The pope up close

By Elliot Williams

VATICAN CITY — Since arriving at the Vatican to begin my internship at Catholic News Service many a friend from home has asked the same question sarcastically, “So, did you meet the pope yet?”

I play along, and respond with something along the lines of, “Oh, of course! We grabbed cappuccinos at his favorite coffee bar just yesterday.”


Pope Francis and President James Alix Michel.

Pope Francis and President James Alix Michel.

While I’ve never actually shared a coffee with the Holy Father, I did have the experience of a lifetime last Thursday when Pope Francis held a private audience with the president of Seychelles.

Pope Francis welcomed Col. James Alix Michel of the Republic of Seychelles into his private library in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, where they quietly spoke in both French and English. I know because I was there.

Intermingled with a squad of about 12 photographers and journalists — all pushing and shoving each other for a spot with the best angle — we watched as gifts and words were exchanged between the pope and the president.

A broadcast journalist who traveled from Seychelles to cover the gathering told me this was a very timely meeting because the president is trying to reinstate traditional values of family and spirituality into his predominantly Christian country.

My behind-the-scenes Vatican visit began as I joined the team of journalists and went through the metal detectors in St. Peter’s Square, past the Swiss Guards at the Bronze Doors and into a large hall directly to the right of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Walking up to the Bronze Doors.

Walking up to the Bronze Doors.

We were escorted to the heart of the Vatican — the San Damaso Courtyard, where a troop of Swiss Guards were lined up. After about five minutes of waiting outside the Apostolic Palace, in we went!

Met by Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the papal household, we passed countless Swiss Guards, stationed around the palace.

Speaking of Swiss Guards, I’ve never seen so many blue, orange, red, and yellow tailor-made uniforms in my life, all complemented with swords and halberds. The ones who were allowed to make eye contact and talk to us were all very friendly and accommodating. I only wish I’d asked to take a selfie with one of them, which I’ve occasionally seen tourists do.

The process then became very chaotic and confusing, especially for someone who has never been to a meeting so important in his entire life.

President Michel entered with seven fellow politicians, and met Pope Francis in the pope’s private library. We journalists were led through a less obvious hallway to reach the library where we took pictures until the pope and the president’s private meeting began. We crowded around the pope, something I never thought I would do, and observed until the press secretary shooed us out of the room.

President Michel and Pope Francis exchange gifts right in front of me!

President Michel and Pope Francis exchange gifts right in front of me!

Twenty minutes passed, and aides gave us rosaries blessed by the Holy Father before they let us back into the library.

Between the Swiss Guards saluting us at every corner, and the gentlemen escorting us through secret hallways connecting each chamber, I believe I witnessed a part of the Vatican that few people get the chance to see — especially people my age. (Editor’s note: Elliot is 21.)

This world became smaller for me during Thursday’s meeting. Although the pope and the president of Seychelles come from very different places, they seemed to be closely connected through faith.

I doubt I will have the opportunity to scurry through the private halls of the Vatican again before I leave for my home of Philadelphia in two weeks, but this was certainly an important encounter to witness, one that I will take with me and share for the rest of my life.

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. The photos here were taken with a little cell phone since Elliot was a “print only” member of the press pool for the president’s visit.

Amman hospital patients have special needs, including ways to meet up with family

By Mark Pattison

AMMAN, Jordan –- The Italian Hospital in Amman has more refugee patients than Jordanian patients. In addition to their physical problems, many have psychological needs that stem from their being terrorized in their homeland.

One patient sat curled up in his bed while a friend stood at his bedside. The patient gave no evidence that he was aware of all the people milling around.

Adnan Adnidihad, 62, a refugee from Iraq, is recovering from psychological problems at the Italian Hospital in Amman, Jordan. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

Adnan Adnidihad, 62, a refugee from Iraq, is recovering from psychological problems at the Italian Hospital in Amman, Jordan. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

Among the patients were two residents of Mosul, Iraq, who had sought refuge in Jordan.

Agnan Adnidihad is 62 years old, but looks a couple of decades older. With Dr. Khalid Shammas, the hospital’s chief physician, interpreting, Adnidihad said he has family in the United States, including a daughter in San Diego, but the nation’s doors are not open to him at this time.

Adnidihad is a member of the Assyrian Orthodox Church, and it was nearly a week after the Orthodox Easter when he was interviewed. “It is the same everywhere” for Easter, Adnidihad said. Shammas added, “Of course, being away from his own country, it is different for him.”

“They took everything away,” Shammas added, a reference to the Islamic State, which has terrorized Mosul since late last summer. “His money, his jewelry, gold. Everything. They left Mosul without anything.”

Arshad Daghdoni, 30, a refugee from Iraq, rests at the Italian Hospital in Amman, Jordan. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

Arshad Daghdoni, 30, a refugee from Iraq, rests at the Italian Hospital in Amman, Jordan. (CNS/Mark Pattison)

If he were to gain entry to the United States, Adnidihad thinks he would quickly find gainful employment. In Mosul, Shammas said, “he used to have a place where he would renovate machines — cars.”

Then there is the situation of Arshad Daghdoni. Already by age 30, he has had a stroke and a heart attack. The Assyrian Catholic also broke his ankle late last year.

Daghdoni, who learned English while in high school in Mosul, worked for more than a year for the U.S. military in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad as an interpreter. Despite this on his resume, he cannot get to the United States.

His family lives in near New Haven, Connecticut, but he can’t get to them –- his appeals to the United States and United Nations have to this point fallen on deaf ears —  and they can’t get to him.

“They don’t even all have green cards,” he said.

The men were just two of the patients. A third was a newborn baby whose parents were refugees from the civil war in Syria. The child’s father could not speak English, and the baby’s mother did not want to be photographed.

– – –

I will continue to blog from time to time about things I encountered on my #holyjordan journey. Also, look me up on Twitter at @MeMarkPattison.

For all who labor and are burdened

By Michelle Hough*

VATICAN CITY — Tomorrow, May 1, many countries will mark International Labor Day to celebrate the workers of the world. It is a public holiday here in Italy and in many other nations. But there are millions of people who rarely get days off. These are the estimated 21 million people who are the victims of trafficking.

You don’t have to go to “the peripheries,” in the words of Pope Francis, to meet these victims, because often they are “hiding in plain sight” in our societies. They’ve picked and packaged our food, they’ve made our cheap clothes, they’re looking after our children and parents and they are walking the streets in our cities.

With the support of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, COATNET — Christian Organizations Against Trafficking in Human Beings — made this short film about trafficking.

Here are 10 things you may not know about trafficking:

  1. Trafficking is another name for modern slavery. Trafficking is the exploitation of people who may be trafficked into prostitution, forced labour or domestic servitude through deception or kidnapping. Sometimes they are transported across borders.
  2. Trafficking is said to be the third largest criminal industry in the world.
  3. The demand for cheap clothes, cheap sex and cheap, illegal and informal labor is at the roots of trafficking.
  4. Victims are often women from poor backgrounds and with little education. They end up being abused as domestic workers or being forced into prostitution.
  5. Children are also vulnerable to trafficking. They may end up in sexual exploitation or bonded or domestic labor, or made to become camel jockeys, drugs couriers or child soldiers.
  6. Men are trafficked, too. They are heavily exploited in agriculture or construction, often live in inhuman conditions and are sometimes sexually abused.
  7. It is not necessarily men who are traffickers. Women sometimes befriend other women of their country and lure them into a situation where they are trafficked. There are “madams” who ensure a constant supply of sex workers from Africa and Eastern Europe to richer countries.
  8. Some traffickers make people believe they will have better life in another country, but once they get them abroad they take away their passport, their rights and their freedom. Sometimes recruitment agencies facilitate the trafficking.
  9. People are sometimes trafficked and killed for their organs and their heads, which are used in traditional medicine.
  10. People who escape a trafficked situation may end up being a slave again because they have no documents and they can’t find other work. Other former victims of trafficking don’t want to return to their kin because they feel ashamed that they’ve been duped and that they’ve failed their family.

*Hough is a communications officer for Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican-based confederation of more than 160 national Catholic charities from around the world.

Getting the most out of a visit to the Vatican Museums

By Elliot Williams

VATICAN CITY — If you plan on visiting the Vatican Museums, one of the most visited attractions in all of Rome, and one of the most visited art museums in the world, it is important to have some valuable information beforehand.

A school group enters the Vatican Museums. (CNS/Paul Haring)

A school group enters the Vatican Museums. (CNS/Paul Haring)

With 4.4 miles of exhibit halls that display some of the world’s most famous masterpieces, this is an admittedly exhausting, but must-see location on your trip to Vatican City. You will want to eat a big breakfast — perhaps three cornetti (Italy’s version of the croissant) — beforehand to make it through the museums, which spread throughout two Vatican palaces.

Here are the basics:

— First and foremost, the museums are open Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 6 pm, but the ticket office closes at 4 pm. The museums are typically closed on Sundays.

However, on the last Sunday of each month — except when a holiday falls on a Sunday — the public can enter for free from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. On the free Sundays, the museums close at 2 p.m. It must be noted that the queue on these free Sundays extends almost to the Colosseum (I’m exaggerating, but you will be waiting quite a while) so plan accordingly.

In addition, the Vatican Museums have announced their seasonal night openings. On Friday evenings from April 24 until Oct. 30 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. (except during the month of August) you can visit the Vatican treasures and, perhaps, be lucky enough to catch some live music. To visit the museums at night, it is obligatory to purchase the tickets online in advance.

— For a calendar of the Vatican Museums’ opening hours for 2015, holidays and special events, you can click here.

— Of course, the wise pilgrim wants to know how this visit will fit into the budget. The basic prices are:

General admission: € 16,00

Children (up to 18 years of age): € 8,00

— You can — and really should — purchase tickets online in advance so you can skip the line. You cannot purchase these tickets more than 60 days in advance of your visit.


There no doubt will be ladies and gentlemen throwing tour offers your direction if you are walking toward St. Peter’s Square wearing anything remotely touristy. Do not be alarmed. With any tour agency you are taking a chance. These experiences get mixed reviews -– some participants wait for hours on a coach bus, leaving them with little time to see the museums themselves, while others have a great time and learn plenty, getting their full money’s worth.

My advice is to do your research well in advance, and read plenty of reviews. Your overall best bet is to book an official tour through the museums website, either with a group larger than 16 people, individually or with an exclusive tour guide for groups of up to 15 people.For an extra fee, there also are guided tours with options to see both the Vatican Museums and the Vatican Gardens, or the Santa Rosa necropolis, also known as the necropolis of Via Triumphalis.

A detail of the Santa Rosa necropolis. (CNS/Vatican Museums)

A detail of the Santa Rosa necropolis. (CNS/Vatican Museums)

Whatever you choose, you are going to need plenty of time to see the museums (at least two hours); it took me three hours to go through all the exhibits by myself with an audio guide (which costs € 7).

The Sistine Chapel alone makes the whole visit to the museums worth it. This 15th-century masterpiece is certainly the most famous building in all of the museums. It served as a private chapel for Pope Sixtus IV, with frescoes by the reluctant Michelangelo who didn’t consider himself a painter when Pope Julius II commissioned him for the work in 1508.

The Sistine Chapel. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The Sistine Chapel. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Yet, if his “Creation of Adam,” the ceiling’s centerpiece, doesn’t expand your belief in what is humanly possible, nothing will. Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” on the wall behind the altar is just as awe-inspiring; it took the artist five years to complete (1536-1541) and covers 200 square meters with 391 figures. The frescoes that adorn the other walls were completed by famous painters Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli in the late 1400s and depict scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ.

If you’re looking for a quiet place to pray, however, the Sistine Chapel is not the place for you. As the museums’ main attraction, one can imagine why this chapel becomes packed quicker than you can say Giovannino de’ Dolci (who was involved in the actual construction of the chapel). Despite the attendants shouting into a microphone, “SHHH, Be quiet!” every few minutes, the chapel is so beautiful that most visitors (including me) can’t keep their spiritual reflections to themselves. You also will be kindly, or sometimes unkindly, reminded that there is no photography allowed in the chapel. But don’t worry, pictures don’t do the paintings justice, so hopefully your aunt back home won’t be too upset if you can’t send a ‘Sistine-selfie’ to her.

By the time you reach the stunning ceiling frescoes in the final and longest gallery of the Vatican Museums, the Gallery of Maps, you will most likely be craving a large bowl of carbonara and quite possibly a nap. Luckily for you, you’ve just seen some of the world’s greatest artistic achievements.

For more Vatican Museum Tips, click here.

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.

Where to give to help Nepal’s earthquake victims

The death toll from the earthquake in Nepal is rising, and Catholic aid agencies are among those helping its victims. Pope Francis offered prayers and encouraged the rescue workers.

Want to do more? Where do you live? Contact your favorite Catholic aid agency to channel your funds, using the following links: Catholic Relief Services; CAFOD; Troicaire; Development and Peace; Caritas Australia; or the central office for Caritas in Rome.

Prefer to donate to someone smaller? Try religious orders, like the Salesian Missions, who have missionaries in the country.

Survivors look at destroyed buildings April 27 following an earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal. More than 3,600 people were known to have been killed and more than 6,500 others injured after a magnitude-7.8 earthquake hit a mountainous region near Kathmandu April 25. (CNS photo/Abir Abdullah, EPA)

Survivors look at destroyed buildings April 27 following an earthquake in Bhaktapur, Nepal. More than 3,600 people were known to have been killed and more than 6,500 others injured after a magnitude-7.8 earthquake hit a mountainous region near Kathmandu April 25. (CNS photo/Abir Abdullah, EPA)

El papa Francisco visitará Cuba antes de comenzar su visita a Estados Unidos

Una monja mueve la bandera del Vaticano mientras asiste a la misa de Papa Juan Pablo II en La Habana el 25 de enero de 1998. El Vaticano confirmó que Papa Francisco visitará Cuba en septiembre. (CNS/Alyssa Banta)

Una monja mueve la bandera del Vaticano mientras asiste a la misa de Papa Juan Pablo II en La Habana el 25 de enero de 1998. El Vaticano confirmó que Papa Francisco visitará Cuba en septiembre. (CNS/Alyssa Banta)

CIUDAD DEL VATICANO (CNS) — El sacerdote jesuita Federico Lombardi, portavoz del Vaticano, dijo a reporteros el 22 de abril que el papa ha “recibido y aceptado la invitación de las autoridades civiles y los obispos de Cuba” y ha decidido visitar la isla antes de ir a los Estados Unidos.

El papa está programado, tentativamente, para llegar a Estados Unidos tarde el 22 de septiembre a Washington y visitará Washington, Nueva York y Filadelfia del 23 a 27 de septiembre. Detalles, como el itinerario y fechas de el viaje del pontífice a Cuba, se darán a conocer más tarde, dijo el padre Lombardi.

En 1998, no mucho después de que llegó a ser arzobispo de Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio publicó un folleto que se centró en los discursos y homilías que Santo Juan Pablo II hizo durante su histórica visita a Cuba unos meses antes. En el documento hizo dos puntos importantes: el diálogo no es sólo posible, pero es necesario; y, un diálogo sincero y honesto beneficiaría tanto a los Estados Unidos como a Cuba.

Al mismo tiempo, el arzobispo Bergoglio repetidamente abogó por la plena libertad de la iglesia católica en Cuba a predicar el Evangelio y ministrar a los pobres y denunció sistemas ideológicos que ofenden la dignidad trascendente de la persona humana.

Durante su visita en el 2012 a Cuba, el papa Benedicto XVI hizo los mismos puntos. Una vez que regresó a Roma, dijo que había ido a mostrar su apoyo a la misión de la iglesia cubana de “proclamar el Evangelio con alegría a pesar de la falta de medios y de las dificultades que aún quedan por superar, para que la religión pueda realizar su servicio educativo y espiritual en el ámbito público”.

Notes on peace and justice

Books help children learn about faith-based action

Two new books with the goal of helping children connect with the idea of faith-based action have been developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“Green Street Park” and “Drop by Drop” are new entries from the USCCB’s Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development and published by Loyola Press.

two-feet-green-street-park-coverJill Rauh, assistant director of education and outreach in the department and the mother of a 2-year-old son, wrote the books. They illustrate the two feet of Christian love in action: social justice and charitable works, she said.

“It’s an area where there are not a lot of children’s books to reflect our call to discipleship in the world and how do we put God’s love for the world into action,” Rauh said.

“Green Street Park,” written for children in kindergarten through second grade, tells the story of children playing in a park who encounter trash and overgrown brush. Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi’s love of creation, the children organize a plan to clear the debris and plant a community garden to beatify the park.

two-feet-drop-by-drop-cover“Drop by Drop,” intended for second- through fourth-graders, focuses on the actions of students at a Catholic school who step up to raise money for water projects in Africa. They act after hearing from a Catholic Relief Services worker visiting their classroom who tells the story of a young girl in Burkina Faso. The girl, Sylvie, yearns to attend school, but cannot because she spends much of her day collecting water from a river miles away from home for her family. That changes when the village gets a well, inspiring the American students to act to help other communities

The books are accompanied by “Pray Me a Story” guides developed by Loyola Press. The books and guides are being promoted to schools and parish school of religion activities.

Rauh said the books can be used in tandem with Pope Francis’ planned encyclical on the environment coming this summer.

“It’s an opportunity for the students to have a real deep impact, a prayer experience, a faith experience rather than just hear a story,” she said.

The materials can be ordered here.

 Pax Christi International concerned about ‘excessive’ military spending

Although worldwide military spending declined slightly in 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Pax Christi International has raised concerns about the almost $1.8 trillion spent on weapons systems last year.

The international Catholic peace organization called such massive spending a “scandal” and “excessive” in a “world where human and ecological well-being are in dire need of investment.”

Pax Christi raised its concern April 13, the Global Day of Action on Military Spending.

The 2014 figure is about 1.7 percent less than the peak of spending in 2011, according to a report released by the Stockholm institute April 13.

The report identified the top 10 nations in order of spending as the U.S., China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, United Kingdom, India, Germany, Japan and South Korea. The U.S., even with a 0.4 percent reduction in spending, still came in at about $610 billion and accounted for 34 percent of the world’s military spending in 2014, according to the report.

Spending by China and Russia increased 167 percent and 84.5 percent, respectively, the Stockholm institute reported. It cited continued declines in military expenditures in Western Europe, which it attributed to austerity measures undertaken by numerous governments. Military spending increased in Central Europe, led by Poland, the report said.

Pax Christi raised concern about boosts in major spending increases in the Middle East and Africa based on the report’s findings.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute is an independent organization that researches conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. It was established in 1966 and the Swedish government is its primary funder.


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