Rome, Italy, Jan 7, 2011 (CNA) - The president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, is urging the international community to ensure that religious freedom is respected “in all places and without exception.”
The cardinal made his call during the Mass of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 at the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa, Italy. He expressed his astonishment at the recent acts of “religious intolerance and violence,” as he reflected on the Dec. 31 attack on a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria, Egypt, which left 21 dead and 79 injured.
In his homily, Cardinal Bagnasco said, “Perhaps Christians are discriminated against and persecuted because they speak in the name of Christ about the dignity and equality of every person … and because the also preach love for one’s enemies.”
“Could this be the reason why some consider them dangerous and unacceptable and that they are the objects of intolerance, persecution and death?” he asked.
Cardinal Bagnasco called on Christians to pray for the eternal repose of those killed in the attack in Egypt and that those responsible would “open their eyes to the light.” Christians, he said, should pray for the faithful “who throughout the world are examples” of fidelity to others.
Quang Tri, Vietnam, Jan 7, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Celebrating the close of a jubilee year for the Church in Vietnam, special Vatican envoy, Cardinal Ivan Dias urged Catholics to continue to evangelize their country.
An estimated 500,000 people representing Vietnam's 26 dioceses took part in a Mass marking the end of the jubilee Jan. 6. The country's more than six million Catholics were celebrating the 350th anniversary of the faith in Vietnam.
The celebration took place at the Shrine of La Vang, venerated by Vietnamese Catholics as the site of an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Marian in the late-1700s.
It was an outdoor Mass in the cold and rain presided over by Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Pope's special envoy for the occasion.
There were 35 Vietnamese bishops present along with others from neighboring countries and further abroad. Auxiliary Bishop Dominic Luong of the Diocese of Orange, California and Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide, Australia were among the concelebrants, who joined by over a thousand priests, more than one-third of all those in the nation.
In his French-language homily, Cardinal Dias said that it was no accident that the Jubilee's closing was planned for Jan. 6 when the Church celebrates the Epiphany, welcoming "the light" of the birth of Christ.
The loving God who revealed himself through the birth of his son 2,000 years ago, still shows himself to all those who seek him, the cardinal said.
He then quoted from the Gospel of John, saying, "those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man's decision but of God." The cardinal said it was an occasion for Vietnamese Christians to thank God that they are among those chosen from the nearly seven billion people on earth. Gratitude is due to the generous teaching and courage of missionaries who brought them the Gospel message, he said.
The Epiphany, he explained, is a reminder of the great gift of God and an invitation to share this "gift" with others. The cardinal called on Vietnamese Catholics to remember all of those who built the Church with their "blood, sweat and tears" and to be inspired by the Jubilee to live their faith.
The anniversary celebrations should be an inspiration to live the faith more sincerely individually and as a community to put into practice Christ's mission to "go and make disciples of all nations," he added.
In Vietnam, where 94 percent of the people are not Christian, the cardinal said this mission remains pressing.
He invited Catholics to bring Christ to the nation through their work and lives, and through personal witness.
Cardinal Dias looked to the example of Vietnam's 117 martyrs to inspire Vietnamese Christians to bring holiness to all aspects of life with courage.
In such a way, he said, they will create a healthier, more human, just and equitable society. Living with the love of Christ, people will recognize them as disciples of Christ.
He closed by urging the faithful to pray for the intercession of the Virgin of La Vang that they might learn to live exemplary Christian lives, that they accept the will of God, give thanks for his grace and blessings, and be patient amidst the challenges and difficulties of life.
Jan. 7 saw Cardinal Dias in Hanoi for the celebration of Mass in St. Joseph's Cathedral in memory of the martyrs. He said during the celebration that in the life of the martyred priest, St. Andrew Dung Lac, one can find a deep faith and a radical love for Christ and his flock.
The cardinal said that, as followers of Christ, they should always seek to fulfill their duty as citizens and Christians, giving "fearless witness to our love and our loyalty to Jesus Christ and his Gospel to the (point of) giving of our lives, to shed our blood like St. Andrew Dung Lac and his fellow martyrs. "
Cardinal Dias will stop at the city's major seminary on Jan. 8 for his third Eucharistic celebration with Vietnamese Catholics in as many days, before boarding a flight back to Rome.
Rome, Italy, Jan 7, 2011 (CNA) - Fr. Francois Houtart, a strong promoter of Marxist liberation theology, has admitted to sexually abusing a minor.
The Belgian priest, currently living in Ecuador told the newspaper Le Soir on Dec. 29 that he “touched the private parts” his eight-year-old cousin nearly 40 years ago.
He said that the abuse occurred on two different occasions.
The attorney general in Lieja, Cedric Visart de Bocarme, told the Belgium daily L’Viv/L’Express that an investigation into the case has been opened to determine if there were other victims of abuse by Houtart.
Known by his admirers as the “anti-globalization pope,” the 85 year-old Houtart told Le Soir he has asked his supporters to suspend their campaign to nominate him for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. He has also resigned from the Tricontinental Center, the NGO he founded in Louvain.
In its Jan. 6 edition, L’Viv/L’Express reported that Houtart’s confession has sparked outrage in “thousands of people in French-speaking Belgium—and in many people in Latin America.”
Vatican City, Jan 7, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - After 150 years in Rome, some things at the Pontifical North American College are being changed but traditions and the root of its mission in the formation of future priests continue on.
Pope Pius IX is considered the college's "first founder," having approved its creation in 1859. In 1953, Pope Pius XII then dedicated the "new" college at is beautiful location on one of the storied hills of Rome.
The institution, locally known as "the NAC," now houses 240 seminarians and new priests from all over the United States as well as several from Australia and Canada. It is currently at maximum capacity, enjoying its highest seminarian enrollment in 40 years.
Those staying at the college go to different Roman pontifical universities for study, but much of their formation takes place at the magnificent campus.
From its perch on the city's Janiculum Hill, it has some of the best views possible of the "Eternal City." A rare view down upon St. Peter's Basilica is visible on one side, the sprawl of the rest of ancient Rome dominates on another.
A newly-surfaced sports field, basketball courts and carefully tended gardens encircle the spacious block that serves the spiritual, physical and material needs of the diverse group of students and staff.
Priests on sabbatical join the seminarians at the NAC. They reside in a former Carmelite convent on the campus.
The NAC library, which already housed the largest collection of English-language books in Rome, has been expanded by increasing the amount of study space. Other improvements in recent years include renovations to the lounge and classroom areas, and the replacement of more than 1,000 windows.
Amidst all the improvements, the core of the NAC's mission is unchanging, current rector Msgr. James Checchio told CNA. "Even with all these renovations and changes, the heart of our program continues to be forming our hearts to be more like the good shepherd’s through our fine liturgical prayer and steady private prayer, intellectual study, apostolic and pastoral formation, as well as through community life, which is a great formation tool in itself."
Days begin at 6:15 a.m. with morning prayer and Mass in the packed Immaculate Conception Chapel and continue on with classes around the city, pastoral, apostolic and house duties, study and formation through the day.
Ryan Connors, 27, a third-year seminarian from the Providence, R.I. diocese, said that in three years at the NAC students make a symbolic journey. They begin with a Mass celebrated in the crypt beneath St. Peter's during their orientation. And they return three years later to the same basilica to "lay down our lives in the service to the Church."
"It is here that we are ordained deacons, and pledge lifelong consecrated celibacy, obedience to our local bishops, and commit to a life of prayer for the sake of God's people," he said.
"Ultimately, the North American College is what the Church asks of any seminary — a continuation of the apostolic community, of men gathered around the Lord to learn from him how to love and then to share that love with his people."
The college has been doing so for a little more than 150 years now. A year ago this week, alumni, family and friends arrived on campus to celebrate the milestone over several days.
Connors recalled it as an opportunity for students for the priesthood to remember those who came before them and thank God for their service.
Pope Benedict XVI even took part in the celebration. In a private audience with students and alumni, he thanked God for "the many ways in which the college has remained faithful to its founding vision by training generations of worthy preachers of the Gospel and ministers of the sacraments, devoted to the successor of Peter and committed to the building up of the Church in the United States of America."
He applauded the NAC's history of offering seminarians an "exceptional experience of the universality of the Church, the breadth of her intellectual and spiritual tradition, and the urgency of her mandate to bring Christ’s saving truth to the men and women of every time and place."
These are traditions that the college holds to as dearly as it does to its other time-honored customs: the hard-earned success of its soccer team, the annual Thanksgiving weekend festivities, and group trips over breaks that include those to assist foreign missions.
A strong sense of fraternity is evident in every aspect of campus life, but it is perhaps Thanksgiving weekend celebrations like last year's that show the NAC's best colors.
In a country that does not traditionally celebrate the holiday, the college gathered 400 people together for Mass and a meal this year. Traditional events include the yearly "Spaghetti Bowl," pitting "old men" against "new men" in a friendly game of American football preceded by a rendition of the national anthem. Divided into the same squads, the new and old men create and put on shows for the gathering.
Students also group together in their respective corridors to share breakfast over the weekend, for which Msgr. Checcio has a special interest. "I like to make the rounds and sample them all!" said the rector.
Fraternity is revered by the NAC's residents. Connors paraphrased the Pope's words from the Year for Priests — "no one becomes a priest on one's own."
"We are not called one man and then another man as much as we are gathered together as an apostolic bond, like Christ's first apostles," Connors said.
The Dec. 8 anniversary of the college's founding gives them the opportunity to remember its role and blessing throughout its great history. It is a chance to give thanks for the clergy, family, friends and benefactors who have made the the institution and its programs possible
As Connors put it: "To study in Rome is a unique blessing, so close to the saints and martyrs of the Church, to the bones of Peter the fisherman and to the successor of Peter, the Holy Father.
He has learned what it is to lay down his life for the Gospel, he said. “Through consecrated study of the saving truths of the Gospel, through fraternity and lifelong bonds of priestly friendship and most of all through deep, serious, daily prayer I have come more and more to be ready to lay down my life in service to the Gospel.”
The proximity to St. Peter and his successor, added Msgr. Checchio, makes for "a very unique formation experience" for seminarians and priests preparing to serve the people of God.
"It is a wonderful place to learn about Christ and His Church, and to prepare to lay down our lives in service of Him."
Lahore, Pakistan, Jan 7, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Assassinated Pakistani Gov. Salman Taseer was a “staunch defender” of the rights of minorities and stood up to extremist groups, the Catholic Archbishop of Lahore said Jan. 6. The archbishop decried the mindset of “religious fanaticism” in the country and warned that its extremists are winning.
“Christians are deeply shocked and disturbed by the death of a high profile leader,” Archbishop Lawrence Saldanha said in a Jan. 6 CNA interview. “Salman Taseer broke no law but he only questioned the validity of the present law, calling it a ‘man-made law’ which could be changed. For that he was killed.”
The Jan. 4 shooting of Gov. Taseer, who headed Punjab state, came at the hands of a bodyguard reportedly angered over the governor’s opposition to the country’s strict anti-blasphemy law. The governor had sought a pardon for Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who has been sentenced to death under the law on what her lawyers say are fabricated charges.
On Jan. 6 a group of lawyers, religious leaders, and other supporters welcomed the accused murderer at the courts, with some showering him with rose petals and placing a garland around his neck. This reception, the archbishop said, was “shameful” and “indicative of the mindset of religious fanaticism prevailing in Pakistan today.”
“The illiterate people are under the influence of the narrow, literalist interpretation of ultra-conservative Islam,” he commented. “The moderates are losing ground and are being shouted down if they dare to speak. So at the moment the extremists are winning and it is difficult to curb their aggression. Only the Army can stop this aggressive trend by force.”
The most promising effort to address the blasphemy law has come from Sherry Rahman, a member of the National Assembly. She tabled a proposal to introduce amendments to the law, but it has not yet been discussed in parliament.
The “ultra-conservatives” conducted a country-wide strike on Dec. 31, Archbishop Saldanha said. They called on the masses to “defend the honor of the Prophet” and not to tolerate any change in the law.
“This is a disturbing development that they can prevent any change in the law by playing on the religious feelings of the public,” the archbishop remarked. “We Christians feel that cosmetic changes in the Law do not have any real effect on the fanatics. Rather we call for a total repeal of the Blasphemy Law – but that seems to be a far cry in the present charged atmosphere.”
He noted Christians’ fear about their future vulnerability. Church security was “unprecedented” during Christmas and New Year, with armed soldiers on guard during services.
“In this highly tense scenario, a spark can set off a big reaction and result in a lot of destruction. That is why we have to move cautiously,” he explained.
He was also grateful to the late governor.
Archbishop Saldanha, who is president of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, issued a Jan. 5 statement praising Gov. Taseer’s “courageous stand” for Bibi and against the blasphemy law. The statement characterized him as “a martyr of justice and religious freedom.”
The archbishop also sent a personal sympathy card to the governor’s widow and family. Pakistan’s Christians have “quietly prayed” for the governor and some human rights groups have made strong statements condemning the killing.
Asked how Christians outside of Pakistan should respond to the blasphemy law, he said they may send “polite letters” to Pakistan’s embassies and letters of concern and support to the Foreign Ministry of Pakistan.
Their political representatives could also advocate on behalf of minorities.
The upcoming year will be “tense and difficult” for the Christian churches in Pakistan, Archbishop Saldanha said.
He urged prayers from the wider Catholic community and increased advocacy on behalf of religious minorities in Pakistan.
“Making human rights issues contingent to the granting of foreign aid would be very effective,” he suggested.
Mexico City, Mexico, Jan 7, 2011 (CNA) - The spokesman of the Archdiocese of Mexico City, Fr. Hugo Valdemar, is urging Mexicans to abandon the practice of venerating St. Death.
The priest noted that the belief in St. Death – represented by a skeleton holding a scythe - is contrary to Christianity. He added that its veneration has become a favorite ritual among those involved in organized crime.
Fr. Valdemar spoke to CNA on Jan. 6 about the recent arrest of David Romo, the leader of the St. Death cult. The archdiocesan spokesman emphasized that the judicial process needs to determine whether Romo is guilty or innocent, and urged Mexicans to refrain from judgment. “It would be unjust as well for us to declare him guilty before a trial has taken place,” he cautioned.
Romo, was detained on Jan. 4 with eight others in Mexico City for allegedly kidnapping an elderly couple and another man. According to police, they pretended to be part of the drug cartel Los Zetas to scare the victims' families into paying ransom.
Fr. Valdemar urged the some 3,000 followers of St. Death to abandon the cult, which he said is “superstitious and has diabolical connotations.” The promoters of the devotion are profiting from the ignorance of the people, he underscored, and it has become “the favorite devotion of organized crime, drug cartels and kidnappers.”
Christ came to overcome sin and death, “the signs of the power of evil and its destruction,” Fr. Valdemar continued. The sect’s leader “himself personalizes the devil, which is very dangerous,” he said.
The archdiocesan spokesman explained many people have fallen into the practice because of the Church's lack of commitment to evangelization. Many of those who believe in St. Death think she is just another saint, “when the truth is she doesn’t even exist."
He urged Mexicans to destroy any images of St. Death they possess and not to fear any vengeance, because “the power of God is greater than evil.”
Waterfront, Mich., Jan 7, 2011 (CNA) - As Cheryl Dickow was teaching English and Religion to Catholic junior high students over the course of several years, she began to notice a problem. Although she was able to provide books to her kids that addressed basic Christian values, she had difficulty finding material that was explicitly Catholic and saw the hunger her students had to learn more about the faith.
“I was always searching for books that were Catholic in content and would appeal to that particularly challenging age group,” Dickow said Jan. 5. “They want and need so much in their books – they want 'real' characters and situations but need to see truth and honesty and integrity; they need role models who are worthy of such a position.”
Dickow, who holds a Master's Degree in Education and lives in Waterfront, Michigan, said that for years she relied on books that reflected “good Christian values,” but that a Catholic book is “a very specific entity.”
“Catholic,” she said, translates into books “that may have a priest or a character receiving communion or it may have reference to the Blessed Mother or the Rosary and so on.”
“To find books that had a storyline that intrigues middle-schoolers and keeps their attention while also being 'Catholic' was no easy task.”
In a drastic move – and after much prayer and discernment – Dickow acknowledged the need her students had for engaging books that addressed Catholicism. In 2007, she took a leap of faith, left her job and founded a publishing company called Bezalel Books.
The name for the company comes from a Hebrew word that means “in the shadow of God.” Bezalel is also the name of a craftsman in the book of Exodus in the Old Testament “to whom God gave great skills so that all that Moses was commanded to make would be done according to God’s will,” she noted.
“Ultimately, the mission and purpose of Bezalel Books is to serve God through the gifts, talents and resources of those authors whose works are under our imprint,” Dickow said.
The heart of her company's mission, Dickhow explained, is the desire to bring “great Catholic literature to Catholic classrooms” and create a “Catholic Scholastic.”
Since 2007, her group has published books such as Patti Maguire Armstrong’s “Dear God, I don’t get it!” and Rosemary McDunn’s “The Green Coat: A Tale from the Dust Bowl Years,” among other titles.
Dickow has also published books for adults such as her fictional “Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage,” which she called “a Catholic Woman’s Chick-Lit” book, and Peggy Bowes' “The Rosary Workout,” a volume that touches on health and wellness centered on the Rosary.
In the three short years since its creation, Bezalel Books has already enjoyed numerous successes.
A study for young women called “All Things Girl” has gone on to become a 12-part television series on EWTN, and “The Green Coat: A Tale from the Dust Bowl Years” was number one on Amazon.com for two summers in a row in Historical Fiction as many teachers across the nation made it required summer reading.
Dickow's own work of fiction has also enjoyed success and is a popular book club selection as well as a woman’s inspirational book.
Dickow said that the daunting task of starting up a publishing company has been “a family affair.” With the help of three sons from ages 18-22, a husband she has been married to for 25 years, and an outside webmaster, “we pretty much have everything covered.”
“Before I made the final decision to start Bezalel Books, my husband and I did a lot of research about publishing to learn the ins and outs and ups and downs; and we did even more praying and discerning,” she said. “This was a big financial risk for me to leave my teaching position but if I truly wanted to respond to God’s call upon my life, it almost seemed like I didn’t have a choice.”
“Overall, we simply try to see where there is a need in the Catholic world and fill that need.”
She also gave words of encouragement to other Catholics who see needs that correspond to their individual gifting but are intimidated by the task.
“Gifts and talents from God are always meant for His good and His glory,” she said. “For me this translates into the need to discern how God wants you to use your gifts and talents. It may be within the Church, filling a need, or it may be elsewhere.”
“For this reason I think the first and most important step is to spend time in prayer and discernment,” Dickow emphasized.
“This doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that all will be smooth and easy,” she noted. “Which is why, of course, proper discernment is key – in the beginning and all along the way.”
“Along with discerning, research and gathering knowledge is important. Together, these things reduce intimidation and prepare you to best serve God and His Church.”
Cheryl Dickow is a regular contributor to CNA's Catholic Womanhood page. Her columns can be read at: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/cw/author.php?id=35