Archive of November 21, 2013

Church must foster encounter with culture, cardinals say

Mexico City, Mexico, Nov 21, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Prominent Church leaders from the Americas encouraged the faithful to consider the intersection of faith and culture, so as to respond to radical and fundamental changes in society.

"For many decades, the Church had a strong influence over U.S. culture," said Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston, describing a "Catholic ghetto" that included its own schools, sports leagues, unions, health systems and newspapers.

However, due to assimilation, the "glue" that bound people to the Church became weak, he continued. Today, it is easy to leave the Church, and people do so for a wide variety of reasons.

The result has been a movement "from cultural Catholicism to intentional Catholicism." When being Catholic is no longer supported by the culture, it requires a conscious decision to remain in the Church, and those who do so are strengthened in their faith, he said.

Now, the cardinal said, the Church must help those Catholics become "missionary disciples" in order to evangelize those who have fallen away.

Cardinal O'Malley spoke Nov. 18 at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City during a conference entitled "Our Lady of Guadalupe, Star of the New Evangelization on the American Continent."

Sponsored by the basilica, the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, the Knights of Columbus, and the Higher Institute of Guadalupan Studies, the four-day conference drew bishops, priests, religious and lay leaders from across the Americas to consider the role and mission of the Church throughout the region, giving particular attention to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

"The transition from a strong cultural Catholicism to an intentional Catholicism urgently requires a new type of evangelization and a new apologetics that will respond to the questions that people have," Cardinal O'Malley said. "To continue to do things as we have in the past simply no longer works."

While the Church in the U.S. was very strong in the past, it was also very clerical, he observed. But now, it must work with, and rely on, the laity.

In addition, the Church should make renewed efforts at ecumenical and inter-religious outreach, he said. The polarity between Catholics and Protestants has been replaced by polarity between believers and non-believers, as the secular culture becomes increasingly hostile to our values, and we find new opportunities to engage members of other faiths.

He referenced the recent fight against physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts, in which he asked assistance from his evangelical, Muslim, and Mormon brothers and sisters, something that would never have happened decades ago.  

The cardinal also discussed the tragedy of sexual abuse in the U.S., as well as lessons that the Church has learned and new strategies to emphasize the priority of protecting children.

He spoke of the need to "rescue marriage," a task he described as "an enormous challenge" due to cultural factors that have weakened the institution, including divorce, premarital sex and a push to redefine marriage.

Furthermore, the Church in the U.S. should work with Churches in Latin America on immigration issues, recognizing that "most Catholics in the U.S. will soon be Hispanic."

Cardinal José Robles Ortega, Archbishop of Guadalajara, also commented on the intersection of faith and culture, explaining that faith must create a culture in order to be complete.

When complex changes come to a society, the Church must find new ways to create culture.

It is the task of the Church to interpret the current atmosphere and the profound changes that have transformed society, leaving fragmentation in their wake, he said.

In the past, intergenerational solidarity has been one of the most important vehicles in transmitting the faith, he said. Now, however, the relationships between generations are often not as strong.

Modernity brings with it a distrust of institutions and standards, as well as a lack of shared values, and this must be addressed by the evangelists of today, the cardinal said.

Another challenge in transmitting the faith is the fact that many young people have a new sense of religiosity that explores, moving from one religion to another, with a consumer attitude seeking personal satisfaction. This is often coupled with new age ideas and an emphasis on aesthetics.

However, this attempt to "order religion off a menu" lacks a personal encounter with God, he said, charging catechists to "embrace all that is human, with the exception of sin, to be able to impress on the youth the importance of Christ, the faith as it is lived and experienced."

Cardinal Robles also warned against the common pitfalls of viewing religion as simply a moral code or set of cultural traditions.

We must recover religion as a movement towards an encounter with Christ, he said, noting that we are not following a teacher or “miracle worker from the past,” but a living person whom we can encounter.

If faith is reduced to merely ethical values, it loses its attractiveness, he added. Before we can focus on moral teaching, we must first announce the tenderness and compassion of the risen Christ.

This does not mean morals are irrelevant, he clarified. Rather, they are a manifestation of our new life in Christ.

We must begin with the experience of mercy, allowing Christ to transform us, and then we can use our freedom to align our lives with God's plan, the cardinal explained.

Similarly, when is faith reduced to mere customs or cultural practices, "its vitality is soon lost amongst the people of our era," he said, stressing the importance of encountering Christ.

“Jesus Christ is a person, not a concept.”

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Google maps launch virtual tour of Roman catacombs

Rome, Italy, Nov 21, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - The internet's largest search engine has created a digital map of two large catacombs in Rome, hoping to expose users to the historical sites' beauty and spark curiosity to learn more about them.

“If you can find catacombs, if you can find frescos, if you can find museums online, then you will be willing to know more,” Georgia Albetino told CNA during a Nov. 19 interview.

“So our objective is actually to have more and more people knowing about world-wide culture, and for us Italian culture.”

Albetino is the head of Google's public policy team in Italy, and was present for the Nov. 19 press conference announcing the new project, held in the Catacomb of Pricilla.

The Catacomb of Pricilla was used for Christian burials from late in the second century up through the fourth, and is filled with numerous wall paintings of Saints and Christian symbols, some of which are currently undergoing restoration.

It is believed that the catacomb is named after a woman called Pricilla, who is believed to be the wife of a man who converted to Christianity and was put to death by the Emperor Domitian.

Inspiration for the new map system detailing the catabombs, Albetino noted, came from “a big idea that google has, that is try to put in the web as much cultural contents as possible.”

Catacombs originally came up as a topic of interest, the policy director revealed, during a meeting between Cardinal Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt.

During the discussion of “how to enrich the world-wide web,” Albetino noted that “the idea was, ok, there are incredibly valuable contents, such as for instance, the catacombs, why don’t we put it on maps? And that’s how it started.”

So far the Catacombs of Pricilla and the Dino Companion catacombs are the only two available on Google maps, and although there are “no clear plans in terms of catacombs in the future,” Albetino explained that they are important, especially in Italian culture, because they “tell you something about our history, and also where we come from.”

Fabricio Bisconti, the Archeological Superintendent of the Catacombs for the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archeology, also spoke with CNA on Nov. 19, stating that another key motive in creating the map was to give “virtual tour for the disabled.”

Those who “cannot access” the catacombs due to some “great handicap,” he observed, ought to have the ability to be exposed to their beauty as well, adding that “this was our first motive.”

Albetino revealed that another “fantastic project” that Google is working on in the area of Italy, is “to digitize all the books of the three main libraries, Naples, Rome and Florence, and to make it available to the world-wide web, and then also to digitize the biggest museums with the same purpose.”

The goal of all these projects, she noted, is to “show to the world the beauties that we have.”

The new map of the catacombs can be viewed here.

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Christmas toy drive for schools is constitutional, lawyer says

Scottsdale, Ariz., Nov 21, 2013 (CNA) - After two public schools ended their affiliation with an evangelical-run Christmas toy drive for impoverished children, a lawyer with a group that supports religious liberty said such affiliation is in fact constitutional.

“Schools can offer Operation Christmas Child, as one of many choices of community service projects students can voluntarily participate in, without violating the constitution,” Jeremy Tedesco, senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, told CNA Nov. 20.

“The AHA is spreading a view of the establishment clause and what they think it requires, this absolutely complete separation between church and state, which has really put schools in the position of being hostile to religion.”

Last week, the American Humanist Association wrote to both SkyView Academy in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and East Point Academy in West Columbia, S.C., demanding that the schools cease participation in the Christmas gift drive which is a project of Samaritan's Purse, an evangelical organization which provides “spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world.”

The project delivers shoe boxes stuffed with gifts to impoverished children around the world, as well as a message inviting them to become Christian.

The American Humanist Association wrote to the two schools, saying, “because the purpose and effect of Operation Christmas Child is to induce impoverished children to convert to Christianity, the school's promotion of this program violates the Constitution. The school must immediately suspend its unconstitutional participation in Operation Christmas Child.”

It continued, “a public school cannot affiliate itself with, endorse, promote or support such a group's program without violating the Establishment Clause.” The American Humanist Association also encouraged the schools to give gift boxes to “an appropriately secular program, such as Toys for Tots.”

Both schools decided to end their affiliation with the program. On Nov. 15, SkyView parents were told by email that the school would cease its participation because of “the importance of protecting our school's program, resources, and reputation, which would be at risk if we chose to engage in this national argument.”

East Point also wrote to parents saying that “in an abundance of caution because we do not want to expend school financial resources defending a lawsuit, we are not going to accept Operation Christmas Child boxes.”

Tedesco explained that “just because a religious organization is involved in sponsoring it, doesn't turn it into something the school district can't participate in in some way; that goes for any school in the country.”

“If the school wanted kids to participate in a soup kitchen,” he argued, “well many soup kitchens are run by religious organization, so would they have to cut a religiously affiliated soup kitchen, because a religious organization sponsors that particular soup kitchen? That is not required by the establishment clause.”

The American Humanist Association, he said, is “just pushing their own agenda, and I just don’t think their agenda lines up at all with the actual state of the law, when it comes to the establishment clause.”

“Absolute and complete separation” and a government “hostile to religion” is the secularist group's agenda, Tedesco suggested – “that's what their recommended courses of action in these situations would require schools and other government agencies to do.”

“The establishment clause doesn't require complete separation between church and state, the Supreme Court has said that. All the way back in 1984, the Supreme Court said that in a case where a nativity set was challenged.”

He explained that the “strict separationist view” is held by many groups, yet “it is not the actual requirement” of the First Amendment.

Tedesco added that the establishment clause “doesn't bar legislative prayer, even though that's a clear religious activity, prayer occurring at governmental meetings … if that doesn't violate the establishment clause, then how does it violate the establishment clause for a school to encourage kids to put together boxes of toys for impoverished kids?”

“That's all these schools are doing. That's not unlawful, and it certainly isn’t made unlawful simply because a religious organization happens to sponsor it.”

“What we're up against here is that you can hold your religious beliefs, but you can't act on them, or express them in public.”

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Eastern Patriarchs 'watchful guardians' of unity, Pope says

Vatican City, Nov 21, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Francis spoke with Patriarchs of various Oriental Churches during a four day gathering in Rome, stating that it is their task to help foster unity in the Church, and to remember the persecuted.

“You are watchful guardians of communion and servants of ecclesial unity,” said the Pope, quoting his predecessor during a Nov. 21 morning meeting with the church leaders.

The Holy Father’s comments came as the second address to the Patriarchs and Major Archbishops of Eastern Churches, who are gathered in Rome Nov. 19-21 for the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Eastern Churches.

Headed by Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, the assembly is reflecting on the theme of the magisterium of Vatican Council II with regard to the Christian East.

During his address, the Pope highlighted how the Second Vatican Council mentioned that within the liturgies of the Oriental Churches, “there remains conspicuous the tradition that has been handed down from the Apostles through the Fathers and that forms part of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church.”

“From an evaluation of the path taken so far,” the pontiff explained that “guidelines will emerge intended to support the mission entrusted by the Council to our brothers and sisters in the East.”

That mission, he noted, is the promotion of “the unity of all Christians, especially Eastern Christians.”

Recalling the many difficulties which the Oriental Churches have had in “nurturing their faith in Christ…not infrequently unto martyrdom,” the Pope exclaimed that “the entire Church is truly grateful to you for this!”

Drawing attention to “those who live in the Middle East, not infrequently as a 'little flock' in environments riven by hostility and conflict, as well as hidden persecutions,” Pope Francis stressed that the dispersion of people from their homeland is a problem which is increasing in every continent.

In light of this situation, Pope Francis encouraged the patriarchs to do everything possible to facilitate “pastoral care both in the original territories and where the oriental communities are long established.”

“My thoughts turn especially to the blessed land where Christ lived, died and rose again,” the Pope reflected, “and where the light of faith has not been extinguished, but instead burns brightly.”

“It is the 'light of the East,’” he stated, which “has illumined that universal Church, from the moment when a rising sun appeared above us: Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

“As a consequence, each Catholic has a debt of gratitude towards the Churches that live in the region.”

“From these we may learn, among other things,” continued the pontiff, “the patience and perseverance of the daily exercise, at times wearisome, of the ecumenical spirit and interreligious dialogue.”

Showing particular concern for those in the Middle East who suffer because of current conflicts, the Pope stressed that “the Bishop of Rome will not rest while there are still men and women, of any religion, whose dignity is undermined, who are deprived of the basic requirements for survival, robbed of their future, or forced to live as fugitives or refugees.”

“Today, along with the pastors of the Oriental Churches,” he implored, “we make an appeal for the respect of the right to a dignified life and to freely profess one's own faith.”

“We must not resign ourselves to thinking of a Middle East without Christians.”

Pope Francis concluded his address by asking turning “to the entire Church to exhort her support in prayer,” that she “may obtain reconciliation and peace from the merciful heart of God.”

“Prayer,” he explained, “disarms ignorance and generates dialogue where there is open conflict. If it is sincere and persistent, it will make our voice humble and firm, capable of being heard by the leaders of nations.”

Referring to Jerusalem as “our spiritual birthplace,” the Pope stated that “I hope for every consolation, so that it may truly be a prophesy of that definitive convocation, from east to west, promised by God.”

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Freiburg auxiliary bishop retires, shortly before 75th birthday

Freiburg, Germany, Nov 21, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Francis accepted the resignation Nov. 21 of Bishop Rainer Klug, an auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Freiburg im Breisgau, “upon having reached the age limit,” according to the Vatican Information Service.

The Code of Canon Law requests that a bishop “who has completed the seventy-fifth year of age” presents his resignation to the Pope. Bishop Klug will celebrate his 75th birthday Dec. 13.

Bishop Klug was born in 1938, and was ordained a priest for the Freiburg archdiocese in 1969. He was appointed auxiliary of the archdiocese in 2000 by Bl. John Paul II.

The archdiocese has been vacant since Sept. 17, when Archbishop Robert Zollitsch resigned, having turned 75. During the vacancy, the see has drawn criticism for a draft document released by its office of pastoral care Oct. 7.

The text of the document suggested that divorced and remarried Catholics can receive Holy Communion if they can show their first marriage cannot be reentered, if they repent of their fault in a divorce and if they enter “a new moral responsibility” with their new spouse.

The document also suggested priests might offer “prayer services” for divorced faithful entering into a new civil marriage.

The prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, responded by writing a letter on the matter to Archbishop Zollitsch, instructing that the document be “withdrawn and revised” such that “no pastoral directions are sanctioned” which oppose the teaching of the Church.

Archbishop Müller also published a lengthy essay in L'Osservatore Romano rebuking the archdiocese's document.  

Given Bishop Klug's resignation, the Freiburg archdiocese is now served by two auxiliaries, Bishop Michael Gerber, 43, and Bishop Bernd Uhl, 66. In addition to Bishop Klug, there are two other auxiliary emeriti: Bishop Wolfgang Kirchgaessner, and Bishop Paul Wehrle.

In other pontifical acts, Pope Francis today appointed Bishop Thomas Msusa as Archbishop of Blantyre, in Malawi; Fr. Paskalis Syukur as Bishop of Bogor, in Indonesia; and Bishop Celmo Lazzari as Vicar Apostolic of San Miguel de Sucumbíos, in Ecuador.

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Archbishop rejects use of Pope's words to justify Illinois 'gay marriage'

Chicago, Ill., Nov 21, 2013 (CNA) - As same-sex “marriage” becomes law in Illinois, the U.S. bishops’ head of marriage defense issues has lamented the “disgraceful” misuse of Pope Francis’ words to justify the institution’s redefinition.

“Pope Francis has forcefully reminded us that we are to show love and respect to all people and to seek their greatest good, and he therefore continues to clearly promote and defend marriage and family, recognizing that this is in everyone’s best interest as members of a common society,” Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, said Nov. 20.

The archbishop noted that Pope Francis opposed the redefinition of marriage in Argentina as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, where the future Pope said, “The identity of the family, and its survival, are in jeopardy here: father, mother, and children … At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts.”

The Pope has also encouraged Catholics to “propose to all people, with respect and courage, the beauty of marriage and the family illuminated by the Gospel.”

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill to recognize same-sex unions as marriages on Nov. 20.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan had justified support for the bill by citing the Pope’s July comments on the flight from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro to Rome.

“If a person is gay and seeks the Lord and has good will, well who am I to judge them?” the Pope had said, in response to a question about the “gay lobby” in the Vatican. The Pope had also said that lobbies “are not good.”

Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, a Democrat from Aurora, said she voted for the bill “as a Catholic follower of Jesus and the Pope,” the Chicago Tribune reports.

Archbishop Cordileone said that in light of the Pope’s criticisms of same-sex unions, it is “disgraceful that some legislators would manipulate the words of Pope Francis to suggest that he would support marriage redefinition.”

The archbishop said this redefinition is “a serious injustice.” The law exists to protect “authentic rights, especially the right of children to have a married mother and father.”

The law could create more religious freedom threats to business owners in the wedding industry, such as florists, photographers and wedding planners, who cannot in good conscience participate in same-sex ceremonies. Lawsuits have targeted similar businesses in other states.

“The bill is called the Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act. But this act is neither free nor fair for people of religious convictions,” Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel of the Thomas More Society, said Nov. 20.

A group of legal scholars said that the Illinois bill’s vague and undefined terminology will require litigation to determine what religious liberties are protected.

Sixteen states have legally recognized “gay marriage,” particularly in the northeast U.S. Marriage law was initially redefined by the courts before several legislatures passed bills recognizing the unions. Same-sex “marriage” ballot measures did not succeed until 2012.

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, suggested that activists for redefining marriage have “run out of easy targets.” The activists targeted the “most liberal” states and “barley eked out some incredibly narrow victories,” he said Nov. 20 in a statement to his organization’s supporters.

Amendments defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman exist in 30 states, he noted, saying that there is a “false narrative” which asserts that the redefinition of marriage is inevitable.

Archbishop Cordileone praised the “courageous efforts” of those who helped defend marriage in Illinois.

“The defense of truth and goodness is never in vain,” he said.

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Pope to Filipino community: pray with a child's simplicity

Vatican City, Nov 21, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Francis met with the Filipino community of Rome today, encouraging them in the wake of their native country's recent disaster to never tire of praying, even if the prayer is that of a child.

Referencing the typhoon that wreaked havoc in the Philippines, Pope Francis encouraged, “In these moments of sadness, let the power of this prayer be the most useful: 'the prayer of why.'...And I also accompany you, with this 'prayer of why.'”

“There are many things that we cannot understand. When children begin to grow, they don't understand things and begin to ask questions of their father or mother,” the Pope explained to the group gathered in St. Peter's Basilica on Nov. 21.

A child asks “one after another 'why's” but does not “wait for a response.” Rather, “the child in his insecurity needs his father and mother watch over him. He needs the eyes of his parents, he needs the heart of his parents,” the Pope continued.

As children of God, we must pray “the prayer of why,” especially in moments of difficulty, emphasized Pope Francis.

“In these moments of great suffering, don’t tire of saying, 'Why?' (Be) like children...and so attract the eyes of our Father for your people; draw the tenderness of the 'dad of heaven’ upon yourselves.  Be like the child when asking, ‘Why? Why?’”

Pope Francis had joined Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila and the Filipino community of Rome for a celebration of St. Pedro Calungsod, a Filipino catechist and martyr for the faith. The Pope blessed a mosaic icon of the young man who was proclaimed a saint by Benedict XVI last October.

Cardinal Tagle spoke of the struggles of the people in the Philippines, as well as their courage in the face of frightening circumstances. Pope Francis embraced the cardinal at the end of his remarks, assuring him of his “closeness and prayers.”

The honoring of St. Pedro Calungsod in St. Peter’s Basilica comes at a crucial time for the people of the Philippines, who are struggling to recover from the recent typhoon.

Lina Santos, who lives in Rome but is originally from the Philippines, told CNA that today’s gathering was “very very meaningful for us” because the honoring of a Filipino saint came “despite the difficulties we are encountering now.”

“Even though we have experienced disasters, there is still hope that we can gain again our hope,” she said.

Fr. Jan Limchua, a diocesan priest of Cebu, Philippines, expressed his gratitude to be in attendance at  today’s gathering, noting that Calungsod's witness is particularly important “because we are in the year of faith.”

Today's event is one of the various ways of “honoring many many great examples of (people) living their faith in the midst of difficulties and in the midst of such harsh situations, like St. Pedro Calungsod,” Fr. Limcha told CNA in an interview on Nov. 21.

The young man was martyred not because he was a companion of the Jesuit missionaries, said Fr. Limcha, but because “he was a catechist, so he defended his faith, he even offered his life: he died before the Jesuit priest was killed because he offered his life…for God and the Church.”

St. Pedro Calungsod “was not a great preacher,” explained Fr. Limcha, but “he just served the priests in his own little way.” The result was his sanctity and martyrdom.

The life and witness of this simple catechist serves as an example of how any Christian “can make a great impact in the world of today.”

“So we are called in this way,” reflected Fr. Limcha, to imitate “that example of simplicity and holiness.”

The blessing of the mosaic was followed by a mass celebrated by Cardinal Tagle.

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Carmelite nun from Syria describes pain of civil war

Denver, Colo., Nov 21, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a Lebanese-born nun who has lived nearly 20 years in Syria, is travelling the U.S. advocating for peace and reflecting on how the conflict has affected life in the region.

It is “terribly, tremendously” difficult to be living away from her community in Syria, she reflected Nov. 17.

“We have a very, very familiar way of communitarian life, and our community is in need, it's a new community. We were founded in 2000, so they need their superior, they need their mother. But the Lord has supplied: they are like heroes; I consider this community to be heroes.”

Mother Agnes is the superior of St. James the Mutilated monastery in Qarah, located 60 miles north of Damascus on the road to Homs.

Qarah, which was captured by the Syrian regime two days after Mother Agnes spoke with CNA, had been under the control of the Free Syrian Army, a moderate rebel group, for over a year.

The monastery is home to 20 nuns of the Unity of Antioch, and is also sheltering 32 Sunni refugees from al-Qusayr, she told CNA. Because of the violent unrest in the area, she cannot return to the monastery.

“They are trapped,” she said. “They cannot go out and I cannot come in, because all over this region we have bandits and undisciplined elements. So they cannot go out and I cannot come in, until the situation is better.”

Before the war, she explained, “we had 25,000 visitors” annually for spiritual retreats and other events. “We were building a new youth hostel to receive pilgrims, and it was our income; we had also a store, to sell what we produce – icons, garments, hand crafts, also agricultural products. All of this has stopped, so we have no income at all.”

During a talk she gave at St. Rafka Maronite parish in Denver, Colo., Mother Agnes explained that the Free Syrian Army “reported to us one night in June there was a plot to abduct me … it is the FSA who protected me, and put me outside” the city.

Islamists rebels, such as al-Nusra Front, had infiltrated the area, and were planning her abduction, she said, noting that the armed opposition “is not one faction.”

Because the FSA has not given her “the green light to come back,” she is unable to return to the monastery, and the people there are unable to leave, she said. “We are like in a siege.”

Mother Agnes said she now works in neighboring Lebanon: “I paint icons…and we have a kind of market outside Syria.”

The community at Qarah has been shelled by both helicopters and tanks, and Mother Agnes reflected, “we've had other examples in Syria where convents were destroyed, nuns or monks were killed, but we are praying the Lord to prevent this, to spare it.”

The Syrian conflict has now dragged on for 31 months, since demonstrations sprang up nationwide on March 15, 2011 protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader of 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 2.2 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

An additional 6.5 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.

The Syrian rebels are made up of a large variety of groups, including both moderates and Islamist extremists, as well as Kurds.

Qarah has strategic significance in the war; its location on the road from Homs to Damascus makes it key for supply routes. The Syrian regime's army had begun an offensive to retake the city Nov. 15.

Mother Agnes described it as “very dramatic,” and said that during the battle, her community was “out of communication. We are praying they remain safe, they have a kind of shelter. We have 50 people there, we hope that we will not hear bad news, we are very worried.”

During the conference held at St. Rafka, Mother Agnes said the monastery, since the war began, was “there to help people.” It continues to help liberate prisoners held for their beliefs, and provides refuge to displaced Muslims.

Mother Agnes was born in Lebanon, to a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father, who became a refugee in 1948 when Israel was created. She described herself as “a victim from the Palestinian conflict,” as well as the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and in which Syria was a participant.

She joined the Carmelites in 1971, and in 1992 received permission to serve the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Two years later, she travelled to Syria to begin establishing a monastic foundation, restoring the monastery, which dates to the 6th century.

Though it was at first hard to be in Syria, which had taken part in the civil war in her homeland, she said, “I have been converted, to talk now on behalf of the Syrian people; it is out of a conversion of love.”

“We’ve lived in Syria for 19 years; we have been, little by little, driven to know the Syrian people, and to love them, because we are serving them.”

At St. James the Mutilated monastery, she said, “we work for peace, for unity…we work for the unity of all the sons of Abraham, Jews Christians and Muslims.”

Qarah is an apt place to carry out this work for unity. The town has a history of coexistence between Christians and Muslims, and was once home to a Jewish community.

“It's a very antique village,” Mother Agnes told CNA. “The mosque was previously a church, and before that a temple; it was made a church by St. Helena. We have another church that was completely looted, where there are frescoes from the 11th century.”

Mother Agnes told the conference attendees that the “real victim” of the Syrian civil war is “the Syrian population … the ignored victim of the conflict,” whom she said “has completely attracted, and converted us.”

She recounted the story of meeting a mother whose son was long-disappeared during the war. After much waiting, the family finally received a call saying he would return, but the next day his body appeared, in a bag, mutilated and cut up.

“This kind of population, I would like to serve. And in our constitution, our rule of contemplative (life), our order, we have one article that says the necessity does not have a law; when something is a necessity, an emergency, there is no law.”

“My necessity, my emergency, is the Syrian people. I will help them, I am invested. Even though I am not Syrian, I have asked (for) Syrian citizenship,” she concluded.

“In the name of Christ I am completely dedicated to the cause of peace and reconciliation among the Syrian people, that's what I do.”

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Pope's words in interview may not have been his own, Scalfari says

Vatican City, Nov 21, 2013 (CNA) - Editor Eugenio Scalfari has conceded it is “really possible” that some of the Pope's words he reported in the interview published in La Repubblica Oct. 1 “were not shared by the Pope himself.”

Last month's interview led to several criticisms of Pope Francis, notably Scalfari quoting the Pope saying of conscience that “everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

According to Scalfari's reporting of Pope Francis' words, he also described the Roman Curia as a “leprosy.”

After the interview was published, Vatican press director Fr. Federico Lombardi maintained that the text was overall faithful to the Pope's thought, even though it could not be considered part of his Magisterium.

The interview was then published in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano Oct. 2, and was inserted among the Pope's speeches on the Vatican's website, translated in six languages.

In the weeks after its publication, however, the interview drew widespread criticism as well as doubts over the accuracy of the Pope's words.

The text was recently removed from the Vatican's website because “the information in the interview is reliable on a general level, but not on the level of each individual point analyzed,” Fr. Lombardi told journalists Nov. 15.

In a meeting with the journalists of the Foreign Press Association of Rome, Scalfari maintained that all his interviews have been conducted without a recording device, nor taking notes while the person is speaking.

“I try to understand the person I am interviewing, and after that I write his answers with my own words,” Scalfari explained.

He conceded that it is therefore possible that “some of the Pope’s words I reported, were not shared by Pope Francis.”

Scalfari recounted that after La Repubblica published two of his op-eds full of questions for Pope Francis, Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, substitute of the Vatican Secretariat of State, wrote him saying that Pope Francis had read his articles, and would, when time permitted, answer with a written text.

Scalfari responded to Archbishop Becciu, thanking for the attention and adding that he would prefer a face-to-face meeting with the Pope.

After a few weeks, Scalfari received a nine-page letter from Pope Francis, accompanied by an introduction written by Archbishop Becciu.

Scalfari phoned Pope Francis' residence at the Vatican, and told Monsignor Alfred Xuereb, the Pope's particular secretary, that he would publish the letter he had received, and did so Sept. 11.

The letter was published on La Repubblica Sep. 11 and Pope Francis then called Scalfari Sept. 20, and arranged a meeting for them, to be held Sept. 24, in the afternoon.

Scalfari said that at the end of the 80 minute conversation, he asked Pope Francis permission to report the conversation. The Pope agreed, and Scalfari offered to send him the text before its publication.

According to Scalfari, the Pope told him not to “waste time” in sending him the text, saying, “I trust you.”

Scalfari said he nevertheless sent his text of the conversation to the Vatican on Sept. 29, together with an accompanying letter.

In the letter, he reportedly wrote: “I must explain that I wrote up our conversation in order to let everybody understand our dialogue. Keep in mind that I did not report some things you told me, and that I report some things you did not tell me, which I wanted to insert to let the reader understand who you are.”

According to Scalfari, Monsignor Xuereb called him two days later, saying that Pope Francis had permitted its publication, and the text was subsequently published.

According to a Vatican source who spoke with CNA Nov. 19, the interview “had to be removed from the Vatican website since it did not report faithfully the Pope’s words.”

The source especially wanted to point out that “Pope Francis never referred to the Curia as a leprosy; he was making a more general assessment of the medieval courts. Pope Francis was very sorry that people in the curia felt uncomfortable with his words.”

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