Cardinal Martino applauds universal health care initiative

Cardinal Renato Martino

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, speaks at a press conference Dec. 11, 2008. (CNS photo/Emanuela De Meo, Catholic Press Photo)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican hasn’t weighed in very much yet concerning the fierce debate in the United States over health care reform. Some of the opposition in the U.S. centers around whether the government should have such a dominant role in providing affordable coverage for all Americans.

Cardinal Renato Martino, who is head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, lived in the United States for 16 years when he served the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations from 1986-2002.

When I interviewed the cardinal today at the end of a Vatican press conference, I asked him what he thought of the current health care debate in the U.S. and whether the government should be offering universal coverage or if it should just be left up to private businesses. Here’s what he said:

The health of their own citizens belongs to the authorities, to the central government. And so I have been 16 years in the States and I was wondering why a big portion of the American people is deprived, have no health assistance at all. I could never explain this…

And you know that everywhere in the world it is a concern of the government first of all, and after there are possibilities also on the private sector, but those who are without anything… the central government must provide to that. So I cannot but applaud this initiative.

Congregations helping jobless members cope

Rising unemployment has impacted people all over the U.S.  A recent story in Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, told how several faith communities are helping those affected cope with the reality of their situation.

More on Catholic radio

After delivering my first radio news report for CNS last month, I got to thinking about my exposure to Catholic radio. When I was working in Detroit for The Michigan Catholic, the Detroit Archdiocese’s newspaper, in the late 1980s, I remember approaching Jay Berman, then the archdiocese’s director of communications, about the possibility of the archdiocese buying a radio station.

The archdiocese was heading strongly into cable TV at the time with its Catholic Telecommunications Network of Detroit. But across the street from Sacred Heart Seminary stood the tower and studios of WDTR-FM, owned by the Detroit Public Schools. WDTR aired some of the most boring canned programming available in English. The Detroit Public Schools almost always seemed to be in financial trouble. The station’s proximity to the seminary had the potential to attract seminarians and other archdiocesan employees to assist in its operation. There were liturgical musicians whose music could be played — and heard — just the same as with any other music format on radio. Sunday Masses could be aired live in a host of languages. At worst, it could simulcast the archdiocese’s cable programming for a vast audience that hadn’t yet been wired for cable.

Nix,  said Berman. “I’ve never heard a Catholic radio station that’s been done well,” he told me.

If Berman were alive today, he might have had to change his mind, especially given the profusion of Catholic radio. There’s the Catholic Channel on Sirius XM satellite radio, EWTN’s radio service, Relevant Radio on a fistful of stations around the country, independent Catholic broadcasters, and a growing band of Catholics on low-power radio throughout the county — and their number will only increase once the Federal Communications Commission gives its OK for more low-power stations to claim untaken space on the dial to serve their communities.

As for WDTR? It changed its call letters to WRCJ a few years ago and got a financial lifeline from Detroit’s PBS TV affiliate; WRCJ now promises “Classical Days, Jazzy Nights.” And the Detroit Archdiocese just announced it was outsourcing studio production for its TV operation.

Year for Priests: Learning how to advance the dialogue

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

I have just completed my first month of classes at Detroit Catholic Central High School, which means that my students in Public Speaking are giving their first major presentations this week.  Everyone always enjoys “Speech Week,” not only because students get to hear other students but also because I allow the students to facilitate their own “Q&A” after their speech.

People believe that the most difficult aspects of a speech class concern the mechanics, but usually this is the easy part.  It only takes one time for students watching themselves on video to correct most of the issues, or my count of just how many times they said “um” to raise their awareness enough to cause dramatic improvement.

The more difficult issues often concern content — specifically, the student’s ability to critically defend their beliefs.  Far too many students focus their content on their own beliefs rather than considering the opinions and objections of the audience.  Though I allow students to present themselves without interruption during the speech, many students are quickly challenged by their peers during the Q&A session because the speaker failed to consider those to whom he was speaking.

The lesson is an important one:  unsubstantiated opinions sound good when you are the only one speaking, but they do very little to contribute to actual dialogue on any given topic.  This week, I am once again watching as students discover that classroom discussions are far more interesting when the data is more persuasive than the person.

All this leads me to a few thoughts regarding popular morality and “church-related” issues since many students attempt to present them during our class.  I must admit that I usually forbid issues such as the death penalty, abortion, contraception and the like as topics because (1) students are not willing to look beyond the surface reasons and therefore come up with incomplete data, and (2) three minutes is simply not enough time to tackle even one part of the issue.  However, being at this particular school, I decided to let them have at it, though I warn them about the dangers.

Today after a class discussion on abortion, one of my students asked if I would be willing to discuss the issue with his family and a few friends.  Surprised by this question, I asked him what was said in class to cause such a request.  He stated that he never thought about the issue as we discussed it after the speech, during which I asked, “how do we move beyond the preconceived notions that have left us in a stalemate, and advance the argument?  What is helpful/required for either side to listen to the opposing ideas with fresh ears?”  Needless to say, it sparked an interesting class discussion.

As I left the school, I could not help but think about the many people who would love to join in on this upcoming discussion.  Over the years, I have met several presenters who speak on moral issues with wonderful mechanics and persuasive passion, but fail to consider the opinions and objections of another’s point of view.  When this occurs, the result in society is the same as my classroom:  a series of short presentations that leads the speaker to believe something important was said, but offers little to advance the argument in a greater context.  The remedy, as my students are discovering, requires more than just good data but a totally different approach that puts the thoughts of the audience before our own.  It requires less judgment, few statements and more questions.  No doubt this is harder, but the result is almost always an “A”.

valkaFather Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil in May.

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Ambassador’s ceremony draws an eclectic crowd

A Supreme Court justice, an actor and a Catholic university president walk into the State Department…..

… and formalize the swearing in of their mutual friend, constitutional lawyer Douglas Kmiec, as ambassador to Malta.

What sounds like the opening to a stand-up routine was instead the scene in the Treaty Room at the State Department Sept. 2, a case of someone with a broad, diverse base of friends and colleagues if ever there was one.

Justice Samuel Alito, who worked with Kmiec at the Justice Department in the 1980s and is one of the six Catholics on the U.S. Supreme Court; actor Martin Sheen, who is a fellow parishioner at Kmiec’s Catholic parish in California, and Vincentian Father David O’Connell, president of The Catholic University of America, where Kmiec was dean of the law school from 2001 to 2003, each had a role in the brief ceremony.

Kmiec, who is on hiatus as a columnist for Catholic News Service, holds an endowed chair in constitutional law at Pepperdine University School of Law, and previously was director of the University of Notre Dame’s Center on Law & Government, and the founder of its Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy.  As a lifelong Republican who helped write the Reagan administration’s legal arguments to the Supreme Court for overturning Roe v. Wade,  Kmiec stunned some of his friends and former allies with his support for Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign.

An article Kmiec wrote headlined “Reaganites for Obama” caught the eye of  Joshua DuBois, then Obama’s campaign director of religious outreach and now  director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“Are you for real?” Kmiec recalled being asked by DuBois in their first conversation. “Many people have asked that since then.”

Not long after Kmiec’s support for Obama became public, he was denied Communion on that basis at a Mass before he addressed a Catholic business group in California.  The priest, who was never identified, later apologized.

Kmiec went on to serve as a member of the campaign’s Catholic advisory group and wrote a book “Can a Catholic Support Him: Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama.” From his ambassadorial post, he will continue to serve the administration informally as an adviser on interfaith dialogue and cooperation.

DuBois noted that role would be especially appropriate from Malta, a historical crossroads of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Father O’Connell offered an invocation, Sheen led the Pledge of Allegiance and Alito administered the oath of office.

Afterward, Kmiec, Alito and Sheen each warmly greeted guests, many of whom asked to pose for photos with the ambassador, the  justice and the actor, who played President Jed Bartlett for seven seasons of the White House-based drama, “The West Wing.”

Despite political activism on a range of issues and his history as a “president” who Kmiec noted “didn’t raise anyone’s taxes and expanded everyone’s budgets,” Sheen said it was his first visit to the State Department.

Year for Priests: Improving the conversation, and diary from Rome

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — A parishioner sent me an e-mail asking for prayers for a priest in the U.S. who was rude and angry. I suppose there was a time when such behavior was chalked up to “Father having a bad day,” but now people wonder if “Father can handle the stress.”

Most priests do not consider what they do to be a job – it is a calling, a vocation. They may not impose any boundaries between what is work and what is play; they may refuse to distinguish between performing a role and living a life. But as demands increase, some limits have to be set. It’s fairly well-known that that ratio of priests to Catholics in the U.S. is good, compared to some other countries. And in those other places, laity, deacons and vowed religious have assumed leadership. Should we consider this model second-best or affirm it as the working of the Spirit? Such are my thoughts after reflecting on this e-mail for prayer.

For a long time, I have wanted to read the small book Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives by Theodore Zeldin. The title intrigued me since, for five years, I co-hosted a radio talk show with the theme of finding spirituality in leisure. Toward the end of the book Zeldin says he is looking for a new way to look at work. He envisions a world of “shopkeepers” who do not monitor their actions on efficiency but the quality of their conversations and personal relationships. I am not going to directly apply this model to the priesthood, but his suggestion does challenge me to raise the quality of my conversation. We only have to read the gospel of John to know how powerful it must have been to have a conversation with Jesus.


Diary Entry

Today Mira, a 14 year-old Palestinian our parish group met in a town near Bethlehem, will be playing at a premier music venue, Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica. The occasion is the annual citywide series of concerts commemorating 9/11. A foundation has paid the travel expenses for this talented young pianist and her father to come here. When we have a chance to talk, she confides that Mozart is in her soul. She hears his music in her head all the time. “I will not marry. It is just my art,” she declares when touring the National Academy of St. Cecilia, where List played. She passes a picture of her idol, Mozart: “He’s too fat in that picture. He was never that way!” The girl clearly has the definitive swagger of an elite musician. With just a bit more work on technique she could be a star.

A peace dove painted by local Palestinians on the security wall. (Photo courtesy Father Tom Holahan)

A peace dove in a flak jacket painted by local Palestinians on the security wall. (Photo courtesy Father Tom Holahan)

And this is no small thing for the beleaguered Palestinians. Last year, under the auspices of a U.N. education agency, she visited northern Italy to speak with school children about her experience growing up stateless and now, encircled by a gray cement “anti-terror” wall, a veritable prisoner in her own town, unable to leave it without official permission.


One of the best things about serving at “the American church in Rome” is being able to celebrate a wedding. This week the couple could not help gazing around at the colorful frescos as we have our planning meeting in the sanctuary. It took them over an hour to drive in from the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, where they are staying. Living in the Italian countryside, if just for a few days, is part of this dream wedding. Immediately after the ceremony, the best man rushed out the door to view Bernini’s St. Theresa in Ecstasy, ensconced under a skylight in the church across the street.

Father Thomas J. Holahan, CSP, was ordained for the Paulist Fathers in 1977. Since 2006 he has served as vice-rector at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. This church was designated for Americans in Rome by the Vatican in 1922. He is also chaplain to Marymount International School. Previously, he has worked in campus ministry at the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Berkeley) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also served as communications director for the dioceses of Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.

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Looking back at news as WWII began

While there are many publications and articles readily available about World War II, one of the best ways to catch a quick glimpse of history is to look at old news headlines.

Some, like the first headline below, sounded prophetic, as Pope Pius XII warned of the losses that the world would suffer. Other headlines give a good idea of what Catholics viewed as important at the very beginning of the war, such as the safety of children and shrines in Europe.

Here is a list of Catholic News Service headlines from August and early September 1939 to get an idea of news stories — the first draft of history. 

1) War may lose all, pope warns world in dramatic appeal (Aug. 28)

2) Bishop warns against misleading war slogans (Aug. 28)

3) Soviet-reich pact blow to ‘liberal’ dupes of communism (Aug. 28)

4) Nazi-communist pact forecast by Father LaFarge (Aug. 28)

5) Pope asks prayers that horrors of war be kept at minimum (Sept. 4)

6) Socialist party assails Russian-German pact (Sept. 4)

7) Priests, nuns conduct children on England to nondanger zones (Sept. 5)

8) War-torn Czestochowa is site of greatest of Polish shrines (Sept. 5)

9) Communism may be sole victor (as) war spreads, says priest (Sept. 11)

10) Priest urges ‘iron-clad’ U.S. neutrality (Sept. 11)

False alarm at the Vatican

VATICAN CITY — Last time I saw black smoke billowing over St. Peter’s Square, it was the April consistory of 2005. But this, obviously, was very different:

Black smoke behind the Vatican (photo from Vatican's webcam)

Black smoke behind the Vatican (photo from Vatican's Webcam)

When I stepped out of the Vatican’s press hall at about 2:45 to head back to the office, several journalists came rushing back in saying “There’s a fire! Go outside and look!”

And sure enough dark, menacing puffs of smoke were towering behind the Vatican Museums and then, as the wind shifted, the basilica. The breeze was so strong, it was impossible to tell if the fire was coming from somewhere on the Vatican’s 108 acres or from Rome’s residential area behind it.

A few minutes later, the vice director of the Vatican press office, Passionist Father Ciro Benedettini, called to tell everyone the fire was not on Vatican property.

Italian news outlets later reported a fire had broken out in a wooded city park in the Valle Aurelia section of Rome, on the hill behind Vatican City. Three engines and a helicopter from Rome’s fire department were on the scene at 2:10 keeping the blaze from spreading, said some reports.

Reports said the flames stayed low, engulfing just the underbrush, and that it was easily under control. In fact, by 3 p.m. the thick black clouds had turned to a hazy yellow. Strong winds and a relatively dry season have made parts of Italy susceptible to wildfires, even the urban landscape of Rome.

Pieta casting on display at Old St. Patrick’s to mark 200th anniversary

Two famous pieces of Catholic artistry were joined in New York Sept. 1.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, a private collector moved an exact casting of Michelangelo’s Pieta from its former location at Syracuse University’s SUArt Gallery.

John Spike, an Italian Renaissance scholar and a member of the graduate faculty at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Italy, shared a few words with regular churchgoers and art enthusiasts about Michelangelo and his sculpture during opening festivities.

Casting of sculptures is part of a long-standing tradition of preserving important pieces of artwork, he said. Some of the Vatican’s most treasured pieces of art, including Michelangelo’s Pieta, have incurred damages and existing plaster casts have historically helped to reconstruct them.

“Bronze and marble were always considered the noblest, the finest, and were reserved for only the most important things,” Spike said.

The process of creating a plaster cast is relatively quick when compared with the months it takes to form a bronze reproduction. The Ferdinando Marinelli Artistic Foundry has been considered the best producer of artistic-quality bronze replicas by the Vatican for more than 100 years. It was this foundry that constructed the bronze cast of Michelangelo’s Pieta, one of the 12 bronzes cast from the Vatican’s original plaster.

Bronze castings of Vatican pieces are very uncommon, according to Spike. They take months to create and require multiple copies of the initial plaster cast, one of which is destroyed in the creation of the bronze cast. Around 30 coats of color give the finished product a deep luster and protect the cast itself from corroding.

Many Catholics and art enthusiasts are familiar with various renditions of Mary holding Jesus after his death, but it was really Michelangelo’s depiction of the scene which made it famous, said Spike. Before Michelangelo’s creation, few artists were commissioned to depict this scene, which is not found in the Bible.

“He transformed the subject in what he did,” Spike said. “Michelangelo shows Mary and Jesus, Jesus’ body as unmarked essentially, clean and beautiful — he shows them as if they were in heaven.”

Michelangelo’s creation is startlingly different than many other depictions of the scene because it does not focus on any physical wounds on Jesus’ body or the agony associated with losing one’s only son. After the completion of the sculpture many questioned Michelangelo’s embodiment of Mary. Why did she look so young? He responded that he could best capture her immaculate nature and the freshness of her eternal chastity in the youthful image of his sculpture.

Michelangelo’s sculpture grips many who see it because its emotions are so complex. Spike likened the message of Michelangelo’s Pieta to the meaning Christians attribute to the words “Good Friday.” There was really nothing good about the actual day of Christ’s crucifixion, but the redemption it offered overpowers the day’s unpleasant events. Because of the good Christians received that day, we now call its anniversary “Good Friday.” In Michelangelo’s sculpture nothing is pleasant about the reunion of Mary and Jesus after Jesus’ death, but the idea of Mary and her son together in heaven is beautiful.

“Michelangelo embodies in this sculpture the Christian longing for the purity and divinity of God,” Spike said.

Viewing of the cast is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. It will be on display through the end of October.

Year for Priests: A diary from Rome

By Paulist Father Tom Holahan
One in a series

ROME — I’d like to take “spiritual perfection” as my theme for my time on the “Year for Priests” blog. You may find me musing on the food of Italy or an incident during the handing out of tickets to the weekly papal audience (if you are in Rome, just about every Tuesday from 5 p.m. is “ticket distribution” day; drop in), but I like to think that reflections on both the sublime and ridiculous can contribute to our perfection of spirit.

* * *

Diary entry — Sept. 1: I find the chapel of St. Monica just to the left of Sant’Agostino’s high altar. Her remains have been moved to an ornate silver coffin just beneath the chapel’s altar, on the left is her marble sarcophagus, a large side panel is from the original burial. The oil painting above includes the Latin phrase “Ubi tu ibi et ille,” a reference to Monica’s dream about her son recorded in Augustine’s Confessions:

(Book III, Chapter 11)…she saw herself standing on a certain wooden rule, (8) and a bright youth advancing towards her,  joyous and smiling upon her, whilst she was grieving and bowed down with sorrow. But he having inquired of her the cause of her sorrow and daily weeping … and she answering that it was my perdition she was lamenting, he bade her rest contented, and told her to behold and see “that where she was, there was I also.” And when she looked, she saw me standing near her on the same rule. (20) … and I tried to put this construction on it, “That she rather should not despair of being some day what I was,” she immediately, without hesitation, replied, “No; for it was not told me that where he is, there shalt thou be,” but “where thou art, there shall he be.” I confess to Thee, O Lord … Thy answer through my watchful mother … even then moved me more than the dream itself …”

Another painting has, in large letters, “Monica Ora Pro Nobis.” In Monica’s case, an especially appropriate sentiment since her entire adult life was spent in prayer for the conversion of her husband and son. Though she lived in ancient times, she is patron of quite relevant issues: abuse victims, alcoholics, difficult marriages and, of course, “disappointing children.” It’s so good to have her in a church named after her son.

* * *

On my first trip back to Marymount International School since my return to Rome, I encountered the caper. I had passed clumps of these pink flowers hanging from the stone wall adjacent to the entrance. A teacher pointed out the famous buds which, pickled or salted, are a common ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine. Yet another harvestable “weed” that contributes to unbeatable Italian food. I am not completely over the shock of finding so much of what is on my dinner table growing in patches and corners of yards — from lemons to this caper to “family” olive trees and grapevines.

Sometimes you hear about the pillaging that took place in Rome after the Roman Empire went into decline. Those who took the statues and put them on their own monuments we think should not have done it, they should have kept them where they historically were. But here is something sad and true that I had not considered: the reason so much pillage was going on during the early Middle Ages was that no one could make anything as good; every appropriation was also an admission that the past was so much better than the present. I realize that I have never lived in a time when that was true, but that I might — soon. It’s not that I have given up on the world; it’s that I have begun to question a world that believes it can stand on its own, with no higher reference point. Here, in a city steeped in the Renaissance and High Baroque, I can see what might have been. Now the case for religion has to be fresh, to each succeeding generation.

Father Thomas J. Holahan, CSP, was ordained for the Paulist Fathers in 1977. Since 2006 he has served as vice-rector at the Church of Santa Susanna in Rome. This church was designated for Americans in Rome by the Vatican in 1922. He is also chaplain to Marymount International School. Previously, he has worked in campus ministry at the University of Colorado (Boulder), the University of California (Berkeley) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also served as communications director for the dioceses of Austin, Texas, and Columbus, Ohio.

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