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The Sistine Chapel opens to VIPs: Vatican Connections – March 27, 2015


This week we focus on the details of the upcoming Holy Week liturgies. Catholic News Service has details on how Pope Francis and the Diocese of Rome are helping Christians in two areas where Christians have been hit hard with persecution: Iraq and Nigeria.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — As Holy Week and Easter approached, Pope Francis wanted to show his ongoing concern for people persecuted and displaced by violence in Iraq and in northern Nigeria.

Although not specifying the amount, the Vatican press office said March 27 that the pope was sending aid money to people seeking shelter in Iraq’s Kurdistan region and to the Nigerian bishops’ conference to assist families in the northern part of the country where the terrorist group Boko Haram has been on a rampage.

In addition, the Vatican said, the people of the Diocese of Rome, “united with their bishop,” Pope Francis, held a special collection and will send “colomba” Easter cakes to the displaced in Iraq.

“In Holy Week,” the Vatican statement said, “these families share with Christ the experience of being unjustly subjected to violence and they participate in the suffering of Christ himself.”

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who visited refugees and displaced people in Iraqi Kurdistan last August, will return for Holy Week, the Vatican said. The cardinal is prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the former nuncio to Iraq.

“Pope Francis is constantly concerned about the situation of Christian families and other groups who have been the victims of being expelled from their homes and villages, particularly in the city of Mosul and on the Ninevah Plain,” the Vatican said. Terrorists from Islamic State have been active in the region.

“The pope prays for them and hopes that they soon can return and resume their lives on the land and in the places where, for hundreds of years, they lived and wove relationships of peaceful coexistence with all,” the Vatican statement said.

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Vatican Connection: March 20


On Saturday, March 21, Pope Francis is set to spend a day visiting Pompeii and Naples. Though short, this trip is yet another reminder of the pontiff’s preferential option for the poor and marginalized.

Aside from a visit to a sanctuary in Pompeii and a meeting with the sick at Basilica of Gesu Nuovo, the pope is visiting Scampia, a bedroom suburb best known as the setting of the film Gomorrah; Poggioreale, an overcrowded prison; and meeting with youth at an iconic seaside promenade.

The suburb of Scampia is best known today as the setting of the film “Gomorrah” and home to what is considered an example of failed civic architecture. The “Vele di Scampia” or the “Sails of Scampia” is concrete house complex designed and built from 1962 to 1975. The sail shaped concrete buildings with outdoor staircases were part of a larger complex of buildings. The project incorporated large outdoor spaces between buildings that were meant to serve as piazzas and soccer fields.

The reaction to the completed complex was less than enthusiastic. Maintenance was not a priority and living conditions soon deteriorated. Instead of becoming a mini-city bursting with life, Scampia became the only place that disadvantaged families could afford to live. The mafia also moved in.

While not all residents are involved with organized crime, Scampia is not an easy place to live and residents don’t have many opportunities available to improve their situation. Given his past declaration about Mafia members being “excommunicated” or removed from God’s love, expect strong words from Pope Francis during his meeting with residents in St. John Paul II Square.

The next stop on his itinerary is scheduled to be Poggioreale Prison, home to 1900 inmates. Pope Francis will greet inmates, many of whom probably lived in Scampia at some point in their lives. The pope is scheduled to have lunch with a group of inmates at Poggioreale and give a speech.

Following his visit to the prison, Pope Francis will stop at the cathedral where he will venerate the relic of St. Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. That relic is a vial of the saint’s coagulated blood. Three times a year the dark grains of dried blood become liquid once again and take on bright red colour. The miracle usually occurs on the first Saturday of May, the 19 of September, and the 16 of December. Studies conducted in 1988 determined that the substance contained in the two vials housed in the reliquary is indeed blood. The miracle doesn’t work like clockwork. There have been times when the blood did not liquify on those dates, or liquified just before or just after the usual days.

In a recently published book the Archbishop of Naples, Cardinal Crecenzio Seppe, recounted the story of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Naples and the St. Gennaro’s relics. Cardinal Seppe recounts that although it seemed as though the pontiff could not pull himself away from the reliquary, the saint’s blood did not liquify. Even though there is no reason to expect the saint’s blood to become liquid before the pope, this will be a point of interest for some Neapolitans now that their expectations have been raised.


The Scottish cardinal who resigned in 2013 after allegations of sexual misconduct were brought against him, has now given up the “rights and privilleges” of being a Cardinal. Pope Francis has accepted Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s resignation.  Cardinal O’Brien will no longer serve on any pontifical councils or committees, nor will take part in consistory or an eventual conclave to elect a new pope. In a statement, the Catholic Church in Scotland said Cardinal O’Brien will be reduced to a strictly private life.

Vatican Connections: March 13, 2015


Two Years with Pope Francis

March 13 marks the second anniversary of the day the College of Cardinals surprised the world by electing, as pope, a Jesuit from Argentina. Two years on, what effect has this Argentine pope had on the wider church?

The 78-year-old pontiff came to his new job with an acute awareness that there were two things that needed to change. First, the Church needed a spiritual renewal if it hoped to be a credible witness to the Gospel. Second, the Vatican was in desperate need of institutional reforms.

Pope Francis has admitted he didn’t plan on addressing the reform of the Vatican so soon in his pontificate, but it became unavoidable. Under his tenure two new bodies were created for financial and administrative oversight: the Secretariat for the Economy and the Council for the Economy. The new offices have jurisdiction, respectively, over the curia, and all Vatican offices (including Vatican City State.)  These bodies along with the Vatican Bank and the Financial Information Authority have brought in lay professionals with extensive experience in these fields.

On the curial front, while there is still no draft of the new constitution for the Roman Curia, changes are being implemented bit by bit and several dicasteries already know what place their office will have in the revamped curia.

Priority one

But Pope Francis’ top priority is the spiritual renewal of all the Church’s members. That’s why he celebrates Mass every morning with Vatican employees, delivering a short, informal homily that gets sent out around the world via Vatican media outlets.

This is also why he keeps insisting on a couple of things. One: whenever he can he urges people to read the Gospel. He has repeatedly advised carrying a pocket-size book of the Gospels to read for a few minutes every day, even if it’s on the bus to work. The pope has gone so far as to have books distributed to the faithful during the Angelus.

Staying true to the keyword of his pontificate, “mercy,” Pope Francis announced a Jubilee Year for Mercy that will begin December 8, 2015 (which just happens to be the 50th anniversary of the close of Vatican II.) If there is anyone who has not yet been moved to the confessional by Pope Francis’ words on God’s mercy, they probably will be during the Jubilee Year.

The other powerful element has been the normalcy of this pope. He speaks plainly, in language that is, for the most part, easily understandable and to the point. People connect with him because they understand instantly what he’s trying to say and why. Similarly, when he takes action he doesn’t do huge extraordinary things. He does normal everyday things that are huge in that he is doing them or because of the context in which they are done. For instance, making a phone call to a person in need of some spiritual counselling becomes headline news because it’s the pope making phone call.

Actions, after all, speak louder than words.

Vatican Connections: March 6, 2015


One of the big stories this week happened in New York: Cardinal Edward Egan, the retired archbishop of New York, died suddenly at the age of 82.

Cardinal Egan collapsed at his residence and was rushed to NYU Langone Medical Centre. There he was prounced dead by doctors at 2:20pm.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the current Archbishop of New York, said in a statement that Cardinal Egan “had a peaceful death, passing away right after lunch today, with the prayers and sacraments of his loyal priest secretary, Father Douglas Crawford, in his residence at the Chapel of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.”

Cardinal Egan was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1932. He studied at Our Lady of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein and at the North American College in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1957.

Over the years, the cardinal served as Vice Rector of the North American College in Rome, a judge of the Roman Rota, and was one of six canonists who reviewed the new Code of Canon Law with John Paul II in 1982, before it was promulgated.

In 1988, Cardinal Egan was named Bishop of Bridgeport, and in 2000 he was appointed Archbishop of New York. He was made a cardinal in 2001 by Pope St. John Paul II.

His tenure in New York was not always smooth sailing. Parishioners and, at times, priests did not agree with all his decisions, especially when it came to merging or closing certain parishes.

However, during his time as head of the archdiocese, the number of parishioners increased, as did enrollment in Catholic schools. At the same time the Catholic Charities budget doubled, and Catholic agencies were debt free.

Cardinal Egan retired as Archbishop of New York in 2009 at the age of 76.

Funeral plans have yet to be announced.

Vatican Connections: February 27


Pope Francis has been on retreat this week, along with the members of the Roman Curia. Continuing a practice the pope started during his first year on the chair of St. Peter, he and his collaborators are spending the week at a retreat house in the Roman hillside town of Arriccia. Carmelite Father Bruno Secondin led the week-long spiritual exercises. The theme: “Servants and Prophets of the Living God.”

Below is part of Fr. Secondin’s meditation from the second day of the retreat.

To undertake a real Lenten journey of conversion, we must first rediscover the “deepest truth about ourselves, come out in the open” and “remove every mask, every ambiguity.” With this strong reminder to look back honestly at our history, the Carmelite Bruno Secondin concluded the second day, Monday, 23 February, of the Lenten spiritual exercises for the Pope and the Roman Curia in Ariccia.

Following the experience of Elijah taken from the Scriptures, the preacher described the “hiding” from which the prophet was called by the Lord, that hiding in which we often cloak ourselves and which many times is masked by some kind of exterior religiosity, devoid of the courage that comes with truth.

After having the courage to come out in the open, to say the truth about ourselves, to remove the mask that numbs our consciences, we must begin to walk on the “paths of freedom” and eliminate those attitudes that make us “swing from one side to another” in order to make room for God. Fr. Secondin continued his reflection on this point Tuesday morning, 24, inviting those on retreat to consider the particular choices of the Church in our time: “Do we deal with the important things in small circles or do we know how to have a clear strategy that takes the system by surprise?”. How much suffering, for example, “have certain sensitive subjects caused us”, Fr Secondin said, then adding: “We must not hide our scandals” and it is important that “victims of injustice be led to healing by recognizing our errors with humility”.

Acknowledging the faults of the Church emerged in another episode as well. Taking inspiration from that terrible act of Elijah who executes the prophets of Baal, the preacher invited all to remember how the Church in her history was capable of acts of violence. “We too burned people, we have killed”, he said. And he stressed that today violence can be expressed in other forms, “even without the sword”, referring to the explosive power of language and modern means of communication: “Sometimes the keyboard kills more than the sword!”.

– See more at:


Vatican Connections: February 20, 2015


Pope Francis told Ukrainian bishops to avoid politicizing their role in the face of the ongoing conflict in the country. He made the comment in a text handed out to the bishops during their Ad Limina visit this week.

Ukranian Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk told reporters earlier in the week his goal, and the goal of his brother bishops, was to tell the pope “the truth” about the situation in Ukraine. Pope Francis told the bishops focus on the humanitarian and social realities of the situation and avoid getting involved in politics.

For Archbishop Shevchuk the truth of the situation is that there 2 million Ukrainians have been displaced as a result of the conflict. This week the United Nation said more 5,358 people have been killed and 12,235 wounded since last April. According to Archbishop Shevchuk, most of the dead are civilians.

In advance of his meeting with the pope, the Archbishop told reporters he intended to make clear that the conflict is not a civil war but “the direct aggression of our neighbours.”

Some critics have claimed the Holy See is using terminology in line with Russia’s position on the situation in order to preserve good relations with the Orthodox Church. During a recent general audience Pope Francis called for a dialogue to end the conflict. According to the Italian transcript of his comments released by the Vatican, Pope Francis referred to the conflict as “a war between Christians.” He said “you have the same baptism. you are fighting among christians.”

In the text Pope Francis distributed to the Ukranian bishops on Thursday, he said they have a right as citizens of Ukraine to express their thoughts on the future of the country, but they should promote any concrete political action.

The pope called for unity among Christians in the country in dealing with the human tragedy caused by the conflict. He also said economic problems and income disparity need attention.

Reiterating the statements he made at a recent general audience, Pope Francis asked for the  cease-fire to be respected.

Vatican Connections: February 13


This week was bursting at the seams with things happening inside Vatican walls. Several key meetings were lined up back to back.

The Council of Cardinals, known colloquially as “the C9”, met again this week to continue their work towards a reformed curia. This time they had a more immediate task: presenting the fruit of their work to the full College of Cardinals, gathered in Rome in advance of the Ordinary Public Consistory for the Creation of New Cardinals.

Economy was a big topic on the agenda at the pre-consistory meetings. Four different people gave presentations about Vatican finances:

  • Joseph Zahra, the layman who led the Commission of Reference on the Organization of Economic – Administrative structures of the Holy See, gave an overview of that commission’s findings
  • Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the head of the Council for the Economy, spoke about his council’s work
  • Jean Baptiste de Franssu, the head of the Institue for Works of Religion – commonly known as the “Vatican bank”, talked about the results of the various studies and changes at that institute, it’s current work, and it’s future prospects.
  • Cardinal George Pell, the Secretary for the Economy, similarly spoke about what his secretariat has accomplished thus far. He told Crux, the web-based catholic news site run by the Boston Globe, that his work uncovered 1.5 billion dollars in hidden assets at the Vatican.

The cardinals in attendance were also able to ask questions, share observations, and raise their concerns. Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s spokesperson, said several prelates brought up the issue of coordination of the curia. He said they spoke both of a coordination of the curia’s functions as well the need to create a sense of communion in mission. The cardinals also spoke of the need for “simplification” of the curia and the need for people in the curia to be qualified for their job.

The College of Cardinals also hear from Cardinal Sean O’Malley about the work being done by the Commission for the Protection of Minors. At a recent press conference Cardinal O’Malley said the commission is adamant the issue of bishop accountability must be addressed. The commission is also preparing seminars for new bishops when they come to Rome for their orientation, and for members of the curia.


Vatican Connections: February 6, 2015

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On this week’s Vatican Connections, we look at the long-awaited beatification decree for Archbishop Oscar Romero. We talk to Father Frank Desiderio, a Paulist priest who worked with the producer of the 1989 film about the martyr, and we look at the reaction of Salvadoreans who have long referred to their slain archbishop as “el santo.” Plus we take a look at some very clear instruction Pope Francis gave bishops around the world and bring you a look at a very special Google Hangout with very special kids.

Martyrdom in-depth

This week Archbishop Oscar Romero was officially recognized as a martyr by the pope. During a press conference Vatican officials referred to Romero as a “protomartyr,” meaning the first in series of martyrs killed under the same conditions. We won’t have to wait long to see the rest of that series of martyrs. Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of three priests who were killed by communist guerillas in Peru in 1991.

Fathers Michal Tomaszek and Zbignew Strzalkwoski were conventual Fransiscans originally from Poland. They arrived in Peru in 1989 and 1988, respectively, where they would care for four parishes in Black Mountain range. They lived in the town of Pariacote and become part of the local community.

Conditions in the area were not easy. According to Father Jaros?aw Wysocza?ski, a confrere who worked with them in Peru and happened to be away when they were killed, providing for the local’s spiritual needs also required providing for their basic welfare. The friars developed catechesis programs, basic education programs, and worked with international aid organizations to provide drinking water and health services.

The problem was the people the friars were ministering to were the same demographic of Peruvians that Shining Path guerillas were trying to recruit to their revolution. What’s more, as long as these peasants were being formed in their faith and being active in their parishes, the less inclined they were to pick up arms and fight.

Fr. Alessandro Dordi, a diocesan priest from Bergamo, Italy, worked in the same region as the Franciscan friars and faced the same hardships. Fr. Dordi arrived in Peru in 1980, the year the Shining Path stepped up their efforts to take power.

Like the two Polish priests, Fr. Dordi learned that providing for his flock’s pastoral needs also meant building a chapel, a meeting place, and providing basic literacy training for the locals. His efforts also interfered with the guerrillas’ plans to recruit the poor and oppressed to their armed revolution.

Eyes wide open

All three priests were aware that the Shining Path viewed the church and her members as enemies. All three men knew their ministry could put them in cross hairs of the guerilla’s guns. Yet, even though they all had the option of leaving the country, all three refused to leave their parishioners.

On August 9, 1991 armed Shining Path members arrived at the Fransiscan friary in Pariacoto looking for “the priests.” According to Fr. Wysocza?ski his confreres were taken to the town hall, ordered to get into their Jeep, and driven to an area nearby called “Old Town.” They were executed along with the mayor of the town.

Terror reigns

In a neighbouring valley Fr. Dordi was acutely aware of fate of his brother priests. In a letter to a friend he wrote “Shining Path, which wants to use terror to take power, has put the church in its crosshairs…the situation in Peru in anguishing. Everyday we ask ‘whose turn will it be today?’”

His turn came on August 25, 1991. The priest and two seminarians were leaving a remote village where they had just celebrated Mass. As they travelled towards Santa, hooded guerillas waited around one of the curves in the road. The armed men ambushed the vehicle and ordered the seminarians out of the car.  The two young men were sent on their way, walking back to their village. As they walked out of range they heard gunshots ring out and knew, Fr. Dordi had been executed.

In 2007 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Peru estimated that out of the 70,000 deaths that occured during the years of violent insurgency, 37,800 of those were committed by Shining Path guerillas.

Vatican Connections: January 30


The Franciscan revolution continues, piece by piece. This week, it was revealed that Pope Francis is changing the process by which metropolitan archbishops are invested with their pallium. The new process highlights the importance of the local church and its connection to the wider church.

In a letter to papal nuncios around the world, the papal master of liturgies, Monsignor Guido Marini, said Pope Francis will still invite newly appointed metropolitan archbishops to concelebrate Mass with him on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29). At the end of the Mass, during a private moment with the pope, the archbishops will be given a wool pallium to take back to their archdiocese.

Each archbishop will set a date for a mass in their home see. The papal nuncio will formally invest the archbishop with his pallium during that mass.
Monsignor Marini told Vatican Radio the move is meant to highlight the archbishops relationship with the local church, and the communion among the local churches. He said the new practice “enriches” the pallium ceremony.

Last year the papal almoner’s office had shower facilities built in the bathrooms at St. Peter’s square for the pope’s homeless neighbours. The papal almoner’s office is now going one step further and having a barber shop installed in the newly-renovated washrooms.

Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the head of the office that distributes the alms given to the pope, told the Italian news agency ANSA the barbershop facility is essentially completed. Everything from scissors and combs to barber chairs and mirrors were donated by local barbers and hairdressers.  He said homeless people living the Vatican neighbourhood can’t walk into a barbershop to get a haircut and shave because of the fear of spreading scabies or lice.

Haircutting and shaving services will be available on mondays – the day most barbers and salons are closed. Local barbers and hairdressers have already signed up to volunteer their services.

Vatican Connections: January 23, 2015


Pope Francis’ second Asian voyage ended the way all of his trips have ended: with an extensive press conference on board the return flight and flurry of headlines – some accurate, some not. The voyage also delivered unscripted moments typical of the Jesuit pope.

Twice Pope Francis ditched his prepared text to speak off the cuff and deliver unquestionably moving homilies. Speaking to young people in Manila he led the gathered faithful in a prayer for Kristel Padasas, a volunteer who was killed at the site of the papal Mass in Tacloban when strong winds knocked over a tower of scaffolding.

Padasas was also a Catholic Relief Services worker. Pope Francis met with her father and uncle the day after her death and tried to telephone her mother who was en route from Hong Kong. Like many Philippinos, Padasas’ mother worked in Hong Kong to support the family.

Pope Francis told journalists on board the flight from Manila to Rome that Padasas’ father said he struggled at first with his daughter’s death, but found peace in the fact that she was serving others when she died. The pope said he found the grieving father’s words “edifying”.

For american media the biggest headlines were the pope’s confirmation of his intent to visit three U.S. cities during his trip to Philadelphia. He said he intends to visit New York and Washington D.C and hopes to canonize Junipero Serra in D.C.

However, the rest of the pope’s comments regarding his intended voyages got less attention. Pope Francis said he intends to visit three Latin American countries in 2015: Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador. He pointed out that all three visits are still in the “hypothetical” stage and no concrete plans have been made yet. The lack of official confirmation has not stopped Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, from announcing that the pope will visit that country in July. The Bolivian Bishops Conference issued a statement saying there is a long way to go before this potential visit becomes a certainty. The bishops also warned against “instrumentalizing” the news of a potential papal visit for political purposes. In recent months and years Morales and the bishops of the country have not had an easy relationship.

Pope Francis also said he hopes to visit Central African Republic and Uganda towards the end of 2015. In 2016 the pope hopes to visit Paraguay, Argentina and Chile “God willing.”

The pope’s public statement of intent laid to rest Spain’s hope that the pontiff would visit Avila this year for the 500th anniversary of St. Therese’s birth. On Thursday the Bishops Conference of Spain announced it had received official word from the Vatican that the trip would not take place.

Of course, the other comments made during the papal press conference have sparked some debate: his statement that Catholics should be responsible when it comes to having children has offended some and encouraged others. Here are some articles offering analysis of the pope’s remarks regarding marriage and children:

From Italy’s Vatican Insider, a look what Pope Francis did and did not say about large families.

The International Business Times offers a more secular summary of the pope’s statement and what it means.

Religion News Service offers this analysis.

The UK’s Catholic Herald reflects on why some find it difficult not to be offended by the pope’s comments

Catholic Voices co-founder Austen Ivereigh had this analysis on CV blog.