Planting seeds of hope

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Screengrab of Vatican TV footage of today’s private audience between Pope Francis and U.S. President Barack Obama.

VATICAN CITY — One of the many moments pool reporters look forward to when a head of state meets the pope is the gift exchange.

The Vatican most often offers a unique piece of artisan art with a spiritual or Vatican theme. But when it comes to gifts from visiting dignitaries, it’s anything goes: chess sets, sacred or secular art, traditional and native crafts, books and rare manuscripts or teddy bears.

Today U.S. President Barack Obama gave Pope Francis a small chest full of fruit and vegetable seeds that are used in the White House Gardens.

“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” the president said.

“Como no!” the pope replied in Spanish, “Why not?” or “Of course.”

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The seeds were inside individual blue velvet pouches.

“These I think are carrots,” the president said as he opened one of the pouches.

The president said the idea for the seeds came after he heard that Pope Francis had decided to open to the public the gardens at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.

The custom-made box the seeds came in is made from reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore — the first cathedral in the United States and an international symbol of religious freedom.  [UPDATE: read this story by the Archdiocese of Baltimore's The Catholic Review for more interesting background on the box!]

The basilica’s cornerstone was laid by Jesuit Father John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States.

According to the White House, the inscription on the chest reads:

Presented to His Holiness Pope Francis
by Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
March 27, 2014

In addition to the seeds for the papal gardens, the U.S. president was also passing on a donation from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, which is donating enough seeds to yield several tons of produce to any charity the pope chooses.

“The gift honors the commitment of your Holiness to sow the seeds of global peace for future generations,” a White House statement said.

 

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The gifts the president received from the pope included a large bronze medallion of an angel representing solidarity and peace. The angel is “embracing and bringing together the northern and southern hemispheres of the earth, while overcoming the opposition of a dragon,” the Vatican said.

However, Pope Francis specified that the gift was actually a personal gesture from him, “from Jorge Bergoglio. When I saw it, I said: ‘I’ll give it to Obama; it’s the angel of peace,” he told the U.S. president.

The other medal, which the pope said, “is from the pope,” is a replica of a 17th-century medallion commemorating the laying of the first stone of Bernini’s colonnade in St. Peter’s Square.

“I will treasure this,” Obama said.

He also received a copy of the pope’s Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World, “Evangelii Gaudium,” a gift the pope has been giving visiting heads of state.

The president said with a smile: “I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated. I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down.”

When the remark was interpreted for the pope, he smiled, said “I hope,” and chuckled, too.

 

 

U.S. presidents and popes: A look back and a look at tomorrow

U.S. PRESIDENT ARRIVES AT VATICAN FOR MEETING WITH POPE

U.S. President Barack Obama arriving at the Vatican July 10, 2009, when he met Pope Benedict XVI. (CNS photo/Dario Pignatelli, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — With tomorrow’s encounter between Pope Francis and Barack Obama, there will have been 28 U.S. presidential-papal meetings either in the Vatican or in the United States over the past 100 years.

On his blog, Luis Badilla gave a great run-down [click link or see below] of every encounter starting in 1919 between Woodrow Wilson and Pope Benedict XV. A total of 11 presidential-papal meetings took place before the United States and the Vatican finally established formal diplomatic ties exactly 30 years ago.

Tomorrow will be Obama’s second visit to the Vatican since his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, but it will be his first meeting with Pope Francis.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the USCCB has a commentary here about US-Vatican relations and tomorrow’s visit. Here’s a snippet:

Francis will have the opportunity to touch the heart of President Obama. President Obama will have the opportunity to advise the leading churchman of what the Land of the Free can do to improve life for many more of humankind.

Both pope and president have high hopes for the meeting, and given the will that exists, something good can come from it. It’s worth a prayer.

 

Swiss Guards and Vatican officials accompanying U.S. President Barack Obama when he arrived at the Vatican July 10, 2009. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Swiss Guards and Vatican officials accompanying U.S. President Barack Obama when he arrived at the Vatican July 10, 2009. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

John Carr, the former secretary of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development at the USCCB and now director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, has his analysis of what might transpire during tomorrow’s historic meeting, which, he says:

…will be full of symbolism and substance—and contrasts: a young president growing older and more frustrated and an old pope who seems to be growing younger and more empowered. The pope and the president could have a unique discussion on how to keep “hope and change” alive in their demanding offices amid challenging times.

 

Here’s Badilla’s list:

Of the 28 meetings between popes and U.S. presidents, 21 were held at the Vatican, 1 at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo and 6 in the United States. Blessed John Paul II met the most U.S. presidents with 15 encounters while George W. Bush holds the record for the U.S. president with the most papal audiences, 6 in all. Only Blessed John Paul and Benedict XVI have been hosted at the White House.

1. Woodrow Wilson – Benedict XV
Vatican – Jan. 4, 1919
2. Dwight D. Eisenhower – Bl. John XXIII
Vatican – Dec. 6, 1959
3. John F. Kennedy – Paul VI
Vatican – July 2, 1963
4. Lyndon Johnson – Paul VI
New York City – Oct. 4, 1965
5. Lyndon Johnson – Paul VI
Vatican – Dec. 23, 1967
6. Richard Nixon – Paul VI
Vatican – March 2, 1969
7. Richard Nixon – Paul VI
Vatican – Sept. 29, 1970

8. Gerald Ford – Paul VI
Vatican – June 3, 1975

Former U.S. President Gerald Ford with Pope Paul VI, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former first lady Betty Ford at the Vatican in this 1975 file photo. (CNS photo/KNA)

Former U.S. President Gerald Ford with Pope Paul VI, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former first lady Betty Ford at the Vatican in this 1975 file photo. (CNS photo/KNA)

9. Jimmy Carter – Bl. John Paul II
White House – Oct. 6, 1979
10. Jimmy Carter – Bl. John Paul II
Vatican – June 21, 1980
11. Ronald Reagan – Bl. John Paul II
Vatican – June 7, 1982
12. Ronald Reagan – Bl. John Paul II
Fairbanks, Alaska – May 2, 1984
13. Ronald Reagan – Bl. John Paul II
Vatican – June 6, 1987
14. Ronald Reagan – Bl. John Paul II
Miami, Sept. 10, 1987
15. George H.W. Bush Sr. – Bl. John Paul II
Vatican – May 27, 1989
16. George H.W. Bush Sr. – Bl. John Paul II
Vatican – Nov. 8, 1991
17. Bill Clinton  – Bl. John Paul II
Denver, CO - Aug. 12, 1993

Former President Bill Clinton standing with Pope John Paul II during a welcoming ceremony in Denver Aug. 12, 1993. (CNS photo)

Former President Bill Clinton standing with Pope John Paul II during a welcoming ceremony in Denver Aug. 12, 1993. (CNS photo)

18. Bill Clinton  – Bl. John Paul II
Vatican – June 2, 1994
19. Bill Clinton  – Bl. John Paul II
Newark, N.J. – Oct. 4, 1995
20. Bill Clinton  – Bl. John Paul II
St. Louis - Jan. 26, 1999
21. George W. Bush – Bl. John Paul II
Castel Gandolfo – July 23, 2001
22. George W. Bush  – Bl. John Paul II
Vatican – May 28, 2002
23. George W. Bush – Bl. John Paul II
Vatican – June 4, 2004

Former President George W. Bush with Pope John Paul II during a meeting June 4, 2004 at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Former President George W. Bush with Pope John Paul II during a meeting June 4, 2004 at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Reuters)

24. George W. Bush – Benedict XVI
Vatican – June 9, 2007
25. George W. Bush  – Benedict XVI
White House – April 16, 2008
26. George W. Bush – Benedict XVI
Vatican – June 13, 2008
27. Barack Obama – Benedict XVI
Vatican – July 10, 2009

Pope Benedict XVI greeting U.S. President Barack Obama at the Vatican July 10, 2009. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI greeting U.S. President Barack Obama at the Vatican July 10, 2009. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

28. Barack Obama – Francis
Vatican – March 27, 2014

 

Argentine politicos and pope: If you can’t beat him, join him

By David Agren

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — As archbishop of the Argentine capital, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio clashed with President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband, former President Nestor Kirchner.

Shortly after being the cardinal was elected pope, however, posters blanketed Buenos Aires proclaiming Pope Francis an “Argentine and Peronist,” with the president’s supporters claiming Pope Francis as one of their own. They said he was part of the Peronist project to which they belong and which has dominated Argentine politics.

A 2013 poster for midterm elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, features a photo of Pope Francis with Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Martin Insaurralde, mayor of Buenos Aires' Lomas de Zamora district. (CNS photo/Reuters)

A 2013 poster for midterm elections in Buenos Aires, Argentina, features a photo of Pope Francis with Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Martin Insaurralde, mayor of Buenos Aires’ Lomas de Zamora district. (CNS photo/Reuters)

“Pope Francis has always been a fellow Peronist,” says Carlos Luque, one of the thousands of government supporters streaming from the Plaza del Congreso after the president delivered a three-hour address to Congress in early March.

Church observers say Pope Francis was at one time an adherent of Peronism, a political movement founded by former President Juan Peron and his wife, Eva Peron. The movement has had strains stretching from left to right on the political spectrum.

“Bergoglio always came across as allied with Peronism. Why? Because Bergoglio probably saw in Peronism a non-Marxist force and sensitive to people’s needs,” says Jose Maria Poirier, director of the Catholic magazine, Criterio.

“In the 1960s, Bergoglio was against the Peronism of the left that ended up in guerrilla movements. He instead stayed closer to a Peronism that was more to the right.”

Then Nestor Kirchner came to power after the political and economic crisis of 2001, when Argentina defaulted on its debts of nearly $100 billion. Supporters speak of both Kirchners’ spending on social programs, students and the poor.

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio greets worshippers after celebrating Holy Thursday Mass in 2008 at a church in the Parque Patricios neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. (CNS/Reuters)

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio greets worshippers after celebrating Holy Thursday Mass in 2008 at a church in the Parque Patricios neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina. (CNS/Reuters)

But in the capital, the cardinal expressed suspicions of their populist politics and promotion of patronage groups among the poor. He criticized corruption during the traditional Te Deum Mass, celebrated on the May 25 national holiday and attended by the president.

The Kirchners took the criticism personally and stopped attending. Poirier figures they disliked the pope’s style as much as substance.

“One of the problems for Cristina Kirchner is that she’s not credible,” Poirier says.

“She has a certain charisma and political popularity, but her discourse often changes, and there’s a distance between the enrichment of many ministers and real life,” he adds.

“There’s a discourse that is not accompanied with a lifestyle. One of things that bothered them most about Bergoglio was his austerity.”

But with election of Pope Francis, priests and observers say both sides have made improving the relationship a priority. It’s improved to the point that Fernandez is expected to attend the Te Deum Mass this year, instead of heading for the provinces.

“Bergoglio has seen many people from Argentina now that he’s pope,” said Poirier. “He’s seen many politicians, union leaders, economic directors, and what generally leaks out is that he says: ‘Tend to Cristina. She has to finish her term. Institutions must be looked after. She’s the president.’”

Church-state cooperation on the world stage: one nation’s milestone

VATICAN CITY — It seems hard to believe, but it took 117 years for the United States to re-establish full diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Decades of debate (that are periodically re-ignited) voiced concern that any formal relationship by the U.S. would signal improper government support of religion. The argument against has said that diplomatic ties were inappropriate because the Vatican, though constituted as a civil state, is the Holy See of the Catholic Church.

However, the increased push on the world stage by Blessed John Paul II and his predecessors for peace and human rights played a big role in building a sense of there being common ground and goals between the two countries.

The upgrading of relations with the United States was followed by a big expansion of the diplomatic corps to the Vatican.  Blessed John Paul’s pontificate saw a near-doubling of the number of countries with which the Vatican holds diplomatic relations.

1985 FILE PHOTO OF AMBASSADOR WILSON WITH POPE JOHN PAUL II

The late William A. Wilson was the first U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. He is greeted by Blessed John Paul II at the Vatican in this 1985 file photo. U.S. President Ronald Reagan named Wilson ambassador in 1984 after establishing full diplomatic relations with the Vatican. (CNS photo)

Today is the 30th anniversary of the official resumption of U.S-Vatican relations and we thought we’d dig into our CNS archives to see how we covered that historic moment.

First, the story from Washington covered by the intrepid Jim Lackey: (Click the link for a more readable pdf version: 1CNS_USVaticanRelations)

1CNS_USVaticanRelations

And here’s a look at Vatican reaction from the Rome bureau by John Thavis:

(Click the link for a more readable pdf version:  CNS_USVatican)

CNS_USVatican

“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.

POPE PAUL VI RECEIVES PRESIDENT KENNEDY AT VATICAN IN 1963

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.

Cardinal George on the HHS mandate

ROME — Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, currently in Rome for a series of meetings with Vatican officials, spoke yesterday with CNS about the church’s ongoing dispute with the Obama administration over the HHS contraception mandate.

The immediate past president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had some insightful observations about what is at stake, and how the dispute could play out in the courts and the political arena.

US religion writers pick bishops’ battle with HHS as 2012 top news story

Members of the Religion Newswriters Association, the world’s oldest and largest professional non-denominational association for journalists who write about religion, picked the U.S. Catholic bishops’ opposition to national health care legislation mandating contraception coverage as the No. 1 religion story of 2012. They also chose Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York as the year’s top newsmaker in their annual poll

“As the nation reeled from the Dec. 14 killing of 20 first graders and six adults in Newtown, Conn., religious leaders sought to console a stunned public and to discern religion’s role in future debates about mental health and gun control. The No. 1 U.S. religion story in December 2012 was, without a doubt, the school attack and the mournful search for meaning that follows,” an RNA statement said this week. “However, before the shooting, professional journalists who cover religion voted on the year’s other significant religious events.”

The Top 10 poll of Religion Newswriters Association members took place Dec. 11- 15, 2012, in a confidential, online ballot. More than 100 members of the organization responded. RNA has conducted the poll for nearly 40 years.

Most RNA members are working journalists in secular media, though some work in media owned by specific denominations. (Full disclosure: I am a member of RNA.)

Cardinal Dolan, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, became the point man for Catholic objections to required coverage of contraception, sterilization and morning after drugs in Affordable Health Care Act.

The Top 10 Religion Stories of the Year are below:

1. U.S. Catholic bishops lead opposition to Affordable Health Care Act requirement that insurance coverage for contraception be provided for employees. The government backs down a bit, but not enough to satisfy the opposition.

2. A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey shows that “nones,” that is people with no religious affiliation, is the fastest-growing religious group in the United States, rising to 19.6 percent of the population.

3. The circulation of an anti-Islam film trailer, “Innocence of Muslims,” causes unrest in several countries, leading to claims that it inspired the fatal attack on a U.S. Consulate in Libya. President Obama, at the U.N., calls for toleration tolerance of blasphemy, and respect as a two-way street.

4. Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith turns out to be a virtual non-issue for white evangelical voters, who support him more strongly than they did John McCain in the U.S. presidential race.

5. Msgr. William Lynn of Philadelphia becomes the first senior Catholic official in the U.S. to be found guilty of covering up priestly child abuse; later Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., becomes the first bishop to be found guilty of it.

6. The Vatican criticizes the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group of U.S. sisters, alleging they haven’t supported church teaching on abortion, sexuality or women’s ordination.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was selected as newsmaker of the year for 2012 by the Religion Newswriters Association. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was selected as newsmaker of the year for 2012 by the Religion Newswriters Association. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

7. Voters OK same-sex marriage in Maine, Maryland and Washington, bringing the total approving to nine states and the District of Columbia. Also, Minnesota defeats a ban on same-sex marriage after North Carolina approves one.

8. The Episcopal Church overwhelmingly adopts a trial ritual for blessing same-sex couples. Earlier, the United Methodists fail to vote on approving gay clergy, and the Presbyterians (USA) vote to study, rather than sanction, same-sex marriage ceremonies.

9. Six people are killed and three wounded at worship in a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee. The shooter, an Army veteran killed by police, is described as a neo-Nazi.

10. The Southern Baptist Convention elects without opposition its first black president, the Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans.

Votes for the 2012 Religion Newsmaker of the Year ranked the five potential candidates in this order:

1. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York becomes a point man for Catholic objections to required coverage of contraception, sterilization and morning-after drugs in the Affordable Health Care Act. But the cardinal also takes heat from the right when he invites the president to the traditional Al Smith Dinner in New York.

2. Rev. Fred Luter, first black president of the sprawling Southern Baptist Convention, who is expected to help the SBC become more racially diverse.

3. Mark Basseley Youssef, an Egypt-born Christian whose work has been condemned by the Coptic Church, provoked rioting in the Muslim world with his film trailer “Innocence of Muslims.” He was jailed in California on probation violations.

4. Mormon voters, who enthusiastically backed one of their own for president, acted in ways that helped overcome suspicions of them by other faiths.

5. Pro football quarterback Tim Tebow, whose book about his faith was on the best-seller list, inspired the term “Tebowing” for kneeling in prayer and led to polarized discussions about the role of faith in sports.

Setting the record straight

Cardinal Dolan

Yesterday the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights complained that we had downplayed last Friday evening’s letter from Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to his fellow bishops. The cardinal’s strongly worded letter charged that the White House was ignoring the bishops’ religious freedom concerns in the rules that would mandate contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans.

Here’s what the Catholic League initially said about our coverage:

Catholic News Service never commented on, or posted, Cardinal Dolan’s letter in its “News Stories” section; instead, it relegated it to its blog postings, never highlighting the USCCB-America dispute.

As we advised the Catholic League shortly after the news release was issued yesterday, this seriously misrepresented our coverage of the cardinal’s letter.

Cardinal Dolan’s letter to his fellow U.S. bishops on Friday was an expanded version of his Thursday blog post. We reported on the cardinal’s blog item (More ‘confusion than clarity’ about HHS mandate, Cardinal Dolan says), but Friday’s expanded letter came too late for us to update that story.

Since we had already closed the wire for the week when the letter arrived late Friday afternoon, our solution — which we often do when news breaks at odd hours — was to write about the cardinal’s letter on our blog for Catholic readers over the weekend. We also posted a link to it on our Facebook page describing it as breaking news that evening.

Monday morning after we reopened the wire we wrote and posted for our clients a 650-word story on the cardinal’s letter. You can read that story here.

Our public website only includes a fraction of the stories, photos and other material we provide to our paying clients. This is why the Catholic League presumably assumed in issuing its release yesterday that we had not done a detailed story on the cardinal’s letter. (Our Monday story also prominently mentions the USCCB dispute with America magazine’s editorial, which the Catholic League says we never highlighted.)

The Catholic League’s initial misrepresentation of our coverage of the cardinal’s letter has spawned other errors. Spero News ran the Catholic League’s release under the ludicrously silly headline Catholic News Service spikes Cardinal Dolan.

Catholic League communication director Jeff Field did respond to CNS’s concerns today and amended the original post to note that “while there was no CNS story on this issue posted to its website, there was one that was sent to its client list.” We appreciate the Catholic League’s willingness to set the record straight. Unfortunately in a digital world, the original remains in places like Spero and other news aggregators.

Finally, no other news organization — Catholic or secular — has covered the U.S. bishops struggle on religious liberty issues, including the HHS mandate, more than Catholic News Service. Nor has CNS taken any editorial position, even benignly, against the work of the USCCB. As a wire service, CNS does not take editorial positions. It is too busy covering the daily news of a global church.

Politics of peace? Patriarch’s visit does not include Washington

As Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai begins a visit to the United States, one prominent city is missing from his itinerary. The patriarch will not be visiting Washington, D.C., nor will he be meeting with U.S. President Obama, despite a meeting Maronite officials said was scheduled at the White House for 2 p.m. Oct. 3.

To some, including Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of Brooklyn, this is a public rebuff. In a strongly worded open letter to Obama, Bishop Mansour called it “pure hypocrisy for the leader of the free world to refuse to meet with Patriarch Rai, especially since the prime minister of Israel can come and completely disregard essential parts of a peace plan and still be given a warm welcome, and the king of Saudi Arabia, where Christians have no freedom whatsoever, can be received with highest honors.”

Patriarch Rai is not a head of state, so many will find these comparisons invalid. He is the elected leader of the world’s Maronite Catholics, members of an Eastern rite in union with Rome. Of the approximately 5.5 million Maronite Catholics worldwide, approximately 4.5 million live in outside Lebanon.

Why then, would Maronite officials be so incensed?

Chorbishop Michael Thomas, Bishop Mansour’s vicar general, told Catholic News Service that, last spring, after the new patriarch was elected, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who is of Lebanese descent, visited the new Maronite leader to congratulate him. At that time, LaHood invited Patriarch Rai to visit Washington and meet with Obama, and the patriarch accepted.

Chorbishop Thomas said Bishop Mansour was given the Oct. 3 date early in September. He said that, early the week of Sept. 19, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon visited the patriarch “to ask his stance on certain issues,” including Syria. Chorbishop Thomas said Lahood told Bishop Mansour Sept. 22 that Obama had no intention of meeting with the patriarch because of the Maronite leader’s stance on Syria.

Many Maronite officials, including Bishop Mansour, feel the patriarch is being punished for speaking honestly about the plight of Christians in Syria, where, like Iraqi Christians under Saddam Hussein, they have been somewhat protected by a dictator.

Archbishop Paul El-Sayah, former archbishop of Haifa, Israel, and now Patriarch Rai’s vicar general, recently told Catholic News Service’s Doreen Abi Raad: “The patriarch and the Maronite church are for the promotion of freedom, democracy and rights for all, and the church never supported any regime of any kind. We’re neither for nor against a regime. We judge a regime on its merits and how it deals with the values of freedom, democracy and rights.”

Speaking specifically about Syria, Archbishop El-Sayah said: “Change is important, and it should come about when those values are not honored. But we’d like to see peaceful change — change through dialogue, not through violence. And we are concerned also that violent change could lead to civil war.

“Everyone knows what kind of disaster civil war is,” he added. “Iraq is a very loud example. In Iraq the Christian minority paid a huge price. Two-thirds of Christians had to leave Iraq.”

UPDATE: A White House spokesman told Catholic News Service that the White House neither scheduled nor canceled a meeting with Patriarch Rai.

After the Arab dictators fall, will democracy follow?

A big question on everyone’s mind since the Arab Spring began  and dictators from North Africa to the Arabian peninsula began falling like dominos is “what will take their place?” In some places — Egypt, Tunisia and Libya the most recent — the rebels prevailed. Yet the opposition is unorganized. Who will fill the power vacuums and what form of government will emerge are still largely guesswork. Western hopes always look to democracy, but there is no guarantee. None of these states has ever had anything remotely resembling a democracy. Can it work?

Another even more compelling debate is whether democracy can work in an Islamic culture. Can one of the oldest forms of government and one of the world’s largest religions exist in harmony? Recall that not so many years ago some wondered whether Christian principles and a secular democracy could go hand-in-hand.

In the July issue of One magazine, the official publication of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, scholar John L. Esposito explores this issue in his article, “Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?” Esposito, a professor of international affairs and of Islamic studies, is the founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington. His conclusion: “The relationship of Islam and democracy remains central to the development of the Middle East and the Muslim world in the 21st century,” but it won’t be easy ironing it out. Moreover, the survival of ancient Christian communities in these lands may very well depend on a successful outcome.

Also check out the Alwaleed Center site for a video of Esposito discussing the future of Christian communities in the Middle East with pollster James Zogby.

What are your thoughts on the chances of democracy catching fire in these once oppressed nations?

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