Pope in Holy Land: When prayer leads to tearful embrace

(Screen grab from CTV)

(Screen grab from CTV)

VATICAN CITY — In a Holy Land pilgrimage filled with emotion, the embrace of Pope Francis, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud this morning was powerful.

Even at a distance of more than 1,400 miles, (thanks to the Vatican Television Center and Vatican Radio) viewers could read in that embrace a sense of “we are actually here; it really happened.”

The embrace, complete with tears, came after Pope Francis visited Jerusalem’s grand mufti and other Muslim leaders near the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque and then prayed at the Western Wall.

The two holy sites make up what is probably the most contested piece of real estate in the world because of its deep religious significance.

Muslims believe Muhammad was taken to the site in his famous “Night Journey” and from there transported to heaven and then back to Mecca.

The Esplanade of the Mosques sits above the sacred Jewish prayer space facing the Western Wall, which is all that remains of the wall that surrounded the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in the year 70.

An interreligious pilgrimage to the site isn’t a daily occurrence, but Pope Francis wanted to go with his friends.

(Screen grab from CTV)

(Screen grab from CTV)

Rabbi Skorka is rector of Buenos Aires’ Latin American Rabbinical Seminary and co-author with the pope of the book, “On Heaven and Earth.” The two have known each other for almost 20 years and co-hosted a series of television discussion about faith and current affairs.

Abboud is the president and founder of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue, a center in Buenos Aires established with the support of then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.

Heads up: Don’t read this blog if you’re hungry

By Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — When Casa Nova head Chef Elias Akroush, 33, learned that Pope Francis would be lunching with five Palestinian families at the pilgrim guesthouse where he directs the kitchen, he knew he would turn to his best friend, pastry chef Peter Korfiatis, 48, to help him with the dessert.

Both men are Catholic, and while this is the first time Akroush will serve a pope, Kortiatis also prepared a desert for St. John Paul II during his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The two friends started working together May 24 to prepare the meal that will feed 70 people and fit the customary request of the pope: that the food be simple and representative of the local cuisine.

Akroush said he wanted to make a special meal for “the best pope,” with fresh local produce highlighting the areas’ herbs and cheeses.

Chef Elias Akroush, 33, and pastry chef Peter Korfiatis, 48, prepare lunch for Pope Francis in the Casa Nova guesthouse in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 24. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Chef Elias Akroush, 33, and pastry chef Peter Korfiatis, 48, prepare lunch for Pope Francis in the Casa Nova guesthouse in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 24. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

The two men finalized the menu two weeks ago: a first course of cracked wheat patties stuffed with cheese and herbs, a farmer’s salad of tomatoes, onions, the traditional za’atar herb spice blend, olive oil, and figs stuffed with ground beef, pine nuts, almonds and walnuts. A date sauce will be served on the side.

The second course will consist of penne pasta with a tomato sauce as per the pope’s request, then Akroush will serve the Argentine pope a beef fillet with grilled vegetables and herbs and a baked potato.

“This is all that we farm in Palestine,” he said. “I am not afraid of serving him meat. I know he is very humble.”

Dessert will be homemade baklava rolls prepared by Korfiatis with crisp filo dough stuffed with walnuts, pistachios, cinnamon, rosewater, sugar and honey, then soaked in a special syrup of water, honey and lemon. On the side there will be three different flavors of his friend’s homemade Italian gelato ice creams: chocolate, pure milk, and a special pistachio flavor Akroush developed with a master ice cream maker from Italy.

“For me it is a big honor to make the dessert plate for Pope Francis,” Korfiatis said. “It is a very unique day for a cook, and it is a very unique person visiting us.”

Korfiatis said he hoped he would have the chance to shake the pontiff’s hand.

Akroush said he was not nervous preparing the meal. The only difficulty, he said, was having to keep things simple.

“Everything is under control. Though it will be difficult, it will be done with love and pleasure. It is a way for the pope to know how much we care for him and how much we love him,” said Akroush.

Survey: Christians would leave Holy Land’s cities

By Judith Sudilovsky

BEIT JALLA, West Bank — Nearly two-thirds of Christians in Jerusalem and the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem said in a survey that they would emigrate if given a chance, Bethlehem University sociologist Bernard Sabella found.

Sabella, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said he was shocked that 62 percent of Christians indicated they would like to leave.

A similar survey in 2007 reported that only 26 percent of respondents said they wanted to exit the area.

Christians sing and dance with palm and olive branches during the traditional Palm Sunday procession March 24, 2013, on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Christians sing and dance with palm and olive branches during the traditional Palm Sunday procession March 24, 2013, on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Respondents cited a lack of employment as the primary reason for wanting to leave. Christians also identified the region’s difficult political situation, steep economic challenges, restrictions under Israel laws, measures that affect opportunities for a normal life, lack of quality education and lack of housing as other factors involved in their desire to leave, according to the survey.

“One problem Christian Palestinians always come back to is the absence of a political solution. It is clear the overwhelming majority of Christian Palestinians think the lack of advancement is a problem,” said Sabella, who presented the results at a press conference on May 16 in Beit Jalla.

He noted that as a community Christian Palestinians are committed to their faith and see it as part of their identity; 46 percent regularly attend Sunday Mass.

“Sunday Mass is a major event for most Christian families. It helps their identity and recreates the traditions of faith we have inherited from our forefathers,” he said.

Regarding the pope’s May 24-26 pilgrimage to the Holy Land May, 48 percent said they expected the pope’s visit to lead to improvement in interfaith relations with an additional 26 percent hoping it would lead to unity across denominations and Christian churches. At the same time, 47 percent do not expect the visit to have any influence on the region’s political situation.

Yusef Daher, executive secretary of the Jerusalem Interchurch Center, said there were 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem prior to Israel’s independence in 1948. The number has fallen to 8,000 today.

Prayer to Mary: Pope doesn’t leave Rome without it

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis entrusted his upcoming apostolic journey to the Holy Land to Our Lady when he visited a Marian icon at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome this morning.

Icon of Mary, Salvation of the Roman People, seen during service at Basilica of St. Mary Major in 2011

This icon of Mary, “Salus Populi Romani,” is at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

He brought roses and prayed in silence before the icon for about 15 minutes, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi told us today.

The unannounced morning visit marks what has become a Pope Francis tradition: visiting the “Salus Populi Romani” (health of the Roman people)  to pray for Mary’s protection and care before a major trip.

He did the same thing before heading to Brazil last year when he prayed that Mary protect and care for everyone attending World Youth Day and for all young people around the world:

File photo of Pope Francis praying in front of Marian icon in Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome

Pope Francis praying in front of the icon of “Salus Populi Romani,” at St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome July 20, 2013. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)


He also visited the day after his election, at the start of his new journey as supreme pontiff:

Newly-elected Pope Francis leaves flowers in front of icon at Rome basilica

The day after his election in 2013, Pope Francis visited the icon at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)


The icon has special significance for the pope and he has visited it often on different occasions to pray. He has said that the Basilica of St. Mary Major was the first Marian shrine in the West where the image of the Mother of God — the “Theotokos” — was venerated.

According to tradition, this image of Mary embracing Jesus as a young boy was the work of the evangelist St. Luke, who painted it on a tabletop made by Jesus himself in St. Joseph’s carpentry shop. Many centuries later, Jesuit missionaries distributed reproductions of the image to promote Marian devotion around the world.




Tight security, traffic jams concern Israelis, Palestinians

By Judith Sudilovsky

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Pope Francis’ Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem will be the only opportunity for local faithful to participate in the papal visit.

Pilgrims filled Manger Square for Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 13, 2009. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

Pilgrims filled Manger Square for Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in Bethlehem, West Bank, May 13, 2009. (CNS/Debbie Hill)

While there is room for about 9,000 people in the square, locals are wondering about the need for tickets to attend the Mass.

Despite the complaints, Jamal Khader, rector of the Latin Patriarchate seminary in Beit Jalla and a spokesman for the pope’s visit, said tickets are necessary to maintain order.

The precious tickets have been distributed throughout different geographical areas, including about 1,000 in Galilee, where both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI celebrated large-scale Masses. Church officials also requested permits for about 600 Christian families from Gaza to attend.

One of the families from Gaza will be lucky enough to lunch with Pope Francis after the liturgy. Another will be present at the Presidential Palace during a courtesy visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Of note is that the Gaza parish has a unique connection with the pope: both Father Jorge Hernandez, pastor, and one of the sisters serving the parish are from Argentina.

Palestinian Christians also will be faced with what they called a “possible curfew” in Jerusalem during the pope’s visit. Some have sent a letter voicing their concerns to Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, papal nuncio to Israel and Cyprus and apostolic delegate in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.

The Vatican’s Fides news agency reported that some members of St. Savior Parish in the Old City of Jerusalem wrote to the nuncio opposing any steps that would prevent them from greeting Pope Francis in the streets.

“We see attempts by the Israeli occupation to impose a curfew on the streets, including the Christian Quarter, during the visit,” the letter said, according to Fides. “The curfew is yet another attempt by the occupying power to deny our existence. It is unacceptable for the pope to pass along the narrow streets of the Christian Quarter, yet find it devoid of any signs of life and the faithful. As local church communities we are the hosts of the Holy Fathers in our city. We do not want to be excluded from a historic religious event, and want to offer our good will and cooperation towards the visit’s success.”

Some Jewish residents of Jerusalem have been grousing about the expected traffic jams and travel delays they will encounter when the pope arrives. As has become his custom, Pope Francis has requested not to travel in a security vehicle but rather in a simple car.

Israeli police have said that security precautions will be tight during the visit.


Whooah, she’s halfway there! Sr. Cristina is “Livin’ On A Prayer”

opening closer

ROME — A religious sister singing a Bon Jovi mega-hit with a British boy band for backup?

“Never say never,” Ursuline Sister Cristina Scuccia told her audience last night before she was swept into the semifinals by popular vote.



The 25-year-old sister from Sicily is now one of the eight contestants left on the Italian version of the TV talent show The Voice vying for the final win.

jax happy

Screengrab of Italian rapper, J-Ax — Sr. Cristina’s coach on The Voice of Italy.

Her coach, Italian rap-star J-Ax (who’s been choosing Sister Cristina’s repertoire since her Blind Audition debut) said he’s really sorry he’s turned her into his personal “jukebox,” making her sing his favorites from his “sulky adolescence.”

He said he’s been pushing her “to go to the next level” and conquer every genre: blues, pop, Italian ballads and now big-hair 1980s rock&roll.


Screengrab of Sr. Cristina with members of the British band, The Vamps.

But on top of that, she got to have the emerging British band, The Vamps, provide the music and a group hug after the their performance.

She said it was “beautiful to have young people, well, kids, singing together with me.”

In fact, she spent her novitiate working with kids and young adults in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and used music to build trust and bring them together.

On those city streets, “I rediscovered singing as a way to praise the Lord, as something my soul needed, and as an instrument for touching people’s hearts,” she said in a 2013 interview.

Now she’s using her singing talents to touch people’s hearts via television, Internet and social media — saying she has a gift to give and a message that God takes nothing away, but rather gives you even more.

In case you missed her performance from last week, she did Gianni Morandi’s ballad, “Uno su Mille,” which is about how only “one in a million” has the inner strength to tough it out in the sometimes cruel world of entertainment (“You don’t know how hard ‘easy listening’ is…”).



She got a thumbs-up from the artist himself after her show, saying he watched her sing, thought she was great and that whoever has a gift and gives it will make the cut!

gianni morandi

You say, ‘Potato,’ they say, ‘Not a white one’

At a time when much of the nation seems to be getting with the campaign for better nutrition, big potato growers are pushing Congress to ignore the USDA guidelines that keep white potatoes off the list of fresh vegetables eligible for a part of the Women Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program to provide fresh produce in poor families’ diets.

It’s leading to an odd battle in the Senate appropriations process: Organizations worried about nutrition in subsidized food programs for the poor are digging in against the potato industry’s efforts to destigmatize white potatoes. If nothing else, the issue has brought together allies across partisan lines in the Appropriations Committee.Image

A letter sent May 19 to members of Congress signed by 18 religious organizations – including Catholic Charities USA, Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, and two orders of religious women – warns against revising nutrition standards in the appropriations process.

Over the past several decades, federal child nutrition programs have played a critical role in preventing hunger and promoting health among some of our nation’s most vulnerable children.  One of the reasons for their success is that the programs, including the WIC Program and the School Lunch Program, have been guided and informed by non-partisan scientific processes. Congress has appropriately set broad policy parameters for the programs, but has left program design and details to the Department of Agriculture, which typically relies on the scientific expertise of organizations such as the National Academy of Sciences.

But recently, this scientific process has come under attack as outside groups have increasingly sought to use the appropriations process to compel changes to federal nutrition programs.  For example, several years ago, special interests successfully used the appropriations process to weaken the National School Lunch Program to the advantage of potato and frozen food interests.  Last year, similar efforts were undertaken to attack proposed rules pertaining to school meals standards and the WIC food package.

The religious groups’ letter is one volley in an effort that has been playing out in op-ed pages over the last couple of weeks. A vote is expected in the Senate Appropriations Committee May 22 as it marks up the appropriations bill for the Department of Agriculture.

As a May 11 editorial in USA Today observed,

 The potato exclusion, like every other decision about WIC’s menu of the last 40 years, is based on nutritional science — which is exactly the way things like this ought to be done. In 2005, the Institute of Medicine specifically recommended excluding white potatoes because low-income people were already eating plenty of them. The Agriculture Department accepted the advice.

But that riled the potato industry, which insists the issue isn’t money but image. “We can’t let our federal government perpetuate those negative stereotypes,” says Mark Szymanski of the National Potato Council.

So in a classic case of a special interest trumping the public interest, potato growers and their allies are fighting back the Washington way, boosting campaign donations and enlisting potato-state politicians to force the Agriculture Department to let potatoes into WIC.


The potato industry counters that white potatoes have an inaccurate bad rep as nutritional bad boys. (Their cousins, sweet potatoes and yams, are accepted in WIC and other nutrition programs.) In an opposing view to the USA Today editorial, two senators from Top 10 potato growing states — Republican Susan Collins of Maine and Democrat Mark Udall of Colorado — said the nutritional data used by the USDA is out of date, that baked potatoes get unfairly tarnished by the inarguably unhealthy nature of french fries.

               Because some people don’t differentiate between french fries and baked potatoes, the potato has gotten a bad rap. We believe a balance can be found that preserves the integrity of programs such as WIC while also ensuring that the most updated facts are being used to determine the best nutrients for Americans — including from the potato.

Meanwhile, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been rallying opposition to giving potatoes a pass into the nutrition program. Among the arguments its advocates raise is that letting Congress — instead of food science agencies including the USDA — change policy about what qualifies for nutrition programs opens the door to advocates for all kinds of other foods to try to get similar back-door approval for the programs.

Another letter, from nutrition-focused groups — including the American Academy of Pediatrics, Bread for the World and the American Public Health Association  — focused on the angle in a letter from March. They warned that the appropriate way to ensure the WIC program remains science-based is to conduct another review of the science “including consumption data.” The letter noted that such a review is under way.