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

 

The singing Ursuline sister: “I have a gift to give”

ROME — Pope Francis’ call for the church to “get out onto the streets” and evangelize helped inspire 25-year-old Ursuline Sister Cristina Scuccia to hit the stage and sing before millions of viewers last week.

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Screengrab of Ursuline Sister Cristina Scuccia, 25, who appeared March 19 on the singing competition TV show, The Voice of Italy.

“I have a gift and I’m giving it to you,” she told judges and her audience after she floored them with her March 19 appearance on the singing competition TV show: The Voice of Italy belting out Alicia Keys’ “No one.”

Sister Cristina actually found her religious vocation thanks to her love for music and the stage.

As a teenager, Cristina had no place for God in her life.

“After Confirmation, I distanced myself from the church and I was angry with God,” she told the Italian religious weekly magazine, Credere.it in July 2013. Even making the sign of the cross before family meals was something she rebelled against, she said.

Singing, voice lessons and doing local festivals and wedding gigs with her band were all she cared about, she said. She had a boyfriend, worked at a call center, went to college and auditioned — unsuccessfully — for spots on two Italian TV talent shows.

Cristina was always on the move, constantly looking for “something that I wasn’t finding in my life, running nonstop without getting the answers I was hoping for,” she told Credere.it.

She said her mother told her about an upcoming musical production of the life of Sister Rosa Roccuzzo, the foundress of the Ursuline Sisters of the Holy Family, and Cristina landed the lead part of Sister Rosa.

“I had shown up in order to be able to sing and dance; but the challenges Sister Rosa had launched a century ago, about the gift of one’s existence, always kept ringing inside me.”

Torn between pursuing music or become a nun, she said she quickly found her way to God, “saying, ‘Here I am,’ like Samuel.”

She spent a year and a half in Rome as a postulant and then did her novitiate in Brazil working with children and young adults on the street in the outskirts of Sao Paulo.

“Music helped me make contact with them and I rediscovered singing as a way to praise the Lord, as something my soul needed, and as an instrument for touching people’s hearts,” she said.

She certainly touched people’s hearts as her performance went viral around the world on YouTube:

The back-and-forth banter between Sister Cristina and the four “coaches” is interesting and revealing. Here’s an English translation of some of what was said during the episode, starting after Sister Cristina explains that she’s from Sicily:

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Screengrab of Italian singer Raffaela Carra’, who is one of the four “coaches” on The Voice.

Raffaella Carrà: Listen Sister Cristina, are you a real nun or…?

Sister Cristina: I’m truly a real nun!

R.C.: It’s not possible. But how did it ever cross your mind to come be on The Voice?

Sr.C.: Well, I have a gift and I’m giving it to you, right? That’s the way it is!

R.C.: Honestly, I would be curious to know, but I won’t conduct an in-depth interview to learn about your decision to become a nun, certainly you had your reasons, however, to be able to sing like this…I’m at a total loss, you know, dear sister?!

Sr.C.: Rather, I can imagine.

R.C.: Well, ok. Also, J-Ax was the first to turn around [to show a vote of approval for her "Blind Audition" tryout].

Sr. C.: J-Ax! He’s the best! It’s so wonderful!

… [back and forth about how she has to choose which coach to join forces with]

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Screengrab of Italian rapper J-Ax, the judge Sr. Cristina chose to be her coach on The Voice.

J-Ax: Hello sister! I am–

Sr. C.: Awesome! [gives thumbs up]

J-Ax: You’re the sister, I’m the “uncle” [dude]. Listen, I’m not sure, but do you sing in church on Sundays?

Sr. C.: Yes, absolutely!

J-Ax: I don’t know, but if you sing in church on Sundays, with the donations, we all can get out of paying ‘IMU’ [taxes] for sure.

Sr. C.: [continues in jest] Perhaps I can suggest it to the parish priest.

J-Ax: If I had found you when I was a child when I used to go to Mass, I’d be pope right now! I would have kept going [to church]!

Sr. C.: Very good! You’ve found it now!

J-Ax: You know how music operates a lot off of a play [a mix of opposites]: sweet-salty, right? The caress-the slap…You and I are unbeatable, you know why? We are the devil and holy water! You have to come on my team!

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Screengrab of Italian blues singer Noemi, who is one of the four “coaches” on The Voice.

Noemi: [About how she couldn't believe her eyes when she turned around and saw a nun singing like that and choosing such a modern song...] No! I beg you. I am holy water like you, we’ll be an impeccable [sinless] duo. Don’t choose the devils!

J-Ax: But we’re just little devils.

R.C.: Well, I’m not a devil, hmpf!

Noemi: Choose holy water!

R.C.: What do you think the Vatican is saying about you appearing on The Voice?

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Sr. C.: Hmm, look, I don’t know, I’ll wait for the phone call from Pope Francis, for sure. Because he invites us to go out, to evangelize, to tell people God doesn’t take anything away [from you], rather he gives us even more! I’m came here for this!

R.C.: Brava! Brava

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Screengrab of Italian rapper J-Ax, the judge Sr. Cristina chose to be her coach on The Voice.

Noemi: He’s starting to cry. [referring to J-Ax who is tearing up even more]

——–

What did you think of Sister Cristina’s performance and its effect on the judges, the audience?

Can this be a positive form of evangelization, as she says?

We’re talkin’ baseball

Baseball season is right around the corner, kicking off tomorrow when the Arizona Diamondbacks play the Los Angeles Dodgers in Sydney. The rest of the opening matchups take place March 30 and 31.

So, in the spirit of the game, we share with you this story from The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Phoenix Diocese, featuring an interview with Tommy Lasorda, the two-time World Series champion and two-time National League Manager of the Year, who recently spoke at at a Catholic high school in Arizona to benefit the school’s booster club and athletic program.

Tommy Lasorda stands next to his portrait  at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington in 2009. (CNS photo by Reuters)

Tommy Lasorda stands next to his portrait at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington in 2009. (CNS photo by Reuters)

The Baseball Hall of Fame describes Lasorda — who had a brief career as a left-handed pitcher — as one of the most enthusiastic and successful managers in baseball history.  It adds that Lasorda was “known for his fondness of pasta and pitching” and led the Los Angeles Dodgers to eight division titles and two World Championships in 21 seasons as manager.

Joyce Coronel, interim managing editor of the Sun,  spoke to Lasorda about baseball, being Catholic, and his marriage of 64 years.

When the 86-year-old was asked how his Catholic faith has strengthened him. He said this:

A lot of times I called on God to help me. I tell him I know he’s busy. He’s got a lot to think about. He’s got a lot of people to help. So if he could see and help me a little bit, I would appreciate it, but I don’t expect him to do anything for me, because he’s got to do certain things that are more important than me.

Remembering Chiara Lubich, forging family ties

ROME — With broad smiles, laughter and applause, the diverse family Chiara Lubich dreamed of gathered last evening to celebrate her life and legacy.

Chiara Lubich, founder of Focolare movement, pictured in 2003

Chiara Lubich, founder of the Focolare movement. (CNS/Catholic Press Photo)

Lubich, founder of the Focolare movement, died in 2008, but the friendships she formed with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others continue. Marking the sixth anniversary of her death, 200 Focolare members and representatives of other religions held a four-day meeting south of Rome. The gathering ended with a public remembrance of Lubich’s commitment to the unity of the human family at Rome’s Pontifical Urbanian University.

Waichiro Izumita, director of youth programs for the Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist group, said the founder of his movement, the late Nikkyo Niwano, used to say that he believed that before he and Lubich were born, “it was already in God’s plan that we would meet. Before I met the Focolare members, I thought I was the only person in the world crazy enough to try to tackle the problem of universal peace.” But with Lubich he found “there is another crazy person giving her whole self for peace.”

Maria Voce, who succeeded Lubich as president of the Focolare movement, said knowing how to begin a dialogue was one of Lubich’s special gifts. She knew how to listen. “That was her way of concretely living the Gospel message of loving the way we want to be loved.”

Amer Al Hafi, deputy director of Jordan’s Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, told the gathering, “Chiara helped me understand the Quran better,” because she helped him see that “love is the essence of God.”

Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said that while Lubich was intelligent and thoughtful, she knew that interreligious relations, like faith itself, involved much more than book learning. The key to her relationships, he said, was her recognition that “love is at the heart of all religions.”

Cardinal Francis Arinze, retired president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said Lubich’s life and her knack for interreligious relations “is a reason to thank God.”

“Humanity must continually seek better ways to meet one another, understand each other, work together and promote harmony and unity,” he said. “Two or three people can create chaos and start a war, but peace requires the efforts of all of us.”

In Argentina, a different kind of Francis bump

By David Agren

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The San Lorenzo soccer club stumbled toward the final of its Argentine season in December. It drew its final match, but the other clubs finished in such a way that San Lorenzo won its 12th first-division soccer title.

Some fans found the outcome improbable and credited a figure far from the field: Pope Francis, whose election has coincided with the climbing fortunes of his favorite soccer franchise, Club Atletico San Lorenzo de Almagro.

Pope Francis holds a jersey of Argentine soccer team San Lorenzo during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 18. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Pope Francis holds a San Lorenzo jersey during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 18. (CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

“It was a miracle from Francisco,” said Juan Carlos Pais, a lifelong fan from suburban Buenos Aires.

San Lorenzo has lived misery and miracles since being founded in 1908, at least according to fans, who speak painfully of losing their stadium in the 1970s during the military dictatorship. The club is one of the five giants of Argentine soccer and has won more titles than most.

But the election of Pope Francis has allowed San Lorenzo to stand out among Argentine teams and move somewhat out of the shadow of the better-known clubs River Plate and Boca Juniors. It now attracts international interest, and fans feel as if the pontiff intervenes on their behalf.

“The fan base believes that Francis brings luck,” said sports writer Pablo Calvo, author of the book, “Dios es Cuervo,” on San Lorenzo and its origins. “They became champions with his arrival.”

The club makes no secret of its unofficial affiliation with Pope Francis — to the point it put the pontiff’s picture on special edition jerseys shortly after his March 13, 2013, election. Putting religious images on jerseys is a no-no, Calvo says, but the club currently has a halo hanging over the logo on its red-and-blue striped kit.

Pope Francis, who used to listen to matches via the radio, has made no secret of his affection for San Lorenzo. He even played basketball with the San Lorenzo team in his youth.

In December, the pope welcomed club directors and players to the Vatican, where they presented him a jersey and brought the championship trophy.

San Lorenzo put the pope's name on its jersey. (CNS photo/Reuters)

San Lorenzo put the pope’s name on its jersey. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Religion runs through the history of San Lorenzo, even though its fans are from all faiths. The club traces its origins to a parish priest, Father Lorenzo Massa, who provided kids with a place to play soccer. The team is known as “the Crows,” a nickname for priests in Argentina.

Actor Viggo Mortenson, another San Lorenzo fan, funded construction of a chapel, named for Father Massa, near the team’s stadium, the El Nuevo Gasometro.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis celebrated services at the chapel. He also celebrated Mass for the 100th anniversary of San Lorenzo in 2008, after which he bought a membership in the member-owned and operated team.

“It’s an Argentine version of the Green Bay Packers,” says pollster Sergio Berensztein, director of Poliarquia Consultores in Buenos Aires.

A ‘Top Ten’ list about Jesus

Unlike David Letterman’s “Top Ten” lists, this list starts with the smallest number and then proceeds from there.

The list is from Jesuit Father James Martin, editor at large of America magazine and author of the new book “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” which documents his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land as part of his preparation to write a book about Jesus.

Jesuit Father James Martin on pilgrimage in Holy Land (Photo courtesy Fr. Martin)

Jesuit Father James Martin on pilgrimage in Holy Land. (Photo courtesy Fr. Martin)

Father Martin is no stranger to comedy, what with his being the chaplain to “The Colbert Report”; host Stephen Colbert, even when he isn’t using the French-sounding affectation of his surname, is a honest-to-goodness Catholic.

But Father Martin plays it straight with his own “Top Ten,” driving home some essential points about Jesus’ earthly life and ministry while deflecting some of the suppositions others tend to make about Jesus.

Take a look for yourself. It’s a deft four-minute video.

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