KIDNAPPED FRANCISCAN RELEASED IN SYRIA – ASTRONOMERS AND THE EPIPHANY – MAGI OR SHEPHERDS?

Tuesday I wrote that, starting January 6, the traditional monthly prayer intentions of Pope Francis will be available on video, thanks to a new initiative launched by the worldwide Apostleship of Prayer. Click here to see that first monthly message on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nq7us5Lf5IU&feature=youtu.be

The Holy Father speaks in Spanish but there are subtitles in other languages. This video has English subtitles. The app is called Click to Pray. The Pope’s prayer intention for January is that “sincere dialogue between men and women of different religions may yield fruits of peace and justice.”

Today was a quiet day for the Holy Father who had no public commitments or audiences. Vatican employees returned to work today after the one-day holiday yesterday for the Epiphany.

And now a bit of news about the area around St. Peter’s:

I was in Pius XII Square today, the small square immediately before you enter St. Peter’s Square and observed some interesting things. There was some traffic on Via della Conciliazione today, although on my previous recent walks to and in the area, that broad avenue had been closed to cars. I have no idea if there is a schedule for when Via della Conciliazione is open to traffic or not.

In addition, as the film crew and I went from my home (where we taped an interview for “Vaticano” about my investiture into the Order of the Holy Sepulchre) to Pius XII Square, we walked just outside the left hand colonnade of St. Peter’s Square and saw workers erecting permanent, waist-high metal barriers on the street adjacent to the colonnade on Via Paolo VI. The barriers are about six feet or so from the colonnade, and follow its natural curve. Only time will tell the purpose of this metal fence but common sense says it has to do with the flow of pilgrims to and from St. Peter’s Square (and basilica?) and will be, in some way, an extra security measure. I’ll update you on that as I learn more.

KIDNAPPED FRANCISCAN RELEASED IN SYRIA

(Vatican Radio)  The Custody of the Holy Land announced late Monday that Fr. Dhiya Aziz, OFM has been liberated, and the Custos, Franciscan Fr. PierBattista Pizzaballa confirmed the announcement in brief remarks to Vatican Radio.

“The situation remains very grave and dramatic in Syria, though we are doubtless happy and relieved that Fr. Dhiya [Aziz] has been released,” he said. The Custody had had no news of the Fr. Dihya since Saturday, July 4, in the late afternoon. Fr. Dhiya was allegedly treated well during his kidnapping.

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A statement from the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land thanked those around the world who prayed for a successful outcome to this trial that Fr. Dhiya endured, as well as the faithful of Yacoubieh, of which he is the pastor, his religious family and his family in Iraq. It goes on to say, “The Custody does not forget that other religious are still missing in Syria and it invites everyone to continue praying for peace in [that] country.”

(For a lot more about the Franciscan Custody, visit www.custodia.org: You can read their story with the photo of a very happy Fr. Aziz as well as a wonderful piece of news about the opening of Holy Doors in the Holy Land by clicking on:  A holy door to celebrate the Holy Family).

ASTRONOMERS AND THE EPIPHANY – MAGI OR SHEPHERDS?

A fascinating piece in the online L’Osservatore Romano by Bro. Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, that I hope you will enjoy:

The feast of Epiphany is special to us astronomers. Of all the visitors who came to see the newborn Savior, only shepherds and astronomers are specifically mentioned by St. Matthew. Of course, this fame comes with a cost. Epiphany is also the season when we astronomers are besieged with requests to “explain” the Star of Bethlehem.

Johannes Kepler famously attempted to identify the Star as a “nova” caused by the conjunction of planets. On October 9, 1604, Kepler had been timing a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; the following night, a bright star suddenly appeared in that part of the sky, between Jupiter and Saturn. Kepler leapt to the obvious, but false, conclusion that the conjunction of planets somehow caused the new star. (We now recognize the new star as a supernova, the last such one seen in our own galaxy. Among other things, this supernova inspired a series of lectures on astronomy by Galileo… which would lead, ultimately, to his first use of a telescope to study the stars in 1609 — the same year Kepler published the first of his famous laws of planetary motion.)

Kepler was prompted to use this supernova to explain the Star of Bethlehem after coming across a book by Laurence Suslyga of Poland that dated the birth of Jesus at around 4 B.C. By assuming that great conjunctions like the one he had just observed would lead to bright “new stars,” he decided to look for such a conjunction at the predicted time of Jesus’ birth. Not surprisingly, he found one.

Nor was he the last. Since then, thousands of amateur scholars have searched tables of conjunctions — and nowadays, computer planetarium programs — to come up with possible explanations. The fact is, there are any number of possible planetary arrangements, or comets, or exploding stars to match any of the (equally numerous) calculations for the true birthdate of Jesus. A recent search for “star of Bethlehem” on amazon.com comes up with 4,396 books and videos available for sale on the topic. And just about every one of them is convinced their argument is the correct one. Without at doubt, most of these explanations — perhaps all of them — are mere coincidences, just as the chance arrangement of planets and supernova in 1604 fooled Kepler.

One book which pointedly does not attempt to give an astronomical explanation is by a fellow Jesuit at the Vatican Observatory, Fr. Paul Mueller, and myself. Instead of arguing over which conjunction works best, we ask a different question: Why does it matter?

We don’t mean that in an impertinent way. It is curious to contemplate what exactly it is about this story that so many generations of astronomers and amateurs have found so fascinating. Part of it may be the hope that science can “prove” the Bible to be true; a false hope, since speaking as a scientist myself I know how tenuous such proofs can be. (Nor would I trust any religion simply because science had “proved” it.) But part of it must be the link between the glory of the stars at night and the glory of the Savior among us. That, I am confident, is the connection that Matthew was trying to make.

Indeed, my experience as a scientist makes me approach the Magi story with a completely different set of unanswerable questions. What made the Magi travel so far from the comforts of home? What were they looking for, really? Seeing the motivations behind many of my fellow scientists, I can easily believe that the Magi could have been moved by a mixture of motives, both profound and profane. Maybe they were trying to test the accuracy of their astrological predictions. Maybe they were looking to get away from an irritating boss, or an unhappy home life. Maybe they were looking for a king worthy of their worship.

Another mystery to me is, how did they finally recognize Jesus when they found him? Then, as now, folks immersed in scholarship can stereotypically be less tuned into the realities of ordinary life… at least in my case, one baby looks much like another. And yet they knew to leave their gifts with a poor child in a manger.

And perhaps the most important part of the Magi story has nothing to do with the star itself. After having left their homes, for whatever reasons, and after encountering the one whom they recognized as a king, they did a most unexpected thing: they returned home. Back to that irritating boss, or that unhappy home life. Back to those tedious astronomical calculations. Back from their search for a king, even after they had found him. But, as Matthew tells us, they went back by a different route. The encounter changed them. But it did not change their life or work, or the way they discovered the truth.

The “wise men” were scholars, just like the scholars who work today at the Vatican Observatory. But scholarship is not the only route to the truth. Shepherds also discovered the infant in the manger. They were inspired by the songs of the angels. (Oddly, no one asks shepherds today for an “explanation” of those songs!)

Fr. James Kurzynski, a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, recently wrote about this contrast on the Vatican Observatory’s blogsite, www.vofoundation.org/blog. He is himself both an amateur astronomer — a wise man — and a pastor, a shepherd of souls. And at the end of his reflection he asks his readers, “How do you come to truth? Are you one of the “Magi,” gravitating toward natural reason? Are you a “Shepherd” who is compelled by Divine Revelation? Or are you a little bit of both?”

The story of the Magi inspires us to look at our own journey. What are we looking for? Why do we look? How do we know it when we find it? And are we brave enough to return home with it, once we have found it?

Guy Consolmagno. Director of the Vatican Observatory

ASSISI AND ST. FRANCIS: “PEACE BE WITH YOU!” – IRAQI FRANCISCAN MISSING IN SYRIA – ST. JOHN PAUL, POPE EMERITUS BENEDICT ON SAME SEX MARRIAGE – BATTLING THE HEAT WAVE A L’ ITALIANA

I had dinner at La Scaletta last night with my friend Viviana who is a guide in Rome (one of her most requested tours is her food tour of the Eternal City). Viviana is Danish and, like our mutual friend Salih, she is multi-lingual and speaks all the Scandinavian languages as well as German, English and Italian. She left this morning to accompany a group to the Amalfi Coast for 8 days so we met for dinner to catch up on events, work, etc.

One of the waiters at La Scaletta is Salih (pronounced Sally), a native of Kosovo who is 25 and who speaks 7 languages fluently, including idiomatic expressions and humor!  He surprised me last night with this bouquet of flowers for my birthday (having asked his friend Viviana to buy them for me, trusting her choice).

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Later, Salih and the Bill Murray-lookalike chef from Sicily, Francesco, sang Happy Birthday as they brought me my favorite dessert at La Scaletta, panna cotta.

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Here are the flowers in my home –

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ASSISI AND ST. FRANCIS: “PEACE BE WITH YOU!”

Spending several days in Assisi is an experience that will definitely change you. It is magnificent beyond telling, an ancient city on a hill with history in every angle, nook and cranny and beauty on every balcony, window ledge or rooftop!  The stone walkways are old, the granite stairways that beckon at almost every turn seem even more ancient and the old doors to low-slung buildings seem to tell their own story as they creak with age and shimmer with the patina of time.

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The vistas as you climb to St. Rufinus at one end of town from the basilica of St. Francis at the other are breathtaking in many ways. The climb alone will take your breath away but then, as you look out on God’s creation, on the far hills, the farms, the teensy villages, on the dome of Santa Maria degli Angeli, what becomes breathtaking is the sheer beauty.

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Looking at the ancient castle from Santa Chiara

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Santa Chiara from my room:

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      That view at night!

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Francis would probably have seen much of that same beauty – the farmlands, and perhaps even the acres and acres of sunflowers as they turn their slender necks to the sun.

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A brown-robed friar walks by, smiles at you and says,” Pax et bonum” – “peace and all good things.” This is his gift to you!

Part of you expects to see Francis among the faces of the Franciscans. After all, this is his city and you feel its oldness and therefore would not be surprised to have him greet you as well – “Pax et bonum.”

The peace and beauty permeate every fiber of your being, your heart and soul and mind – even your physical well-being! I told Bishop Baker on one of the walks our little party took that I see Assisi as “a kind of spiritual magic!”

Tomorrow I’ll take you to the basilica and St. Francis’ tomb where Bishop Baker said Mass on July 4.

IRAQI FRANCISCAN MISSING IN SYRIA

The Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land has released a communique noting that “an Iraqi Franciscan priest of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, Fr. Dhiya Azziz, parish priest of Yacobien in the province of Idlib in Syria, has been missing since July 4. On that day, several militants from an unidentified brigade came to get him for a brief talk with the local Emir. We have had no trace of him since then and have no way to find out where he is. We are doing everything possible to find out where he has been taken in order to obtain his release. We entrust him to everyone’s prayers.”

The communique notes that there are 27 Franciscans of the Custody in the St. Paul region that includes Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, 14 of whom are in the most dangerous areas of the conflict that has been underway for four years.  (www.custodia.org)

ST. JOHN PAUL, POPE EMERITUS BENEDICT ON SAME SEX MARRIAGE

What did St. John Paul and Pope emeritus Benedict XVI say about same sex marriage? Here is a July 6 article from CNSNews.com (not to be confused with CNS – Catholic News Service) by Michael Chapman:

All Catholics are “obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions” and where such unions are given the legal status and rights that belong to marriage, “clear and emphatic opposition is a duty,” said St. Pope John Paul II in a 2003 letter issued by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

In addition to Catholics in general having a duty to clearly oppose homosexual marriage, a Catholic politician “has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against” such unions, and if it already is the law, the politician still must oppose it and has a “duty to witness to the truth,” said St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

“The common good requires that laws recognize, promote and protect marriage as the basis of the family, the primary unit of society,” said St. Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) in the March 2003 document, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons.

“Legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behavior, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity,” the letter states.

“The Church cannot fail to defend these values, for the good of men and women and for the good of society itself,” reads the letter. St. Pope John Paul II approved the Considerations on March 28, 2003 and ordered its publication. The document was subsequently released through the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-headed by Card. Ratzinger, on June 3, 2003.

The letter begins by explaining that, “homosexuality is a troubling moral and social phenomenon,” and especially so where gay unions are given legal recognition and include “the possibility of adopting children.”

The Considerations, it states, “provide arguments drawn from reason which could be used by Bishops in preparing more specific interventions” for “protecting and promoting the dignity of marriage, the foundation of the family, and the stability of society,” of which marriage between one man and one woman “is a constitutive element.”

“No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman,” say St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict.

“Men and women are equal as persons and complementary as male and female,” they wrote. Through marriage, a man and woman use the “sexual faculty” to become one flesh and potentially produce children.

“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24), reads the letter, adding that God “blessed the man and the woman with the words ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen 1:28). Therefore, in the Creator’s plan, sexual complementarity and fruitfulness belong to the very nature of marriage.”

Given the natural complementarity between man and woman and the procreative potential of their union through marriage, “[t]here are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

“Marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law,” states the letter.  “Homosexual acts ‘close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.’”

Because homosexual unions lack the biological and anthropological elements of marriage and family, reason alone dictates that they cannot be given “legal recognition,” reads the Considerations. “Such unions are not able to contribute in a proper way to the procreation and survival of the human race.”

“Society owes its continued survival to the family, founded on marriage,” reads the letter.

Thus, for “those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty,” state the two popes.

“One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application,” they said. “In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.”

As for Catholic politicians, they also are “obliged” in a “particular way” to oppose homosexual unions or homosexual marriages.

“When legislation in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it,” states the letter. “To vote in favor of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.”

“When legislation in favor of the recognition of homosexual unions is already in force, the Catholic politician must oppose it in the ways that are possible for him and make his opposition known; it is his duty to witness to the truth,” state Pope Benedict and St. Pope John Paul II.

Pope John Paul II served as Pope of the Catholic Church from October 1978 to April 2005. He was canonized a Saint in April 2014. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger served as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II from 1981 to 2005.

Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and resigned in February 2013, citing his advanced age, 85.  He was the first Pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, currently 78 years old, was elected Pope Francis in March 2013.

In 2010, Cardinal Bergoglio (Pope Francis) said that a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage in Argentina was “destructive of the plan of God” and was “a ‘move’ of the Father of Lies who wishes to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

The “Father of Lies” reference comes from the Gospel of John (8:44), where Jesus refers to Satan as “a liar and the father of lies.”

BATTLING THE HEAT WAVE A L’ITALIANA

(ANSA) – Rome, July 6 – The Italian health ministry on Monday activated its summer telephone hotline for emergencies and advice, with a heat wave that has caused deaths and disruption set to peak on Tuesday and Wednesday. The number, 1500, is staffed seven days a week from 9 am to 6 pm by personnel from the ministry trained to give advice and coordinate assistance regarding heat-related emergencies.

On Sunday, the heat wave caused the deaths of five elderly people in Italy – two cyclists and three beachgoers – on a weekend that saw temperatures as high as 41 (106 Fahrenheit) degrees in Alessandria in the northern region of Piedmont.

Across Europe temperatures also soared, reaching more than 40 degrees (104) in Bavaria, Germany, and provoking wildfires and evacuations in Spain and Portugal.

Back in Italy 10 cities have been put on red heat alert due to temperatures well above the seasonal average, which will be between 35 and 40 degrees in many areas on Tuesday and Wednesday, although humidity will take the perceived temperatures to over 40 degrees.

A Milan court on Monday allowed judges and lawyers to take off their robes due to the oppressive heat and the breakdown of air conditioners.  A hearing for another case, about allegations Pirelli chief Marco Tronchetti Provera defamed another top Italian businessman, Carlo De Benedetti, had to be adjourned due to a series of blackouts in the court building.

The blackouts, probably caused by energy demand from conditioners short-circuiting the system, caused recordings of witness evidence to be lost.   “It’s a miracle that we got this far,” the judge said.  “But this trial must be adjourned now as the minium security conditions are not in place and we cannot lose other recordings”.

The farmers’ association Coldiretti said the heat was stressing the nation’s cows and causing a 10% drop in milk production on average. Furthermore, farmers have to give the animals twice as much water and use ventilators and spray them with water to cool them down. “The drop in milk production is on top of an increase in costs in the cowsheds due to greater energy and water consumption because the farmers have to help the animals resist the heat siege,” Coldiretti said.