Pope Francis flexes his Hebrew, wishing the world’s Jews Happy New Year.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis claims he isn’t much of a polyglot, but apparently he had no problem giving new year’s greetings in Hebrew.

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Jewish worshippers pray at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, in Jerusalem’s Old City ahead of the Jewish new year last year. (CNS/Reuters)

In a meeting yesterday with a delegation from the World Jewish Congress, the pope wished its president, Ronald Lauder, and Jews worldwide, “Shana Tova” or “good year” as the Jewish New Year of 5774 begins on Rosh Hashanah, Wednesday evening.

The pope also called on world leaders to “do everything to avoid war” and to foster increased dialogue, especially among the world’s religious communities, according to a statement released by the New York-based international organization.

It wasn’t the first time the pope met with an international group of Jewish leaders; in fact, he reiterated the same forceful phrase he pronounced during a June meeting with an international Jewish coalition, in which he said, “Due to our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic!” Christians must learn about and understand Jewish history and traditions, the pope added at yesterday’s meeting, according to the WJC.

The group said the pope promised to get his point man on relations with Jews, Cardinal Kurt Koch, to do what he could concerning Poland’s ban on the kosher slaughter of animals. The papal meeting also including discussions about attacks against religious minorities, such as the Coptic Christians in Egypt, and increasing restrictions against male circumcision.

Ronald Lauder praised the church for its work in improving Catholic-Jewish relations and said Pope Francis’ leadership “has not only reinvigorated the Catholic Church, but also given new momentum to relations with Judaism.” As Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, the future pope was close to many Jewish leaders and made numerous inroads to improving inter-religious relations.

As a token of thanks during the meeting, Lauder gave the pope a Kiddush cup, used for the blessing of wine on Jewish holidays, and a traditional Rosh Hashanah dessert of honey cake.

Look what a flurry of letters to the pope may get you

VATICAN CITY — As Pope Francis gears up to go to Brazil next week, a bit of Brazil showed up on his doorstep this morning.

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Leandro Martins from Porto Alegre, Brazil, was granted an unexpected audience with Pope Francis July 18. Leandro was biking from Amsterdam to Asia. (Photo courtesy of Leandro Martins)

Leandro Martins from Porto Alegre rode into the Vatican by bicycle today on a much anticipated pit stop from his planned 6,200-mile journey from Amsterdam to Asia.

As a fellow-Latin American, Leandro said he wanted to greet the new pontiff even though he knew it was a long shot.

In one of numerous letters (about 15) he wrote to Msgr. Alfred Xuereb, the pope’s secretary, Leandro said, “I know it’s going to sound ridiculous and you are going to laugh at me but… I really would like to meet him, OK go ahead….”

Well, if they did laugh, it worked. Leandro got a call yesterday from the monsignor saying he was welcome to come to morning Mass at the pope’s residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, followed by a meeting with the pope.

Leandro tells the tale best in the “Vatican City” entry on his blog http://www.leandrobybike.blogspot.it/  The post also contains a slideshow of shots of the pope and the traveling “gaucho” (as he calls himself), including one of the pope visiting the bicycle parked outside.

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Leandro Martins of Porto Alegre, Brazil, shows Pope Francis the bicycle he is using to trek from Amsterdam to Asia as well as the Brazilian flag he is asking the people he meets along the way to sign. (Photo courtesy of Leandro Martins).

Pointing to all the gear packed on the back of the bike, Leandro said he told the pope: “this is my house, the bed, and kitchen.”

The pope also signed Leandro’s flag, which is peppered with the  signatures of many of the people he has been meeting on his journey. The pope wrote: “Que Dios te acompane. Francisco.” (May God accompany you. Francis).

CNS intern reflects on her time in Rome

By Clare Myers

VATICAN CITY — It was nearly 100 degrees outside, the bus was overflowing with people, and I was late.

I had just come from running errands and I was squeezing in meeting up with a friend in between my internship at the Catholic News Service Rome bureau and grocery shopping. I thought that after dinner I could continue doing research on an article I was writing on a pontifical council. I barely had time for this other appointment, but I had promised.

Through the blinding glare of the sun I spotted the priest I was meeting under the Arch of Constantine, right next to the Colosseum. I waved and went over to him, and we chatted as we walked away from the chaotic mass of tourists and souvenir vendors to a much quieter area across the street, a church connected to a monastery and a convent — a place I had never been before.

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Pope Francis blesses a member of the Missionaries of Charity during a visit to their soup kitchen and women’s shelter at the Vatican May 21. The sisters also run a soup kitchen and shelter near Rome’s Colosseum. (CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)

We were there to help the Missionaries of Charity with dinner at their soup kitchen, which was established to fulfill Blessed Mother Teresa’s mission of serving the poorest of the poor. It is a mission praised by recent popes.

In several months of living in Rome, this was my first time meeting the Missionaries of Charity. Speaking with them, I saw something different, something rare: true joy in pure simplicity.

In the Eternal City, just as everywhere in the world, it is easy to get caught up in trivial things. Tired families jostle tour groups for the best spot to see the Roman Forum; older couples page through guidebooks for information about the church they’re looking at while hordes of teenagers on school trips scan centuries of history through the lenses of their cameras, not truly seeing the Trevi Fountain until they put an Instagram filter on it days later.

Perhaps these things are typical of any big city or tourist destination. But in Rome and Vatican City, one feels it should be different. After all, it is an extremely religious place. Much of the gorgeous art and stunning architecture was built to honor God and various saints. Yet even working as an intern reporting on the Vatican, I have often been caught up in the other side of things, looking at the Vatican as if it were any other country.

But joining the Missionaries of Charity in their afternoon work really brought home for me what Pope Francis has been trying to say ever since he became pope in March. He has repeatedly called for an end to careerism and hypocrisy and a return to the real mission of the church.

“I would like a church that is poor and for the poor,” Pope Francis said.

Amidst all the history and mystery of the Vatican, the thousands of years of tradition that continue to bewilder the uninitiated, it is a beautiful thing to be in Rome to witness this renewed emphasis on the simple serving of others.

After speaking with the Missionaries of Charity, and seeing the joy that radiates from their faces, it’s clear to me that they’re doing something right.

- – -

Clare Myers is a student at the University of Dallas and an intern at the Catholic News Service Rome bureau.

Prophecy of the popes

By Lauren Colegrove

Catholic News Service

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Medallion of future pope to be placed in slot next to retired Pope Benedict XVI.
An empty slot indicates where a medallion of the future pope will be placed next to retired Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor Blessed John Paul II in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. The upper basilica walls contain medallions of all 265 popes (CNS photo/ Paul Haring).

VATICAN CITY– While many people are making conjectures about the future in order to anticipate who will be the next pope, others are looking back to the writings of a 12th century Irish bishop to see if the prediction has already been made.

Saint Malachy O’Morgair, whose biography was written by his contemporary St. Bernard of Clairvaux, became a priest and eventual archbishop in Ireland during the early 1100s. Described as a strong promoter of morality and religious zeal, Malachy is said to have had “the spirit of prophecy” and has had numerous miracles attributed to him, including the healing of the son of a Scottish king.

In 1139 Malachy traveled to Rome to meet with Pope Innocent II, and according to writer Abbe Cucherat it is there that he had his visions of the papal prophecies. Legend has it that the pope was given the writings of Malachy’s revelations and placed the record in the Vatican archives, where it was “discovered” four centuries later by Benedictine historian Arnold de Wyon.

The prophecy describes 112 popes and antipopes in cryptic verses, beginning with the phrase “from a castle of the Tiber” which is attributed to the birthplace of Pope Celestine II. Verse 111 depicts the “glory of the olive,” which is usually connected to Pope Benedict XVI since his papal name refers to the founder of the Benedictine Order, which has a monastic branch called the Olivetans.

The end of the prophecy portrays “Peter the Roman, who will pasture his sheep in many tribulations, and when these things are finished, the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people.”

Because of the placement of the last few lines of text, interpreters of the prophecy are uncertain whether there are supposed to be other popes between the “prophecy of the olive” and the reign of “Peter the Roman,” and analyses of the text widely vary. Although no pope has been called by the  name Peter since the time of the disciples, there is speculation that the prophecy could be referring to Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who gained the nickname “Peter the Roman” because of his studies in Rome.

Because St. Bernard’s biography of Malachy does not mention the specific prophecy and there is no documentation of it prior to its publication in 1595, many historians believe that the prophecy is a forgery from the late 16th century. Some people claim that the prophecy was created in order to influence a 16th century conclave, while others believe that even if Malachy did not write the prophecy the predictions are still compelling.

While the authenticity of the “Prophecy of the Popes” may be uncertain, it is undeniable that centuries later the trend of predicting who will be next in the long line of successors of Peter has not lost its appeal.

Lauren Colegrove is an intern in the CNS Rome bureau while she attends Villanova University’s Rome program.

Vatican promotes science festival

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s Council for Culture is promoting its first science festival, which will be held in Owerri, Nigeria, this Friday to May 2.

(CNS file/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

(CNS file/Karen Callaway, Catholic New World)

The aim of the festival is to open up young people, families, and adults to the joys and wonders of science and technology, organizers said at a Vatican press conference today.

Exhibits will be hands-on, interactive and won’t rely on electricity to get them working — so power outages won’t present any problems. Sections will include experiments with and instruction on energy, the environment, health and nutrition, and music.

The initiative has been organized by the City of Science in Naples, a Rome-based association of Nigerian and Italian university students, the Rome Diocese’s pastoral office for universities, and the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Organizers say this is just the first step of a long-term plan to create a permanent science center in Owerri.

The Vatican council’s press release said:

Science and technology are also indispensable  for sustainable development in Africa.

In Africa, scientific instruction and education in schools is not enough to foster curiosity about science and get the wider public involved.

Science and technology are indispensable tools for empowering people and should be supported with efforts that promote curiosity toward science and the intelligent use of technology.

Vatican to boycott — or not?

angels-book-cover1ROME  – That is the question vexing many Hollywood film reporters these days: What will the Vatican do now that the prequel to the controversial “The Da Vinci Code” is set to hit theaters next month?

Headlines here and there have been claiming either the Vatican was calling for a worldwide boycott or was cautioning against a boycott over fears it would just boost publicity for the up-coming “Angels and Demons” movie.

But who needs an actual boycott when just speculating whether the Vatican or church officials would call on Catholics to stay away seems to be enough?

The problem with the stories that claim the Vatican is against the film or has disapproved of it is the source they cite is Avvenire. Contrary to some reports, it’s not “the Vatican’s official newspaper,” but is a daily Catholic newspaper sponsored by the Italian bishops’ conference.

But more importantly the March 20 article they claim their headlines were based on doesn’t exist in the archives and an Italian journalist who works at Avvenire said he can’t recall the paper publishing anything either for or against the movie.

Confusion probably sprang from a March 20 article in the Italian daily La Stampa which quoted a theologian who writes for Avvenire. La Stampa said (presumably based on an interview with him) that the Italian theologian invited Catholics to ignore the “Angels and Demons” movie. He said filmmakers were “exploiting the church in order to boost sales at the box office.”

Another Italian, Archbishop Velasio De Paolis, president of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See, told La Stampa that people should be cautious about “the boomerang effect” of calling for a boycott because it could translate into unintended publicity for the movie.

He said the Vatican is not worried about people of faith falling for the book and movie’s anti-Christian inventions. The Vatican “believes Christians are strong — inoculated by centuries of persecution and testimonials of faith,” he said.

Heads up! Spiking in St. Peter’s Square

A basketball game is played in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in the presence of Pope Pius XII in 1955. (CNS photo/Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Laity)

A basketball game is played in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in the presence of Pope Pius XII in 1955. (CNS photo/Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Laity)

VATICAN CITY — It’s not very often that St. Peter’s Square is turned into a hoops court or a soccer field. But on rare occasions the world of sports comes to the See of Peter.

Tomorrow, 300 children will be digging, setting and spiking during the first volleyball rally ever to be played in St. Peter’s Square.  

Kids aged eight to 11 will be playing on 16 makeshift courts in the square between 8:30 and 10 a.m. — before Pope Benedict XVI begins his weekly general audience at 10:30.

The special event is to highlight that Italy will be hosting the 2010 Men’s Volleyball World Championship (Japan will host the women’s world championship games).

Organizers said that at the end of the general audience, two children will present the pope with a special game shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Volare alto” or “Soar high,” an official world championship volleyball,  and the Italian team’s uniform shirt.

Children play soccer in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican before the weekly audience of Pope Benedict XVI in this Sept. 21, 2005. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Children play soccer in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican before the weekly audience of Pope Benedict XVI in this Sept. 21, 2005. (CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Perhaps the most unusual game to have been played in St. Peter’s Square was in the 15th century when it hosted a marathon bout of “calcio storico fiorentino,” the Florentine version of nearly rule-less soccer that looks more like rugby and wrestling combined. It’s said Pope Sixtus IV peeked out his studio window every now and then to see how the grueling match, which lasted from mid-morning to dusk, was proceeding.

Vatican Nativity scene unveiled

The Vatican's Nativity scene at dusk on Christmas Eve. (CNS photo by John Thavis.)

The Vatican's Nativity scene at dusk on Christmas Eve. (CNS photo by John Thavis.)

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican unveiled its Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square at dusk on Christmas Eve. Workmen dropped a white curtain, and a few hundred camera flashes went off as a Vatican police band played. The scene changes a bit each year, and this one featured smaller home settings alongside Jesus’ manger in Bethlehem. A fountain and a hearth represented regeneration and light.

Church teachings in your pocket

VATICAN CITY — The U.S.-based Apostolate for Family Consecration is offering bishops attending the world synod on sacred Scripture a free MP3 video player preloaded with commentaries on church teaching.

a logo from the Apostolate for Family Consecration

A logo from the Apostolate for Family Consecration.

The black, pocket-sized video player has more than 45 hours of Cardinal Francis Arinze giving colorful commentaries on Scripture, catechetics, and Vatican II teachings. The Nigerian-born cardinal is prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

The gift is part of an wider initiative the international lay movement is promoting during the monthlong synod. They have invited synod bishops to attend a one-and-a-half-hour presentation Oct. 8-10 to hear and ask questions about the movement’s catechetical materials and formation programs.

Apostolate members came to Rome after visiting Hong Kong and Myanmar, where they spoke with church leaders about offering catechetical training to local Catholics and bringing their materials into local dioceses so as to help families bring Scripture into their daily lives.

If you feel left out because you are not a synod bishop, not to worry: many of the apostolate’s materials are available for free online, and videos and audios are easy to download onto your own MP3 player at the apostolate’s Web site, www.familyland.org.

Died in his sleep

VATICAN CITY — Thirty years ago today I walked into the office of the Rome Daily American at 6:45 in the morning and began ripping the AP and Reuters newswires for a 7 o’clock radio news show. When I saw the teletype machines, I froze. At the top of each were two bulletins announcing the death of Pope John Paul I after only 34 days in office.

A few minutes later I found myself announcing on Radio Daily American that the “smiling pope” had died in his sleep the night before, at the age of 65. The news show was not much more than a headline service, but I promised details to come, and then ducked out of the building for a quick espresso.

When I walked into the corner bar, the first words I heard were: “L’hanno ammazzato.” “They killed him.” I can’t remember whether the phrase was pronounced by Sergio, the barista, or one of his customers, but it seemed to be the general consensus of the Roman street that day. The pope was known as a good and decent man, and the popular imagination was already conjuring up a plot to explain his untimely demise.

And in Rome, the popular imagination tends toward poison. Hadn’t a Russian Orthodox Church leader, Metropolitan Nikodim, dropped dead a couple weeks earlier during a meeting with the pontiff after drinking a cup of coffee? Perhaps the coffee had been meant for the pope. Or so went the thinking in Sergio’s bar.

It turned out that John Paul I had serious circulation problems — so serious, in fact, that his legs were badly swollen, he complained of pain and his closest aides wanted to summon a physician shortly before he died. The medical facts did not, however, stop the rumor mill from turning. In 1984, British author David Yallop published an investigative book, “In God’s Name,” which hypothesized that the pope’s death may have been an inside job.

In 1989, another British writer, John Cornwell, wrote a book that took Yallop’s theories apart. Written with Vatican cooperation and titled, “A Thief in the Night,” it found that the late pope felt unwell throughout his month at the Vatican and talked repeatedly of dying. Sources quoted by Cornwell said the pope questioned why the College of Cardinals had chosen him and spoke of “the foreigner” who would replace him.

For some reason, I saved those AP and Reuters bulletins from Sept. 29, 1978. I found them recently, tucked inside a book of Italian poetry. With them was a third item, heralding the arrival of John Paul I’s successor, the foreigner.

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