CNS correspondent wins Titus Brandsma Award

Anto Akkara, who writes for Catholic News Service from South Asia, is the recipient of the 2013 Titus Brandsma Award for the “stellar role” he has played in “highlighting the gross denial of fundamental rights and freedom of religion in the Kandhamal jungles of Orissa,” an East Indian state.

Anto Akkara, CNS correspondent

Anto Akkara, CNS correspondent

The award, from the Geneva-based International Christian Organization of the Media, a forum for professionals and institutions in secular and religious journalism, will be awarded at the organization’s world congress in Panama City Sept. 29-Oct. 6. It is named after Blessed Titus Brandsma, a Dutch journalist and Carmelite priest who died in 1942 at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

Akkara has written for Catholic News Service on topics such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and, afterward, church efforts to help the displaced; human rights violations in Sri Lanka; and flooding in Pakistan.

Akkara who has won several media awards for his investigative book “Kandhamal: A Blot on Indian Secularism,” following the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal in August 2008. His latest book on Kandhamal, “Early Christians of 21st Century,” was released in February.

He has a master’s degree in English literature, post-graduate diploma in journalism and LL.B from Delhi University.

Bishop Pates asks Hagel to review conditions at Guantanamo, close facility

Masked activists from Amnesty International dressed as Guantanamo Bay detainees protest in Belfast Northern Ireland ahead of the Group of Eight Summit in mid-June. (CNS/Reuters)

Masked activists from Amnesty International dressed as Guantanamo Bay detainees protest in Belfast Northern Ireland ahead of the Group of Eight Summit in mid-June. (CNS/Reuters)

Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, says it’s time to close the Guantanamo Bay prison, as President Barack Obama has pledged.

Writing to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel June 25, Bishop Pates said detainees in the prison, some held without charges for up to 11 years, have basic human rights that must be upheld.

“I write to express my concern over the situation of detainees in Guantanamo Bay,” Bishops Pates wrote. Citing media reports of a continuing 140-day hunger strike by some of the 166 detainees, the bishop said the protest appears to stem in part from the fact that 86 of the men being held were cleared for release in 2010, “but remain confined in Guantanamo.”

The letter raised questions about the practice of “shackling and strapping down” some of the strikers to force feed them through a nose tube, a practice that the International Committee of the Red Cross has opposed.

“Rather than resorting to such measures, our nation should first do everything it can to address the conditions of despair that led to this protest,” Bishop Pates said.

“Detainees have a right to a just and fair trial held in a timely manner. For at least 86 detainees ‘a crime has not first been proven.’ The indefinite detention of detainees is not only injurious to those individuals, it also wounds the moral reputation of our nation, compromises our commitment to the rule of law and undermines out struggle against terrorism,” the letter said.

The letter was sent on the eve of the U.N. International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

Catholic News Service’s Washington Letter this week will offer a review of the situation in Guantanamo and efforts to close the prison.

CNS intern reflects on her time in Rome

By Clare Myers

VATICAN CITY — It was nearly 100 degrees outside, the bus was overflowing with people, and I was late.

I had just come from running errands and I was squeezing in meeting up with a friend in between my internship at the Catholic News Service Rome bureau and grocery shopping. I thought that after dinner I could continue doing research on an article I was writing on a pontifical council. I barely had time for this other appointment, but I had promised.

Through the blinding glare of the sun I spotted the priest I was meeting under the Arch of Constantine, right next to the Colosseum. I waved and went over to him, and we chatted as we walked away from the chaotic mass of tourists and souvenir vendors to a much quieter area across the street, a church connected to a monastery and a convent — a place I had never been before.


Pope Francis blesses a member of the Missionaries of Charity during a visit to their soup kitchen and women’s shelter at the Vatican May 21. The sisters also run a soup kitchen and shelter near Rome’s Colosseum. (CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)

We were there to help the Missionaries of Charity with dinner at their soup kitchen, which was established to fulfill Blessed Mother Teresa’s mission of serving the poorest of the poor. It is a mission praised by recent popes.

In several months of living in Rome, this was my first time meeting the Missionaries of Charity. Speaking with them, I saw something different, something rare: true joy in pure simplicity.

In the Eternal City, just as everywhere in the world, it is easy to get caught up in trivial things. Tired families jostle tour groups for the best spot to see the Roman Forum; older couples page through guidebooks for information about the church they’re looking at while hordes of teenagers on school trips scan centuries of history through the lenses of their cameras, not truly seeing the Trevi Fountain until they put an Instagram filter on it days later.

Perhaps these things are typical of any big city or tourist destination. But in Rome and Vatican City, one feels it should be different. After all, it is an extremely religious place. Much of the gorgeous art and stunning architecture was built to honor God and various saints. Yet even working as an intern reporting on the Vatican, I have often been caught up in the other side of things, looking at the Vatican as if it were any other country.

But joining the Missionaries of Charity in their afternoon work really brought home for me what Pope Francis has been trying to say ever since he became pope in March. He has repeatedly called for an end to careerism and hypocrisy and a return to the real mission of the church.

“I would like a church that is poor and for the poor,” Pope Francis said.

Amidst all the history and mystery of the Vatican, the thousands of years of tradition that continue to bewilder the uninitiated, it is a beautiful thing to be in Rome to witness this renewed emphasis on the simple serving of others.

After speaking with the Missionaries of Charity, and seeing the joy that radiates from their faces, it’s clear to me that they’re doing something right.

– – –

Clare Myers is a student at the University of Dallas and an intern at the Catholic News Service Rome bureau.

Doomsday or distraction?

By Clare Myers and Robert Duncan

One may not know the day and hour of the second coming of Christ, but according to Stephen Walford, the signs of its approach are obvious.

In his recently published book, “Heralds of the Second Coming: Our Lady, the Divine Mercy, and the Popes of the Marian Era from Blessed Pius IX to Benedict XVI,” the English writer argues that there is substantial evidence that we are entering an “apocalyptic” age.

“The popes have spoken in a prophetic way about the nearness of the second coming,” he said. “The coming of the Lord is approaching and we have to prepare ourselves.”

The book includes a foreword by Cardinal Ivan Dias, retired prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and has been given both a “nihil obstat” and an imprimatur by the bishop of Portsmouth, England. Although neither constitutes an official endorsement by the Catholic Church, the “nihil obstat” declares that a work contains no errors in matters of faith and morals, and the imprimatur grants the author official permission to publish it.

Walford says it is important that readers know “that what they are reading conforms exactly to the teachings of the church on this really important subject.”

The piano teacher-turned-author classifies the past century and a half as the “Marian Era,” an age in which devotion to the Virgin Mary has gradually increased since Pope Pius IX formally defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

“We can see this Marian Era as heaven’s attempt to warn the church,” he said.

In addition to Mary, Walford identifies other “heralds” who bring the world’s attention to what is happening in history today. In particular he analyzes the words of recent popes and the experiences of certain mystics, people who have especially intimate encounters with God. One such mystical event Walford discusses is the appearance of the Virgin Mary to three young children in Fatima, Portugal. Our Lady of Fatima, as she is now called, is closely associated with the signs of the second coming. Another mystic is St. Faustina, a 20th century Polish nun whose visions of Jesus led to the establishment of the Divine Mercy devotion. Walford calls the Divine Mercy devotion, like that of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, “of paramount importance for all Catholics as preparation in these times.”

Walford also claims that two omens of the second coming — the spreading of the Gospel to the entire world and a “massive falling away of the faith” — are at hand.

“On one hand [the faith is] spreading,” he says, giving the example of missionary expansion throughout Africa, “and on the other hand it’s being rejected.”

The “silent apostasy” or religious indifference, of the West, coincides with a widespread persecution of Christians, he said. Walford cites the large number of modern Christian martyrs, estimated by the International Bulletin of Missionary Research at 1 million over the past decade, as evidence of this, although he believes that this is not the ultimate trial the church will have to undergo.

“We haven’t as yet seen this final persecution,” he says.

Walford bases much of his argument on what he calls the “apocalyptic” words of recent popes.

For instance, he highlights Blessed John Paul II’s 2000 exhortation to youth to act as “morning watchmen at the dawn of the new millenium.” He also quotes Paul VI’s words from a 1976 general audience: “Sometimes I re-read the Gospel on the end of times and I notice that, at this moment, there are emerging some signs of this end.” Although the book does not include an analysis of the current pope’s words, Walford asserts that he is consistent with those who came before.

“Pope Francis is absolutely … in continuity with his predecessors,” he says, noting that his papacy is consecrated to Our Lady of Fatima.

Although he sees the need for the church to rouse itself in light of these reflections on modern events and the second coming, he emphasizes that no one can know when exactly the world will end.

“I’m suggesting that humanity has reached some critical point,” he says. “How long that carries on for is a mystery.”

Ultimately, Walford insists his message is positive. He says he is not trying to frighten people, but rather to inspire them to live better lives in anticipation of the Christ’s triumphant return.

“We have to live in these times with real hope,” he says. “We have to live in these times with real joy.”

“Heralds of the Second Coming” has received mixed reviews. Dr. Jeff Mirus of noted that the author demonstrates a “scholar’s grasp of the writings and speeches of the popes,” but dismissed the conclusions he draws from them.

“Insofar as Walford sends us on the wild goose chase of mining papal documents for confirmation that the end times are upon us, then the book will be but one more apocalyptic distraction,” he wrote.

Francis Phillips of the Catholic Herald agreed with the author’s general description of the modern era, and also remarked on the author’s “scholarly” approach to papal teachings. But she remained unconvinced that the end times are imminent.

“As Christians we believe in the second coming of Christ at the end of the world,” she wrote. “But … we do not know the day nor the hour when this will take place. In this respect we are in exactly the same position as the early followers of Jesus 2,000 years ago.”

Fiesta on Twitter for pope’s 3-month anniversary

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis was elected three months ago today and woke up with a little anniversary present: For the first time, the number of followers of his Twitter account in Spanish surpassed the number of followers of his English account.

TwitterSpanishThe number of followers of the papal Twitter account, launched by Pope Benedict XVI almost exactly six months ago, has risen day by day.

The pope’s Latin-language account — @Pontifex_ln — hit 100,000 May 19.

Each day since Pope Francis’ election March 13 the number of followers of his Spanish account — @Pontifex_es — increased slightly more than the number of English followers did.

In the last two weeks it was clear that the Spanish was about overtake the English, but it almost felt like a watched pot — close, closer, really close, but not yet. For example, yesterday morning the English account garnered 2,000 more followers while the Spanish grew by 6,000. Yesterday afternoon, 3,000 followers signed on to the English account and 7,000 were added to the Spanish. When I left the office, the English still had 6,000 more followers.

But sometime overnight that changed. At 9:30 Rome time this morning, Pope Francis’ Spanish account had 2,588,198 followers. The English was trailing by 648 people.

The total number of followers of the pope’s nine accounts (Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese, French, Latin, German, Polish and Arabic) was about 6.9 million at noon today.

The super-Vaticantracker Il Sismografo — an Italian blog — said that when Pope Benedict XVI retired Feb. 28 there were about 3 million @Pontifex followers in total.

Another $1.3 million approved for Haitian church reconstruction

The new headquarters of the Conference of Haitian Religious in Port-au-Prince is seen May 25. (Courtesy of PROCHE, the Partnership for Church Reconstruction in Haiti)

The new headquarters of the Conference of Haitian Religious in Port-au-Prince is seen May 25. The new facility was built with funds donated by U.S. Catholics  following Haiti’s devastating earthquake in January 2010. (Courtesy of PROCHE, the Partnership for Church Reconstruction in Haiti)

Church reconstruction in earthquake-ravaged Haiti continues. Projects totaling about $1.3 million were approved for funding by the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on the Church in Latin America June 9. The projects are being funded from a $33 million pool contributed by U.S. Catholics for the church in Haiti after the January 2010 disaster.

Reconstruction is being managed under the auspices of the PROCHE Joint Steering Committee. PROCHE, the Partnership for Church Reconstruction in Haiti, is an effort among the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Haitian Episcopal Conference, Adveniat, the German bishops’ agency for solidarity in Latin America, and the French bishops’ conference to coordinate the reconstruction effort.

Trinitarian Father Juan Molina, director of the U.S. bishops’ Office for the Church in Latin America, told Catholic News Service that some of the projects have been underway for months and that funds will allow for their completion.

Projects approved include reconstruction of St. Gerard de Beaudry Church in Petit-Goave ($168,925), the landmark Sacred Heart Church in Port-au-Prince ($742,400) and the novitiate for the Daughters of Mary in Port-au-Prince ($100,000), construction of a multipurpose building in the Diocese of Jacmel ($226,719) and construction of a house of formation for the Little Sisters of St. Therese of the Child Jesus ($31,200).

Additional funds were approved for pastoral work as well. Meeting in San Diego ahead of the annual spring meeting of the USCCB, the subcommittee also approved funding for 99 pastoral projects in 18 countries totaling $1.2 million. The projects include 18 parish-based programs celebrating the Year of Faith and activities supporting the new evangelization, catechesis, lay leadership formation and youth programs. Of the total, $418,000 will fund 31 formation programs for seminarian, clergy and religious men and women involving more than 600 men and women.

Farm at St. Joe’s builds community by promoting fresh air, exercise, good health

Produce is shown in the farmer's market at St. Joseph Mercy Health System. The produce is grown on a 364-acre farm on the hospital's Ann Arbor, Mich., campus. (Courtesy Catholic Health Association)

Produce is shown in the farmer’s market at St. Joseph Mercy Health System. The produce is grown on a 364-acre farm on the hospital’s Ann Arbor, Mich., campus. (Courtesy Catholic Health Association)

Not many hospitals have a farm.

But St. Joseph Mercy Health System in Ann Arbor, Mich., does.

The hospital’s 364-acre on-campus farm gives patients, veterans, students and a few other folks the chance to grow organic vegetables, learn about nutrition and get some fresh air.

The Catholic Health Association honored the hospital June 3 for its innovative approach to healing and wellness with its 2013 Achievement Citation, presented during CHA’s annual assembly in Anaheim, Calif. The award honors innovation and creativity. CHA said the farm fits the hospital’s core values and mission “to heal body, mind and spirit, to improve the health of our communities and to steward the resources entrusted to us.”

CHA’s Catholic Health World magazine has chronicled the work and ministry of the farm. The vegetables and greens produced by the farm find their way to patient meals and the hospital’s Market Café, formerly the cafeteria. Fresh vegetables, herbs and flowers are offered for sale at a farmers’ market inside the hospital.

Anyone can work on the farm, even those confined to bed. Some vegetables are planted in elevated beds for those who cannot squat or bend to reach the ground.

Betsy Taylor’s article says the farm operates year-round with a manager and two additional paid employees and a crew of volunteers. Vegetables are grown during all four seasons thanks to three hoop houses that capture the sun’s energy to keep the plants inside from freezing.

Much of the rest of the hospital campus has been transformed as well. Alfalfa and natural meadows surround the facilities, eliminating financial and ecological costs of a carefully landscaped and maintained lawn.

The award may just inspire other facilities, hospitals, colleges and universities and office parks to consider moving into this ecologically friendly direction.