John Paul II: The mango pope

VATICAN CITY — One of the most curious tributes in the run-up to Pope John Paul II’s beatification came from Mexico, where church officials recalled the late pope’s love for mangos.

During his first trip to Mexico in 1979, the pope enthused about the Latin American fruit, and his Mexican hosts began preparing dishes that used the mango in every possible way. Afterward, they regularly sent boxes of mangos to the Vatican so there would always be some on the pope’s table.

Even when Pope John Paul was very ill toward the end of his life, the late Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada of Mexico City sent him mangos — and called the deputy secretary of state to make sure the pope had received them.

The story, recounted by the Vatican missionary news agency Fides April 28, may seem marginal, but it offers insight into the ways Pope John Paul connected with people of every place and culture. His spiritual intensity may have made him a saint, but his humanity made him a saint they could relate to.

Throughout his 26-year pontificate, Pope John Paul paid attention not only to world leaders but also to the “little people” and what was on their minds. On his journeys outside the Vatican, he would chat with workers, visit the sick and make pilgrimage to even the most humble of local shrines.

More than once, he stepped off the official papal motorcade route to drop in on families in Africa and Latin America. He sipped tea in their huts, and once, after visiting a Brazilian shantytown, he took off his papal ring and left it to be sold for the benefit of the local residents.

He opened a hostel for the poor inside the Vatican, and personally hosted the homeless for holiday dinners. In Rome, he visited the most out-of-the-way parishes and spent the better part of his Sundays with parishioners.

Everywhere he went, Pope John Paul seemed to imbibe the local culture and embrace its expressions. He did this in the simplest of gestures: donning a tribal headdress in Kenya, swinging a hockey stick in St. Louis or drinking a pepper-root brew from a coconut shell in Fiji.

He did it through words, routinely taking language lessons before his travels. In Tanzania in 1990, thanks to a cassette tape he dutifully toted en route, he was able to charm and amaze his listeners in near-perfect Swahili.

During public ceremonies, Pope John Paul put people at their ease, often with a sense of humor. When he held hands and danced onstage with young people in Australia in 1986, one of the girls began to cry. The smiling pope hugged her and said simply, “Don’t worry.”

Carl Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, was impressed with the way Pope John Paul patiently greeted the sick and disabled at his public events, chatting with them one by one and blessing them. He was not going through the motions; he was interested in them.

“These were small actions that were not necessary and not expected. It was something he was doing that was different, personal and made that person feel very special with the encounter,” Anderson said.

The late pope routinely went outside the traditional boundaries of the papacy, in things big and small. He was the first modern pope to visit a synagogue, a fact that’s remembered with affection by the Jews in Rome’s ancient “ghetto” neighborhood. Many of them keep a photo of the Polish pope in their shops.

One of his favorite Christmas meetings was with Rome’s garbage collectors and street sweepers, who would welcome him to their nativity scene near the Vatican. He never gave a speech, and instead joked with them about getting direct orders from God not to skip their annual encounter.

Pope John Paul was, of course, serious about evangelizing. But he seemed to recognize that evangelization was easier after building bridges with people in every walk of life. Sometimes he did it by giving a speech. And sometimes he did it by slipping on a rock star’s sunglasses, or savoring a mango.

Bishops join in fighting cuts to anti-poverty programs

Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., and Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., have joined an ecumenical effort to oppose budget cuts to anti-poverty programs and congressional plans to make additional reductions in spending on programs supporting the poor.

The two California bishops will join evangelical, mainline Protestant, African-American and Latino Christian leaders in a series of press conferences today to introduce an ecumenical coalition called the Circle of Protection.

The coalition was formed as Congress and the White House debates federal spending priorities in the face of the mounting budget deficit.

The religious leaders say they believe the U.S. budget must favor moral principles over political choices and expressed concern that anti-poverty programs are among those seeing disproportionate cuts.

“As Christian leaders, we are committed to fiscal responsibility and shared sacrifice,” said a statement on the coalition’s website. “We are also committed to resist budget cuts that undermine the lives, dignity and rights of poor and vulnerable people. Therefore, we join with others to form a Circle of Protection around programs that meet the essential needs of hungry and poor people at home and abroad.”

CNS will have full coverage later today.

‘Soul Surfer’: A real-life story hits the red carpet

Actress AnnaSophia Robb in "Soul Surfer." (CNS photo/Tri-Star)

By John Mulderig
Catholic News Service

Events this spring surrounding the New York opening of the Hawaii-set film “Soul Surfer” – a fact-based drama about devoutly Christian surfing enthusiast Bethany Hamilton – revealed some interesting details about her story’s odyssey from the big waves to the big screen. As related in the movie, Hamilton’s faith inspired her to continue competing in the sport despite the loss of her left arm in a 2003 shark attack when she was only 13.

At a dinner to celebrate the premiere, AnnaSophia Robb, who plays Hamilton, reflected on the challenge of learning to surf for the project. (Ironically enough, the 17-year-old actress – whose earlier films include “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Race to Witch Mountain” — hails from landlocked Colorado.)

Recalling the strength and coordination requisite to raise herself into a standing poison on a surfboard even with the aid of both her arms, Robb marveled at Hamilton’s ability to do so with only one.

When Hamilton stopped by the table a short while later, the two chatted about the friendship that has sprung up between them and about the bonds Robb has formed with other members of Hamilton’s close-knit surfing circle.

As for the future, Robb spoke of returning to high school and preparing to take the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. If her insightful evaluation of some of the material she has been reading for English class – including Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Joseph Conrad’s classic novella “Heart of Darkness” – are any indication, Robb should have little difficulty with the portion of those exams devoted to reading comprehension.

Another visitor to Robb’s table was veteran TV actor and fellow cast member Kevin Sorbo (“Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”). After acknowledging his enthusiasm for “Soul Surfer,” Sorbo — who plays Holt Blanchard, the father of Hamilton best friend Alana – quickly warmed to the subject of his favorite good cause: a youth program called A World Fit for Kids. As none of his listeners would have been surprised to learn, Sorbo serves as spokesman for the California-based nonprofit.

The Manhattan branch of the Paley Center for Media – formerly known as the Museum of Television & Radio – was the venue for the opening itself the following night.  Bordering the regulation red carpet was a row of surfboards carrying the motto “Pray for Surf.”

Observing the scene, Bethany’s Catholic aunt and uncle Bob and Lynn Hamilton, who live outside Wilmington, Del., remarked on the harrowing details of the shark’s onslaught, and the arduous trip to the hospital their niece had to endure from the remote beach where it took place.

They also recounted the bizarre coincidence that awaited Bethany on arrival at the hospital: Her father had been scheduled to have knee surgery there that day. Instead, as Bob put it, “the doctor kicked my brother off the operating table” to make way for his own daughter.

Before moving to the front of the crowd to wave hello to passing relatives, both Hamiltons expressed their admiration for their niece, especially her faith-founded ability to transform a potentially devastating experience into something remarkably positive — for herself, for those close to her, and now for moviegoers.

How Operation Rice Bowl coins add up

Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. church’s international relief and development agency, received Operation Rice Bowl donations from 12,681 parishes and schools across the country this year. Participating donors  (and possible future contributors) can check out how their contributions are used here.

Operation Rice Bowl began in 1975 in the Diocese of Allentown, Pa., in response to a drought in Africa. CRS adopted it as a national program a year later. Each Lent, about 13,000 faith communities in the U.S. take part in the program, contributing roughly $8 million a year.

During Fridays in Lent, families are encouraged to prepare a simple meal and place the money they saved in the cardboard Operation Rice Bowl boxes, which their school or parish then sends on to CRS headquarters in Baltimore.

Seventy-five percent of these donations support hunger and poverty relief efforts around the world and 25 percent is allocated for hunger and poverty relief in the U.S. diocese where the funds were collected.

‘The entire cosmos is rejoicing today’

Pope Benedict at his Easter blessing (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — In his Easter “urbi et orbi” blessing to the city of Rome and to the world, Pope Benedict today contrasted the joy and hope brought by Christ’s resurrection with persistent conflicts and other forms of suffering in the world.

He also delivered Easter greetings in 65 languages, including Chinese, Hindi, Swahili and, of course, Latin. An estimated 100,000 people packed St. Peter’s Square for the Mass and the blessing, which was live-streamed on several Vatican websites.

In one section of his blessing, the pope spoke about the need for reconciliation in parts of the Middle East and Africa:

 So my message today is intended for everyone, and, as a prophetic proclamation, it is intended especially for peoples and communities who are undergoing a time of suffering, that the Risen Christ may open up for them the path of freedom, justice and peace.

May the Land which was the first to be flooded by the light of the Risen One rejoice. May the splendor of Christ reach the peoples of the Middle East, so that the light of peace and of human dignity may overcome the darkness of division, hate and violence. In the current conflict in Libya, may diplomacy and dialogue take the place of arms and may those who suffer as a result of the conflict be given access to humanitarian aid. In the countries of northern Africa and the Middle East, may all citizens, especially young people, work to promote the common good and to build a society where poverty is defeated and every political choice is inspired by respect for the human person. May help come from all sides to those fleeing conflict and to refugees from various African countries who have been obliged to leave all that is dear to them; may people of good will open their hearts to welcome them, so that the pressing needs of so many brothers and sisters will be met with a concerted response in a spirit of solidarity; and may our words of comfort and appreciation reach all those who make such generous efforts and offer an exemplary witness in this regard.

May peaceful coexistence be restored among the peoples of Ivory Coast, where there is an urgent need to tread the path of reconciliation and pardon, in order to heal the deep wounds caused by the recent violence. May Japan find consolation and hope as it faces the dramatic consequences of the recent earthquake, along with other countries that in recent months have been tested by natural disasters which have sown pain and anguish.

Last night, during a three-hour-long Easter vigil liturgy, the pope baptized six adults from Albania, China, Peru, Russia, Singapore and Switzerland. In a homily, he analyzed why the trajectory of salvation history reaches all the way back to creation — and why environmental responsibility is a Christian duty.

Our profession of faith begins with the words: “We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”. If we omit the beginning of the Credo, the whole history of salvation becomes too limited and too small. The Church is not some kind of association that concerns itself with man’s religious needs but is limited to that objective. No, she brings man into contact with God and thus with the source of all things. Therefore we relate to God as Creator, and so we have a responsibility for creation. Our responsibility extends as far as creation because it comes from the Creator. Only because God created everything can he give us life and direct our lives. Life in the Church’s faith involves more than a set of feelings and sentiments and perhaps moral obligations. It embraces man in his entirety, from his origins to his eternal destiny. Only because creation belongs to God can we place ourselves completely in his hands. And only because he is the Creator can he give us life forever. Joy over creation, thanksgiving for creation and responsibility for it all belong together.

The creation account tells us, then, that the world is a product of creative Reason. Hence it tells us that, far from there being an absence of reason and freedom at the origin of all things, the source of everything is creative Reason, love, and freedom. Here we are faced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute between faith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance the origin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being? Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everything hinges upon in the final analysis. As believers we answer, with the creation account and with John, that in the beginning is reason. In the beginning is freedom. Hence it is good to be a human person. It is not the case that in the expanding universe, at a late stage, in some tiny corner of the cosmos, there evolved randomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying to find rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it. If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature. But no, Reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine Reason.

On Good Friday, at the close of the Way of the Cross at Rome’s Colosseum, the pope spoke about the cross as a symbol of love, not of triumph.

This evening, in faith, we have accompanied Jesus as he takes the final steps of his earthly journey, the most painful steps, the steps that lead to Calvary. We have heard the cries of the crowd, the words of condemnation, the insults of the soldiers, the lamentation of the Virgin Mary and of the women. Now we are immersed in the silence of this night, in the silence of the cross, the silence of death. It is a silence pregnant with the burden of pain borne by a man rejected, oppressed, downtrodden, the burden of sin which mars his face, the burden of evil. Tonight we have re-lived, deep within our hearts, the drama of Jesus, weighed down by pain, by evil, by human sin.

What remains now before our eyes? It is a crucified man, a cross raised on Golgotha, a cross which seems a sign of the final defeat of the One who brought light to those immersed in darkness, the One who spoke of the power of forgiveness and of mercy, the One who asked us to believe in God’s infinite love for each human person. Despised and rejected by men, there stands before us “a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, one from whom others hide their faces” (Is 53:3).

But let us look more closely at that man crucified between earth and heaven. Let us contemplate him more intently, and we will realize that the cross is not the banner of the victory of death, sin and evil, but rather the luminous sign of love, of God’s immense love, of something that we could never have asked, imagined or expected: God bent down over us, he lowered himself, even to the darkest corner of our lives, in order to stretch out his hand and draw us to himself, to bring us all the way to himself. The cross speaks to us of the supreme love of God and invites, today, to renew our faith in the power of that love, and to believe that in every situation of our lives, our history and our world, God is able to vanquish death, sin and evil, and to give us new, risen life. In the Son of God’s death on the cross, we find the seed of new hope for life, like the seed which dies within the earth.

Seven questions for the pope

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI fielded seven questioners from Christians and non-Christians around the world, touching on such diverse topics as the fighting in Ivory Coast, Christ’s “descent into hell” and the suffering of Japanese earthquake victims.

The pope agreed to answer three questions on the program, but after a massive response from viewers who submitted questions, he answered seven questions.

Here is the Vatican’s English translation of the text of the Q and A, pre-recorded a few days ago and broadcast today on the Italian TV program, “In His Image.”

Q. Holy Father, I want to thank you for your presence here, which fills us with joy and helps us remember that today is the day in which Jesus showed His love in the most radical way, that is, by dying on the cross as an innocent. It is precisely on this theme of innocent sorrow that is the first question that comes from a seven-year-old Japanese child who says: “My name is Elena. I am Japanese and I am seven years old. I am very frightened because the house where I felt safe really shook a lot and many children my age have died. I cannot go to play at the park. I want to know: why do I have to be so afraid? Why do children have to be so sad? I’m asking the Pope, who speaks with God, to explain it to me”.

 A. Dear Elena, I send you my heartfelt greetings. I also have the same questions: why is it this way? Why do you have to suffer so much while others live in ease? And we do not have the answers but we know that Jesus suffered as you do, an innocent, and that the true God who is revealed in Jesus is by your side. This seems very important to me, even if we do not have answers, even if we are still sad; God is by your side and you can be certain that this will help you. One day we will even understand why it was so. At this moment it seems important to me that you know “God loves me” even if it seems like He doesn’t know me. No, He loves me, He is by my side, and you can be sure that in the world, in the universe, there are many who are with you, thinking of you, doing what they can for you, to help you. And be aware that, one day, I will understand that this suffering was not empty, it wasn’t in vain, but behind it was a good plan, a plan of love. It is not chance. Be assured, we are with you, with all the Japanese children who are suffering. We want to help you with our prayers, with our actions, and you can be sure that God will help you. In this sense we pray together so that light may come to you as soon as possible.

Q. The second question presents us with a Calvary because we have a mother under her son’s cross. This mother is an Italian named Maria Teresa and she asks you: “Your Holiness, has the soul of my son Francesco, who has been in a vegetative coma since Easter Sunday 2009, left his body, seeing that he is no longer conscious, or is it still near him?”

 A. Certainly his soul is still present in his body. The situation, perhaps, is like that of a guitar whose strings have been broken and therefore can no longer play. The instrument of the body is fragile like that, it is vulnerable, and the soul cannot play, so to speak, but remains present. I am also sure that this hidden soul feels your love deep down, even if unable to understand the details, your words, etc. He feels the presence of love. Your presence, therefore, dear parents, dear mother, next to him for Continue reading

Goodbye to the dean of the Vaticanisti

Arcangelo Paglialunga

VATICAN CITY — Vatican reporters said goodbye today to the dean of the Vaticanisti, Arcangelo Paglialunga, who died Wednesday at age 91.

Paglialunga, who worked off-and-on until the day of his death, was in many ways the living memory of the Vatican press office. His journalistic career spanned six pontificates, and he had stories about them all.

When I walked into the Sala Stampa Vaticana for the first time in 1983, Arcangelo was one of perhaps a dozen regulars who worked there. Like the others, he had a small desk, a pad of paper and a telephone — and that was it. He covered the Vatican for the Gazzettino di Venezia and the Giornale di Brescia, and I soon learned that he was one of the better informed members of the press corps.

With the press office renovation in 2000, Paglialunga was given a glassed-in, high-tech booth next door to ours. We were neighbors, and Arcangelo, who professed a great love for everything American, would frequently share some stories — like the time he ran down to welcome the American troops that arrived in St. Peter’s Square during the liberation of Rome in 1944.

He had copious notes on the papal audiences of every American president, beginning with Eisenhower’s meeting with Pope John XXIII in 1959. He once recounted that when Richard Nixon came to see Pope Paul VI in 1970, his secretary of defense, Melvin Laird, was taken to a Vatican waiting room, where he lit up a cigar. At a certain moment, the doors to the room opened and Laird unexpectedly found himself in the middle of the presidential entourage. He stuffed the lit cigar into his pocket, where it smoldered for the rest of the ceremony.

Paglialunga lived near the Vatican and on his way to work he often ran into Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as their paths crossed in St. Peter’s Square. The encounters offered Arcangelo an opportunity to chat with the cardinal, get to know him a bit and voice his own opinions. In 2005, Paglialunga was one of few reporters who gave Cardinal Ratzinger very good odds in the conclave that elected him pope.

The pope sent a message of condolences for Paglialunga, and it was read at the funeral rites today.

While the Vatican press office serves several hundred accredited journalists, the regulars are still a small number of reporters. It’s a fairly close-knit group. As Father Ciro Benedettini, the vice director of the press office, said today, Arcangelo considered the press office his second home and his second family. The feeling was mutual, and we will miss him.