Covering Religion Fri, 31 May 2013 18:02:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Rome’s “Centurions” Schvitz Over Their Future Fri, 10 May 2013 21:09:48 +0000

Manuel Sonnino, 22, is just one of the Jewish "Centurions" who work outside the Colosseum.

Manuel Sonnino, 22, is just one of the Jewish “Centurions” who work outside the Colosseum.  Marie Telling / Religio.

At first glance, the men in leather sandals, pleated tunics, and armored breastplates who pose with tourists at the Colosseum in Rome look like what they hope to be taken for: Roman centurions. Clustered in groups of two or three, these sword-brandishing would-be warriors have become a staple attraction on the ancient cobbled streets of Rome, where they animate the city’s history and pose for pictures with eager tourists. But what’s under the embroidered red sleeves of an astonishing number of them is a little more surprising: tattoos of Hebrew words, Stars of David, and Israeli flags.

By many estimates, well over half of the 40 or so street performers who work in and around the Colosseum are Jewish. Many are proud and practicing Jews. Some even claim to be descendants of the Jews who were enslaved or killed by Roman centurions—the real ones—two thousand years ago. But while the tattoos are there to stay, the centurions themselves might not be.

Read the full story at Tablet.

]]> 0
With Francis, Progressive Lay Groups Hoping to Seize the Day Mon, 06 May 2013 21:48:52 +0000 Beggar in the streets of Rome.

A beggar supplicates in the streets of Rome, where the rights of the homeless are not recognized. Jesse Marx / Religio.

ROME — The soup kitchen in this city’s trendy Trastevere neighborhood serves few bowls of soup. Instead the air was redolent on a recent night with the smell of zucchini-cream sauce, roasted chicken and Fontina cheese, a meal fit for a king. More than three years ago, in solidarity with the homeless and struggling immigrant population, Pope Benedict XVI had come here for lunch. In his spot sat a sad-eyed lady in a gray hoodie—an image that comes easily to mind when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio talks about helping “the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.”

When he became pope in mid-March, Bergoglio took the name Francis in deference to that old icon of poverty, St. Francis of Assisi. This and many of his early actions were perceived by the faithful and the media alike as a new era in church history, one marked by simplicity, humility, openness and, above all, service  to the poor—principles that are cherished by Sant’Egidio, the Catholic lay community that runs this soup kitchen.

Worldwide, Sant’Egidio is made up of an estimated 50,000 Catholics who of their own volition organize and handle the grunt work of charity. Priests can become members of the lay community, but their collar affords them no special privileges. So long as each takes his faith just as seriously, the priest as well as the person in the pews is expected to have the same vocation of holiness and service.

The community formed in Rome in the late 1960s during a period of student protests. Members tend to fall on the progressive side of such divisive theological issues as the use of contraceptives and female ordination, putting them at odds with official church values. However, the community’s chief concern has always been helping immigrants and the homeless establish themselves in a country where moving up the economic and social ladder is particularly difficult. Rome, for example, does not recognize the rights of those who do not own or rent housing. Sant’Egidio offers up the address of its soup kitchen to more than 200 people so that they can vote and get access to healthcare and welfare.

The Church recognizes Sant’Egidio but does not financially support the community’s free services—and therefore doesn’t meddle in its affairs—including a medical station and the Italian-language courses. Funding comes mostly from Italian taxpayers and donations.

The dining hall in Trastevere functions more like a restaurant than a soup kitchen: volunteers act as waiters, while the homeless, many with tired and unwashed faces and alcohol on their breath, sit down as guests. “These people were not loved; they were the opposite,” said one of the organizers, Carlo Santoro, as if he could not bear to summon the word “hated.”

His remark was very much in the spirit of Pope Francis who, in his and homilies and on Twitter, has noted that “True power is service.” But how the pope will help the poor, and what that would mean for the relationship between laity and hierarchy, remain open questions. Will he attempt to engage ordinary Catholics through the local parishes, bringing them closer to the governance of the church? Or will he mobilize those who volunteer their time through lay communities such as Sant’Egidio?

Is it all talk?

Inside the Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere, where members of Sant'Egidio pray together every night of the week. Jesse Marx / Religio

The Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere, also known as Santa Maria, where members of Sant’Egidio pray together every night of the week. Jesse Marx / Religio.

Mario Staderini, an Italian journalist and member of the Italy’s political Radical Party, is skeptical of conversations in Rome that Francis’ election means an expanded role in the day-to-day operations of the Church for Sant’Egidio, or any lay community, for that matter. On the contrary, he believes Sant’Egidio should tread cautiously in the years to come, lest they want to undermine the very reason that individuals are attracted to such a group in the first place: control.

“The church is a closed society and if you’re not a priest, if you are a woman, you have no possibility to be involved in church life,” he said.

The Rev. John Wauck, an American who teaches at the Opus Dei Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, disagreed with Staderini’s assessment. Power is not the key to understanding lay communities: their members are simply looking for a material way to express their faith in an increasingly secular world, he said.

Although theologically akin to his predecessor, Bergoglio has shown himself to be more engaged with “the normalcy of human existence,” which is the preoccupation of lay communities, Wauck said. During the conclave, for example, Bergoglio chose to stay in a guesthouse with priests rather than a papal apartment with other cardinals. During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he chose to take public transportation rather than ride in a private car. Such things make Bergoglio relatable and will likely animate lay communities, Wauck said.

Despite the flood of optimism and wishful-thinking, Bergoglio’s rise does not suggest a swift break with tradition. All 115 of the cardinals eligible to elect Francis were picked by either Pope John Paul II or Benedict. What’s more, Bergoglio appears to be more receptive to traditionalist lay communities such as Opus Dei rather than progressive ones such as Sant’Egidio. The new pope’s first phone call was reportedly to the editors of Trenta Dias, a magazine run by the traditionalist lay community Communion and Liberation, for an interview.

Either way, Bergoglio has said the right things so far, at least according to those who have a stake in watching him, both on the left and right of church doctrine.

“Impressions matter,” Wauck said. “And certainly the impression that Francis is giving is (that) he’s very at home with God in the middle of the world.”

Sant’Egidio is one of many lay communities to come out the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965 and symbolized—by advocating for the primacy of one’s conscience over obedience to ecclesiastic authority—a more reciprocal, horizontal and dialectical governing model. However, before the 1980s, when John Paul encouraged re-evangelization of the church from below, many in the hierarchy viewed these communities with suspicion.

Headquarters of the Community of Sant'Egidio, in once-working class, now trendy neighborhood of Trastevere. Jesse Marx / Religio

Headquarters of the Community of Sant’Egidio, in the former working class, now trendy neighborhood of Trastevere. Jesse Marx / Religio.

“John Paul II changed the mind of many bishops and priests…because many priests thought if you work in the school, if you work in the university, it means you are not in the parish,” said Roberto Fontolan, the director of Communion and Liberation.

The hope, at least among many progressive laymen, is that Francis will bring about a return to the church’s roots—to the first few hundred years of history when bishops were elected and a network of communities spread and flourished with their own local rites. What mattered most then was that priest, prophet and participant stood side by side in the apostolic tradition. This was in part the mission of the Christian modernist movement of the 19th Century, whose leaders sought to reconcile the past and the present by ingesting the local culture while pruning its perceived excesses. Although Pope Pius X condemned modernism at that time as the “synthesis of all heresies,” its spirit certainly lives on in Sant’Egidio.

The soup kitchen in Trastevere is open three days of the week. On other nights, community members venture out into the local streets and train stations. They arm themselves with free food and a handbook showing immigrants and the homeless where to find free services courtesy of either other lay communities, official church charities or the government. Whoever and wherever “the poor, the weak, the vulnerable” get a hot meal from is irrelevant.

“We are not in competition,” Santoro said. “We try to make sure someone helps them every night.”

]]> 0
Pink Smoke Rising: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in the Catholic Church Thu, 02 May 2013 21:57:43 +0000 ROME — The surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI in early February ignited a flicker of hope in Catholic women who have long yearned for greater equality within the Church, or at least a platform on which to discuss it with the Vatican – a dialogue that many women feel was quashed under Popes John Paul II and Benedict.

“In 1994, the Vatican declared female priests off the record,” said Chris Schenk, executive director of Future Church, an advocacy group for opening ordination. In “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” John Paul’s apostolic letter on barring women from the priesthood, the pope explained that priestly ordination has “from the beginning always been reserved to men alone,” citing Jesus’ choice of only male apostles.

Many theologians, however, have raised issue with this reading of the Bible. For example, the Catholic Theological Society of America, the principal association of Catholic theologians in North America, issued a report in 1997 outlining “serious doubts” with the Vatican’s understanding of Scripture and the Bible-based reasons it outlined for excluding women from ordination.

“There has been a great deal of theological disagreement,” said Schenk. “It’s really much more of a political issue than a theological or a biblical one.”

Advocacy groups flocked to Rome during the conclave to protest the Vatican's ban on women's ordination. Photo courtesy of Women's Ordination Conference.

Advocacy groups flocked to Rome during the conclave to protest the Vatican’s ban on women’s ordination. Photo courtesy of Women’s Ordination Conference.

With the prospect of a new pope came the hope that this would be addressed. But speaking to a group of journalists just days after Francis’ election, Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, the secretary for the Congregation of the Faith, stamped down on any green shoots of optimism. “There cannot be women priests, that’s impossible,” he said. “It’s established doctrine,” meaning that the law is divinely inspired and cannot be changed.

Whether this was the old guard talking or the new is not entirely clear, as Francis has yet to comment directly on the issue of women’s ordination since he became pope. Within the first few weeks of his papacy, Francis impressed the more progressive members of his flock by several actions, including washing and kissing the feet of two female prisoners – one of them Muslim – on Maundy Thursday, marking the first time that women have been included in this pre-Easter ritual.

But this growing confidence took a hit in mid-April, when the Vatican affirmed the new pope’s support of his predecessor’s investigation of progressive nuns in the U.S. After a doctrinal assessment that culminated last April, Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain was appointed as an overseer of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella body representing around 80 percent of women religious in the U.S. that was criticized by the Holy See for not promoting official church teachings on subjects such as abortion and female ordination.

Many saw this as a hard blow. A relaxation of this decree had been considered an achievable first step in ending the “old boys’ club” attitude, as Schenk called it, of the Vatican.

This attitude was best summarized in John Paul’s numerous reasons for denying women a place in the priesthood in his 1994 apostolic letter. He cited “the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”

Conservatives see his arguments for the status quo as convincing. But the arguments for change are compelling.

The number of Catholics in the world is growing rigorously – it has climbed by more than a fifth to 1.2 billion in the 20 years since the apostolic letter was published – but the number of priests has grown by less than two percent, reaching around 412,000 in 2010, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. Only a priest can lead mass, so many parishes around the world, particularly in Latin America, don’t have access to communion.

“Bishops have chosen the least desirable option to deal with the priest shortage,” said Schenk, who was in Rome during the conclave, which happened to coincide with a women’s pilgrimage she was leading. “Mass is the center of the Catholic Church, so you should be opening ordination to women and married men, rather than losing access to mass.”

This practical approach encompasses Future Church’s mission. Recognizing the futility of arguing with doctrine – at least at this stage – one of the group’s main goals is the acceptance of women into the diaconate, which has not been doctrinally forbidden by the Holy See. While only priests can bless and minister the sacrament of communion, deacons have liturgical roles, can preach from the altar and are involved in serving the community and caring for the poor. On the other hand, the diaconate has traditionally been the first step toward priesthood.

Unlike the Vatican ban on women priests, “the female diaconate has not been taken off the table,” said Schenk. While it would not fully address the priest shortage, it would allow women to preach “and then the whole Catholic community will be able to hear the gospel through the lens of female experience, and not just through the lens of male experience.”

For other spiritual suffragists, a female diaconate is not a satisfactory solution. Deborah Rose Milavec, co-vice president of Catherine of Siena Virtual College, a non-profit school that promotes gender equality and the empowerment of women through gender and women’s studies, flew to Rome to speak up for half of the Catholic population during the conclave.

“My primary purpose was to draw attention to the fact that 115 men were locked in a room to elect the new pope and there were no women in that room as electors or candidates,” Rose Milavec said. “The church is one of the last bastions of patriarchy: [there exists] a huge lacuna in women’s leadership in the Catholic Church.”

Responding, in the days before the conclave, to a question about the number of women involved in the papal election process, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s spokesperson, said that several women work in service jobs – such as cooking and cleaning – at the Santa Marta hotel, where the cardinals stayed while in Rome, and thus played a vital role in the conclave.

“I’m horrified,” said Rose Milavec. “It sounds to me like [he] doesn’t live on this planet, that’s how out of touch it sounds.” She said the men at the higher echelons of the Church are “insulated against what most Catholics are living and breathing.”

While the Catholic Church does not claim to be a democracy, “it has to function in a world that is democratic,” said Rose Milavec. “It cannot live as if it’s functioning in the Middle Ages… When somebody sits in Rome and tells me that it’s a sin to take a birth control pill, it’s almost laughable. It doesn’t touch my real life at all.”

Organizations for gender equality in the Church held pink smoke vigils in Rome during the conclave to draw attention to the lack of women involved in the papal election process. Photo courtesy of Women's Ordination Conference.

Organizations for gender equality in the Church held pink smoke vigils in Rome during the conclave to draw attention to the lack of women involved in the papal election process. Photo courtesy of Women’s Ordination Conference.

In a bid to raise awareness of the current opportunity to change the Church’s attitude to women, advocacy groups conducted pink smoke vigils around the U.S. and in Rome during the conclave. Playing on the iconic image of the white smoke that billows from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel upon election of a new pope, these organizations for women’s ordination gathered to chant and pray over puffs of pink smoke.

The Women’s Ordination Conference, the main group behind these protests, also produced a video of a song called “Ordain A Lady” – set to the chart-topping tune of Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen – that has garnered almost 140,000 hits on YouTube. The choice of music was more traditional at the vigils, where supporters of women priesthood sang the church hymn “Ubi Caritas.” The lyrics translate as, “Where charity and love are, there is God.”

Women’s advocacy groups have criticized the Church for its move in 2008 to excommunicate female priests and the male bishops or priests who ordained them. They note that there is no similar sanction for others who violate church teaching, including for priests who are found to be guilty of sexual child abuse.

“It’s scandalous,” said Schenk. “It just shows the present dysfunction of the Catholic Church.” As a result, she added, “many women have written off Christianity altogether as hopelessly sexist. Why would they be part of a religion that discriminates so blatantly?”

As part of her work with Future Church, which aims to retrieve the memory of early women leaders, Schenk runs a woman’s pilgrimage to Rome. This year’s trip happened to be planned for mid-March. “Pope Benedict had a lot of nerve resigning right before my pilgrimage,” Schenk joked.

On the day before Francis’ inauguration mass, Schenk led a group of women around the Domitilla Catacombs, pointing out the frescoes of Veneranda and Petronilla – two women from around the fifth century who are depicted with signs of apostolic ministry, such as a crown or a ring. But Christians are not taught about this part of their history, she said.

“Even less do we learn about women leaders like Prisca or Phoebe,” said Schenk, referring to two of the ten female leaders mentioned by Paul in Romans 16. Prisca, also called Priscilla, is described as Paul’s “co-worker in Christ Jesus… all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to [her.]” Paul calls Phoebe “a deacon of the church in Cenchreae” and “a benefactor of many people, including me.”

“If it wasn’t for those women in the Pauline communities, Christianity would not have spread as it did throughout the Greco-Hellenist world,” said Schenk.

Schenk also recounted the story of Pope Joan – the woman who, according to legend, ruled the Catholic Church around the 13th century. “She has since been wiped out from the history… There is no tradition of women in leadership. What the church has is a tradition of suppressing women in leadership,” said Schenk.

“It’s systematized discrimination and sexism.”

The election of a new pope gave some advocates of women’s ordination fresh hope that now might be the time for change, or at least dialogue. “Not only do I have great hope, I think it’s the future of the church and it’s one of these ideas whose time has come,” said Rose Milavec.

Ruth Steinert Foote, who represents the female empowerment group Women-Church Convergence, is less confident about her hopes for a positive response from the Vatican anytime soon.

“I’m not holding my breath,” she said. “But I’m going to keep plugging along.”

She said that she was hopeful that Francis will be open to dialogue regarding women’s place in the Church, and said that as a Jesuit, his concern for the poor could be his gateway into gender issues.

“If he looks at the statistics of poverty in the world, he will see how disproportionately the poverty is among women,” said Steinert Foote. “And he will find that the misogynist attitudes of men have caused this poverty… This is how I see Francis getting to the women question, through what touches his soul the most: the poverty issue.”

Many Catholics hope that Pope Francis will relax the Church's decree against women's ordination. Photo courtesy of Women's Ordination Conference.

Many Catholics hope that Pope Francis will relax the Church’s decree against women’s ordination. Photo courtesy of Women’s Ordination Conference.

While Steinert Foote would like to see women ordained to the priesthood, she said “we have to solve the earthly problem of women before we get to the heavenly problem.”

Others counsel patience, noting that change in the church will take time. Christian Weisner, a representative of the international movement We Are Church, an activist group for Church reform, said after his recent return from Rome: “We shouldn’t expect everything in the first few weeks. We have to give [Francis] time.”

Casting his eye over the Catholic Church, Weisner said, “Like a big ship, it was really in trouble. But it takes some time to get on a new course. We are not a speed boat.”

While the ship is hardly in danger of sinking completely, it remains to be seen whether its new captain will follow the wake left by his predecessor or allow these increasingly large waves to steer him towards a new horizon – with a female crew on board.

]]> 1
New Yorkers in Rome Eager to Serve Their Home Parishes Wed, 24 Apr 2013 04:07:42 +0000 IMG_4480

New York Seminarians gathering for a meal after the election of Francis I at the North American Pontifical College. Matthew Vann / Religio.

ROME – Shortly after the election of Pope Francis in mid-March, three seminarians stood behind their chairs waiting for lunch to begin  at the North American College in Rome. They were joined by other seminarians rushing into the dining hall with stuffed black briefcases returning from morning classes at universities across the city. These men, however, were just a bit louder than the rest of their seminary colleagues—they’re New Yorkers.

Before taking their seats, the seminarians heard the day’s news from Msgr. James Checchio, the seminary’s rector, who told them that they’d receive front row tickets to the inauguration mass of the new pope. He then led the packed hall of seminarians in prayer. They bowed their heads, made the sign of the cross and said together: “Bless us oh lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, our lord. Amen.”

Over lunch, the New York seminarians—Nicholas Colalella, Andrew Garnett and Matthew Prochilo—all of whom are in their 20’s, reflected on the circumstances that brought them to the seminary. Colalella is from the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, while Garnett and Prochilo are from the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island

Colalella, 22, of Middle Village, Queens said that he was inspired to become a priest by the example of former Pope Benedict.

He was sad, he said, to see the former pontiff step down.

“Pope Benedict’s style is something that I connected with,” Colalella said.

“He was like a personal hero. And I was almost formed by him indirectly.”

The three New Yorkers, like their colleagues from around the U.S. who come here to study, said that they are enjoying their time in Rome, but are eager to complete their studies and begin to serve their home dioceses as priests. Moved by what they consider to be a moral decline in the United States, American seminarians in Rome hope to energize Catholics in their dioceses to live out their faith.

A generation ago, the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which comprises Nassau and Suffolk counties in Long Island, the Diocese of Brooklyn and the Archdiocese of New York, each had its own seminary to train men for the priesthood. With the sharp decline in the number of men seeking ordination, the three seminaries were merged into the one, which is known as St. Joseph’s Seminary, located in the Westchester County area of Dundwoodie.

There were more than 8,000 men ordained to the priesthood each year in the late 1960s, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.  Now, there are 3,723 seminarians studying to become priests in dioceses across the United States. Only a handful of them study in Rome.

Colalella, along with all the other 252 seminarians at the North American College, are handpicked by the bishop of their dioceses to study in Rome.

“Typically the men chosen to study at the North American College have a strong academic record,” said Lisa Amore, an administrative assistant at the vocations office of the Diocese of Brooklyn. “They are willing to learn Italian, and are able to be away from home for their first two years of study.”

Though many make it into the North American College by virtue of their academic ability and the strength of their vocational discernment—the desire to become a priest—some American bishops also opt to send seminarians to Rome because they simply have no other choice. As many American bishops struggle to maintain their seminaries because of low enrollment, they are faced with the tough decision of sending their aspiring priests to U.S. seminaries outside of their dioceses and, in some cases, overseas.

But many seminarians find that being miles away from their parishes, which are already in need of all the help they can get, to be an even greater sacrifice.

“It was a difficulty having to move from New York to Rome,” Colalella said.  “Being away from family and not having contact with people back home. But all these sacrifices in the end you understand as a gift.”

Garnett, 29, is from the Diocese of Rockville Centre said that he first felt the call to priesthood when he was in high school.

There was one priest there in particular, Garnett said, who inspired him. The priest, he explained, “ set the example of what every priest should aim for. Someone who cares deeply.”

Vocations to the priesthood in the Catholic Church have fallen since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which initiated a series of modern doctrines and practices.  And the clerical sex abuse crisis that rocked the church in the United States has made recruiting young capable men to the priesthood even more difficult.

But for the first time in many years, the North American College founded by Pope Pius IX in 1859, is at maximum capacity. The seminarians there know the hostility with which the priesthood is viewed, especially given the abuse scandal cover-up by many in the church hierarchy. Despite that, there is a sense of duty and desire to push on.

“Western culture is not receptive to the idea of becoming a priest,” said Prochilo a graduate of Fordham University in the Bronx. “The task is daunting.”

As a seminarian at the North American College, Prochilo had the opportunity to serve as a commentator for radio stations broadcasting in the U.S. on the papal conclave that elected Pope Francis.

Raised Catholic, Prochilo, 24, knew early on that the life as a parish priest is what he wanted for himself. He recently left the Jesuit order to become a priest serving solely in the Diocese of Rockville Centre.  Prochilo says that diocesean priests have more of an opportunity to devote themselves fully to the church since they live a life of complete service on the local level.

“I see myself more free than most of my peers,” he said. “No one’s expecting us to come home at the end of the day.”


]]> 0
A Pope With a Latin Flair Sun, 21 Apr 2013 23:34:57 +0000 ROME–Flags of all nations waved under the sun the day of Pope Francis’ inaugural mass in St. Peter’s Square in mid-March, but the blue and white national colors of Argentina conspicuously dominated the landscape. The new pope, former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires before being elected Bishop of Rome, making him the first pope from Latin America in the history of the Catholic Church.

Polls since the inauguration show that Francis has a very high popularity rating—according to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of American Catholics view the new pope favorably, and an IPR Marketing poll found that 92 percent of Italian Catholics are happy with the new pontiff. The numbers are even higher in Argentina, with only two percent of the population having a negative opinion of Francis, according to a poll by Poliarquía, conducted for the daily La Nación.

A photo of Pope Francis inside the Argentine Church of Rome (Photo by Jordi Oliveres / Religio)

A photo of Pope Francis inside the Argentine Church of Rome. Jordi Oliveres / Religio.

The Rev. Alonso Freiberger, 30, a priest from Bergoglio’s home diocese, said that Francis’ affectionate and less formal style is characteristic of Latin American culture, as is his emphasis on helping the poor and the marginalized. Freiberger said he thinks the way in which Bergoglio delivers this message will be a very important part of his legacy. “He’s not saying anything new, he’s just saying it with different words than the ones Benedict or John Paul II used,” he said. “His words sound more comprehensible; they’re in a language that is more understandable.”

Francis’ charisma and pastoral manner generated a palpable excitement in St. Peter’s square the day of his installation mass. Mariana Casas, 40, from Mexico City, was in tears after Pope Francis drove by her in the Popemobile before his first homily. “I’m very impressed by his closeness,” she said. “By the fact that we are not masses, but individuals [to him].”  Cristian Pascuchelo, 30, made the trip from Buenos Aires exclusively for the installation. “I thought this could be a historical moment to see a change in the church,” he said, holding an Argentine flag.

Just how much of a change Pope Francis will bring to the church, and how big a role his Argentine heritage will play in his papacy, remains to be seen, but experts inside and outside the Vatican say that big changes are not in store. “The doctrine will not change,” is how Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, the Secretary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, bluntly put it in a meeting with the Religio team in Rome.

Daniel Levine, author of “Politics, Religion and Society in Latin America” and a professor of political science at University of Michigan shared a similar view.  “The fact that he is Latin American is going to energize the Catholic Church, given that Latin America has 40 percent of the world’s Catholics,” he said in a phone interview, referring to Francis. “But in terms of his own openness to structural change, I think it’s pretty limited.” Levine said he thinks Francis will not be open to structural changes because “he is basically a conservative person with a conservative theology and with a conservative political stance.”

The Catholic Church in Argentina has historically been very conservative, most notably because of its ties to the country’s last military dictatorship. “Even within Argentina there’s not one single church,” said Amy Young, a Latin American history professor at The Catholic University of America in Michigan, in a phone interview. “There’s the dominant conservative hierarchy, but there are also liberal bishops and liberal priests and liberal orders…The thing that’s important is that the more powerful members of the hierarchy were more politically conservative and, if they weren’t supportive of the military dictatorship, they weren’t outspoken critics of it.”

Young shared Levine’s perspective about Francis falling on the conservative side of the spectrum. “I think the conventional wisdom on him is that he’s socially conservative,” she said. “That’s not really a surprise because everybody who was being considered for the papacy is socially conservative. But the way that he is different is in that he is from the Americas and he has, by many accounts, lived a humble life and he has chosen to emphasize his solidarity with the poor…and in those ways he could really excite the base in Latin America.”

Energizing the faithful in Latin America would be an important accomplishment for the church considering that, according to a Pew Research Center study, the percentage of Catholics in Latin America dropped from 90 percent at the beginning of the 20th century to 72 percent in 2010. According to Young, many of the Latin Americans leaving the church are joining Protestant churches or becoming secularized.

Young said Francis’ message of caring for the poor could resonate with the people who are leaving the church. “The people who are leaving the church for evangelical churches tend to be lower middle class, urban poor, so it could be a very effective tactic,” she said. “I also think, though, that there are some structural problems that will have to be addressed if the church wants to put a stop to the loss of its population or to people converting out.” According to Young, one of the biggest problems the church faces, and needs to make structural changes to fix, is a decline in vocations. “The fewer priests and nuns they have, the less they’re able to provide a Catholic education and to minister to the community and to reach people at the grassroots level,” she said.

Advocates of a more open church have suggested that allowing the ordination of women and a married priesthood could boost the dwindling numbers of seminarians. Conservatives expect that Francis will hold the line on those issues but will articulate the church’s position in a more convincing way than his predecessor popes. “I don’t think he is going to change things like that,” said Freiberger, referring to Francis. “It’s not about erasing everything and starting from scratch. Tradition has its reasons and I think he will help us rediscover that.”

According to an article by Young, the church’s traditional positions on social issues, like contraception, abortion and gay marriage, may also clash with increasingly liberal Latin American societies, particularly in urban areas. Mexico, Uruguay, and Argentina have all legalized gay marriage, and abortion is legal in Mexico City since 2007 and in Uruguay since 2012. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio was an adamant opponent of gay marriage and government programs to distribute contraceptives. “I don’t see any movement on any of those things, or on the position of women in the church,” said Levine. “I’m sort of pessimistic about it; it’s very controversial. Maybe he’ll be very different in office than his record states, but I wouldn’t think so.”



]]> 0
A Mormon Temple in Rome Sun, 21 Apr 2013 23:33:41 +0000 global_post_logo




ROME—The eyes of the world were on St. Peter’s Square in mid-March as the Roman Catholic Church installed Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis. But just a few miles away from the Vatican, Italians were building a tribute to a different Christian sect.

Italy, known for its strong Catholic presence, is also home to nearly 25,000 Mormons. And just eight miles northeast of the Vatican, across the road from one of the largest shopping centers in Rome, a Mormon temple is being built—the first in the city, the first in Italy, and the first in the Mediterranean region.

Italian Mormons now gather at numerous chapels for Sunday worship, but a temple is something different. “It’s literally heaven on Earth,” said Clay Lacey, a 20-year-old Mormon from California.

Like many Mormons his age, Lacey is a missionary, and he has been in Italy for almost two years. He said that according to Mormon belief, a temple is a link between Earth and the afterlife. “The whole point of the Temples is to seal us for eternity with our families, to really connect us, because one thing that’s inevitable in life, is death,” he said. “The temple kind of gives us an eternal perspective of things.”

The first Mormon temple in the Mediterranean region is being built just 8 miles from the Vatican.

The first Mormon temple in the Mediterranean region is being built just eight miles from the Vatican.
Jeff Tyson / Religio.

The Mormon temple in Rome will be the twelfth in Europe. It will join the one in Bern Switzerland, Frankfurt, Germany, and The Hague, Netherlands, among others. It will be 40,000 square feet, with an exterior of white granite. Right now, slabs of the granite stone are being attached to a still rising frame.

When it’s done, Lacey said, he hopes the temple will clear up confusion Italians have about his faith. “There are a lot of wrong ideas that Italians have about our church. They think the Mormons run around with long beards, and still live, you know, back in the 1600s, or the 1700s,” he said.

There have been Mormons in Italy since the 1850s, but due to local opposition, proselytizing came to a halt by the 1860s. In 1900, church leaders endeavored to resume missionary work, but they were denied by the Italian government. In 1951, the Church was re-established in Italy, and Italian Mormons abroad began moving home. But the ban on proselytizing lasted another 14 years. In 1965, church records indicated about 230 members in Italy, and Elder Ezra Taft Benson, who would later become the 13th president of the Church, successfully petitioned the government to resume missionary work. Most recently, in July of 2012, the Italian government recognized Mormonism as an official religion. This means that Mormon clergy can preside over civilly recognized marriages, and that clergy have access to state prisons, hospitals, and military barracks. It also means the Mormon Church is entitled to accept a percentage of tax money, as the Catholic Church does. But this entitlement was refused, since the Mormon Church already relies on a tithe from its members, and prides itself on being self-sustaining in this way.

For Italian Mormons like Alessandro Dini Ciacci, the new Temple is a milestone. “To me, as a Mormon living in Rome, this is a dream come true,” said Ciacci, a spokesman for the Mormon Church in Italy.

Ciacci was raised in a Catholic family in the south of Italy and converted to Mormonism when he was 18. He said that right now, to worship in a Temple, he has to drive or fly to the nearest one—in Bern, Switzerland.

“Having a Temple here, close by, it means that if I’m feeling down, if I need answers, if I just want to go worship my lord, or perform ordinances for my family or my ancestors, I can just drive there in less than an hour,” he said.

And the city of Rome has a deep religious significance to Mormons, who adhere to the Bible, as well as to the Book of Mormon.

“How can you imagine the Church of Jesus Christ without having the Temple in the city where Apostle Paul and Apostle Peter, they came to preach the Gospel in the early days?” asked Raimondo Castellani, another official of the church in Italy.

Castellani hopes the new temple will become a destination for each tourist coming to Rome.

Fausto D’Apuzzo, a 26-year-old Italian who grew up Mormon, agrees that a temple in Rome is significant. Since he was 12, he would take a bus every summer to the temple in Bern—a trip that took 15 hours. He said a new temple near the center of Catholicism will be a point of pride for Mormons.

“Strong Italian Catholics sometimes are not very open to other religions,” he said. “And maybe there will be rumors about some bad things happening in the temple, but I’m hoping that most of the people will actually get to know the truth, what we are, and what we do.”

D’Apuzzo said that he could talk about his church forever. He said that’s because the church has always been the center of his life. “I think the strongest feelings of joy I had are somehow linked to my friends in the church and my experiences growing up as a Mormon boy,” he said. “I cannot imagine my life any different way.”

With a smile, D’Apuzzo later joked that he and his Canadian girlfriend could be the first couple to get married in the new temple when it is completed in 2014.



]]> 0
Pope Francis and the “Right to Die” Sat, 20 Apr 2013 05:23:00 +0000 Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Catholic University of the Sacred Heart) in Rome, the largest Catholic University in the world.

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Catholic University of the Sacred Heart) in Rome, the largest Catholic University in the world. Harman Boparai / Religio.

ROME — Pope Francis has yet to speak publicly about end of life issues like euthanasia, or “the right to die,” since he become Pope in March. There is little doubt that he will adhere to traditional church teaching that believes that any curtailing of human life – even if designed to end pain – is tantamount to murder.

But there are those who are hopeful that the new pope, a man widely praised for his openness, will engage the opinions of others of good will on this issue. Professor Antonio G. Spagnolo, Director of the Institute for Bioethics at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, said that there are issues on which medical science and the church need dialogue, including on euthanasia.

“Medicine cannot think of itself as omnipotent, and the church also needs to ponder that doctors act in goodwill,” he said, adding that he was optimistic that Pope Francis would lead them towards this dialogue.

Prof. Antonio Spagnolo of the Agostino Gemelli School of Medicine is a proponent of church-science dialogue

Prof. Antonio Spagnolo of the Agostino Gemelli School of Medicine is a proponent of church-science dialogue. Harman Boparai / Religio.

“What should be allowed is letting die but not causing death,” Spagnolo said. He added that he agreed with the church that disproportionate or dangerous treatment could be withheld, but provoking someone’s death was akin to killing.

Euthanasia, defined as intervention to end a life in order to relieve intractable pain and suffering, has been illegal in Italy, although Italian law does uphold a patient’s right to refuse care. The institution most instrumental in framing the euthanasia debate in the country has been the Catholic Church. The church considers euthanasia the equivalent of murder or suicide.

“Suicide is never a way to solve a health issue,” said Deacon John Paul Mitchell, a seminary student at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. Mitchell spoke as he walked towards St. Peter’s Square for the first Angelus prayer by Pope Francis.  For the church, he said, there is meaning to be found in suffering through terminal illnesses. “There is a certain spiritual value in your suffering, along with the suffering of Christ,” he said as he looked on with the sea of people gathered to get their first glimpse of the new pope.

Proponents of euthanasia maintain that people have a right to self determination, and assisting a patient to die might be a better choice than requiring that they continued to suffer. The Catholic Church on the other hand is opposed to any form of euthanasia, whether it is active or by omission. But it does consider it morally acceptable to use analgesics to treat pain, even if it involves – as a side effect and not desired – the shortening the patient’s life. Under sections of 2278 of the Catechism by Pope John Paul II, it only allows discontinuing medical procedures that are “burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome and constitute aggressive medical treatment.”

In view of the illegality, in 2006, Piergiorgio Welby – a terminally-ill Italian man with a severe form of muscular dystrophy – died after a protracted legal dispute during which he described his life as torture. A judge had ruled that he did not have the right to have his respirator removed. In July 2007 came the case of Giovanni Nuvoli, a 53-year-old former football referee with advanced muscular dystrophy, who died after going on hunger strike because he was not allowed his request to die without suffering.

The debate over the status of euthanasia got more heated in 2008, when a court in Milan awarded the father of Eluana Englaro, a 38-year-old woman who had been in a permanent and irreversible vegetative state since a car crash in 1992, the right to disconnect her feeding tubes.

St. Peter's Basilica as seen from across the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri

St. Peter’s Basilica as seen from across the Via di Porta Cavalleggeri. Harman Boparai / Religio.

During the court proceedings, the Vatican argued that removing the feeding tubes would amount to euthanasia, a position that was supported by many Catholic politicians. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi tried to issue an emergency decree barring doctors halting nutrition to patients in a coma. However President Giorgio Napolitano refused to sign it, and three days later, before the Senate could enact a new law, Englaro died.

Following the Englaro case, the lower house of the Italian legislature voted 278-205 to pass a bill that prohibited euthanasia and required that patients not be denied food and hydration, which the church considers euthanasia by omission.

While Italy prohibited it, other countries in the European Union moved towards liberalizing euthanasia laws despite fierce opposition from religious circles, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, all of which permitted active euthanasia. When an Italian minister compared the Dutch “Termination of Life on Request Act” to Nazi Germany’s euthanasia policies, it triggered a diplomatic row, as well as political backlash within Italy, with parties like the Italian Radical Party asking for the resignation of the minister.

Mario Staderini, the General Secretary of the Italian Radical Party, said in an interview that the political influence of the Vatican was a big problem. “The church controls politics in order to forbid civil rights,” he said, adding that political parties listened to the church because of the vast Catholic voter base as well as the church’s financial influence. He noted as one example, the fact that a living will – in which a person can direct his or her end-of-life care – is forbidden in Italy.   “The church,” he explained, “wants to have power over people’s lives, when they begin and also when they end.”

In the medical fraternity, surveys in various countries have shown that up to 78 percent of nurses were in favor of passive euthanasia. “I think it’s having the right to choose what they want, and if there’s no quality of life, they should have the right to die,” said Ellie Mincheva, 53, a nurse from Bulgaria drawing on her experience of working with terminally ill patients. “It’s just a lot of agony, and why prolong their agony,” she added.

While the views of Pope Francis on euthanasia are yet to be explicitly stated, as Cardinal Bergoglio in Argentina he had addressed the issue with a focus on the general elderly population. “In Argentina there is clandestine euthanasia. Today elderly people are discarded when, in reality, they are the seat of wisdom of the society. The right to life means allowing people to live and not killing, allowing them to grow, to eat, to be educated, to be healed, and to be permitted to die with dignity,” he had said.

Meanwhile even days after the new pope’s inauguration, crowds kept streaming in to visit the Vatican. One visitor, 68-year old Peter Huber from Germany, said that decisions for end of life care were very personal, but he did not know what was right or wrong. “All I can say is I just hope there is another life in heaven,” he said.

]]> 0
Hopes For Interfaith Dialogue Thu, 18 Apr 2013 21:04:09 +0000 ROME — Halfway into Pope Francis’ installation as the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church, the people who gathered in St. Peter’s Square were asked to turn to their neighbor and greet them with a handshake and a blessing of peace. This kind of reconciliation between peoples was played out in another way during the day. The installation of Pope Francis was the first in recent memory attended by the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Churches, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I. After the mass, Francis and Bartholomew shook hands and embraced. The two branches of Christianity split nearly 1,000 years ago.

Catholic worshippers watch on as Pope Francis recognizes interfaith delegations at the inauguration. David Palacio / Religio.

Catholic worshippers watch on as Pope Francis recognizes interfaith delegations at the inauguration. David Palacio / Religio.

“It’s a huge historical event,” said Alejandro Crosthwaite, 45, a professor at Dominican University Anglican in Rome. “It is a sign of bringing union with the East and West church which has been a dream since John Paul II.”

The Eastern and Western churches were united until the Great Schism of 1054, a divide that occurred mainly from disagreements over the primacy of the pope. According to Francesco Marino, 30, A Dominican friar, Pope Francis’ choice to refer to himself first as the Bishop of Rome sent a humble message to the Orthodox community.

“For the Orthodox, when you say this they recognize you as the first among Patriarchs,” said Marino. “ It is the link to other faiths.”

Before becoming pope, Francis was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires. In that position, he had a reputation for facilitating interfaith dialogue not just within the Orthodox Church, but also among the Jewish and Muslim communities. In 2006, he sponsored interfaith prayers after Pope Benedict XVI offended Muslims by quoting a Byzantine emperor, as saying some of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings were “evil and inhuman.”

“He is open and beginning the dialogue with the Muslim community,” said Crosthwaite.

Six heads of state, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, as well as heads of many other faiths, including Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni of Rome, were among the 130 delegations present at this afternoon’s installation mass.

While all the signs point to a strong interfaith dialogue for the future of the papacy, the Rev. Godwin Ukatu, 40, a Catholic Priest for the past 10 years, wants to wait a little longer before he makes any conclusions about the future of Francis’ papacy.

“We cannot conclude right now,” said Ukatu, “We hope he will be open to other faiths.”

Spiannie Naalden, 59, who was visiting Rome from Holland with her husband, reflected on what this new papacy means for the poor, and for her personal faith.

“It doesn’t matter what background you have,” said Naalden, “Treat people how you want to be treated, it’s so simple.”

]]> 0
VIDEO: New Pope Makes A Different Kind of Fashion Statement Mon, 01 Apr 2013 12:00:28 +0000 It takes an experienced tailor to dress one of the most influential men in the world, but with a new pope much less concerned about his attire than others of the past, the pontifical tailor must be ready for anything. Katherine Theofanous reports.

]]> 0
VIDEO: Keeping Fit While Keeping the Faith Mon, 01 Apr 2013 10:00:32 +0000 How do seminarians at Rome’s Pontifical North American College stay active physically? Stephen Jiwanmall reports.

Keeping Fit While Keeping the Faith from Covering Religion on Vimeo.

]]> 0