U.S. Army keeps order at the Petionville Club

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The U.S. Army definitely has taken over the Petionville Club, a golf course overlooking the ruins of the Haitian capital.

During a visit to the club to talk with some of the 50,000 people who now call the golf course home, CNS photographer Bob Roller, translator Junior Sinsmyr and I could hardly miss the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s presence.

Children walk among tents in a makeshift camp at a golf course in Port-au-Prince Jan. 24. (CNS/Marco Dormino, United Nations)

From the guards at the main gate to the trio of sentries keeping a constant watch from a hillside overlooking tent-covered fairways and putting greens, the soldiers’ presence said one thing: the U.S. is in charge and nothing’s going to get out of hand.

The soldiers were courteous and helpful in pointing us to where we needed to go. Once we entered the main area of the club — where the pool, a couple of bars and what looked like what might have been an equipment room was located — we thought we might as well have been in the recreation area on an Army base. Soldiers were relaxing, reading, playing games and talking over (non-alcoholic) drinks.

Americans were given wide access to the club grounds. And any mention of ties with Catholic Relief Services, which is overseeing services to the thousands of homeless Haitians there, got visitors an even greater respect.

The campers were located in the back of the club grounds far below the posted sentries. To get to and from the tent city, anyone on foot had to navigate one of several marked paths on a steep hill. At the bottom of each path, people had to sidestep through a wooden gate. It seemed like the layout was meant to keep the campers from scurrying up the hill in a disorderly way when aid arrived.

Given the circumstances, it’s understandable that the military would want to keep order, lest violence break out during the distribution of aid. Homeless Haitians greatly outnumbered soldiers and a group of medical workers at the club. In this day of a security-conscious American government,  the only way military planners see as the way to keep order, it seems, is to make it difficult for anyone to upset the normal flow of things.

In tent cities, residents live on will to survive

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The reality of the magnitude 7 earthquake in Haiti grabbed hold today with the first visit into central Port-au-Prince. Not only was the destruction extensive – just about every building seemed to have significant damage – but the human toll was overwhelming.

At demolished buildings and in tent cities that occupy almost every open area in the capital people approached seeking assistance. Particularly at the tent camp just outside of the Port-au-Prince International Airport today, people crowded around us every time we stopped to talk. Some wanted money, some water, others a job.

Across the road, in an open field within a football field’s length of American and French military barracks on the airport grounds, people seemed to be the most desperate. Even though they, like the others at the more organized camp, were from the nearby Mais Gate neighborhood, they were latecomers to the area. After 18 days, they were just now able to start assembling – building doesn’t seem possible with the limited supplies they had — some sort of shelter. They missed getting a spacious tent courtesy of the U.S. government three days ago.

Many small square sites had been marked off with rope, plastic ribbon or other material on this field of ankle-deep grass. Some of the sites, probably no more than 8 feet by 8 feet in size, had long, thin tree branches or plastic bottles marking the dimensions. A few people were hanging plastic drop cloths, bed sheets, or flimsy curtains to give them a bit of privacy and protection from the elements.

It seems like the 150 or so people on this field were poor even by Haitian standards. They had little with them, possessing nothing but the will to survive.

What’s next? They’re not sure. For now, they’re taking life one day at a time.

CNS on the ground in Port-au-Prince

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Catholic News Service is now on the ground in Port-au-Prince preparing to cover the recovery efforts of thousands of relief workers who are trying their best to aid hundreds of thousands of injured and homeless earthquake victims.

Even 17 days after the quake hit, people remain in great need. Thousands of people have taken up residence in city parks and public space in what can be described as sheet communities. Few people have tents. The overwhelming majority are using tarps, plastic sheeting, bed sheets, curtains, blankets tied to trees and posts with rope for shelter. Fortunately, the rain has held off for days.

The traffic coming into town today was backed up for blocks. Often our bus, which was filled with about 20 relief workers — including a team of trauma and orthopedic specialists from the University of Maryland Medical Center; representatives of the Haitian Ministries program of the Diocese of Norwich, Conn.; and a foursome of social workers from Caritas Lebanon — had to wait in traffic for up to 15 minutes in the congested Haitian capital.

The noisy, exhaust-laden air is good though because that means fuel is making its way into the country again.

“If you look at the traffic, it looks like things are getting back to normal,” Farid Moises, project manager for Catholic Relief Services Haiti in Port-au-Prince, told CNS late this afternoon. “But people are living with anxiety that we will have another, bigger (quake).”

At some collapsed buildings the bus passed, people could be seen digging by hand through mounds of rubble. What they were looking for is anyone guess. Loved ones or friends? Salvageable possessions? Hope?

Photographer Bob Roller and I will continue our journey through Haiti for the next week, documenting the impact of the quake on this poor country and its beleaguered people.

‘Judas left early too’

Father Michael Cooney, pastor of St. Peter Church in the Detroit suburb of Mount Clemens, has engaged in “a bit of Irish diplomacy,” as he calls it, to send a message to parishioners about a source of frustration for him and many other priests: people who leave Mass early and don’t stay for the dismissal. He has posted a sign at each of the church’s exits reading, “Judas left early too.”

The effort has had a positive effect, he tells The Michigan Catholic, newspaper of the Detroit Archdiocese. The reason, he feels, is that he introduced the signs with humor, rather than scolding the congregation.

Teens seek end to violence

Catholic teenagers in Chicago and Rochester, N.Y., say they are tired of the violence around them and are taking positive steps to try to end it.

Recent stories from the Catholic New World and the Catholic Courier illustrate these efforts. In Chicago, teens organized meetings and a seminar to discuss the impact of violence and ways they could promote peace. In Rochester, teens took part in an evening prayer for peace.

Rochester teens organized the prayer service in response to the recent shooting death of a local teenager.

At the service, a  Catholic youth group leader said: “All of you who are here tonight have come to say no more to the violence, the knifings, the killings on our streets. We come here to align ourselves with all people of faith all over the world.”

Slideshow of Haiti devastation

Sam Lucero, editor of The Compass in Green Bay, Wis., who is one of the Catholic press’s most accomplished visual journalists, recently pulled together two slideshows showing the devastation in Haiti after the Jan. 12 earthquake. He’s now put them on the newspaper’s YouTube channel.

The presentation embedded above is particularly striking, combining photos from the scene that we’ve distributed to our client publications with the interview we conducted within 24 hours of the quake with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of Catholic Relief Services.

Here is a link to the other slideshow by The Compass on YouTube. Or, you can watch the original slideshows, which include captions, here and here.

No matter how you watch them, they are stark reminders of the terrible devastation in Haiti and the major role Catholic Relief Services is playing there.

42 arrested at Capitol while calling for closing Guantanamo prison

A campaign to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, escalated Jan. 21 with the arrest of 42 people at the U.S. Capitol.

The protesters, members of the group Witness Against Torture, were calling attention to the lapsed one-year deadline that President Barack Obama had imposed on closing the controversial prison.

Fourteen people were arrested in the Capitol Rotunda as they conducted a memorial service for three men who died at the prison in 2006. The U.S. Army reported the deaths as suicides at the time; however, a recent Harper’s Magazine report revealed that the men may have died during interrogation at Guantanamo Bay.

The remaining 28 arrestees were taken into custody on the Capitol steps while holding banners reading “Broken Promises, Broken Laws, Broken Lives.”

Prior to the nonviolent protest, the protesters, many in orange jumpsuits similar to those worn by the detainees, processed silently from the White House, past the Justice Department and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Matt Daloisio, a member of the New York Catholic Worker and an organizer of the group, told Catholic News Service that the route was designed to draw “connections to all the branches of government that have failed to close Guantanamo.”

Many of the demonstrators took the name of a detainee when they were booked on charges of unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct.

Trials for the 42 defendants are expected in May.

The demonstration came as an 11-day fast by about 100 members of the group neared an end Jan. 22.

Witness Against Torture was established in 2005 with the goal of closing the prison housing suspected terrorists.

The government has cleared 116 of the remaining detainees, but has yet to release them.

The White House has said the president remains committed to closing the detention facility while working toward the purchase and upgrading of the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois for detainees in the war on terror. The plan, a spokesman said, is to make the Illinois facility as secure as possible while working toward the prosecution of detainees charged with crimes before military commissions.

Year for Priests: Thoughts on vocations

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

As a young priest, I am often asked to speak on the topic of vocations to the priesthood.  As a result, I spend a fair amount of energy thinking and conversing about the issue, and was recently encouraged to put a few ideas in writing.  There are, of course, numerous thoughts, books, conferences and opinions concerning the cultivation of vocations. So, while I do not believe these ideas to be innovative, I do hope they serve as good reminders about the support each person makes to the “vineyard.”

Perceptions of holiness

Most people believe that the largest obstacle to the priesthood in the minds of young men is celibacy. However, I have not found this to be true.  As far as religious life is concerned, the vow of obedience is much more daunting to a very independent generation.  Yet, even more than any notions concerning the vows, are ideas that stem from ignorance about the personhood of a priest.  In a recent survey by my own community, we discovered that many young men in our schools have “seriously considered” the priesthood, but do not feel that they are “holy” enough.  We concluded that when priests served in greater numbers, young men had greater opportunities to know the man behind the collar – as a man who struggles with prayer and service as much as most people.  Thus, it seems one task of everyone who promotes vocations is to demystify the preconceived notions of priestly holiness, allowing for priests to be seen as men who are devoted to the spiritual life, but are quite far from holy.  Admittedly, many believe the recent scandals have over-humanized the priesthood, but I have not found this to be true.  Young men seem to know the exceptions when they see them and still place the office of the priesthood on an almost unreachable altar.

A choice among many

The second challenge I have found concerns the choices afforded to those who may consider the priesthood.  In my own community, many of the elder priests entered because that is what a friend was doing or because they did not see many other options available to them.  Many of these men confess that they stayed because they felt called, but their original reason was not as special as some may think.  This is a very different scenario for modern men who are often afforded more options than they know to handle.  Thus, the priesthood must be promoted as one of many choices.  While it is a call, it is often difficult to hear in the beginning.  If men are to hear God’s voice, then the priesthood must be promoted as the best choice over the others.  In the beginning, I believe this requires a pragmatic and inspirational line of reasoning to capture their mind in addition to their heart.

A family affair

While it is important to speak to young men (and women) about vocations, my parents often remind me that I am not the only one living my vocation.  As a religious-order priest, my parents have a whole new family of Basilians, whom are often quite close to them.  Of course, they did not expect this; in fact, they did not know what to expect.  While many people spoke to me about priesthood, no one talked to them.  My parents have since spoken to other parents about what it is like to have a son as a priest, and the response is quite positive.  Simply put, parents have as many concerns as those considering the priesthood, and while they want to support their son, they often do not know how.  My encouragement to pastors has been simple – bring young priests, and their parents, to the parish.  If we are to encourage the families to promote vocations, give the whole family a reason to talk about it.

In closing, I hope you share your thoughts on this topic – successes, concerns and hopes.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil last May and is teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.

Click here for more in this series.

Who’s tweeting for the Vatican?

VATICAN CITY — Over the weekend some media announced that the Vatican had opened a Twitter feed. Intrigued, I quickly went to @vatican_va on Twitter. At first glance, it looked like the Vatican — there was the Vatican coat of arms, the Vatican flag and a link to the Vatican Web site. And hundreds of tweets in many languages, linking to Vatican Radio stories.

Then I e-mailed Father Federico Lombardi, who heads both the Vatican press office and Vatican Radio. I got a response rather quickly, and a surprising one. He said the Twitter feed was news to him, and that neither the press office nor Vatican Radio was doing the tweeting. A call to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications elicited a similar response: it wasn’t them, and they didn’t know who it was.

Hmmm. This was beginning to look more and more like online impersonation.  Perhaps not the first, either: I knew there was already a @vaticanen Twitter feed that also identified itself as “Vatican” without, as far as I knew, any authorization.

A few more calls around the Vatican this morning elicited more surprise and some concern. I have the impression that Vatican Radio may be seriously considering a Twitter feed, and doesn’t like being hijacked like this.

At this point, no one I’ve spoken with here has any idea who’s tweeting for the Vatican. More as it develops…

UPDATE: The Vatican_va tweeter appears to have been silenced. No tweets on http://twitter.com/vatican_va since Monday afternoon. Yesterday someone at the Vatican told me this tweeter wouldn’t be posting for long … and he was right. The whole episode has prompted some Vatican media people to remark, “It wasn’t us — but it should have been us.” So don’t be surprised to see a real Vatican Twitter feed in the future.

Some may be aware of a similar Twitter account that calls itself  “popebenedictxvi“. It posted quite a few items last year about papal activities, gained more than 3,700 followers, and then fell quiet until recently. This tweeter, though, states clearly near the top of the page: “This is not an official Vatican service. I’m just a fan doing his part to spread the word.” And his latest tweet, sent Jan. 24 after the pope issued his World Communications Day message on new media, issues this invitation: “If anyone at the Vatican would like to claim this Twitter acct, pls Direct Message me.” That seems like an offer too good to refuse.

SECOND UPDATE: OK, @vatican_va is back tweeting like crazy again, though it looks like whatever automated system he/she is using to link to Vatican Radio stories is having some hiccups. I really wish there were a way to identify the people behind Twitter accounts.

Pope urges priests to join the digital revolution

An image of Pope Benedict on a Vatican Web site as displayed on an Apple iPod touch. (CNS photo/Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict’s message for World Communications Day 2010, unveiled at a Vatican press conference today, encourages priests around the world to take their pastoral ministry online through Web sites, blogs and videos.

The message says the church cannot afford to ignore the possibilities offered by the digital revolution. Our story today reviews the main themes of the pope’s text, and here are some excerpts:

Responding adequately to this challenge amid today’s cultural shifts, to which young people are especially sensitive, necessarily involves using new communications technologies. The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more Saint Paul’s exclamation: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16)

In this Year for Priests, the pope focused on how the church’s ordained ministers can turn the Internet and new media into powerful instruments of evangelization.

Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis. Using new communication technologies, priests can introduce people to the life of the Church and help our contemporaries to discover the face of Christ.

Lest the church be seen as encouraging a new media “star system” among its clergy, the pope adds a word of caution.

Priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ. This will not only enliven their pastoral outreach, but also will give a “soul” to the fabric of communications that makes up the “Web”.

The pope recognized that digital media will inevitably take priests beyond the church’s own boundaries, requiring a sensitive approach.

A pastoral presence in the world of digital communications, precisely because it brings us into contact with the followers of other religions, non-believers and people of every culture, requires sensitivity to those who do not believe, the disheartened and those who have a deep, unarticulated desire for enduring truth and the absolute.

The main goal of the church’s digital presence should be to remind modern men and women that God is near, he said.

Thanks to the new communications media, the Lord can walk the streets of our cities and, stopping before the threshold of our homes and our hearts, say once more: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).

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