Rome, Italy, Jan 20, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Benedict XVI’s call for world religious leaders to gather in Assisi, Italy to pray for peace has touched off a lively debate among Italian Catholic opinion leaders.
Critics of the Pope’s plan charge that it will create a false impression that all religious believers pray to the same deity or that there are no real distinctions among religious faiths.
The Pope announced his desire to revive the "spirit of Assisi" in remarks made on New Year’s Day. He said he planned to mark the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's “World Day of Prayer for Peace,” held in the hometown of St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century saint known for his concern for peace and inter-religious dialogue. Pope John Paul also hosted a similar event in Assisi in 2002.
A date for the new celebration still has not been set, although Pope Benedict indicated that it would be held sometime in October.
Each of the two previous gatherings garnered a mixture of criticism and praise. Criticism came from those who thought the event transmitted the impression that all participants, among them Hindus, Muslims, Animists and Atheists, were praying to the same God.
Detractors said it promoted relativism and religious syncretism, that is, a mishmash of contrary beliefs.
Before his election to the papacy, the future Pope Benedict may have had mixed feelings about the event as well. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger did not take part in the Assisi event in 1986, but attended in 2002 at the request of John Paul II.
Now that Pope Benedict has announced the third such gathering, a new wave of criticism and defense has rolled in. The arguments being heard today often seem recycled from the earlier debates.
Initiating the debate in Italy was a group of nine intellectuals who made a direct, and very public, appeal to the Holy Father in the pages of Il Foglio newspaper on Jan. 11. The group, all obvious supporters of the Pope and his teaching, pleaded with him not to revive the "spirit of Assisi."
In spite of the words and intentions of those who promoted the inaugural event in 1986, the first encounter "had an undeniable repercussion, relaunching, precisely in the Catholic world, indifferentism and religious relativism," they said.
According to the group, it taught people "to archive" the teaching of the Church on Christ as the Savior and "had the effect of making many believe that everyone was praying to 'the same God,' only with different names."
Seeing Catholic priests sharing in certain rites with people of other religions conveyed the idea that "all rites are nothing but empty human gestures. That all conceptions of the divine are equal. That all morals ... are interchangeable," they argued.
The "spirit of Assisi ... casts confusion," they concluded.
Political and state channels as well as dialogue might be followed to bring about peace, they said, but they cautioned about giving those desiring "to confuse the waters and revive religious relativism" a platform on the anniversary of the 1986 occasion.
In the Milan-based daily newspaper Corriere della Sera the next day, historian, philosopher and religion scholar Alberto Melloni struck out at those who appealed against the meeting, calling them "zealous and disrespectful Catholics who seek to influence the Pope."
He called their appeal "attempted intimidation" that "aims to render the presence of Benedict XVI in Assisi qualitatively and quantitatively minimal."
It is an "audacious and mistaken move," he said, as "it's enough to know a little about the life ... of the intellectual character of Joseph Ratzinger to know that no conformism has ever tied his hands."
The debate raged on with another article in the Jan. 13 edition of Il Foglio, in which two of the scholars Melloni dubbed "zealous and disrespectful" called Melloni out as "brother censor."
One of the nine, Francesco Agnoli, whittled their appeal down to a single phrase. "We only posed a question: in going to Assisi does one run the risk of syncretistic interpretations?
"The question seems legitimate to me," he told Il Foglio.
"Today Assisi means one thing for the people: the Pope who prays together with the representatives of other religions to a presumed 'one God.' It is an image that undermines the idea of the doctrine that Christ is the Savior."
Agnoli pointed to Islamic fundamentalists who "exterminate Christians," or Hindus who "burn" them while professing equality among men. "Blessed be medieval times, when you could argue among Catholics, in fidelity to Christ and the Church," he concluded.
The open debate has attracted its share of commentators. Among those was Vatican analyst Andrea Tornielli who pointed out through the online Bussola Quotidiana that the argument was partial. He found it strange that all reference to the second encounter, which followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, was omitted from discussion.
Appealing to the Pope on such a matter is a "hazardous" affair, he said. "The initiative, in the end, is not limited to being a concerned letter from those who ask the pontiff that risks and bad interpretations be avoided ... rather, (it reads) as the will to dictate the line to the Pope to prevent him from leaving the programs of his own pontificate.
This means, at the end of the day, that “they have made an idea of Benedict XVI that does not correspond to the reality, also because it was the Pope ... who decided to convoke Assisi III.”
Tornielli quoted Cardinal Ratzinger's own words to the magazine "30 Days" after the 2002 experience. On that occasion, the cardinal refuted the idea that it was an encounter that made all religions equal. "Rather," he said, "Assisi was the expression of a path, of an investigation, of the pilgrimage for the peace that is such, only if united to justice."
"With their testimony for peace, with their commitment for peace in justice, the representatives of the religions have begun, in the limits of their possibilities, a path that must be for all a path of purification."
Tornielli said that, in 2011, the conditions of religious freedom in the world could be the Pope's justification for running the "risks" of another "Assisi."
To those who would counter Pope Benedict's decision, the Vatican analyst said "you can not be in agreement with him, but it is unfair to seek to prove that the Pope is not in agreement with himself."
New Haven, Conn., Jan 20, 2011 (CNA) - Americans believe that key themes from President Kennedy’s inauguration speech are still important more than 50 years later, a new survey says.
Kennedy, the first Catholic U.S. president, was also a member of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal charitable organization which in 2010 funded restoration work on the assassinated president’s tomb. The tomb at Arlington National Cemetery bears inscriptions from his January 20, 1961 presidential inaugural speech.
A Knights of Columbus-Marist poll focused on several memorable passages about freedom, service to the country, and the role of God in national life. These included Kennedy’s statement “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the
survival and the success of liberty,” as well as his famous call to service: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Ninety-five percent or more of respondents said these quotes are either very or somewhat important for the United Sates.
Two other quotations dealt with the role of God in national life. Those quotes were: “Here on earth God’s work must truly be our own” and “The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
About 86 percent of respondents said the first quotation was either very or somewhat important for the U.S., while about 85 percent said the same of the second quotation. However, about 20 percent of Millennials, those between 18 and 29, thought both quotes were not very important or not important at all.
Two-thirds of respondents overall and 82 percent of Millennials think President Kennedy was “one of the best presidents in history.”
“Fifty years after President John F. Kennedy stirred a nation with these important words, Americans continue to recognize the importance of what he said, of his definition of what it means to be an American,” commented Carl A. Anderson, Supreme Knight of Columbus.
“President Kennedy reminded us then that we must be at the service of God and country and that message – as Americans clearly understand – is still very important to our nation today.”
The survey of 1,018 adults was conducted Jan. 6 to Jan. 10 and claims a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.
Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Jan 20, 2011 (CNA) - The failure of mediation in an electoral dispute in Ivory Coast could result in military action.
The outgoing Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and internationally-recognized President-elect Alassane Ouattara both claimed to have won the country’s presidential election, though Ouattara is recognized as the winner.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga recently announced the latest failure of talks.
A local church source told the Vatican-based news agency Fides that the prime minster of Kenya is “deeply disappointed” that Gbagbo has not honored his promise to lift the siege at the hotel where Ouattara is staying.
There are “disquieting scenarios” on the horizon, including a military option carried out by the armies of the Countries in the Economic Community of Western African States. The chiefs of these armies met on Jan 18 in Bamako, Mali to discuss a possible intervention to depose Gbagbo and to install Ouattara.
Nigerian General Oluseyi Petinrin said that each country in the community has made their troops available for an eventual military operation in Ivory Coast. The African troops will enter from the north of the country, which is controlled by forces loyal to Ouattara, because the ports and airports in the south are controlled by the regular army loyal to Gbagbo.
“We hope that the Lord will spare us from violence, also because one cannot lead a country with a heritage of a bloodbath,” Fides’ source said. He added that there is an attempt on the part of a mediator group to try again to find a way to end the crisis peacefully
On Jan. 19 the United Nations Security Council voted to send 2,000 additional peacekeeping troops to protect civilians and to deter violence.
At least 247 people have been killed in post-election violence. U.N. peacekeeper forces have come under attack from forces loyal to Gbago.
Ghana, a major regional force, has ruled out sending troops and opposes a military intervention.
Rome, Italy, Jan 20, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - The prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, Cardinal Angelo Amato, has cautioned against rushing to attribute a possible second miracle to John Paul II.
The cardinal refused to confirm the accuracy of reports of a second miracle, but stated, “only at the end, when the investigation is over, will it be appropriate to speak about it.”
A second miracle would open the door to his canonization.
Cardinal Amato explained in a Jan. 15 interview with L’Osservatore Romano that the congregation has advised the postulator of the late Pope’s cause for canonization to “avoid allowing the second miracle to have the same overexposure in the media as the miracle for his beatification.”
“Exposing the doctors and experts to any kind of conditioning factor must be avoided,” he said.
Cardinal Amato also referred to the curing of a French religious sister, Marie Simon-Pierre, which has been validated as a miracle attributed to John Paul II. The miracle opened the way to his upcoming beatification on May 1.
Sister Marie was suffering from Parkinson’s, the same disease that afflicted John Paul II. “John Paul II’s death had a great impact on Sister Marie, as he died from the same disease she had. And she thought perhaps the deceased Pope could help her, since he knew the seriousness of the illness,” the cardinal explained.
Asked about the canonization of John Paul II, Cardinal Amato said it will take place only if devotion to the late Pontiff takes root in Catholics. “In other words, if the people appeal to the Servant of God to receive graces,” he explained.
Everything involved in the process must be verified, as rushing to judgment “does not bear good fruit,” he added.
Cardinal Amato said that despite the speed with which John Paul II’s cause has moved forward, it has not occurred “at the expense of accuracy.” The recognition of the miracle “took place in a linear fashion, according to the stages and dynamics of this process, with guidance from specialists and scientists from the medical team.” He noted that the experts worked independently of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.
The cardinal then praised Msgr. Slawomir Oder, the postulator of the cause, noting that his work “is extremely serious and must be carried out accurately.”
Paris, France, Jan 20, 2011 (CNA) -
The French religious sister, Marie Simon Pierre, has revealed new details about the miracle that paved the way for John Paul II’s May 1 beatification.
Sister Marie spoke Jan. 14 with both the French television network KTOtv and the Italian network RAI. She recalled that the miracle took place June 2, 2005. “That morning,” she said, “I was totally disabled and could no longer go on.”
The sister said that she thought about calling the superior of her community “to resign from my job at the maternity ward,” where she managed a number of staff members. “I felt so terrible and said to myself: I need to stop and resign from serving.”
Sister Marie’s request to step down was gently declined. Her superior invited Sr. Marie to instead ask John Paul II's intercession for a cure.
“We experienced a deep change in her office that lasted for several minutes. It was great peace and serenity, and I felt at peace and so did she,” Sister Marie revealed.
Her superior then asked her to write John Paul II’s name on a piece of paper, but the Parkinson’s disease had progressed such that she was experiencing severe trembling in her left arm. Her superior then suggested she try writing with her right hand. “I told her I couldn’t because my right hand also trembled.” However her superior insisted, “you can do it, you can do it,” Sister Marie recalled.
She wrote illegibly on the paper but thought, “Perhaps a miracle will happen if I just believe.”
“I left and went about my duties. That night I followed my normal routine, eating dinner with the community and joining in night prayers in the chapel,” Sister Marie said. When she returned to her room, she forced herself to write and was surprised to see that she could do so.
She slept well that night, without suffering her usual insomnia due to pain from the disease. At 4:30 a.m. on June 3, she awoke with a very different feeling. “I was no longer the same. I had an interior joy and great peace. Later I was surprised at the gestures I was able to make with my body,” she said.
At the same time, she experienced “a great urge to pray. It was not a time set aside for prayer but I prayed anyway,” the French sister recalled.
She prayed before the tabernacle in the maternity ward chapel “with deep joy,” meditating on the luminous mysteries of Pope John Paul II.
At 6 a.m. the community attended Mass. “I realized that my left arm no longer was immobile when I walked, but swung back and forth normally. During the Mass I became convinced that I was cured,” Sister Marie said.
Rome, Italy, Jan 20, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - America’s ambassador to the Holy See says the two sides are working to rebuild trust following the leak of alleged diplomatic cables that caused embarrassment late last year.
“What brings us together is far, far, far more than what sets us apart, and I want to focus on that," Ambassador Miguel H. Diaz told CNA in a wide-ranging interview at his hilltop residence in Rome Jan. 19.
Ambassador Diaz said that during his 16 months in Rome he has seen “significant signs that show the ongoing commitment of this President, the White House, and our government in general to fostering and deepening this relationship.”
He said the scandal of the alleged U.S. diplomatic cables, released on the website WikiLeaks has not affected the Vatican-U.S. working relationship.
According to an analysis by CNA, more than 700 cables from the U.S. embassy to the Vatican were among the 250,000 State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks.
To date, only a handful of them has been released. But some of those have proven embarrassing, including one in which a U.S. embassy staffer poked fun at the “poor communications culture” in the Vatican and another in which Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone was described as “yes man.”
The WikiLeaks affair has been a bump in the road in an otherwise easy and low-key relationship between the Vatican and the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, during his first two years in office.
Ambassador Diaz is credited with running a smooth diplomatic operation — especially considering that prior to this he has had no previous diplomatic experience.
The 47-year old Cuban-American was a professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota when the call came from the White House in May 2009, five months after President Obama was inaugurated.
Reportedly, he was not first on the list for the position. However, the president’s top choices had to be rejected because they favored abortion or embryonic stem cell research — positions that would have made their appointment appear to be a snub to the Vatican.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Ambassador Diaz in August 2009, and since then he and his wife, also a theology professor, have been living with their four children in the ambassador's residence atop Rome’s Janiculum Hill.
When Pope Benedict XVI received Ambassador Diaz for the first time to accept his credentials, he did so warmly. But he made a point of emphasizing the Church’s differences with the U.S. administration.
“I think particularly of the need for a clear discernment with regard to issues touching the protection of human dignity and respect for the inalienable right to life from the moment of conception to natural death, as well as the protection of the right to conscientious objection on the part of health care workers, and indeed all citizens,” the Pope told the new ambassador.
Despite broad disagreements on basic policies, Ambassador Diaz said he is focusing on the values and the interests the two sides share.
"I think it's important to recognize that there are differences,” he said. “But I think it's important not to be paralyzed by those differences. The things that we have in common far exceed the things that divide us," said Ambassador Diaz.
As the ninth U.S. ambassador, Diaz said he is really "standing on the shoulders" of the "giants" that have gone before him.
Unofficial relations between the two states go back to the birth of America, when President George Washington assured Pope Pius VI that the Pope would have full freedom to appoint bishops in the new land.
It would take until President Ronald Reagan in 1984 for the U.S. to establish its first official embassy here. At that time, it was widely perceived that the U.S. president saw the Vatican and then-Pope John Paul II as an important ally in the fight against communism.
The embassy recently celebrated its 27th anniversary. Ambassador Diaz has as a staff of 19 — a formidable presence for promoting U.S. foreign policy at the world's smallest state.
"The size is really inversely proportional to the scope of influence," said Ambassador Diaz. “You can't just think of the Holy See as boxed with the Vatican City walls. We have to think of it as this vast network."
Since his Senate confirmation hearings, Ambassador Diaz has spoken of his vision for the embassy as one of “building bridges.”
And he has pursued that strategy during his 16-month tenure. He has worked diligently to build relationships not only with Vatican officials, but also with the wider institutions of the universal Church — pontifical universities, religious communities, even hospitals, non-profits and humanitarian agencies.
The embassy has sponsored several high-profile meetings to highlight areas of mutual interest.
An embassy-sponsored conference in 2009 brought professionals to the city to raise awareness of the need to stop mother-child transmission of AIDS. The embassy co-sponsored a concert with the Church aid agency Caritas to raise money for Haitian earthquake victims.
An embassy-sponsored conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University last October encouraged members of different faith traditions to come together in "building bridges." At the event, the director of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Joshua DuBois, gave the keynote address.
But Ambassador Diaz said much of his diplomatic work is done in one-on-one conversations — what he called "diplomacy at the table" during luncheons and dinners, and "targeted diplomacy" with Vatican contacts through more formal channels.
The issues of concern to the U.S. and the Vatican are broad and far-reaching.
"One of the greatest challenges,” he said, was how the “human family” is going to “reconcile” its “incredible diversity” of religions and cultures. This diversity, he said, “increasingly threatens to tear us apart.”
On that note, Ambassador Diaz called Pope Benedict’s annual speech to diplomats Jan. 10 “ambitious.”
The Pope used strong language to condemn religious discrimination and persecution around globe, especially in the Middle East, North Africa and China.
"The task of building bridges is essential if we are to bring about reconciliation and peace, and if we are going to tackle ongoing problems such as the trafficking of persons and basic violations of human dignity — including violations for persons to exercise a right to religious freedom," Ambassador Diaz said.
He sees a "bridge-building" opportunity in Pope Benedict's call for world religious leaders to gather in Assisi next October to pray for peace. It is fitting that such an encounter should take place in the birthplace of St. Francis, whose name is associated with peace and reconciliation.
In an "interconnected" world, St. Francis’ message that all things are tied together is important, Ambassador Diaz said. The day of prayer called by the Pope has the potential to "do what religion is intended to do — bring people together and not drive them apart."
"In this interdependent world, civic leaders cannot act alone, no nation can act alone, and the contribution of religious leaders is essential in the building of peace, the defending of human dignity, the fight against any type of abuse. And certainly the religious leaders have a central role to play in that outgoing, noble task," Ambassador Diaz said.
He identified ending human trafficking and promoting education and migration issues as the embassy's top priorities.
"There are so many different areas that wherever the dignity of the human person is violated, that persons … and organizations associated with the Church can help," he explained.
"I think that's where the effective work of building those bridges and defending that dignity would come in, the day-to-day exercise of this relationship."
He does not downplay the continued differences between the U.S. and the Holy See on issues such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, the homosexual lifestyle, and the promotion of condoms for AIDS prevention.
No diplomatic relationship finds both sides seeing eye-to-eye on every issue, Ambassador Diaz noted. "That's the ideal, the ideal will never be there."
He prefers to concentrate on his responsibility as President Obama's personal representative to the Holy See.
"As a person of integrity, I would not be sitting here if I did not believe that there was a significant convergence in my ability to carry out this duty here at the Holy See,” he said. “I'm defending the dignity of human persons in different ways. I am building bridges. And these are fundamental tenets of this administration and fundamental tenets of who I am as a person.”
He would like his time as ambassador to be remembered as one in which U.S. foreign policy and the common interests of the Holy See were united "to advance the common good of the human family."
"If I can do that, even if it's just in little ways, during my tenure here, then I'll call it a success,” he said. “I'll be happy that I did my job, which is to answer the call — certainly of President Obama and of my country, to serve it — and also the call of the human family and the Church to advance the common good."
Washington D.C., Jan 20, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Legislation which would permanently prohibit taxpayer funding of abortion across all federal programs is “one of our highest legislative priorities,” the new Speaker of the House has said in his introduction to the legislation.
U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Reps. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) and Joe Pitts (R-Penn.) held a press conference on Jan. 20 to discuss the introduction of H.R. 3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.”
Speaker Boehner said the new Republican majority is keeping its commitment to taxpayers by “ensuring their tax dollars are never used to fund abortions.”
He said an abortion funding ban is “the will of the people and ought to be the law of the land.”
Rep. Smith cited a Quinnipac University poll that found 67 percent of taxpayers oppose publicly funded abortion and a Guttmacher Institute study that shows when abortion is not publicly funded, abortions in the covered population are reduced by about 25 percent.
“Our new bill is designed to permanently end any U.S. government financial support for abortion whether it be direct funding or by tax credits or any other subsidy,” he continued.
While present federal funding regulations contain restrictions on abortion, many of these restrictions must be renewed annually.
Rep. Smith noted that the new bill also protects conscience rights of individuals and institutions by giving courts the authority to “prevent and redress actual or threatened violations of conscience.”
He cited the example of Cathy DeCarlo, a nurse at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York who was compelled despite her strong religious and moral objections to assist in a dilation and extraction abortion. Though she sued on the grounds that her right to conscience had been violated, her case was dismissed because federal law does not provide penalties for the way she was treated.
The U.S. bishops have urged the passage of legislation to amend the 2010 health care legislation called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to prevent it explicitly from either providing abortion directly, or funding health care plans and community health centers that do so.
Vatican City, Jan 20, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Barring any problems at the publishers, the second volume of Pope Benedict XVI’s two-volume biblical study, “Jesus of Nazareth,” will be out during Lent.
Ignatius Press will publish the new book in the U.S. and is set to release it on March 10. The volume will concentrate on the period between Christ’s entry into Jerusalem to celebrate his final Passover and his resurrection from the dead.
The new book comes on the heels of the Pope’s successful book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald.
Released last November, "Light of the Word: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times" has sold nearly a million copies in less than two months, leading the Vatican's newspaper to call it a "qualititative" and "quantitative" success.
"Light of the Word" offers the reader the product of 20 hours of interview time between Pope Benedict XVI and Seewald.
In conversation with Father Giuseppe Costa, director of the Vatican Publishing House, the Vatican paper L'Osservatore Romano spoke of the great reception the book received after just eight weeks of sales and widespread reading.
The paper called the it a "quantitative" success for the almost one million copies sold in 20 languages. There is already a second edition in Italian because the first round of books was swept off bookshelves so quickly. The publishing house has agreements with 14 other publishers, and editors are in negotiations to translate it into another 11 languages.
L'Osservatore Romano also remarked on the book's qualitative success, citing its capacity to "reach and fascinate the reader with a simple, direct, conversational tone."
Fr. Costa said that the publishing house has received letters from a variety of happy readers. "So many readers, also many non-Christians have felt the need to say thanks, after having finished the book," he said.
Parents have given the book to their children, children to parents and many have bought copies for friends and other relatives, he recounted. It is unique in that it shows "the human face" of a Pope said to be "reserved."
But, "this is flanked by the extraordinary liberty of Benedict XVI, who does not back down from any question," said the director of the Vatican's publishing house.
For Fr. Costa, "'Light of the World' is very appreciated because in its broad perspective it touches on various aspects of the life of the Christian, becoming a true and proper spiritual itinerary, and this makes it a book without a season and will make it a 'long-seller'."
For those who follow the Pope's words and writings closely, Fr. Costa had another welcome announcement. The publishing house plans to present "Jesus of Nazareth. Part Two. Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection" this March.
"I just sent the text off to various editors this morning," he said. He has finalized agreements with 20 publishing houses and has five more in the works.
Those who enjoyed the first volume, which covered Jesus' life from his baptism to his transfiguration, have been waiting since 2007 for the sequel.
Release date updated. Previous version indicated March 15 is the release date, actual release date is March 10.