Many countries represented, but one church revealed

Whenever I have attended work-related educational seminars in the past, I’ve always been blessed with the added bonus of meeting others with diverse backgrounds. The Church Up Close: Covering Catholicism in the Age of Benedict XVI, held Sept. 8-14 at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross School of Church Communications in Rome, provided not only a cross section of personalities, but cultures as well.

The professional journalists who attended the seminar with me traveled to Rome from six of the world’s seven continents. They represented secular and religious news organizations and ranged in age and experience by many decades.

As we collectively roamed the ancient city in search of Catholic history and absorbed theology being taught by scholars in the university’s classrooms, we discovered differences and similarities in how we do our jobs, live our lives and view our faith.

Some of the journalists aggressively pressed Vatican officials for answers about what was learned from the recent sexual-abuse crisis of the Catholic Church, while others wanted concrete explanations about church positions on abortion, homosexuality and contraception.

Individual techniques also ranged. Some took a more subtle approach in getting their sources to talk, while others employed a more abrasive manner. When it came down to it, we were all looking for the same thing.

During our seven days together, we learned many things about one anothers culture, political ideology, religious traditions, levels of curiosity, and places of business.

But, like the millions of faithful in the thousands of Catholic parishes all over the globe, we journalists were all searching for the same thing — the truth.

Catholic Charities USA’s annual gathering will keep poverty in forefront

Poverty grew in the U.S. in 2007, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics as reported in our story last month.

The data show that 12.5 percent of Americans lived in poverty in 2007. That’s a slight increase from 2006. Since 2002, the poverty rate has been virtually unchanged, fluctuating between 12.1 percent and 12.7 percent.

Those percentages translate into one in eight Americans living in poverty.

Some interesting stats from the most recent government poverty report show:

— A family of four with an income of $21,203 or less is considered to be poor.

— 10.9 percent of people in poverty held full-time jobs all year.

— 58.9 percent of children living in female-headed households lived in poverty.

The difficulties posed by poverty in a land of plenty is being held up as a major election campaign issue by an interdenominational group of religious leaders and organizations, including Catholic Charities USA. In addition, the agency has called for cutting poverty in half by 2020 through its Campaign to Reduce Poverty in America.

It’s no small task. Still, Precious Blood Father Clarence Williams, director for racial equality and diversity at Catholic Charities USA, told us last week that such work is a requirement of the Catholic faith.

“In ‘Faithful Citizenship’ we’re called to find our voice. If we speak up, (elected officials) will listen because our voice has influence,” he said.

When Catholic Charities USA convenes for its national gathering in New Orleans Sept. 25-28, workshops and programs will look at ways to better support people in poverty and to help them rise into the middle class.

“Jesus’ life speaks to poverty and marginalization,” Father Williams said. “Whether in housing or the justice system, Jesus’ life was about being a witness in the depths of society where we find the poor, the aged, the dispossessed.”

A pope for Mary

Pope Benedict prays at the Grotto of the Apparitions at Lourdes

Pope Benedict prays at the Grotto of the Apparitions at Lourdes. (CNS/Catholic Press Photo)

LOURDES, France — Pope Benedict XVI is known to the world as a bookish theologian and an academic. When he arrived at the French sanctuary of Lourdes Saturday afternoon, people discovered he has a “Marian” side, too.

The pope first stopped at the parish church where St. Bernadette Soubirous was baptized, and then visited the small house — a former prison not much bigger than a cell — where the young girl and her family lived in the mid-19th century. There, he kissed her rosary and said a prayer.

Next the pope went to the grotto at the base of a rocky cliff, where Bernadette experienced 18 apparitions of Mary 150 years ago. Like millions of pilgrims each year, he paused to take a drink of water from the spring she discovered there, said to have miraculous powers.

I was among the group of reporters at the grotto, watching the proceedings through the umbrellas of bishops who stood near the pontiff in a steady rain.

Earlier in the day, we had flown down with the pope on his plane from Paris, where he spent about 30 hours in events with politicians, academics, pastoral workers and a massive crowd of faithful.

In Lourdes, the focus was clearly on Mary.

The night of his arrival at the sanctuary, the pope watched a torchlight evening procession in Rosary Square. Here, addressing thousands of pilgrims, he paid tribute to simple devotion.

At Lourdes, he said, Mary stirred hope and love “by giving pride of place to the sick, the poor and the little ones.”

“In this shrine at Lourdes … we are invited to discover the simplicity of our vocation: it is enough to love,” he said.

The traditional nighttime procession stems from St. Bernadette’s habit of lighting a candle when Mary would appear to her. Today, the pope said, the light from pilgrims’ torches represents a powerful symbol against the darkness of sin.

The procession expresses the mystery of prayer in a form that everyone can grasp, like a luminous path in the dark, he said. It should also remind Christians of those who suffer, he said.

“We think of innocent victims who suffer from violence, war, terrorism and famine; those who bear the consequences of injustices, scourges and disasters, hatred and oppression; of attacks on their human dignity and fundamental rights; on their freedom to act and think,” he said.

The pope remembered those experiencing family problems, illness, unemployment or loneliness, as well as difficulties related to immigration. Those who have suffered or died for Christ must not be forgotten, either, he said.

He described Lourdes pilgrimages as leading to a spiritual place “between heaven and earth.” Pilgrims may come secretly hoping to receive some miracle, he said, but more often leave with a different kind of spiritual experience and a changed outlook.

“A small flame called hope, compassion, tenderness now dwells within them. A quiet encounter with Bernadette and the Virgin Mary can change a person’s life,” he said.

On the plane carrying him to France, the pope told journalists that his April 16 birthday fell on the feast of St. Bernadette, and for that reason he felt very close to her.

He said that at Lourdes, people encounter Mary and find that “the mother’s love” is what provides true healing for all sickness and suffering.

“I think this is a very important sign for our era,” he said.

Laicitè and lipstick

Pope Benedict delivers a speech to French intellectuals

Pope Benedict delivers a speech to French intellectuals. (CNS/Reuters)

PARIS — When covering Pope Benedict’s travels, journalists sometimes feel they’re in a parallel news universe, far from the realm of political mudslinging or hurricane tracking.

In this universe, theological and philosophical ideas are the stuff of stories. It matters if the pope uses a phrase like “positive laicitè.” Attention is duly paid to his citations of church thinkers who died many centuries ago. And reporters try to distill a lead from the pontiff’s explication of medieval monasticism and its impact on Western culture.

There were signs in France, however, that breaking into the U.S. news cycle — dominated these days by who was calling whom a pig — may not be easy for the German pope.

The pope’s address to academics in Paris was a case in point. The speech came with a Vatican build-up. We were told earlier in the week by the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, that this was big, that it would treat the theme of faith and reason, and that the pope was working hard to hone the text.

It would come almost exactly two years after the pope’s address at the University of Regensburg in Germany. That speech, as we all remembered, was supposed to be a dry academic treatise and turned out to be a bombshell because of what it said about Islam and religious fanaticism.

His speech Friday night in Paris, however, did not offer many catch phrases or easy news hooks. It presented his strongly argued case that the connection between Western civilization and Christian theology runs deep, and that Christian values cannot simply be jettisoned today, as if they were unreasonable or a merely sentimental indulgence.

The pope’s historical survey of the contributions of the “culture of monasticism” was long and detailed, touching on monastic scholarship, Scripture, worship and work. It drew from many sources and was studded with Latin phrases.

Most French media found the pope’s content worthy of consideration. It was indeed a “theology lesson,” as the newspaper Le Figaro put it, but one worth some space. Even the leftist daily Liberation described the talk as an erudite contribution to an ongoing debate.

I’m guessing that this speech won’t make much impact in the mainstream U.S. media. It just didn’t push the right buttons. A quick check of newspaper Web sites, in fact, shows that the pope’s trip to France so far is ending up in the “around the world” briefs column.

Maybe this trip is just too geared to a European audience. Or maybe in these days of Sarah and Ike, Benedict’s message is bound to make fewer waves in the United States.

In Paris, a warning about modern idolatry

PARIS — Celebrating Mass in the center of Paris, Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholics to rediscover the power of the Eucharist and reject the modern “idols” of money and power.

About 250,000 people filled the sunny Invalides esplanade Sept. 13 for the liturgy, which was broadcast live on French national television. It was an unusual public display of the faith in a country that prides itself on secularism.

As the 81-year-old pontiff arrived in his popemobile, he was greeted by cheers and a panorama of fluttering yellow flags. Many of the young people in attendance had spent the night in the square, after praying at a candlelight vigil.

The pope smiled as he gazed over the crowd from a wooden altar platform. In his sermon, he recalled the preaching of St. Paul against the temptation of idolatry in the early Christian era, and said the question was still relevant today.

“Has not our modern world created its own idols? Has it not imitated, perhaps inadvertently, the pagans of antiquity?” he said.

He cited St. Paul’s condemnation of greed and the love of money, sins that lead people away from faith in God.

“Have not money, the thirst for possessions, for power and even knowledge, diverted man from his true destiny?” the pope said.

He emphasized that the church’s condemnation of idolatry, including its modern forms, is not a condemnation of the individuals caught up in its attraction.

“In our judgments, we must never confuse the sin, which is unacceptable, with the sinner, the state of whose conscience we cannot judge and who, in any case, is always capable of conversion and forgiveness,” he said.

The pope said the path to God is not always easy today, but he held out the Mass as the best way for Catholics to share in the revelation that comes from Christ.

The Mass, he said, is “the sacrifice of thanksgiving par excellence.” By participating in the Eucharist, he said, the faithful come to understand that only God “teaches us to shun idols, the illusions of our minds.”

The pope’s words represented a subtle prod in a country where it is estimated that fewer than 10 percent of Catholics go to Mass regularly.

The pope also addressed another pastoral sore point in France, the dwindling number of priestly vocations. The number of diocesan priests in France is down almost 50 percent in the last 25 years, and the priestly vocations rate is one of the lowest in the world.

In remarks aimed in particular at the many young people present — but also, as he said, the “not so young” — the pope said he was appealing to their generosity: “Do not be afraid to give your life to Christ!”

He underlined that the figure of the priest is not optional for the church.

“Nothing will ever replace the ministry of priests at the heart of the church! Nothing will ever replace a Mass for the salvation of the world!” he said.

When he left the Mass site, Vatican security agents formed a protective circle around the pope as enthusiastic young priests and seminarians tried to grab his hand.

Before the liturgy, the pope stopped briefly at the Institute of France, the prestigious academy where he was made a member in 1992. He was welcomed by the institute’s top officials and other members.

Later in the day, he was to fly to Lourdes, where he was to mark the 150th anniversary of Mary’s apparitions to St. Bernadette Soubirous.

Helping Haiti’s hurricane victims

After being hit by a series of storms, poverty-stricken Haiti is suffering. Hundreds of Haitians have died and more than 1 million have been affected by Hurricanes Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike.

In a Sept. 5 letter, Haitian Bishop Yves-Marie Pean of Les Gonaives said he and his staff were accommodating 500 people at the bishop’s residence. That was before Hurricane Ike drenched the country Sept. 7.

Now Ike is gathering strength and headed for the U.S.

The following aid agencies are sending out appeals for donations to assist recovery in Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States: Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA,  Development and Peace, Food for the PoorCatholic Medical Mission Board and Health Partners International of Canada.

Papal press conference on the flight to Paris

ABOARD THE PAPAL FLIGHT TO PARIS — En route to France Friday, Pope Benedict XVI spoke with reporters and previewed some of the main themes of his four-day visit.The pope fielded questions on church-state relations, the contributions of French Catholicism and the true meaning of the Marian sanctuary at Lourdes.

Shortly after take off, the pope stood in the front of the coach-class section of the packed Alitalia Airbus 321. The 70 reporters on the plane leaned out into the single aisle to get a clear view of him as he responded to questions.

The reporters had wondered whether the pope would come back to speak to them, because the flight was so short, but Vatican sources said he wanted to meet with the journalists.

He spoke entirely in French, which was very unusual; because the official working language of the Vatican is Italian, the papal press conferences during a trip usually are in Italian with a few questions and answers in the language of the country he is visiting.

Asked about the role of the church in France and in secular societies, the pope said a proper separation of church and state does not contradict the ideals of the Catholic faith. What the church wants, he said, is for Christians to have a voice in society and to be able to “live joyfully the freedom of our faith” and make the beauty of the faith visible in society.

“The world should know that it is beautiful to be a believer, that it’s beautiful to know God, God with a human face in Jesus Christ,” he said.

The pope added that it is essential to the survival of modern societies that there be some people who know God and follow religious values.

Answering a question about his knowledge of France, Pope Benedict sounded like a genuine Francophile, citing the theological and philosophical contributions of French Catholics and praising French culture in general: its art and architecture, its great cathedrals, its monastic tradition and even the joie de vivre of its poets.

He recalled in particular the contributions of great 20th-century theologians, including Henri De Lubac, Jean Danielou and Yves Congar.

“So this is a culture that has really determined my personal theological and human development,” he said. “I love France and the great French culture.”

Asked about his relaxation of restrictions on use of the Tridentine rite — a move that was controversial in France — the pope said fears that this would set off a liturgical conflict were unfounded.

He said the new rules were designed to satisfy the needs of a small group of faithful who had a special attachment to the old rite; it was “an act of tolerance” toward them. It is clear, he said, that the post-Vatican II Mass remains the normal liturgy in the church.

The last question dealt with his visit to Lourdes where he will mark the 150th anniversary of Mary’s apparitions to St. Bernadette Soubrious.

The pope said Marian devotion has a valuable place in Catholicism today. “We are not going to Lourdes to find miracles, but to find the Mother’s love and true healing,” he said.