Watching and waiting during Advent

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"Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come" (Mark 13:33).

One of the hidden gems here at Catholic News Service is our weekly “Word to Life” column on the Sunday Scriptures. As you prepare for Mass on this first Sunday of Advent or reflect on what you heard, here’s the column for this weekend by Jeff Hedglen:

(Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37)

I can clearly remember sitting on the front porch with my brother and watching down the street for my uncle’s car. We knew he was coming sometime that day and with him would be our cousins. We were not a patient duo. We had many plans of forts to build in the basement and, if it was winter, snowball fights to be staged. These plans burned in our minds and every minute that passed meant one less minute to play.

To keep the boredom at bay we would play tricks on each other. If I caught my brother not looking down the street I would excitedly say, “There they — aren’t!” He would do the same to me when I tired of gazing down the empty street.

Every now and then we would hear a car coming. We would crane our necks to see who it was but be deflated when we realized it was not our uncle. After the momentary disappointment faded we would go back to watching and waiting.

I think the Gospel writer had this kind of watchfulness in mind when he exhorted the faithful to stay on the lookout for the coming of the Lord. He said, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.”

It is impossible to have this high a level of watching and waiting every day of our lives. For this reason the church brings us the season of Advent. It is, in effect, a time when the church sits on the front porch eagerly longing for the coming of the Lord.

Through signs and symbols we are put on alert. In the Scriptures we wait with the Israelites as they continue their watch for a Messiah. We also hold vigil with the early Christians as they anticipate (and we still await) the return of Jesus.

Advent is a time to switch gears, and, like my brother and me waiting for my uncle’s car, we must stay alert and watch, for Jesus is coming. We don’t want to miss it!

QUESTIONS:

Share a story of a time you watched and waited for something or someone. What did that feel like? How can we stay alert and watch for the Lord amid the busyness of the holidays?

Making the Advent wreath ‘more than a nice decoration’

Timely column from The Catholic Spirit in St. Paul, Minn.:

This is the Advent I’m really going to do it. I promise. I’m really going to pray with the Advent wreath all four weeks.

No, really. I mean it.

I know the Advent wreath should be more than a nice decoration to have around the house during the holidays, and I know that I will get more out of the Advent season and my preparation for Christmas if I put more into it.

Have you had this kind of conversation with yourself?

Let’s do it this year. Let’s make time to light the candles on the Advent wreath every Sunday …

Read the complete column.

UPDATE: The Florida Catholic also has posted Advent wreath prayers.

SECOND UPDATE: The Catholic Spirit in St. Paul also has posted an “audiocast” for the first Sunday of Advent.

Pope Benedict’s liturgical to-do list

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his Christmas Day blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city of Rome and the world) in 2007. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI delivers his Christmas Day blessing in 2007. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican recently updated its calendar of Pope Benedict’s liturgical celebrations through January 2009, and confirmed that, as in previous years, the 81-year-old pontiff will preside over a full slate of Christmas activities.

The pre-Christmas season begins when the pope celebrates evening prayer Nov. 29 in St. Peter’s Basilica on the vigil of the first Sunday of Advent. A more popular ceremony, at least among the Romans, occurs Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, when the pope will say a prayer and lay a basket of flowers before a statue of Mary next to the Spanish Steps in downtown Rome.

Thanks to a satellite feed that now reaches more than 70 countries, the world will tune in when the pope celebrates Christmas Midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and delivers his urbi et orbi blessing — to the city (urbi) and to the world (orbi) — on Christmas Day from the central balcony of the basilica’s facade.

On New Year’s Eve, the pope will return to St. Peter’s to lead evening prayer and sing a hymn of thanksgiving for 2008. Then on New Year’s Day, he’ll celebrate Mass in the basilica to mark the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, and the 42nd World Day of Peace. On Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, he will preside over another major liturgy.

Pope Benedict, maintaining a tradition of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, will baptize infants during a Mass in the Sistine Chapel Jan. 11, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It’s the one day of the year the Sistine guards don’t shush people, and crying babies usually out-decibel the Sistine Chapel Choir.

The calendar contains two somewhat out-of-the-ordinary celebrations. The first comes Nov. 30, when the pope makes a pastoral visit and celebrates Mass at the Rome Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, on the occasion of the 1,750th anniversary of St. Lawrence’s martyrdom.

The second will take place Jan. 25 at the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, when the pope leads evening prayer on the feast of St. Paul’s conversion. What makes this celebration unusual is that it comes during the jubilee year dedicated to St. Paul, which commemorates the 2,000th anniversary of the saint’s birth.

More digital ink on the proposed Freedom of Choice Act

Lots of digital ink has been spilled this week over the Freedom of Choice Act, which was a major concern of the U.S. bishops at their fall general meeting earlier this month. Among those weighing in were CNS clients like the National Catholic Register (here and here) and the National Catholic Reporter (here), plus other Catholic and secular sites (here, here, and here).

We have our own ink spill today with this backgrounder and analysis, FOCA’s effects seen as dire, but chance of it passing considered slim, which includes comments from people on several sides of the issue.

Bioethics document coming in December

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Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at a Vatican press conference last year. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

VATICAN CITY — A new Vatican instruction on bioethics, prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is scheduled to be published Dec. 12, informed sources said Wednesday.

The document, under discussion for two years, is expected to examine ethical issues in biological research and health care that have emerged in recent years, including the cloning and freezing of human embryos, stem cell research and new therapeutic possibilities.

When members of the doctrinal congregation met in a plenary session last January, U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, congregation prefect, said much of their discussion focused on the field of bioethics.

At that time, the cardinal hinted that a document was in the works. He said it might examine new therapeutic options and some ethical problems that were not explicitly considered by two previous church documents: the doctrinal congregation’s instruction “Donum Vitae” (“The Gift of Life”) in 1987 and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”) in 1995.

Pope Benedict XVI was head of the doctrinal congregation when both those documents were published. Addressing the congregation in January, the pope said the new problems included the freezing of human embryos, the selective reduction of embryos, pre-implant diagnosis, research on embryonic stem cells and attempts at human cloning.

The pope said the starting point for the church’s reflection remains the same:

The two fundamental criteria for moral discernment in this field are unconditional respect for the human being as a person from the moment of conception to natural death, (and) respect for the originality of the transmission of human life through the acts proper to spouses.

The new document is expected to be unveiled at a Vatican press conference, the sources said.

A tenor for the pope

album-cover2VATICAN CITY — Vatican journalists will be treated Friday to an appearance by Placido Domingo, who’s showing up for a press conference to unveil a new CD of songs based on the poetry of Pope John Paul II.

One could hope that Vatican officials will dispense with the usual press hall format of lengthy speeches and simply hand the tenor the mike. I wouldn’t bet on that, though.

The CD, on the Deutsche Grammophon label, is being released in Italy in time for Christmas. It will be interesting to see how closely the songs follow the text of the poems, and what kind of liberties were taken in the arrangements.

A CD released in late 2005 featured Vatican Radio’s Sean Patrick Lovett reading Pope John Paul’s poems. In 1988 the U.S. singer Sarah Vaughan recorded an album of the late pope’s poetry sung to jazz accompaniment (excerpts available here.)

Domingo, a Spanish-Mexican tenor, sang Cesar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” (Bread of Angels) at Pope John Paul’s Mass in New York’s Central Park in 1995. Last April he reprised the hymn during Pope Benedict’s Mass in Washington, D.C.

Check out the YouTube video of his April performance, and note the reaction of music-loving Pope Benedict — he actually walks over during the liturgy to embrace the artist.

Pope Benedict on capitalism

VATICAN CITY — This week’s CNS Vatican Letter focuses on some of Pope Benedict’s recent comments regarding the Gospel and social justice. As the world waits for the pope’s first social encyclical, it might be instructive to read what he wrote in a 1985 presentation to a Rome symposium, later published in Communio magazine. It’s been posted on the Web site of the Acton Institute.

In his 1985 text, “Market Economy and Ethics,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger takes a dim view of the argument that the free market produces distributive justice best when it’s allowed to operate solely according to the laws of the market, without interference from morality.

He frames the question this way:

Here, however, we must face the objection raised especially after the Second Vatican Council, that the autonomy of specialized realms is to be respected above all. Such an objection holds that the economy ought to play by its own rules and not according to moral considerations imposed on it from without. Following the tradition inaugurated by Adam Smith , this position holds that the market is incompatible with ethics because voluntary ‘moral’ actions contradict market rules and drive the moralizing entrepreneur out of the game. For a long time, then, business ethics rang like hollow metal because the economy was held to work on efficiency and not on morality. The market’s inner logic should free us precisely from the necessity of having to depend on the morality of its participants. The true play of market laws best guarantees progress and even distributive justice.

But the pope sees this as a form of determinism — that “man is completely controlled by the binding laws of the market while believing he acts in freedom from them” — and also rejects the supposition that the natural laws of the market are in essence good. The problems of the global economy demonstrate otherwise, he says.

He concludes that ethics must have a place in any economy:

It is becoming an increasingly obvious fact of economic history that the development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions. Conversely, it has also become obvious that the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse.

Interesting reading, and remember, this was 1985.

Even at the Vatican, it’s beginning to feel a bit like …

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Burlap shields work on the Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square this morning. (CNS photo by Cindy Wooden)

VATICAN CITY — Although shops in Italy will not haul out all of their Christmas decorations until Advent begins Nov. 30, the Vatican seems to be on the North American preparation schedule.

Vatican workers, equipped with hard hats and tool belts, already have spent a week putting up the burlap-covered scaffolding that will keep the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square from public view until Christmas Eve.

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A Vatican employee secures the scaffolding around the Nativity scene in front of St. Peter's Basilica. (CNS photo by Cindy Wooden)

This morning, while two workers continued putting together the metal and wood scaffold and covering it with brown burlap, six others were building the frame for the scene itself.

So far, the Vatican has not published the floor plan for this year’s presentation, which is populated with larger-than-life-sized statues of the Holy Family. The Vatican scene usually has several different rooms and, keeping with Italian tradition, changes every year.

The Vatican may not start early according to U.S. standards, but its Nativity scene remains in place long after U.S. stores have decked themselves in red hearts for Valentine’s Day.

Vatican workers won’t be back to dismantle the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square until the morning after the Feb. 2 feast of the Presentation of the Lord.

‘Sludge’ documents major pollution spill little noticed outside Appalachia

While I have edited thousands of film, TV, video and Broadway reviews for CNS since I became media editor in 1992, I have not had to review a movie for publication since I was asked to review, of all things, “Animal House” for a quarterly film journal in my hometown of Detroit nearly 30 years ago.

But as a participant in a recent Appalachian study tour sponsored by the Catholic Press Association and the Catholic Committee on Appalachia, I attended a screening of a documentary called simply “Sludge.”

The film tells of a sludge spill in Martin County in eastern Kentucky in 2000 that emptied 306 million gallons onto people’s property lying below a lagoon that had held the sludge. Millions of fish were killed, water systems were damaged, and nearby streams and tributaries had the life choked out of them.

When you think about how much 306 million gallons is, keep in mind that the Exxon Valdez oil spill was a mere 11 million gallons — 1/27th the amount of the sludge spill. And it’s safe to say that the sludge spill didn’t get even 1/27th the media coverage the Exxon Valdez spill did.

Sludge (some will call it “coal slurry”) is the thick mixture of water and chemicals, some of them toxic, used to spray coal before it is shipped to customers, along with the coal waste and noncoal material — some of it toxic as well — washed off from the coal.

The documentary showed trees still marked by the sludge line four years later. Despite the coal company removing truckload after truckload of sludge and replanting grasses, some residents of Martin County are shown digging up the earth only to expose the sludge below.

A lot of “we’re sorry” apologies by the coal company right after the spill quickly degenerate into a battle between the company and Martin County’s citizens. During one meeting, a resident asks the coal firm’s president whether he’d let his son drink a glass full of the sludge. The reply: Yes. Of course, no glass filled with the sludge is produced, and neither is the boy.

The coal company handed off responsibility for the spill by calling it “an act of God.” A six-figure fine for the accident was later lowered to $5,600. A federal Mining Health and Safety Administration inquiry into the spill was, ironically, whitewashed, and the investigator who blew the whistle on the whitewashing had his office and computer searched after he was sent on an out-of-town assignment. He was later fired. After fighting for two years to get his job back, he gave up and took an early retirement.

There may be a few bad words in the movie, but they don’t compare to the obscenity of the sludge spill and the subsequent coverup.

Three years after its release, “Sludge” is still third on the best-seller list of all videos and CDs sold by the online “general store” run by Appalshop, the Kentucky nonprofit arts and education center that produced the documentary.

As a coda, Glenmary Father John Rausch, who led the study tour, told of how, a few weeks after “Sludge” had been released in 2005, he went with a friend to see the source of the spill. He said they were met on the county road by two armed guards from the mining company, who told them, “This road is closed.” Father Rausch objected, telling the guards the county road belonged to the people, but seeing the weapons convinced the priest to back down and head in the other direction.

Focolare Movement’s first university

ROME — With the official opening of its first university dedicated to multicultural dialogue, the Focolare Movement is hoping to help prepare young people for today’s challenges.

The Catholic renewal movement, founded by the late Chiara Lubich, will officially inaugurate the new Sophia University Institute for a Culture of Unity in Loppiano — a small town near Florence — in Italy December 1.

At a Tuesday press conference in Rome, the university’s president, Msgr. Piero Coda, said their aim is to help prepare young people to face “the complexities of today’s world” by reconnecting the deep ties between life and philosophy, study and experience.

At the same press conference, president of the Focolare Movement, Maria Voce, said people are hungry for knowledge and the truth about the human person. “There’s not so much a need for specialized schools, but, on the contrary, places where one can piece back together knowledge” that has been separated into specialized compartments, she said according to the Italian news agency, ANSA.

The Sophia University Institute offers a two-year graduate degree program in spiritual formation and interdisciplinary studies titled “Foundations and Perspectives of a Culture of Unity.” In the future, it will offer a doctorate degree in the same field.

According to a recent press release, 40 students from 16 different nations enrolled in classes this fall for the university’s first academic year.

The program is open to young people from all cultural and faith backgrounds who have already completed a bachelor’s degree and can read, speak, and understand Italian.

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