Comet ISON brightens significantly in pre-dawn sky; celestial Thanksgiving feast on schedule

Comet ISON brightened last week and is already putting on a spectacular show for comet watchers.

isonComet_outlinesThe first time interloper to the inner sanctums of the solar system remains on schedule for a reaching peak brightness early Thanksgiving morning.

Karl Battams, astrophysicist and computational scientist at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, wrote on the NASA Comet ISON Observing Campaign website that the comet may be undergoing some changes. What they are, astronomers aren’t sure yet. But they’re enjoying the show.

Astronomers theorize the brightening could be attributed to some fracturing of the three to four-mile wide comet or because it has gotten close enough to the sun to allow more gases to flow outward. It’s estimated that

A Nov. 17 photo by Austrian astronomer Michael Jaeger revealed a 10 million-mile tail that spanned 7 degrees across the sky. That’s pretty long by anyone’s estimation.

Observers with clear skies will see the comet just before sunrise in the southeastern sky. The moon may wash out some of its brightness, but should become a non-factor as the comet reaches peak brightness next week.

If Comet ISON isn’t enough, there is another bright comet that can be observed in the early morning hours.

Comet Lovejoy, while not as spectacular, is just barely at naked eye visibility and now can be seen between the Big Dipper and the constellation Leo. Binoculars or a small telescope will definitely help. It will continue to move westward and then southwestward in early December through neighboring constellations.

Surely, this Thanksgiving promises quite a visual feast for early risers.

Update December 5:

Comet ISON exists no more except for widely scattered dust particles.

The visitor from the edges of the solar system broke up on closest approach to the sun on Thanksgiving Day and won’t be putting on a the show that many comet watchers had expected.

There was a bit of hope that the comet survived its passage around the sun when a bright ball of light with a couple of short tails was observed by satellites. But that brightening was the last gasp for ISON.

Battams’ wrote a short obit memorializing the comet on the Comet ISON Observing Campaign website.

For now astronomers will be studying the data in an effort to help them better understand the makeup of the solar system.

It’s never too early to think about Christmas wishlists…

audience nov 20 2013

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square Nov. 20, 2013. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — Have you attended one of the pope’s weekly general audiences in St. Peter’s Square?

If so and you’d like a memento of that day, you should know that you can order online a DVD of Vatican Television’s full coverage of the event.

Obviously anyone can purchase the DVDs and you can pick any general audience spanning from April 21, 2010 to today’s. Those dates include some historic gatherings like Pope Benedict’s last general audience Feb. 27.

The Italian-based website has partnered with the Vatican for a while now, helping people around the world order and receive print, audio and visual media produced by Vatican outlets as well as some religious articles.

In fact, with the Christmas countdown now at “35 Days to Go,” it may not be too early to look for some special gifts from the Vatican.

The site offers things like:

Some unique offerings include:

  • Cardinals seen in Sistine Chapel to begin conclave to elect successor to Pope Benedict at Vatican

    Cardinals entering the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel March 12 as they begin the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

    A double CD titled “Music of the Conclave,” with the complete live recordings of the liturgical music sung by the Sistine Chapel Choir and the cardinal electors chanting before entering the conclave that eventually elected Pope Francis.

  • A four-CD box set of “the only recording ever” of Pope Benedict praying the entire rosary in Latin.
  • (Though they’re sold out…) the official and misspelled “LESUS” medal of Pope Francis’ pontificate.
  • A stuffed “Bedtime Bunny” that children can take to bed and, when they press its tummy, helps them recite a classic bedtime prayer.


That hug from the pope “felt like paradise”

Pope Francis' General Audience

Pope Francis hugs Vinicio Riva in St. Peter’s Square at the end of his general audience, November 6, 2013. CNS photo/ Claudio Peri, EPA)

VATICAN CITY — When an Italian photographer published images of Pope Francis embracing a man disfigured by neurofibromatosis, no one knew his name or where he was from.

Two Italian news outlets have found the man and interviewed him about that morning  Nov. 6 in St. Peter’s Square. He said the pope’s embrace felt like being in heaven.

“My heart was bursting,” he told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. When the pope hugged him tight, “I felt like I was in paradise.”

Vinicio Riva, 53, lives in a small village near Vicenza in northern Italy with his younger sister Morena, who has the same genetic disorder, and their Aunt Caterina, who cares for them.

Vinicio told the Italian magazine Panorama that the thing that struck him most was that the pope didn’t hesitate at all.

“I’m not contagious, but (the pope) didn’t know that. But he did it, period: he caressed my whole face and while he was doing it, I only felt love.

First, I kissed his hand, while he caressed my head and wounds with his other hand,” Vinicio explained.

“Then he pulled me toward him, hugging me tight and kissing my face. My head was against his chest and his arms were wrapped around me. He held me so tightly, cuddling me, and he didn’t let go. I tried to speak, to say something, but I wasn’t able to: I was too choked up. It lasted just a little more than a minute, but, for me, it seemed like forever.

“The pope’s hands are so soft. Soft and beautiful. And his smile (is) bright and wide.”

Neurofibromatosis results in numerous, often painful benign tumors. Vinicio said they constantly itch and he’ll wake in the morning with his shirt soaked with blood from scratching.

“The first signs appeared after I was 15. They said I would be dead by 30. Instead, here I am.”

He was frequently shunned by people who didn’t know him, he said.

The worst episode, he said, occurred one day as he sat in the front of a bus and a passenger told him to go sit in the back, saying, “‘You horrify me and I don’t want to look at you.’ No one, not even the driver came to my defense. In fact, many passengers agreed with the man. That really hurt,” he said.

Aunt Caterina told Panorama that when she and Vinicio would be sitting in hospital waiting rooms when he was young, she would hold him close and hug him tight whenever people cringed or moved away in fear.

She embraced him “to make them understand” — both Vinicio and the others — that there was nothing repulsive or scary about him, she said.

Vinicio works as a volunteer in a retirement home, where his father lives. However, when they see each other, their father can’t bring himself to hug his son, said Morena, the sister. Their father “is embarrassed by his disease. He only says, ‘Do you want a coffee?’”

But Vinicio disagreed with his sister, Morena, and said their father has his own way of showing his love.

He told Panorama that he has lots of friends and is loved by almost everyone in his village. He goes out with friends for pizza and to watch soccer matches. He also flirts with the nurses, the magazine said, and, although he only earns a small allowance volunteering, he spends a good chunk of that money on them.

“So dastardly a crime…” Pope Paul VI’s reaction 50 years ago

VATICAN CITY — After Pope Paul VI heard the news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he took the unusual step of letting a U.S. film crew into his papal apartments to record him reading a message of condolences.

Aired by ABC television Nov. 23, 1963 , the papal message in English came the day after the president was killed during an open motorcade in Dallas, Texas.

We are deeply shocked by the sad and tragic news of the killing of the president of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and the serious wounding of Governor (John) Connally (of Texas), and we are profoundly saddened by so dastardly a crime, by the mourning which afflicts a great and civilized country in its head, by the suffering which strikes at Mrs. Kennedy, her children and the family.

With all our heart, We deplore this unhappy event. We express the heartfelt wish that the death of this great statesman may not damage the cause of the American people, but rather reinforce its moral and civil sentiments, and strengthen its feelings of nobility and concord; [official text cut in video: and we pray to God that the sacrifice of John Kennedy may be made to favor the cause he promoted and to help defend the freedom of peoples and peace in the world.]

He was the first Catholic president of the United States; We recall our pleasure in receiving his visit and in having discerned in him great wisdom and high resolution for the good of humanity. Tomorrow, we shall offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that God may grant him eternal rest, that he may comfort and console all those who weep for him on his death, and in order that not hatred, but Christian love, should reign among all mankind.

– Pope Paul VI  11/23/63

The pope had met the first Catholic president of the United States only a few months earlier July 2 at the Vatican.

Pope Paul’s papacy had begun just several days earlier on June 21, but it wasn’t the first time the pope had met JFK.


President John F. Kennedy shakes hands with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican July 2, 1963. The pope spoke to the president about race relations, space exploration, world peace and U.S. aid to developing nations. (CNS file photo)

In his speech, the pope recalled first meeting him almost 25 years earlier when the then-20- year-old accompanied his parents to the Vatican for the coronation of Pope Pius XII March 12, 1939.  President Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., was U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain at the time and was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to act as his special representative at the papal coronation.

While President Kennedy’s 1963 visit marked just the third time a U.S. chief executive visited the pope while still in office, there had been another historic meeting a year earlier: when his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy visited Pope John XXIII March 11, 1962.

It was dubbed “one of the longest private audiences” Pope John ever granted. You can read some of the details in this gem I found deep in the Catholic News Service Rome bureau archives. Click on the image to read the whole story.

cns story jackie k

Hat tip to Fr. Joseph Komonchak and his post the other day recalling JFK’s visit to the Pontifical North American College in Rome while he was a seminarian there and first linking to these historic videos posted by HelmerReenberg.

Caption contest: Which were your favorites?

Pope Francis talks with Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano as he arrives for his first state visit to the Quirinal presidential palace in Rome Nov. 14. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis talks with Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano as he arrives for his first state visit to the Quirinal presidential palace in Rome Nov. 14. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

If you missed it, yesterday after Pope Francis went to Italy’s presidential palace for his first state visit, we couldn’t resist calling for a caption contest for this Paul Haring photo of the pope with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.

Well, it wasn’t really a contest with prizes (we’ll leave that to our friends at The Catholic Weekly in Sydney, Australia) and we weren’t going to declare winners or runners-up. That’s good because so many captions were suggested, especially on our Facebook page, that it would be hard to declare an overall winner. (I won’t even mention that on a Friday afternoon after a busy week, I’m not feeling very ambitious.)

But there were some great ideas that should not go unnoticed. For instance, this was a clear favorite among some at CNS:

And here’s one with a historical reference (if you don’t get it, just reread our story):

Or, there’s simple:

As I indicated above, be sure to check out the comments on our Facebook page as well. Right now there are 170 replies there. (You don’t need to be a Facebook member to look.)

Or, suggest your own below.

Full house at the home of mercy

World Youth Day pilgrim goes to confession at park in Rio de Janeiro

A pilgrim at confession at Boa Vista Park in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

VATICAN CITY — There’s been lots of anecdotal evidence of a boom in people going to confession because of what Pope Francis has been saying about it:

  • It’s not a psychiatric session that neglects the question of sin or a mental email to God that avoids the face-to-face encounter with the Lord through the priest.
Priest hears a confession during diocesan-wide Day of Penance at New York church

Father Dennis Noelke hears a confession at Christ the King Church in Irondequoit, N.Y., during the diocese’s Day of Penance in March. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier)

It’s an encounter with Jesus whose “mercy motivates us to do better,” the pope has said.

“God is happy when he gives us his mercy,” and it’s that invitation to not be afraid to ask for God’s forgiveness that is fueling the boom, said the regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Vatican court that deals with the sacrament of penance.

Msgr. Krzysztof Nykie told Vatican Radio today that the four papal basilicas and churches around the Vatican are “full of people who are asking for confession and for dedicating time for prayer,” particularly on a Wednesday general audience day and the day of the Sunday Angelus.


A priest hearing confession during a penance service led by Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter’s Basilica March 13, 2008. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

“They are coming to confession with greater confidence and a sincere spirit of repentance,” he said.

The pope has been emphasizing the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation because “God’s mercy is at the heart of the Gospel message,” the monsignor said.

“Jesus came to save those who are lost,” and the pope wants all men and women to know that conversion and salvation are always possible at any time in life.

He said he hoped more and more people would see the confessional as a unique place “to experience God’s love as greater than any sin.”

It’s the same message the officials at the Apostolic Penitentiary have been giving for a while, as can be seen in this CNS story right before Pope Francis’ March 13 election.  Now it’s a message more people seem to be hearing.

Love thy neighbor

Pope leaves Basilica of St. John Lateran after meeting with clergy from Diocese of Rome

Pope Francis leaving the Basilica of St. John Lateran after a meeting with clergy from the Diocese of Rome Sept. 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — There may be a slight change in protocol tomorrow when Pope Francis makes his first official state visit to Italy.

The traditional visit is held at the Quirinale the ornate Italian presidential palace in the heart of Rome that served for centuries as a papal residence until 1870, when the Papal States were overthrown and Italy was united.

Italian military police patrol around St. Peter's Square at Vatican

Members of the Carabinieri, the Italian military police force, patroling around St. Peter’s Square Feb. 21. (CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters)

The formal encounter is marked by colorful ceremony, pomp and pageantry.

The pope is typically escorted by Italian security from the border between Vatican City and Italy.  A military band plays as the pope rides slowly in a motorcade through downtown Rome, past crowds of cheering Romans, his car flanked by a squad of helmeted carabinieri police on horseback and motorcycles. There’s a quick pit stop at city hall to greet the mayor before taking off again up the hill to the 16th-century (formerly papal, now presidential) palace to meet with the Italian president and other dignitaries.


Pope Benedict XVI walking with Italian President Azeglio Ciampi during his first official state visit to the Quirinal Palace in Rome June 24, 2005. (CNS photo from L’Osservatore Romano)

Maybe to save money or to mirror Pope Francis’ more simple style, Italian officials said the motorcade will be significantly reduced tomorrow and the fancy plume-helmeted police will leave their horses back at the barracks. They also promised there would be some new features while still respecting the proper protocol for a visiting pope.

What’s interesting is the pope is the only head of state Italy still pulls out all the stops for.


Italian flags fly during a Sunday Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square in Nov. 2011. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

When the fledgling republic was formed after 1946, Italy apparently drove every visiting head of state in a presidential vehicle, accompanied by police on horseback, for 12 miles from the airport to the Quirinale.

Over time the ceremonial motorcade was cut back to the last half-mile from Piazza Venezia, but even that got scrapped eventually because it caused (more than the usual) traffic snarls and irate commuters.

“We see faith, love rising from the ruins”

Woman comforts pregnant relative at makeshift birthing clinic after super typhoon hits Philippines

A woman comforts a pregnant relative having labor pains before she delivered a baby Nov. 11 at a makeshift birthing clinic in typhoon-battered Tacloban, Philippines. (CNS photo/Erik De Castro, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — With his voice quavering and overcome with emotion, Cardinal Luis Tagle of Manila thanked people for supporting desperately needed relief efforts in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan.

In an interview just posted on Vatican Radio, the cardinal said the risk of further deaths from starvation or lack of clean water is very real as some affected areas still haven’t gotten aid, especially poorer villages where people are on “the brink of real hunger and thirst and the lack of basic necessities.”

While the unimaginable level of destruction has left people shocked and speechless, the outpouring of support is offering deep consolation, he said.

Girl transfers drinking water she collected after super typhoon hits Philippines

A girl transfers drinking water she collected from a faucet Nov. 12. Aid agencies faced challenges getting food and water to hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. (CNS photo/Romeo Ranoco, Reuters)

However, it’s not enough to keep back the tears at the end of the interview as the cardinal sums up the string of tragedies the region has faced and the undying faith still displayed by the survivors.

“We see rubble, we see ruins everywhere but we see also faith, love arising from the ruins and making us stronger people. I want to thank everyone, the Holy Father, our brothers and sisters outside the country for remembering us and trying their best to reach out, in the name of the victims and the poor, we really thank you.”

Pope Francis again called for generosity both in prayers and concrete assistance:

Caritas Internationalis and their member organizations are continuing their appeals for help.

  • €6 ($8) provides a water kit for a family. This includes 1 jerry can, 1 pail and tabs for water purification.
  • €11 ($15) provides an emergency shelter kit. This includes tarps and nails that are combined with local materials to create emergency shelter.
  • €16 ($22) provides household living supplies. This includes sleeping mats, three blanket, utensils, plastics, glasses, and a cooking pot.
  • €21 ($28) provides hygiene kits. This includes a two-month family supply of soap, laundry powder, toothbrush, toothpaste, feminine sanitary napkins, and towels.

There are many ways to help and all of them are as easy as a click of a button:

Also Cardinal Tagle published this “Prayer for Calamities” today in English and Tagalog

UPDATED: Where to give to help Typhoon Haiyan victims

Catholic aid agencies helping Filipinos affected by Typhoon Haiyan, the largest Pacific storm of the year and perhaps the largest storm ever,  are seeking donations.



The Catholic Relief Services country representative in the Philippines, Joe Curry, said this typhoon — known in the Philippines as Yolanda — combined with Typhoon Bopha last December and the earthquake in October created a “very trying time … for all the people in the middle of it and being affected by it.”

Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican-based international network of Catholic aid agencies, was accepting donations on its website. Catholic Relief Services, a Caritas network member in the United States, had a “Donate Now” button on its website page that explained its plans. And Filipinos who want to donate can go directly to Caritas Philippines.

Other agencies providing help include the Catholic Medical Mission Board , Cross Catholic Outreach and the International Catholic Migration Commission.

Encore: the Vatican’s conductor in red

VATICAN CITY — Imagine a musical conductor dressed in red instead of the traditional black. On May 15, 2011, Italian Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, who died today at the age of 96, was wearing his cardinal red as he directed a choir during a Tridentine Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica. It was the first time in several decades that the old Mass had been celebrated at the altar.

I was searching for images of Cardinal Bartolucci today and came across this video clip I made of him that day. It’s short glimpse into the life of a man who led the Sistine Chapel Choir for more than 40 years. Beauty will live on.


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