First moon landing had Catholics excited, wary for the future of space travel

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, the first manned spacecraft to land on the moon.

Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin poses for a photo beside the U.S. flag during the first manned lunar landing in 1969. Pope Paul VI told astronaut Neil Armstrong that he was right on the mark in describing the Apollo 11 mission as "one giant leap for mankind." (NASA)

Astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin poses for a photo beside the U.S. flag during the first manned lunar landing in 1969. Pope Paul VI told astronaut Neil Armstrong that he was right on the mark in describing the Apollo 11 mission as "one giant leap for mankind." (NASA)

 Besides that whole “historic space exploration achievement” thing, the Apollo 11 mission was a monumental event for media — the live video feed from the moon walk was seen by an estimated 500 million people worldwide, the largest television audience at the time. (Although the possible destruction of those original recordings from the lunar cameras probably isn’t going to help change the minds of anyone who believes in the “moon landing hoax.”)

Thankfully, no one accidentally erased the 1969 archives of Catholic News Service. In articles carried by CNS — then called National Catholic News Service — that summer, Catholics’ excitement for the space mission was well-documented. The yellowing, brittle copies of stories we found in our library filled two manila folders labeled “Space Exploration.” They have headlines like “Monks sing ‘space hymn'” (July 19, 1969) and “Pope hails astronauts as ‘conquerors of the moon'” (July 21, 1969).

In the United States, Catholics gave the momentous occasion special attention at Mass. Parishes in Newark, N.J., included a special invocation for a successful mission in their prayer of the faithful, and Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston published a “Lunar Prayer.” Catholic church leaders celebrated a Mass at the Patrick Air Force Base after touring the Kennedy Space Center in the days before the launch.

Pope Paul VI was particularly excited about the moon landing, if his numerous glowing messages, audiences, and addresses are any indication. The Vatican even gave the space program a papal flag to leave on the surface of the moon, along with a message from Pope Paul VI.

“For the glory of the name of God, who gives men such power, we pray and wish well for this wondrous endeavor,” he hand-wrote alongside the text of Psalm 8.

In the following months, however, CNS reported that church leaders across the globe wondered whether the advances might repeat the problems of the last great technology boom, the Industrial Revolution, which some bishops believed created prosperity for certain groups and nations while exploiting or ignoring the rest of society.

“Scientific and technological progress is not always followed by comparable progress in the fields of morality, law and international cooperation,” said New Zealand Cardinal Peter McKeefry in August 1969.

Theologians and church leaders had been questioning the enormous cost of the programs since the start of the “space race.” Four years before the moon walk, CNS reported that German theologian and Jesuit Father Karl Rahner expressed his concern in a June 1965 interview with America magazine.

“I am always surprised to see how little the official church and other Christians have considered the moral implications of space travel,” he said.

“But we must still ask ourselves whether it is not moral vulgarity of a low order to pour out so many billions to send people to the moon, while at the same time we are faced with worldwide hunger.”

Nevertheless, the Rome bureau of CNS reported in October 1969 that Synod of Bishops awarded the three astronauts with a gold medal from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and the pope praised the moon landing in a private audience with the astronauts.

“The standard of collaboration and cooperation, and the perfection which was reached … pay tribute to the capacity of modern man to reach beyond himself, to reach beyond human nature, to attain the perfection of achievement made possible by his God-given intelligence,” he said.

Video of Archbishop Di Noia’s ordination Mass

We had a story earlier this week on the ordination Mass for Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, an American Dominican priest recently appointed secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. One of our summer interns, Jessie Abrams from Northwestern University, also captured the event in a video, shot at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington.

As the story notes, the basilica was packed for the ceremony, which included a homily by Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Farewell to a Catholic journalist who suffered for his pen

Catholic journalists in the U.S. and Canada don’t spend much time thinking that they just might land in jail for what they write. About the worst thing that happens to us is that a reader takes issue with what we write or crazy bloggers go after us. Once in a while we get the sack. It’s easy to forget that the same can’t be said of our colleagues in other lands. They go to jail or worse, get killed.

One such heroic Catholic journalist died last week. We should note his passing.

Father Phero Truong Ba Can, longtime editor in chief of Vietnam’s Catholicism and The Nation magazine, died at 79. A funeral Mass was held for this great journalist in Ho Chi Minh City July 13 and drew thousands of mourners.

Father Can was born in 1930 in Vietnam and was ordained at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1958. After earning his doctoral degree, he returned to Vietnam and became editor of Face to Face. An article he penned, “25 Years of Socialism in the North,” earned him a nine-month stint in jail during the regime of President Nguyen Van Thieu.

Father Can was an ardent anti-war activist throughout the many years of conflict in Vietnam and remain committed to peace throughout his life. He fought for democracy and workers’ rights and against the torture of students during the Vietnam War and beyond. He thought Catholics in Vietnam should work for the welfare of their nation. It was a common theme in his writing.

In 2001, the International Catholic Union of the Press honored him with its Gold Award for lifetime achievement, though the award drew the ire of some Vietnamese Catholics.

Read a complete obituary on Father Can in CathNews Asia here and another by Tom Fox at NCR Online here.

Year for Priests: Serving African medical students a privilege

By Maryknoll Father Michael J. Snyder
One in a series

DAR ES SALAAM, Tananzia — It has been two and a half years since my return to Tanzania after 10 years of service in the U.S.  I had 20 years previous experience in this country.  This present assignment has brought me to Dar es Salaam and a new experience as chaplain at the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences, the national medical university of Tanzania.

This medical school at Muhimbili Hospital was once the only one in Tanzania.  Formerly the School of Medicine of the University of Dar es Salaam, it had a student population of just 400 in the 1970s.  Today with a student body of 1,600 it stands alone.  Nearly 50 percent of the students are Catholic, a tribute to an historical emphasis placed on education by the Catholic Church.

Serving among them has been a privilege.  For some 60 students the day begins with Mass at 6:30 a.m. at our chapel.  Classes begin at 8:30 and continue right up to 5:00 p.m. with an hour and a half break for lunch.

I had heard that this is the cream of intelligentsia for the country and have come to learn how true it is.  The Catholic community at Muhimbili engages 40 students in different facets of leadership.  They take responsibility for accounts, banking, distribution of salaries, and organization of events and activities.  They are intelligent and mature yet maintain the spark and enthusiasm of youth.  If they are able to cope with the temptations that lead to corrupt practices and the lure to abandon Tanzania for lucrative jobs outside the country, these young people can make a tremendous contribution in the medical sector.

Maintaining the ideals and positive motivation of service is a major challenge facing them.  Perhaps the singular most interesting challenge for me as their chaplain can be described with a question:  How can the message of Christ alive within us nurture and prepare medical students for the sacrifices needed so that God’s hand may touch the thousands who seek them out for healing in a country where poverty prevails?

For the most part, the students are committed and want to help.  But they also have a right to a decent living.  They are smart and can see what is happening around them.  They have questions and they wonder how they will reconcile their faith with the desire for a decent living.  Salaries are low and resources scarce.  So, medical professionals are tempted to inflate their salaries by hoarding available services and charging patients extra for them.

Medical ethics is a major question.  In the classroom they are taught how to scientifically deal with illness.  They are given procedures that sometimes conflict with church teaching and wonder how they will be able to function as faithful Catholics in a medical system that promotes policies that are contrary to the church’s position.

I hope this gives you a little feel for what medical university campus ministry is all about in Tanzania.  Let me end with some comments from the students themselves when asked what the Catholic community at Muhimbili means to them:

* * *

I’m participating in the activities of my church because first I believe it is my responsibility to make my church active, and as I receive blessings from God everyday I also need to do something in return.  In addition to that, it gives me a sense of really belonging to the community.  I am happy to work with other members, as in doing so, I learn a lot about understanding myself and others and obtain skills on how to work well as a group anywhere in serving God.

— Cecelia Ngatunga (third-year medical student)

Praise the Lord!  The Muhimbili Catholic Community has enabled me to understand the meaning of love and humility in action, especially on Saturday evenings when we visit patients of different religions in the wards seeking to comfort them.  At our chapel people of different ages and medical professions are united together as the Muhimbili Catholic Community!

— George Alcard Rweyemamu (third-year medical student)

The advantage I see for being a member of the Muhimbili Catholic Community are the spiritual services offered, such as daily Mass.  I also value the church activities, especially the seminars and volunteer opportunities such as visiting the sick.  Finally, I enjoy socializing with different people that build me spiritually.

— Valeria Rugaiganisa (third-year nursing student)

* * *

Fr. Michael J. Snyder is a member of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, commonly known as Maryknoll. A native of New Jersey, he was ordained in 1979 and assigned to work in Tanzania, East Africa. In addition to various parish assignments, Fr. Mike served as the regional superior for the Maryknoll priests, brothers, and lay missioners working in Tanzania (1989-1995). In 1996 he returned to the U.S. to serve on the General Council for Maryknoll until 2002. Fr. Mike also served as vocation director for Maryknoll for seven years. In 2007 he returned for missionary service in Tanzania where he resides today.

‘Rome, sweet home’

For New Orleans Catholic editor Peter Finney, a planned assignment to go to Rome cover his new archbishop — Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond — as he received his pallium June 29 from Pope Benedict XVI turned out to be a frustrating journey that took him only as far as Atlanta and back home again.

In his column in the July 11 issue of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese, Finney describes his frustrating experience with a generous dose  of good humor.

“Fifty-six hours and three canceled airplane flights later, I had made it as far as Atlanta 400 miles away, a 7 mph pace that easily could have been matched by a B-list Kenyan runner with tender bunions,” he writes.

A postscript to Malia and Sasha’s Vatican visit

VATICAN CITY — While neither the Vatican nor the White House released photographs of Pope Benedict XVI with Malia and Sasha Obama, the Vatican newspaper published a couple more details about their Vatican visit.


Michelangelo's Last Judgment (CNS)

While their father was meeting privately with Pope Benedict, the girls and their mother were greeted by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state.

The newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said Cardinal Bertone gave Sasha, 7, a puzzle of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and Malia, 10, a Vatican Museums watch. In addition, he gave both girls a cap with Pope Benedict’s coat of arms on it.

While there are no public photos of the girls inside the Apostolic Palace, photographers did get a glimpse of Sasha’s bare feet while she was waiting for her parents to finish up their meeting with the pope and a photo of the whole family boarding Air Force One to Ghana immediately after the meeting.

The US background of John Paul’s synagogue visit


Pope John Paul was welcomed to the Rome synagogue by Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY — Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony apparently was partially responsible for Pope John Paul II’s historic 1986 visit to Rome’s main synagogue.

Today’s issue of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, contains a long interview with Cardinal Jorge Mejia, 86, a pioneer in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, former secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the retired head of the Vatican Secret Archives and Vatican Library.

When preparations were being made for the pope’s visit to the synagogue, the future cardinal was secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Relations with the Jews. The newspaper asked the cardinal how it came about that Pope John Paul was the first modern pope to visit a Jewish synagogue.

Cardinal Mejia

Cardinal Jorge Mejia in 2001 (CNS/Catholic Northwest Progress)

He said that he was invited to one of Pope John Paul’s famous working lunches where the topic was planning for the pope’s 1987 visit to the United States. Cardinal Mejia said he didn’t know why he had been invited.

“Among other things, the pope said that the archbishop of Los Angeles (then-Archbishop Mahony) proposed visiting a synagogue in the city,” he said.

When the pope asked his opinion, “I said that if he was going to visit a synagogue, he should start with the one in Rome, the diocese of the pope,” the cardinal said. “John Paul II asked me if, in my opinion, that was possible.”

Cardinal Mejia said he called Rabbi Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome, to ask about the idea and the rabbi responded by quoting Psalm 118, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Pope John Paul visited the synagogue April 13, 1986.

During his Sept. 10-19, 1987, trip to the United States, he met representatives of the U.S. Jewish community at a cultural center in Miami, but not at a synagogue anywhere. In Los Angeles other Jewish leaders were part of a group who participated in an interreligious encounter with the pope at the Japanese Cultural Center.