Why rain in Spain is to blame for student’s new odyssey to Rome

By Elliot Williams

VATICAN CITY — As Pope Francis released his annual message for World Youth Day last week, I couldn’t help but recall my own experience as a pilgrim four years ago. The trip was surreal. I had barely traveled anywhere in the United States on my own, and certainly had never been abroad. Yet, I refused to be held back by the fear of the unknown, so in the summer of 2011, I went along with Auxiliary Bishop Michael J. Fitzgerald of my local Philadelphia Archdiocese to Madrid for World Youth Day. As a leader in an archdiocesan youth group, I was blessed enough to be chosen as one of five students to embark on the pilgrimage.

sanctuary of loyola spain

Villanova student and CNS intern, Elliot Williams, in front of the Sanctuary of Loyola in Azpeitia, Spain, in 2011, during World Youth Day celebrations. (CNS photo/Elliot Williams).

I kept a journal, took pictures, and reveled in the bliss of Europe as we traveled through Lourdes, France; Lisbon, Portugal and Burgos, Spain, visiting sites where the Blessed Mother appeared to those suffering from poverty and war. Throughout the 10-day excursion, we spent many hours listening to motivational speakers who spread messages of love, self-control, and the value of young lives — much like the message Pope Francis shared with the youth in preparation for WYD 2016, to be held in Krakow, Poland next summer.

Our trip culminated with a message from Pope Benedict XVI, which focused primarily on building faith. Four years later, the message from Pope Francis suggests a resemblance to the former, but centers mostly on the Beatitudes, and seeking happiness through the Lord. For those attending WYD in Krakow, this spiritual journey will be life changing, unprecedented for most young people, especially for those who have never seen the Holy Father speak in public before.

1storm wyd

An aide holds an umbrella for Pope Benedict XVI as rain and wind moves through the Cuatro Vientos airfield in Madrid during the World Youth Day vigil Aug. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

I will never forget camping out on a massive lawn of soil with a sea of fellow pilgrims, and watching as the sky turned from a promising blue, to a menacing red, threatening to end the entire event. Pope Benedict XVI spoke for as long as he could before the wind and the rain made it nearly impossible for him to continue (or for his cap to stay on his head). The wild storm persisted, after temperatures had peaked in the 100s (Fahrenheit) a few hours earlier.

I hardly fell asleep that night. Scared, wet and confused, I laid cocooned in a sleeping bag as the pope’s words about remaining strong, despite the rain, churning in my head. After a long night, we awoke to an unexpectedly clear sky. I dare say it was one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen. Firefighters were circling the field, spraying pilgrims with refreshing water to keep us cool. Pope Benedict’s message about remaining firm in the faith was coming to life right before our eyes. The brightest days often come after the stormiest nights, right? Quite the cliché if you ask me. However, I believe that everyone who witnessed that fascinating event four years ago was profoundly impacted.

Now, a third-year student at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, I am interning for Catholic News Service’s Rome Bureau, about a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square. What can I say? I just can’t stay away from pontifical goings-on. I would be lying if I said that WYD 2011 isn’t the reason I’m sitting here in Rome, writing this post. Perhaps it is the beauty of Christ, which Pope Francis often speaks of, that so attracts me. Or maybe it is the delicious food that has brought me to Rome.

In either case, I believe the real answer can be found in the remarks of St. John Paul II — who created World Youth Day 30 years ago — spoken at WYD 2000, “It is He who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise.”

I urge those attending WYD 2016 to keep an open heart, to embrace the universal message of change that Pope Francis hopes to share, and in case there is a nasty thunderstorm… pack a poncho.


The sun rises as pilgrims prepare for the final Mass of World Youth Day at Cuatro Vientos airfield in Madrid Aug. 21, 2011. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Elliot Williams is a Communication major at Villanova University. He is originally from Abington, PA, and is studying abroad at Roma Tre University, while interning for Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau. Elliot is an avid Nutella fanatic.

Far from pulp fiction


Tuscany Press, a publisher of Catholic fiction, recently announced an increase in its Tuscany Prize money for Catholic novels, young adult novels and short stories. It’s not just the dough Tuscany’s offering, but a publishing contract as well.

The Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction is offering $5,000 for the first-place prize for a novel, $2,000 for second place and $1,000 for third; all three winners will get a contract. The winner of the young adult novel competition will get $3,000 and a contract.

There will be 10 awards for short stories, ranging from $100 to $1,000, and each of the winning entries will be compiled into an anthology volume with an editor’s introduction and discussion questions. In all, Tuscany Press is handing out more than $13,000 in prize money to lucky — and talented — writers.

JOTHAMTuscany Press says is looking for “themes of faith and struggle, of grace and nature, atonement, courage redemption and hope.” As for the genre of fiction, it can be historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, humor or straight-up fiction. And if you’ve already self-published your work, that’s OK, too.

There’s a $10 entry fee, but that’s a relative pittance compared to the prize that can be won.

Tuscany Press held up as one example “The Book of Jotham” by Arthur Powers, which had been collecting dust for 20 years until it was submitted in Tuscany’s 2012 competition. Not only did it win and get published, but “The Book of Jotham” is now also available in Spanish.

A good place to start is to read the contest details. The deadline for submissions is June 30.

Website gives glimpse of Catholics around the world

Confirmation day at Catholic parish in Kampala, Uganda. (Photos courtesy of Catholics & Cultures.)

Confirmation day at Catholic church in Kampala, Uganda. (Photos courtesy of Catholics & Cultures.)

While vacationing, many Catholics attend Masses in other states or countries and see similarities  and differences from ways they worship in their home parishes. But unless they have the chance to travel the world visiting Catholic churches and families in remote villages or large cities, they might not get the full experience of the universal church.

A new website, Catholics & Cultures, created by the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, offers just that: a global snapshot of how Catholics around the world live out their faith and practice their beliefs.

The site’s founder, Thomas Landy, director of the school’s McFarland Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture, points out that “most people imagine the church through their own cultural lens, but we should realize that people around the world are living and imagining it in surprisingly different ways.”

Worshipers buy flowers and candles to place at shrine of Mary in Bangalore, India.

Worshippers buy flowers and candles to place at shrine of Mary in Bangalore, India.

He told Catholic News Service in an e-mail before the site went live last month that Americans make up only 7 percent of the world’s Catholic population. The largest number of Catholics live in Latin America and this number is rapidly growing in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asian-Pacific.

Children await Easter procession in Brazil

Children await Easter procession in Brazil.

He also said the experience of the faith in different parts of the world is “often vastly different from our own” and realizing this can help people think about faith beyond their own experiences

Landy describes the new site — which includes articles, demographic data, videos, photographs and interviews — as the only resource of its kind where you can “learn about little known feasts and processions, the cults surrounding certain popular saints, and cultural influences on marriage, family life and death rituals.”

Lent goes high tech

Feeling a little fuzzy on the church’s guidelines on fasting and abstinence during Lent? Or feeling like you are the only one around that acknowledges the 40 days before Easter?

Well, smart phones, the Internet and all things social media are here to help.

Modern technology, hardly the bastion of all things spiritual, actually has plenty to offer. There are probably more websites, apps, blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages about Lent than there are pages in the old family Bible. There are plenty of communities too — with people posting pictures of themselves getting ashes using the aptly named hashtag — #ashtag — and posting recipes and new ideas on what to give up for Lent.

(CNS photo)

(CNS photo)

There are websites with prayers, readings and online retreats as well as apps with tips on how to say the rosary, make a better confession and get coaching support for giving things up.

For starters, check out USCCB, Catholic Relief Services, Our Sunday VisitorFOCUS or Food for the Poor’s Operation Starfish program. On Twitter, follow anything with #Lent or #AshWednesday. Pinterest has plenty of ideas on foods to eat, things to give up and Lenten crafts for kids to make.

(CNS photo)

(CNS photo)

Once people have a handle on Lent, they might then consider backing off from the Internet’s handy tools, because some have pointed out that fasting from technology, even one day a week, is a worthwhile sacrifice for Lent as a means to quiet one’s mind from constant distractions.

The scourge of payday lending

Payday lending really pulls in people who need help and feel they have nowhere else to turn.

The Rev. Lloyd Fields, pastor of Greater Gilgal Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, remembers when he turned to that  type of  financing.

Now 73 years old, he can remember a half-century ago when he was a married deacon with a wife and four children to support. He had a mentor in his denomination, another deacon, “If I ever needed anything, I could always go to Deacon Williams,” Rev. Fields recalled. “But after so many times going to him, I was embarrassed to go to Deacon Williams. So I went to the payday loan company.”

Fifty years later Rev. Fields cannot remember how much he needed, but it was for necessities. “I had a low-paying job and a family. I needed money to pay the light bill, the gas bill, to keep food in the house. And I didn’t have adequate credit to go to the upstanding loan companies.”

Rev. Fields can’t recall the interest rate he was charged. Not that it mattered at the time to him. “I didn’t know. I didn’t care,” he said. “It was the max. And I always had to borrow up to the max,” because as another two weeks passed, he didn’t have enough money to pay off the loan, not to mention the mounting interest.

The poor are the most vulnerable to payday lending schemes. (CNS/Reuters)

The poor are the most vulnerable to payday lending schemes. (CNS/Reuters)

For Rev. Fields, salvation came in the form of a better-paying government job. And with the job came the opportunity to join a credit union. When he went to the credit union, he got a bit of bad news: “They told me I had to be employed for six months before I could join,” he recalled. By this time, he had gone to a second payday loan company to pay off the first one.

But “the first day after the sixth month,” Rev. Fields returned to the credit union to join. He got a loan to consolidate his payday-lending debts, and the credit union “put me on a payroll deduction. It was one of the happiest days of my life.”

Another Kansas City resident, Elliott Clark of Christ the King Parish, told of his five-year struggle to pay off his payday loan in an op-ed article that appeared in the Kansas City Star. It can be read by going to

Rev. Fields, too, have never forgotten his payday-lending experience. He was involved in the unsuccessful 2012 effort to get a referendum on the Missouri ballot to put a 36 percent interest-rate ceiling on payday loans; the average interest rate in the state is 455 percent. “While we were fighting it, one young lady came to me and cried and almost apologized because she had to take out a payday loan while we were fighting the payday loan companies.” he said.

He said he told her not to be sorry. “It’s just not right for them (payday lenders) to charge enormous interest and fees to people who are just trying to make a life for themselves and their families,” Rev. Fields said. “This is ungodly. … I don’t mind you making a profit, but if you make it off the backs of people, it’s dishonest.”

With no lobbying restrictions in Missouri, and no limits on campaign contributions, Rev. Fields fears lawmakers won’t take action. He’s looking to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Board to set nationwide rules on payday lending.

Rev. Fields recalls when preachers “used to talk about taverns on every corner. Now we talk about payday loan companies on every corner.” He added that in Missouri, “there are more payday loan companies than McDonald’s, Wal-Marts and Starbucks combined. In fact, there are almost twice as many.”

Today’s borrowers are no different than he was in the 1960s. They don’t hear the interest rate being charged, and they don’t notice until it’s too late. “They get eaten up to death,” Rev. Fields said.

He plans to take part in a daylong training session Feb. 21 with about 50 others and sponsored by the Center for Responsible Lending to try to protect and inform others about payday loans.

Seeing life behind the door at convents, monasteries

Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming talks to visitors at her order's convent in Washington. (CNS/Julie Asher)

Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming talks to visitors at her order’s convent in Washington. (CNS/Julie Asher)

To help lay Catholics gain a deeper understanding of religious life, priests, brothers and women religious across the U.S. opened their convents, monasteries, abbeys and religious houses to the public a week ago.

More than 150 communities welcomed visitors Feb. 8 for what was the first of three major events planned for 2015 in observance of the Year of Consecrated Life, announced last year by Pope Francis. The special year began last November and will end Feb. 2, 2016, the World Day of Consecrated Life.

The open house event was strongly supported and promoted by the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

In a posting on their Facebook page, the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati deemed the open house at their Mount St. Joseph motherhouse “a huge success!” More than 450 family and friends “filled our home to learn more about the Sisters of Charity community and religious life today.” The three-hour event included guided tours, opportunities to interact with the sisters and associates, children’s activities and musical performances.

At the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, visitors got a taste of Dominican life by meeting the friars, taking guided tours of their house and joining them in sung community prayer. A couple of blocks away others were welcomed to the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia’s convent. After visiting the order’s motherhouse in Nashville, Tennessee, Zoe, a fourth-grader from St. Henry’s School, said: “I learned here that a lot of the sisters work together. They ring a bell to call them to prayer. … They take turns doing things so that one person doesn’t just have to do it. It’s like a big house for a big family.” This issue of the Tennesee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper, had full coverage of the open house on page 11..

The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity held numerous open houses at their convents in seven states: Arizona, Hawaii, Ohio, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

“It was such a wonderful pleasure to work with religious sisters and brothers across the country to open their doors to families of the Catholic faithful and introduce them to religious life,” said Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life and chairperson of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious.

In a statement released by the council, she noted that the next events will be a day of service and a day of prayer.

consecratedlifelogo“We are so happy that religious across the country joined in this first ever nationwide initiative and saw life behind the convent door,” added Mother Agnes.

For its part, the council, with support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, launched a nationwide promotion campaign that included online advertising, social media, press releases, and an interactive open house map that listed its member communities that participated. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations developed and promoted the “Days with Religious” initiatives.

Visiting new cardinals with thousands of their friends

VATICAN CITY — The most rambunctious ritual associated with becoming a cardinal is the afternoon reception. The Vatican audience hall and two rooms in the Apostolic Palace — just outside the Sistine Chapel — are open to the public so anyone can greet the churchmen who received their red hats this morning.

While long lines wind around St. Peter’s Square, journalists are let in a bit early to get a couple of quotes before the crowds arrive.

New Zealand Cardinal John Dew of Wellington said Pope Francis’ meditation this morning on the meaning of love and the obligation of charity — particularly for church leaders — was striking. “He is absolutely convinced of what he was saying and was saying it in a way that makes you know you must go back and read it calmly, reflecting” on its applications.

Cardinal Soane Mafi of Tonga, who at 53 is the youngest members of the College of Cardinals, said he hopes “being young, I will have much vitality with which to serve the church.” Still, he said, “I’m 53 — it’s not that young. I have more gray hairs than many of the others.”

Italian reporters pressed in on him, begging for a few words in their language. “I need to learn Italian,” he said. “I didn’t know I would need it. I didn’t know I would be coming to Rome.”

Choosing the first-ever cardinals from Tonga, Myanmar and Cape Verde, he said, “the Holy Father is recognizing the peripheries — the little ones.” He has just over 14,000 Catholics in his diocese.

Having a cardinal “is a big thing in Tonga,” he said, and he hopes “it will widen our sense of the church. But maybe we can give something, too. In our poverty, sharing the little we have is one of our big values.”

This morning, Cardinal Mafi said, “watching the Holy Father there in the midst of all the cardinals, I felt a sense of being called from so far away, but being with the others, I also felt the sense of belonging.”

Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangoon, Myanmar, arrived rather late to the reception and some of the pilgrims who came to celebrate with him were not pleased at the media huddle blocking their access. The interviews were short.

In his choices for cardinals, Cardinal Bo said, “the pope has given preference to the peripheries, to every corner of the earth.”

Explaining that 85 percent of his fellow citizens are Buddhist and that only 1.3 percent of Myanmar’s population is Catholic, the cardinal said he appreciated the pope’s remarks this morning about loving what is small and calling “the small to go forward with courage.”

Like most of the pilgrims, I took photos with my phone:

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