role of the icon in the life of the church.”
Printed with permission from the Catholic Anchor, newspaper from the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.
Denver, Colo., Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - In a letter dated February 19, Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced that Dr. Jonathan Reyes, former president of the Augustine Institute, will be the new CEO of Denver’s Catholic Charities. The prelate remarked that Reyes will bring a strong commitment to the poor and a deep understanding of Catholic teaching to the position.
Prior to his work at the Augustine Institute, Reyes served as Vice President for Academic Affairs of Christendom College. His educational background includes a Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in history from the University of Notre Dame.
After thanking the current staff of Catholic Charities for their efforts, Archbishop Chaput explained that Reyes “will bring a variety of strong qualities to his work for Catholic Charities: maturity, energy, intelligence, humility, a deep commitment to the poor and a great understanding of Catholic identity and social teaching.”
“While he has much to learn about running an organization like Catholic Charities,” the archbishop continued, “he clearly has the talent and spirit to do it – and a strong staff to help him. He has my complete confidence.”
Reyes is scheduled to begin his new position at Catholic Charities in June. He is currently on sabbatical in Minnesota.
Denver, Colo., Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - In a startling defense of legal abortion supporter Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Catholics United has attacked Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, accusing him being more interested in trying to score political points against the governor than in crafting effective abortion policy within the reality of politics.
The salvo from Catholics United comes as advisors to President Obama have told the press that he has decided on Sebelius as his next secretary of Health and Human Services nominee.
Kathleen Sebelius, who professes to be Catholic, has a problematic record on abortion.
Although Catholics United mentions the Kansas governor’s "tireless support for children's health care and education, and her efforts to provide public financing for adoption and pregnancy support centers," the group fails to mention her 30 years of simultaneously advocating to keep abortion legal.
In the Spring of 2008, Archbishop Naumann met with Gov. Sebelius to ensure that she understood the gravity of her position. After meeting with her, Archbishop Naumann asked her to stop receiving Communion.
As Archbishop Naumann explained to CNA, he requested that Gov. Sebelius stop receiving Communion because of her "30-year history of advocating and acting in support of legalized abortion."
The Thursday statement by Catholics United, which is mostly dedicated to rebuffing the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, marks the first time that the organization has targeted a specific Catholic bishop by name.
"Like Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann – who often seems more interested in scoring political points against Gov. Sebelius than crafting effective abortion policy within the reality of politics – Mr. Donohue is doing a disservice to those Americans who will benefit from Gov. Sebelius's leadership as Health and Human Services Secretary."
Hanoi, Vietnam, Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - A delegation from the Vatican headed by Archbishop Pietro Parolin is wrapping up a visit to Vietnam this week. Progress was made towards establishing better relations, both the Vatican and the Communist government said, but local Catholics remain skeptical.
The mood amongst local Vietnamese Catholics, who have experienced a year rife with government interference, is still one of doubt about whether any improvement in relations will be seen.
The Vatican delegation arrived in Vietnam for its sixteenth annual trip to the country last Sunday. During the past week, government and Vatican officials met to discuss the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.
While the Vatican hoped for progress in the relationship with the Communist country, over the past year, Catholics in Vietnam and government officials have clashed over the land where the apostolic nunciature is located. An anonymous Vietnamese official admitted to AFP that “bilateral relations have been difficult at times, and we've been on the brink of a complete break on occasion.”
However, he added, this week “represents a clear evolution, marking the resumption of dialogue between Hanoi and the Vatican." Although, he emphasized, "the road to diplomatic ties is still a long one."
The Vatican has also confirmed that the dialogue over the past week has been fruitful. On Thursday, Monsignor Pietro Parolin, Vatican Undersecretary of State, told the press that, "This is the first time that we've met with a formal, public agenda on the matter of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Vietnam -- that is progress.”
However, he noted that it was “premature” to discuss any “detailed, concrete progress.”
As for the issue of the property disputes over the nunciature and other locations, Msgr. Parolin only commented that the concern was raised during meetings “in a general way.”
Catholics in Vietnam weren’t optimistic that any change would be made in the ties between the government and the Church. “Should you expect to see any improvements in Vatican-Vietnam diplomatic relations in these talks, you would be very disappointed,” said Fr. Joseph Nguyen from Hanoi. “For now, nothing relating to diplomatic relations with the Vatican exists in the vision of Vietnamese officials,” Fr. J.B. An Dang told CNA.
He continued, “Facing angry reactions against their notorious Human Rights record, they simply took these meetings as an opportunity to deceive the international community that they are willing to improve religious freedom conditions.”
Vatican City, Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - Pope Benedict XVI took an audience with members of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America as a chance to give a ringing endorsement of the Great Continental Mission and to underline the necessity of forming solid priests as a key part of that mission.
Meeting with 40 counselors and members of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America at the Vatican today, the Pope recounted the continual efforts made by past Pontiffs to support the Church in Latin America.
In 1958 Pope Pius XII founded the Pontifical Commission because he was "faced with a lack of priests and missionaries" and "felt the need … to intensify and co-ordinate development efforts in support of the Church in Latin America," Benedict XVI recalled.
Pope John Paul II "continued and intensified this initiative with the aim of underlining the particular pastoral solicitude felt by Peter's Successor towards the pilgrim Churches in those beloved lands."
Pope Benedict then turned to his concern for Latin America and the Caribbean. "Last year, I received many bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean on their 'ad limina' visits, with whom I discussed the situation of the particular Churches entrusted to their care." The Holy Father also emphasized his strong support for the Great Continental Mission that the Bishops’ Conference launched in 2007 at the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida.
The theme chosen for this mission - "disciples and missionaries in Jesus Christ, that in Him our peoples may have life" - continues "to guide the efforts of the members of the Church in those beloved countries," the Pontiff added.
"When I described my apostolic visit to Brazil before members of the Roman Curia, I asked myself: Was Aparecida right, when seeking life for the world, in giving priority to discipleship of Christ and evangelization? Was this not a mistaken withdrawal into interior life?
"To this I replied resoundingly: No!"
"Aparecida was right precisely because a fresh encounter with Jesus Christ and His Gospel - and only that - can create forces which give us the power to find adequate responses to the challenges of our time," Pope Benedict declared.
Turning his attention to the state of Latin American seminaries, which the commission had just finished studying and accessing, the Holy Father pointed to the pivotal role that they play in forming disciples of Jesus.
"For all of us," he reflected, "the seminary was a decisive moment of discernment and preparation. There, in profound dialogue with Christ, we fortified our desire to root ourselves deeply in Him. Over those years we learned to feel at home in the Church. ... For this reason I am pleased that your plenary assembly focused attention on the current situation in the seminaries of Latin America."
"In order to create priests who accord to the dictates of Christ's heart, we have to trust in the action of the Holy Spirit more than in human strategies and calculations, and faithfully ask God, 'Lord of the harvest,' to send many holy vocations to the priesthood," the Pope said.
"At the same time, the need for priests to face the challenges of today's world must not induce us to discard the careful discernment of candidates, nor to overlook the necessary, even rigorous, demands that must be made in order for their formative process to produce exemplary priests.
Pope Benedict brought his talk to an end by urging the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean to use the recommendations of the commission "in the delicate field of formation for the priesthood."
Echoing the theme of the Great Continental Mission, the Pope said, "Today more than ever it is important for seminarians ... to aspire to the priesthood exclusively out of the desire to be true disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ and, in communion with their bishops, make Him present through their ministry and the witness of their lives."
Vatican City, Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - Today the Holy Father praised members of the Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) for their efforts in reducing poverty in rural areas of the world. He told the organization, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, that love must be the primary motivator in the war against poverty.
Expressing his thanks for IFAD’s 30 years of work, Pope Benedict said that it is especially important in the face of great “instability in the prices of agricultural products.” He specifically noted one of the group’s endeavors called the “rural credit” project which helps smallholder farmers with no land of their own. Projects such as these, the Pope noted “can boost the wider economy and provide greater food security for all.”
Additionally, he added, IFAD’s efforts also assist native communities by helping them “flourish on their own soil” instead of forcing them to uproot “in order to seek employment in overcrowded cities, teeming with social problems, where they often have to endure squalid living conditions."
These programs are particularly helpful because all too often, those who work in agriculture are exploited, the Pope noted. This happens when “their produce is diverted to distant markets, with little or no resulting benefit for the local community itself."
Looking at the current state of world affairs, the Holy Father reminded the group that there is a need for “renewed determination to act in harmony and solidarity with all the different elements of the human family in order to ensure equitable access to the earth's resources now and in the future."
To do this, we must be motivated by love, explained the Pontiff. “Love for the poor, love that cannot tolerate injustice or deprivation, love that refuses to rest until poverty and hunger are banished from our midst.”
The Pontiff finished his remarks by saying that ridding the world of extreme poverty and hunger is “far from being over-ambitious or unrealistic,” but rather should be a requirement of the entire international community.
Zagreb, Croatia, Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - The bishops of Eastern Europe issued a statement this week marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, warning that “the wounds caused by Communism continue to be present in the lives of the countries that suffered behind the Iron Curtain.”
Led by Cardinal Josip Bozanic, who is the Archbishop of Zagreb and the vice president of the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe, the bishops recalled that the Berlin Wall was for years a symbol “of division, fracture, distance and selfishness.”
They said that one of their main concerns is “the permanence of the structures of Communism” through “legislation, judicial power, the economy, education and the culture.”
This is evident, they pointed out, in the silence that persists about “events of the recent past.”
The bishops expressed the need for the Church “to help rebuild the lives” of these countries. “The Catholic Church must reconstruct the historical memory of the communist years” and fight against “the tendency to keep quiet about what really happened.”
Therefore the bishops announced a series of conferences of an historical character that will be held to “shed light on the life of the Church and of Christians during the Communist period.”
Rome, Italy, Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - An Israeli comedian has caused an uproar in the Holy Land by broadcasting skits that the Vatican described in a Friday statement as "blasphemous."
Israeli authorities reacted by promising the apostolic nuncio that they will prevent such programs from being broadcast in the future and require the TV station to apologize.
Skits by the comedian Yair Shlein aired on the private TV Channel 10 earlier this week, suggested that the Virgin Mary was impregnated by a school friend when she was 15. Shlein also joked that Jesus died at a young age because he was fat, that his obesity prevented him from actually walking on water, and that his justification for all these jokes was that Christians deny the Holocaust—a reference to Bishop Richard Williamson’s beliefs about the extent of the Holocaust.
Jesus and Mary were ''ridiculed with blasphemous words and images,'' the Vatican said in a statement today that joined the voices of many of the Christian leaders in the Holy Land.
''The authorities promptly assured they would intervene to stop such broadcasts and obtain a public apology from the broadcaster,'' the Vatican said.
The reaction from the Vatican closes by expressing the Church’s "solidarity with the Christians of the Holy Land" and deploring "such a vulgar and offensive act of intolerance against the religious sentiments of those who believe in Christ." The Church observes "with sadness that this grave offence is directed against two sons of Israel, namely Jesus and Mary of Nazareth."
Scranton, Pa., Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - Explaining that he is determined to “prevent scandal,” Bishop of Scranton Joseph Martino has said that he will cancel Masses for St. Patrick’s Day or for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade if any pro-abortion officials are honored at the holiday events.
The bishop said that scandal could arise if the Catholic Church is seen to be involved in honoring such officials.
John M. Dougherty, the Auxiliary Bishop of Scranton, explained Bishop Martino’s views in a Feb. 6 letter to John Keeler, President of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick of Lackawanna County.
Saying that St. Peter’s Cathedral plays “no small role” in the local observance of St. Patrick’s Day, Bishop Dougherty noted that local celebrations often honor elected public officials. This honoring takes place when they are given parade positions or dais opportunities.
“While some of the officials have merited the pride our local people take in them, others have positions and voting records that have contributed to the daily killing of the unborn by abortion,” Bishop Dougherty wrote.
Saying Bishop Martino “understands and blesses” the ethnic pride of men and women in the diocese, he is also “determined to prevent scandal.”
This scandal would take place “when or if” the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, the Saint Patrick’s Parade Association of Lackawanna County or the Society of Irish Women should honor such officials and the Catholic Church is seen to be involved.
If the prevention of scandal requires it, Bishop Dougherty wrote, Bishop Martino may close St. Peter’s Cathedral or any Catholic church in the diocese for Masses which include the honoring of pro-abortion elected officials.
“It is certainly the Bishop’s hope that judicious choices of elected public officials to be honored by your organization will make unnecessary any such action on his part. He asks, however, that I communicate with you now so as to avoid any surprise should he be required to take action in this most serious matter,” Bishop Dougherty’s letter said before concluding with a blessing.
According to WNEP-TV, parade organizers say they’ve never honored pro-abortion politicians in their parade and don’t plan to start.
"We met as a committee and formulated our opinion that we support the bishop's position. We don't feel it should impact the parade or its Mass," Mike Harrity of the St. Patrick’s Parade association said.
Scranton resident Corey Eagen told WNEP-TV he didn’t think the bishop should break with tradition “just because he’s not happy with the way other people act.”
Robert Malos, another Scranton resident, had kind words for Bishop Martino’s action, saying:
“Maybe some people would say 'extreme' but he's sticking to his guns and in a way, I kind of admire him for that. I like a guy who says something and sticks to it. I have no problem with that at all.”
Madrid, Spain, Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - The secretary general of the Bishops’ Conference of Spain, Bishop Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, said Thursday that the social acceptance of abortion “is one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century” and reiterated that “taking an innocent life is an absolute evil.”
During a press conference at the conclusion of the bishops’ plenary meeting, Bishop Martinez asked, “How is it possible that the right to life is not recognized” for the unborn while other rights for them are? “The less this right is protected by law, the more unjust and illegitimate will the law be,” he warned.
Likewise, he called abortion “an intrinsically evil act” that “gravely violates the dignity of an innocent human being, taking his or her life.” “A society that does not ensure the lives of the unborn is a society that is experiencing serious internal violence,” he said.
Bishop Martinez called for the rejection of “propaganda that deceptively presents abortion as a just another surgical or medical intervention that is hygienic and safe.” Abortion “gravely wounds the dignity of those who commit it, leaving profound psychological and moral trauma.”
“The Church,” he continued, “sounds the alarm against the gravity of abortion by determining excommunication for all those who collaborate as necessary accomplices in its completion.”
On the other hand, Bishop Martinez reiterated that providing personal, economic and moral help to women “is a duty of strict justice,” as maternity is a valuable contribution to the common good.
“Unfortunately, pregnant women, left to fend for themselves or even pressured to eliminate their own child, turn to abortion as the both the authors and victims of this violence,” he said.
Rome, Italy, Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - The secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, said recently that the reading of the Word of God should be done without falling into “subjectivism, arbitrariness or fundamentalism.”
The bishop made his comments during the presentation of the book, “The Word in words: From Biblicism to the Realism of the Faith,” by Bishop Lorenzo Leuzzi. The book features reflections on the discourses of Pope Benedict XVI during the Synod on the Word of God which was held at the Vatican last October.
After noting that “the faithful’s personal encounter with the Word of God takes place in the sphere of the ecclesial community,” the archbishop recalled that Pope Benedict referred to “the need for a Catholic exegesis that takes into account the human and divine dimension of the revealed word.”
The Pope’s reflections, he continued, guided the work of the synod fathers, “who were looking for a just position on this issue, taking in all the good that comes from modern exegesis but inserting it into the Tradition of the Church.”
For the bishop, this essential issue for the life and mission of the Church “has not only to do with experts, exegetes and theologians, but also with all Christians who should have a proper knowledge of the Word of God.”
“For example, in the practice of lectio divina, the first degree requires reading (lectio) and then the application of the historical-critical method, also in a minimum measure, which is indispensable for not falling into subjectivism, arbitrariness or fundamentalism,” he said.
La Paz, Bolivia, Feb 20, 2009 (CNA) - The Bolivian Bishops’ Conference expressed support this week for the Apostolic Vicar of Pando, Msgr. Luis Casey, who rejected the government’s violation of the fundamental freedoms committed of twelve people soldiers detained in the state of Pando.
According to Bolivian media, twelve people were detained and taken to La Paz, where they were accused of involvement in the deaths of fifteen government sympathizers during the confrontations that took place on September 11 last year.
The Bolivian opposition criticized the detentions for having been carried out by soldiers during the dark of night and without any court order. Among those detained are journalists and local officials from the city of Porvenir.
In response, the bishops of Bolivia retorted that the country is subject “to the rule of law and to the corresponding legal norms” and that “nothing can justify the means used in these acts.”
They called on the government to “protect the integrity of those detained and guarantee that the investigations into who was responsible for the actions be legal.”
“The reconciliation and unity of the people of Pando should be the fruit of true dialogue and the correct administration of justice and not of heavy-handed measures and violence that leads to more confrontation.”
The bishops expressed their solidarity with “the family members of those detained” and said they hope “peace and tranquility will finally return to this state.”