Orange County, Calif., Jan 31, 2011 (CNA) - The Catholic Church in Vietnam battles heavy government restrictions on its freedom to be involved in charitable works, health care and education, but it will survive as it always has, says a bishop who leads Vietnamese Catholics in California.
Vietnamese by birth, Auxiliary Bishop Dominic Luong of Orange County, California emigrated from North Vietnam more than 50 years ago for studies. He was trained in seminaries in New York state and, due to the difficulties of returning to his homeland, has been serving as a priest in the U.S. since his ordination in 1966.
Although he was ordained to the Diocese of Danang, Vietnam, his priesthood has been spent between New York, Louisiana and California. He is now an auxiliary bishop for southern California's Diocese of Orange County, where he serves the 300,000-person strong Vietnamese Catholic population.
As the largest ex-pat population in America, they keep in close contact with their roots. They often support Catholics in Vietnam with charitable assistance. They quickly responded to appeals for help from Vietnamese bishops after recent floods, he recalled.
That tight connection led Bishop Luong to travel with a small group from his diocese to participate in the closing celebration of the Jubilee Year of the Catholic Church in Vietnam this month.
The celebration of 350 years of Catholicism in Vietnam was "spectacular," Bishop Luong told CNA in a telephone interview on Jan. 27.
Some people would not have imagined that the Catholic Church in Vietnam had the freedom to put together such a large celebration where they were free to worship, he said. He called it a "big advantage for both the Church and development."
But, he said he also witnessed a Church that has not been allowed to fully express itself.
Unfortunately, the woes of the Catholic Church in Vietnam are not over. "As far as freedom of religion in Vietnam, many, many aspects were very restricted, you know. That has been known for years," he said.
The communist government keeps a firm grip on the Church. Church property, including schools, is confiscated and redistributed, candidates for bishops must be approved by the State and generally the role of the Church in society is held to a minimum.
Catholics have been detained and beaten for attempting to defend the property rights of their churches. Just this week, on Jan. 25, Human Rights Watch singled out the Vietnamese government for its harsh treatment of believers.
"There are numerous restrictions from the government," said Bishop Luong. "They make up the law as they go along sometimes."
As recently as Christmas eve, one Vietnamese bishop was prohibited from celebrating Mass after traveling to the border of Cambodia to be with villagers there.
The people are used to such hassles. "It happens, you know, it's all over (the place)," said the auxiliary bishop.
Although the Vietnamese are free to worship, the restrictions have had their effect even on Church life.
Bishop Luong said that many remain "pre-Vatican II Catholics." Lay faithful are struggling to "catch up" and learn their "duties as a member of the Church in a post-Vatican II" era where lay members participate more in Church activities, he said.
While they have the freedom to worship, "they find freedom of religion a concern," he said. "Freedom in education, in helping the poor, in a thousand activities, all these things are limited.
"You know,” Bishop Luong observed, “without schools, without services to the poor, without services to the elderly and the handicapped, I mean what else is the Church doing?"
Cardinal Ivan Dias, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and papal envoy to the Jubilee celebrations, spoke in the closing Mass on Jan. 6 about evangelizing in every sector of society.
Bishop Luong seconded this statement. "Everybody has to bear witness to their faith, but I think that in Vietnam, you know, it's really limited," he said. "You're not as free as you think in other countries. Only when you live there do you experience the many restrictions and do you know what it is."
Even as a Vietnamese himself, it takes him a while to readjust when he returns to California.
He's hopeful that the Church will eventually be permitted to participate in activities for the benefit of society like organizing charity for the poor and working in education and health care.
"Vietnam is really in great need, but they don't allow us to help. So, I think there are a lot of hopes, a lot of things that we need to long for, but the reality is so far away."
He longs for the government to begin treating Catholics as important citizens. Instead of being suspicious of Catholics, “they ought to have them participating in different areas to rebuild the country."
Pope Benedict XVI's appointment of a non-resident representative, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, as diplomatic envoy to the nation is a step in the right direction, he said. He hoped that the representative might not only improve relations between the Holy See and Vietnam, but also better those between the local Church and the government.
"I don't think the Church in Vietnam has the leverage to be able to talk, maybe the non-resident representative, a mediator, could do that," he said.
In an attitude typical of missionary efforts that brought Catholicism to Vietnam, he shook off all negativity, saying "nevertheless, as you and I know, the Catholic Church has always survived because Christ is always with us."
Vatican City, Jan 31, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Benedict met with seminarians from Ethiopia on Jan. 29, encouraging them to continue in their path toward “sanctity.”
On Saturday morning, the Pope received priests and seminarians of the Pontifical Ethiopian College to mark the 150th anniversary of the death of the seminary's 19th century patron, St. Justin de Jacobis.
Born in Italy in 1800, St. Justin de Jacobis was a missionary to Ethiopia who – despite persecution from the local church – succeeded in building local outreaches to the poor and schools for training future priests in the country. The saint is credited with founding the beginnings of the Ethiopian Catholic Church and was canonized by Pope Paul VI in October 1975.
Pope Benedict said that St. Justin “crowned his fruitful contribution to the religious and civil life of the Abyssinian peoples with the gift of his own life, silently restored to God after much suffering and persecution.”
The saint “learned the local language, championed the centuries-old liturgical tradition of the rites of those communities,” and worked “effectively towards ecumenism,” Pope Benedict added. "His particular passion for education, especially the formation of priests, means that he can justly be considered as the patron of your college.”
Pope Benedict then said that St. Justin's “way of sanctity also lies open to you, dear priests and seminarians.”
"Sanctity lies at the very heart of the ecclesial mystery; it is the vocation to which we are all called,” he said. “Saints are not some exterior ornamentation of the Church; rather, they are like the flowers of a tree which testify to the endless vitality of the lymph flowing through it.”
“You are a sign of hope, especially for the Church in your countries of origin,” the Pope underscored. “I am certain that the experience of communion you have experienced here in Rome will also help you to make a precious contribution to growth and peaceful coexistence in your own beloved nations.”
Pope Benedict concluded by encouraging the members of the Pontifical Ethiopian College "to live this important period of your formation, in the shadow of the dome of St. Peter's, with joy and dedication.”
He exhorted the seminarians to return to their home communities following the example of St. Justin, who sparked “in everyone a love for God and the Church.”
Paris, France, Jan 31, 2011 (CNA/Europa Press) - The French Constitutional Council has ruled that prohibiting same-sex “marriage” in the country does not violate the Constitution.
The council noted that only Parliament can change the law.
Nine judges ruled that according to articles 75 and 144 of the Civil Code, “Marriage is the union between one man and one woman.” They also noted that lawmakers, “acting within their competency, determined that the difference in status between same-sex couples and couples comprised of a man and a woman could justify a difference in treatment with regards to family law.”
“It is not within the competence of the Constitutional Council to substitute its view (for that of the legislature) when taking into account the differences in these situations,” the judges said.
The ruling came in response to a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the prohibition against gay “marriage” by a lesbian couple. The women alleged that without a marriage, their four children would be without certain legal protections.
Corinne Cestino and Sophie Hasslauer, who have been living together for 14 years, stated that marriage “is the only solution to protect their children, to share parental authority, to regulate inheritance and custodial issues in the event that one of them was to die,” the French daily Le Figaro reported.
According to a recent survey carried by TNS Sofres, 58 percent of the French support gay “marriage,” up from 45 percent in 2006.
The adoption of children by same-sex couples is supported by 49 percent, up from 30 percent in 2001.
Gay “marriage” is legal in the European countries of Belgium, Holland, Norway, Sweden and Spain.
San Diego, Calif., Jan 31, 2011 (CNA) - Members of the San Diego Fire Department have won a sexual harassment lawsuit against the city for being forced to participate in a local gay pride parade in 2007.
On Jan. 26, the California Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the city and instead upheld a lower court ruling in favor of the firefighters.
The move ends a several-year legal legal battle for four firefighters who lodged a complaint against San Diego for being forced to participate in the city’s gay pride parade in 2007. Although the firefighters objected numerous times to taking part in the event, the fire department disregarded their complaints and ordered them to dress in full uniform and drive their fire truck in the parade.
According to legal group Alliance Defense Fund, the four claimed they were sexually harassed through obscene gestures and cat calls at the event, which also featured displays of graphic images and behavior.
On Oct. 14, 2010, less than a week after hearing an oral argument, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District upheld a jury verdict ruling that the firefighters should not have been mandated to take part in the parade.
“We hope this ruling will end the city’s attempts to defend its act of compelling people to participate in sexually-charged events against their moral and personal convictions,” said Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Joseph Infranco after the October ruling.
Charles S. LiMandri, the West Coast regional director of the Thomas More Law Center and an attorney with Alliance Defense Fund, noted in October that government “employees should never be forced to participate in events or acts that violate their sincerely held beliefs.”
Rome, Italy, Jan 31, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Rome is already bracing for the impact of the many pilgrims who will converge on St. Peter's for the May 1 beatification of Pope John Paul II.
Sleeping space in religious communities across the city - around 15,000 beds - was booked up within a day of the Jan. 14 announcement.
The Domus Aurelia hotel run by the Emmanuel Community has been reserved "since literally two minutes after the announcement," said Lorenzo Amico, who was working the hotel desk at the time. The hotel is located a short way from St. Peter's on foot
Two large groups made the reservations, filling the facility to capacity for an entire week.
"We've received calls continuously since then," Amico told CNA during a Jan. 31 phone conversation. "Even though the entire area is completely full, they keep on calling."
Rooms in hotels around the Vatican were snatched up quickly and those vacancies that remain are in establishments further from St. Peter's. They are priced at more than double - and even triple - normal rates, according to local media reports.
On top of the traffic the beatification will be bringing to the streets of the Eternal City, on May 1 Italy observes a national Day for Workers holiday. The annual celebration is marked by a concert in the square just outside the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
This year, the nationally-televised event that draws around 200,000 young people every year, just happens to fall on Divine Mercy Sunday.
The grand occasions are likely to give Rome a similar feel to the last Vatican event of this magnitude, John Paul II's funeral in 2005. According to the Italian Department of Civil Protection, more than three million people were present for that event.
The city is already organizing itself for the possibility of more than a million visitors. It has a special "operating room" in place as it prepares for an onslaught of pilgrims from all over the world - whether they have a place to stay or not.
With the preliminary decision that no tickets will be issued to pilgrims for the celebration, the weekend is sure to be a long one out in the open for some.
Rome, Italy, Jan 31, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Recent political turmoil in the Islamic strongholds of Egypt and Tunisia, along with continuing attacks on Christians throughout the Middle East, risk overshadowing a quiet reform movement taking place among moderate Muslim religious leaders and scholars.
Evidence of a change can be seen in a new “document for the renewal of religious discourse,” issued in Arabic Jan. 24 on the website of the Egyptian magazine Yawm al-Sabi (“The Seventh Day”).
Signed by a coalition of 23 traditionalist and more modernist thinkers, the text stakes out new positions on 22 crucial issues in Islam — such as the nature of “jihad” or holy war, what are proper casual relationships between males and females, and the Islamic understanding of women’s rights.
The new document reflects “something much deeper” going on among Islamic leaders, according Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir, a respected adviser to the Pope on Christian-Muslim dialogue and one of the world’s foremost authorities on Islam and the Arab world.
Fr. Samir has translated the text and written a commentary on it. He told CNA that it represents a broader modernization effort going on in the Islamic world, a “project to renew Islamic speech, Islamic thinking.”
But he added that initial reaction throughout the Muslim world — the text has been posted on an estimated 12,000 Arab websites — suggests a majority of Muslims oppose elements in this renewal project.
Fr. Samir was born and raised in Egypt and is fluent in five languages, including Arabic. He has for many years played a key behind-the-scenes role in Christian-Muslim dialogue.
He does not see any long-term consequences in the decision earlier this month by Egyptian Muslims to break off talks over Pope Benedict XVI’s critical remarks about the New Year’s Eve killing of Christian worshipers in Alexandria.
“I must say the dialogue with Muslims, like often the dialogue with the Orthodox, is not so easy,” he said. “We often find these kind of reactions.”
Often political perceptions get mixed in with religious, he explained in an interview Jan. 27 at the Pontifical Oriental Institute.
Because Islam does not have a Western-style understanding of the separation of Church and state, Muslims at time read political overtones into statements made by Church officials.
“In their mentality, the West is still seen as Christian nations,” he said. “It is still Christianity against Islam — precisely because they don’t make a distinction between religion and the state.”
He suggested the Pope’s criticisms were misinterpreted as calling for “a new project against Islam.”
Another complicating factor, he added, is that there is no central authority that speaks for all Muslims. As a result, events such as the ongoing attacks on Christians, yield conflicting messages from Muslim leaders.
Fr. Samir said that honest dialogue is the key to true understanding between the religions. And, he said, the Vatican takes a long view.
The key is to be able to disagree without regarding the other as the enemy, he said.
“I think dialogue can make real friends discover that the other is not an enemy. He is opposite but not the enemy and it’s his right” to hold contrary views.
Quoting in Arabic from the Koran, Fr. Samir said, “Dispute with them in the best manner, in the better way.”
A common misperception, he said, is that dialogue means “to be kind to someone” and to smooth over differences. True dialogue means confronting the differences honestly and speaking truthfully about what one believes.
“First, to be true and honest and not to lie,” he said. “It is not to say half of your opinion — the half he could hear — because then you are then misguiding him. He thinks that you are in agreement, and it will be worse afterwards. To be honest, truthful, sincere and to do it in the best way possible.”
He notes that Muslim interviewers often ask him whether he believes that Muhammad is a “prophet.” He says he always responds honestly that he does not. Muslims consider Jesus to be a “prophet” but not the Son of God.
Fr. Samir tells them that he respects their beliefs but that he cannot share them.
“I have to be honest and … logical,” he explained. “I cannot say Christ is God's Word, but that afterwards God sent another 'Word' (the teaching of Muhammad and the Koran) which is in some points contradictory with the previous one, so that Christ is not … God’s last Word on earth, so that nobody can come after him.”
He adds that he expects the same honesty from his Muslim partners in dialogue.
“I understand that they must say that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets, as the Koran says. They must say it, this is their faith,” he said. “They are not saying that to contradict me, they are saying that to be honest with their own faith. The same as I am.”
Fr. Samir said that the dialogue is fruitful when both sides understand that their differences do not make them enemies.
“I find in the Christian faith that there is no enemy,” he explained. “There is a person who has a different vision but he is not my enemy. He can consider himself as my enemy. But that is his problem, not mine. I have no enemy. I have people with whom I agree or agree with partly. I try to tell people that I don’t want to offend them, but that unfortunately I cannot be Muslim and Christian at the same time."
For the future of the dialogue, Fr. Samir believes there needs to be a new recognition in Muslim countries of the need to respect freedom of conscience and the rights of religious minorities. He said few Muslims have yet to see the issue as important in political or religious terms.
“The importance of liberty of conscience, few people feel that or understand it,” he said. “But the Pope is repeating it — and in my experience it is fundamental.”
While he is optimistic about the possibilities of peaceful co-existence, Fr. Samir believes there must be an agreement within Islam that all violence is “anti-religion” and in fact, a work of the devil.
The goal of religion is “to live together, to love each other,” Fr. Samir said. “If religion leads to the opposite, it is an anti-religion.”
“If because I am a Muslim, or because I am a Jew, we have to fight, what religion is that? Or … if because I am a Catholic or an Orthodox we have to fight, this is certainly not the Gospel. And, if Islam means to fight so that Islam will be the only religion then it is led by Satan. I would say the same for the Catholic Church or for any group,” Fr. Samir said.
Love is the meeting point on which all authentic religions agree, Fr. Samir indicated. And love can never be expressed through violence.
“The aim is God and God in my understanding is love,” he explained. “Love means justice, respect. Love cannot mean that I take a part of your land, or I take your money, or your wife or your man. All that is contradictory. True religion would say not to take these things.”
Brasilia, Brazil, Jan 31, 2011 (CNA) - A new poll of Brazilian lawmakers shows that the majority of the nation's congressional leaders taking office on Feb. 1 this week are directly against the legalization of abortion.
A poll released on Jan. 29 by the GI News Network in Brazil asked the 513 congressmen whether or not they agreed with legalizing abortion in the country. Of the 414 who responded, 267 said “no,” 78 said “yes,” 37 said “in some cases” and 32 said they did not have an opinion on the question.
The 267 lawmakers who voiced opposition to abortion make up 52.4 percent of the Brazilian Congress and 64.4 percent of the total number of members who responded to the question.
The GI poll, which took place Nov. 29 through Jan. 27 via phone and e-mail, also found that of those who took the survey, 74.6 percent said they were Catholic. Only 10.2 percent of these – some 52 lawmakers in total – said they identified themselves as Catholics who support abortion.
GI also reported that during the 1990s, more than 50 measures on abortion came before the Brazilian House of Representatives. Most proposed changes to the law that would lessen or increase the penalties against those who practice or undergo an abortion.
Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, has voiced her support for the legalization of abortion on numerous occasions. Her stance cost her seven million votes in the first round of presidential voting on Oct. 3 last year, the same date on which the 513 members of the new Congress were elected.
During the runoff elections on Oct. 31, however, Rousseff said she was “personally opposed to abortion” and promised not to send any measure that would legalize the practice to the country's congress.
St. Paul, Minn., Jan 31, 2011 (CNA) - An attorney attempting to sue the Vatican in a sex abuse case failed to follow proper diplomatic channels in his try to serve the lawsuit, the Holy See’s U.S. lawyer says. He charged that the attorney is “grandstanding.”
Jeff Anderson, from St. Paul, Minnesota, represents a deaf man who says he was sexually abused decades ago by Fr. Lawrence Murphy, a now-deceased priest at a Wisconsin school for the deaf. Anderson’s lawsuit charges that Pope Benedict and other Vatican officials conspired to cover up the allegations.
He claimed on Jan. 30 that the Vatican refused to be served with the lawsuit and returned it via Federal Express.
Anderson, who has been involved in many lawsuits against Catholic dioceses in the U.S., scheduled a news conference on Jan. 31 to accuse the Vatican of “dragging out the healing of deaf victims.” He said he plans to ask Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York to bring the case to the Pope’s attention.
Archbishop Dolan is the U.S. bishops’ conference president and former Archbishop of Milwaukee.
Jeffrey Lena, the U.S.-based attorney for the Vatican, said in a Jan. 30 e-mail that the lawsuit should have been served through diplomatic channels as would be done with any foreign state. Holding a news conference on the matter, he told the Associated Press, is “really just a form of grandstanding by Mr. Anderson for the press and the public.”
The Vatican has said that local bishops are responsible for disciplining sexually abusive priests.