A glimpse of life along the Via Dolorosa

JERUSALEM — The sound of schoolboys playing and roughhousing echoes off stone walls as they run up an alley on their way home after a day of classes. An elderly man follows, admonishing them to settle down and stop disturbing the neighborhood.

Shopkeepers urge visitors to check out their wares. “What can I show you?” is a regular refrain.

Life along the Via Dolorosa in the Old City of Jerusalem near the third and fourth stations on Jan. 30. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Two fashionably dressed young women walk briskly, talking quietly, smiles on their faces. The sound of their ankle-high boots striking the stone walkway announce their presence. A few men look up to catch a glimpse.

It’s daily life on the Via Dolorosa — Latin for the Way of Grief — in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Even on a cold, foggy day with a steady rain falling — as it was yesterday — the sights and sounds along the 2,000-foot path that Jesus is believed to have followed to Golgotha leaves a multitude of thoughts and questions: What was Mary thinking as she saw her son pass? Did Simon of Cyrene volunteer to help Christ struggling with his cross, or did the Roman soldiers force him to step in because he said something that raised their ire? How did Jesus keep going after falling, not once, but twice onto the hard stone pavement — with people who did not know him likely jeering all around? Who were the crying women he met? Were they mothers? Friends of Mary? Followers of their messiah? Did Jesus think he could escape or did he face the inevitable knowing he was carrying out a plan far greater than he could ever imagine?

And more.

The Via Dolorosa is most easily reached by entering through the Lions’ Gate — also known as St. Stephen’s Gate — on the east side of the walled Old City of Jerusalem. Along the path, simple black round metal markers bearing Roman numerals indicate the first nine Stations of the Cross. In several locations churches have been built to recall a specific incident in the final hours of Christ’s life.

The final five stations are commemorated inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, a structure dating to at least the fourth century. During excavation, St. Helena is said to have discovered pieces of the original cross at the site.

Hundreds of pilgrims crowd into the church daily. Some have followed the Via Dolorosa; others have come to venerate the place where Christ died, was buried and rose from the dead. They patiently wait to see relics, pray at Christ’s tomb and view the rock where the three crosses are believed to have been erected. Some kneel, some weep, some watch in silence. During Lent, the number of pilgrims visiting the church will increase until events culminate in the Easter triduum.

The church remains under the shared administration of several Christian churches under a long-ago arrangement. It is home to Roman Catholic, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches.

It remains the holiest place on earth for Christians.

Dennis Sadowski is traveling in the Holy Land with other Catholic journalists from the United States under the auspices of the Catholic Press Association in an arrangement with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

Holy Land retreat connects New York cardinal-designate with his priests

Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York greets Catholic journalists from the United States in Jerusalem Jan. 29. (CNS/Bob Mullen, The Catholic Photographer)

JERUSALEM — Traveling with a busload of his fellow priests through the Holy Land is giving Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York the opportunity to reflect on what his upcoming investiture as cardinal means for his priesthood.

“Just to be here … at a pivotal moment in your life, a time of transition, (that) you would turn to the Lord in prayer and reflection, this is good,” Cardinal-designate Dolan said at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center during a brief meeting with a group of Catholic journalists from the United States also visiting Israel.

Cardinal-designate Dolan is leading 50 priests of the New York Archdiocese on what he describes as a retreat pilgrimage. They have so far visited the Mount of Beatitudes, the Jordan River to renew baptismal vows and the Qumran National Park, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

Cardinal-designate Dolan said the priests also celebrated Mass yesterday at the Church of the Good Shepherd in the ancient city of Jericho in the Judean Desert east of Jerusalem.

He described the trip as one full of emotion.

“A pilgrimage, of course, is intended in Catholic wisdom to be a microcosm of life,” he said. “So you have all the emotions, right? You got fatigue, you got joy, you got smiles, you got tears, you got restlessness.”

With several days to spend in Jerusalem, Cardinal-designate Dolan expects more of the same, especially as the priests gather for daily Mass and visit the sites of Christ’s passion and death, resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven.

The retreat pilgrimage is the third that Cardinal-designate Dolan has led for his fellow priests in his three years as archbishop of New York. The first was during the Year for Priests in 2010 to Ars, France, home of St. John Vianney, patron saint of priests. Last year it was to Italy, to Assisi and Rome particularly.

Next year, to mark the Year of Faith, a pilgrimage to the sites of church councils is being considered. On the agenda are Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus, all in Turkey.

“When I came (to New York) I said I wanted to get to really know my priests well because there’s so many of them. I said, ‘There’s no better way to know somebody than traveling with them,’” Cardinal-designate Dolan said.

“We’ve limited it to a busload of priests because you really want to get to know the guys. You laugh together. You pray together. You eat together. You can yell at each other,” he said with a laugh.

The American Catholic journalists were in the Holy Land on a trip sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

HHS ruling stirs editorial reaction in Catholic press

Catholic newspapers in their editorial pages have strongly and consistently criticized the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services since its Jan. 20 announcement that there will be no change to a narrowly drawn religious exemption to a new federal mandate that all private employers provide no-cost contraception and sterilization in their health care plans.

The HHS said churches and other religious organizations have exactly one year to get on board with this policy.

“The administration wants to make Americans co-conspirators in its efforts to institutionalize these unacceptable immoral practices. We cannot support this effort,” wrote Stephen Trosley, editor of The Catholic Telegraph in Cincinnati.

The St. Louis Review called the decision, announced by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, “grossly counter to our fundamental right to free exercise of religion.”

It is, quite simply, moral dictatorship. It is an imperious decision made by bureaucrats who have no respect for the sanctity of human life or for the fundamental right of free people in a free society to act according to their consciences.”

The Jan. 26 unsigned editorial added: “We detest the Obama administration’s blatant disregard for life and liberty. If this mandate remains unchanged, many schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other faith-based organizations that serve diverse, frequently poor and vulnerable segments of our society may be forced to stop providing health care to their employees rather than include coverage of morally unacceptable ‘preventive services’ — a phrase properly applied to disease, not the miracle of pregnancy as Sibelius does.”

Our Sunday Visitor pointed out that the president unequivocally pledged respect for conscience rights, religious liberty and diversity of belief during his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in May 2009 and a round-table interview with Catholic journalists a few weeks later.

“And now the Catholic Church finds itself in the odd position of being the primary defender of tolerance, pluralism and the principles of liberal democracy against a government that seeks to coerce citizens into behavior that violates their consciences,” said the Catholic weekly newspaper’s editorial board in its Feb. 5 edition.

Michael Sean Winters, columnist for National Catholic Reporter, wrote that President Barack Obama lost his vote “when he declined to expand the exceedingly narrow conscience exemptions proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services. The issue of conscience protections is so foundational, I do not see how I ever could, in good conscience, vote for this man again.”

He said the president’s decision “essentially told us, as Catholics, that there is no room in this great country of ours for the institutions our church has built over the years to be Catholic in ways that are important to us.” He also said it “shamefully” treats “those Catholics who went out on a limb” to support him.

Across the ocean, the British Catholic weekly newspaper, The Tablet, also weighed in, saying President Obama “made a serious mistake.”

The editorial pointed out that Obama “appears to have been taken in by the fact that most American Catholics do not have personal moral objections to contraception. He has failed to understand that what they mean by this is that contraception should be a matter for individual consciences. That is not compatible with imposing access to contraception by government regulation.”

The point secular opinion fails to grasp is that there are some things that should – must – be beyond the reach of state power, such as the freedom to make available contraception to employees of Catholic hospitals or not, or the freedom of Catholic childcare agencies to decide whether to accept gay couples as possible parents in adoption cases. Similarly, marriage, which stands at the core of civil society, is not something the state is free to tinker with.”

Catholic newspapers were not the only ones with something to say on this issue either.

A Jan. 23 Washington Post editorial  said the Obama administration “came down on the wrong side of a tough call.”

It said the best approach would have been for HHS to offer an exemption for religiously affiliated employers. Since it had already recognized the principle of a religious exemption, it  “should have expanded it.”

Instead, the Post said the ”administration’s feint at a compromise — giving such employers another year to figure out how to comply with the requirement — is unproductive can-kicking that fails to address the fundamental problem of requiring religiously affiliated entities to spend their own money in a way that contradicts the tenets of their faith.”

A Jan. 24 column in The Wall St. Journal examined how the decision is affecting Catholics across the board. The piece was headlined: “Obama offends the Catholic left: A contraceptive mandate provokes an unnecessary war.”

William McGurn, writes that the Obama administration’s decision predictably drew fire from Catholic bishops but “less predictable — and far more interesting,” he wrote, “has been the heat from the Catholic left, including many who have in the past given the president vital cover.”

Catholic liberals, he said, understand that if this ruling is left to stand, it “threatens the religious institutions closest to their hearts — those serving Americans in need, such as hospitals, soup kitchens and immigrant services.”

Text of papal message for World Communications Day

Here is the text of “Silence and Word: Path of Evangelization,” Pope Benedict XVI’s message for this year’s World Communications Day, marked in most dioceses the Sunday before Pentecost, which this year is May 20. The message was released Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

As we draw near to World Communications Day 2012, I would like to share with you some reflections concerning an aspect of the human process of communication which, despite its importance, is often overlooked and which, at the present time, it would seem especially necessary to recall. It concerns the relationship between silence and word: two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance, to alternate and to be integrated with one another if authentic dialogue and deep closeness between people are to be achieved. When word and silence become mutually exclusive, communication breaks down, either because it gives rise to confusion or because, on the contrary, it creates an atmosphere of coldness; when they complement one another, however, communication acquires value and meaning. Continue reading

Vatican news stats


VATICAN CITY — The Vatican doesn’t hold back when it celebrates today’s feast day of St. Francis de Sales — patron saint of journalists and writers.

The Vatican press hall held an impromptu party serving spumante, chocolates and Italian panettone cake, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications held a special Mass for journalists, and then the Vatican released Pope Benedict’s message for World Communications Day.

The pontifical council even made a surprise unveiling of its more colorful, revamped website: pccsva.org.

During the midday news conference presenting the pope’s message, the communications council’s president, Archbishop Claudio Celli presented some of the latest stats on the Vatican’s news portal news.va. The online site that aggregates all the Vatican’s news content was launched last June with the first ever papal tweet.

The archbishop said they are pleased with the growing popularity of the news site, which on average draws between 8,000 to 10,000 hits a day. Peak periods like on Christmas saw 16,000 hits in one day, he said.

People from some 180 countries are visiting the site with the United States topping the list: about 27 percent of all visitors are connecting from the USA, followed by Italy, Germany, Spain, Canada and Brazil.

The site is also relatively “sticky” with people remaining on the site about two minutes on average.  About 53 percent of their traffic is made up of unique visitors while 47 percent are regulars, he said.

Something that was surprising, he said, was how much traffic was being generated by social networks. The majority of visitors — 65 percent — came to the site via Facebook when readers shared a story featured on the site.

The PCCS doesn’t have its own Facebook page, but it does have a Twitter feed @PCCS_VA with more than 2,000 followers. Twitter generates about 30 percent of the traffic to the news.va site, he said.

Currently, the site is offered in English, Spanish and Italian, and by the summer it also will be in French and Portuguese.

With the many language options, some translations seem to slip through the cracks. Like this latest story about a French bishop who does homily tweets: the Italian story was headlined in English “When a bishop chirps.” If he had been a cardinal, that might have been more believable!

Plunging in for the environment…

In a winter that has only sporadically come close to normal cold temperatures, “real” winter made an unfortunately timed appearance Jan 21. The season’s first measurable snow, with an extra coating of ice, arrived in time to ensure a handful of  activists got a serious chilling for their Polar Bear Plunge into the Potomac River.

Ten members of the Franciscan Action Network jumped into the frigid waters of the Potomac to draw attention to climate change and wind energy.

Franciscan Father Jacek Orzechowski of St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Md., leaped into the river in his full Franciscan robes. The friar linked the effort to the work of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology:

“I feel strongly about the need to be more proactive in responding to the great threat that global climate change presents to humanity and the rest of the earth’s community. I’ve been challenged not only by the alarming reports of the overwhelming majority of reputable scientists but also by the words of Pope Benedict XVI who said that ‘the church cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the struggle for justice.’  Just as I’m planning to participate this year again in the March for Life in Washington, I’ll also be plunging into the cold waters of the Potomac River out of the conviction that, as John Paul II said, ‘Respect for life extends to the rest of God’s creation.”

Mission Bangladesh: Visiting the country’s minority Catholics

Oblate Father Andrew Small, head of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, visits with Catholics in Banglasesh. Photo by Rock Ronald Rozario / UCA News

Did you know there are Catholics in Bangladesh?

Oblate Father Andrew Small, head of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States, won’t get to visit all 344,000 Catholics, but he is visiting as many as he can during a weeklong visit to the predominantly Muslim Asian nation.

You can read about Father Small’s visit here, on the special site set up with coverage from our friends at UCA News.