Vatican City, Oct 22, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Just down the road from St. Peter's Basilica, a crowd of almost 200 packed into an audience hall to hear a panel discussion on the witness of modern women in the Church.
The occasion for this event was the publication of a book in Italian, “Tenacious Women,” which profiles 12 very different modern women throughout the world who have chosen to live their lives as a daily testimony to their faith.
Italian journalist Marina Ricci, who moderated the panel, opened the event by explaining that “we begin with experience for this reason: we live in a world and in a society in which rarely does someone see him or her self beginning from reality.”
The stories in the book range from that of a 28-year-old mother who died from a malignant tumor while postponing treatment because she was pregnant with her third child, to a successful financial analyst at Walt Disney who converted to Catholicism and founded a house for young veterans injured in war.
Two of the women featured in the book spoke at the discussion event, sharing their stories as a living witness to the power of conversion and a life of faith.
Jocelyne Khouriey had the audience riveted with her description of her time in the Lebanese army during the country's civil war in the mid-1970s.
Having joined the Lebanese resistance at age 16, Khoueiry was told, “choose Jesus or choose Lebanon.” Although hindsight has allowed her to see the false dichotomy, at the time, she said, “I chose Lebanon.”
Khoueiry admitted that although her choice was fueled by a desire to protect her country, “behind the sense of patriotism” was “a will to prove myself.” She wanted to show, “I can do what others do.”
The young woman cut her hair short, wore bulky men's clothing and decided to form a group of the best women to fight in their own company. They chose to go to the farthest, most dangerous outpost to prove themselves capable of defending their country.
Then came Khoueiry's brush with death.
Nine young woman sat guarding a remote outpost when the opposing milita approached. Khoueiry was acting as scout and was the first to hear them coming.
“All of a sudden,” she recounted, “I felt a presence. I had never felt it before. And in that moment I prayed my first prayer – my first real, sincere, prayer.”
“I prayed to the Madonna because we were accustomed to doing that in my home.”
In that moment, said Khoueiry, “I was completely changed. Completely.”
After she returned to the other women, they heard the first of three rockets. “They were shocked,” Khoueiry remembered, “but I said, I will go, I am here until the end.” The group fought for four hours before running out of ammunition. Just as they thought they had reached the end, relief appeared in the form of several other women and their enemies were defeated.
A small group of young women had successfully defended the Lebanese outpost: newspapers were abuzz, and Khoueiry “forgot all about the prayer. I forgot that I had felt a presence.”
But “after a while, I began to think…why? Why this prayer? Why this miracle after the prayer?”
Thus “began a path, of about one year – I finally decided to consecrate myself and was seeking a convent to join.”
Then, a military commander called her with a strange request: to continue to form the youth of Lebanon.
“I felt a new means of responsibility,” said Khoueiry. She decided to privately consecrate herself to the Lord rather than joining a convent, so that she could remain in the world, working with the youth of the military.
As her story is recounted in “Tenacious Women,” Jocelyne “accepted guidance of the women’s departments of the army…and formed 'red quadrants' specializing in the ability to assume positions in especially para-military areas, such as communications, administration, first aid, and giving life to the Council of spiritual care for combatants: a troop of thirty priests, monks, and religious willing to go to the front lines for confessions and saying mass.”
Eventually Khoueiry resigned from the army, but founded a Catholic women's movement, “The Lebanese Women of May 31” to give a “feminine witness” in promoting peace in Lebanon.
Since then Khoueiry's apostolic activity has expanded, including the foundation of the John Paul II Center for social services, which offers counseling and aid to families experiencing the aftermath of war, poverty, divorce, or other difficulties.
Marcella Sonnino's life story – although perhaps less dramatic than Khoueiry's – conveyed the same conviction to the audience gathered to hear her testimony.
“I had always wanted to become a mother,” Sonnino began, “and although I am not married, for 31 years I have been a mother in a family house of the John XIII Community.”
The family homes of the community house the most marginalized of society: those suffering from mental or physical disabilities, poverty, psychological difficulties and juvenile delinquency.
Sonnino spoke of the importance of including everyone in community life, particularly in the Church, which she described as a “people that journeys.”
“But a people that journeys leaving someone behind,” she cautioned, “isn’t truly a people.”
This mother of many insisted that “it is necessary” to embrace “those who don’t walk, those who don’t see, those who don’t understand…to be always with others. This is our philosophy of life.”
The people that Sonnino has mothered in her 31 years with the community “have determined my life.” They “have made me understand how much life is worth living,” she declared.
Unfortunately, “I feel that this world isn’t made for them…and also sometimes (it is this way) in the Church. I’m sorry that it is this way,” she lamented.
Sonnino then asserted the need to “make a way in which they can be the protagonists, remaining with us always, because they are protagonists of history in which they are the professors and we are the students.”
“To live outside of a community – it is very difficult to succeed at life,” she continued, “because (although) there are moments when one tires of living with others, it helps you move forward: and this is the experience of the Church, because God saves us as a community!”
Sonnino's conviction was palpable as many disabled members of her community house sat in the audience. Her eyes filled with tears as one little boy waved continually at her.
“To be a mother doesn’t always mean to succeed,” she said, explaining that in her 31 years, she had seen many sufferings.
“But this, for me, doesn’t mean a failure of experience, it just means that our life is like this, here – on the other side, no!” she added, indicating heaven.
Lucetta Scaraffia, a professor of contemporary history at Rome’s Sapienza University who sat on the panel, took up Sonnino’s theme, pointing to the need for women to give witness to their struggles as well as their achievements.
“It’s impossible that a modern women would have only accomplishments and no problems!” she exclaimed.
It is the reality of a life lived through trials and joys that gives a true witness of faith, Scaraffia pointed out.
“Tenacious Women” authors Alessandra Buzzetti and Cristiana Caricato shared with the audience their hope that the witness of the women in their book would inspire and encourage others.
The event was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and Pauline Books, publisher of “Tenacious Women.”
Cardinal Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council, expressed his gratitude for the book and the discussion surrounding it.
“Before there are ‘roles,’ there is mission,” he explained. This mission is the “vocation to announce the gospel.”
“The work that women do is the great work of evangelization,” he said.
Tarragona, Spain, Oct 22, 2013 (CNA) -
Blessed Josefa Martinez' niece says she owes her life to her aunt, who was beatified Oct. 13 alongside 521 other martyrs of the Spanish Civil War.
“I pray to her every day, and in Alberique, the town where Sister Josefina was born, many people are devoted to her,” Carmen Cubelle, 76, told CNA following the beatification.
“Many holy cards have been distributed, so people can pray novenas, or pray to her individually.”
The beatification was held in Tarragona, a city in the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia. The 522 martyrs were victims of anti-Catholic persecution, sought out in convents and in their homes, according to Bishop Demetrio Fernández González of Córdoba.
Cubelle's family was among those persecuted, but she said she knows little of the Spanish Civil War “because in my house, my mother never spoke much about that time.”
Her father was killed for attending Eucharistic adoration at night, and a month later both her mother and her aunt, Sister Josefa Martinez of the Servants of Mary, were arrested. Sister Josefa had taken refuge in the family home to flee from the persecution.
Cubelle said that during the time in which her mother and aunt were imprisoned, Sister Josefa prayed aloud that the jailer would release her sister, who was six months pregnant with Carmen, and that she might take her place.
“Lord, if this jailer is a father and has a wife, move him to compassion, that he will set my set my sister free,” prayed Sr. Josefa. “May the life of her child be saved, may the life of my sister be saved and may they kill me. I want to die a martyr for her, for the faith, defending the lives of my sister and my nephew.”
Cubelle explained that “the jailers finally granted her request; and before sending Sister Josefa before the firing squad, my mother and my aunt bid each other farewell, and said they would meet again in eternity.”
“See you in heaven,” they said to each other. She owes her life to the generosity of her aunt, she added.
“I live thanks to the generosity of my aunt.”
Cubelle said she experienced the beatification of her aunt in a special way, despite her nervousness.
“It was so exciting, it is so amazing to have a blessed in the family,” she said, adding that she is not resentful.
“My mother forgave,” she explained, though “they killed her husband and her sister, and they were imprisoned.”
When Carmen’s mother went to identify the bodies of her husband and sister, she found that Sister Josefa was wearing a crucifix hidden under her clothes.
“We have kept that cross in our family since then, but now the parish in Alberique has asked to venerate it as a relic,” Cubelle said.
“In fact, my mother was asked if she wanted to file charges against the people who killed my father, and she said she didn’t want to know anything about it because she had forgiven them.”
New York City, N.Y., Oct 22, 2013 (CNA) -
While calling for dialogue between Syria’s Assad regime and moderates among the opposition, a Maronite Catholic bishop has stressed the necessity of a continued Christian presence in the Middle East.
“We need the solidarity of people and governments in the West to ensure the ongoing presence of Christians in Syria and throughout the Middle East,” Bishop Elias Sleman of the Maronite Eparchy of Latakia told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need Oct. 17.
Bishop Sleman is visiting the U.S. to raise support for his people as well as internally displaced Syrians. He hopes to purchase livestock and agricultural equipment and gain funding to establish a residence for women attending school in Latakia.
He said that to establish peace in Syria, “great effort must be made to establish a dialogue between the regime and moderate elements of the opposition,” suggesting that foreign nations “put real pressure” on Syrian groups to negotiate.
Bishop Sleman said that “the big challenge is religious fanaticism.” He added that it is important that Christians remain in Syria and the Middle East because “the environment of Islam benefits from the engagement of the Christian faith, which ensures, of course, also our own openness with regard to the Muslim world.”
Religious fanaticism, he said, is a “breach” of “fundamental respect for God and man,” adding, “that is the message of the Christian witness” in Muslim-majority nations.
“We have lived together in Syria for 1,400 years,” Bishop Sleman reflected. “I cannot and will not speak separately of Christians and Muslims … why can we not manage to live together any more?”
Bishop Sleman spoke in favor of religious pluralism, saying that “a country with a single religion becomes extremist, provoking war.” He spoke of Saudi Arabia as a place where “Muslims have not been forced to find ways to live together with Christians, have not been pushed to arrive at an openness.”
“But in Syria, Lebanon, in Jordan, and so forth, we have lived together for the longest time. In those countries it is hard to imagine Muslims living without Christians or vice versa.”
The bishop noted that “our religion is one of mission – it is not a religion that closes in on itself.”
“We cannot accept the logic of uniformity; we stand for openness; that is the genius of Christianity.”
Bishop Sleman said that Syrian Christians need financial support from their Western brethren while the Syrian civil war continues, but that in the long term they must “find ways to become self-sufficient and thus be able to stay.”
The Syrian conflict has dragged on for 30 months, since demonstrations sprang up nationwide on March 15, 2011 protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader the country's Ba'ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war which has claimed the lives of more than 115,000 people.
There are at least 2.1 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. An additional 4.25 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.
The protests began as part of the Arab Spring, a wave of demonstrations against governments across the Arab world that began in Tunisia in Dec., 2010.
“The Arab spring has been depicted as this clear push for liberty and democracy – but the actual results in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen, for example, are proving otherwise,” reflected Bishop Sleman.
The Syrian civil war is being fought among government forces; rebels – including both moderates and Islamists; and Kurds.
Bishop Sleman, whose port city of Latakia in northern Syria has been largely spared the civil war's violence and has thus become a refuge for the internally displaced, lamented that “there has been no real leadership up to this point” among foreign nations putting pressure on dialogue among Syrian factions.
“Right now, in Syria, the story needs to be told that moderate rebels and Islamists have begun fighting each other,” he said.
“The world’s major powers must intervene – now – to stop Syria from tumbling into utter chaos. I am very worried about the situation,” he concluded.
“Nonetheless, I continue to have hope – call it a foolish hope, if you will. But with God everything is possible.
Vatican City, Oct 22, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture held a conference on “believers in the world of sports” this week to discuss the role of the Church in the realm of athletics.
“We wanted to bring sports into the heart of the Church,” said Monsignor Melchor Sanchez de Toca, undersecretary of the council, “to remember that sports is important…for a sound and full Christian life.”
He told CNA on Oct. 21 that the group also wanted to remind “the world of sports that the Church has much to bring about, much to say, to a world that sometimes is rotten,” or that “has lost the values which are the foundation of sports.”
The conference was held during the celebration of the Church's Year of Faith, and invited international professional athletes, heads of Catholic sporting associations, and representatives of bishops' conferences involved in the pastoral care for sports to join in a reflection on the relationship between faith and athletics.
“Sport needs healing from its degenerations, so that it becomes again a meaningful cultural phenomenon and reference point for the youth, making the most of the creative spirit of the human person,” Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, noted on the council's website.
Msgr. Sanchez de Toca explained that “the first goal is to call the attention of everyone towards the importance of sports in Christian life – for parishes, schools, Catholic schools, seminaries, houses of education or training for clergy and religious people.”
Secondly, he added, the council hopes that at the conference, leaders in the sporting world can discuss with the Church “what we can do for the world of sports – what values do they need? What can the Church bring into this world? And vice versa: how to bring the sports into the daily Christian life.”
Presentations by experts at the conference included subjects such as “The Value of the Body in Disability,” and “Sports Reveal the Face of God to Human Beings.”
Monday's conference was preceded by “100 meters of racing in the faith” on Sunday morning in St. Peter's square.
The event, co-sponsored by the Italian Center for Sports, involved the set-up of a 100 meter track along the street leading to the square. Over 5,000 invited participants ranging from Olympic athletes to local parish groups and passersby were encouraged to run the track.
Various athletes spoke to the crowd, witnessing to the value of sports in their own lives.
One seminarian from the North American College in Rome said that “like John Paul II, I believe sport is a school of virtue.”
“When I play soccer, I have an opportunity to practice many virtues,” he continued, “like perseverance when I am tired or sacrificing for others.”
Sylvia Schiavi of Rome who volunteered at Sunday's event told CNA, “I think sometimes sports can help people who suffer a lot in their lives to gain something more from the world.”
Other participants in the conference and event included members of the Special Olympics, Linda Del Rio of Varsity Catholic, Olympic gold-medalist Jason Gardener, and Ray McKenna, President of Catholic Athletes for Christ.
Rome, Italy, Oct 22, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - In his daily Mass homily Pope Francis stressed that Jesus came to save sinners, emphasizing also the importance of knowing God on more than an intellectual level.
“I have come to heal, to save,” said the Pope, quoting the words of Jesus from the Gospel.
The Holy Father directed his Oct. 22 homily to those gathered at the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse, where he resides.
Pope Francis began his reflections by echoing the words of St. Paul to the Romans in the day’s first reading, stating that we can only enter into the mystery of God by talking to him on our knees, stressing that intelligence alone is not enough.
“You need contemplation, intelligence, heart, knees praying… all together: this is how we enter into the mystery.”
Another important aspect needed in our relationship with God is closeness, or proximity, the Pope reflected, noting that “one man created sin, and one man saved us.”
The pontiff then recalled how close God has been to man throughout all of history, stressing that he has walked with his people since the very first moment when he chose Abraham to be the father of all humanity.
Jesus, urged the Pope, who had the job of a craftsman and who used his hands in every piece of work, is like a nurse in a hospital who heals the wounds of those who come in, one at a time.
Just like this nurse, Pope Francis stressed that God is also involved in our lives, “meddling” in our miseries and getting close enough to heal our wounds with his very hands, which he became man in order to do.
Because of this, noted the Pope, we know that God does not simply save us by decree, but “He saves us with tenderness and with caresses. He saves us with His life for us.”
Pope Francis then spoke of the importance of “abundance” in our spiritual lives, urging that where sin abounds, grace also abounds.
Each of us knows our own miseries, urged the Pope, however the Lord challenges us to defeat and heal them as Jesus did through the superabundance of grace and love that he offers.
Although some do not want to admit it, the pontiff urged that those who are closest to Jesus’ heart are sinners, because they are the ones that he seeks, calls and heals.
The Pope concluded his homily by turning his reflections to the Saints, emphasizing that some of them say distrust of God is the ugliest sin, asking those present “how can we be wary of a God who is so close, so good, who prefers the sinful heart?”
This mystery, he urged, is difficult to understand through intelligence, and requires "contemplation, proximity and abundance” because the Lord "always wins with the superabundance of his grace, with His tenderness,” and with “His wealth of mercy."
London, England, Oct 22, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch has said that the success of Syrian rebels could worsen the plight of Christians because of the extreme Islamist elements among the rebel forces.
“The extremists are against even the normal rebel opposition,” he said Oct. 16, according to the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph. “This is an issue for Muslims as well as Christians. I am not afraid of Islam, I am just afraid of chaos, which will allow these groups to play a very destructive role.”
The Patriarch of Antioch discussed the Syrian situation in an address to more than 300 benefactors of the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need at an event last week at London’s Westminster Cathedral.
On Oct. 15 Syrian extremists planted two bombs at the old Cathedral of Constantine and Helena in Yabroud, a city 50 miles north of Damascus.
“It was a church before Christianity, it was a temple of Jupiter and converted, an old beautiful church,” said Patriarch Gregorios.
One of the bombs had been planted in the confessional. Both were discovered and disarmed. The attempted attack is part of the continuing civil war that has afflicted Syria since March 2011.
The conflict has killed over 110,000 people and has forced millions to flee their homes. At least 450,000 Christians have left the country or are internally displaced, including the patriarch’s family on his father’s side.
“Syria is experiencing a lengthy, bloody way of the cross, stretching along all the country’s roads,” the patriarch said. “A lot of our priests, our people, our relatives and friends have been kidnapped.”
Patriarch Gregorios said Christians are targeted because they are considered weak and a source of ransom, Aid to the Church in Need reports.
“You may think that it is safe here or unsafe there, but at any moment you may be killed by bomb, missile or bullet, not to mention being kidnapped or taken hostage for ransom, or murdered,” he said.
The bombs were planted at the cathedral despite the $35,000 Christians in Yabroud have paid in protection money each month since 2012. Yabroud, the patriarch explained, is controlled both by opposition troops and by “jihadists.”
“...the opposition is okay, but jihadists are something else,” he said.
Kidnapping and financial extortion, he added, are severe problems facing the Christian population.
Patriarch Gregorios noted last months’ attack at Maaloula, a town 35 miles northwest of Damascus, where Islamist rebels tried to force Christians to convert to Islam. In the aftermath of the attack, many villagers are still missing and all the residents have fled.
Six Red Cross relief workers were reportedly abducted by gunmen Oct. 13 near Saraqib, about 35 miles southwest of Aleppo, in a region largely controlled by the Free Syrian Army, an opposition group.
According to SANA, media outlet of the Assad regime, the kidnapping was carried out by “terrorist” rebels. As of Oct. 14, three of the six were found, though the whereabouts of the remaining workers are still unknown.
Patriarch Gregorios emphasized that many ordinary Muslims had also suffered. He said Syria has historically had harmonious relations between the faiths. He said most jihadists in the conflict have come from outside Syria.
Syria’s Christians have tended to support the Syrian government, led by President Bashar Assad. The president and much of his government adheres to the Alawite branch of Shiite Islam, while the rebel forces tend to be Sunni Muslims.
Patriarch Gregorios downplayed claims that Christians show favoritism.
“Some people are saying that we Christians are the friends of the regime, but we are not, we are just ordinary Syrians, and we pray for all,” he said. “Besides, even if we are for the regime, that is our right as free people.”
Washington D.C., Oct 22, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
The reported resignation of Suzan Johnson Cook as U.S. ambassador for international religious freedom is an chance for the Obama administration to address the issue, but some are dubious that real changes will be made.
“If the position remains vacant, or if it is filled with someone not qualified to move this issue into the mainstream of diplomacy, that will confirm the views of the critics – including me – that the administration does not see (international religious freedom) policy as a priority,” Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University told Christianity Today.
He explained in the Oct. 18 interview that the confirmation of Johnson Cook’s successor will be a good indicator of the Obama administration’s attitude towards international religious freedom.
“Whatever the reason for her departure, the vacancy provides a dramatic opportunity for the Obama administration to adopt an aggressive, effective strategy of advancing religious freedom abroad.”
Cook’s retirement was first reported by Religion News Service on Oct. 16 when Joseph Grieboski, founder of The Institute on Religion and Public Policy, tweeted a picture with her saying that it was taken “on her last day.” Rob Schenck of Faith and Action posted pictures to Instagram “celebrating the legacy” of the ambassador.
Despite widespread reports of Cook's resignation, the Department of State has not been able to confirm the accuracy of these reports to CNA, although they occurred nearly one week ago.
While Cook’s passion for religious freedom is certain, her tenure in office has drawn criticism.
In an earlier interview with CNA, Farr pointed out that Obama allowed the ambassador position to remain vacant for more than two years before finally appointing Cook; she was sworn-in in June, 2011. Once she started her job, Farr said, she was buried “deep in the bureaucracy, without authority or resources.”
Religious freedom organizations ranging from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom to congressional representatives have criticized the administration’s minimization of the role of the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, in defiance of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which created the position.
Additionally, they have critiqued the state department’s reservation towards adopting suggestions of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s yearly report under Cook, as well as its failure to enforce sanctions against some nations which restrict religious freedom.
Robert George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told Christianity Today that he hopes the Obama administration “will nominate someone who shares (Cook's) deep dedication to religious freedom and who will work closely with us at the commission on behalf of so many people in lands today across the globe who are persecuted for their beliefs and religious practices.”
Mark Silk, professor of religion in public life at Trinity College, wrote in an Oct. 18 blog post that Cook’s resignation “will allow the Obama Administration to take another step towards getting its religious act together.”
Silk suggested that Secretary of State John Kerry secure a successor who has had “actual ambassadorial experience” — a qualification that many critics are quick to point out that Cook lacked.
He urged that Kerry appoint “a senior diplomat who knows what it is to deal not only with foreign governments but also with the the State Department’s ways and means.”