My younger brother isn’t what I would call “cultured.” An 18-year-old on a boat cruise around Europe has priorities other than discovering the famous basilicas or the incredible detail in their paintings and sculptures. Before our trip last month, my mom and I talked a lot about whether or not Aidan would care to see — much less appreciate — all of the sights. How much groaning could we put up with while we bounced between pieces of history in these old Europeans cities? A fair bit, it turns out.

But something changed when we visited the Vatican. The complaining gave way to a flurry of questions our tour guide tried to answer before my brother interrupted with another question. He forgot how tired and hungry he was, how much his feet hurt or how comfy his bed was back on the cruise ship. He was totally immersed in the magnificence of the city. It seemed obvious to him that St. Peter’s Basilica wasn’t just another old church.

But that’s exactly what it is: an old church. St. Peter’s just happens to be a very important old church. After all, the entire state of the Vatican was built around it.  

The Vatican’s importance as the epicentre of our Catholic faith is lost on most 18-year-olds. They may know some details, but it’s much tougher to grasp the weight they carry. I thought the Vatican was just another old church too.

When I looked at pictures of St. Peter’s Basilica, I could see it was big, but I couldn’t see it was magnificent until I was standing in it. Similarly, a Google image search of the Sistine Chapel won’t make you feel the way you do when you’re looking with your neck craned back at the scenes painted on the ceiling. You don’t see the care, detail or incredible talent it took to create it. You don’t feel the intangible, indescribable something that makes the Vatican more than a big church until you walk through its museums and feel it for yourself.

It’s the art that creates this wonder. “It makes you think about human potential,” our tour guide mused while looking at the detail along every foot of the ceiling in St. Peter’s. People — young people in particular — are drawn in by it.

Amidst all the facts about the scaffolds they used or Michelangelo’s age when he carved the Pieta, there is a narrative. The art tells the story of our faith, capturing its divine messages and old parables. The art creates the questions which lead to discussion. Questions like why was the man who pierced the side of Christ canonized?

From there, the messages of our faith spread between curious onlookers, even after they leave the city. The difference between the art of the Vatican and many other efforts to spread the same messages is one of esthetics. The art gives onlookers only two options: stand in silent admiration or ask questions about it.

But the answer is just a bonus. Spiritual enrichment comes from all the people there who are doing the same thing. There is a sense of solidarity that transcends age, race, sex and even religion. Anyone can appreciate the art, regardless of whether they subscribe to the beliefs embedded in its narrative. That is what makes the city holy. That’s why St. Peter’s is more than just another old church.

Published in YSN: Speaking Out

VATICAN CITY - In the wake of the deaths of a U.S. ambassador and three staff members in Libya and the unrest triggered by a U.S.-made amateur film hostile to Islam, the Vatican decried disrespect toward all religions and deplored all violence as unacceptable.

"Profound respect for the beliefs, texts, outstanding figures and symbols of the various religions are an essential precondition for the peaceful co-existence of peoples," said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.

"The serious consequences of unjustified offense and provocations against the sensibilities of Muslim believers are once again evident in these days, as we see the reactions they arouse, sometimes with tragic results, which in turn nourish tension and hatred, unleashing unacceptable violence," he said Sept. 12 in a written statement that was also translated into Arabic.

He told journalists that Pope Benedict XVI's Sept 14-16 trip to Lebanon would continue despite the fresh wave of unrest in the region because the Pope's journey is a testament of "peace, understanding and dialogue that's completely opposed to this kind of tension that has been and is being created," he told reporters.

"The message of dialogue and respect for all believers of different religions, which the Holy Father is preparing to carry with him on his forthcoming trip to Lebanon, indicates the path that everyone should follow in order to construct shared and peaceful co-existence of religions and peoples," the spokesman wrote.

The Vatican statement comes after the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three staff members were killed during a mob attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi Sept. 11. The violence was triggered by angry reaction to the trailer of a film mocking the prophet Mohammed. Though the trailer was released online in July, it was recently dubbed into Arabic and grabbed Arab media attention.
Tensions spread the same day as thousands of unarmed demonstrators gathered outside the United States Embassy in Cairo and some later breached the compound's walls and destroyed a flag found inside.

Libya's interim president, Mohammed Magarief, offered his condolences and apologized for the attack, describing it as "cowardly," according to the Associated Press.

U.S. President Barack Obama condemned the killings and praised Stevens' selfless service to the United States and the Libyan people.

"While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants," Obama said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Vatican's representative in Libya lamented the violence while pleading for greater respect for religious beliefs. Referring to the officials' deaths, Italian Bishop Giovanni Martinelli, Apostolic Vicar of Tripoli, told the Vatican's missionary news agency Fides, "What has happened is terrible, but we need to avoid offending the people's religious sensibility."

"One has to respect the sensitivity of the Muslim population. The Arab countries are already in the throes of momentous upheaval; pouring gasoline on religious outrage is really dangerous," he said in a Sept. 12 interview.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - In an effort to comply more fully with international standards against financial criminal activity, the Vatican has hired an outside expert in combating money laundering and financing terrorism.

Rene Brulhart, a 40-year-old Swiss international lawyer, started working as a consultant to the Vatican in September on “all matters related to anti-money laundering and financing of terrorism,” Vatican Radio reported Sept. 11. Brulhart’s “role is to assist the Holy See in strengthening its framework to fight financial crimes,” the broadcast reported.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said in a written statement that the hire is “a powerful sign of (the Vatican’s) commitment to work in this direction.”

A report by European finance experts released in July said the Vatican had passed its first major test in becoming more financially transparent and compliant with international norms.

But the report by Moneyval — the Council of Europe’s Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism — said there were still critical loopholes that needed tightening and other “important issues” to be addressed. For example, the committee found the Vatican’s own financial oversight agency, the Financial Information Authority, lacked adequate legal powers and the independence necessary to monitor, inspect and sanction all Vatican agencies and foundations based in Vatican City State that have financial dealings or commercial transactions.

Finding a well-respected, experienced professional was critical because Moneyval’s recommendations “are highly technical elements that require someone with highly technical knowledge,” said a source familiar with the situation.

Lombardi characterized Brulhart’s appointment as part of the Vatican’s “renewed efforts to respond to the (Moneyval) report’s recommendations and ever more efficaciously pursue transparency and financial trustworthiness.”

Brulhart is vice-chair of the global Egmont Group network, which brings together national Financial Intelligence Units that collect and analyse information on suspicious or unusual financial activity, which may then be passed on to law enforcement officials.

He is also head of the Liechtenstein delegation to Moneyval and the coordinator of the Liechtenstein Task Force on Countering the Financing of Terrorism.

Published in International

WASHINGTON - Conflict between the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over the reform of LCWR boils down to whether one can "be a Catholic and have a questioning mind," the conference's president said in an interview on National Public Radio's Fresh Air program.

Franciscan Sister Pat Farrell also said in the July 17 interview that she would like to see discussion about whether "freedom of conscience in the Church (is) genuinely honoured."

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - Hinting at a willingness to continue discussions with the Vatican and recognizing the full authority of the pope over the church, the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X said it must defend church teaching from error.

"As for all the novelties of the Second Vatican Council, which remain tainted with errors, and for the reforms derived from it," the statement said, "the society can only continue to uphold the affirmations and teachings of the constant magisterium of the church."

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - As the Vatican continues working to comply with international standards against money laundering and financing terrorism, it still needs to beef up internal inspection and supervisory powers, said a long-awaited report by European finance experts.

Overall, the Vatican met nine out of 16 "key and core" recommendations, thereby passing its first major test in an effort to become more financially transparent and compliant with international norms.

"The Holy See has come a long way in a very short period of time and many of the building blocks" of a system to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism "are now formally in place," said the first report on the Vatican by "Moneyval" -- the Council of Europe's Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - The majority of bishops' conferences in the Americas, Europe and Asia have complied with a Vatican mandate to draw up anti-abuse guidelines, said the Vatican's top investigator of clerical sex abuse.

Without counting Africa, "more than half of the conferences responded" by the May deadline, Msgr. Charles Scicluna of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in an interview with the Italian monthly Catholic magazine Jesus.

All those who did not send in their proposed guidelines would be getting "a letter of reminder," he added.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - The Holy See sustained its largest budget deficit of the past decade in 2011 as a result of global financial trends, the Vatican said July 5. But Vatican City State, which includes the income-generating Vatican Museums and Vatican post office, ended 2011 with a surplus of 21.8 million euros ($27 million).

The budget of the Holy See, which includes the offices of the Roman Curia and its communications outlets such as Vatican Radio, recorded a deficit of 14.9 million euros ($18.4 million) at the end of 2011. It was the largest budget deficit recorded in the past decade and reversed the 2010 surplus of 9.8 million euros ($12 million).

Published in Features

VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed his trust in the Vatican's secretary of state and defended him against a barrage of "unjust criticism" in the Italian media.

In a letter addressed to "dear brother" Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, 77, the Pope expressed his "profound appreciation for your discreet presence and wise counsel, which I have found particularly helpful over recent months."

The Vatican has had to face a number of challenges recently, including leaks of confidential correspondence to the Pope and the Secretariat of State; the arrest of the Pope's personal assistant in connection to the leaks; and the ouster of the Vatican bank's president, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, for neglecting his duties amid worsening management problems.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - The establishment of a new post of senior communications adviser is a step in the right direction to help the Vatican deal with the challenges of a sound-bite culture, said the American journalist appointed to the job.

Greg Burke, 52, was named to the newly created position in the Vatican's Secretariat of State and will start in July. The announcement was made on Vatican Radio June 24.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - In an effort to respond to a "clear and pressing" need for priests, the Vatican released a set of guidelines to help bishops and church communities promote, recruit and educate a new generation of men for the priesthood.

The church needs "suitable" candidates and must avoid men who "show signs of being profoundly fragile personalities," while helping others heal from any possible "individual deviations" from their vocations, the document said.

Published in Vatican

VATICAN CITY - With a hymn and a prayer, Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella presented the Vatican's initial calendar of events for the Year of Faith, which begins with a Mass Oct. 11 in St. Peter's Square.

Archbishop Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, said the Pope has invited as concelebrants bishops and theologians who, like the pontiff, served as members or experts at the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.

Published in Features

Many of you by now have heard about the Vatican’s doctrinal investigation into the words and actions of American nuns. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the main protector of right Catholic thinking, released an official document a few weeks ago outlining several concerns.

The CDF is generally worried about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents about 80 per cent of America’s nuns, because of what the Vatican sees as a move away from orthodoxy into a more freewheeling Catholicism, a blend of American independence and secular thinking mixed with some right belief. In other words, the nuns are Catholic but not Catholic enough.

The CDF said the nuns’ leaders, not necessarily the rank-and-file women on the ground, have drifted into “radical feminism” and speakers at leadership events have expounded “moving beyond the Church and even beyond Jesus.”

The investigation did not pop out of thin air. It was launched in 2008 but apparently the Vatican telegraphed its concerns to the LCWR as early as 2001.

American mainstream media has played this as the bullies from the Vatican picking on the nuns. In three stories on the issue by The New York Times, America’s paper of record, not once does anyone appear to defend the CDF.

On June 1 one of these stories led with the following:

“The American nuns who were harshly condemned by the Vatican in April as failing to uphold Catholic doctrine finally responded on Friday in their own strong terms, saying the Vatican’s assessment was based on ‘unsubstantiated accusations’ and a ‘flawed process,’ and has caused scandal, pain and polarization in the Roman Catholic Church.”

Another story had this as its second paragraph:

“The bus tour (the sisters are undertaking) is a response to a blistering critique of American nuns released in April by the Vatican’s doctrinal office, which included the accusation that the nuns are outspoken on issues of social justice, but silent on other issues the Church considers crucial: abortion and gay marriage.”

“Harshly condemned,” “blistering” and “accusations” may seem like mere words, but they are in fact editorializing as to what the Vatican was doing to the nuns. Any non-Catholic reader, or any reader for that matter, gets the impression that the CDF has parked naval destroyers along the U.S. coast  as part of a full-fledged action against defenseless sisters. That rings especially true when the stories have absolutely no balance.

The nuns do have a case. Some of the language used in the CDF document is hard to understand. I am not sure what a “radical feminist” is and complaints about certain speakers attending LCWR events seem picky. The nuns are often the ones on the frontline dealing with the most difficult cases in society, and so to improvise on what the Church teaches may not be an act of a rebel but of someone finding a pastoral solution in a situation demanding immediate action.

But anyone who has any loyalty to the Church has to believe that the Vatican does not act on a whim. God knows no one has ever accused Rome of acting too quickly. That which may seem petty or even vindictive to The New York Times has a more profound meaning for those who do not make decisions by popularity polls or to satisfy current trends.

The Vatican must obtain a certain order, demands certain obedience, because that is how the Church has survived and thrived for 2,000 years. Those demands may rankle the ears of those outside the Church, but frankly that should not be the concern of Rome.

But there is more here that should concern Catholics, especially Catholics who have bought into the storyline that the Church leadership is made of ogres and should simply leave the sisters alone.

A part of me believes that what we are seeing is just more anti-Catholicism at the expense of the sisters. The very idea that journalists are jumping to the nuns’ defence probably has more to do with a chance to bash the Church rather than aid the good sisters.

When this fight has passed and is long forgotten many of those same people who today love the nuns will continue to find ways to attack the Catholic Church — and perhaps the nuns themselves on an occasion when they are no longer media darlings.

(Lewis writes about religion for the National Post and he is the editor of the paper’s religion site, Holy Post.)

Published in Guest Columns

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican Secretary of State blamed an ongoing scandal over leaked Vatican documents on unethical journalists and a spirit of hostility toward the Catholic Church.

"Many journalists play at imitating Dan Brown," said Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, in an interview with the Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana. "They continue to invent fables or repeat legends."

Cardinal Bertone made his remarks as Vatican judges were investigating leaks to Italian journalists of dozens of documents, including letters to the pope and encrypted cables from Vatican embassies around the world, several of which hint at power struggles among officials of the Holy See.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, met for more than two hours with officials of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith June 13.

The Vatican did not immediately issue a statement on the meeting, part of ongoing talks aimed at reconciling the breakaway group with the Catholic Church. The society's founder, the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected some teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the modernizing reforms instituted in its wake, was excommunicated for ordaining Bishop Fellay and three other bishops without papal permission in 1988.

In April, Bishop Fellay submitted to the Vatican his second official response to a "doctrinal preamble" outlining what the Vatican said were "some doctrinal principles and criteria for the interpretation of Catholic doctrine necessary to guarantee fidelity" to the formal teaching of the church, presumably including the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

The bishop's reply was studied by the cardinal-members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and, ultimately, by Pope Benedict XVI.

The cardinals and the pope had studied Bishop Fellay's first response, which was submitted in January, and later issued a statement saying his position "is not sufficient to overcome the doctrinal problems that are at the basis of the fracture between the Holy See and the society."

While Bishop Fellay has been generally positive about the possibility of reconciliation with Rome, leaked letters show that the society's three other bishops have had serious reservations about the process.

In May, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said, "In consideration of the positions taken by the three other bishops of the Society of St. Pius, their situation will have to be treated separately and individually" from the effort to reconcile with the SSPX as a whole and with Bishop Fellay.

"It is not that this is a process that necessarily will reach a solution that embraces all the positions" found among all the SSPX members, Father Lombardi said in May.

Pope Benedict's latest efforts to bring about reconciliation with the traditionalist group began when he lifted the excommunications incurred by Bishop Fellay and the other SSPX bishops after they were ordained without papal permission. The pope also established a Vatican committee for doctrinal talks with society representatives in 2009 and drafted the "doctrinal preamble" to explain the "minimal, essential" elements on which the society would have to agree for full reconciliation, Father Lombardi had said.

When the Vatican's doctrinal discussions with the society began in 2009, both sides said the key issues to be discussed included the concept of tradition in general, as well as the Second Vatican Council's teaching on the liturgy, the unity of the church, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and religious freedom.

Published in International