Reflections on a visit to the Gaza Strip

Sami El Yousef, regional director in Palestine and Israel for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, just returned from his first trip in seven months to the Gaza Strip.

In reflections posted on the website of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, he writes of the “the heroes in Gaza and how brave they all are to live under these difficult conditions, yet how they are still able to smile and laugh and continue to hope that tomorrow will be a better day.” Israel controls traffic in and out of the Gaza Strip, although Egypt has opened a border crossing to people only.

El Yousef speaks of fuel shortages and their cascading ramifications; trying to lift the spirits of Christian university students; and seeing goods that had been smuggled through tunnels from Egypt.

His reflections can be read here.

Three Catholic priests among those lost in Titanic tragedy

I heard a historian say that for people in 1912 the loss of more than 1,500 innocent lives when the Titanic went down April 15 was for them a tragedy akin to the monumental loss of life this nation experienced in the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Poster from Titanic exhibit now on display at National Geographic in Washington.

Commemorations, remembrances and exhibits abound on this 100th anniversary of the great “unsinkable” ship’s infamous voyage. Stories about it are everywhere, too, including in the Catholic press. Check out the story in the April 15 issue of Our Sunday Visitor  headlined “Priestly heroes of the Titanic,” which relates the role three Catholic priests — a Lithuanian, a German and an Englishman — had “in bringing comfort to the passengers of the doomed ship.” OSV also has a small sidebar about another Catholic who came to the aid of passengers and survived the peril — Margaret “Molly” Brown, a Denver philanthropist. Born Margaret Tobin to Irish Catholic immigrants in Missouri, she moved to Leadville, Colo., at age 18. There she met and married a man who had made his fortune in the mines, Jim “J.J.” Brown. They later made their home in Denver. The couple’s Victorian house was almost lost to demolition but was rescued by preservationists in the late 1960s. It was restored it to its grandeur and established as the Molly Brown House Museum. The website tells Molly’s whole story. Also take a look at the blog on that site called “Chasing Molly,” by museum docent Janet Kalstrom, writing from aboard the Titanic memorial cruise.

Earlier this week Catholic News Service carried a story about a Jesuit, Father Frank Browne, who as a seminarian took photographs aboard the Titanic, capturing images of its opulent accomodations as well as its passengers as it sailed from Southhampton, England, to Cherbourg, France, and on to Queenstown, Ireland. He took the last image of the captain, Edward Smith, and he took a photo of the ship leaving port from Queenstown for the last time to head to New York.

As our story says, before the ship left he sent a telegram to his provincial seeking permission to remain on board for the rest of the voyage. But the brusque answer in a reply telegram was: “Get off that ship.” A collection of his photos, “Father Browne’s Titanic Album,” has been reprinted for the centennial.

The new evangelization, explained

Archbishop Fisichella (CNS/Paul Haring)

If you’ve been following the pontificate of Benedict XVI, chances are you’ve heard of the “new evangelization.” You may even have heard that there’s a new Vatican office dedicated to it. But have you ever heard the president of the new office explain it?

In this feature-length interview which premiered on Easter, Salt + Light Television‘s Basilian Father Thomas Rosica sat down for an interview with the president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization, Archbishop Rino Fisichella. What follows is an engaging discussion on its meaning and what Archbishop Fisichella’s office is trying to accomplish. While some pastors may see it as just another program to be implemented by an overworked presbyterate, the archbishop calls the new evangelization a new way of approaching an old job — “a new work, a new language, a new enthusiasm for announcing the Gospel.”

Share faith, not litter, pilgrims told

Pilgrims wait to enter El Santuario de Chimayo in Chimayo, N.M. (CNS photo)

Every year hundreds of thousands of people flock to El Santuario de Chimayo, a small adobe church in Chimayo, N.M., in search of spiritual or physical healing. Pilgrims believe the church was built on sacred grounds that possess curative powers.

Because so many people fill the 1.5-mile pilgrimage route from a nearby highway to the chapel, there is an inevitable chance for litter which church and state officials hoped to curb.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M., joined with New Mexico Clean & Beautiful, a program of the New Mexico Tourism Department, to encourage pilgrims to refrain from littering the state’s highways and byways on their walk to Chimayo.

“I encourage parishioners to walk on pilgrimage, but to be mindful that we are called to be good citizens,” said Santa Fe Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan.

Santa Fe County officials said county crews planned to place trash receptacles and portable toilets on county roads including the 1.5-mile-long road that is the last stretch to the pilgrimage site. The New Mexico Transportation Department also planned to provide trash receptacles on a major route.

According to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, the first “official” pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayo was in 1945. Many New Mexican National Guard members were sent to the Philippines prior to World War II. When Japan attacked the islands, many were taken prisoner and forced to walk 60 miles in what today is called the Bataan Death March. Many prisoners did not survive the forced walk. Some of those who did made a promise that if they lived and returned home, they would make a pilgrimage to El Santuario.

In 1945, there was an organized pilgrimage by many of the survivors. Some walked from as far as Albuquerque, which is 80 miles away. They were welcomed by Archbishop Edwin Byrne who blessed them and celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving.

Shout-out for Catholic colleges and universities

Students attend outdoor Mass at Loyola University in New Orleans. (CNS photo)

Just as high school seniors are making final decisions for college and juniors are starting  (or continuing) their college search, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Univerisites is promoting a video highlighting the distinct benefits of a Catholic college education.

The 9-minute video profiles five recent graduates of Catholic colleges who talk about how their college experience gave them a sense of purpose and enabled them to integrate faith in their daily lives. The association’s member colleges are encouraged to post the video on their websites.

Marina Pastrana Rios, a Boston College graduate, jokes in the video that the Jesuits “ruined” her  — “in a good way” — because her education at the Jesuit-run university made her ask herself: “Does the world really need another CPA?”

Not satisfied with just pursuing a business career, Marina, like other graduates featured in the video, wondered what more she could do for the world.

Now she is program director of the school’s Montserrat Coalition, an initiative that seeks to help students in financial need.

Celebrating with Pope Benedict XVI in Cuba

Editor’s Note: Alleluia! As we celebrate Easter, we present the final blog of Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz.,  from Pope Benedict XVI’s March 26-28 visit to Cuba.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass in Revolution Square in Havana. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

HAVANA — We had to get up early to walk to the sight of the papal Mass, which was to begin at 9 a.m. The streets were empty of cars as people were walking to Revolution Square, the same place where Blessed John Paul II offered Mass in 1998. The day was perfect with a bright blue sky. Many people coming for the Mass wore printed visors to provide shade and to remind people of the reasons for the event.

The crowd was made up mostly of Cubans; the day was declared a holiday by President Raul Castro. As in Santiago de Cuba, Castro was in his same spot at the front of the crowd in the middle of the plaza, along with other government officials. Some said the crowd was smaller than when Blessed John Paul was there, others said it was about the same or larger. Crowd estimates are hard to come by. By all standards it was a large crowd. Clearly people identify with the Catholic Church, even though some are not committed to it.

Again the image of Mary on the top of a van preceded the entrance of the Holy Father. It was placed near the altar with great devotion. For this Mass the Holy Father arrived on time. There were about eight cardinals and 35 bishops who concelebrated, a few more than at the Mass in Santiago de Cuba. The cardinals and bishops vested behind the altar in a monument area, which was built just before the revolution and is dedicated to Jose Marti.

The liturgies of Pope Benedict are very subdued and solemn. In fact, an announcement was made before each Mass asking that people refrain from clapping and waving flags. The people respected the pope’s wishes. At the end of Mass the pope walked out in front, waving, his face broad with a gracious smile. After Mass he went to meet Cuban seminarians who had gathered behind the altar. Cardinal Jaime Ortega stood with them, looking very proud.

Before the Holy Father left he met with Fidel Castro. Castro’s health has significantly deteriorated, apparently. According to Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican press secretary, the two men talked about aging, and Fidel asked the pope to suggest a book on spiritual reflection.

A choir sings during Pope Benedict XVI's Mass in Revolution Square in Havana March 28. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Just as Pope Benedict was to leave, a big storm came up just over the airport, delaying the departure. I was doing an interview in the CNN studio, on the 28th floor, and the view was spectacular, as you could see the rain over the airport and eventually, the sun shining through, casting bright white light over the area. My interview was interrupted as we watched the parting remarks by Raul Castro and the pope’s final comments. These were the pope’s most “political” words of this trip. Pope Benedict said Cuba is for all Cubans and there is a need to open dialogue with the human family of nations.

That evening, I and some others walked about seven kilometers, very exhausting. One can walk all over Cuba without fear. Guns are not allowed and violence is not apparent. Our path took us along the Malecon, the seawall, where the water was pretty rough that night. Waves breaking over the wall nearly got us soaked. It began to rain so we tried to get a cab, but by the time he came the rain had stopped, and we continued our walk.

Seeing the work of the church in Cuba

Editor’s Note: Yesterday, Good Friday, was a holiday in Cuba, after the government granted a request from Pope Benedict XVI. Hundreds of Americans traveled to Cuba for the pope’s March 26-28 visit. Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., traveled with pilgrims from Florida. Following is the second of three blogs he wrote for Catholic News Service.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

HAVANA — Breakfast was sparse but enough to get started. We met Maritza Sanchez, the director of Caritas Cuba, to visit with her staff and see some of their projects in Havana.

We had an opportunity to visit two projects at St. Barbara Church, located in a very poor part of the city. The parish has one Mass on Sundays and collects about $8. Today only a small percentage of Cuban Catholics attend Mass, and many blend their faith with native religions that came from African slave origins.

St. Barbara’s had a large group of elderly participants, many of whom live alone. They came carrying plastic containers to take food home. The feeding center is also an opportunity to socialize. I found it delightful to talk with the participants. I explained that my mom is going to be 100 in June, and they applauded. One elderly gentleman came up to say he was praying for my mom and asked if I would extend to her his greetings and best wishes.

Caritas also provides opportunities for women to have their hair done, which is so important for a sense of well-being. It is a moment when they feel cared for.

We also stopped by a feeding and nursery program for little ones. The children were gobbling their food and asking for more. Their smiles were precious and they seemed to enjoy interacting with us. Upstairs some of the littlest ones were taking naps, but of course they were eager to meet visitors and show off their toys. These youngsters were from marginalized families not able to receive other assistance.

We enjoyed a marvelous Cuban lunch with the staff of Caritas Cuba. Their ability and skills are obvious and their passion for the work impressive.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Havana is seen illuminated by Italian artist Gaspare Di Caro March 25. (CNS photo/Jorge Silva, Reuters)

After lunch Miguel Angel, who works with the HIV program, took us on a tour of the city. Havana is an amazing city. Marvelous architecture graces its neighborhoods. Gracious buildings with pillars and columns adorned with impressive designs can be seen all over Old Havana. Some areas are in the process of being renovated with UNESCO funds. One can see everywhere glimpses of a grand city that has fallen into disarray. Several of the large plazas have been restored and are impressive, but right next door are streets and buildings that are disastrous.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Havana is marvelous, a beautiful place of worship. But there is a serious lack of priests in Cuba. A new seminary has been built on the outskirts of Havana, but only about half of the priests in Cuba are native. Others come from around the world, not unlike our situation in the Diocese of Tucson. Some of the churches in Old Havana are no longer churches but turned over for other purposes.

Most billboards around the city are political in nature, calling for more socialism. Only recently has the government allowed people to buy and sell cars and property. Lack of that right gave people no incentive to take care of their property. Around the streets you see old Soviet cars and vintage American cars, often used as taxis. The old city, despite the challenges, has a marvelous charm. One can see why many tourists visit Cuba, even though for U.S. citizens, tourist travel is illegal and visits for other reasons are difficult.

We visited the fort and harbor area, which offers a great view of the very impressive Havana skyline. The harbor is large and beautiful. It still has a hand-operated lighthouse, where a man attends to the light personally.

We enjoyed supper at a local restaurant. The rice and black beans are very nutritious. Sleep came easy after a long but productive day.