Fatima ChildrenVATICAN CITY - Ten years after the Vatican divulged one of the Church's best-kept secrets — the third part of the message of Fatima — a small band of skeptics and critics are still questioning the official explanation.

More than 100 of them gathered at a hotel not far from the Vatican in early May for a weeklong conference on such topics as "Fatima and the Global Economic Crisis," "The Present Need for the Consecration of Russia" and "Is There a Missing Text of the Third Secret?"

For those in attendance, the answer to that last question is obvious.

"The evidence points to only one conclusion: that something has to be missing," said Christopher Ferrara, a U.S. attorney and Catholic commentator who spoke at the conference.

Ferrara pointed to what he described as a series of incongruities and inconsistencies in the Vatican's version. Among people truly familiar with the events at Fatima, he said, only a minority "cling steadfastly to the notion that an ambiguous vision of a bishop dressed in white outside a half-ruined city is all there is to the third secret."

That's the heart of the question for people in the "Fatima Challenge" movement. They argue that the third secret of Fatima was a prophecy so traumatic and dire that several popes decided to withhold it from the faithful. Yet, that sense of peril was absent from the text released by Pope John Paul in 2000, who said the third prophecy referred to the 1981 attempt on his life by a Turkish gunman.

"Fatimists" say there's good reason to believe the third secret was about Satan working in the Church — at the highest levels. Some have deduced that the secret foresaw the changes of the Second Vatican Council, especially in liturgy and ecumenical dialogue, as part of the "great apostasy" which Church leaders refuse to acknowledge.

Mary is believed to have appeared before three shepherd children several times in 1917. In the 1940s, the lone surviving child, Lucia, revealed two of the Fatima prophecies and sealed the third in an envelope she eventually sent to Rome. The first prophecy was related to the two world wars, while the second predicted the rise and fall of communism and the conversion of Russia.

The conference took place a few days before Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Fatima, and organizers went out of their way to invite the Pope and Vatican officials. None showed up. The Pope's Vatican aides consider the Fatimists a fringe element that is best ignored.

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, has said one of the reasons the third secret was made public in 2000 was that people were spreading "absurd theses" about catastrophic events or heresy at the top levels of the Church. Bertone, who was personally involved in the publication of the third secret, said he was puzzled that some still think the Vatican is hiding something.

In 2007, Bertone wrote The Last Visionary of Fatima, which reiterated the official version of the Fatima messages and secrets and was based, he said, on long conversations with Carmelite Sister Lucia dos Santos, the last of the visionaries to die.

Pope Benedict was also personally involved in publishing the third secret. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's top doctrinal official, he presented the text of the secret to the press and wrote a lengthy commentary about it. That news conference on June 26, 2000, is still memorable for Vatican journalists. The stage was set for disclosure of a text that for decades was thought to be too disturbing to reveal. But instead, Ratzinger began by deflating expectations and announcing that there was nothing apocalyptic.

"No great mystery is revealed; nor is the future unveiled," he said. He went on to give a theological framework to the apparitions and messages of Fatima, insisting that in the Church's tradition, "prophecy" is not like a "film preview," but more like offering signs that can be useful for Christians.

Ratzinger said that was how to understand the third secret's vision of a "bishop in white" who struggles up a hill amid corpses of slain martyrs, and then falls dead after being shot by soldiers. Whether this bishop symbolized Pope John Paul II, who was shot and wounded on May 13, 1981, or a "convergence" of several 20th-century pontiffs who helped the Church ward off the dangers, it doesn't mean someone must be killed, the cardinal said.

That explanation still sticks in the craw of Fatimists, who say it deliberately removes the vision's apocalyptic scenario and lulls the faithful into a false sense of security. The Vatican's version, they say, suggests these problems are behind the church, when in their view the worst is yet to come.

Fr. Nicholas Gruner, a Canadian priest who founded The Fatima Crusader magazine, has long maintained that Russia has yet to be consecrated to Mary in accordance with the instructions of Our Lady of Fatima.

"We haven't had the conversion of Russia by any stretch of the imagination — not militarily, not morally. It's the largest abortion capital of the world.... There's just no sign of conversion in any sense," Gruner said in Rome May 6.

That's another issue the Vatican is tired of dealing with. Church officials say Pope John Paul II in 1984 led the world's bishops in the consecration of Russia and the world. The late Sr. Lucia had said that it was properly performed.

The Fatima messages are not dogma, and the Church does not impose belief or any single interpretation. That seems to ensure that the Fatimists will continue to broadcast their theories to whoever will listen.

Church to help Louisiana community hit by oil spill

Oil Spill churchNEW ORLEANS - Inside St. Bernard Church May 2, parishioners whose lives depend on the fishing industry and who endured and overcame the battering of Hurricane Katrina five years ago had a difficult time focusing on Fr. John Arnone’s homily.

Their minds shifted to the video of South Louisiana crude oil spewing from a ruptured British Petroleum pipeline a kilometre and a half deep in the Gulf of Mexico.

Pope condemns bombings targeting Iraqi Christians in Mosul

Mosul DemonstrationVATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI condemned fresh violence against Christians in Iraq and called on the nation to work toward peace.

In a telegram written on behalf of the Pope, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the pontiff was "deeply saddened by the news of the tragic loss of life and injuries" caused by two bomb attacks near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

U.S. bishops mobilize support for arms pact

peace treatyWASHINGTON - U.S. Senate ratification of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty is a moral imperative and a necessary step toward the eventual goal of total nuclear disarmament, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore said.

Speaking during an April 26 panel discussion on the ethics of President Barack Obama’s nuclear weapons policy hosted by The Catholic University of America, O’Brien urged senators to cast aside partisan differences and approve the START agreement, which calls for what he described as “modest reductions” in American and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Pope promises action on abuse

Pope MaltaVATICAN CITY - Three days after promising sex-abuse victims in Malta that he would do all he could to bring offenders to justice, Pope Benedict XVI told a Vatican audience that he “assured” the Maltese men of  “Church action” to address priestly sexual abuse.

In a rare public statement April 21 on the sex-abuse scandal, Benedict recounted his meeting with eight Maltese men who were molested as children by priests.

“I shared their suffering and emotionally prayed with them,” the Pope told pilgrims and tourists during his weekly public audience at St. Peter’s Square.

Pope meets Malta abuse victims, expresses shame, sorrow for their suffering

Pope MaltaVALLETTA, Malta - Pope Benedict XVI met with eight victims of priestly sex abuse in Malta and promised them the church would do "all in its power" to bring offenders to justice and protect children.

The Pope was "deeply moved by their stories and expressed his shame and sorrow over what victims and their families have suffered," a Vatican statement said after the private encounter April 18.

"He prayed with them and assured them that the church is doing, and will continue to do, all in its power to investigate allegations, to bring to justice those responsible for abuse and to implement effective measures designed to safeguard young people in the future," the statement said.

"In the spirit of his recent letter to the Catholics of Ireland, he prayed that all the victims of abuse would experience healing and reconciliation, enabling them to move forward with renewed hope."

The meeting at the apostolic nunciature in Rabat came after a group of victims had asked to meet with the Pope to tell him of their ordeal and ask for an apology. The encounter was not part of the Pope's official itinerary and was only announced publicly by the Vatican after it had happened.

Participants said the victims cried as they told their stories, and that the Pope had tears in his eyes as he listened.

"We now have peace in our hearts, even because the Pope found time to meet us. We now look forward to the end of the court case, and closure of this chapter," one unidentified victims told the Times of Malta.

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, told journalists that the private meeting in the chapel of the nunciature lasted about 20 minutes. He said the Pope, Archbishop Paul Cremona of Malta, Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo and eight male victims of abuse began the encounter kneeling in silent prayer. The Pope then stood by the altar and met with each victim one by one to hear his story and to speak with each privately, Lombardi said. The victims were in their 30s and 40s, Lombardi said.

One of the victims, Lawrence Grech, told the Maltese paper that the two bishops with them shed tears during their meeting. Another said the Pope had tears in his eyes.

"I admire the Pope for his courage in meeting us. He was embarrassed by the failings of others," said Grech.

Grech, one of the victims who had asked for the papal meeting, has said he and others were abused as boys by four priests at the St. Joseph Orphanage in Santa Venera.

The meeting came after the Pope returned from a public Mass to the nunciature, where he has been staying during his April 17-18 pilgrimage to Malta.

During his public events in Malta, the Pope did not refer explicitly to the problem of the sexual abuse of minors by priests. He did make two subtle references to the problem when he spoke to journalists aboard the papal flight from Rome to Malta.

Speaking about the vitality of the Catholic faith in Malta, he said even when the body of the Church "is wounded by our sins, God loves this Church, and its Gospel is the true force that purifies and heals."

He then spoke of how St. Paul turned the tragedy of being shipwrecked on Malta into a positive opportunity when he decided to heal the sick and preach the power of Christ. Out of tragedy can come a new beginning and "life's shipwrecks can be part of God's plan for us and they may also be useful for new beginnings in our lives," the Pope said.

Cremona had met April 13 with a group of victims, including Grech, at their request. That meeting, which lasted two and a half hours, was "a great help" to the victims, Grech told reporters. Grech said Cremona listened carefully to each victim. He said his only wish was that the meeting with Cremona had happened earlier.

"We have been waiting for seven years for our case to end but justice has not yet been done," he told reporters April 16.

Welcoming the pope at Malta's international airport April 17, President George Abela said "the Catholic church remains committed to safeguarding children and all vulnerable people, and to seeing that there is no hiding place for those who seek to do harm."

A group of 10 victims announced April 16 that they had been granted a meeting with the promoter of justice in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Msgr. Charles Scicluna. The meeting with the monsignor, who handles the cases local dioceses have brought against allegedly abusive priests, was to take place sometime in June at the Vatican.

In an extensive interview with the Times of Malta April 11, Scicluna, who is from Malta, said the church is still "on a learning curve" concerning the handling of sex abuse allegations and that they "should learn to do things more expeditiously."

"I think that efforts to render the process more transparent will only help the church," he said.

He said the doctrinal congregation has had to deal with "the frustration some of them (cases of abuse) made us feel because justice was not meted out as it should be."

Justice has not always been served, he said, "because of a misplaced sense of protection of the institution; the mentality that you don't criticize the clergy because otherwise you're going to betray the institution," he said.

While he has said there is "a culture of silence" in Italy, he added that that same culture of not speaking out about abuse exists in all parts of the world.

Benedict XVI leads faithful back to basics

Pope Benedict XVIEditor’s Note: April 19 marks the fifth anniversary of Benedict XVI’s selection as pontiff. Headlines of recent weeks have focussed attention on the church’s clerical sex abuse scandal. That issue is covered elsewhere in this edition. Here we analyse Benedict’s first half decade, a busy and productive period for the now 83-year-old Pope.

VATICAN CITY - At the five-year mark, two key objectives of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate have come into clear focus: creating space for religion in the public sphere and space for God in private lives.

In hundreds of speeches and homilies, in three encyclicals, on 14 foreign trips, during synods of bishops and even through new web sites, the German pontiff has confronted what he calls a modern “crisis of faith,” saying the root cause of moral and social ills is a reluctance to acknowledge the truth that comes from God.

Poland mourns a faithful Catholic

Polish DisplayWARSAW, Poland  - Poland’s Catholic primate has urged fellow citizens to see the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others in a weekend air disaster as a “dramatic challenge” to build “a fuller community” at the national level and with neighbouring states.

“We are all asking ourselves the same painful question — how was this possible?” Archbishop Henryk Muszynski of Gniezno said at an April 11 Mass in his archdiocese.

Advocates see momentum against nuclear weapons gaining

OTTAWA - Unprecedented momentum is building towards a nuclear weapon-free world and the opportunity must not be lost, says Douglas Roche.

“This is certainly the most opportune moment that I have experienced in my lifetime for real concrete movement towards the elimination of nuclear weapons,” former senator Roche told journalists after an April 9 meeting with Stephen Harper.

A holy couple reunited in heaven

St. Gianna Beretta Molla with her then fiance, Pietro MollaEarly on Holy Saturday morning, Pietro Molla, husband of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, died in his family home in Mesero, near Milan in Italy, surrounded by his daughters Gianna Emanuela and Laura, and son Pierluigi. He was 97 years old and had been in failing health for several years.

I have been good friends with the Molla family since 1999 and St. Gianna is the patron saint of Salt + Light Catholic Television Network. I was blessed to accompany the Molla family in the years leading up to the 2004 canonization of St. Gianna, a great contemporary woman, saint, wife, mother, medical doctor and lover of life.

For Iraqi refugees, the healing begins with pain

{mosimage}DAMASCUS, Syria - On Passion Sunday, no matter where we are, we witness a struggle between the human and what we would like to call the inhuman.

In Damascus among the Iraqi Christians, it’s hard to think of that drama as far away in time or geography. The refugees — afraid and often wounded in body and mind by their experience — are painfully and obviously human. The violence they have fled and their lives of waiting and hoping as they grow poorer in Damascus are exactly what we mean when we call anything inhuman.

Jesus is fully and completely human — human as God intended humanity to be. The forces lined up to hang Him on the cross are the ones that rob us of our humanity in every age.