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Behind Vatican Walls: Synod of Bishops and Nobel Prizes


The Synod of Bishops on the Family started this week. For a run down of what has been discussed so far, watch this week’s edition of Vatican Connections, or Salt and Light’s special synod coverage, Inside the Synod.

There were a few non-synod items of interest over the past week. The pope’s message for World Youth Day 2016 was released. This international World Youth Day will be in held in Krakow, Poland next summer. The full text of the message is available in English here.

There was also a nine day papal visit to Cuba and the United States. The trip ended with a nearly one-hour long press conference on board the papal flight from Philadelphia to Rome. The full text of that presser is available here in English.

While not really Vatican-related, the Nobel prize winners were announced this week. Once again it was widely believed in church circles that Pope Francis could be awarded the prize. Instead, the Nobel committee threw everyone a curveball. The winner of the 2015 Nobel Peace prize is the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet. The widespread reaction to the announcement was “who?”. Here is some background on the Quartet and their work in helping Tunisia avoid civil war.

CNS/Paul Haring

Watch this week’s Vatican Connections below:

Every week brings new, exciting, and sometimes juicy headlines from behind Vatican walls and every week Alicia delves deeper into one of those headlines. For a full run down of what’s been happening behind Vatican walls, watch Vatican Connections. Already watch the program? Come back every Friday for an in-depth look at an issue, headline or person. Season 4 of Vatican Connections premieres Friday, September 11, 2015 at 8:00 pm ET.

Behind Vatican Walls: Recap of Pope In US


This week brings two big new items: the analysis of Pope Francis trip to Cuba and the United States, and the upcoming opening of the Synod of Bishops on the family. Below are links to some articles well worth reading for a well rounded picture of both.

The Cuba – US trip was by all accounts well received, despite a lingering issue over the Pope’s meeting with Kim Davis (the US County Clerk jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licences). Here’s some take away on both the trip and that brief encounter:

Here’s a good summary:

and some analysis from a veteran Vatican watcher:

Here is a more wide-ranging look back on the visit as a whole by New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan:

and another from the Boston Globe’s Crux website:

Turning to the upcoming Synod, it will follow more or less the same process as last year’s Extraordinary Synod:

  • Each synod participant will have 3 minutes to speak in the synod hall.
  • The first session will begin with a Witness given by one of the married couples participating in the Synod.
  • More time will be given for meeting in small working groups. Those groups will then present their discussion to the whole synod.
  • Written texts of each participant’s intervention will be given only to the Synod participants, not to the media. Instead there will be daily, expanded briefings including the participation of Synod members.
  • A commission of nine Synod participants has been formed for the elaboration of the final texts. Members are:
    • Cardinal Peter Erdo of Budapest
    • Bishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto
    • Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay
    • Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington D.C.
    • Cardinal John Dew of Wellington, New Zealand
    • Bishop Victor Manuel Fernandez, rector of the Catholic University of Argentina
    • Bishop Mathieu Madega Lebouakehan of Gabon
    • Bishop Marcelo Semeraro of Albano, Italy
    • Father Adolfo Nicholas, Superior General of the Jesuits.

CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters

AliciaEvery week brings new, exciting, and sometimes juicy headlines from behind Vatican walls and every week Alicia delves deeper into one of those headlines. For a full run down of what’s been happening behind Vatican walls, watch Vatican Connections. Already watch the program? Come back every Friday for an in-depth look at an issue, headline or person. Season 4 of Vatican Connections airs every Friday at 8:00 pm ET.

Behind Vatican Walls: How to get an interview with Pope Francis


This past week two radio stations released interviews they conducted with Pope Francis earlier this summer. As always, (almost) everyone was surprised that he gave the interviews, and several of his comments made headlines.

The interviews were given to Radio Renascença – the radio station owned by the Patriarchate of Lisbon and the Portuguese Bishops conference – and FM Millenio, an independent radio station in Buenos Aires. The pope knew both journalists fairly well. Aura Miguel, the vaticanista for Radio Renascença, has been part of the papal press corps for decades and interviewed more prelates and popes than most would ever dream of meeting. She has been on every papal flight this year and took advantage of one of the on-board meet and greets to ask for the interview. Pope Francis told her to send a letter to his secretary. She did. On the next papal flight Pope Francis handed her an envelope. Inside the envelope was her own letter. At the top of the page, in the pope’s handwriting, was a date and time for the interview.

At the risk of giving away a trade secret, this is how Miguel landed this coveted papal interview: She asked.

She asked clearly and honestly as a journalist trying to get an important story, not as a media personality trying to get ratings. Pope Francis accepts interviews not on the basis of which media outlet has more listeners or followers, but which audience needs something that he can offer, and which journalist will report his words accurately and fairly. This is the recurring pattern we see with (almost) all the interviews Pope Francis has given. The full English text of the interview, which was conducted in Spanish and Portuguese, is available here.

The interview with FM Millenio of Buenos Aires was less an interview and more a biblical dialogue that touched on real life. The interviewer was Marcelo Figueroa, an evangelical Christian who hosts a radio show called “Dialogues for Encounter” (Dialogos para el encuentro). While Figueroa did ask some questions, they emerged naturally from the conversation and led to a reflection on how those theme are handled in the bible. Before the 2013 conclave then-Cardinal Bergoglio had agreed to take part in the radio show along with his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka. The conclave and his election to the See of Peter preempted that program. Essentially Pope Francis was making good on a long standing promise to a friend. Still, that did not prevent the pope from making some very pointed comments about fundamentalism – fundamentalists work in ideas not reality- and friendship: “I’ve been used by people pretending to be my friends.” The full dialogue is available here, in Spanish.  

Watch this week’s Vatican Connections below:

AliciaEvery week brings new, exciting, and sometimes juicy headlines from behind Vatican walls and every week Alicia delves deeper into one of those headlines. For a full run down of what’s been happening behind Vatican walls, watch Vatican Connections. Already watch the program? Come back every Friday for an in-depth look at an issue, headline or person. Season 4 of Vatican Connections premieres Friday, September 11, 2015 at 8:00 pm ET.

Behind Vatican Walls: Rules of Annulments


This week Pope Francis issued two Motu Proprios (declarations issued “of his own will”) that simplify the process for getting a marriage annulment.  Some have voiced concern over the perceived ease with which marriages can now be annulled. Canonists, meanwhile, are wondering how to implement the new procedure in just three months while fielding calls from concerned Catholics. To better understand the changes it is necessary to have a good grasp of what makes a marriage null in the eyes of the church, and what goes into getting a declaration of nullity.

Some key things to keep in mind:

  1. In the annulment process the church does not dissolve a marriage, but investigates whether it was ever valid. That means goes back to the beginning and looking into how it began.
  2. Fees: Pope Francis has said he wants the process to be free. Several dioceses already offer the service free of charge, while others have a “suggested donation” for the service. (Just as there is a “suggested donation” to the parish when a couple gets married). The reality is maintaining a marriage tribunal office involves some basic costs: lights, paper, photocopies and staff. In some parts of the world marriage tribunals do have set, non-negotiable prices for hearing annulment cases. That is what Pope Francis is trying to eliminate.
  3. Some media reported that annulments will take 30 to 45 days to process. Fr. Andrew Laschuk of the Toronto Regional Marriage Tribunal told Salt and Light only a small percentage of cases – those where it is blatantly obvious the marriage was invalid- will have such short processing time.
  4. The new rules take effect December 8. Cases judged before then will follow the old rules. Cases judged after that date, even if they were submitted before, will go through the new process.

Here are some useful links for understanding the whole issue:

What factors can make a marriage “null” or invalid in the eyes of the church? The Archdiocese of Toronto has this helpful list.

Until now, what was the process for getting a decree of nullity?

The Diocese of Madison has already put together this list of FAQs about the new annulment process, including what steps a case will go through after December 8. Click here to find out everything there is to know about the new procedure from “how to begin” to “does the other spouse need to be involved.”

Perhaps the biggest question: how does someone start the process of getting an annulment?

According to Fr. Laschuk the first step is “talk to your pastor.” If for any reason that is not possible, call your local marriage tribunal directly.

CNS photo/Paul Haring

Watch this week’s Vatican Connections below!


AliciaEvery week brings new, exciting, and sometimes juicy headlines from behind Vatican walls and every week Alicia delves deeper into one of those headlines. For a full run down of what’s been happening behind Vatican walls, watch Vatican Connections. Already watch the program? Come back every Friday for an in-depth look at an issue, headline or person. Season 4 of Vatican Connections premieres Friday, September 11, 2015 at 8:00 pm ET.


Behind Vatican Walls: Papal Visit to Cuba


With 18 days to go before his plane touches down on U.S. soil, the U.S. media is focusing on the places the pope will visit in their country, how to get tickets and where to buy pope memorabilia. At the same time a much different church is quietly preparing to welcome Pope Francis to Cuba.

Father José Conrado Rodríguez, a pastor from Havana told the Vatican newspaper L’osservatore Romano that even though restrictions against the church and religious organizations have lessened in recent years, the Cuban Church is still small and in need of material help. He said the majority of Catholics on the island do not have a place to pray.

The Bishop of Guantanamo-Baraoca told Vatican Radio with the expected arrival of the pope there is a sense of new possibilities and new hope for Cuban – U.S. Dialogue. He went on to say the Church in Cuba faces the same challenges as the Church around the world “moral misery.”

Yet amid the seemingly unfortunately assessment offered by local clergy, one Italian journalist pointed out there is a healthy religious press across the country. Alver Metali cited the magazine “Palabra Nueva” which is distributed in parishes across the country and has the highest circulation of any Cuban publication. While there are others that are better known, the circulation of many of those publications is limited to communist party members, according to Metalli. He claims “Palabra Nueva” is not an exception, but the highest point in the crown of religious press in Cuba.

Yet this small, materially struggling church, and the visit of its leader is causing Cuba to roll up its sleeves in preparation for its third papal visit. While the church has prepared its faithful, authorities have pulled out all the stops: repaving damaged roads on the papal route, sprucing up buildings the pope will see during his travels, and doing much needed infrastructure maintenance – if only in the places the pope will see as he drives by.

Expectations are also high for this visit. The last time a pope visited, Good Friday became a national holiday. When John Paul II visited, Christmas became a national holiday. Pope Francis has already helped bring about a long awaited thaw in the U.S.-Cuba relations without setting foot in the country. How much more impact, what effect will he have once he actually lands?

Vatican Connections returns next week with Season 4 Friday, September 11, 2015!


CNS photo/Alexandre Meneghini, Reuters

Behind Vatican Walls: Castel Gandolfo and Ferragosto


Rome, the eternal city, is conveniently located just barely inland from Italy’s Tyrrhenian coast and is surrounded by hills. This combination of geographical features means the summer months are hot, humid and smoggy. By August, it is next to impossible to breathe in the city. Thus Roman residents flee and take refuge in the beach or mountain village of their choice. Since 1623, popes have taken part in this exodus from Rome. Until now.

Jesuit Pope

Perhaps it is to be expected that a Jesuit would not feel the need to have a second residence. Maybe it is because he has lived in far hotter climates where retreating to a summer residence is a luxury reserved for the rich; or perhaps it is just a symptom of his need to stay close to his “habitat”. Whatever the reason Pope Francis has shown no interest in using the residence at Castel Gandolfo himself. For the third year in a row he has not scheduled a long term stay at the summer residence.

This omission has residents of the hilltop town disappointed. Besides the stunning views of Lake Albano, quaint restaurants along the lakeside featuring fresh porchetta and fish, and picturesque hiking trails, the town’s only bankable attraction is the fact that the pope lives here during the summer and leads the Angelus every Sunday. The current pope’s decision to stay in Rome means local business owners face an uncertain future with hard times ahead. At least, this is what some media reports would have you believe.

Why do the residents of Castel Gandolfo feel such a profound sense of abandonment? More importantly, have they really been left high and dry by the pope?

A history of abandonment

At 55 hectares the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo is larger than Vatican City State, and can be traced back to days of the emperor Domitian. After Domitian died his successors saw no need for his villa (a familiar story). By 1596 the Savelli family owned an estate built over the ruins of Domitian’s villa.

Alas, the Savelli family fell on hard times and failed to repay an important loan. Pope Clement VIII issued a papal bull seizing the Savelli Villa as repayment for the outstanding loan and incorporated a large part of the property as Holy See territory. In 1623 Pope Urban VIII, who had a habit of leaving Rome during the summer to avoid disease, began using the villa at Castel Gandolfo as his official summer residence. He believed a pope should not have to stay in other people’s homes. Since then popes have retreated to Castel Gandolfo during the summer months.

As often happens with a centuries old institution, each pope left his mark on the residence. Today the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo includes a residence for the pope and a team of household staff, a fully functional farm that can provide food to the Vatican (including honey), an observatory (run by the Jesuits) and a vast, manicured garden. Pope Francis’ decision not to use the summer residence does not in any way mean that the house or the town are empty.

Open Doors

In 2014, the Vatican announced that the gardens of the Papal Summer Residence would be open to the public for the first time. Though visitors must purchase a ticket in advance from the Vatican Museums website, and tour times are limited, the Castel Gandolfo Papal Gardens are a must see for both garden and archeology enthusiasts. The remains of Domitian’s villa have been incorporated into the design of the terraced gardens.

While the gardens are open to the ticket-holding public, there are currently no facilities within those gardens for tourist essentials like food, drink, and souvenirs. (Or so it would seem from the reports of friends and colleagues who have visited the gardens). Thus the merchants of Castel Gandolfo stand to gain year round from the steady stream of visitors to these previously restricted gardens.


For a less paraphrased history of the Papal Residence at Castel Gandolfo and all its previous inhabitants, check out the Vatican City State website.

Behind Vatican Walls: Migrants

Pope Francis has returned to his regular schedule of activities at the Vatican. He held his first general audience this week after taking a one month break. His statement that divorced and remarried Catholics should not be treated as if they have been excommunicated made headlines around the world. However, the real issue that the pope – as well as Europe and various humanitarian organizations- is focused on is the issue of migration.

This week was the one year anniversary of the expulsion of Iraqi Christians and Yezidis by Islamic State militants. In a letter to the auxiliary bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Pope Francis said he has often felt the desire to speak out about the inhuman and unexplainable persecution faced by people in various parts of the world because of their faith. He said this persecution often goes on in front of everyone’s eyes and is met with silence. He also extended his thoughts to the communities that opened their doors to welcome the displaced Christians and Yezidis. He said these communities “avoided averting their eyes” to the dramatic situation. Pope Francis renewed his call for the international community to take action against those who persecute religious minorities.

While that anniversary was being remembered, two boats of migrants went down off the coast of Libya and tensions rose in Calais, France where thousands of migrants have attempted to cross English Channel by stowing away on ferries, trucks, and cars.

In the Palermo, Italian and Irish navy vessels brought the survivors of two shipwrecks into port along with the bodies of 25 migrants who perished. Both ships went into distress of the coast of Libya.

In Calais an estimated 3,000 migrants are camped out, trying to cross the English Channel. French police have been trying to keep those migrants from getting onto trucks and ferries departing for Britain. One Sudanese man was arrested 50 kilometers from the British entrance to the tunnel. The man almost succeeded in walking through the rail tunnel.

The desperation of migrants is great enough that they would rather pay traffickers for a spot on a barely sea-worthy vessel than remain in their homeland or their assigned refugee camp. Yet the sheer numbers of people hoping for a better life in Europe is putting governments and citizens on the defensive. But in the face of increased discrimination there are signs of hope.

In Germany, one politician has opened his home to two Eritrean refugees, despite the threats he knew his action would draw from his fellow citizens.

Photos – CNS

AliciaEvery week brings new, exciting, and sometimes juicy headlines from behind Vatican walls and every week Alicia delves deeper into one of those headlines. For a full run down of what’s been happening behind Vatican walls, watch Vatican Connections. Already watch the program? Come back every Friday for an in-depth look at an issue, headline or person.

Behind Vatican Walls: Pope Francis in Cuba and US


With one papal trip barely over, attention is already turning to the next papal trip: Cuba and the U.S. The official schedule was released at the end of June.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the theme and logo of that portion of the trip some time ago. The motto is “Love is our Mission” and the logo features a pencil sketch of the pope waving to the skyline of a city.

The Diocese of Holguin just recently released their logo for the papal visit: A stylized mitre feature representations of the sea, the land, and the sky capped off with a stylized cross. The motto for that leg of the pope’s journey: “Missionary of Mercy”.


Meanwhile, Cuban president Raul Castro told Cuban media preparations are underway to receive the pope with the “affection, respect, and hospitality he deserves.” Castro went on to say that Pope Francis’ analysis of the problems facing humanity are cause for admiration. Castro also said he followed the recent papal visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay very closely.

Behind Vatican Walls: When in Bolivia…


Much has been made of the messages Pope Francis delivered during his visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. As always, the pope made reference to local saints and historical episodes in his homilies and addresses, thrilling the locals and confusing foreigners following on television. Here’s a rundown of the some of the people and things Pope Francis referenced during his visit.

In Bolivia, during his meeting with the men and women religious of that country, Pope Francis mentioned two women whose names drew instant applause from the audience.

Blessed Nazaria Ignacia Teresa de Jesus

Born in Madrid, Spain, this religious nun worked with the poorest, smallest and weakest in Bolivia. Her work with disenfranchised Bolivians led her to found the first Bolivian religious community for women.

Early in life Nazaria was drawn to Christ. At her first communion she told Jesus “I want to follow you as closely and a human creature can.” However, her parents faith life was lukewarm and they did not understand her fervent faith. As a young woman she tried to enter the community of the Little Sisters of the Defenceless Elderly. Her father refused to give his permission. The mother superior consoled her saying “you will go to America and return with companions.” That same year her family moved to Mexico for economic reasons and Nazaria find a community of the same religious order there. She finally entered the community and after her novitiate was sent to Bolivia. There she worked with the poor elderly in small communities, but still she felt another call in her heart. She had an opportunity to talk to the Papal Nuncio to Bolivia and told him of the call she felt. He encouraged her and helped her get permission to found a new community: The Missionary Sisters of the Pontifical Crusade (today they are known as the Missionary Crusaders of the Church).

Under Nazaria’s guidance this little community worked with miners, indigenous ranch hands, women, children, and all those most oppressed by the social economic conditions in Bolivia. She went so far as to help women form the first union for female labourers. Today the community has houses and centres in Spain, France, Portugal, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea.

Venerable Virginia Blanco Tardia

Pope Francis also mentioned the Venerable Virginia Blanco Tardia, a lay woman known for her untiring work with the Catholic Action movement in Bolivia. Blanco Tardia was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia and joined Catholic Action at age 16. She was studious and cultured and went on to become a teacher and catechist. All accounts of her life say she was an “exemplary catechist” educating the children of farm workers in both Spanish and Quechua.

During her lifetime he founded an “Economic Kitchen” for the poor, a prayer group called the “Prayer & Friendship Group”, and a centre that provided medical services to those who couldn’t afford healthcare anywhere else. Along side this she served as the diocesan president of the Women’s Association of the Catholic Action for many, many years. Blanco Tardio died of a cardiac arrest in 1972 in Cochabamba.

Paraguayan Women

Addressing the diplomatic corps and civil authorities in Paraguay, Pope Francis praised Paraguayan women for saving the country during its most dramatic and disastrous period of history, the Triple Alliance War (or The Great War) that lasted from 1865 to 1870.

The ruler at the time, Francisco Solano Lopez, inherited his position from his father and feels the need to prove himself as a leader. Argentina and Brazil, meanwhile, both believe they have legitimate claims over Uruguay….which is also Paraguay’s only access point to the sea. When Brazil invades Uruguay, Solano Lopez declares war on Brazil and sends troops into Uruguay through Argentine territory. Brazil and Argentina meanwhile reach an agreement regarding Uruguay and join forces against Paraguay.

This leads to a war in which Paraguay is outnumbered and up against Brazil and Argentina’s modern weapons. Solano Lopez conscripts every able bodied Paraguayan male to the front lines. Women have to step in to work the land and provide the support needed to keep the troops fighting. Still, famine and disease set in.

According to some estimates, the war wiped out 60% of Paraguay’s population and 90% of the country’s men.  For each man left alive in the country there are eight women. Even though the country is in ruins the women of Paraguay keep going. They keep working, producing food, producing goods, and tending to the needs of those who have survived the war. More importantly, despite having seen the evil that humanity is capable of, they decide to continue having children. This decision saves Paraguay as a nation, but also saves the culture and language of this fledgling nation. Pope Francis has repeatedly referred to the women of Paraguay as the most glorious women of Latin America.


During his meeting with the young people of Paraguay Pope Francis heard the testimony of Liz,  a 25 year old woman, a daughter of separated parents, who has become the sole caregiver for her mother and grandmother. Liz’s mother is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and her grandmother is bedridden. Through the generosity of her friends, fellow parishioners, and extended family, Liz was able to become a nurse. While sharing her story and her struggles with Pope Francis she said she found inspiration and strength in the example of “Chiquitunga”, who she learned of while working in a hospital.

Chiquitunga is the nickname for Maria Felicia de Jesus Sacramento (born Maria Felicia Guggiari Echeverria). Chiquitunga was born in Villarrica, Paraguay to a faithful Catholic family. At the age of 16 she joined Catholic Action and consecrated herself to the service of God. She taught catechism, provided pastoral care for young labourers and university students, and helped the poor, elderly and abandoned in the poorest areas of her city. She wrote of the great joy she felt being able to serve these people because she found Christ in their faces.

Despite the joy that she felt serving those in need, she felt called to the contemplative life. At age 30 she entered the Carmel de la Asuncion and took the habit of the Discalced Carmelites. Chiquitunga lived only four years after entering the monastery. She died on Easter Sunday 1959 of hepatitis, which had already killed other sisters in her community. The cause for her beatification was opened in 1997.

CNS photo/Paul Haring

Behind Vatican Walls: The Peripheries of Latin America


On July 5 Pope Francis embarks on his ninth voyage outside of Italy. It will also be the second time since his election that he sets foot on on South American soil. This visit will take him to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, and have him delicately side step home country. The visit and each of his stops along the way reflect his concern for those on the social, economic and geographical peripheries. His stops along the way will also highlight the rich Catholic history in these countries and once again show the world how the World of God took root in Latin American soil among the lowliest.

Native Marian Patronesses

In Ecuador and Paraguay, the pope will visit the national shrine dedicated to the Marian patroness of those two countries: Ecuador’s El Quinche sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of El Quinche, and Paraguay shrine to Our Lady of Caacupé. Both Madonnas started out as patronesses of the local native tribes who were considered the lowest of the low in society at the time.

In Ecuador in 1594, Our Lady of El Quinche was given to local natives after the people who originally commissioned the statue of Our Lady failed to pay the artist for his work. The artist, Don Diego Robles, traded the figure to natives in exchange for a special type of wood he wanted to work with. She quickly became the protectress of the Andean natives. Yet she was not officially crowned until 1943. Her feast day is celebrated November 21.

In Paraguay the Holy Father will visit the shrine of Our Lady of Caacupe. Devotion to Our Lady of the Miracles, as she is known, goes back to the 16th century. A Guarani man who had become Christian was hiding from members of the Mbayes tribe. They were fiercely anti-Christian and vowed to kill any and all natives who converted to Christianity. The Guarani man hid in a tree and prayed to Our Lady for protection. The Mbayes walked by his hiding spot without realizing he was there. When he was certain they were gone, he took wood from the tree and carved a figure of Our Lady. In 1603, a flood devastated the Pirayu Valley. When the waters receded, the marian statue resurfaced. The shrine was obviously expanded over time, but to this day Paraguayans walk from their villages to her shrine to venerate her and thank her for favours received.

To highlight even further the important role of Latin America’s native populations in the Church, all of the papal Masses will include either readings or prayers in Quechua, Aymara, and Guarani.


Although the pope will not visit a marian shrine in Bolivia, he will stop at another significant site. When he makes his way from La Paz to the airport in El Alto, the motorcade will stop at the place where his confrere Fr. Luis Espinal, SJ, was killed. The Spanish-born Jesuit had degrees in Theology and Philosophy, as well as audiovisual Journalism and had been producing a weekly television program on Spanish state television called “Urgent Questions.” When he used one episode of the program to look at the realities of life in a poor area of Barcelona, the program was abruptly pulled from the schedule. Just as he was grappling with questions of what to do if he could not speak freely in Franco’s Spain, the bishop of La Paz, Bolivia offered him a position teaching at the Catholic University of La Paz. Espinal accepted and moved to Bolivia in 1968. He taught and worked for local radio station. He also founded a magazine and the Assembly for Human Rights.

Espinal’s journalism was focused on drawing attention to the conditions facing Bolivian peasants: poverty despite the presence of an abundance of natural resources, low wages for those who laboured to extract those natural resources, rural populations without access to basic services, poor health care and short life expectancy…the list went on.  His books focused on the need for people of faith to pay attention to the poorest in society, and his activism was aimed at gaining greater respect for the human rights of all Bolivians from the government. In 1977 he took part in a 19 day hunger strike alongside Bolivian miners and their families. The strike led to the creation of a formal opposition to the government. That, in turn, led to the resignation of then-president Hugo Banzer. At the same time, the hunger strike gained Fr. Espinal enemies. On March 21, 1980 Fr. Espinal was kidnapped by paramilitary forces. His badly beaten body was found the following day by members of his community.

Today, Fr. Espinal is regarded as a national hero who used his journalism and film studies to help build up Bolivia. The reality, however, is that still one out of four Bolivians live on less than two dollars a day according to the World Bank. Fr. Espinal’s work was vital but still incomplete.

The Poor and Oppressed

Also in Bolivia, Pope Francis will take part in an international gathering for Popular Movements. The first such gathering was held at the Vatican in October 2014. The meeting, being held in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, is similarly sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, though the movements taking part are not religious movements. Delegates are members of unions, assemblies, community organizations, and social justice groups. The “cartoneros” – the men who collect cardboard and other recyclables off the street – that Pope Francis ministered to as Archbishop of Buenos Aires are among the groups represented at this meeting.

During his one hour visit to this meeting Pope Francis, along with Bolivian President Evo Morales, will take part in what is billed as a “dialogue” about the need for changes in society so that everyone can have access to the basics of life, and what the popular movements can and should be doing to bring about those changes.

As the meeting includes groups that are not Catholic, this stop is yet another instance of Pope Francis showing the world that some things are so urgent we must join forces across religious lines.

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)


Every week brings new, exciting, and sometimes juicy headlines from behind Vatican walls and every week Alicia delves deeper into one of those headlines. For a full run down of what’s been happening behind Vatican walls, watch Vatican Connections. Already watch the program? Come back every Friday for an in-depth look at an issue, headline or person.