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.

Never mind the bollards

During a Nov. 18 interfaith prayer service urging action to prevent home foreclosures that took place outside the Treasury Building in Washington — which is right next door to the White House, and therefore subject to all of the security-state measures the nation’s chief executive gets — there were several big trucks, including a crane, working on a Pennsylvania Avenue, which is otherwise shut off to vehicular traffic.

So how do vehicles get inside the phalanx of protective bollards, those metal-coated cement obelisks installed every two feet or so in front of many federal office buildings?

It turns out that not all of them are totally stationary. Inside a guard shack on Pennsylvania Avenue just west of 15th Street NW, an officer can push a button, and four of the bollards will retract to below street level, allowing drivers of four-wheeled (or more) vehicles to come and go. Once they’ve passed, the bollards reappear.

It’s not exactly a quick process, but for somebody who doesn’t have a habit of seeing things systematically sink into the ground, it’s a fascinating process to watch.

I wonder now who else at the prayer service might have spotted the disappearing bollards — and whether they hoped they could make their mortgage miseries disappear as quickly as those bollards.

The cost of living in eastern Kentucky

Sister Ann Marie Quinn, an Oldenburg Franciscan sister who bases her ministry out of Good Shepherd Parish’s rectory in Campton, Ky., notes that she gets her share of people who come to the door of the rectory in eastern Kentucky looking for money for gasoline.

Distances between points are great in Kentucky, and even though the price of gas is generally cheaper than in many metropolitan areas along the East Coast, the wage paid to a Kentucky worker — provided one has a job — is generally less.

Sister Ann Marie takes people to the Marathon gas station across the street from Good Shepherd. Not only is it convenient to the church, the price is the lowest in town (it was $2.08 — and nine-tenths — a gallon on Nov. 11).

She recalled when one woman came to the door looking for money for gas for her well-aged vehicle, and Sister Ann Marie went with her to the Marathon station. “How much does it take to fill up your tank,” the sister asked. The reply startled her: “I don’t know,” said the woman. “I’ve never been able to fill it up before.”

Four guilty for ‘dying’ at Omaha defense conference

A peace activist and three Catholic Workers were found guilty of failure to leave Nov. 12 in connection with a “die-in” protesting the militarization of space at an annual gathering of military leaders and defense contractors in Omaha, Neb. Catholic News Service first reported Oct. 10 on the faith-inspired witness during Keep Space for Peace Week.

Among those convicted was 90-year-old Peg Gallagher, a longtime peace activist and member of St. Cecilia Cathedral Parish in Omaha. She was sentenced to 20 hours of community service.

Gallagher and about 20 others had gathered outside the Qwest Center, site of the Strategic Space and Defense 2008 conference, a major event where new weapons systems are introduced and strategies to deploy them are discussed.

Also found guilty in the 4th Judicial District Court of Nebraska in Douglas County were Omaha Catholic Workers Kathy Peterson, 54; Mark Kenney, 51; and Jerry Ebner, 58. Peterson was fined $100 plus court costs; Kenney was fined $150 plus court costs; and Ebner was fined $500 plus court costs and given probation. Kenney and Ebner pledged not to pay their fines and may be subject to future jail sentences.

A fifth person, Michael Walli, 60, a Catholic Worker from Duluth, Minn., entered a not guilty plea days after his arrest and went to trial Nov. 14. The charge against him was dismissed after a Qwest Center employee and arresting officers testified that Walli was not told individually to leave the facility. He had been held in the Douglas County Jail for 38 days after failing to post a $15,000 bail.

Walli told CNS shortly after leaving the courthouse that he plans to gradually make his way back to Duluth.

Three others arrested at the protest have served jail time for their involvement after being found guilty during court hearings in October.

Catholic Channel now available on XM receivers

This year’s merger of XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio was accomplished in part to achieve efficiencies of scale for the United States’ two satellite radio firms.

Some of those efficiencies were achieved Nov. 11 when some programming content exclusive to one service became available on the other service.

The Catholic Channel, which is programmed by the Archdiocese of New York and was launched by the archdicoese and Sirius in 2006, is now available on XM Channel 117. It’s still available to Sirius subscribers on Channel 159, right next to EWTN at Channel 160.

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