Pope headed to Africa next spring

It’s official — Pope Benedict XVI plans to make his first trip to Africa next March, visiting Cameroon and Angola.

The pope announced the trip at Sunday’s closing Mass for the Synod of Bishops on the Bible. He also confirmed plans to hold the second special Synod of Bishops for Africa at the Vatican in October 2009.

The pope said he will hand-deliver the African synod’s Instrumentum Laboris, or working document, when he travels to Cameroon in March to meet with representatives from African bishops’ conferences.

The 2009 synod theme will be “The Church in Africa at the Service of Reconciliation, Justice and Peace.”  The first African synod took place at the Vatican in 1994. Ten years later, Pope John Paul II said another synod would be held to allow church leaders to address the continent’s changing religious, demographic, social and political scenes.

Pope Benedict said he would go from Cameroon to Angola, where he will celebrate the 500th anniversary of that country’s evangelization.

For months, rumors have been percolating around the Vatican of a papal trip to Africa, a continent that has not hosted a pope since 1998.  In October, the Vatican’s advance team traveled to Africa to firm up plans, according to sources.

At present, it’s the only foreign trip on the pope’s calendar next year. With the synod to follow, it looks like 2009 with be a year of Africa for the church.

An opening on women lectors?

VATICAN CITY — Probably the most newsy — and somewhat unexpected — item in the final propositions of the Synod of Bishops on the Bible was a proposal to allow women to be officially installed in the ministry of lector.

The issue was raised in Proposition 17 on “The ministry of the word and women,” and on Saturday morning it passed with 191 votes in favor, 45 opposed and three abstentions, according to our sources.

“It is hoped that the ministry of lector be opened also to women, so that their role as proclaimers of the word may be recognized in the Christian community,” the proposition states in its final sentence.

What Pope Benedict XVI will do with that proposal is unclear, according to Vatican people I spoke with shortly after the synod vote.

The issue, of course, is not whether women can act as lectors, or Scripture readers, in Catholic liturgies. They already do so all over the world, including at papal Masses.

The question is whether women can be officially installed in such a ministry. Until now, the Vatican has said no: canon law states that only qualified lay men can be “installed on a stable basis in the ministries of lector and acolyte.” At the same time, canon law does allow for “temporary deputation” as lector to both men and women, which is why women routinely appear as lectors.

The reasoning behind church law’s exclusion of women from these official ministries has long been questioned. For centuries, the office of lector was one of the “minor orders,” generally reserved to seminarians approaching ordination. While seminarians still are installed formally as “acolyte” and then as “lector”  before being ordained deacons, since the 1970s service at the altar and proclaiming the readings at Mass have been seen primarily as ministries stemming from baptism and not specifically as steps toward ordination.

“It’s important to emphasize that any proposition for women lectors would simply arise from their baptism and not from any presumptive opening for orders,” said one Vatican source.

The synod took up the question because some have suggested that in promoting greater scriptural preparation and presentation, the church designate “ministers of the word.” Lectors were seen as natural candidates.

It’s interesting that this proposal, while passing overwhemlingly, drew the greatest number of “no” votes than any of the other 54 propositions, most of which passed with fewer than five opposing votes.

Pope Benedict as Bible blogger?

VATICAN CITY — The Synod of Bishops on the Bible heard an unusual suggestion Tuesday morning when a Hong Kong observer asked Pope Benedict to start up his own daily blog on Scripture.

Agnes Kam Leng Lam, president of the Catholic Biblical Association of Hong Kong, said people need to experience Scripture in small but significant doses.

“To put it in a nutshell, I’d like to suggest to you Holy Father to start a multi-language blog to shepherd today’s world by scriptural verses, daily verses,” she said on the synod floor. The pope’s blog should include simple reflections that relate Scripture to real-life situations, she said.

Lam included advice that’s probably good for any blogger: “Remember, brief texts, Holy Father, and plentiful images, and this will be very attractive to the young generation and to today’s people.”

The talk apparently provoked a positive reaction and some laughter, but the pope, who was presiding over the Oct. 5-26 assembly, didn’t say whether he’d be blogging anytime soon.

CNS Bible Blog: Sibling rivalry and reconciliation

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The stories recounted throughout Genesis are all about relationships: God and humanity, husband and wife, parent and child, and brothers –- many brothers. It’s interesting to notice the movement from the first set of siblings to those at the end of Genesis. We move from the most violent at the beginning to reconciliation at the conclusion.

First, Cain kills his brother Abel. A son of Noah acts with disrespect to his father in front of his brothers. Ishmael and Isaac become permanently separated (but I like the touch where both of them come together to bury their father Abraham, Gen 25:9). Jacob and Esau compete to the point of threatening death, but become almost reconciled.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

Finally at the end, covering Chapters 37-50, longer than any other family story in Genesis, the story of Joseph and his eleven brothers is mostly about seeking reconciliation.

All because of a special place that Joseph had in his father’s heart, tremendous jealousy swelled up in the older brothers. Joseph received a special tunic from their father and he did not wear the special status well before his brothers or before his parents. The conflict in this family is one each generation must face. How do you treat those who are your equal but more gifted? How do you treat your equals who are less gifted than you? Joseph at seventeen does not yet know how to use the gifts he is given for the service of others. The brothers do not know how to recognize and foster the gifts in their younger brother.

The conflict reached a breaking point. The brothers stripped Joseph of his special tunic, threw him in a pit, sold him to a caravan heading to Egypt and returned the blood-smeared tunic to their father. “Here is a bloodied tunic, see if it is that of your son!”

Lost to his family, Joseph goes through test after test until he emerges as one who has learned to use his gifts for the benefit of others. For this reason he was placed in charge of Pharaoh’s government.

The story might have ended here except that we want to know how these brothers will act if they have to face each other once again. Sure enough, Jacob sends his 10 sons to Egypt in search of food during a famine while keeping the youngest son Benjamin at home. Joseph, who is not recognized by his brothers, forces them to undergo a trial to see whether they too have learned in their lives to care for those weaker than they.

Just as Joseph had undergone two tests (in the pit at the hands of his brothers and in the dungeon at the hand of Potiphar’s wife) so too do the brothers undergo two tests, first with Simeon then with Benjamin. Judah emerges as the one who offers himself to save the life of his youngest brother.

With this sacrifice, Joseph can contain himself no longer and reveals his identity to his brothers with great weeping and joy. As he sends them off to bring their families and their father Jacob to Egypt, Joseph gives to each brother a set of clothing. He gives to them that which they had long ago stripped from him.

The gift of clothing to each and five sets to his brother Benjamin, points to the concrete way Joseph wants to assure his brothers that they are all reconciled once and for all. But it is not easy. In the end, it will be the brothers who finally clothe Joseph after he dies in the clothing of embalmment with the promise to bring his bones back to the promised land.

CNS Bible Blog: Abraham and Isaac, surrender and salvation

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

It may seem very strange to both casual and longtime readers of Scripture that after all God had done with Abraham, the Lord would need to test him yet again (Genesis Chapter 22). Has Abraham not done enough in proving trust and loyalty in the midst of doubt and anguish?

And this is not an ordinary test, but one that struck Abraham at the heart. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, the one whom he loved, yes, Isaac. As you can well imagine, there have been a flurry of interpretations about this test. They range from it being a critique against child sacrifice, to the need for complete obedience, to a call for freedom, and to the challenge of passing the torch of faith on from one generation to the next.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

It is not an easy story to read. It has even been called a “text of terror.” And yet, like so many texts of Scripture, even the most difficult ones may uncover for us a powerful and liberating truth.

There are a few simple observations to be made about the story which can help uncover the meaning of its captivating gaze.

The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac needs to be compared and contrasted with the original call of Abram in Genesis Chapter 12. There God calls Abram to leave his land, his family and his country to go to another unknown land. God promises to Abram many descendants, land to be inherited by them, and all the nations of the earth will consider themselves blessed through Abram.

“Get up and go” is a unique phrase used there. Interestingly, also in our story that same rare phrase appears, “Take your son and get up and go to the land of Moriah to a mountain that I will tell you and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Moreover in the call of Abram we see God speaking to Abram for the first time. In our story, it is the last time God speaks to Abraham. And this is significant. Something in the life of Abraham has reached its zenith.

In the call of Abram, God asks him to leave his past, his familiar land, and even his father in order that something new may take place and be created. In the call, God asks Abram to die to his past so that a new future can be born.

A panel depicting Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac appears in a mural in the parish of St. John Nepomucene Church in Bohemia, N.Y. (CNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

A panel depicting Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac appears in a mural in the parish of St. John Nepomucene Church in Bohemia, N.Y. (CNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

In the end, God asks Abraham to die to his future so that the future, his son Isaac, may become the inheritor of the triple promises. In the sacrifice of Isaac, we can recognize the need for every parent to “let their children go” to follow their own path in life. This is my reading of the test of Abraham. God has begun something new in Abraham which required his unwavering faith at the beginning and now at the end requires his complete surrender. When God saw that Abraham had “surrendered” his son Isaac, both Abraham and his son Isaac were saved.

With Abraham’s successfully passing the test, the promises of descendants, land and blessing are made once again. Sarah his wife dies, and Abraham is left with the task of finding a wife for his son Isaac. Though Isaac is not even mentioned at the end of the story in Genesis 22, almost as if to say, “He really has died to Abraham,” the stories that follow concentrate on Isaac becoming the inheritor of the promises.

CNS Bible Blog: A rainbow and a covenant for Noah

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The story of the flood which destroyed almost all life on earth (Genesis Chapter 9) reminds us just how precarious life is even in the midst of a good and beautiful habitat. In the face of so much wickedness and violence, God is said to have regretted the creation of life.

The pattern that we have seen time and time again in Genesis — namely, how the stories present before us our deepest desires as well as our worst fears — is confirmed in the story of the flood. But the last word in this story is not destruction but the promise of life.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

At one point the story seems to end with Noah’s sacrifice and God’s acceptance of the pleasant fragrance of the offering with the promise, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…” (Gen 8:21).

But the same author who wrote the opening chapter of creation has transformed this divine promise to Noah into the most significant agreement which could be made among humans –- a covenant. God declares the promise to Noah in the form of a covenant. And this is the first of many covenants that we witness in the Torah.

Just as God had blessed humanity with the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, so too is Noah given the same blessing (Gen 9:1). Just as God had given vegetation as food to the animals and humans, so too God gives to humanity food; this time the food includes flesh. But there is a limit. “Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen 9:4).

In this changed state of affairs where we live in disharmony between the animal and the human world, humans are commanded to treat life, even the life of animals, with respect. With the covenant of Noah we have a recreation, a new ordering of creation.

A rainbow appears over the desert near Phoenix. (CNS photo by Craig Robinson)

A rainbow appears over the desert near Phoenix. (CNS photo by Craig Robinson)

What is the function of this covenant with Noah? With this covenant a sign is given, the sign of the rainbow. The bow in the clouds is a sign of the covenant. We all know how after a rain storm, with the combination of light and darkness, a refraction of light often gives shape to a splendid display of colors. Every child can take delight in a rainbow. It is a reminder from nature that after the struggle for life there is the possibility of joy and beauty.

The flood story tells us that the rainbow will be a reminder to God never to forget the promise made to Noah, that “never again will all flesh be destroyed by a flood” (Gen 9:11). But the function of the sign of the covenant is to assure humanity that God’s intention in creation is to let life flourish even in the midst of storms.

The covenant with Noah with the sign of the rainbow is a reminder to us of this essential promise on the part of God. The intention of God behind all of creation, with its beauty and even with its storms, is to let life flourish.

CNS Bible Blog: The ‘death penalty’ of Adam and Eve

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

If the opening story of creation in Genesis elevates our minds to appreciate the beauty and dignity of all creation, the stories that follow very quickly point out the pitfalls and dangers belonging to human life.

In the first story, human beings were compared to the divine: “Let us make them in our image.” In the following story, humans are made from earth. But they have the breath of God in them and so they have become a living being.

Michael Kolarcik S.J.

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

After God generously grants to Adam all the trees in the garden as food, one particular tree (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) is forbidden. With its eating comes a serious warning, “for in the day you eat of it, you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). Much has been made of trying to interpret the meaning of this tree and the actual punishment that follows from its eating. But I want to point out a few simple features of the story which are often overlooked.

The death that reads like a warning is a very technical term in Hebrew. It is the death penalty indicated by two words: you will “die the death.” Philo of Alexandria interpreted it as the second death or spiritual death. It does not necessarily mean mortal or physical death, but conveys more the meaning of “the most serious thing that can happen to you,” ­namely the death penalty.

In point of fact, when Adam and Eve do eat of the tree they do “die the death,” but it is not an immediate physical death. They have become afraid of their weakness, of their dependency on each other, of their sexuality. And so they hide because they were afraid. Notice, the very first comment about Adam and Eve after they eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree is “then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked … and they hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God…” (Gen 3:7-8).

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve are depicted departing from Eden in a stained-glass window at St. Nicolas Church in Feldkirch, Austria. (CNS photo from Crosiers)

The punishments which follow all touch on relationships: the relationship between the animal world and human (the serpent and the woman), the relationship between the man and the woman (Adam and Eve) and the relationship between humans and the earth (Adam and the earth). Where there was once harmony, now we have tension, competition and resistance. Without a trusting relationship with God, humans have become frightfully afraid of their mortal humanity. But not everything is lost.

Even though Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden, God makes for them clothes of skin before sending them out, never to return to this place of paradise (Gen 3:21-24). Notice the first thing that happens to Adam and Eve once they are outside of the garden! “Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the LORD'” (Gen 4:1).

This is nothing short of the blessing of man and woman in Genesis 1: “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth'” (Gen 1:28).

The opening stories of Genesis continue to place before our imagination our deepest desires for unity and creativity as well as our worst fears of failure and death. This I believe is why they continue to speak to us even with all their implied difficulties.

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