Big lineup next Friday at the Vatican

It’s not often that the heads of three Vatican congregations assemble for a press conference. It’s happening next Friday, when the Vatican releases a “Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization.”

On the dais will be U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which prepared the new text; Cardinal Francis Arinze of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments; and Cardinal Ivan Dias of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. They’ll be joined by Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the doctrinal congregation.

A few things are worth mentioning here. First, the topic of evangelization — broad as it is — touches on issues that have been simmering at the Vatican for several years, including the relationship between mission, dialogue and inculturation. More specifically, the doctrinal congregation has long been concerned that in some areas where Christians are a small minority, evangelization has been watered down or “relativized,” with not enough focus on Jesus Christ.

The three cardinals at the press conference will each speak to their area of expertise, sources said. It’s obvious why Cardinals Levada and Dias would be present. It’s a little less clear what Cardinal Arinze will address, although questions about liturgical inculturation — adaptations to local cultures – fall into his domain. All three are members of the doctrinal congregation.

Perhaps most interesting is that they’re having a press conference at all. When the doctrinal congregation issued two documents earlier this year — one on the Catholic Church as the one true church, the other on nutrition and hydration issues — no one was there to answer reporters’ questions. Church officials later complained that media reports on the documents were not always accurate. This time around, the Vatican is being more proactive.

The new document is said to be about 18 pages long, and will be released in six languages, including English. All three cardinals at the press conference are English-speaking, but if the usual Vatican format is followed, they’ll be giving their speeches and answering most questions in Italian. When in Rome…

Former diocesan journalist studying for the priesthood

This story came as a pleasant surprise to me. Christopher Gray, who I’ve known for a couple years as a staff writer and the techno-expert for the Intermountain Catholic in Salt Lake City, is completing his first semester studying for the priesthood.

But the story by Intermountain Catholic editor Barbara Stinson Lee will be of interest to more than just Christopher’s friends. It also gives a glimpse of what life is like in today’s seminaries (in this case, Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon).

But since I know Christopher, I had to smile when I read this:

For a 26-year-old man who never had any trouble multi-tasking, Gray said he is grateful the seminary has allowed him to focus. “I can actually direct my thoughts to just one thing at a time.”

All of us in the Catholic press are multi-taskers, but Christopher might have been the king — writing for the paper, editing the paper’s monthly Spanish publication, and managing the paper’s award-winning Web site, including its streaming video segments and podcasts with Salt Lake City Bishop John C. Wester. So I’m jealous that he direct his focus these days to single topics.

But I’m guessing that will end soon enough, since we all know how many directions priests are pulled in today. And Christopher, with his technology skills and interests, will undoubtedly be using those skills to advance the church’s ministry in new and exciting ways.

Pope’s Adventskranz has four RED candles

VATICAN CITY — Thursday I walked past the Vatican Christmas tree on my way up to Pope Benedict’s private library to serve as the pool reporter for the pope’s meeting with Albanian President Bamir Topi.

Despite all the hustle and bustle going on in the square to prepare for Christmas, inside the papal palace all is still calm. In fact, the only seasonal touch in evidence was a small Advent wreath or Adventskranz on a side table in the papal library. One candle was lit, signifying the first week of Advent.

But I was surprised to note that all four candles on the kranz were red! Red? What happened to tradition … and in the papal palace of all places?

As it turns out, the Germans, who gave us Advent wreaths in the first place, generally use four red candles. The practice of using three purple and one pink candle was an adaptation made to reflect the colors of the liturgical vestments used on the four Sundays preceding Christmas.

But, searching for “Adventskranz” on http://www.google.de/ revealed a variety of practices, so I turned to the Rome correspondents of the popular German tabloid, Bild, for some clarification. Andreas Englisch simply said, “I think they are always red.” And then he passed the phone to his colleague and wife, Kirsten, who knows a thing or two about decorating for the holidays in an exuberant German manner.

She said, “Using four red candles is the most traditional way. But, really, it is like decorating a tree, you can do what you want. But green and red are the Christmas colors and 80 percent of Germans would have an Adventskranz with four red candles in their house.” The practice in churches is more varied, she said. Catholic parishes would have either four red candles or three purple and a pink candle, while Lutheran parishes — with more austere buildings in Germany — would tend toward four white candles.

A quick search of the blogosphere demonstrates that even on Advent-wreath candle colors there has been a bit of controversy.

“The Golden Compass” as seen in the Catholic press

Dakota Blue Richards stars in a scene from the movie 'The Golden Compass.' (CNS photo/New Line)Long before the firestorm that greeted the review of “The Golden Compass” posted here last week, CNS and its partners in the Catholic press have been covering the growing controversy surrounding the movie. Like in the public at large, there’s no unanimity in church circles on the movie or the books behind the film. But there are plenty of resources available for those still trying to make up their minds.

For us, the coverage began five weeks ago with a story out of San Diego on the trilogy of books behind the film. Even then, before many even knew about the December release of the film, concern was being expressed that the movie might make the books more attractive for young readers.

But that was just the tip of the snowball (pardon the mixed metaphor) that was beginning to gather steam (pardon again …). In short order there were articles this fall in the National Catholic Register, the Catholic New World in Chicago, Our Sunday Visitor, The Monitor in Trenton, N.J., and The Catholic Moment in Lafayette, Ind., among others, mostly critical of either the movie or the trilogy by British author Philip Pullman.

Another CNS client, America magazine, posted an item on its blog by Jesuit Father James Martin, author of last year’s Catholic best-seller “My Life With the Saints.” In the blog, Father Martin agrees that warnings to parents might be legitimate and asks those who have read the book or seen the movie to weigh in (and several did, leading to a lively discussion).

At least one bishop also has weighed in: Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans. In a column in late November in his newspaper, the Clarion Herald, the archbishop wrote that books in the Pullman trilogy “surreptitiously lead children to atheism and pose a special threat to Christianity.”

But when the movie review for “The Golden Compass” was released by the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and posted on the CNS Web site (technically it’s not our review; we simply distribute film office reviews to the Catholic press), the question raised on a number of blogs and elsewhere was whether the review missed the boat in its evaluation of both the film and the larger controversy over Pullman’s trilogy.

Here too there is little unanimity. One editor of a diocesan newspaper (I’m not naming names here since these are simply e-mail chats and not published commentaries) told me that the review posted by CNS “downplayed and misrepresented the concerns that have been raised about the movie.” This editor said the review implied “that it’s not known for sure that the books are anti-Catholic when the author has, as a matter of public record, stated that his books are about killing God and that he wants to undermine the basis of the Christian faith.”

Another editor, though, said the reviewers “did a fine job.” They looked at the film “on the face value of the movie. Period. Not what it could have been, should have been, etc.”

Defenders of the review also point to positive evaluations of the film by Signis: The World Catholic Association for Communication and by media expert Sister Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul.

Signis uses words such as “well-made” and “intelligent” and says the film should be appealing for adolescents and adults. Sister Rose says the film “is an opportunity for us to develop our critical thinking skills: to ask questions and seek and articulate the answers: the answers to ‘why?’”

When I mentioned these to another editor I’ve been in correspondence with this week, he said he thought both Signis and Sister Rose “fail to appreciate the fact that these books, of which the movie is a lead-in, are for children” and that responsible critics of the books have been warning parents and educators about their dangers.

Another sharply critical analysis of the film and books appeared last month in The Observer, newspaper of the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., by Msgr. Eric Barr, the vicar for clergy and religious in Rockford who is described by the paper as a fantasy-film fan. He wrote, “Clearly, the film and the books it is based upon are an attack on Christianity and the values Christ taught.”

So, is “The Golden Compass” “overtly anti-Christian”, or is it a film that children can handle with the guidance of their parents? That’s up to individuals — and especially parents — to decide.

PHOTO: Dakota Blue Richards stars in a scene from the movie ‘The Golden Compass.’ (CNS photo/New Line)

Rival high schools work together for the holidays

Maybe this is a model for other cities with Catholic school rivalries: the Catholic Voice in Omaha, Neb., says local students who compete throughout the year in sports, drama and speech come together to feed underprivileged families during the Christmas season. It’s been going on for 40 years. This year they plan to distribute about 200,000 pounds of food, according to the article.

‘Archdiocese unveils fair trade Web site’

Joe Towalski at The Catholic Spirit in St. Paul, Minn., says at Christmas he looks for “gifts that not only make a nice present but also say something about my values.” So he’s pleased that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has launched a fair trade Web site. Read the story to learn more about it. 

NAC leads round in Clericus Cup soccer league

Clericus Cup logoWhat a way to end 2007! With a 2-1 win over the College of St. Anselm on Saturday, the cleated clergymen at the North American College are leading the standings in the Clericus Cup’s “A” round. (See previous posts here and here.)

A total of two victories out of two games played have garnered “the Nackers” 6 points — putting them far in the lead in their round of 8 teams.

The weekend game against the Benedictine college started off with the monks in the lead for the first half. But just a minute after the whistle opened the second period, the NAC’s freshman seminarian, Jeffrey Eirvin of Portland, Ore., headed the ball into the opponent’s net to tie the match.

But soon the clock was running out. An extra 4 minutes were added in injury time which gave the NAC its last chance to break the 1-1 tie. Another first-year seminarian at the NAC, David Nerbun of Charleston, S.C., found a gaping hole in the St. Anselm defense and scored with just a minute left to the game.

Rome’s seminarian soccer series is now on hold until after the holidays. The NAC’s next game will be Jan. 12 against the international college of Sedes Sapientiae.

But that doesn’t mean all the excitement is over ’til 2008. Representatives from all 16 teams will be seeing Pope Benedict at tomorrow’s general audience.

The players will be wearing their colorful team jerseys and will present the pope a copy of the league’s first coffee table book, “Clericus Cup: In the Field Not Just for Play.” The book is a collection of photographs taken by the folks at Catholic Press Photo of the soccer series’ first season.  

The Grinch can’t steal the Vatican’s Christmas

Last year's Vatican Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square is seen with the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the background after a tree-lighting ceremony. (CNS photo/Daniele Colarieti, Catholic Press Photo)With Thanksgiving over and Advent upon us, a disconcerting rumor has been circulating inside the Vatican press hall the past few weeks. A few journalists said they heard this was going to be the last year a Christmas tree would adorn St. Peter’s Square — a tradition started in 1982 by the late Pope John Paul II.

The reasons? Both secular: One Vatican watcher surmised the pope no longer wanted to continue the custom because honoring the evergreen has its roots in pagan culture and because this environmentally friendly pope didn’t want any more majestic, nearly 100-year-old trees to be cut down.  

But how could a German pope celebrate the yuletide without O Tannenbaum!? Looks like this rumor snowballed from comments that had already been bumping and rattling around the Italian blogosphere last year.

Well, people of Whoville, fear ye not. The Grinch will not be descending upon St. Peter’s Square — at least not any time soon.

Pier Carlo Cuscianna, director of technical services for Vatican City and mastermind behind an ambitious greening of the Vatican, told Catholic News Service the rumors weren’t true. Not only will there be a tree next year, he said they “already have trees lined up until 2012.”

Mountainous, woodsy communities across Europe clamor and pine year after year to be the first to spruce up St. Peter’s Square for Christmas. Far from being an eco-disaster, forestry workers have said the trees cut down for the Vatican were trees already destined to be felled as part of a healthy forest management program.

Also, Pope Benedict has urged the faithful to keep Christmas traditions alive.

Not just for tree worshippers anymore, the candlelit evergreen is a reminder that Christ, the light of the world, “has shattered the darkness of error and sin,” the pope said during a December 2005 audience with that year’s tree donors from Austria.  

PHOTO: Last year’s Vatican Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square is seen with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the background after a tree-lighting ceremony. (CNS photo/Daniele Colarieti, Catholic Press Photo)

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