Christmas at the Vatican

There are two places that I always dreamed it would be great to be for Christmas midnight Mass: Bethlehem or Rome. This year my wife and I got the chance to be in Rome, at the Vatican for Christmas, and it was amazing.

As a schola chanted hymns before Mass, the basilica filled up with cardinals, bishops and dignitaries, and people who had waited in St. Peter’s Square as early as 2 p.m. to enter the basilica at 8:30 p.m. for the 10 p.m. “midnight” Mass. Those who were in the square early got to hear an hourlong concert around 5 p.m. that accompanied the unveiling of the Vatican’s outdoor Nativity scene.

The outdoor crèche features figures that stand about 15 feet tall in a grotto next to a Christmas tree lit with green and blue lights and gold ornaments. Pope Benedict appeared silhouetted at his window toward the end of the concert for less than a minute and held one lit candle. Notable, the manger was empty, since the Christ child has not yet arrived.

Inside the basilica for the Mass, the altar is decorated with thousands of white flowers and assorted greens. A statue of the Madonna and Child against a red velvet background adorned the left side of the altar.

A Nativity scene inside the basilica, smaller than the one outside, also features an empty manger. The pope traditionally blesses the statue of the infant at the end of the midnight Mass.

Though the Mass is in Italian, the first reading, from Isaiah (Is 9, 1-6), was proclaimed in English and the second, from Titus, was in Spanish. Some responses were in Latin. The crowd came from all over the world.

Walking out of the basilica, a young woman cradled her child in her arms, and gently hummed “Silent Night” into her baby’s ear. Perhaps, a couple millennia ago, Mary herself would have been humming to the infant Savior on this very night.

It was an incredible privilege to be a part of this international celebration of the birth of Christ at the heart of the heart of the church.

Someday … Bethlehem.

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Archbishop Sambi, papal nuncio, dies July 27 at age 73

UPDATE, July 28: Catholic News Service reports that Archbishop Pietro Sambi passed away July 27, apparently from complications from lung surgery three weeks ago.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio to the United States, has been placed on assisted ventilation after “delicate lung surgery” according to Catholic News Service. The Baltimore Sun reported today that the nuncio, who is essentially the Holy See’s ambassador, was being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien passed along a request from the apostolic nunciature in Washington for prayers for Archbishop Sambi, and asked that parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore include an intention for the nuncio in the prayers of the faithful.
I’ve met Archbishop Sambi on several occasions, at meetings of the U.S. bishops’ conference and at various dinner functions. He has always been gracious and humble. The most recent occasion was a chance encounter, at Washington’s National Airport, as my wife’s family was dropping off her brother to return to Arizona after the funeral of a family member.
My wife and I – both Catholic journalists – recognized Archbishop Sambi, reintroduced ourselves, and asked him for his prayers and a blessing for the family. He agreed, and as he headed off for his own flight, asked us to pray for him as well.
We did, of course, and will continue to do so.
The Vatican diplomatic corps plays a unique role around the world. The church is “in the world,” but not “of the world.” One goal, certainly, of church diplomacy is to uphold the dignity of people and to ensure religious freedom, and to make sure that people have the rights to which they are entitled by God and natural law.

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, speaks at the opening session of the Catholic Cultural Diversity Convocation at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana May 6, 2010. (CNS photo/Matt Cashore, courtesy University of Notre Dame)

Over the years, I’ve had occasion to visit the Vatican nunciatures in Malaysia and Haiti, countries with unique needs for diplomacy. Haiti, a predominantly Catholic nation, had overwhelming humanitarian needs, in which Catholic non-governmental organizations and the church played a huge role. My 2004 visit there was just after a tropical storm had ravaged the country, but its poverty was ongoing, even before a 2010 earthquake caused even more devastation. In Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, the nuncio served several southeast Asian countries, and dealt with issues that had to do with religious freedom and other topics unique to the culture.
The Vatican diplomat plays a delicate role in balancing the concerns of the Holy See and the pope, and it was a role that Archbishop Sambi has filled in many places; the United States assignment followed responsibilities in Israel, Cypress and Palestine.
Keep Archbishop Sambi, and all Vatican diplomats in your prayers. Their task is never an easy one.

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Wishing Space Shuttle Atlantis all the best

I’m a little wistful today, as I watch media coverage of the final launch of the space program. As a college journalist, I covered the very first shuttle launch, STS-1, April 12, 1981.

STS-1, Columbia, clears the tower at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, April 12, 1981. Photo © 1981 Christopher Gunty

I had followed the shuttle program all through high school and college, and as the launch date came closer, I realized I really wanted to be there for this historic occasion. I called NASA PR in Florida and learned how to get media credentials. I convinced our editor, also our best photographer, that we should make a road trip. We convinced our school advisers that the trip was worthwhile. And we talked my parents into loaning us a car. We rented camera equipment and were on our way within a day.

We arrived in Florida the night before the scheduled launch and were met with a long line of traffic. Stuck outside the media gate, we nearly missed the launch, until it was scrubbed because of a mechanical problem. With the two-day delay, we picked up our credentials, found a hotel room 60 miles away, and then came back the night before the launch, spending the night on the ground in the press area.

We set up our cameras next to Time magazine with its six-camera rig, and Imax, with its new technology camera for high-definition, large-screen movies.

As the shuttle lifted off, we witnessed history. We could not only hear the rumble of the powerful engines, we could feel it in the ground.

Eventually, I saw several more shuttle launches over the years, on visits to Florida, and while I lived there.

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The tragedies of the losses of the Challenger and Columbia crews marred the program, and it never fulfilled the dream/vision that it would be a weekly “space truck” ferrying cargo 50 times a year to low earth orbit. But the benefits that came from exploration and experimentation in space have been great. The views of the cosmos from the Hubble Telescope make it difficult to not believe in a supreme Creator who has an intelligent design for the universe. The advances in medicine and other technology serve us in many ways.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said last week that human space flight will continue. At the National Press Club July 1, he said the foundation is set for space exploration for the next half-century, “and for us at NASA, ‘failure is not an option,'” echoing a line often attributed to former Apollo program flight director Gene Kranz that has come to reflect NASA’s can-do attitude.

NASA’s reach, and the shuttle’s reach, is everywhere, even in Maryland, where Goddard Space Flight Center plays an important role.

Today is a chance to salute all those who perished in human space flight, and all those who have been part of this endeavor in which we strive to explore and learn.

At this point, with launch scheduled about an hour from now, the crew awaits a “Go for Launch” while they wait for weather to clear.

And I recall that day in April when the “Go for Launch” sent Columbia into the heavens, and started this incredible journey for all of us.

Godspeed, Atlantis.

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Astronauts get a “popespace” page

The Endeavor Shuttle and International Space Station astronauts had a chat May 21 with Pope Benedict XVI. They talked about science, courage, violence and world peace, and the beauty of the planet.

What a great opportunity for both the scientists and the pope to share their views.

Here, from NASAtv, is the 17-minute link-up.

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Rite of Beatification: John Paul is “Blessed”

Though Karol Wojtyla spent the better part of his life and priesthood in Poland, his cause for beatification was led by the Diocese of Rome, which he led as bishop for more than a quarter century.

Today, the beatification rite will be led by Cardinal Agostino Vallini, Vicar General of the Diocese of Rome. At the beginning of the celebration, he asked the Holy Father to declare as Blessed the Servant of God John Paul II.

He began in Latin with: “Most blessed Father, Your Holiness’ Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome humbly asks Your Holiness to beneficently deign to inscribe the Venerable Servant of God John Paul II in the number of the Blessed.”

He then read a fairly detailed biography of Karol Wojtyla, beginning with his 1920 birth in Wadowice, Poland, and ending with his death on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday 2005.

The biography, to be read in Italian, is printed in Italian and six other languages in the Mass booklet distributed along the via della Conciliazzione.

It closes with these words: “A touching testimony of his life was seen by the participation of delegations from all over the world and of millions of men and women, believers and non-believers alike, who recognized in him a clear sign of God’s love for humanity.”

In Latin, Cardinal Vallini then thanked Pope Benedict XVI, saying, “Most blessed Father, the Vicar General of His Holiness for the Diocese of Rome, gives thanks for conferring the title of Blessed to the Venerable Servant of God John Paul II.”

The pope responded in Latin and formally declared John Paul II, pope, “Blessed” and set his feast day as Oct. 22 (the anniversary of his liturgical inauguration as pope in 1978).

From Vatican City,
Christopher Gunty
The Catholic Review

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This is the day!

A dawn of a new day and throngs are heading to St. Peter’s Square. Singing, waving flags and generally being tolerant of the direction of the gendarmes and carabinieri who point the way. Some try for a short cut, only to be pointed back the way they came when they hit another blocked street.

From my vantage point now, on top of the collonade — Bernini’s great colmns shaped like “arms” that embrace Piazza San Pietro — the Square and Via della Conciliazzione are filling up in anticipation of the 10 am Mass, two and a half hours from now.

From Vatican City,
Christopher Gunty
The Catholic Review

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Why can’t you be holy?

ASSISI, Italy – A lot of people think they can’t be holy. They believe they cannot get close enough to Jesus because they didn’t live in his time and can’t get to really know him.
Father Richard Cash, of Fancy Farms, Ky., disagrees with that point of view.
In the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, April 28, Father Cash asked a group of 50 pilgrims from the United States if they thought that St. Paul was any holier than St. Francis, just because Paul lived at the time of Jesus, and Francis didn’t. The priest, with his kindly Southern drawl, explained that Francis was as close to Christ as anyone could be. We can all be that close to the Lord, he said.
We need not renounce everything, as Francis did, but we do need to listen to Jesus when he speaks to us, as he spoke to Francis and asked him to “rebuild my church.” Francis thought he meant the physical building, and set about rebuilding, stone by stone, the Portiuncola, a small church now housed in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi. He later realized the call was to rebuild the church from within with humility, radical poverty and a new order of friars and brothers, and eventually sisters with the Poor Clares.
The next day, at Santa Croce (Holy Cross) Church in Florence, he spoke about the reading for the day in which Jesus, waiting on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias in the darkness of early morning, calls to the disciples to cast their nets after a night of fruitless fishing.

Father Richard Cash preaches about the light of the Lord at a Mass April 28, 2011, at the Santa Croce Church in Florence, Italy, as part of a pilgrimage for the beatification of John Paul II in Rome May 1. (Catholic Review photo | Christopher Gunty)


Grasping the paschal candle, lit for the Mass because it is the Easter season, he said, “Working without the Lord, it is darkness – you have nothing.” He noted that Jesus sought out the disciples, not waiting for them to find him in the early days after the resurrection. He asked them to cast their nets, even as they were probably already heading back into the shore and had stowed all their gear. The great catch shows “If we obey the Lord, we will have great blessings. Trust the word of the Lord.”
Then on April 30, the group heard the readings for the Saturday within the octave of Easter, in which they heard about how the apostles would not believe Mary Magdalene and the disciples who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus and when they said, “He is risen,” (“He is truly risen!”).

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The Pilgrim’s Way

Beatification bound
Or, “Roamin’ to Rome”
ORTE, Italy – Coming from Kentucky and Tennessee, Florida and Ohio, Maryland and Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania, a group of 50 pilgrims from the eastern United States gathered in Rome to join hundreds of thousands of others expected to witness the beatification of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II.
Most in the group – coordinated by The Catholic Review and other Catholic newspapers from Wilmington, Del.; Arlington, Va.; Washington; and Cincinnati, Ohio; with spiritual leadership of a priest from Fancy Farms, Ky. – had never met before convening in the Rome airport, but they quickly developed a camaraderie.
They quickly learned to respond in this octave of Easter to Father Richard Cash’s declaration, “He is risen,” with the response, “He is truly risen!”

Pilgrims from US participate in Mass April 28, 2011, at the Santa Croce Church in Florence, Italy, as part of a pilgrimage for the beatification of John Paul II in Rome May 1. (Catholic Review photo | Christopher Gunty)


Our Italian tour guide explained the difference between
• tourists, who take pictures, but who often miss the experience of the culture they visit;
• travelers, who desire a deeper experience than tourism when they visit other places, and take the time to explore and understand the places and people;
• and pilgrims, who visit, sometimes seeing sites that tourists enjoy, and soaking up experiences as travelers do, but whose primary goal is to have a spiritual awakening along the way.
Even in the first few days, in the land of St. Francis and St. Clare, the group began to experience the purpose of pilgrimage, with the clarity of context I first heard last year from Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, when he referred to a passage from Paul Elie’s book, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage”:

“A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken in light of a story. A great event has happened; the pilgrim hears the reports and goes in search of the evidence, aspiring to be an eyewitness. The pilgrim seeks not only to confirm the experience of others firsthand but to be changed by the experience.
“Pilgrims often make the journey in company, but each must be changed individually; they must see for themselves, each with his or her own eyes. And as they return to ordinary life the pilgrims must tell others what they saw, recasting the story in their own terms.”

Already, our pilgrims are telling their own stories. Stories of their experiences with the spirituality of St. Francis and St. Clare, or their own connection to the life and faith of John Paul II, and why it brought them to take this journey, despite the projected crowds. Estimates at this point are wildly uncertain, ranging from 300,000 to 2 million other pilgrims, with stories of their own. People are already reported to be camped out on the Via della Conciliazzione in front of St. Peter’s Square the afternoon before the ceremony (later confirmed to be true by the time I was able to get to an Internet connection to post this).

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They’re waiting for Blessed John Paul

Thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — are already waiting along the Via della Cociliazzione, near St. Peter’s Square, hoping for the best access to the square when the gates open on Sunday morning around 6 a.m. The Mass begins at 10 a.m.

A large crowd is expected but no one knows how large. Almost all hotel rooms were booked immediately after the beatification was announced but many of those reservations were released when tours did not sell, so estimates were revised down. This week the fervor seemed to revive. We’ll see tomorrow what the crowd looks like, but the Vatican and Rome are prepared with video screens and sound system set up all the way down the Via della Conciliazzione, the street that extends from St. Peter’s to Castel Sant’Angelo.

From Rome,
Christopher Gunty
The Catholic Review

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What’s in a headline? 15 million reasons to get it right

One of the underappreciated jobs for those of us in the news business is writing headlines. Sometimes it’s fun, as when we get to write clever little puns, such as “Love and Loyola go hand in hand,” over a story about Loyola University alums renewing their marriage vows; it accompanied a photo of couples holding hands. Sometimes it’s straightforward: “Archdiocese announces first STEM schools” for the unveiling of curriculum aimed at science, technology, engineering and math.

Sometimes, we think it’s straightforward, but people get confused because – well, because it’s hard to sum up 600 words in five or six words. You can only emphasize one element of the story in the headline.

Such is the case with a recent story about the annual archdiocesan finance report. Our story carefully analyzed the news about the archdiocese’s most recent fiscal year numbers, noting in the headline: “Archdiocese posts $15.4 million surplus.” A subheadline in the print edition (but not the Web version) noted, “Two years of cutbacks help turn the tide.” That’s good news and that was the upshot of the report. Hard work and sacrifice by a lot of people over the last year, plus an improved stock market, led to the gains.

The story noted that the archdiocese utilized furloughs, made staff cuts and cut costs in other ways. Stock market gains also helped contribute to the bottom line, but those aren’t available in liquid form. It’s not like the archdiocese is flush with cash. Senior staff writer George Matysek did a good job of analyzing the information, bolstered by an interview with Mark Fetting, chairman of the Archdiocesan Board of Financial Administration and CEO of Legg Mason in Baltimore, who provided important context.

A surplus of $15.4 million in one year is great news, especially in a recovering economy. What needs to be kept in mind – and what the story noted – is that this gain comes on the heels of two very rough years for the archdiocese. The deficit for fiscal 2009 was $34.3 million; in 2008 it was $22.4 million. Faced with those figures, this year’s surplus covers less than 30 percent of the previous two years’ negative balances. So, the archdiocese is not flush with cash.

But some people saw the initial headline and think: “If there’s a surplus, why can’t the archdiocese go back to funding this ministry or that project?” It’s not that simple.

Fiscal 2010 ended well; that’s what the headline said. It took a lot to get there and Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien and those who work at the Catholic Center will continue to be vigilant stewards of the resources entrusted to the church. That’s the rest of the story, and it was all right there, in George Matysek’s report.

The church continues to need our support, in the parishes and in the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal. One good year doesn’t change that.

Could we have done a better job with the headline? Possibly, but I think the headline and the subhead provided the key information. Also remember that the complete archdiocesan finance report, with charts and graphs and the story, took up nearly two pages of the newspaper. The details were there for all who chose to see them.

February 23, 2011

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