Monday, March 31, 2008

Shreve Tuesday

This week's first US vacancy to fall comes tomorrow with the appointment of a new bishop for Louisana's diocese of Shreveport. The traditional warning shots have been firing off for some days now, with the latest sending word of the standard 10am press conference in the border diocese.

One of the nation's ten smallest local churches, the 40,000-member Shreveport see has awaited a new head since the December 2006 retirement of Bishop William Friend, who led it since 1986. Asked last week how to describe the Evangelical-dominated terrain there, one op tellingly replied that "Well, it's a lot like... Dallas."

As for the rest, see you at sunrise.

At present, nine US dioceses stand vacant, with another 12 headed by an ordinary serving past the age of 75 -- a combined figure slated to be lessened significantly in the fortnight leading up to B16's mid-month arrival.

For further reference, keep in mind that the timing of announcements these days is much more, er, mobile than it's been in the past... not wedded to the once-traditional Tuesday... with appointments well-able to drop on concurrent days of the same week.

As always, stay tuned... and be patient.


Martino for Mumia

Well, the locals'll really be interested in this one.

For longer than it hasn't, the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal -- the Philly journalist-cum-cabbie on long on Pennsylvania's death row for the 1981 shooting of a hometown cop, Ofc. Daniel Faulkner -- has been a heated topic 'round these parts... and far beyond.

Every so often, the local news flares up with the latest face-off between the slain officer's legion of supporters -- led by Faulkner's widow, Maureen -- and the curious catch-all of celebrities, death-penalty opponents and the French (who named a street for Abu-Jamal in a Paris suburb) who've in turns either alleged that the driver-scribe (born Wesley Cook) was framed, or simply protested the capital sentence handed down at a 1982 trial. In the quarter-century since, the case has wended its way through scores of appeals in both state and federal courts.

From his cell in a state prison, the target of Maureen Faulkner's recent book (the bluntly-titled Murdered by Mumia) has backed the movement in his name, recording commentaries, delivering a college commencement speech by videotape, even being invited to speak on NPR until protests forced the plan's cancellation in 1994.

In the case's latest strange twist, after a three-judge panel of Philly's Federal appeals court ruled last week that Abu-Jamal couldn't be put to death without a new sentencing hearing -- lacking which he'd simply serve a life sentence -- a statement praising the decision was prominently placed in the following day's editions of the Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano by the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Renato Martino.

CNS reports:
A U.S. appeals court decision to overturn the death sentence of Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a police officer in 1981, is a victory for human life, said Cardinal Renato Martino....

In an interview published on the front page of the Vatican newspaper... March 28, Cardinal Martino said: "Justice is not accomplished by punishing with another crime. For this reason, every death sentence not carried out is a victory for man and for life."

Cardinal Martino said the basis of all human rights is the right to life.

"Therefore, even the criminal who committed a crime has the right to live" and to have the possibility to make amends for his crime and to be rehabilitated, he said.

Pope Benedict XVI publicly has expressed his opposition to the death penalty on several occasions, the cardinal said.

"The death penalty does not fit into the concept of justice because the defense of life -- which goes from conception to natural death -- is preferred in every way by the Holy See," which is why the Vatican supports initiatives to abolish the death penalty, he said.
In the interview, the Italian cardinal reiterated the Holy See's support for the UN's proposed global moratorium on capital punishment, which has been abolished in 135 countries worldwide.

A recent set of stats reported that, in 2006, "91 per cent of all known executions took place in six countries: China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and the USA." Last week, however, for the first time since 1982 -- six years after the death penalty was reinstated on these shores -- the States marked six months without an execution.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Don Pietro's Build-A-Church Workshop

One of the notable backstories in the lead-up to next month's papal visit has been a significant clash of expectations... brought to you not by "the media," but jockeying emphases coming from within the church's own apparatus.

From the moment of its public announcement, the Holy See sought to present the 15-20 April Ratzipalooza as an invitation to renewal: "a new youthfulness, a new springtime, a new Pentecost" -- essentially, a relaunch of the American Catholic project after the most destabilizing moment in its history.

The US church "can make all things new in Christ, our hope!" went the emphatic first-day line. Somewhere along the way, however, more was suddenly made of the newness of Nationals Park, the energizing gifts of the Spirit forced to take a back seat (if not the trunk) to the sending-forth of tickets, teddy-bears, logos and the like.

They say that "if you want to do something right, do it yourself." And so, to restore B16's line to its rightful prominence, the lone voice keeping the Ratzi-as-revival message in the mix -- the papal nuncio to Washington Archbishop Pietro Sambi -- took his recent news-blitz to a new level with a long debut in the pages of today's New York Times... handling the questions with his usual sincerity and candor... but still getting the message out... and all without a single tchotchke in evidence.

Money quotes:
"The image of Benedict XVI is not only not well known, but it is badly known," said Sambi, who as apostolic nuncio is the Vatican's top diplomat in the United States.

"He is known as an intransigent man, almost an inhuman man," the archbishop said of Benedict in an interview at the Vatican Embassy in Washington. "It will be enough to listen to him to change completely the idea of this tough, this inhuman person."...

"He is not a man of blah, blah, blah," Archbishop Sambi said. "He's a thinker, and before speaking, he thinks. And he prays a lot."...

The timing, said Sambi, is intended to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the dioceses of New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Bardstown, Kentucky, the seat of the first inland diocese. It is also 200 years since the nation's first Catholic diocese, Baltimore, was elevated to an archdiocese.

Although the pope is arriving in the midst of a presidential election, Sambi said, "I can assure you that the pope will not at all interfere with the electoral process. He will not meet with any of the candidates."

But it is likely that Benedict will touch on issues germane to the election: poverty, the war in Iraq, abortion and euthanasia, gay marriage, environmental degradation and immigrants.

Some of those issues will probably arise in his address to the United Nations. Abortion is an expected topic when he meets with young Roman Catholics, some severely disabled, at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers.

Benedict has spoken before on how Catholic teaching applies to all of these issues.

Sambi said, "The pope will speak about the doctrine of the Church, which was established 2,000 years ago, much before there was any Democratic or Republican party of the United States."...

This is the first papal visit since Catholics in the United States suffered an abuse scandal that revealed thousands of victims, devastated families and parishes, demoralized priests, cost the church more than $2 billion so far and left five dioceses bankrupt....

Sambi said he was confident that Benedict will speak of the scandal during the visit.

The subject could come up at a meeting and prayer service with American bishops in Washington. It was initially billed as private, but is now open to the media. The archbishop said, "If it would have been closed-door, can you imagine the fantasy of the journalists to invent what they don't know? Better to be open."...

Sambi demurred when asked whether the pope's speeches will be vetted, and if so by whom, saying, "All this is an internal matter."

He shared a letter he wrote last month to monasteries throughout the country, asking nuns, monks, priests and brothers to each adopt an event on the papal itinerary and pray for its success.

They should pray, he wrote, that the pope's visit produce "a new youthfulness, a new springtime" for the church in the United States.
Sound familiar? Anyone?

A veteran of papal diplomacy, B16's dispatching of the "Super-Nuncio" to the global superpower was, in keeping with a half-century Vatican tradition, one of the new Pope's first personal stamps on his top foreign service team. Before arriving on Massachusetts Avenue in March 2006, Sambi headed the Vatican missions in Burundi, Indonesia, and his beloved Holy Land, where he arranged John Paul II's historic weeklong pilgrimage in 2000.

The son and brother of elementary-school teachers, his lesson in practice has been a simple one: that for all the current fixations on new technologies, seeing points into print and proactive press-strategies, what the "pros" have sometimes tended to lose along the way is the awareness that the church's most crucial message-asset can never be found in a budget, a sound-byte, flashy tools nor any number of institutional imperatives, but only in the same place it's always been -- the low-tech, inexpensive yet inestimable allure that can only come from the believing, believable human voice. 

In that light, and perhaps intentionally -- that is, in the one (Bavarian-born) mind that counts -- Benedict's man on Massachusetts just so happens to be the Stateside church's lead communicator these days. That comes thanks to an effectiveness not born of specialized training, ecclesial status, self-promotion or lengthy experience -- sooner or later, these all fail -- but simply because, on every beat under the sun, whenever The Message can be seen as truly defining its messenger (to a degree even Deepak Chopra finds himself drawn to), a light goes up... and don't be fooled: now more than ever, everyone -- "the media" included -- is looking for the light in our midst.

The means of letting it shine might be different for each one of us, but the task -- the vocation -- is always the same: to be a "living gospel." As they say in TV, "if it ain't live, it didn't happen"... and whenever it is live and the lights are on, the rest effortlessly falls into place. Always. 

As for the trip's "script," the product is already effectively "in the can"... and not just for Benedict, whose English might be in for a quick buff around the edges before he heads on his first visit as Pope to an Anglophone environment. Among others, a top native hierarch scheduled to toast the pontiff over a private meal had to submit his intended text for approval.

The Spirit might make us free and give us life... but this Pentecost'll be going light on the tongues. 

PHOTO: Interfaith Forum of Metropolitan Washington


The Quality of Mercy

On this "Divine Mercy Sunday" -- the annual feast instituted by John Paul II to honor the visions of the Polish mystic Sr Faustina Kowaklska, who the late pontiff canonized -- Benedict XVI paid tribute to his predecessor and the devotion at today's Regina Caeli:

“Mercy,’ said Benedict XVI, ‘is in reality the core of the Evangelical message; it is the name of God itself, the face with which He revealed Himself in the Ancient Covenant and fully in Jesus Christ, incarnation of Creative and Redemptive Love. This love of mercy illuminates the face of the Church as well, and manifests itself via the Sacraments, in particular that of the Reconciliation, and charity, community and individual works. All that the Church says and does is a manifestation of God’s mercy for man. When the Church has to reiterate an unrecognised truth or a good thing that was betrayed, it does so driven by a merciful love that men may have life and have it more abundantly (cf Jn, 10:10). From Divine Mercy, which pacifies the hearts, comes true peace in the world, peace among different peoples, cultures and religions.”

It was thanks to John Paul II that the second Sunday of Easter (Dominica in Albis) became the ‘Sunday of Divine Mercy’. “This occurred at the same time as the canonisation of Faustina Kowalska, a humble Polish nun born in 1905 who died in 1938, a zealous messenger of the Merciful Jesus.”

“Like Sister Faustina,” the Pope added, “John Paul II was several times the Apostle of Divine Mercy. That unforgettable Saturday, 2 April 2005, when he closed his eyes to this world, was the eve of the Second Sunday of Easter, and many noted the singular coincidence with its Marian dimension, that of being the first Saturday of the month and that of Divine Mercy. In effect the heart of his long and multifaceted pontificate lies in that; his entire mission in the service of the truth about God and man and peace in the world is summarised in this announcement, which he made himself in Krakow-Łagiewniki in 2002, when he inaugurated the Shrine of Divine Mercy: ‘[A]part from the mercy of God there is no other source of hope for mankind.’ His message, like that of St Faustina’s, leads back to the face of Christ, the supreme revelation of God’s mercy. Constantly contemplating that face, that is the heritage he left us, and which we welcome and make our own with joy.”

While Benedict's Sunday liturgy took place in his private chapel, Papa Ratzi sent his Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB, to celebrate a Mercy Sunday Mass at Santo Spirito, Rome's Polish parish.

Mercy's a year-round theme there; the community has become rather famous for its annual tradition of including a figure of Faustina -- one of the most popular 20th century saints -- in its Christmas creche.

PHOTO: AsiaNews


"Never Be the Same"

The thought might console the many folks consumed for the better part of a year with pulling off the next papal visit to these shores, but over a lunch a few weeks back, your narrator was reminded that the first news of the newly-elected John Paul II's intent to make a six-city Stateside trek in October 1979 was announced to the host-dioceses with all of... six weeks notice.

No joke -- plans were announced days later, in the final yawn of August, a mere 37 days before the late Great landed at Boston's Logan Airport.

How times have changed. But clearly, when Wojtyla told his longtime co-conspirator at a post-election dinner that "We have to get together to sing Goralu" -- the bittersweet mountaineer's song he loved so much -- he meant it.

Amid this week's confluence of the third anniversary of John Paul's death -- which B16 will observe on Wednesday morning with a huge open-air Mass in St Peter's Square -- and the reigning pontiff's upcoming US trip, it's a good moment to look back on the five visits JP made to these shores, the first of which took place under a dearth of security that, given today's circumstances, is nothing less than eye-popping.

Over the course of the pilgrimages, their cumulative list of stops would seem to include more places than were left out: Boston, Philly, Chicago, DC, New York (twice), Baltimore, Phoenix, New Orleans, Miami, LA, Detroit, Brooklyn, Newark and the Meadowlands (in the midst of a monsoon), Des Moines, San Antonio, Anchorage, South Carolina, San Fran, Fairbanks, Monterey, St Louis and Denver (scene of the triumphant World Youth Day in 1993).

All told, millions of Yanks turned out for some of the largest gatherings in American history, the last of which -- 1999's St Louis Mass before 110,000 in the then-TransWorld Dome -- remains the largest indoor event this nation has ever known.

And, well, what better way to recall the guy his own spokesman termed the "Pope of Images" than with video?

Arriving on the DC campus of the Catholic University of America during his lone trip to the capital, John Paul held a mini-World Youth Day, addressing the gathered students on the steps of "Mary's House"...

(Part II.)

...and, of course, no memory of JP in America would be complete without Tony Melendez -- the guitarist born without arms who played for the pontiff during his 1987 stop in LA.

At a 2003 concert marking John Paul's silver jubilee, Melendez told the story of his encounter with the Pope at a youth rally (with footage):

Suffice it to say, far from the camera's lens, an even greater mass of memories from those visits remains well and alive out there.

One Saturday morning in middle-school, while jogging around the printing plant of the Philly papers -- my Dad's office -- I struck up a chat with one of the security guards who, as it turned out, had once been involved in constructing the altar for a papal liturgy.

The crew watched from the sidelines as the event proceeded, not expecting to be singled out in any sort of way. At the Mass' close, however, the Pope expressed his wish to meet those whose work made the celebration possible. So, one by one, each got to meet John Paul, say a word or two, and was given a rosary as a memento of the experience.

"He just wanted to thank us," the guy said, still in a sort of disbelief that the Pope would want to do such a thing. A non-Catholic, he added that while he "never really understood your church" before that, "I've admired it ever since."

As he vividly recalled the experience -- clearly not the kind of thing he got to talk about every day -- it seemed he was going to start weeping or something.

The guard still belonged to and cherished his Evangelical church... but even so, he let slip that the papal rosary was still, hands down, his most cherished possession.

And lastly, from the "deja vu" file, the well-noted story goes that a young cleric on the altar for one Stateside PopeMass decided to do it up for the occasion and don a lace alb... which was all well and good until, bounding up the steps to the platform, the lace ripped.

So he wouldn't trip in the course of the worship and suddenly in a panic, the guy had to find an inconspicuous place... and, to his great sadness, tear the frilly portion off.

Lest anyone feel tempted to do the same this time around, have fun... but just be careful.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Recycling the Sacred

From yesterday's New York Times, a look at an increasing practice as the church's presence shifts from its old city bastions: the "repatriation" or "adoption" of objects from shuttered urban parishes into the new mega-churches of the suburbs and beyond.
The Roman Catholic churches stand 66 miles apart, one in the center of Harlem, the other on 82 acres between a farm and a hunting club in this rural hamlet in Dutchess County.

The Harlem church, St. Thomas the Apostle, is an exquisite piece of neo-Gothic architecture, its spiky terra-cotta crown resembling a wedding cake. Finished in 1907, the church first served Irish parishioners and then a black congregation that waned and withered, its Sunday Mass sparsely attended, its building in dire need of repairs, until closing in 2003. Now it faces demolition.

The church here, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, is still under construction, modest in appearance yet impressive in size. It will have a steel frame, a bluish stone facade and seats for 1,200 people — four times the number that can fit in the church it will replace, which in recent years has rapidly run out of space for its growing flock of New York City transplants.

The two churches are connected by 12 stained-glass windows from Germany depicting New Testament scenes, which have graced St. Thomas for a century and will soon surround the altar at Blessed Kateri....

Church law prohibits the sale of such religious items and calls for their disposal only if they are damaged beyond repair, so the recent wave of closings presented a problem: What to do with all the stuff — some of it beautiful, much of it quite worn — behind the churches’ padlocked doors.

There are similar programs in other parts of the country, most with elaborate safeguards, including password-protected Web sites open only to priests, and storage areas equipped with surveillance cameras and alarms.

“The last thing you want is to find one of those pieces in some antique shop or on eBay,” said Msgr. Louis A. D’Addezio of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, whose artifact-swap program was set up in 1991, one of the first in the nation.
(Eds. Note: Mankind's pre-eminent impresario of pilgrimages, parades, liturgies and ecclesiastical spectacle of every sort, the longtime master-builder of the Pharaohs -- who, legend has it, sent motorcycles running down aisles as part of a 1970s high-school production of Grease -- is venerated 'round these parts under the moniker "Cecil B. D'Addezio."

(River City might not've landed the Big One this time, but may the world one day know what Lou D'Addezio could do with a papal visit. Suffice it to say, you'd never forget the experience. And that'd just be his Pre-Game Show.)
Often, the items move from a shuttered church to an active one without much notice or protest. But there are times when those transfers end up entangled in legal disputes, as was the case with the windows from St. Thomas.

In 2004, former St. Thomas parishioners sued the Archdiocese of New York to keep it from razing their church, arguing that they should have a say on what happens to the property. Politicians asked preservation officials to grant the church landmark status, and a descendant of the German windows’ maker wrote a letter to the archdiocese, calling the proposed demolition of St. Thomas a “barbaric act.”
“We were trying to prevent what’s been a house of worship and architectural icon for more than a century from being picked apart and destroyed,” said Eric V. Tait Jr., 68, a former altar boy at St. Thomas who has helped lead the fight to save the church, which is on West 118th Street near St. Nicholas Avenue. The church is still standing, but its future is doubtful.

In most cases, once church officials decide to close a parish, workers visit the building to catalog what is inside, photographing the objects, noting their origin and artistic or religious significance. Priests are allowed to give small items to other priests, preferably from neighboring parishes; whatever is not distributed is wrapped and stored in empty convents, schoolhouses or warehouses.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese, which has closed 22 churches since 1992, opens its storage vault once a month for two hours, and priests from all over have come by to look at the offerings. “We’ve placed items in Florida, Delaware, Nebraska and in New Mexico,” Monsignor D’Addezio said.

Two years ago, the Archdiocese of Newark hired an architectural historian, Troy Simmons, to manage its property. The job includes retrieving the artwork and sacred items that had been left inside closed churches there, some of which had been locked for decades.

“We found these beautiful oil paintings gathering dust under the stairs at St. John’s Church in Newark, probably since the church’s renovation in the 1960s,” Mr. Simmons said as he stood in a second-floor room at a former convent in East Orange, N.J., where the paintings are stored behind locked doors.

“There are treasures like this hidden all around,” he said.

PHOTOS: Michelle Agins and Christian Fraser/The New York Times


Vann Johnston, Van Nuys and Vatican Nuncios -- March (Ordination) Madness Grips US Church

Suffice it to say, folks, when it rains... it pours.

After more than three months without episcopal ordinations on these shores, we're in the midst of a hat-trick -- Four Days. Three ceremonies. Coast-to-coast.

(On top of a Houston cathedral. And, of course, The Main Event.)

Two have already taken place, the first of which came on "Bright Thursday," when Bishop Gerald Dino was ordained to lead California's Ruthenian eparchy of Van Nuys. Due to the small size of the 3,000-member fold's churches and its immense territorial boundaries, the rite took place not at Dino's SoCal cathedral, but a Latin-rite parish in Glendale, Arizona.

Previously protosyncellos -- the Eastern-church equivalent of vicar-general -- in his native eparchy of Passaic, the New York-born Dino, 68, was appointed in December to succeed Bishop William Skurla, who was transferred to lead the Jersey see. Also a parish priest back home at the time of his promotion, both Latin and Eastern-church delegations of Dino's Garden State crew went West to join in the festivities.

With its US headquarters in Pittsburgh, the Ruthenian church -- a Byzantine rite with roots in present-day Slovakia -- counts about 100,000 members in the States spread across four dioceses. Established in 1981, the Van Nuys eparchy encompasses 19 parishes in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

* * *

As previously mentioned, the second of the trio took place this morning at Birmingham's St Paul Cathedral, as Archbishop Joseph Marino's big day gave Alabama the first bishop-making it had seen in exactly two decades; the last was Bishop Raymond Boland's ordination and installation in the same sanctuary on 25 March 1988.

According to local reports, an overflow crowd of 1,000-plus "crammed into every corner" of the "EWTN diocese's" mother church to cheer on the native-son, a veteran papal diplomat named nuncio to Bangladesh in January, the first Southerner to become a bishop in the service of the Holy See.

Led by principal consecrator Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, eight high-hats were in attendance, including Archbishops Timothy Broglio of the Military Services (lately nuncio to the Dominican Republic), Vatican observer to the UN Celestino Migliore, and B'ham's last three ordinaries: Boland, David Foley and current Bishop Robert "No More Whispers" Baker.

Explaining his decision to be ordained among his own as opposed to the customary venue of St Peter's, the new archbishop said that the Magic City "is my home" and that he "wanted to be with my friends and family."

"I'm overwhelmed," Marino told reporters at the close of the two-hour liturgy.

* * *
On Monday -- this year's transferred Annunciation Day -- the final leg of the circuit will take place when Bishop-elect Vann Johnston takes the reins of the rural Missouri diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.

The first-ever Knoxvillean to get a ring and staff, Johnston, 48, was named in January to succeed Bishop John Leibrecht, whose retirement was accepted 30 months after reaching the mandatory age of 75. Head of the 65,000-member diocese since 1984, Leibrecht is the first SoMo bishop to retire from the post; each of his predecessors had been transferred elsewhere, including two who eventually became cardinals: William Wakefield Baum and Bernard Francis Law.

A veteran hiker, the local talk is that the incoming bishop's favored pastime will come in handy... as he's got to hit the ground running:

Quiet time will be a rare commodity for the new bishop. He will be taking over Leibrecht's calendar, which is "pretty full," said Monsignor Tom Reidy, chancellor of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau Diocese....

The first Sunday as bishop, he will be in Nixa for the weekend to celebrate several Masses and confirm new members to St. Francis of Assisi parish.

"They will be among the first people to get to know him," said Mark Boyer, pastor of the Nixa church. "They're excited."

Getting to know the people in a diocese that covers more than 25,000 square miles and stretches from Joplin in the west and Cape Girardeau to the east will take time and plenty of travel. There are two cathedrals, in Springfield and Cape Girardeau, separated by 250 miles.

Johnston sees a lot of similarity between the Knoxville and Springfield-Cape Girardeau dioceses. "The church seems to be sort of cut from the same type of cloth," he said. "I know there are characteristics of each ... but I find the similarities attractive."

If Johnston follows in Leibrecht's footsteps, he will be traveling a lot, visiting the diocese's 66 parishes, 18 missions, 23 elementary schools and three high schools.

The outgoing ordinary will be a principal co-consecrator alongside Johnston's mentor and former boss, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, with the local metropolitan, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St Louis, serving as ordaining prelate.

Scheduled to begin at 2.30pm local time (1930 UTC) in Springfield's convention center, Monday's rites will be streamed live via the diocesan site.

PHOTOS: Beverly Taylor/
Birmingham News(1-3); Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau(4)


All Done

Already hailed as "a Houston landmark," yesterday saw the first official preview of the city's new Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, which'll be dedicated on Wednesday before 60 hierarchs and a very lucky crowd of close to 2,000.

To mark the occasion -- which the regional media has treated as an earth-altering event and then some -- today's hometown Chronicle contains a full package on the festivities.

As Cardinal Daniel DiNardo consecrates the $65 million de facto hub of his 1.5 million-member archdiocese, Texas' oldest and the largest in the South, fellow neo-porporato Cardinal John Foley will be present... in the friendly confines of the commentator's booth.

Yet even for all the red in evidence -- and the local hopes that Purple Rain will fall during the celebrations -- Dedication Day will rightfully belong to the project's "mastermind": founding Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, a native son and once a curate at the heretofore co-cathedral, who said in an interview that the "tremendous [i.e quadruple] growth of the archdiocese in the last two decades" necessitated "a new cathedral that would be sufficiently large for us to gather a large number of our people for the important moments in the life of the church." But even so, despite all the pizazz of the new building, the paper reminds that the official seat of the booming local church remains 50 miles south, in "the cradle" of Texas Catholicism: Galveston's St Mary's Basilica.

The first US mother-church to be dedicated since LA's Our Lady of the Angels in 2002, the Houston cathedral is one of two opening its doors this year; the other, Oakland's Christ the Light, will be inaugurated in late September.

Never to be outdone, the Chron's coverage is capped by an extensive photo gallery from über-photog Smiley Pool, who memorably gave the Vatican shutterbugs quite a run for their money during DiNardo's Thanksgiving Weekend elevation to the "papal senate."

Sia lodato Smiley... and congrats to everyone in H-Town.

SVILUPPO: In its Sunday editions, the paper adds an in-depth graphic detailing the building's aspects, a chron of its construction process... and the video you now see above.

VIDEO: Smiley N. Pool/Houston Chronicle


Friday, March 28, 2008

First and Forever

For any ecclesiastical history buff, one of life's great pilgrimages is entering into the American church's "holy of holies": the "Gibbons Room" in the residence of the archbishops of Baltimore.

Added onto 408 N. Charles St in the 1870s, the room is the newest section of Stateside Catholicism's answer to the White House. In the days when the Premier See's shepherds also acted as the Holy See's delegate to the national church, the various provincial councils and regular meetings of the nation's archbishops -- the precursor to today's episcopal conference -- took place within its walls, alongside gatherings ranging from diplomatic receptions to the stream of humanity, great and small alike, who would come to see "The Cardinal" during his daily calling hours.

The spirits almost fill the room there. A late-life portrait of Gibbons in his choir robes hangs across the room from the throne used for the sitting. The chair of John Carroll, the first American bishop, holds a place of honor. And flanking the fireplace, the twin croziers made for Carroll and his successor, Ambrose Marechal, stand guard facing each other, fixed to the wall.

What keeps the room alive, however, is that its history is never static.

Copies of Arimaic manuscripts from the early church sit on a credence table. A bust of the only pontiff to cross its threshold holds down a corner, alongside some photos (shot by the 14th archbishop) of John Paul II hovering over a Denver crowd in Marine One, the presidential chopper. And in an addition echoing the spirit of the room's very namesake -- who, in his time, was once publicly blessed by a rabbi as "holy unto the Lord" -- its sense of antiquity is enhanced by its lone modern-day touch: a menorah with six candlesticks, each depicting a human figure to represent one million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

This year's center stage might belong to the four suffragans which mark the bicentennial of their founding. Lest anyone forget, however, the American Catholic project was born in Baltimore, where Carroll -- the founding pastor of the new nation -- became America's archbishop on 8 April 1808 as his charge was carved up with the establishment of new dioceses at Bardstown, Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

Since Charm City had the spotlight all to itself in 1989 as the archdiocese -- and, by extension, the American hierarchy -- celebrated its bicentennial with a papal legate and the first plenary of the nation's bishops there in a century, this anniversary will be a quieter one. But as history always lives in Baltimore, the event will go far from unnoticed.

Plans for the metropolitan milestone were unveiled this morning by Carroll's 14th successor, Archbishop Edwin O'Brien, in the Basilica of the Assumption -- the cathedral Carroll envisioned, yet didn't live to see completed.

The centerpiece of the festivities is slated for the weekend following the anniversary, with a Sunday morning Mass in the nation's mother-church, followed by the unveiling of a bust of O'Brien's predecessor, Cardinal William Keeler.

Archbishop from 1989 until his retirement last year, Keeler -- the keen historian who prophetically pushed for the basilica's comprehensive restoration -- will be the fourth archbishop so honored. Memorials to Gibbons and Carroll have long stood in the church's transepts, and the cardinal's bust will be placed in the nave opposite that of Baltimore's "middle" cardinal, the Council-era giant Lawrence Shehan. Poignantly, though, as Carroll, Gibbons and Shehan were each born and bred in the Premier See, Keeler -- whose tenure breathed new life into the "Maryland tradition" of his predecessors -- is the first non-native prelate to receive the accolade.

Just as Gibbons once proclaimed that he "love[d] every stone" of the Assumption, while his cardinal-disciple has found a new energy following his retirement, Keeler has long indicated his wish to be buried in the basilica crypt alongside Carroll, "The Cardinal" and six of the other archbishops. Since the "New Cathedral" of Mary Our Queen opened in 1958 with its own crypt, no Baltimore prelate has been laid to rest beneath Carroll's cathedral. But no worries about that anytime soon. Charmopolis makes for long and happy living; just ask the 13th head of the Premier See, Archbishop William Borders, who's still up and kickin' at 94... and a half.

Both the 12 April Bicentennial Mass and bust ceremony are open to the public. The day before, an exhibit on the archdiocese's history will open at the nation's first seminary -- St Mary's, now located in the city's Roland Park. And right on the heels the papal visit, the basilica will host a lecture on Carroll from the nation's best-known prelate-historian: Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, the last student of John Tracy Ellis (and O'Brien's predecessor as rector of the Pontifical North American College).

Due to the difficulties of Transatlantic travel, exacerbated by the blockades of the Napoleonic Wars, Carroll never received his pallium despite living for nearly eight years after his elevation. Having headed the nation's lone non-metropolitan archbishopric -- the Military Services -- for a decade, O'Brien can well associate... that is, until June, when the Premier See's 15th head finally receives the woolen band symbolizing "the fullness of the episcopal office" on the solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul from Pope Benedict.

On next month's papal visit, the Bronx-born "first among equals" of the American hierarchy will have an altar-spot alongside the pontiff and the other "bicentennial bishops" at Yankee Stadium, a stone's throw from his boyhood home.

* * *

Speaking of American archbishops, the latest members of the group are less bound to Baltimore than... Alabama.

Tomorrow morning, the newly named papal nuncio to Bangladesh, Archbishop-elect Joseph Marino, will be ordained to the episcopacy at St Paul's Cathedral in his hometown of Birmingham. A 20-year veteran of the Holy See's diplomatic corps, Marino, 55, is the first native Southerner made a bishop in the Vatican's direct service.

As a tribute to his home region, Marino was assigned the titular see of Natchitoches, the Louisiana diocese whose seat was moved to Alexandria in 1910. Though most archbishop-nuncios are ordained by the cardinal-secretary of state, given the venue Marino's rites will be presided over by his former boss Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, now president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

Then, as soon as next week, the Pope is expected to appoint a new archbishop of Mobile to succeed the venerable native son Oscar Lipscomb, the nation's longest-serving metropolitan, who reached the retirement age of 75 in September 2006. Multiple sources report that the nod will fall to the senior suffragan of the province, Bishop Thomas Rodi of Biloxi.

A native New Orleanean who turned 59 yesterday, Rodi led the rebuilding of Mississippi's Gulf Coast diocese following Hurricane Katrina. The Mobile appointment is one of several to be announced before B16's 15 April arrival in Washington.

PHOTOS: Maryland Historical Society (1,5); Archives of the Archdiocese of Baltimore(2); Doug Kasputin and Angelina Perna/Baltimore Sun(3,4)


Thursday, March 27, 2008

PopeTrip'08: The Lost Prefaces

With the Popemobile already en route and 18 days to go 'til the Volo Papale goes wheels-down in DC, most of us have come across some very authoritative pronouncements of late enlightening the masses as to "Who Benedict Is" or "What The Pope Will Say" on the impending trip.

No question, this has told us many things. First, it's indicated that the interest in the coming visit has been very wide; the media coverage, very fair, even very positive... and that the burgeoning cottage industry of ecclesiastical pundits (seemingly, like Flintstone's vitamins, "10 million strong... and growing") very often appears less interested in the Pope's playbook than addressing its own issues.

Of course, that's very helpful for those who'd like to know how talking heads feel about things. As for capturing Ratzi's mind and message, well....

You see, far from the din of speculation and the barrels of ink, there lies a practically untapped source of no small value: the messages Benedict and his team of top aides have already crafted specifically for American audiences over the course of his pontificate.

Yes, such a collection of texts actually does exist. No, it isn't under some sort of pontifical secret -- but if you've been reading much of the coverage out there lately, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was.

For all practical purposes, the small ring of key texts has been surprisingly, regrettably, invisible. And of them all, none has been more neglected than an intervention scripted with the PopeTrip directly in its sights... even though, on delivery, less than a handful knew it.

Should anyone be curious, it wasn't spoken by stealth in some Roman backroom, but on American soil -- and in prime-time, no less.

Early last August, three weeks before ten of the nation's top prelates met in Washington for a classified first briefing on the visit plans, Benedict's top lieutenant -- the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone -- delivered an hourlong speech at the 125th Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus in Nashville.

For the record, we'll be seeing a lot of Bertone during the six-day trek; when the pontiff emerges from his plane at Andrews Air Force Base, the colorful Salesian cardinal dubbed the "Vice-Pope" will appear just over his boss' shoulder, and won't be much farther behind the rest of the time. (Hence the reported addition of not one, but two new bathrooms at one of the papal lodgings for the upcoming visit.)

Cardinal Ratzinger's longtime #2 at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the former archbishop of Genoa -- a sporadic soccer commentator for Italian TV once tasked with leading the Vatican offensive against The DaVinci Code -- is widely acknowledged as the most influential "prime minister" the Holy See has known in nearly a century, precisely because of his bond with Benedict. What's more, since his arrival in the Apostolic Palace in September 2006 -- a move that shook up the Roman Curia as few top appointments in memory -- the 73 year-old cardinal has made little effort to conceal the vast scope of his brief, serving in turns as this pontificate's chief spokesman, loyalty enforcer, designated deputy, COO of the church's central administration and, most prominently, the travel-aversive Pope's globe-trotting emissary, most recently on concurrent swings to Armenia and Azerbaijan and, of course, a highly-publicized trek to Cuba late last month.

Yet despite his lacking English, it was Opryland that marked Bertone's first major turn on the road.

Benedict had been invited to send a representative of his choosing to preside at the KofC's 125th, and it was a surprise to almost everyone when, in late June -- barely six weeks before the convention's opening -- word came that the Secretary of State would fill the slot during the month when the the peak-season tourists are the only people milling around inside the Vatican walls.

(To put the scenario in perspective, the church's second-in-command hadn't been dispatched on a US mission since 2000, when Bertone's predecessor Cardinal Angelo Sodano celebrated the funeral of Cardinal John O'Connor in St Patrick's Cathedral as a personal sign of John Paul II's affection for the late archbishop of New York. Before that, you'd have to go back to 1989 to find a SegStat's last official jaunt to America as Cardinal Agostino Casaroli represented the Polish Pope to lead the festivities for the American hierarchy's bicentennial in Baltimore.)

Clearly, Benedict's tapping his right-hand man was, as they say, "kind of a big deal." Yet while the common perception at the time was that Bertone had been chosen simply as an unmistakable tribute to the 1.7 million-member Knights' staunch and prodigious support of the works of the Holy See, only later did it become evident that the pontiff entrusted his top collaborator with an even larger task than conveying the Vatican's appreciation and esteem for the church's largest fraternal order.

Indeed, with mid-April already blocked out on his calendar, Bertone was sent to prepare the American stage for the Pope himself.

To that end, the cardinal-secretary didn't just come bearing the customary thanks and papal message for the KofC's milestone anniversary, but a major address of his own to the nation and the US church, delivered before a multi-tiered dais of 30 cardinals and bishops and broadcast in prime-time via EWTN.

While Bertone's text was described the following day as the centerpiece of Benedict's "American playbook," little did anyone realize how quickly the blueprint would become front-page news.

Five weeks later, the first leak of the April visit's plans broke on these pages. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or the near-term future.

Whatever the case, the Nashville address can be found below in its full English translation (emphases original). All apologies to those who've complained about the length of posts, but for the benefit of those interested in gleaning what the Pope might just say in the States, another look at the tone and substance of his alter ego's "lost preface," delivered with next month's visit well in the planning, is far from a bad place to start.

You've got the backstory, gang. And now... just read closely.

* * *
Address of
His Eminence Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, S.D.B.
Secretary of State of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
August 8, 2007
Knights of Columbus 125th Supreme Convention

First of all, allow me once again to express my sincere gratitude to Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson and fellow Knights for the invitation to visit Nashville for this historic 125th Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus. I am honored by the opportunity to address all of you this evening on a topic as dear to me as it is to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI: “Faith in Action: Witnessing to the ‘Yes’ of Jesus Christ.”

This evening, I will reflect on the importance of this “Yes” for the Church’s lay faithful. I will indicate some of the primary characteristics of the lay vocation within the Church and in society at large, and I will point to a few particular challenges facing the laity today.

Both in his work as a theologian and now in his ministry as the successor of Peter, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly drawn attention to the distinctive and irreplaceable role of the laity in the renewal of the Church’s mission in the modern world. At 78 years of age, Pope Benedict said “Yes” to his brother cardinals, to the Church, and to the Holy Spirit when he was asked to accept the Petrine ministry after the long and remarkable reign of the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II. The Holy Father’s willingness to assume pastoral duties as Chief Shepherd of the universal Church bore witness to the fundamental attitude required of every Christian – Pope, Bishop, priest, consecrated, or lay person; it is the disposition exemplified in our Lady’s humble but sure response to the Lord’s heavenly messenger in Nazareth: “Fiat!” – “Yes!”

The “Yes!” of Faith in Jesus Christ

But what exactly is the essence of this “Yes”? More specifically, how is one to live it out as a member of the laity?

In regard to the first question, this “Yes” is quite simply the “Yes” of faith. It is our full, unmitigated acceptance of Jesus as Lord and our commitment to follow him as master and teacher. Indeed, the word “Yes” only makes sense within the context of a dialog between two persons: someone who utters the “Yes” and someone who accepts it. In the case of faith, the person to whom we utter this “Yes” is none other than the Son of God, the Anointed One, the Eternal Word made flesh. Pope Benedict has emphasized the critical need for each of us to encounter Jesus; more importantly, he has shown and continues to show – both in his words and through his life – that true fulfilment, joy, and lasting peace can only be found by saying “Yes” to God’s plan of salvation as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Only in intimate communication with the incarnate Son of God do we discover the grace to “put our faith into action.”

Your founder Father Michael McGivney was prophetic – indeed, well ahead of his time – in that he clearly understood that this complete and total “Yes” to Christ was in no way exclusive to those who received holy orders or had taken religious vows. On the contrary, it is a “Yes” required of every man and every woman.

As a young curate at Saint Mary’s Church in New Haven, Father McGivney became keenly aware of the laity’s need to be actively and fully engaged in the life of the Church by exercising virtue, cultivating prayer, and caring for others. He had a deep appreciation for the special characteristics of the lay vocation as being thoroughly immersed in the spheres of the family, civil society, and public life. He made it his goal to develop practical ways of ensuring that faith could be put into concrete action: especially by providing for the material needs of orphans, widows, the imprisoned, alcoholics, the unemployed, and the destitute.

However, it is sometimes easy to forget that Father McGivney’s conviction was based on an even more fundamental insight: namely, that our concern for the needy and our perseverance in charitable works will eventually become attenuated and deprived of their deeper meaning if they are not rooted in faith – faith understood as the indwelling of Holy Trinity in our hearts through divine grace as we renew our “Yes” each day to the person of Jesus Christ.

Faith and Love

This is precisely the message Pope Benedict XVI conveys through his Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est. When asked why he devoted his first Encyclical to the theme of love, he replied that he wished to manifest the humanity of the faith. Only by living the life of faith – that is, only by deeply immersing ourselves in the love and mercy of God as revealed in Jesus Christ – are we able to love and forgive our neighbor as ourselves. When it comes to living this faith in the midst of an increasingly complex and contradictory world, no one knows more about the obstacles and challenges that can so easily discourage us than the Church’s laity. Whether in family life, in the workplace, or in the public square, lay persons are continually tempted to compromise their “Yes” to God by diluting Gospel values and by placing limits or conditions on love of neighbor.

The Holy Father underlined the unique challenges posed by the contemporary world to the lay vocation during his Pastoral Visit to Brazil. Noting that America is a “continent of baptized Christians,” he asserted that “it is time to overcome the notable absence – in the political sphere, in the world of the media and in the universities – of the voices and initiatives of Catholic leaders with strong personalities and generous dedication, who are coherent in their ethical and religious convictions.” The Pope insisted strongly that it is necessary for Christians who are active in these social and cultural milieus to strive to safeguard ethical values. Above all, he said, “Where God is absent – God with the human face of Jesus Christ – these values fail to show themselves with their full force, nor does a consensus arise concerning them. I do not mean that non-believers cannot live a lofty and exemplary morality; I am only saying that a society in which God is absent will not find the necessary consensus on moral values or the strength to live according to the model of these values, even when they are in conflict with private interests.” In short, being a Catholic in the world today takes courage; yet it takes no more courage than it did when Jesus called his first disciples in Galilee.

The role of the lay faithful: Vatican II and Benedict XVI

The Holy Father frames his teaching on the role of the laity within the context of the Second Vatican Council, and interweaves it in an unbroken line with the teaching of Pope John Paul II. The guiding principle is always the same: namely the “universal call to holiness.”

“It is quite clear,” the Council fathers teach us, “that all Christians in whatever state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” Insofar as it is a call to holiness, the call to the lay state is no less a “vocation” than that of the priesthood or religious life. It has its own distinctive nature, which is absolutely essential to the healthy, overall functioning of the Body of Christ, the Church. Lumen Gentium explains: “It is the special vocation of the laity to seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will.”

Clearly, if lay persons are to “carry out” and “develop” temporal matters according to “Christ’s way,” they must first know Christ. They must take seriously Saint Paul’s exhortation to have “the mind of Christ." This vision of the Church as proposed by Saint Paul and elaborated by the Second Vatican Council demands not only our active engagement with the world, but primarily our active engagement with the person of Jesus. Otherwise, we can easily fall into the trap of confusing the way of Christ with the ways of the world.

Through Christ’s passion, death, resurrection and ascension, he has renewed the face of the earth; but – as is evident in the words he speaks in the Gospel of Saint John – the “world” still “has not known” Christ, and in fact often “hates” Christ. It is no surprise then that Christians often encounter resistance, opposition, and even persecution in the world. Pope Benedict reminds us that the only possible response for a Christian in the face of rejection is love – a response made possible for us through the grace of Christ. Because God’s very existence is love, love is the very essence of the Christian life. The universal call to holiness is about patiently, deliberately, and “programmatically” sharing this love with the world. It is for this reason that the metaphor of “leaven” – used by our Lord and adopted at the Second Vatican Council – so aptly describes the concrete reality of living as a Christian in this world: the work of Christians is often hidden, but nonetheless steady and consistent, causing the entire dough to rise.

“The Church sets out with humility on her journey, between the sorrows of this world and the glory of the Lord. On this journey, we will need to grow in patience.” Nevertheless, as the Holy Father noted, “the Catholic Church grows in every century. Today too, the presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord is growing. He still has his wounds, yet it is precisely through his wounds that he renews the world, giving that breath which also renews the Church despite our poverty…In this combination of the humility of the Cross and the joy of the Risen Lord…we can go ahead joyfully, filled with hope.”

Enthusiasm and boldness, filled with hope, have always been characteristic of the Knights of Columbus, and this will no doubt remain at the heart of their apostolate in the future.

Cooperation in the Church: A Challenge and an Opportunity

I would like to pause for a moment to reflect on this point. Our integral and persuasive witness to the truth of the Gospel depends heavily on the ability of Bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity to work together for the spread of God’s Kingdom by acknowledging the distinctive role of each vocation within the Body of Christ. For the Knights of Columbus, perhaps this is most clearly evident at the parish level. How wonderful it is to behold the pastor, the local council of Knights, and the rest of the parish mutually supporting one another as they each exercise their unique forms of service for the building up of the local community!

During your time together at this 125th Supreme Convention, I would invite you to encourage and inspire one another by sharing experiences and ideas of how to facilitate effective cooperation between yourselves, your Bishops, your pastors, members of the parish staff, and the civic communities in which you live and work. If your local community is suffering from the wounds of division, be they large or small, take the opportunity to deepen your cohesion, since when this is lacking in a parish family or a local Church, the ability to witness to Christ in the larger society is weakened. At such times, prayer and faith are all the more essential to bring about healing and reconciliation. Pope Benedict writes: “the Spirit is…the energy which transforms the heart of the ecclesial community, so that it becomes a witness before the world to the love of the Father, who wishes to make humanity a single family in his Son.”

Benedict XVI’s Pauline Vision of the Church

On June 28th – the eve of the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul – Pope Benedict announced the opening of a special Jubilee year commemorating the bimillenary of Saint Paul’s birth. Over the next year, the Church will reflect on the life and writings of this great “Apostle to the Gentiles.”

In fact, the vivid images Paul uses to describe the Church – both at the local and universal level – have always been very dear to His Holiness. He employs them often in more informal discussions with clergy and laity.

For example, in responding to a question addressed to him during an audience with members of the clergy of the Diocese of Rome, the Holy Father recently said: “The Church, though a body, is the body of Christ and therefore a spiritual body, as Saint Paul teaches. This seems extremely important to me: that people will be able to see the Church not as a super-national organization, not as an administrative body or means for power and domination, not as a social agency – even though she carries out a social and ‘supra-national’ mission – but rather as a spiritual body.

Pope Benedict is not only a man of deep theological wisdom; he also brings to the Petrine ministry extensive pastoral experience. He has no illusions about the serious challenges confronting local ecclesial communities today.

One such challenge is the tendency to focus too narrowly on the administrative, bureaucratic, and financial aspects of parish and diocesan life. Not that these are unimportant – on the contrary! However, we end up viewing worldly realities through a distorted lens if we fail to see them with the eyes of Christ. We can only be prudent stewards of worldly goods if we freely subject them to the good of eternal life.

Every concrete method and strategy taught and promoted by Father McGivney in the public square was aimed at the good of the human person destined for eternal life. Father McGivney’s legacy lives on today in the Knights’ continuing effort to keep themselves – and others – informed about complex issues regarding human life, justice, freedom, and the common good.

Friendship and Joy: The Key to Understanding Pope Benedict XVI

Finally, I must say a word about two recurring themes in Pope Benedict’s teaching which are absolutely essential for the “animation” of “the entire lives of the lay faithful”: friendship and joy. These, I believe, are the keys for grasping Pope Benedict’s thought on what it means to translate faith into action.

The words “friendship” and “joy” echo continuously throughout his preaching, especially when he addresses himself to young people as they prepare to gather for the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney. According to Pope Benedict, “friendship” and “joy” have God as their primary reference. The Holy Father never tires of reminding us that God is near, that he is our friend, and that he is constantly speaking to us about the most essential things in life. He accompanies us on our journey through this life, in our joys and sorrows, and – as a Good Shepherd who cares only for his flock – he never abandons us.

At the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, His Holiness said this to the young people present: “A true revolution can take place only by radically turning to God without reserve; he alone is the measure of all that is just, while at the same time existing as love eternal. And what could possibly save us if not love?”

Love is the source of the Holy Father’s inspiration in all that he undertakes, and especially in his commitment to dialogue. He has spoken with countless lay persons, listening attentively to their practical ways of reasoning. He truly follows the agenda he set for himself at the beginning of his pontificate: “My true program for governing the Church is not to carry out my own will or pursue my own ideas, but to place myself together with the entire Church in listening to the Word of the Lord, discerning his will, and allowing myself be led by him, because he alone will guide the Church through this phase of history.”

The Holy Father always teaches with clarity and precision, and with a spirit of humility and encouragement. He wants everyone to understand how beautiful and fulfilling it is to be a Christian, to experience a personal, living encounter with a life-changing “event,” to meet the One who opens a whole new horizon and gives life a new, decisive direction. It is precisely for this reason that even the commandments are never too burdensome for us if we are abiding with Christ.

In his first public interview after having been elected Pope, the Holy Father summarized his deepest wish, both for young people and for the entire world:
“I want them to understand that it is beautiful to be a Christian! The generally prevailing idea is that Christians have to observe an immense number of commandments, prohibitions, precepts, and other such restrictions, so that Christianity is a heavy and oppressive way of living, and it would therefore be more liberating to live without all these burdens. But I would like to make it clear that to be sustained by this great Love and God’s sublime revelation is not a burden, but rather a set of wings – that it is truly beautiful to be a Christian. It is an experience that gives us room to breathe and move, but most of all, it places us within a community since, as Christians, we are never alone: first of all, there is God, who is always with us; secondly, we are always forming a great community among ourselves: a community of people together on a journey, a community with a project for the future. All of this means that we are empowered to live a life worth living. This is the joy of being a Christian; that it is beautiful and right to believe!”
Indeed, how beautiful it is to believe, for to believe is to say “Yes” to Christ; and to say “Yes” to Christ is to bear witness to our faith in action. My dear Knights of Columbus, may you always remain men firmly committed to this “Yes” – “Yes” to your families, to your Church, and to your communities – but most importantly, to Christ who is the “Yes” to all our hopes and desires. God bless you all.

Other significant US-geared texts of this pontificate include the 2006 and 2007 "November Meeting" talks of Benedict's hand-picked American messenger, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, to the nation's bishops and the Pope's own speeches to the two US ambassadors to the Holy See welcomed since his election: Francis Rooney in 2005, and Mary Ann Glendon just last Leap Day. To boot, in an interview earlier this year with Italy's largest magazine, Bertone returned to the Stateside visit alongside other questions facing the church and the world.

On a related note, Catholic News Service's John Thavis -- the dean of Anglophone Vatican correspondents -- recently tipped that the papal message in the States might well end up bearing a close resemblance to the threads of the Pope's "provocative, fundamental," seeker-friendly homily on Palm Sunday.

Suffice it to say, don't be surprised if that pans out, too. As for the rest, consider the source.

PHOTOS: Reuters(1); AFP(3)


Allam on His Own

The story of Magdi Allam -- the Egyptian-born Italian commentator received into the church by Benedict XVI on Easter -- has garnered intense interest in recent days.

But after Allam released a testimony of his conversion and gave some interviews, including along the way his hopes of what it might symbolize in the church's response to Islam, the Holy See has distanced itself from the high-profile convert's statements:
Allam, "has the right to express his own ideas. They remain his personal opinions without in any way becoming the official expression of the positions of the pope or the Holy See," said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi.

Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, made his comments March 27 in response to a statement from Aref Ali Nayed, a spokesman for the 138 Muslim scholars who initiated the Common Word dialogue project in October and who established the Catholic-Muslim Forum for dialogue with the Vatican in early March.

Father Lombardi said baptism is a recognition that the person entering the church "has freely and sincerely accepted the Christian faith in its fundamental articles" as expressed in the creed.

"Of course, believers are free to maintain their own ideas on a vast range of questions and problems on which legitimate pluralism exists among Christians," he said. "Welcoming a new believer into the church clearly does not mean espousing all that person's ideas and opinions, especially on political and social matters."

Nayed questioned the pope's decision to baptize Allam March 22 during the globally televised Easter Vigil from St. Peter's Basilica.

"It is sad that the intimate and personal act of a religious conversion is made into a triumphalist tool for scoring points," Nayed said.

"It is sad that the particular person chosen for such a highly public gesture has a history of generating, and continues to generate, hateful discourse," he added.

In a March 25 interview with Il Giornale, an Italian newspaper, Allam said his decision to convert grew as he became convinced that it was impossible to believe in a moderate form of Islam because "a substantial ambiguity found in the Quran and in the concrete actions of Mohammed" feeds violent tendencies.

Nayed said, "The basic message of Allam's most recent article is the very message of the Byzantine emperor quoted by the pope in his infamous Regensburg lecture," given in Germany in 2006. The pope quoted a medieval emperor asserting that Islam spread its faith through violence.

The Muslim scholar said, "It is not far-fetched to see this (Allam's baptism) as another way of reasserting the message of Regensburg, which the Vatican keeps insisting was not intended. It is now important for the Vatican to distance itself from Allam's discourse."

Father Lombardi's statement also strongly objected to the way Nayed referred to Allam's early education in Catholic schools in Egypt, implying that Catholic schools try to proselytize non-Christian students.

The Catholic Church's commitment to the education of all children deserves praise and not suspicion, Father Lombardi said.

In countries where Christians are a minority -- including Egypt, India and Japan, for example -- "the great majority of students in Catholic schools and universities are non-Christians and have happily remained so, while showing great appreciation for the education they received," he said.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Survey Says: "We Want Fluffy"

While next month's PopeTrip won't be without its challenges in the court of public opinion, Benedict & Co. can take comfort in a freshly-released survey finding that interest in the pontiff's impending Stateside trek is high and positive.

Funded by a grant from the Knights of Columbus -- the global church's largest organization of Catholic laymen -- and conducted by Marist College, the results were unveiled Tuesday afternoon at a DC press conference.

Just over 1,000 American adults and a separate sampling of 600 US Catholics were polled; margin of error set at +/- 3.1%.
By a ratio of four and a half to one (58% to 13%), respondents said that they had a favorable or very favorable view of Pope Benedict. The poll also found that an even higher percentage -- 65% -- have a favorable view of the Catholic Church, although a higher portion, 28% have a negative view.

Forty-two percent of Americans said that they would like to attend one of the Popes public appearances while he is in the United States, and 66% of Catholics said they'd like to attend one of the events....

Seventy percent or more want to hear Pope Benedict talk about: allowing God to be a part of their daily lives (73%), finding spiritual fulfillment by sharing their time and talent (71%) and how they can make a positive difference in the world, their state, and communities (70%). Nearly two-thirds (64%) expressed an interest in hearing Pope Benedict talk about how they can have a society where spiritual values play an important role.
While the Knights also rolled out a new website -- -- to plug the pilgrimage, yesterday's event coincided with the pub-date of a new book by the 1.7 million-member group's head, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson.

Arguably the most influential American Catholic in the Vatican's orbit thanks to the KofC's magic at marshalling manpower and resources in the service of the Holy See's mission, Anderson's A Civilization of Love: What Every Catholic Can Do to Transform the World focuses on the lay vocation in the secular sphere and the universal call to holiness, the combination of which are expected to form a key thread of Benedict's April message on these shores. (More on that later.) Before a stop in Rome, the book will be presented later today in New York, with Archbishop Celestino Migliore -- the Holy See's UN observer... and the Pope's Manhattan host -- topping the lineup for the panel event at the global body's headquarters.

Once an operative in the Reagan White House, the 57 year-old top knight serves as a consultant to four Vatican dicasteries: the Pontifical Councils for the Laity, the Family, Justice and Peace, and Social Communications. Anderson has also been named to two Synods of Bishops.

For those of you keeping score at home, not even most cardinals get a Roman roster like that.



Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In Siouxland, the Second Coming

Prior to his elevation as the first cardinal of the American South, a wistful Dan DiNardo noted to friends that the red hat might've come his way as head of Texas' oldest and largest local church, but it was amid the cornfields of Iowa where he learned how to be a bishop.

Returning to his first diocese, where he served for seven years before his 2004 transfer to Texas, the self-described "baby cardinal" -- the first Roman prince whose path wound through Hawkeye Country -- made a sentimental pilgrimage to Siouxland yesterday for an Easter Monday jaunt the locals treated more like a "royal visit," complete with public reception, wall-to-wall coverage on several local TV stations (which interrupted hours of regular programming to cover the festivities live), and a full package of goodies from the hometown Journal.
Though an admitted "happy camper" in Houston, DiNardo said he misses the county blacktops of Northwest Iowa and the Casey's doughnuts that he enjoyed on those road trips. He travels more these days, but it's by plane, not auto. He recalled trips from Sioux City to Spencer, Iowa, that always took 2 hours and 5 minutes. It takes that long these days to visit a parish 20 miles away from his Houston office, Texas traffic being what it is....

"If you can be a good shepherd at the local level, then when you're called to ... further responsibilities in the Universal Church, you hope you don't lose that shepherd's touch with people," DiNardo said. "Sioux City people were so friendly and respectful, but never in awe, which was very important.

"The Sioux City diocese not only taught me how to be a better bishop, to be a good bishop, the people also taught me in terms of the depths of their thinking about things."...

Jim Wharton of Sioux City, who served as diocesan communications director during DiNardo's tenure, said he has never run into anybody who has had the impact in such a short period of time as DiNardo had on the diocese of Sioux City. "He's an incredible person," he said. "And to see this outpouring today. He was humbled by this. But they could have had another thousand people in here if they'd had the room."

The first person in the greeting line at the Marina Inn was Michelle Steinbach who worked with DiNardo at the chancery. "So it was really important for me to come and be able to hear him speak again. We were always excited to hear what he had to say. He brings his messages to the people's levels," she said.

Judy Wittkop of Le Mars, Iowa, said she told DiNardo that a new church was being built at St. Joseph's Parish there, the result of a process that started under his leadership. "We asked him to keep us in his prayers," she said.

"It's really wonderful to see him again," said the Rev. Laurence Burns, pastor of Sacred Heart Church at Early, Iowa. "Just to experience his presence. We all got to know him pretty well."

Before leaving Sioux City today after his brief visit, DiNardo planned to visit the Carmelite Sisters at their cloistered monastery who because of their vows could not attend the service. "They were one of my major prayer supports while I was bishop here in Sioux City," he said, not needing to add that he doesn't forget his old friends.
Riffing anew on a theme he's employed often since his November elevation, the cardinal's homily (video) to the invite-only Mass crowd of 700 focused on the theme of universal vocation, albeit with a characteristic hook.

"In all the accounts of the Risen Jesus," he said, "anybody who meets the Risen Jesus -- genuinely, always -- gets a job.

"Do you notice? No one is unemployed who meets the Risen Jesus."

At a pre-Mass press conference (fullaudio), DiNardo rattled off both his memories of the Heartland and a detailed demographic portrait of the "huge, vast" flock of 1.5 million he now heads.

While it was in Iowa where the native Pittsburgher discovered what true darkness was during late-night drives home after confirmations, the nation's fourth largest city, he said, "is the United Nations," citing one Houston parish where 23,000 parishioners speak sixteen different languages.

For all the seeming differences, the cardinal offered that the goodness and quality of faith present in both was much the same. But even so, "There aren't as many hogroasts in Houston."

* * *

Another similarity binding the two is the mutual penchant for cathedral projects on the part of DiNardo's predecessors, the benefits of which he's gotten to enjoy in spades.

Just as Sioux City's Cathedral of the Epiphany was restored shortly before then-Bishop Lawrence Soens handed off to his then-coadjutor, a week from tomorrow the cardinal will, as previously noted, dedicate his archdiocese's first permanent mother-church, Houston's new Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart -- the dream-project of Archbishop-emeritus Joseph Fiorenza, a native son who retired in 2006.

In advance of the 1,800-seat, $40 million sanctuary's debut, H-Town's ABC affiliate recently rolled out an impressive hourlong documentary on its construction and the people behind it.

Around 60 hierarchs from around the country are expected to join in the dedication festivities, which'll be streamed live over the web by the local outlets.

PHOTOS: Tim Hynds/Sioux City Journal (1,2); Smiley N. Pool (Removed by order of the) Houston Chronicle