Song, joy, chaos, silence: why we flocked to Madrid

On the morning after the concluding Mass of World Youth Day in Madrid, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were still roaming the streets with their flags and songs, and hundreds of buses were being loaded with luggage and weary pilgrims. An estimated 1.4 million people packed the Cuarto Vientos Airforce Base on Aug. 20 for the overnight Vigil and 1.5 million people attended Sunday Mass with Pope Benedict XVI the next morning.

Organizers, however, were not too pleased to admit that 250,000-plus pilgrims, including many Canadians, were turned away from the site due to overcrowding. I wonder if Spain was ready for the influx of so many pilgrims. Even many of the 6,000 accredited journalists got nowhere near the principal venues.

So, yes, there was much to be desired about the organization of this mega-event of the Catholic Church. But organizational issues were not the full story. No matter what was said during countless discussions around tapas, sangria and cerveza in Madrid, abundant seeds were sown. We must now pray for a bountiful harvest.

For me, some special memories from Madrid will endure.  

Charles Lewis: Catholics, Mormons share similar American past

Republican presidential candidate Mitt RomneyThe depth of Roman Catholicism is so great it can keep those of us in the faith captivated for many lifetimes. And because of the Church’s position in society — a religion with one billion adherents, a head office that is actually a state, and facing endless criticism for moral positions that grate secular society — it is no wonder we can become obsessed with our own position in the world.

I spend an inordinate amount of time reading Catholic web sites and a theme that seems to emerge is that we are part of a mistreated, misunderstood minority. We should absolutely defend ourselves against prejudice and repression, combat plain ignorance and overcome the horrendous stereotype that the Church is a breeding ground for sexual abusers. But once in a while it is good to see which other religious group is taking it on the chin.

Last month I went to the Hill Cumorah Pageant, the annual celebration of the founding of the Mormon faith, at Palmyra, N.Y., where Joseph Smith, the religion’s first prophet, is said to have found gold tablets containing a new book of Scripture. I knew a little bit about Mormonism before going to Palmyra: that they used the Book of Mormon alongside the Old and New Testaments, that they believe a lost tribe of Israel settled in North America around 600 BC and that Jesus visited that tribe a few days after His resurrection. I have since learned they believe the dead can be baptized into the faith and their leaders are prophets who regularly receive revelations from God.

Parental leverage in our Catholic schools is but a dream

In an address to young university professors during his World Youth Day visit to Spain, Pope Benedict XVI warned against the cult of technicalism engulfing education.

“At times, one has the idea that the mission of a university professor nowadays is exclusively that of forming competent and efficient professionals capable of satisfying the demand for labour at any given time,” the Holy Father said.

“One also hears it said that the only thing that matters at the present moment is pure technical ability.”

Pope Benedict reminded his listeners that a university is not merely a repository of utilitarian proficiency but a home for those seeking  “the truth proper to the human person.”

“We know that when mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principal criteria, much is lost and the results can be tragic,” he said.

How will Poland honour its most noble son?

KRAKOW, Poland - The local Church here takes great pride in her saints and in the 20th century no city produced more important ones. Fr. Maximilian Kolbe studied here and died at Auschwitz, part of the archdiocese of Krakow. Sr. Faustina Kowalska’s convent was here, and the Divine Mercy devotion began here. The summer of 2011 has added Blessed John Paul II to the honour roll, and every single parish, shrine and souvenir stand is bedecked with images celebrating Krakow’s most noble son.

At the great Divine Mercy shrine here — the enormous basilica consecrated by Blessed John Paul himself in 2002 — the current archbishop of Krakow and John Paul’s lifetime secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, is building an enormous spiritual, cultural and intellectual centre called the Pope John Paul II “Be Not Afraid” Centre. It is a massive undertaking and will serve as the largest monument to the Polish pope in his native land.

For a Canadian visitor to Krakow, it is impressive to see the love the city has for her former bishop. And it is clear that Cardinal Dziwisz understands his mission to be that of securing the legacy of the great man that he served in life, and continues to serve in death.

Benedict’s WYD

They endured egg-frying heat, followed by lightning, howling wind and pounding rain. They slept on hard ground. Food and water was scarce. Washroom lineups were 90 minutes long. More than 2,500 of them were treated for heat-stroke and dehydration. And yet they stayed.

The overnight vigil and next-day Mass that closed World Youth Day in Madrid overflowed with 1.5 million pilgrims. Another 250,000 young people, including many of the 5,000 Canadians in Spain, were denied access for safety reasons to the crammed, dusty airstrip that served as the final meeting place of WYD. The staggering numbers exceeded all predictions.

By comparison, the crowd that attended and tried to attend the papal Mass was the size of last year’s entire 81-game attendance of the Toronto Blue Jays. The pilgrims came largely from Europe, but also in great numbers from North and South America, Asia, Africa and Australia. Almost all the nations on Earth were represented, drawn together in a celebration of fellowship and faith.

Attendees described the huge, peaceful crowds as “breathtaking.” They gathered in an area the size of 48 football fields. Pilgrims exclaimed there was nothing but joyous young people hoisting flags and banners for as far as the eye could see.

Robert Brehl: Searching for answers in this summer’s reading

Two-thirds through, few could argue that 2011 has been a good year. What with global economic turmoil, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Middle East unrest, famine in Africa, rioting through Britain (and Vancouver), a child-hunting mass murderer in Norway, continued child abuse scandals within the Church, and despair ladled generously at almost any turn.

I am not a pessimist. Really, I’m not. I am not, as Oscar Wilde said, one who when given a choice of two evils picks both.

I am just trying to raise my spiritual and moral understanding during these troubling times. I doubt I am unique; merely an average person. (In fact, I was once described as a schmoe by one of my friends. An apt description, even if it came from an atheist.)

I am no scholar and I am no theologian. I am a husband and a father living in suburbia. But, probably like you, I often wonder why things happen. Why were those innocent little children hunted down and mercilessly killed in Norway? Where was God’s protection? Why can’t we get food to those hungry children in Africa?

Fr Stan Chu Ilo: World must step up for drought-stricken Africa now

A woman walks past carcasses of cattle in the drought-stricken Eladow area in Wajir, northeastern Kenya, August 4. The drought, the worst in decades, has affected about 12 million people across the Horn of Africa.Africa is facing another humanitarian crisis as the worst famine in recent memory grips Somalia’s Southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions. According to the United Nations, tens of thousands of Somalis, mostly children and women, have already died and an estimated 3.7 million people — more than half the country’s population — face starvation in the next year unless relief is provided.

Mark Bowden, the UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Somalia, said the country has the highest malnutrition rates in the world, reaching 50 per cent for children under five. In some cases, he said parents have thrown away children during the punishing trek to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.

Oxfam President Mary Robinson has called the humanitarian crisis an international disgrace. The situation is more painful because experts saw it coming and it could have been avoided. Many Somali women and children are crying for help and waiting for the rest of the world to save them from death.

The light of Providence shines through Auschwitz’s inglorious past

AUSCHWITZ, Poland - It was 70 years ago this Sunday, Aug. 14, 1941, that St. Maximilian Kolbe was martyred here.

It was nine years ago that I was here last, on a pilgrimage just before my priestly ordination. I wanted to come and pray at the death block of Auschwitz, to kneel at the threshold of the bunker where Maximilian Kolbe died. I came again this year, to the horror of this hell on Earth, made into the antechamber of heaven by the man — a writer and publisher who sent millions of words into print — whose most famous words were: “I am a Catholic priest.”

Is it possible to be a pilgrim in Auschwitz? In 1998, in preparation for the great jubilee, the pontifical council for migrants would suggest exactly that: “Among these (pilgrimage) cities should also be included those places desecrated by people’s sin and later on, almost out of an instinct of reparation, consecrated by pilgrimages. Let us think for instance of Auschwitz, emblematic place of torture of the Jewish people in Europe, the Shoah....”

What does the Catholic pilgrim say in this place, emblematic of the six million Jews who died in the Shoah, three million of whom were Polish — half of all the six million Poles who died in the Second World War? In this place of great evil, is it possible to speak of Jesus Christ?

Kitty McGilly: Dublin Eucharistic Congress a chance to move forward

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, left, stands with Cardinal Sean Brady as they announce plans for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. The congress will take place June 10-17 next year.DUBLIN - The 50th International Eucharistic Congress, to be held in Dublin next June, is being anticipated locally with the same optimism that was experienced when the congress came to Ireland in 1932. That event was a critical moment in modern Irish history, healing many wounds after the Civil War and drawing together in unity the Irish population, predominantly Catholic, under the umbrella of the Roman Church.

On that occasion a million people gathered for Mass, celebrated by the papal legate, in Phoenix Park and famous Irish tenor John McCormick sang Panis Angelicus. After years of dissent the people of Ireland were challenged to move forward in faith and solidarity.

Such a unifying occasion, one to promote hope, is again very much needed as the Church in Ireland faces tremendous troubles. Rocked by the extensive clerical abuse scandals and consequent decline in Church attendance it is an unprecedented time of turmoil.

Peter Stockland: Church caught up in good news — for once

Fr. Thomas Dowd has been named as a new auxiliary bishop of MontrealMONTREAL - The Catholic Church was featured on the front page of my daily newspaper recently. Predictably, the page also overflowed with talk of corruption, scandal and child abuse.

This time, however, the sordidness was not another predictable media rehash of all that ails Catholicism. In fact, it involved something else entirely.

The story about the Church was — you might want to sit down for this — actually a very good news article about the naming of Fr. Thomas Dowd as a new auxiliary bishop of Montreal. Sure, there were the boilerplate paragraphs about the global sexual abuse scandal — I think all reporters’ computers are programmed to plug in such references by default — but the story on Dowd actually treated his appointment as a real event.

It was seen as eminently newsworthy that he is (a) an ecclesiastical stripling of 40 and (b) fully conversant in, and a ready practitioner of, social media such as blogging, Twitter, Facebook and so on.

With the passing of Cardinal Swiatek, a glorious time in Church history closes

Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek died on July 21, bringing to a close one of the most noble chapters in the history of the Church. He was 96 when he died, having been ordained a bishop at 76 by his eventual successor in Belarus. Made a cardinal at age 80, he served as archbishop of Minsk until he was 91. His was one of the heroic lives of our age.

I encountered the great cardinal only once, in Wroclaw, Poland, during the 1997 international Eucharistic Congress, and then at a distance. As part of the congress, dozens of bishops administered the sacrament of Confirmation to thousands of young people in an enormous Mass at the local arena. With such a large crowd it was a somewhat noisy affair, but there was total silence when Cardinal Swiatek addressed the newly confirmed at the end of the Mass. He spoke in Polish, but even without understanding a word I could see that his story was enormously powerful, with teenage eyes widening, and many filling with tears. He was telling them what it meant to be a Christian witness, to fight for the Church, to remain faithful. Imprisoned in the Soviet gulag for nine years, he did brutal labour by day and whatever clandestine priestly work he could by night, including offering the Holy Mass secretly, using a matchbox as a ciborium.