Vatican City, Dec 19, 2010 (CNA/EWTN News) -
During Sunday's Angelus prayer, Pope Benedict XVI prayed that all people might know how to read the signs of God's work in their lives just as St. Joseph did.
St. Peter's Square, adorned with a towering 110-foot tall Norway spruce tree, was brimmed with people already in festive spirits as Christmas nears. Those gathered were bundled up on the unusually cold morning in Rome, a novelty that added still more to the holiday atmosphere.
Before the prayer, the Pope spoke about the Gospel reading from the fourth and final Sunday of the season of Advent. In the reading, St. Matthew recounts the birth of Jesus from St. Joseph's point of view.
Christ's father on earth, St. Joseph, is described as a "just man." He is faithful to the Lord and willing to do his will, noted the Pope.
In the Bible passage, the ancient prophecy is fulfilled and the Son of God is made man in the womb of a virgin. St. Joseph, upset at finding that Mary is with child, decides to quietly leave her.
But an angel comes to him in a dream and tells him not to fear, to take Mary as his wife and to name the child "Emmanuel," or "God is with us," because he "shall save his people from their sins."
Joseph then abandons the thought of leaving Mary, said the Pope, "because now his eyes see the work of God in her."
St. Joseph is "certain of doing the right thing," obeys the angel's command, and stays with her. In following the directives of God, said the Pope, he joins the ranks of the humble and faithful servants, like the angels, prophets, martyrs and apostles.
Joseph "announces the portents of the Lord, giving testimony to the virginity of Mary, the gratuitous actions of God and protecting the earthly life of the Messiah," he said.
"Thus, we venerate the 'legal father' of Jesus, because in him the new man is outlined, one who looks with trust and courage to the future, who does not seek his own project but entrusts himself totally to the infinite mercy of He who makes the prophecies true and opens up the time of salvation."
Pope Benedict entrusted all of the Church's priests and bishops to St. Joseph, the universal patron of the Church. He exhorted clergy to bring themselves ever closer to the person of Jesus, to "present quietly Christ’s words and actions each day to the faithful and to the whole world."
He then asked for the intercession of Mary so that as Christmas approaches, all people's eyes might be opened to see Jesus and that their heart might rejoice.
The Pope also prayed that all people might receive Jesus "with love and humility, and like St. Joseph that we might know how to read signs of Providence in daily life."
Saying goodbye to the crowd from his studio window, he wished all "a good Sunday and a serene Christmas in the light and the peace of the Lord."
Cairo, Egypt, Dec 19, 2010 (CNA) - An Egyptian priest has explained that radical Muslims are trying to rid the Middle East entirely of Christians, who once comprised the largest religious group in the region.
“This is what the Muslim fundamentalists want,” the Egyptian Catholic spokesman Fr. Rafic Greische told Vatican Radio.
“They want the Christians to evacuate from the Middle East and leave. And this is what is happening every day.” He expressed frustration that governments throughout the region, not noted for their responsiveness to popular concerns, “do not take serious action to relieve or solve these problems.”
Egyptian Christians face significant public and private discrimination, including policies that make it nearly impossible for them to build churches. In November, a crowd demonstrating for their right to build a church in Giza clashed with police, who fired on unarmed protesters.
More than 150 people –including some children– remain in jail following that incident, in a country notorious for police brutality and other human rights abuses.
While Christians have difficulty even finding a place to worship in Egypt, some Egyptian Muslims manage to make their antipathy against the country's Christians well-known. Fr. Greische said groups of Muslims are known to “become violent and make demonstrations,” often burning pictures of the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church.
They're particularly offended, he noted, by “people who want to change their religion” – specifically, Muslims who want to become Christians, who can expect ostracism and may face death threats. Christians who dare to evangelize Egyptian Muslims can expect violent retribution if their work becomes known.
Even instances of Christians becoming Muslims can make these tensions turn explosive. In October, when suicide-attackers at Iraq's Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation killed almost 60 worshipers at a Sunday Mass in Baghdad, the Islamic State of Iraq group claimed it was an act of retaliation for two alleged female converts from Christianity to Islam, supposedly being held captive by Coptic Christians.
Iraqi experts at the time told CNA that they had no reason to believe the story. Fr. Greische noted that it might simply have been an instance of an ordinary domestic disagreement, being turned into a public libel against Coptic Christians in a climate of suspicion and hostility.
He suspected that the Oct. 31 attack in Baghdad, one of the deadliest acts of anti-Christian terrorism in years, was a response to the Synod for the Middle East that had concluded earlier in the month. That synod ultimately issued only light criticisms of Islamic regimes, and represented an exercise of the kind of religious liberty Islamic extremists disallow.
Fr. Greische said the Baghdad incident had given rise to a climate of fear among Christians throughout the region. “All the churches, we have police all around our churches,” he told Vatican Radio. “It’s as if we are in a fortress.”
It's made for a difficult Advent season. “Up to now, we don’t really feel Christmas in the joyful way,” he acknowledged. But within churches that may feel like fortresses, Egyptian Christians have a deeper source of security: “Jesus, who is with us (through) all these difficulties that we have.”
CNA STAFF, Dec 19, 2010 (CNA/EWTN News) - The Scandinavian island nation of Iceland will celebrate its national patron, St. Thorlak Thorhallsson, on Dec. 23.
Although Iceland's national assembly declared him a saint in 1198, only five years after his death, this “unofficial” canonization did not become an official part of the Church's liturgical calendar until Pope John Paul II confirmed him as the country's patron in January 1984.
Thorlak was born in 1133, less than two centuries after German and Norwegian missionaries began the first effective evangelization of Iceland. The pagan nation's conversion had involved a dramatic national struggle, as many Icelanders clung fiercely to their ancestral religion despite its customs of idol worship and infanticide.
The Catholic Church in Iceland had solidly established its presence by the time of Thorlak's birth. However, it had fallen into some disarray, particularly due to local clergy disregarding the rule of clerical celibacy, selling church positions for personal gain, and engaging in other breaches of discipline.
Thorlak's parents, barely able to earn a living as farmers, took note of their son's talents and made sure he received extensive religious instruction from a local priest. His gifts must have attracted wider notice, since Thorlak received ordination as a deacon before the age of 15 and became a priest at age 18.
Afterward, he left Iceland for a period of time to study theology in France and England. During this time he committed himself to living by the monastic rule of St. Augustine, an important part of the Western Church's tradition. This rule committed a priest not only to celibacy, but also to a life in community without personal possessions, after the manner of the apostles in the Church's earliest days.
Inspired by this vision of radical discipleship, he held fast to the discipline of clerical celibacy, even after returning to Iceland and being pressured to marry a wealthy widow. Instead, he ended up founding a monastery according to the Augustinian rule, which became renowned as a place of prayer and study.
Ten years after the founding of the monastery, the Norwegian Archbishop Augustine Erlendsson, another follower of the ancient Augustinian rule of life, called on Thorlak to become bishop of the Icelandic diocese of Skalholt. Although he was deeply attached to his monastic way of life, Thorlak recognized the pressing need for reform and guidance among the clergy.
As a bishop, he was deeply dedicated to implementing the reforms of the Western Church that Pope Gregory VII had begun during the past century, which envisioned not only a strict discipline of clerical celibacy, but also the independence of the Church against intrusion by secular authorities.
Thorlak also sought to improve public morality, and dared to confront even the most popular and powerful chieftain in Iceland, who was said to have had an extramarital affair with the bishop's own sister. Understandably, he often longed to put aside these kinds of burdens and return to the monastic life.
Before he could do so, he died on December 23, 1193.
St. Thorlak was undoubtedly Iceland's most popular native saint during the country's Catholic period. Over 50 churches were dedicated to his memory before Iceland became officially Lutheran during the 16th century.
Today, St. Thorlak's former diocese of Skalholt is a part of the Diocese of Reykjavik, which was only established in its present form in 1968.
Although the Catholic Church no longer has a large presence in Iceland, celebration of St. Thorlak's feast has persisted as a widespread national custom. Icelanders celebrate on Dec. 23 as the final day of preparation before Christmas, and have maintained the custom of gathering to eat cured fish.
Atlanta, Ga., Dec 19, 2010 (CNA) - It is easy to see after spending just a few minutes with Tiara Chivers that her faith is very dear to her. She clearly remembers her experiences as a child and has kept a scrapbook of significant mementos from her adult faith life also.
One of her earliest memories is attending a Protestant church with her parents and older brothers. It was an important time for her as a young girl growing up in Michigan because she always felt a connection with God and the church. However, she remembers that it wasn’t long before she was attending services all by herself.
“As I child I would go to church with my family, but very quickly my parents and my brothers kind of fell off of going to church,” she said. “But some of my earliest memories are of my mom making sure I went.”
“I was so excited. I loved church,” she added.
Chivers continued attending services alone, always taking with her a handkerchief neatly packed with coins for the collection given to her by her mother. As she entered her teenage years she began “hitchhiking” to church, asking friends and neighbors if they were going on Sunday so she could ride along.
When she was 15, Chivers participated in a foreign exchange program that sent her to study and live with a Catholic family in Madrid, Spain. She learned about Spanish language and culture and, especially, about the faith of her host family.
“I remember going to Mass, and I remember vividly walking in . . . and it just felt like home,” she said.
Even though the Mass was celebrated in a language she could not fully understand, she felt an immediate connection to the liturgy.
“I was at peace. I just knew that was it,” she said.
She considers that the beginning of her journey home to the Catholic Church, even though it would not be complete for years.
Back in the United States, Chivers finished college and graduate school before moving to Shreveport, La., to work for General Electric.
Oddly enough, she stumbled on the name of a Catholic church in Shreveport that popped up while she was doing Internet searches. After three months of seeing encouraging signs around her, she contacted the church and entered their RCIA program for people interested in becoming Catholic.
Her family and friends back home did not necessarily oppose her decision, but she says they were confused and unsure about why she felt the need to take this step in her faith journey.
However, after noticing subtle changes in her attitudes and beliefs, friends and coworkers became interested in her new way of life. They began to ask what she was learning in RCIA and the jokes and stereotypes about Catholics began to lessen.
As a gift for her baptism and entrance into the Catholic Church in 2005, her mother gave her a new handkerchief, a touching symbol and reminder of how her mother continued to encourage Chivers in her faith even when she herself did not practice.
“I could see them come around and really become accepting of my church and my church family,” she said. “And ever since then I found a sense of community with the church.”
For someone used to going to church alone, a sense of community was one of the ways she felt sure that she was on the path God had prepared for her.
Another sign came when she met Father Mark Mary during a women’s group visit to the Eternal Word Television Network studios in Alabama. When she told the priest that she was going on a parish pilgrimage to Italy, he asked her if she would say a prayer for him at a certain place in St. Peter’s Basilica where there was a painting of St. Peter healing a cripple. This was where Father Mark Mary celebrated his first Mass after ordination.
“I had never been to Italy or St. Peter’s, so I didn’t know what to expect,” she recalled.
When they arrived in Rome, they learned that their group had been “bumped” from a Mass they’d been scheduled to hold at the gravesite of St. Peter and moved to a small altar for their liturgical celebration.
“As we were walking to the back . . . I looked up and saw this painting,” she said with a smile.
She took out a picture that Father Mark Mary had e-mailed her and realized she had unexpectedly found the place where he had asked her to say a prayer.
Chivers formed such a connection with Italy that shortly after she returned home, she felt called to go back and live there in order to become immersed in her newfound Catholic faith.
Taking a leave of absence from her job, she flew to Italy with her belongings in hand, living initially in a Bridgettine convent while looking for an apartment. It was an exciting and scary experience to move thousands of miles from home to become closer to God.
She attended the papal audiences every Wednesday and Masses at the Vatican, always getting there early so she could get a spot up front. She remembers feeling such joy at the opportunity to worship with Pope Benedict XVI in person. After awhile, he began to notice her presence at the events.
“I don’t quite blend in with the Italian people,” Chivers said with a chuckle, but she was still surprised when the pope would give her a knowing smile whenever he saw her. There was even one time when, after greeting the people, he was about to exit when he saw Chivers and came back to shake her hand. It is a moment that has stuck with her.
When she moved back to the United States and began working in the Atlanta area, she became involved with the young adult ministry at the Cathedral of Christ the King, where she is a parishioner.
Chivers encourages others who have drifted away from the Catholic Church or those who are interested for the first time to take a look at the Church again with new eyes.
“It is hard,” she said about coming into the Catholic Church, especially when one has to wade through stereotypes or deal with past disappointing experiences with the Church. “But as you think about all the Church has to offer . . . take a look at it from a fresh perspective.”
“Just give it a chance,” she added with a smile.
Printed with permission from the Georgia Bulletin, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.