Searching for answers in Haiti

The incredible devastation and destruction caused by the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti has prompted many to wonder why a nation already so impoverished would experience such tragedy.

Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, a former physicist and U.S.  director of the Catholic lay group Communion and Liberation, attempts to shed some light on understanding the tragedy in a Jan. 15 America magazine blog

The priest asks: “By what measure do we comprehend something like this? What could ever make it so understandable that we can eliminate from our hearts and minds the cry that surfaces again and again, the cry of why?”

He also notes that amid the tragedy “the church was not spared anything. The cathedral collapsed killing the archbishop, seminaries and convents were destroyed, killing future priests and dedicated religious sisters.”

Msgr. Albacete said he couldn’t offer “an explanation for why this God allows these tragedies to happen” as any attempt at explaining would “reduce the pain and suffering.” Instead, he said he can only “accept a God who ‘co-suffers’ with me. Such is the God of the Christian faith.”

Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, similarly told a Catholic news agency that “thousands of homilies will be given in the coming days to help us understand how a loving God could allow such suffering.”

Without mentioning the televangelist Pat Robertson by name, Anderson said “one of the more controversial explanations” of the destruction in Haiti “came from a Protestant evangelist who stated that Haiti had been ‘cursed’ ever since its founders had ‘sworn a pact with the devil’ to achieve the nation’s independence from France.”

Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, gave his explanation of his perceived root of Haiti’s troubles in a Jan. 13 segment on his network.

The Christian Broadcasting Network quickly backpedaled on the comments on their Web site where a spokesman said Robertson didn’t mean to imply the earthquake was the Haitians’ fault, and that he was merely repeating a legend that has led “countless scholars and religious figures over the centuries to believe the country is cursed.”

The legend, that Haiti was built on a pact with the devil has circulated on a number of Web sites tracing back to an tale of Haitian voodoo priests offering sacrifices prior to the slave revolt that led to the country’s founding.

A CNS story in 1991 recounts the 200th anniversary of this event and the controversy around it, noting that the streets were relatively quiet in the capital city Aug. 14 as Haitians prepared an evening of celebration of the Aug. 14, 1791, meeting by slaves to plot the overthrow of their French colonial masters.

Details of the anniversary of this event note that plans were “fraught with controversy between members of Protestant sects and those who follow a mix of Catholicism and traditional African religion, with the Catholic president in the middle.”

The CNS story continues: “The evil spirits invoked at Bois Caiman have brought a curse on this country,” according to a pastor during one of many anti-voodoo street marches. Bois Caiman is where African slaves met to plot the uprising 200 years ago. Tradition maintains that to ensure their success they held a voodoo ceremony that included a blood pact and the sacrifice of a pig.

 A week later, slaves rose up and in a single night burned sugar-cane fields, mills and plantation houses and killed thousands of Frenchmen.

The government planned to hold a secular commemoration — including drumming throughout the country at midnight — but even this drew Protestant criticism.

One Protestant group invited all Christians to pray at midnight “to free Haiti from the baleful influence of the voodoo spirits and reconsecrate it to Christ.”

Even though some type of voodoo meeting took place more than 200 years ago at the start of Haiti’s founding, other Christian leaders are hardly pointing to it as the cause for the current devastation.

Anderson pointed out that there is “ample evidence in the Old Testament of nations being punished by God for idolatry and injustice and some Christians continue to look to this Old Testament history for explanations of world events.”

“But Catholics today are more likely to look in a different direction to understand how God deals with human sinfulness. And they need look no further than at the crucifix above the altar in their church. God has freely and lovingly united himself with human suffering in the sacrifice of his Son upon the cross,” he said.

He also added that the tragedy in Haiti is “likely to have long-lasting effects, not only for the people who have lost loved ones there, but for an entire generation that has witnessed its destruction. And it is important that we get the right understanding of what has occurred there.”

Mysterious Rembrandt etching found

Image courtesy of CUA

The fact that The Catholic University of America in Washington has opened a free art exhibit in a gallery in its campus library may not sound unusual. On display through May 24 are items from the university’s own collection: drawings, etchings, engravings and woodcut prints created by American and European artists.

None of them has been displayed before, but the newsworthy thing about the exhibit is one etching in particular:  an image of a tired old man “with a great beard seen about most of the face.” “His head a little perched gives him … the attitude of a  man who sleeps,” continues a description on the back of the work, translated from French by doctoral student Paul Wesley Bush.

About a year ago those in the know confirmed it’s an authentic Rembrandt — but the university didn’t know what it had at first. It was just lying around under some junk on a bottom shelf in a restroom in Nugent Hall, according to the university’s PR people .

A press release said that Vincentian Father David M. O’Connell, the university’s president, discovered it quite by accident in Nugent Hall, where his office is. He opened a cabinet in the restroom to find some paper towels and noticed on the bottom shelf something in a frame — “an etching that looked familiar to me.  Why it was there or how it got there, I’ll never know .”

The priest showed the etching to Leslie  Knoblauch, a university archvist, who contacted an appraiser. The appraiser confirmed it was a genuine Rembrandt. With Knoblauch, Bush put together the current exhibit: “Fine Lines: Discovering Rembrandt and Other Old Masters at Catholic University.”

Whispers of another Synod for America

Archbishop Nikola Eterovic speaks at a Jan. 19 Vatican press conference. (CNS/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — During a Vatican press conference yesterday presenting the outline of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic told reporters there was talk of having another special assembly for America.

The last synod for America was held in 1997. It included bishops, priests, religious and lay representatives from the northern reaches of North America all the way down to the southern tip of South America.

The decision to hold a special assembly, he said, “depends on the pastoral situation (of the region) and also on the bishops requesting it.”

There has been “talk of a special assembly for America. However, it is an idea that needs fleshing out,” he added.

He said if the bishops and Pope Benedict XVI decide it would be useful for the local churches and for the continent to organize a regional synod, then the Synod of Bishops, which is “at the service of the bishops,” will follow up on it.

One source told me that Latin American bishops have been talking about the need for a special assembly so that they can get input and assistance from Northern America and the Vatican.

There are two issues of special concern: better communication and increasingly authoritarian governments taking hold in Latin America.

With communication, it seems the bishops would like help in finding ways to get information to flow more easily and quickly among the churches – some kind of set up (as the phrase goes) so the right hand knows what the left hand is doing.

Concerning the political situation in Latin America, it appears that some church leaders want to make sure their role in public debate is not misconstrued as being an advocate for a particular political party, but  as a supporter of specific principles and democratic ideals.

Catholic Charities honors three ‘champions of the poor’

Three individuals described as “national champions of the poor” were given a Keep the Dream Alive Award by Catholic Charities USA Jan. 18, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

The honors were given by the Alexandria, Va.-based agency as part of its centennial observance, which continues through September.

Those honored were:

– Allison Boisvert, social justice minister for the Pax Christi Catholic Community, Eden Prairie, Minn.

– Arturo Chavez, president and CEO, Mexican American Catholic College, San Antonio.

– Ralph McCloud, director, Catholic Campaign for Human Development for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The awards were presented de during a Mass at St. Aloysius Church in Washington. Auxiliary Bishop Martin D. Holley of Washington was the celebrant.

US rabbi says pope has finished second volume on Jesus

VATICAN CITY — U.S. Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a prolific author and professor at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., told the Vatican newspaper that Pope Benedict XVI has finished the second volume of his book on Jesus.

Rabbi Jacob Neusner (CNS/Bard College)

The rabbi says the pope told him so during their 20-minute meeting yesterday.

The fact that the pope would tell a U.S. rabbi that the manuscript is finished isn’t quite as odd as it would appear. In the pope’s first volume, “Jesus of Nazareth,” there were more quotes from Rabbi Neusner than from anyone but the Gospel writers and St. Paul.

In the first volume, published in 2007, Pope Benedict discussed in depth Rabbi Neusner’s 1993 book, “A Rabbi Talks With Jesus.” The pope said the rabbi’s “profound respect for the Christian faith and his faithfulness to Judaism led him to seek a dialogue with Jesus.”

Imagining himself amid the crowd gathered on a Galilean hillside when Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount, Rabbi Neusner “listens, confronts and speaks with Jesus himself,” the pope wrote.

“In the end, he decides not to follow Jesus,” the pope wrote, but he takes Jesus and his words more seriously than many modern Christian scholars do.

The rabbi was in Rome to speak at a Jan. 18 event sponsored by the Italian Catholic Church to mark its annual day of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. He was able to attend Pope Benedict’s visit Sunday evening to Rome’s synagogue and then met privately with the pope yesterday morning.

He told L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, that their 20 minutes together “was sufficient time for a good meeting between two professors. I have always admired the scholar Joseph Ratzinger for his honesty and lucidity and I really wanted to meet and get to know the man.”

“We spoke about our books and he confided to me that he has finished writing his second volume on Jesus,” the rabbi said.

Rabbi Neusner said he was struck by the pope’s penetrating gaze and by his “kindness and humility.”

Pope at Rome synagogue: ‘May these wounds be healed forever!’

The main synagogue of Rome, where Pope Benedict visited Sunday. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

UPDATE: Full story.

ROME — Visiting the Rome synagogue this afternoon, Pope Benedict strongly reaffirmed the church’s commitment to dialogue with the Jews and its modern teachings against anti-Semitism.

He also recalled the church’s request for forgiveness for the failings of Christians and for all they may have done to contribute to “the scourge of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism.”

“May these wounds be healed forever!” the pope said to applause in the packed synagogue.

Without mentioning Pope Pius XII by name, Pope Benedict responded gently to criticism of the wartime pope, saying that “the Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way” to Jews in Rome who sought to escape Nazi persecution.

A few minutes earlier, in a welcoming talk, Riccardo Pacifici, president of Rome’s Jewish community, said the “silence” of Pope Pius was still painful for the Jewish community. Catholic historians have said the late pope worked quietly but effectively to help Jews, and Pope Benedict recently advanced his beatification cause.

The pope recalled the common religious heritage of Christians and Jews, in particular the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, which he said remains “a beacon and a norm of life in justice and love, a ‘great ethical code’ for all humanity.”

He declared it was the duty of today’s Christians and Jews to “keep open the space for dialogue, for reciprocal respect, for growth in friendship, for a common witness in the face of the challenges of our time.”

Here is the Vatican’s English translation of the pope’s talk at the synagogue:

“What marvels the Lord worked for them!

What marvels the Lord worked for us: Indeed we were glad” (Ps 126)

“How good and how pleasant it is when brothers live in unity” (Ps 133)

Dear Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Rome,

President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities,

President of the Jewish Community of Rome,

Rabbis,

Distinguished Authorities,

Friends, Brothers and Sisters,

1. At the beginning of this encounter in the Great Synagogue of the Jews of Rome, the Psalms which we have heard suggest to us the right spiritual attitude in which to experience this particular and happy moment of grace: the praise of the Lord, who has worked marvels for us and has gathered us in his Hèsed, his merciful love, and thanksgiving to him for granting us this opportunity to come together to strengthen the bonds which unite us and to continue to travel together along the path of reconciliation and fraternity.  I wish to express first of all my sincere gratitude to you, Chief Rabbi, Doctor Riccardo Di Segni, for your invitation and for the thoughtful words which you have addressed to me.  I wish to thank also the President of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Mr Renzo Gattegna, and the President of the Jewish Community of Rome, Mr Riccardo Pacifici, for their courteous greetings.  My thoughts go to the Authorities and to all present, and they extend in a special way, to the entire Jewish Community of Rome and to all who have worked to bring about this moment of encounter and friendship which we now share.

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Pope: Synagogue visit shows climate of respect, dialogue

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict looked ahead to his visit Sunday afternoon to the Jewish synagogue in Rome, saying at his noon blessing that despite Catholic-Jewish problems, the overall climate between the two religions was one of respect and dialogue. Here is a translation of his remarks in Italian:

This afternoon, almost 24 years after the historic visit made by the Venerable John Paul II, I will go to the great synagogue of Rome, called the Major Temple, to meet with the Jewish community of the city and mark another step on the path of harmony and friendship between Catholics and Jews.

In fact, despite the problems and difficulties, there is a climate of great respect and dialogue between believers of the two religions, which bears witness to how much relations have matured and to the common commitment to appreciate that which unites us: faith in the one God, above all, but also the safeguarding of life and the family, and the aspiration to social justice and peace.

Pope following Haiti tragedy

A man carries an injured person along a destroyed area in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (CNS photo/Jorge Silva, Reuters)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict spoke about the disastrous earthquake in Haiti at his noon blessing today, expressing sadness at the death of Archbishop Joseph Miot of Port-au-Prince as well as the many others who lost their lives. As the Catholic Church takes a leading role in the recovery, the pope said he was following those efforts closely.

Here is a translation of his Italian-language remarks delivered after his Angelus prayer:

In these days out thoughts are turned toward the dear population of Haiti, as well as our heartfelt prayers. The apostolic nuncio, who thanks be to God is all right, is keeping me continually informed, and so I have learned of the sad death of the archbishop, as well as so many priests, religious and seminarians. I am following and encouraging the efforts of numerous charity organizations that are dealing with the immense needs of the country. I am praying for the injured, for the homeless and for those who tragically have lost their lives.

Holy Land journey: I leave with fears and hope

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

DAY TEN: Jan. 14, 2010

JERUSALEM — The last formal gathering of the Coordination of Episcopal Conferences in Support of the Church in the Holy Land took place this morning. At that session the participating bishops from Europe, Canada, and the United States signed a formal communiqué summarizing this year’s experience. The statement titled “The Courage to Achieve Peace in the Holy Land” reflected what we saw and heard during these days. It expressed the deep concern we felt about the deepening tensions we observed, yet the hope that peace can be achieved if justice for all is realized. (Editor’s Note: Click here for CNS story.)

My episcopal motto, Justice Begets Peace, has come to mean even more after my experience this year. Violence, extremism, oppression, injustices only fuel tension and heighten enmity. The words of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, quoted in the statement express well the only way to peace, justice for all. My prayer is that Israel and Palestine will heed his wise words spoken as a friend.

* * *

Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem at final news conference. (Photo by Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk)

Before leaving for home, I had an opportunity to visit the Catholic Relief Services office in Jerusalem, headed up by Matt Davis.  I have come to hold great respect for the incredible and important work CRS is doing around the world. It makes me proud to see their presence among the poor and their commitment to serve the littlest and weakest among us. They witness what it means to be Catholic.

This witness has become even more striking during the tragic and devastating events that are taking place right now in Haiti. CRS is on the ground providing needed help and support for the countless numbers in Haiti who have been affected by the earthquake.

In a similar way here in the Holy Land, the offices in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza reach out to those in need. The meeting with the staff further brought home to me the dedication and commitment of CRS personnel, both their international and local staff.

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Holy Land journey: A creative initiative; the sadness of Hebron

By Bishop Gerald Kicanas
One in a series

DAY NINE: Jan. 13, 2010

JERUSALEM — Two experiences highlighted our gatherings today. The first was an opportunity to spend some time with the Maronite archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land, Archbishop Paul N. Sayah. Our conversations covered a wide range of important issues.

One of the valuable and creative initiatives he has taken was a program entitled “Encounter” which he organized with a team of associates that included a rabbi, an Anglican priest and a group of lay people. They invited Jewish, Christian, and Muslim young people to come together both here and in England to dialogue with one another in order to break down stereotypes and come to know one another as people.

Archbishop Sayah cited a study done by the University of Haifa which looked at attitudes of Israeli young people toward Palestinians. The results were striking, although not unexpected. The young people saw Palestinians as threatening and unlikeable. Were one to ask the same questions of Palestinian young people, the answers would probably be quite similar.

These stereotypes only further divide these two peoples and make it so difficult to reconcile. Programs like Encounter can make a world of difference. Some of the young people’s comments after their extensive dialogues and opportunities to participate in conflict management experiences proved that attitudes can change by engagement.

Archbishop Sayah has much wisdom to share about the experiences in the countries where he serves. I learned much. And he treated us to a fabulous Lebanese meal that made us wonder whether we would ever eat again.

* * *

The afternoon was spent in Hebron. This proved to be the most difficult experience of the trip. I remember visiting Hebron many years ago. My recollection was that of a bustling city. I remember the crowds of people around the tombs of the patriarchs which is so central to this town. The city pulsated with life. Stores flourished with business.

Now the central areas of Hebron are like a ghost town. The shops are all closed and shuttered, the streets abandoned. On the walls of the stores are written in Hebrew harsh words toward Arabs. Soldiers with automatic rifles and local Israeli police are everywhere in the section titled H2, where around 35,000 Palestinians live amid four small settlements within Hebron and one on the outskirts. There is one army solder for each settler, about 750 in the town.

The only vehicles we saw in the center of town were military vehicles often accompanying a settler’s car.

An Israeli policeman stops a tour group, including Bishop Kicanas, center, on a street in the West Bank city of Hebron Jan. 13. Bishop Kicanas was visiting Hebron with members of B'Tselem, a human rights organization operating in Israel and the West Bank. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

While we were walking through this abandoned section, an officer told us we could not be here because we were more than 10 people. We were 11. Our guide asked, “Why?” We were told that is the law. Our guide, who knew the law, questioned the officer further. “It is not against the law, we can be here. We are just walking.”  An argument in Hebrew ensued but in the end, without any reason, we were told to move on. It is frustrating when an authority can make up a law to suit their needs.

The history of Hebron includes tragedies wrought upon the Jews by Arabs and vice versa. Many have suffered on both sides and now a strong military presence separates the two peoples. In some areas of the H2 sector Palestinians are not able to drive but only walk. On other streets they are able to do neither even though they may live along the street.

We visited a Palestinian family that experienced stone throwing as well as an individual settler firing his gun at them. The settlement from which they came is located just above the Palestinian family’s home. This conflict situation was videotaped by a Palestinian. The tape made clear what had happened and who was at fault. Had there been no video of the conflict, the Palestinians could have been blamed.

Such videos of incidences of human rights violations are being taken by a number of trained Palestinians in order to make clear what has taken place and who is at fault. This protects Palestinians who can be blamed for instigating the situation. This video program developed by a Jewish human rights group might help others to learn about the difficult and frightening situation faced by Palestinians, at times, in Hebron.

Bishop Kicanas looks at a camera with a Palestinian boy in the West Bank city of Hebron Jan. 13. Shops on the street had been closed by order of the Israeli military. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Clearly there are no winners in this situation. Jews have suffered. Palestinians have suffered. Jews feel threatened. Palestinians feel threatened. Jews strike out at Palestinians and Palestinians strike out at Israelis. But all the force in the world will not lead to peace and reconciliation.

For many years Hebron was a model community where Jews and Arabs lived alongside of one another, shared their community together and benefited by one another’s presence. Many Jews fled after the first massacre by Arabs many years ago. The settlers want to recover their lost lands. More recently a number of Arabs were massacred by a Jew. Since then harsh measures have been put in place against Palestinians because the Israelis feared that there would be revenge by the Arabs.

Now the city of Hebron is like a ghost town, a town under siege. The tragedy of the situation torments you. There must be another way for human beings, people of faith as Jews and Muslims can live together.

When we were in the tomb of the patriarchs we saw a number of Jews in prayer while at the same time we could hear the imam announcing the call to prayer. These peoples are peoples of faith. That faith can lead them to reconciliation. That needs to be our prayer. That certainly is our hope.

Bishop Kicanas, of Tucson, Ariz., vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, visited Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories to attend an international meeting of bishops in support of the church in the Holy Land. He was a guest blogger for us during the trip.

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