Assisi: A place of living history

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi

Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi

Perched on the side of a mountain in the central Italian province of Umbria is the historic town of Assisi, best known as the hometown of St. Francis, one of Christianity’s most revered saints.

I’ve spoken to many visitors to Assisi over the past few years – especially since Cardinal Bergoglio was elected pope and took the name of St. Francis – and they all seem to describe the little town in the same way: perfectly magical.

You can imagine my excitement and expectation then, when I discovered I would be living in Assisi for five weeks to study Italian at the Language Academy!  In my brief but fully immersed time here, I have experienced what many of those visitors preached.

Despite its compact layout, Assisi is home to seven major ecclesial sites including two basilicas dedicated to St. Francis and St. Clare, where their remains can be found for veneration.

Town of Assisi

Assisi, Italy

It is a hustling and bustling place; a mix of locals and tourists.  But this doesn’t seem to affect the quaint atmosphere.  The old stone buildings that make up the town, and the many narrow streets, stairways and shortcuts transport the visitor back to the 13th century when it first became a place of pilgrimage after Francis’ death.

This feeling of history, which is really a living history, makes Assisi one of those few places in the world where the past encounters the present and sparks the imagination.  Medieval history as we know it is often conceived from the perspective of those centers of the world that once composed ‘Christendom:’ Rome, Paris or Aachen or any number of places once dominated by the movers and shakers of that history.

Assisi is quite different, and yet is as historically significant.  It was never the center of major temporal power struggles or cultural battles.  It was, and is, a little town perched on the side of a mountain.  It is ‘off the beaten trail’ and ‘out of the way’ and all the more enticing for it.

It was only two years after Francis of Assisi died that he was declared a saint.  The foundations of the basilica built in his name that now dominates the Assisi skyline on the edge of the town were laid only a few decades later.  The countless pilgrims and visitors to Assisi over the centuries experienced what we experience: a small, charming town that is home to two of the most widely reverenced and highly respected individuals in Christian history.  It’s a place where your imagination can run free, as St. Francis’ did eight hundred years ago.

#WeAreN and the Importance of Christian Solidarity

 WeIt’s always interesting to see what’s “going viral.”  Oftentimes it’s a hit pop song or music video, or some other video giving a quick dose of ridiculous comic relief.  But sometimes the world of social media provides a sudden and real opportunity for all people of good will to unite behind a cause for justice on behalf of an individual or a particular group.  In the case of the hashtag “#WeAreN,” that recently spread rapidly through the Twittersphere, it is a cause for solidarity.

The trending hashtag is a response to the official announcement that the radical Islamist group known as ISIS (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has successfully ridded the city of Mosul, located in northern Iraq in the biblical region of Nineveh, of its Christian population.  The 2,000 year old faith community had little choice than to leave when the radicals threatened to kill them if they refused to convert, pay a tax or leave the city without their belongings.

The letter “N” in the hashtag stands for “Nazarene,” i.e. a Christian, which the Islamists have been branding on the houses of Christians in Arabic for identification purposes.  The derogatory tone in using such symbolic lettering blatantly resembles the Nazi tactic of identifying German Jews prior to and during WWII. Speaking to Pope Francis via telephone last Sunday, the Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church Ignatius Youssef III Younan called the ISIS efforts a “massive religious cleansing campaign.”

In response, a global outcry has arisen on behalf of Mosul’s Christians including some Muslim communities.  Pictures are being shared over the internet, for example, of Christians and Muslims standing side-by-side in Baghdad protesting the extremism in the north.

Along with countless others, the Church of England changed its Twitter profile photo to the Arabic symbol for “N” in order to “stand with those showing solidarity for those Christians being persecuted in Mosul.” (@c_of_e)

Pope Francis has been no less outspoken, and his frequent references to an emerging “ecumenism of blood” over the past year seems to have found concrete expression as a result of the crisis in Mosel.

To see such widespread support for the suffering Christians is an incredible and inspiring thing and it reminds us of the amazing possibility of unity and reconciliation that is born of chaos.  But it is also an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of solidarity, how it shines forth from the heart of the Gospel, and why therefore it is one of the fundamental principles of the Church’s social teachings.

We have to say firstly that most people and most Catholics today are uninformed about what the Church means by solidarity.  It should also be said that the participation of so many well-intentioned and genuinely outraged individuals in the #WeAreN movement is not necessarily the full expression of what the Church means by solidarity.

As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states quite clearly, “Solidarity is… not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.” (CSDCC, 193)

In other words, solidarity is not a fleeting emotion or a popular reaction to a particular event.  For the Church there’s no such thing as a kind of ‘solidarity à la carte,’ as Pope Francis might call it (Evangelii Gaudium, 180).  Solidarity means being in it for the long-run; it is recognizing in the great pain and suffering of other human beings the unacceptable lack of justice, inclusiveness and unity that are essential for every human society and our collective progress.  Solidarity is “a commitment to the good of one’s neighbor with the readiness, in the Gospel sense, to ‘lose oneself’ for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to ‘serve him’ instead of oppress him for one’s own advantage.” (CSDCC, 193)

In a recent CNS article, Chaldean Archbishop Amel Shamon Nona of Mosul said that “Words do nothing,” and that his community expects “all Christians to show solidarity with concrete action” and “without being afraid to talk about this tragedy.”

In the same article, Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad said, “We need action first. The world is not bothering with what is happening to Christians in Mosul.”

Through a few creative minds and the power of social media, millions of people are becoming aware of the crisis in Mosul and throughout Iraq.  The trending hashtag #WeAreN has united Christians, Muslims and many people of good will.  The common motivation to participate undoubtedly stems from some form of belief in the fundamental rights and equality of human beings.  It is a hopeful sign.

As Christians it is important to go deeper.  Solidarity, like being a Christian, is a way of life; it is about action.  In fact, it is through the lenses of faith that solidarity transforms into an even more powerful force, ultimately inspiring a person “to take on the specifically Christian dimensions of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation.  One’s neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father… One’s neighbor must therefore be loved, even if an enemy, with the same love with which the Lord loves him or her.” (CSDCC, 196)  Let us pray for our brothers and sisters from Mosul, and that we may have the strength to stand in solidarity with them.

New S+L Documentary tackles Syrian Refugee Crisis

middle eastIt was not too long ago that we heard about the Syrian civil war every night on the news.  As the original struggle of the Syrian people for greater liberty morphed into a violent tit-for-tat with Bashar al-Assad’s government, the eyes of the international community were fixed on the country, appalled daily by the skyrocketing death toll.

A significant result of that more than three-year war, of which there is yet no end in sight, has been the displacement of millions of Syrian citizens, mostly to the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.  While they have for the time being escaped the deadly violence of the conflict, their state of living has greatly deteriorated.

The fear of the citizens of the Middle East is that this extraordinary crisis will become ordinary, i.e. “the norm.”  Refugee camps have sprung up and continue to grow throughout the region, while a lack of resources and infrastructure in the host countries diminishes the hope that a more dignified social and economic co-existence can be nurtured between citizens and refugees.

In collaboration with the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, Salt and Light Television has moved into the initial stages of producing a feature documentary on the terrible reality faced by millions of Syrians and their families.  It will also look at how the host countries are dealing with the crisis and how the Catholic Church is responding through the work of Caritas and Development and Peace.  We hope to remind the world that this crisis is still just that: a crisis, and that the devastating prospect of a permanent refugee presence in the Middle East remains, and may be materializing before our eyes.

Stay tuned for more information in the coming months.  To learn more about the work of Development and Peace amidst the Syrian crisis click here.

 

Who will take ecumenical dialogue to the next level?

ecum2CNS Photo: Pope Francis meets with Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, during a private audience in the pontiff’s library at the Vatican May 10, 2013

By Sebastian Gomes

Last week I was at a parish in Vancouver giving a talk on Pope John XXIII in preparation for his canonization in April of this year, and a very important question was raised by one of the priests concerning ecumenism today.

Let me give some background information.  The talk focused primarily on the life of Angelo Roncalli: his spiritual development, his rise in the church’s diplomatic corps, and his unforeseen election to the papacy in 1958.  He is best remembered, of course, as the pope who convoked the Second Vatican Council, probably the most significant religious event of the 20th century.

When Pope John made the first public announcement of his intention to call a council on January 25th, 1959 he expressed his desire that the Council not only be for the Christian faithful, and that the church invite “the separated Communities to seek again that unity for which so many souls are longing in these days throughout the world.”

Once the preparatory work began for the Council, ecumenism was brought to the fore.  Pope John established the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity and insisted it have the same status as the other Commissions.  Over 150 ecumenical delegates attended the Council from 1962 to 1965 and they were given prime real estate in St. Peter’s Basilica, directly across from the Cardinals.

If you’re familiar at all with the history of Vatican II, you know that the initial schemas (draft documents) presented to the bishops during the opening session were thrown out because they simply reiterated the status quo.  What most people don’t know is that ecumenical motivations played a pivotal role in this decision.  The initial schema on “the Sources of Revelation,” for example, had to be completely revised because the bishops felt it would be a roadblock to deeper and more meaningful dialogue with non-Catholic Christians.

By the end of the Council, the Catholic Church had completely updated its position on its “separated brothers and sisters.”  Dr. Oscar Cullmann, a prominent Protestant observer, noted that “new ground has been broken.”  

Certainly we can say that something new happened at that historic meeting.  Over the past fifty years the dialogue has continued, but the hurdle of full unity remains to be overcome.  In light of this, people tend to ask: where do we go from here?  After my talk on Pope John, a priest of the Vancouver diocese raised another question that should probably get more attention, namely: who is capable of taking ecumenical dialogue to the next level?   

Throughout my talk I had noted the profound similarities between Pope John and Pope Francis.  And given that Francis is shaking things up at all levels of the Catholic Church, who’s to say he won’t launch an ecumenical rocket?  I immediately responded that Francis is probably the only person capable of pushing the dialogue forward with any decisiveness, and I noted his conscientious emphasis on synodality over papal primacy since he was elected.

I returned to Toronto and continued to ponder this question.  Then I recalled a meeting I had attended of the Ontario Bishops’ Assembly for Ecumenism and Interfaith Dialogue in November of last year.  Bishop Don Bolen of Saskatoon was the main presenter at the seminar, himself a great advocate for ecumenical dialogue having served on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 2001-2008.

In one session Bishop Bolen drew our attention to the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium that had just been published that month.  In chapter four, section IV entitled Social Dialogue as a Contribution to Peace, Francis addresses the current state of ecumenical dialogue in the context of evangelization writing that Catholics, “…must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 244)

The Bishop astutely pointed out that this language of “sincere trust” was not attributable to the papacy until now, and suggested that even a small development – like such a change in tone or emphasis – can make a world of difference going forward.  Coming from someone who has worked so close to the engine room, his further observation that, “We are seeing this papal teaching develop before our very eyes,” is no small thing.

It is still early in Francis’ pontificate to speculate about what will happen on the ecumenical front.  But nobody doubts the sincerity of his words or the decisiveness with which he means to act.  His trip to Israel in May, where he and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting of their predecessors Paul VI and Athenagoras, will be worth paying close attention to.

In our day-to-day lives as Christians, it might seem like everything is static.  Dialogue takes a long time to bear fruit.  Still, the work for Christian unity moves forward and we should never presume that ground-breaking shifts – such as we experienced at Vatican II – can’t happen.  We also can’t forget the remarkable similarities, in style and substance, of Pope John and Pope Francis.

Study the Scriptures and recapture the magic of Christmas

Nativity2I think the reason we love the Christmas season is because it evokes so many memories from our childhood, whether it’s playing board games, decorating the Christmas tree, singing carols, or just the excitement of a visit from Santa that sparks feelings of generosity and thankfulness in everyone.  But doesn’t it seem like there was a bit more magic at Christmas time when we were kids?  Things were much simpler too, but they were magical in their simplicity.

If you sense a fading of Christmas magic in your adult life, as I have at times, it can always be tested by looking at the traditions that we’ve held on to and continue year after year.  And probably the most widespread and important tradition for us as Catholics is the reading of the Nativity stories found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  I remember learning those stories in elementary school and hearing them at Mass on Christmas Eve, and they were always so heart-warming.  They were magical; at times I expected the figures in our Nativity scene to come to life.

There is something magical and simple about a child being born as Jesus was, in a humble setting watched over by his parents and, in Luke’s version that we heard this past Christmas, some local shepherds.

But, as I said, the magic and simplicity tend to weaken in potency as we enter our adult years.  And I know I’m not the only person to notice it.  G.K. Chesterton called it a loss of “elementary wonder.”  “A child of seven,” he wrote, “is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon.  But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.” (Orthodoxy)  As adults it takes much more than even a dragon to spark our sense of wonder, and even then you might succumb, as I often do, to a certain adult scepticism.  It’s as if over time we grow immune to the power of wonder and magic.

Well, an interesting thing has been happening to me over the past few years.  I’ve discovered a new, more profound sense of wonder in the same old Nativity stories.  And I attribute it, not to a recovery of the childlike reading of Scripture of my past, but to a modern, scientific reading that our Church has adopted wholeheartedly in the last sixty years or so.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.” (CCC, 109)  And following this, “The reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current.” (CCC, 110) 

Countless volumes have been written as commentary on the Nativity stories by Catholic scholars, and I do not intend to offer a modern interpretation of them here.  But this insistence on uncovering what the writers of the Gospels really wanted us to know about the birth of Jesus is both fascinating and challenging.  As I listened to Luke’s familiar narrative at Mass on Christmas Eve a few weeks ago, I asked myself these questions: do I really know what Luke is telling us here?  Am I familiar with the Church’s methods of interpreting the sacred Scriptures today?  Am I missing the whole point of the story out of ignorance?

And suddenly I was struck by a profound sense of wonder at our two thousand year old Scriptural tradition.  What an amazing thing the Word of God must be that its revelations are not static but rather perennially dynamic; that the Church, with all its rules and regulations, strict guidelines and careful assessments, does not try to impose limits on our understanding of Jesus and what his birth meant for the world.  The Church is always drawing us deeper into the mystery through the tools of our day, tools that may even have been suspect only a few generations ago.

It seems to me that our sense of wonder must grow and develop with us.  If we feel that the magic of Christmas has somehow been lost over the years, perhaps it is only a more profound invitation to know the Christ child more intimately, that is, more maturely.  And if we accept that invitation and act on it intelligently, the magic of Christmas might return in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

Photo courtesy of Catholic News Service

Perspectives Daily – Tuesday, Nov. 26


Today on Perspectives: Pope Francis issues a major document on evangelization, Russian President Vladimir Putin makes a visit to the Vatican, and the numbers of displaced peoples rises as rebels threaten the stability of the Central African Republic.

Franciscan Sister charts new directions for religious life

blog_1384312073“Consult not your fears, but your hopes and dreams!” (Pope John XXIII, 1962)  On Sunday, November 10th, these words once again rang out at Assumption University in Windsor, Ontario as Sr. Mary Lou Wirtz, FCJM opened here talk on the theme “New Directions and New Relationships for Religious Life”.  Sr. Mary Lou is General Superior of the Franciscan Sisters, The Daughters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and participated in the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in Rome.

According to Sr. Mary Lou, the New Evangelization is directly and intricately connected to the Year of Faith – which concludes at the end of November – and the Second Vatican Council of the 1960′s.  She emphasized the need for ongoing and prayerful discernment in the church in order to ensure the progress of the Christian proclamation of Jesus in our times.

Religious life was at the center of her address.  She began by painting a picture of religious life before Vatican II, a memory that perhaps is not given enough attention in our discussions about the Council today.  There was immense expectation, she said, and a desire in the religious communities to bring the Church into the modern age.  Religious life was one of the things that changed most drastically during and after the Council.  Concerning the numbers of men and women who left religious life in the years after the Council, Sr. Mary Lou said that, “the vitality of religious life is not about numbers.”

Turning to the contemporary situation, Sr. Mary Lou drew attention to the many ways in which God is working in the Church, especially through the Petrine Ministry of Pope Francis – himself a religious – who has consciously shown a face of simplicity and humility to the church and the world.  Humility and simplicity, she said, is at the heart of the New Evangelization.  “Religious men and women have always played a prophetic role in the church and will continue to do so.”  What is needed in the Church, apart from a theological and pastoral sense, is a contemplative sense, which stems from an honest and organic engagement with the Gospel and a life focused on Jesus Christ.  That is a unique gift that religious men and women can offer today.

This lecture was part of Assumption University’s Christian Culture Series.  Video recordings of the lectures will air on Salt and Light TV starting in January 2014.  Please check the website for more information in the coming weeks.

 

Shakin’ up the Synod of Bishops: the pastoral challenge

 Synod

By Sebastian Gomes

It seems that no event or program of the Vatican or the Pope can occur without the question of continuity being raised.  With Tuesday’s release of the Preparatory Document for next October’s Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization, already there has been considerable discussion around questions of continuity.  Is this preparatory document different from previous preparatory documents?  How are they different?  How much of the difference is coming directly from Pope Francis?  What does this mean for future Synods and collegiality in general?

These are very legitimate questions in the context of the pontificate of Pope Francis.  While he has continually advocated the practice of discernment and warned against an ultra-efficiency model that would turn the church into an NGO, he himself has moved strategically and decisively in matters of bureaucratic reform, especially regarding the Vatican bank and the Office of the Synod of Bishops.  He has made it clear that he is operating from an explicit mandate, given to the successor of Pope Benedict XVI by the Cardinals during the congregation meetings leading up to the conclave.

The varying reactions to these and other “changes” in the Catholic Church today are striking in this regard: they expose a kind of collective perception that the institutional church is a static entity.  Whether you think change is good or not, experience has probably taught you that the Catholic Church does not change.  In one sense, this perception is accurate.  For example, in the centuries leading up to the Second Vatican Council one of the mantras of the hierarchy, especially in the church’s response to modernism, was “always the same.”  But in another sense, this perception is false.  When Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops near the end of Vatican II, he likened it to a “human institution,” that, “can be improved upon with the passing of time.” (Apostolica Sollicitudo)  The only honest answer seems to be that the church does and doesn’t change. So far, Pope Francis’ pontificate has served as a tangible reminder of this.

That leaves us with the question of what exactly is different at this initial stage of a forthcoming Synod.  Three bishops spoke at the press conference yesterday.  Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops acknowledged that the process is moving quickly, and all the more so because of the structural, methodological and functional reforms that Francis is pushing.  This Synod will run differently from previous Synods.

The Relator General for the Synod, Cardinal Péter Erdo made the important point that this Extraordinary Synod will act as a bridge between the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization and the 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family.  Linking Synods is nothing new, except for the fact that no Apostolic Exhortation was written after the New Evangelization Synod last fall (Pope Benedict resigned before writing it and Pope Francis has said he will not write it).  If there was a kind of strategic and thematic bridge between previous Synods, as there was between the Eucharist in 2005 and the Word of God in 2008, the bridge between these Synods, whatever it looks like, will look different.

A very significant reflection came from Archbishop Bruno Forte who will serve as Special Secretary for the Synod.  He highlighted the pastoral nature of the theme: the Family.  This is clearly seen in the Preparatory Document, which offers a series of reflection questions to the particular churches around the world.  They are extremely pastoral and practical in nature.  For example, in the section entitled “The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization,” a question reads: “What pastoral care has the Church provided in supporting couples in formation and couples in crisis situations?”  Such questions open the Synod up to the lives and experiences of the people on the ground.  We can assume that whatever results from the Synod, it will have very practical application.  That is new.

At the end of the Synod on the New Evangelization in 2012, the bishops wrote a pastoral message to the People of God in which they reflected on the current crises of marriage and family life.  After reiterating the importance of family life in the church and society, the bishops addressed those living in irregular, often difficult family situations:

To all of them we want to say that God’s love does not abandon anyone, that the Church loves them, too, that the Church is a house that welcomes all, that they remain members of the Church even if they cannot receive sacramental absolution and the Eucharist. May our Catholic communities welcome all who live in such situations and support those who are in the path of conversion and reconciliation. (Message, 7)

This type of language is reflective of the pastoral approach about which Archbishop Forte spoke.  It is powerful language that contains a hint of the Franciscan spirit that has subsequently taken the world by storm over the past seven months.  With the very pastoral and practical emphases Francis has given to the Synod of Bishops, we might expect more language of this kind in the coming years, and more importantly, strategies for living it at the ground level.

Perspectives Daily – Monday, Nov. 4th


Tonight on Perspectives: We look back at a weekend full of liturgical celebrations with Pope Francis, the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches continues in Korea, and new Cardinals will be made February 22nd.

Perspectives Daily – Tuesday, Oct. 29


Tonight on Perspectives: Burmese Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi visits Pope Francis at the Vatican, the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches will take place in Busan, Korea from October 30th to November 8th, and Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton of the Canadian Council of Churches speaks to us about ecumenism in North America.