Palm Sunday in Yangon and a Holy Week challenge

By Barb Fraze

YANGON, Myanmar — Palm Sunday Mass was a warm affair, as temperatures crept toward 97 degrees.

Families gather under the shade of trees during Palm Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Yangon, Myanmar. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Families gather under the shade of trees during Palm Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Yangon, Myanmar. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

At the 6:15 a.m. Mass at our Lady of Fatima Church, oscillating fans mounted on pillars and the balcony worked to cool the hundreds of parishioners packed inside. Some sat in pews on the side porches that ran the length of the church, fanning themselves with cardboard fans or palms — or even their hands. Others, particularly families with small children, sat in the courtyard under the trees, on plastic chairs or retaining walls.

Mass in a developing country is always a treat: The fervor for the faith is palpable. The singing at the March 29 Masses was loud and sincere. As in some other Asian countries, lyrics were flashed on large screens at the front of the church. Between the fifth and sixth pews, in the aisle at the break in the church, musicians set up a keyboard, amplifier and microphones.

Yet despite being nearly halfway around the world, some things remained the same. Parents outside occasionally had to keep bored toddlers from wandering off — outside was its own version of a cry room or the back of the church. One toddler was delighted that her sandals made a beeping noise every time she walked.

In the shade behind the concrete railing outside the nearby Blessed Sacrament chapel, a mother sat on cool tiles to nurse her baby. And at Communion, parents were trotting their children to the toilets in the back of the church compound.

Samson da Silva, 82. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Samson da Silva, 82. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Between morning Masses, 82-year-old Samson da Silva stopped to offer the history of the parish. Found at the beginning of the 20th century, it originally was known at St. Monica’s. Samson said his sister, who just died at age 92, took care of the parish during the Japanese occupation. In the early 1950s, after the statue of Our Lady of Fatima was brought to the church, the parish changed its name.

Our Lady of Fatima Church is near the center of the city, accessible by bus and near many ethnic communities: Kachin, Kayah, Kayin and Chin.

Downtown, at the 5 p.m. Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, a breeze had picked up and the sun was beginning to set, but parishioners still fanned themselves. The large brick cathedral was a cooler building; one woman’s mantilla blew off after Communion as she walked by a large fan.

As in the morning, Mass was in the Myanmar language, yet Palm Sunday service was familiar. There was no mistaking when, toward the end of the Passion, the priest knelt to mark the death of Jesus.

This downtown cathedral was full of people of all ages, including teens and young adults. One young woman, Julia Aye Thandar Soe, spoke after Mass about what she thinks Catholics need.

“We need more love in each other, more fellowship in each family,” she said. People “worship together, sing together, pray together,” but they also need to “share their difficulties with each other.”

A fitting challenge for Holy Week, when Jesus faced so many challenges.

Gifts from the Offertory procession are displayed at the foot of the altar at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Yangon, Myanmar. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Gifts from the Offertory procession are displayed at the foot of the altar at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Yangon, Myanmar. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Pope Francis’ Palm Sunday homily

VATICAN CITY — Here is the Vatican’s English translation of Pope Francis’ homily today at Palm Sunday Mass:

Pope Francis listens to the Gospel reading of the Passion. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis listens to the Gospel reading of the Passion. (CNS/Paul Haring)

At the heart of this celebration, which seems so festive, are the words we heard in the hymn of the Letter to the Philippians: “He humbled himself” (2:8). Jesus’ humiliation.

These words show us God’s way and the way of Christians: it is humility. A way which constantly amazes and disturbs us: we will never get used to a humble God!

Humility is above all God’s way: God humbles himself to walk with his people, to put up with their infidelity. This is clear when we read the Book of Exodus. How humiliating for the Lord to hear all that grumbling, all those complaints against Moses, but ultimately against him, their Father, who brought them out of slavery and was leading them on the journey through the desert to the land of freedom.

This week, Holy Week, which leads us to Easter, we will take this path of Jesus’ own humiliation. Only in this way will this week be “holy” for us too!

We will feel the contempt of the leaders of his people and their attempts to trip him up. We will be there at the betrayal of Judas, one of the Twelve, who will sell him for thirty pieces of silver. We will see the Lord arrested and carried off like a criminal; abandoned by his disciples, dragged before the Sanhedrin, condemned to death, beaten and insulted. We will hear Peter, the “rock” among the disciples, deny him three times. We will hear the shouts of the crowd, egged on by their leaders, who demand that Barabas be freed and Jesus crucified. We will see him mocked by the soldiers, robed in purple and crowned with thorns. And then, as he makes his sorrowful way beneath the cross, we will hear the jeering of the people and their leaders, who scoff at his being King and Son of God.

This is God’s way, the way of humility. It is the way of Jesus; there is no other. And there can be no humility without humiliation.

Pope Francis, carrying one of the woven palms known as a "palmurelli," processes to the altar. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis, carrying one of the woven palms known as a “palmurelli,” processes to the altar. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Following this path to the full, the Son of God took on the “form of a slave” (cf. Phil 2:7). In the end, humility means service. It means making room for God by stripping oneself, “emptying oneself,” as Scripture says (v. 7). This is the greatest humiliation of all.

There is another way, however, opposed to the way of Christ. It is worldliness, the way of the world. The world proposes the way of vanity, pride, success… the other way. The Evil One proposed this way to Jesus too, during his forty days in the desert. But Jesus immediately rejected it. With him, we too can overcome this temptation, not only at significant moments, but in daily life as well.

In this, we are helped and comforted by the example of so many men and women who, in silence and hiddenness, sacrifice themselves daily to serve others: a sick relative, an elderly person living alone, a disabled person…

We think too of the humiliation endured by all those who, for their lives of fidelity to the Gospel, encounter discrimination and pay a personal price. We think too of our brothers and sisters who are persecuted because they are Christians, the martyrs of our own time. They refuse to deny Jesus and they endure insult and injury with dignity. They follow him on his way. We can speak of a “cloud of witnesses” (cf. Heb 12:1).

Let us set about with determination along this same path, with immense love for him, our Lord and Saviour. Love will guide us and give us strength. For where he is, we too shall be (cf. Jn 12:26). Amen.

Monastery, unique to Italy, worth a day trip from Rome

By Laura Ieraci

Grottaferrata Monastery

The Basilica of St. Mary of Graces, the church of the Monastery of Santa Maria in Grottaferrata, was completed in 1024.

GROTTAFERRATA, Italy — Pilgrims to Rome, interested going off the beaten path, may want to venture about 30 minutes out of the bustling city and step into the 1,000-year-old Monastery of Santa Maria in Grottaferrata, unique in Italy as the last vestige of the many Byzantine-Greek monasteries that once dotted the southern Italian landscape.

Here, the chant and prayers of the Catholic Byzantine Church, typical of Italy’s historic Byzantine south, remain preserved.

Grottaferrata is located in the hills that surround Rome, called the Castelli Romani. “A Greek Catholic island in a Roman Catholic sea,” as Father Michel Van Parys, the abbot, described it, the large monastery was once swarming with monks of the Byzantine-Greek rite. Despite efforts to revive the community, the monks have now dwindled to eight — six are grey-haired. But the monks keep the daily office of prayers — mostly in Greek, with some Italian — and all are welcome.

An icon of St. Nilus, who founded the abbey in 1004

An icon of St. Nilus, who founded the abbey in 1004

The monastery was founded in 1004 by St. Nilus, a monk from Italy’s southern Calabrian region. Tradition has it that he and his disciples were headed to Rome and stopped to rest near a crypt in the hills close to the Eternal City. The crypt, which dates to the first century B.C., had been used as a pagan temple but was converted into a Christian chapel in about the fifth century. The Virgin Mary appeared to St. Nilus there and instructed him to build a church in her honor. He died a year later, after having established an abbey on the site. His fourth successor, St. Bartholomew, brought the church to completion in 1024. The basilica incorporates the ancient crypt as a side chapel.

A 12th-century mosaic above the church’s original doors

A 12th-century mosaic above the church’s original doors

At least two mosaics date to shortly after the church’s construction. Above the original doors is a 12th-century mosaic of Jesus on a throne, flanked by Mary and John the Baptist. A monk, represented in miniature, stands at Jesus’ feet. The larger mosaic that runs above the arch of the sanctuary symbolically depicts the scene of Pentecost: a white lamb in the center sits at the foot of an empty but bejeweled throne; six apostles are on each side. Those immediately on either side of the throne are Peter and Andrew, to whom tradition attributes the foundations of the Western and Eastern Christian churches respectively.

Also above the sanctuary are mosaics of St. Nilus and St. Bartholomew, which date to the 18th century. Off the nave to the right is a chapel with 17th-century frescoes, depicting the lives of the two saints.

The baroque marble iconostasis, which includes the icon of the Mother of God in the upper portion, is not original to the church.

The baroque marble iconostasis, which includes the icon of the Mother of God in the upper portion, is not original to the church.

The baroque, ceiling-high marble iconostasis, which distinguishes the altar space from the nave in the East, is not original, but was added later. The exact date and origin of the Marian icon, encased at the top of the iconostasis, is unknown, although tradition says it was donated in 1230 by Pope Gregory IX.

The abbey remains very much at the heart of the town of Grottaferrata. Though mostly Roman Catholic, the locals are much attached to the abbey and some attend the Divine Liturgy; others sing in the all-male choir.

In its heyday, the monks operated a large printing press for Eastern Catholic liturgical books in Greek and Slavonic. Printing machines with Greek keys are now on display in the abbey’s museum.

(To reach the monastery from Rome, take the train from Termini station to Frascati. Grab a taxi outside of Frascati’s train station for about 2.5 miles to Grottaferrata.)

With clenched fists, pope addresses social ills in Naples

Pope Francis in Scampia. (Screen shot)

Pope Francis in Scampia. (Screen shot)

Pope Francis this morning issued stark warnings to people who rob others of hope; with a strong voice and a clenched fist, he condemned mafia dons, drug traffickers and those who exploit workers.

And he shook his head in wonder that anyone could treat an immigrant as if he or she was a worthless annoyance.

In Naples’ Scampia neighborhood, one of those “peripheries” of poverty and degradation the pope speaks about so often, an immigrant woman from the Philippines asked the pope to please remind people that immigrants are children of God.

“Have we reached the point where that’s necessary?” the pope asked the crowd. “Are migrants second-class humans?”

“They are like us, children of God,” he said. What is more, they are reminders that this world is not the permanent home of anyone and that “we are all migrants (moving) toward another homeland.”

“We are all children of God,” he said, “beloved children, desired children, saved children. Think about that! None of us has a permanent home in this world.”

The pope also insisted, loudly and repeatedly, that high unemployment rates — especially among youths — were a detriment to society and a failure of the current economic system and public policies.

The problem is not simply the poverty joblessness creates, he said, but the way it robs people of dignity and of hope for the future. “When one is unable to earn his daily bread, he loses his dignity,” the pope said.

While Naples is popular for its pizza, its songs and dance, its popular piety and religious art, it also is the notorious home of the Camorra crime ring, delinquency, corruption and drug abuse.

“Tell me,” the pope told the crowd in Scampia, “if we close the door on migrants, if we take away the jobs and dignity of people,” what will happen? Corruption “is a temptation, it’s a slide,” he said.

Everyone has within them the possibility of being corrupted, of paying someone under the table or looking for easy cash, he said. But “something that is corrupt is dirty, eh. If we find a dead animal, it is going bad, it’s corrupt, it’s ugly. But it also stinks. Corruption stinks! And a corrupt society stinks. A Christian who allows corruption is not a Christian. He stinks, understand?”

Pope Francis began his day with a 7 a.m. helicopter flight from the Vatican to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Pompeii, outside of Naples. After praying there, he went to Scampia and then on to Naples’ central square, the Piazza del Plebiscito for Mass.

Addressing mafia members and other criminals during his homily, the pope said: “Humbly, as a brother, I repeat: Convert to love and justice. Let yourself be found by God’s mercy. Know that Jesus is looking for you to embrace you, kiss you and love you.”

“The tears of the mothers of Naples, mixed with those of Mary our heavenly mother,” also are pleading for the corrupt to change their ways, he said. “These tears can melt the hardness of your hearts and lead everyone back to the path of goodness.”

And to the struggling people of Naples, Pope Francis said, “Don’t let anyone rob you of hope. Don’t give into the lure of easy money or dishonest wages,” he said. Hanging on to hope, he said, is the first step in resisting evil.

After Mass, Pope Francis went to a local prison where he greeted hundreds of inmates and hand lunch with close to 100 prisoners who had been chosen by lottery. The prisoners reportedly included 10 from a prison block set aside for prisoners who are homosexual, transgender or HIV-positive.


Bigger than St. Patrick: In Italy, St. Joseph is the man

VATICAN CITY — Today’s feast of St. Joseph is a big day in the Vatican.

In addition to being Father’s Day in Italy, St. Joseph’s feast day is a paid holiday for Vatican workers. It is the name day of retired Pope Benedict XVI (who was born Joseph Ratzinger). And, the guardian of Jesus is one of Pope Francis’ favorite intercessors; he formally inaugurated his pontificate on St. Joseph’s feast day in 2013.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis

(CNS/Paul Haring)

In his homily upon taking office two years ago, Pope Francis first wished Pope Benedict a happy feast day and pledged to him the prayers of the whole church.

Then, he went on to describe St. Joseph and look particularly at the lessons he, as the new pope, would draw from him. “In the Gospels,” Pope Francis said, “St. Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!”

As pope, he said he “must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked St. Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. Only those who serve with love are able to protect!”

(Courtesy of Il Sismografo)

(Courtesy of Il Sismografo)

On several occasions, most recently in the Philippines, Pope Francis has spoken about his personal devotion to St. Joseph and his reliance on him as an intercessor.

Meeting families in Manila Jan. 16, the pope noted how God spoke to a sleeping St. Joseph in his dreams. Not once, but twice. First, when he told Joseph to marry Mary; and then when he warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to flee Herod’s murderous plans.

Pope imitates his statue

Pope Francis demonstrates the posture of his statue of St. Joseph. (CNS/Paul Haring)

“I have great love for St. Joseph, because he is a man of silence and strength,” the pope said. “On my table I have a statue of St. Joseph sleeping. Even when he is asleep, he is taking care of the church! Yes! We know that he can do that. So when I have a problem, a difficulty, I write a little note and I put it underneath St. Joseph, so that he can dream about it! In other words I tell him: pray for this problem!”

The other thing St. Joseph’s feast day brings to ItalyStJoeFood is sweet: zeppole with black cherries and bigné di San Giuseppe. Once the feast is over, the variations on a cream puff disappear until next March.

Updated note: The Vatican press office reported that shortly after noon today, Pope Francis telephoned Pope Benedict to wish him a happy name day.

Remembering election night

VATICAN CITY — The election night introduction of Pope Francis to the world on March 13, 2013, took only 12 minutes. These minutes were some of the most important of my photographic career. For months I had obsessed about every detail of covering the election of the new pope.

Beginning in October of 2012 I began having a strong feeling that something big was going to happen to Pope Benedict XVI, although I never imagined he would resign. Throughout the fall and into early 2013 I began planning for what Vatican journalists politely call the “papal transition.”

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In planning how to shoot a new pope’s first appearance, my two major concerns were getting the photos out quickly and making sure they were in focus. I had already photographed seven “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) Christmas and Easter blessings from the same balcony where the pope would make his first appearance. I knew how difficult focus can be at a far distance when the subject is not very big in the viewfinder. I had always anticipated shooting the appearance of the new pope in daylight, not at night, which makes things even more difficult.

Thanks to God’s grace the election night photos went well. My new 600mm lens didn’t lock up, as it had the night before, and proved to be exceptionally sharp. In the end, despite all the technical problems and worries, this was a blessed moment and God was in control. The results are in the slideshow above.

What Pope Francis spoke about in year two of his pontificate

VATICAN CITY — On Sundays and holy days, Pope Francis leads the recitation of the Angelus or Regina Coeli prayers at noon. He introduces the Marian prayer with a little reflection, usually on the day’s Gospel reading. To mark the second anniversary of his election tomorrow, I took the texts of all those reflections he gave in the past year and this was the result:


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