TORONTO - From your library to the confessional, from relics to rejoicing, the archdiocese of Toronto has lined up a year’s worth of ways to rediscover faith.

The Year of Faith kicks off inter- nationally on Oct. 11, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. In Toronto, the year will start with a solemn opening Mass with Cardinal Thomas Collins at St. Paul’s Basilica on Oct. 14. All 223 parishes in the archdiocese are being encouraged to send representatives, particularly their RCIA catechists, youth leaders and parish council members, to the 4 p.m. Mass at the downtown basilica.

Collins will also dedicate this year of lectio divina programs to a biblical understanding of faith.

The Office of Formation for Discipleship wants to add the Catechism of the Catholic Church to your reading list. And they hope to introduce young people to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and the YouCat youth catechism produced for World Youth Day in Madrid in 2011.

“Exploring the Catechism: Faith Alive!” is an eight-part series, and the catechism-based six-part series “Basic Teachings of the Catholic Church” will be promoted in parishes by the Office of Formation for Discipleship. A Fr. Robert Barron 10-part video series called Catholicism will also be available.

The Office of Catholic Youth will run catechetical events based on the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and YouCat.

A chance to visit with martyrs and saints will be coming to many parishes. Relics of 17th-century Jesuit martyrs from the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont., and of St. Br. André Bessette from St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, will tour the archdiocese.

On Oct. 21 seven blesseds will become saints, including Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks. The canonizations will happen in Rome. Parishes are being encouraged to organize events to celebrate Canada’s first aboriginal saint.

Penance will lead local Catholics to faith with the all-day confessions event called “Return to Me With All Your Heart.” The program will be offered in many parishes during Lent.

“The renewal of the Church is also achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers,” Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his October 2011 announcement of the Year of Faith, Porta Fidei. “By their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us.”

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

TORONTO - When 21-year-old Tia McGregor sees the younger kids who like her have grown up in foster homes — kids who have to figure out life without a family to support them the day they turn 18 — she tells them to follow their highest ambitions and their most cherished dreams.

"Do what you love and the rest will follow," she says.

The fourth-year Queen's University drama student knows her message is pretty hard to take seriously when you're 18 and have just been kicked out of your foster home.

"It didn't help me when people told me," she said. "For youth in care, there is so much more you have to think about."

Most former foster kids think they can't afford ideals, dreams and ambitions, said McGregor. They've got to worry about the rent, groceries, tuition. They've got to walk the tight-wire of daily life without the safety net of a family.

McGregor attended her third annual Hope For Children Foundation awards dinner Sept. 19 at Hart House on the University of Toronto campus. She collected a $2,000 scholarship to help with another year of post-secondary education. In total, the Hope For Children Foundation gave out $140,000 this year in scholarships to Catholic youth who had been through the foster care system with Catholic Children's Aid Society of Toronto.

One-hundred-six young people collected scholarships this year in amounts of $1,500 for community college students and $2,000 for university students.

For these kids the scholarships are a very small part of their financial picture, said Catholic Children's Aid executive director Mary McConville.

"We wish it was more," she said.

Statistics Canada released a study Sept. 12 showing the average Ontario undergraduate pays $7,180 in tuition fees alone. Since 2006 Ontario tuition fees have increased by a cumulative 71 per cent, said the Canadian Federation of Students — Ontario. Add in modest living costs, books, transportation and the real cost of an academic year is more like $11,000, according to the Hope for Children Foundation.

But still, the high-achieving McGregor urges idealism and big dreams on younger foster students. A high school math and science whiz, McGregor began university in astrophysics, trying to pursue the safe science career people expected of her. She wanted to study a little theatre on the side, but chemistry got in the way of a drama minor.

"In the end, I couldn't lie to myself," she said.

She switched programs despite the expectations of her foster family and former high school teachers, because the alternative to following a dream is grim and lifeless. She's blossomed as a writer, comedian and actress and spent last summer with the Thousand Island Playhouse summer theatre program acting and leading writing workshops for high school students.

None of this success was built into McGregor's beginnings. Her mother discovered she was pregnant at 15, and because the father was black the family rejected their daughter and granddaughter. McGregor's mother developed a drug addiction and her father was mostly absent. At six McGregor took refuge at her best friend's house every day and then every night.

Eventually that best friend became McGregor's foster sister and by the time she was eight the neighbour family officially became her foster home. Soon afterwards, McGregor's foster family moved from Scarborough two-and-a-half hours' drive east to Campbellford, Ont.

Small-town life was stable, warm, accepting — all she could have asked for. Unlike many foster children, McGregor stayed in the same home until she went away to university.

But she never had to look far to see how much more difficult things could have been. One of her foster sisters turned 18 last year before graduating from high school. Under Ontario law foster children are no longer crown wards at 18 and must immediately move out. McGregor's foster sister found a place with a school friend 45-minute's drive from her school. The 18-year-old managed to finished high school despite the dramatic dislocation and is now attending college.

McGregor believes the things she's experienced and seen in her life as a foster child have done more than toughen her up for life. They've also made her a better writer.

"I have more life experience, maybe," she said. "And that makes for a good writer."

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

TORONTO - When Immigration Minister Jason Kenney walks into a room full of bishops in St. Adéle, Que., Catholic refugee agencies are hoping the minister gets an earful.

Five Catholic immigration and refugee organizations in Toronto have written to the bishops asking that they challenge the minister on changes to Canada’s refugee and immigration laws. Kenney will address the bishops between Sept. 24 and 28 in a private, off-the-record session at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual plenary meeting.

Romero House, Sanctuary Ministries of Toronto, FCJ Refugee Centre, The Mustard Seed and Becoming Neighbours want the bishops to ask Kenney:
o Why Canada is treating refugees from some countries differently than refugees from other countries?
o Whether it’s fair to rush certain cases through the system before refugees hire a lawyer and prepare a thorough case?
o Why the government is limiting basic health care for refugees?
o Why do so many of Canada’s 200,000 foreign workers have no stable pathway to permanent resident status?
o Why are refugees smuggled into Canada as a group blocked for five years from re-uniting with their families even if they are found to be legitimate refugees?

The CCCB won’t say whether these questions will be asked, but it has the potential to re-open an old feud between the bishops and Kenney. In November 2010 the bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission wrote to Kenney to complain of sections of “The Balanced Refugee Reform Act and the Maritime Transportation Security Act.”

“Many of the clauses of this legislation may contravene international law and Canadian law, and penalize refugees more than the smugglers,” said the CCCB letter, adding that his anti-smuggling bill “risks creating serious obstacles to sponsorship and family reunification.”

Kenney did not welcome the bishops’ criticism, telling Canadian Catholic News Ottawa correspondent Deborah Gyapong the letter reflected a “long tradition of ideological bureaucrats who work for the bishops’ conference producing political letters signed by pastors who may not have specialized knowledge in certain areas of policy.”

Romero House director Sarah Villiger hopes this approach to Kenney through the bishops will draw a warmer response.

“We knew that (Kenney) would be there, personally invited. I think that in itself is a bit of a different tone, as opposed to just writing him a letter,” she said.

In part, the refugee agencies wanted to remind the bishops of their own stand on refugee and immigration issues. The letter quotes the bishops own 2006 pastoral letter “We Are Aliens and Transients Before the Lord, Our God.”

“Openness should be shown to persons of all cultures and origins, no matter their immigration status. Christians are to be among those who refuse to let injustice toward migrants continue, let alone increase,” the bishops wrote.

“We thought it was important that they get the input of people who work on the ground with refugees,” said Villiger.

The organizations also took the opportunity to remind the bishops of the many refugees and immigrants who actually occupy pews on Sunday morning.

“The Canadian Catholic Church has historically been an immigrant Church, and today many of the Catholic faithful are immigrants and refugees who form a vital part of and make a significant contribution to the Church in Canada,” they wrote.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

WINNIPEG - Ukrainian Catholic bishops from four continents gathered for a final celebration Sept. 16 as they closed their weeklong Synod of Bishops.

One of their emphases was on the role of the laity, and the final "gala," as it was billed, included the Hoosli Ukrainian Male Chorus, an honour guard and the Selo Ukrainian Dancers.

Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, the elected head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, challenged his audience of 800 to live Christian life to the fullest and not as "lukewarm, nominal Christians."

"If we allow ourselves to be overcome so we don't pray or enter into liturgy, we will cease to be a Church," Shevchuk said. "We are called to be people of prayer, gasping for the air of the Holy Spirit.

"Sometimes our churches are more like Ukrainian museums. We need vibrant parishes, a place to encounter the living Christ. May our encounter today fill us with new faith, energy and perseverance."

Reinvigorating Ukrainian parishes is part of Vision 2020, the long-range pastoral plan for the Ukrainian Catholic Church, which was suppressed for decades under Soviet rule.

After an opening Divine Liturgy in Winnipeg Sept. 9, the 38 bishops in attendance moved to Portage La Prairie, a city of about 13,000 west of Winnipeg. Focusing on the theme "The Role of the Laity in the Life and Mission of the Church," they heard presentations and reports before breaking into smaller thematic groups.

A statement issued at the end of the synod said the bishops acknowledged the role of the laity in preserving the faith when the Church was suppressed in the 20th century, and they issued a pastoral letter to the laity; it was not immediately available in English.

"The laity must be collaborators with the bishops and priests in pastoral work and, with their giftedness and by their talents, contribute toward the building up of the body of Christ," the statement said.

The bishops proclaimed a patron of Ukrainian Catholic laity: Blessed Volodymyr Pryjma, a choir director from the parish of Stradch, Ukraine, who in 1941 was tortured and murdered by Soviet paramilitary agents in a forest after taking Communion to a sick woman with his priest.

They also pledged to support Ukrainians who have emigrated from their home country.

Bishop Borys Gudziak, newly named bishop for Ukrainian Catholics in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland, told Catholic News Service before the synod began that in the last 18 years, Ukraine has lost up to 15 per cent of its population to emigration.

"People have been leaving in droves," he said, noting that, in many countries, the Ukrainians are illegal and living on the margins of society.
Gudziak was one of four bishops elected to the permanent synod for the next five years. Others were Archbishop Volodymyr Vijtyshyn Ivano-Frankivsk,

Ukraine; Bishop Ken Nowakowski of New Westminster, B.C.; and Bishop Jaroslav Pryriz of Sambir-Drohobych, Ukraine.

Next year's general Synod of Bishops will be Aug. 11-13 in Kiev, Ukraine, and will have as its theme the new evangelization.

Published in Canada

CAIRO - As tear-gas-bearing police battled Egyptians armed with stones in front of Cairo's U.S. Embassy, Rashad was two neighbourhoods away, making sure the few evening customers respected the line at the Mobinil cellphone company where he works.

"Is it all right to defame the Prophet, blessings be upon him?" Rashad, a Muslim, asked a reporter who inquired about the embassy standoff. "No. There are limits to how far people should be allowed to go."

Rashad, who would not give his last name, had not seen the amateur film reportedly defaming the prophet Mohammed that led to protests at the U.S. embassies in Egypt and other countries. But he said he'd heard enough to know that the film was "haram," or sinful, and that protests against it, however violent, were justified.

Such anger over the film that depicted Mohammed as a sex-crazed simpleton has Egypt's Christians — and others in predominantly Muslim countries — worried. They say the film's association with the Christian West makes them possible targets of extremist behaviour.

"What happens outside the country is very dangerous for us because it is perceived to be related to us inside," said Bishop Adel Zaki of Alexandria, Egypt's vicar for Latin-rite Catholics.

The film was released in July but went almost completely unnoticed in the Middle East until a preview of it was translated into Arabic.

In an interview at his Cairo residence, Zaki told Catholic News Service that Egypt's Catholics condemned defamation of other religions, in line with what he called "the Vatican decree which commands respect for those of other faiths." But when products or policies deemed anti-Arab or anti-Muslim surface in the United States and other Western countries, Egypt's Christians, who account for about eight million of the country's more than 82 million people, often feel the brunt, he said.

People in other countries "should keep in mind that there are repercussions for Christians here. The level of fanaticism grows," he said.

Newly elected Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a conservative Muslim, has decried the short film, saying "Egyptians reject any kind of insult against our Prophet." But he also called for restraint and protection of the country's "foreign guests" and embassies.

Despite the tension over the film in Cairo and other parts of the Middle East, Fr. Fady Sady, a Coptic Catholic priest, said he did not expect trouble in Egypt's South, where he lives and serves.

"(Muslims) know those who made the film are not from Egypt, so there will be no problems," he said by cellphone from the city of Nagada. But he added that "when anything contentious" like this film appears abroad, Christians in Egypt go on alert.

"Perhaps someone not very educated could use the event to make an operation," he said, referring to attacks on churches that have occurred in the past.

Back in Cairo, Mohammed Abdu, a 22-year-old Muslim taxi driver, said he was angered by reports of the film but even more upset by the protests at the U.S. Embassy. He said he expected they would further damage Egypt's economy, already facing huge challenges due to dramatic losses in tourism and other business since the 2011 overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime.

"Had (the protesters) been quiet and ignored (the film), it would have disappeared, but now it is famous. When people start climbing walls and attacking embassies, the people who made the film get the attention they wanted," said Abdu, who drives a rented cab 12 hours a day to save enough money to get married. He said he projected even less income for the country now and, consequently, fewer people with money to ride cabs like his.

Internationally, religious leaders from across the spectrum were quick to condemn the hate message of the anti-Islam film and the wave of violent attack it provoked. In a Sept. 11 attack, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, three other Americans and several Libyan soldiers were killed in the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The next day, the Vatican condemned the attacks, saying there was no justification for such violence.

After protests in Pakistan gathered momentum, Catholic leaders in Faisalabad condemned the film. A Church official said leaders hoped to avoid possible anti-Christian backlash.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders who work with religious institutions as well as heads of local churches issued a joint statement Sept. 15 deploring "those who abuse free speech to offend the religion and religious beliefs and symbols of others." The leaders also condemned "those who use violence in reaction instead of peacefully protesting against such abuse."

Israeli Deputy Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson told the Hebrew edition of Ha'aretz daily newspaper that the content of the film was "beneath contempt" and "vile."

Leaders of the Coptic Orthodox archdiocese of North America expressed sympathy to the families of those killed in Libya and emphasized that such violence contradicted "the virtues of love and tolerance by which Christians are governed." They also rejected allegations that the Coptic Orthodox community was involved in producing the film.

Published in International

VATICAN CITY - A Vatican magistrate has set a trial date for two men formally indicted in connection with the so-called "VatiLeaks" scandal.

The first day of the public trial, which will be held in a Vatican courtroom, is set for Sept. 29, the Vatican announced Sept. 17.

Paolo Gabriele, Pope Benedict XVI's former personal assistant, was indicted in mid-August on charges of aggravated theft; Claudio Sciarpelletti, a computer technician from the Vatican Secretariat of State, was indicted on minor charges of aiding Gabriele after he stole Vatican correspondence.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said a small pool of print reporters will be permitted to attend the proceedings, but still and television cameras will not be allowed access.

Gabriele and Sciarpelleti will face a panel of three Vatican judges, all of whom are laymen and professors at Italian universities. Vatican law, like Italian law, does not foresee the use of juries in criminal trials.

Gabriele, 46, faces a sentence of one to six years in prison. Under the terms of the Vatican's 1929 treaty with Italy, a person found guilty and sentenced to jail time by a Vatican court would serve his term in an Italian prison.

Lombardi had said in August that the charge against Sciarpelletti carried a "very light" sentence, which is unlikely to include jail time.

Gabriele was arrested May 23 after confidential letters and documents addressed to the Pope and other Vatican officials were found in his Vatican apartment. Many of the documents were the same as those featured in a January television program by Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi and later published in a book by him. Most of the documents dealt with allegations of corruption, abuse of power and a lack of financial transparency at the Vatican.

A report released after a Vatican-led investigation of the affair said Gabriele told Vatican investigators he acted after seeing "evil and corruption everywhere in the Church." He said he had discussed with a spiritual advisor his concerns about the Church and what he was thinking when he took the documents.

Gabriele was questioned repeatedly over the two-month period he spent detained in a room in the Vatican police barracks. He was allowed to return, under house arrest, to his Vatican apartment with his wife and family July 21 and was to remain under house arrest until his trial ends.

Published in International

After a successful three-week medical mission trip to Tanzania in August, Chalice Canada is already planning two further trips, as well as a significant fundraising project.

Chalice, a Catholic charity that runs sponsorship programs in the Third World, sent a group of 22 Canadian medical professionals — including doctors, a dentist, nurses, teachers and students — to two sites where Chalice also runs programs. The TANCAN Medical Mission provided medical training and aid at the clinics and in the communities. It was in partnership with the Sisters of Visitation and the Vincentian Fathers in these communities.

Chalice plans to repeat this mission for the next two years while also raising money to build a maternity ward for the clinic run by the Sisters of Visitation.

Shayla Roberts, a second-year nursing student at Medicine Hat College in Alberta, said her experience on the mission trip was life-changing.

“It was phenomenal,” she said. “Very eye-opening. It was amazing to see how the people live and experience the culture.”
Roberts said she knows she wants to include similar trips in her future career, and wanted to get started as a student.

“It was a really good growing and learning experience for me,” she said, describing her duties as part of the baseline team, which completed the initial assessment of patients before sending them off to different areas of care.

Dr. Elizabeth Tham, a family doctor specializing in women’s care, and her husband, emergency-room physician Dr. Francis Sem, were the two doctors on the trip. No strangers to medical mission trips, Tham and Sem brought their three sons with them to Tanzania.

“It’s … a wonderful family time together,” Tham said. “(It’s good) for them to see how other people live in the rest of the world.”

Tham said the whole team worked incredibly well together, something Roberts also noted.

“We had people of all ages, all backgrounds, all walks of life,” she said. “It was great to see how we could all relate to each other and work together and work as a part of a team.”

For Roberts and several others on the trip, an added bonus was making a stop to visit the child she sponsors through Chalice, four-year-old Edina. She describes their meeting as a really unique experience.

“It was really cool to actually meet (her) and put a face to the name,” Roberts said. “Now when I get updates, I’m able to relate more.”

Chalice mission trips co-ordinator Joanne Albrecht said Tanzania was strategically picked for the three-year initiative because it’s a place where Chalice can have an impact.

“The idea is over the three years, we’ll raise money to (build the maternity ward) and bring in professionals who can share their knowledge with the Sisters there.”

Published in International

BEIRUT - Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the suffering of Christians in the Middle East, reassuring them and urging them to promote peace through religiously inspired service to their societies.

"Your sufferings are not in vain," the pope told a crowd of at least 350,000 at a sweltering outdoor Mass at Beirut's City Center Waterfront Sept. 16. "Remain ever hopeful because of Christ."

In his homily, Pope Benedict commented on the day's reading from the Gospel of St. Mark, in which Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. Jesus is a "Messiah who suffers," the pope said, "a Messiah who serves, and not some triumphant political savior."

Speaking in a region riven by sectarian politics, where party loyalties are often determined by religious affiliation, the pope warned that people can invoke Jesus to "advance agendas which are not his, to raise false temporal hopes in his regard."

Pope Benedict told his listeners, whose travails of war and economic insecurity he had acknowledged repeatedly throughout his visit, that Christianity is essentially a faith of redemptive suffering.

"Following Jesus means taking up one's cross and following in his footsteps along a difficult path which leads not to earthly power or glory but, if necessary, to self-abandonment, to losing one's life for Christ and the Gospel in order to save it," he said.

Yet Pope Benedict also cited another of the day's Mass readings, the epistle of St. James, to emphasize the spiritual value of "concrete actions" and works, concluding that "service is a fundamental element" of Christian identity.

Addressing a region where Christian-run social services, including schools and health care facilities, are extensively used by the Muslim majority, the pope stressed the importance of "serving the poor, the outcast and the suffering," and called on Christians to be "servants of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East."

"This is an essential testimony which Christians must render here, in cooperation with all people of good will," Pope Benedict said.

During the homily, the only sound was the pope's voice and its echo from the loudspeakers. Many people leaned over and bowed their heads with eyes closed, so they could concentrate more deeply.

Following the Mass, the pope formally presented patriarchs and bishops of the Middle East with a document of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to the region's Christians. In the 90-page document, called an apostolic exhortation, the pope called for religious freedom and warned of the dangers of fundamentalism.

Sheltered from the sun only by white baseball caps and the occasional umbrella, people had already packed the city's central district by 8 a.m., almost an hour-and-a-half before the pope arrived in the popemobile, which took him to the foot of the altar. In temperatures that rose into the high 80s, the pope celebrated Mass under a canopy while bishops and patriarchs on either side wiped their brows and fanned themselves with programs.

Aside from the complimentary white pope caps, people in the crowd improvised versions of sun protection with torn pieces of corrugated boxes tied around heads and papal and Lebanese flags worn as bandanas.

George Srour, 38, estimated that 20,000 people came from Zahle in a convoy of chartered school buses, leaving at 5 a.m. for the 10 a.m. Mass.

"We Christians must be united and participate" in the pope's visit, Srour told Catholic News Service, "otherwise there will be no more Lebanon. It will become like Iraq, and now Syria, with all the Christians leaving."
- - -
Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad.

Published in International

HAVANA, CUBA - In Old Havana, time seems to stand still. Amidst the stunning architecture and vintage cars rolling along cobblestone streets, visitors are shown a glimpse of a different world at this UNESCO World Heritage site.

But what is striking about the old city is the many signs of Catholicism in the capital of one of the few remaining communist nations in the world. It is evident immediately upon arrival in Havana. Driving past the bay, we saw the white marble Christ of Havana statue on a hilltop. There was no stopping, however, as the 20-metre work of art was under construction.

Then we made our way into the city, down the narrow walkways into the heart of Old Havana.What do we pass but a stone cross towering overhead, smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk — a sign of what’s to come.

Our tour began at the Basilica and Monastery of St. Francis of Assisi. Built at the tail end of the 16th century for the Franciscan community, its religious use was discontinued in the mid-1760s after Cuba reverted to Spanish rule following a brief two years under British rule. Attached to a 40-metre bell tower, the basilica functions today as a museum and concert hall. Inside, there is a glass statue of Jesus that was given to former Cuban president Fidel Castro by Blessed Mother Teresa, our tour guide tells us.

Walking into the picturesque “Hostal Valencia,” a rustic bed and breakfast established by Spanish settlers, there is a large portrait of Castro (or El Comandante, as locals call him). And less than a half-metre away, a small illuminated statue of Mother Mary holding baby Jesus in a glass case caught my eye. To an outsider, it seems contradictory to have these two symbols so close. Then again, the Blessed Virgin and the dictator both have devotees in this communist state. The city’s charm is encapsulated here, with vines growing from the upper balcony of a large courtyard where visitors eat at tables on the ground level.

Continuing along our route, El Templete comes into view, a tiny neoclassical chapel partially covered by a massive ceiba tree. It was erected on the spot where Havana’s first Mass was held under the same kind of tree in the 1500s. Every Nov. 16, Habaneros (residents of Havana) celebrate the anniversary of the first Mass along with the first town council of San Cristobal de la Habana.

A little farther along is the Museum of the City, which used to be the Captain General’s Palace, seat of the Spanish governments on the island from 1791 to 1898. From 1899 until 1902, the U.S. military governors were based here, and during the first two decades of the 20th century the building briefly became the presidential palace. Half of it was used for official business and the other half as a residence. But before it served these purposes, this was the site of Havana’s original church, the Parroquial Mayor, with relics from its past on display in the lower chambers. Among these relics are an old pew, a Gospel adorned in gold, a monstrance decorated in coral and a sculpture of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns.
Fittingly enough, the finale was the iconic cathedral of Havana that has not one name, but two. Officially called the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, it’s better known as the Cathedral of St. Christopher, Havana’s patron saint. Before being shipped off to the cathedral in Seville, Spain, the bones of Christopher Columbus lay here. On either side of the baroque facade are bell towers, one of which is visibly larger, creating an intentional asymmetry. Tourists shuffle about the square outside, staring in awe at the grandiose testament to the faith.

Amidst the multitude of sights in Old Havana, such as the Ambos Mundos Hotel where American writer Ernest Hemingway penned many of his classics, and Morro Castle that guards the entrance to Havana Bay, Catholic icons are scattered. They play a prominent role in giving Habana Vieja its unique character.

Six months after Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba and spoke out for stronger religious freedom for Catholics, it was interesting to see the religiosity inherent in the city’s many features. Indeed, it is a country of contrasts. Although the anti-religious views of Marxism have clearly had a powerful impact on the country, Cuba’s Catholic roots remain.

Published in International

BKERKE, Lebanon - Pope Benedict XVI urged young Christians in the Middle East not to flee violence and economic insecurity through emigration, but to draw strength from their faith and make peace in their troubled region.

The pope spoke to some 20,000 young people from several Middle Eastern countries gathered outside the residence of the Maronite patriarch in Bkerke in a celebration that included fireworks, spotlights, singing and prayer.

The crowd began to form hours before Pope Benedict arrived in the popemobile a little after 6 p.m. After passing through the metal detector and the gates of Bkerke, visitors were greeted by Scouts who gave them an olive branch to wave to welcome the pope and a knapsack containing water, snacks, an Arabic Bible and the new edition of the youth catechism -- "YouCat," a gift from Pope Benedict.

A giant rosary fashioned from yellow and blue balloons hovered over the crowd, its colors blending in with the cloudless sky and Mediterranean Sea below the hillside.

Pope Benedict asked young Christians, whose population is diminishing across the Middle East, not to abandon their homelands.

"Not even unemployment and uncertainty should lead you to taste the bitter sweetness of emigration, which involves an uprooting and a separation for the sake of an uncertain future," he said. "You are meant to be protagonists of your country's future and to take your place in society and in the church."
Warning against escapism, the pope urged his listeners not to "take refuge in parallel worlds like those, for example, of the various narcotics or the bleak world of pornography."

He acknowledged that online social networks are interesting, but said they "can quite easily lead to addiction and confusion between the real and the virtual." He called money a "tyrannical idol which blinds to the point of stifling the person at the heart."

Offering encouragement, the pope invoked the inspiration of the first Christians, inhabitants of the Middle East who "lived in troubled times and their faith was the source of their courage and their witness."

"Courageously resist everything opposed to life: abortion, violence, rejection of and contempt for others, injustice and war," Pope Benedict said. "In this way you will spread peace all around you."

Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, in his welcoming speech, told the pope, "These youths suffer from social, political and economic crises that negatively affect their faith and cause some of them to lose the real meaning of their Christian identity."

Two youths spoke to the pope, basing their remarks on input from young Christians from all over Lebanon.

The Middle East's young Christians, they said, "yearn for peace and dream of a future without wars, a future where we will play an active role, where we work with our brothers, the young people of different religions to build a civilization of love ... homelands where human rights and freedom are respected, where each one's dignity is protected."

"We are looking for a culture of peace," they said, calling for the condemnation of violence. "We want to be living bridges, mediators of dialogue and cooperation."

The crowd cheered when the pope said he did not forget the Syrian people, stressing that he is always praying for them and that he is glad there were some Syrian people at the gathering.

Syria's civil war has left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees since March 2011.

"The pope is saddened by your sufferings and your grief," he said, his first public reference to the Syrian conflict since he arrived in Lebanon. "It is time for Muslims and Christians to come together so as to put an end to violence and war."

Pope Benedict also offered a word of thanks to the Muslims in attendance, urging them to work with Christians to build up the region.

"Muslims and Christians, Islam and Christianity, can live side by side without hatred, with respect for the beliefs of each person, so as to build together a free and humane society," the pope said.

After young people presented the prayer intentions, fireworks erupted from all corners of Bkerke, taking the pope by surprise. Sparklers cascaded from the roof of the outdoor chapel facing the stage, lighting up the sky.

At the conclusion of the gathering, spotlights atop the chapel illuminated the courtyard. The huge inflatable globe that had been placed earlier under the cross was sent airborne, with young people bouncing it like a volleyball.

A light show flashed "take-home" reminders on the walls: "love," "missionaries of peace," "pray."

Published in International

BEIRUT - Peace will not come to the Middle East until its nations enjoy religious freedom, since only the free practice of faith can inspire the region's diverse peoples to unite around basic human values, Pope Benedict XVI said Sept. 15.

The pope addressed a multifaith gathering of Lebanon's political, religious and cultural leaders at the presidential palace in Baabda on the second day of a three-day visit to the country.

Pope Benedict's travels coincided with a wave of often-violent protests -- prompted by an American-made film denigrating Islam -- in at least a dozen Muslim countries. On Sept. 14, protesters denounced the papal visit during a demonstration in the Lebanese city of Tripoli; one person died and 25 were wounded in a clash that followed.

In his speech to the nation's leaders, the pope did not refer specifically to any of the region's many past or present conflicts, including the current civil war in neighboring Syria, but noted that the "centuries-old mix" of cultures and religions in the Middle East has not always been peaceful.

Peace requires a pluralistic society based on "mutual respect, a desire to know the other, and continuous dialogue," the pope said, and such dialogue in turn depends on consciousness of sharing fundamental human values, cherished and sustained in common by different religions. Thus, he argued, "religious freedom is the basic right on which many rights depend."

The pope spoke after meeting privately with Lebanon's president and prime minister, the president of parliament, and leaders of the country's four major Muslim communities: Sunni, Shiite, Druze and Alawite. Lebanon's population is estimated to be about 60 percent Muslim and almost 40 percent Christian, with both groups divided into many smaller communities.

In an apparent reference to the many Middle Eastern countries that restrict the practice or expression of religions other than Islam, the pope said that freedom must go beyond "what nowadays passes for tolerance," which he said "does not eliminate cases of discrimination" but sometimes "even reinforces them."

"The freedom to profess and practice one's religion without danger to life and liberty must be possible to everyone," he said.

Those remarks echoed portions of a document that Pope Benedict signed the previous night in Harissa and was to present formally Sept. 16 at an outdoor Mass in Beirut. The document is a collection of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops dedicated to Christians in the Middle East.

In his talk in Baabda, the pope did not explicitly address the topic of religiously inspired violence, but included a single reference to terrorism and the assertion that "authentic faith does not lead to death."

He also said that peace requires a shared respect for human life and dignity. Those values are undermined not only by war, he said, but by a range of social ills, including unemployment, corruption, "different forms of trafficking," and an "economic and financial mindset which would subordinate 'being' to 'having.'"

The pope also warned against ideologies that he said "undermine the foundations of our society" by "questioning, directly or indirectly, or even before the law, the inalienable value of each person and the natural foundation of the family" -- an apparent reference to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

In response to such threats, Pope Benedict said, political and religious leaders should promote a "culture of peace" through education, which he said would encourage a "conversion of heart" characterized above all by a willingness to forgive.

"Only forgiveness, given and received," the pope said, "can lay lasting foundations for reconciliation and universal peace."

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BEIRUT (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI signed a major document calling on Catholics in the Middle East to engage in dialogue with Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim neighbors, but also to affirm and defend their right to live freely in the region where Christianity was born.

In a ceremony at the Melkite Catholic Basilica of St. Paul in Harissa Sept. 14, Pope Benedict signed the 90-page document of his reflections on the 2010 special Synod of Bishops, which was dedicated to Christians in the Middle East. He was to formally present the document Sept. 16 at an outdoor Mass in Beirut.

A section dedicated to interreligious dialogue encouraged Christians to "esteem" the region's dominant religion, Islam, lamenting that "both sides have used doctrinal differences as a pretext for justifying, in the name of religion, acts of intolerance, discrimination, marginalization and even of persecution."

Yet in a reflection of the precarious position of Christians in most of the region today, where they frequently experience negative legal and social discrimination, the pope called for Arab societies to "move beyond tolerance to religious freedom."

The "pinnacle of all other freedoms," religious freedom is a "sacred and inalienable right," which includes the "freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one's beliefs in public," the pope wrote.

It is a civil crime in some Muslim countries for Muslims to convert to another faith and, in Saudi Arabia, Catholic priests have been arrested for celebrating Mass, even in private.

The papal document, called an apostolic exhortation, denounced "religious fundamentalism" as the opposite extreme of the secularization that Pope Benedict has often criticized in the context of contemporary Western society.

Fundamentalism, which "afflicts all religious communities," thrives on "economic and political instability, a readiness on the part of some to manipulate others, and a defective understanding of religion," the pope wrote. "It wants to gain power, at times violently, over individual consciences, and over religion itself, for political reasons."

Many Christians in the Middle East have expressed growing alarm at the rise of Islamist extremism, especially since the so-called Arab Spring democracy movement has toppled or threatened secular regimes that guaranteed religious minorities the freedom to practice their faith.

Earlier in the day, the pope told reporters accompanying him on the plane from Rome that the Arab Spring represented positive aspirations for democracy and liberty and hence a "renewed Arab identity." But he warned against the danger of forgetting that "human liberty is always a shared reality," and consequently failing to protect the rights of Christian minorities in Muslim countries.

The apostolic exhortation criticized another aspect of social reality in the Middle East by denouncing the "wide variety of forms of discrimination" against women in the region.

"In recognition of their innate inclination to love and protect human life, and paying tribute to their specific contribution to education, health care, humanitarian work and the apostolic life," Pope Benedict wrote, "I believe that women should play, and be allowed to play, a greater part in public and ecclesial life."

In his speech at the document's signing, Pope Benedict observed that Sept. 14 was the feast of the Exaltation of Holy Cross, a celebration associated with the Emperor Constantine the Great, who in the year 313 granted religious freedom in the Roman Empire and was later baptized.

The pope urged Christians in the Middle East to "act concretely ... in a way like that of the Emperor Constantine, who could bear witness and bring Christians forth from discrimination to enable them openly and freely to live their faith in Christ crucified, dead and risen for the salvation of all."

While the pope signed the document in an atmosphere of interreligious harmony, with Orthodox, Muslim and Druze leaders in the attendance at the basilica, the same day brought an outburst of religiously inspired violence to Lebanon.

During a protest against the American-made anti-Muslim film that prompted demonstrations in Libya, Egypt and Yemen earlier in the week, a group attempted to storm a Lebanese government building in the northern city of Tripoli. The resulting clashes left one person dead and 25 wounded, local media reported. According to Voice of Lebanon radio, Lebanese army troops were deployed to Tripoli to prevent further violence.

Mohammad Samak, the Muslim secretary-general of Lebanon's Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue, told Catholic News Service that the violence had nothing to do with the pope's visit.

"All Muslim leaders and Muslim organizations -- political and religious -- they are all welcoming the Holy Father and welcoming his visit," Samak said. "I hope his visit will give more credibility to what we have affirmed as the message of Lebanon -- a country of conviviality between Christians and Muslims who are living peacefully and in harmony together for hundreds of years now."

Bishop Joseph Mouawad, vicar of Lebanon's Maronite Patriarchate, told CNS that the apostolic exhortation represents "a roadmap for Christians of the Middle East to live their renewal at all levels, especially at the level of communion."

The exhortation will also be a call to dialogue, he said, especially between Christians and Muslims.

Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, said now church leaders in each Mideast country must "work on how to translate the exhortation into real life in our communities and also in our Muslim and Christian relationships."
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Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad.

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BRAMPTON, ONT. - Catholic social workers in Brampton and Mississauga have found a new way to stand up for marriage by standing with as many allies as they can find.

Catholic Family Services Peel-Dufferin, a Catholic social work agency at the service of all families in the suburbs west of Toronto, is the lead agency for the Safe Centre of Peel, a family justice centre in the William G. Davis Centre for Families in Brampton.

“As Catholics, we can’t be afraid to lead,” said Mark Creedon, executive director of Peel-Dufferin Catholic Family Services.

Creedon has pulled together eight critical agencies that serve women and families faced with violence. Rather than being referred from one location to another to obtain housing, counselling, legal aid, medical advice, child care and more, at the Safe Centre it all happens in the same place. The idea is to deliver more effective and timely help and prevent women from giving up hope and returning to life with their abuser.

“Our purpose (at Catholic Family Services) is to preserve true marriages,” said Creedon. “If somebody goes into a marriage thinking his wife is his punching bag, well that’s not really a marriage.”

The Brampton Safe Centre isn’t the first Canadian family justice centre led by a Catholic agency. The former Catholic family services agency in Kitchener-Waterloo, now known as Mosaic, took the lead in establishing the Family Violence Project of Waterloo Region in 2006.

The idea of pooling and co-ordinating services to battered women in a single location started in San Diego, Calif., in 2002. Former City Attorney Casey Gwinn brought together police and social work agencies to form a united child abuse and domestic violence unit. To date, Gwinn’s National Family Justice Alliance has fostered and encouraged 80 family justice centres in the United States and 30 internationally from Amman, Jordan, to Sonora, Mexico.

“The fundamental issues are the same whether you’re in Canada, Mexico, Europe or anywhere else in the world,” Gwinn told The Catholic Register.

In the case of Canadian centres, having religious agencies lead the conglomerate of services is an advantage, he said.

“That spiritual care piece does make the Canadian model more vibrant. We struggle in the United States to get the spiritual care piece addressed in family justice centres,” he said.

Though it’s a Catholic agency that acts as landlord and instigator at the Safe Centre of Peel, the centre is able to connect clients with spiritual care for people of all faiths. The other agencies may not be Catholic, but they share values and a common purpose with Catholic Family Services, said Creedon.

“We’re dealing with excellent partner agencies that have great values which we share,” he said.

While Creedon has been able to get most of the critical services to buy in, he has struggled to get Peel Regional Police onside. The police are part of the Safe Centre’s steering committee and have worked out a protocol for getting victims from the Safe Centre to the police station. But they refuse to station officers already dedicated to domestic violence cases at the centre.

Peel Police claim their “best practice business model” involves working with the Safe Centre of Peel, but “does not involve the permanent stationing of officers within the facility,” Staff Sergeant Rob Higgs told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

“It’s very shortsighted for law enforcement to say, ‘Oh, this isn’t really our thing,’ ” said Gwinn. “Law enforcement officers around the world are realizing they can’t do the job alone. They’re never going to arrest their way out of the problem.”

Peel Police responded to 2,042 criminal intimate relationship incidents in 2011 and another 6,554 verbal domestic occurrences. Overall, domestic calls in Peel have increased 13.99 per cent between 2008 and 2011, according to Higgs.
The more police come to the house and do no more than record the incident or negotiate temporary quiet, the more abusive men feel the law won’t touch them, said Gwinn.

“Empowered batterers are more likely to fight with police officers. Empowered batterers are more likely to kill police officers,” said Gwinn.

The repeat visits also cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in police resources that don’t produce convictions, said Gwinn.

Creedon would like to persuade police to station officers at the Safe Centre, but for now hopes working effectively with police will convince the next chief to assign officers to the centre.

Getting this right is about much more than saving the police budget or getting more convictions. For Creedon, it’s about changing the direction for the next generation.

“One of the things we know about domestic violence is how much it is a generational thing,” he said. “So if you grow up in a family where your mother is getting abused — or it could be the father, but somebody is getting abused in that family — you are three times more likely to grow up to be an abuser or to be abused.”

Nationally the scale of the problem is immense. In 2007 there were more than 40,000 incidents of spousal violence reported to police, about 12 per cent of all police-reported violent crime in Canada, according to Statistics Canada. Women were the victims 83 per cent of the time.

“I totally believe there is something about being a Catholic family service agency that following the Catholic social justice values forces us to not walk away when we see tremendous injustice,” said Creedon.

Published in Canada: Toronto-GTA

BEIRUT - Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon Sept. 14, saying that he came "as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men."

In his remarks at a welcoming ceremony at Beirut's airport, Pope Benedict praised Lebanon, with a mixed population of Christians and Muslims, for its distinctive record of "co-existence and respectful dialogue."

But speaking in a country that was devastated by a civil war from 1975 to 1990, the Pope acknowledged that Lebanese society's "equilibrium, which is presented everywhere as an example, is extremely delicate."

"Sometimes it seems about to snap like a bow which is overstretched or submitted to pressures," he said.

The Pope urged Lebanese to do everything possible to maintain this social equilibrium, which he said "should be sought with insistence, preserved at all costs and consolidated with determination."

Earlier in the day, speaking to reporters on the plane from Rome, Pope Benedict addressed some of the turbulence currently afflicting the rest of the Middle East. He praised the so-called Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave that started in December 2010, leading to the fall of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and currently threatening the government of Syria, just across the border from Lebanon.

The Pope said the movement represented positive aspirations for democracy and liberty and hence a "renewed Arab identity." But he warned against the danger of forgetting that "human liberty is always a shared reality," and consequently failing to protect the rights of Christian minorities in Muslim countries.

Many Middle Eastern Christians fear that revolution has empowered Islamist extremism in the region, increasing the danger of attacks and persecution of the sort that Iraq's Christians have suffered since the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Asked about the current exodus of Christians from civil-war-torn Syria, the Pope noted that Muslims, too, have been fleeing the violence there. He went on to say that the best way to preserve the Christian presence in Syria was to promote peace, among other ways by restricting sales of military arms.

Speaking only three days after the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three of his staff members, the Pope told reporters that he had never considered cancelling his visit to Lebanon out of security concerns, and that no one had advised him to do so.

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The days may be numbered for union support of contentious political causes, something the Catholic Civil Rights League has been working towards for years.

While the league has been concerned about union support for same-sex marriage and other issues in opposition to Catholic teaching, the tipping point for political change may be the Public Service Alliance of Canada’s (PSAC) recent support for separatist candidates in the Sept. 4 Quebec election.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, parliamentary secretary to the transport minister, promised to urge his cabinet colleagues bring in legislation that would allow employees to opt out of paying union dues.

“I cannot imagine how it could possibly be in the interests of a Canadian public servant for the union to back a separatist party,” Poilievre told the Globe and Mail. “And yet that is precisely what PSAC has done.”

The rights league became involved in the union dues issue back in 2004 when it fought for the rights of Catholic PSAC member Susan Comstock to have part of her $800 yearly mandatory dues diverted to charity because the union campaigned for same-sex marriage, contrary to her religious beliefs.

“We’ve always thought that, with good reason, union members should be able to put their request in writing so a portion of mandatory dues could be diverted to charity,” said league executive director Joanne McGarry. “The ability to opt out of the union is another possibility.”

At issue is “the ability of union members to have a say in how their money is spent so they don’t have to fund something they find morally repugnant,” she said.

Industry Canada employee Dave MacDonald, a former PSAC local president who represented Comstock in her grievance process, said the changes Poilievre proposes are “important because the PSAC, among others, have ceased to be an organization focused on improving workers’ rights and become a political organization.”

“As a Catholic, I am offended that my union dues are used to fund court challenges on abortion and same-sex marriage, gay pride parades and similar causes which have no correlation to the workplace,” he said. “Moreover, the Comstock case showed the extent to which the leadership in the PSAC was hostile to their own members who did not endorse their extreme political agenda.”

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) built a war chest for Premier Dalton McGuinty, despite religious freedom concerns raised by the Ontario bishops and Catholic school trustees about the Ontario government’s policies that would impose Gay-Straight Alliances on Catholic schools. McGarry said she encountered Catholic teachers who insisted OECTA did not represent their point of view.

“I’m sorry, but they do,” she said. “That’s your money; they do represent you.”

Legislation is not the only way to make change, she said. She urged union members to become involved in the running of their unions so they have a say on policies. But McGarry stressed the importance of religious freedom and conscientious objection.  

“If someone’s in a position where union membership is a condition of employment, they should be able, for serious reasons, to divert their dues.”

MacDonald, who has a private immigration law practice outside his work for government, is concerned Poilievre’s proposals might end unions if everyone is able to opt out of paying dues altogether.

“I believe a good compromise, and one that I believe the Church agrees with, is to keep unions in line with the rights of charities (including churches) regarding political activities,” he said. “That is, they should be able to do some political activities providing they are related to the stated objectives of a labour union.”

Lobbying government on job security, wages, health and safety would be okay, as would communicating messages on these issues to members, he said.

MacDonald said reform would be welcomed by the vast majority of members because it would make “a union that was interested in protecting worker’s rights rather than espousing political viewpoints that are not shared by the majority of its members.”

Union leaders have reacted angrily against Poilievre’s proposal, with Canadian Labour Congress Leader Ken Georgetti accusing the Conservative government of trying to silence its critics.

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Russ Hiebert’s private member’s bill C-377 that would bring more accountability to how union dues are spent passed second reading last March and is now before the House of Commons finance committee.

Published in Canada