THE SHORT TAKE….

Even though the weather was the coldest we’ve had all winter – with bone-chilling winds yesterday – there were a lot of big events at the Vatican that brought out fairly large numbers of faithful.

How cold was it? I did an unscientific, informal survey of several area restaurants and pizzerias whose owners told me their phones were ringing off the hook: Everyone wanted pizzas delivered, no one wanted to go out in the frigid temperatures!

My comment on the weather is just that – a comment. How can I complain about cold when I think of the tens of thousands of migrants, refugees, our countless brothers and sisters who, as they leave their country of birth, whether by choice or force, and have not found better times (in fact, have found worse ones!) leave everything behind – homes, possessions, security, etc. They probably do not know where their next meal is coming from, where they will rest their head for the night and even if they will hygiene facilities!

But the cold is the Number One story on Italian news tonight!

Sunday, in fact, marked the World Day for Migrants and Refugees and thousands of migrants and refugees of different nationalities entered St. Peter’s Basilica by the Holy Door to attend a special Mass for this world day. Afterwards they filled St. Peter’s Square for the Angelus and heard Pope Francis say: “Each of you carries a story, a culture, precious values; and unfortunately often experiences of poverty, oppression and fear. Your presence in this square is a sign of hope in God.” He urged them not to allow difficulties deprive them of hope and of the joy of life.

Francis also prayed for the victims of attacks by extremists in Burkina Faso and Indonesia. And, interestingly enough, he thanked the inmates of a detention center in Milan who made the hosts for the Mass dedicated to migrants and refugees.

Before the Marian prayer, the Pope reflected on the day’s Gospel about Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana. “In that miracle,” said Francis, “Jesus imparts an act of kindness toward the groom, a divine blessing upon marriage. Love between man and woman is a good way in which to live the Gospel and with which to undertake with joy the path towards holiness.” However, said Francis, “the miracle of Cana is not just about the bride and groom. Each human person is called to meet the Lord in his or her life.”

Also on Sunday: In the afternoon, Pope Francis visited Rome’s Jewish community 30 years after St. John Paul was the first ever pope to visit a synagogue. I put the EWTN/CNA account of that visit on my Facebook page – here is a link to the news story: http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/lets-unite-against-war-and-violence-pope-francis-urges-at-roman-synagogue-15967/

This morning was nonstop for the pontiff. Following is an abbreviated version of his various audiences based on Vatican Radio and VIS stories on news.va. Photos also from news.va

Before I close: Don’t forget to watch ”At Home with Jim and Joy” today (Mondays and Thursdays, 2 pm ET) when I’ll bring some of the weekend news from Rome.

THE SHORT TAKE….

POPE WELCOMES PRINCE ALBERT II OF MONACO – The prince was accompanied by his wife Princess Charlene, a convert to Catholicism. A statement from the Holy See Press Office called the talks “cordial,” and said they highlighted the good bilateral relations between Monaco and the Holy See, and reference was made to the historical contribution of the Catholic Church in the life of Monaco. Other issues of common interest that were discussed included environmental protection, humanitarian aid, and the integral development of peoples. The parties considered some issues affecting the international community, including peace and security, the reception of migrants, and the general situation in the Mediterranean region, as well as the Middle East. Prince Albert gave Pope Francis a food basket containing fruit, vegetables, and cheeses from the royal farm/vacation home.

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HOLY FATHER WELCOMES IMF MANAGING DIRECTOR. The Pope today welcomed Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF, International Monetary Fund. The two previously met in the Vatican December 10, 2014. The IMF, composed of 188 countries, was established in 1944 to help manage countries’ balance of payments. According to its website, it  is “working to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty around the world.”

VATICAN SECURITY PERSONNEL RECEIVED BY POPE. During his annual address to Officers and Agents of the General Inspectorate for Public Security at the Vatican, the Pope expressed appreciation for the work they carry out every day, as well as during pastoral visits in Italy. “Our meeting today is even more significant because it is within the context of the Holy Year of Mercy, an event of spiritual significance, which has already seen the presence of many pilgrims in Rome from all over the world.” He noted that, in a special way, the members of public security are called to a greater commitment “to ensure that the celebrations and events connected with the special Jubilee” run smoothly and take place in an atmosphere of serenity and peace. He asked the Lord to protect them in the fulfillment of the task they carry out in collaboration with other security forces. Francis added that, although the Christmas season is over, the crib can still be viewed in St. Peter’s Square –  a reminder to safeguard within ourselves the mystery we have just celebrated.

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FRANCIS RECEIVES FINNISH ECUMENICAL DELEGATION OF LUTHERAN –  As is traditional, an ecumenical delegation from Finland, led by the Lutheran bishop of Helsinki, came to visit the bishop of Rome for the feast day of St. Henry of Uppsala, patron of the country. Pope Francis told his guests, “Your ecumenical pilgrimage is an eloquent sign of the fact that, as Lutherans, Orthodox and Catholics, you have recognized what unites you and together you wish to bear witness to Jesus Christ, Who is the foundation of unity. Expressing his joy at their visit, the Pope said, “In a special way, we can thank the Lord for the fruits of the dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics. Here I think in particular of the common document on ‘Justification in the Life of the Church’. Building on these foundations, our dialogue is making promising progress towards a shared understanding, on the sacramental level, of Church, Eucharist and Ministry. Finland has 5.5. million people, mostly Lutheran, but 1.1% is Orthodox Christian. The Catholic population numbers a little over 12,000 people.

LUTHERAN

IN OTHER PAPAL NEWS: Pope Francis is set to release a new children’s book in February, entitled “Love before the World”. Published by Loyola Press (original title, “L’amore prima del mondo”), the book contains the Holy Father’s responses to letters written by children from around the world. For example: What did God do before creating the world? “God loved.” Or: Why do my parents fight sometimes? “They are human.” These are some of the questions put to Pope Francis by children between the ages of 6-13 from 26 countries, including Albania, China, Nigeria, and the Philippines. Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ, director of ‘La Civiltà Cattolica’, met with the Pope at the Casa Santa Marta several times in recent months, giving him a chance to respond to the children’s letters spontaneously. “These are hard questions,” Pope Francis said, smiling. The drawings and questions of 31 children were chosen for the book, which will be presented to the Holy Father by several of the children who wrote the letters on 22 February. The book debuts in Italy on February 25 and around the world on March 1.

 

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A VENETIAN CARDINAL, A TUSCAN COMEDIAN AND A PRISONER FROM CHINA EXPLAIN MERCY

The Italian actor, comedian, screenwriter and director Roberto Benigni, who figures prominently in the story I feature today, came to my attention in the amazing film, “Life is Beautiful.” I’ve seen him a number of times on television in Italy and well remember his performace at the 1998 Academy Awards when he won for Best Actor in that 1997 film, jumping from seat to seat, over the heads and shoulders of his fellow actors, to reach the stage.

I also remember him from a very brief sentence on a desk calendar I had a few years ago: “Did you know that the Bible is the only book whose Author also created its readers?!”

A VENETIAN CARDINAL, A TUSCAN COMEDIAN AND A PRISONER FROM CHINA EXPLAIN MERCY

Did you hear the one about how a Venetian cardinal, a Tuscan comedian and a prisoner from China explain mercy?

It sounds like a line from a comedy routine, right? And it was, in part!

Roberto Benigni, Italian comic and actor par excellence was in Rome Tuesday for the presentation of the book, “The Name of God is Mercy,” a conversation between Pope Francis and a friend of many years, vaticanista Andrea Tornielli (on right in photo).

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He was the final guest to talk about the book, following talks by Fr. Federico Lombardi, head of the Holy See Press Office, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, secretary of State, Fr. Giuseppe Costa, head of the Vatican publishing house and Zhang Agostino Jianqing, a Chinese prisoner in a Padua jail.

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Fr. Lombardi spoke about the book in very endearing terms and heartfelt comments, and was the moderator of this morning’s event as well.

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I found the entire morning to be fascinating, and discovered, at the end of the presentations, that I had been at the Augustinian conference center for well over two hours and had never once looked at my watch. That has never happened in a press conference I have attended!

The star of the day – and the most awaited guest, judging by the applause when he arrived with Cardinal Parolin and the avalanche of photographers and TV cameras – was Roberto Benigni (you will surely remember him for “Life is Beautiful”). And he did not disappoint with his presentation!

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For me, however, the most compelling account this morning was that of the Chinese prisoner who told his personal story, highlighting his encounter with “God’s mercy” – including his conversion from Buddhism to Christianity. He is in prison in Padua but has been in Rome for two days, and yesterday was one of the guests who met the Holy Father at the official presentation of Tornielli’s book. Agostino never directly explained why he had been given 20 years in prison but at one point, in the account of his life, did use the word “victim.”

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He said “I am from a Buddhist family. In 1997, at the age of 12, I arrived in Italy with my father. I was studying but I got bored at school. I kept running away, my behavior got worse, I fought with my parents who never gave me money to have fun. I became violent and superficial. I was concentrating only on having a good time, money and girls.”

Without going into detail, he told how he was condemned to 20 years in prison and it was in prison he converted to Christianity, thanks to help given by his Buddhist mother.

Fr. Lombardi, who had previously noted Pope Francis’ love for prisoners and his frequent visits to prisons, added: “Yesterday, when Agostino met the Pope, he gave him a photo of him with his friends and brothers in prison with their signatures and their words to the Pope and Pope Francis himself wrote a beautiful dedication, saying he was close to them, prayed for them and asked them to pray for him.”

When it was Benigni’s turn to speak, he said, “Pope Francis is a marvelous revolutionary.” The Tuscan comic said he was very emotional when he realized he was “in the smallest state of the world with the greatest man in the world.”

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“Pope Francis walks and walks and never ever stops. He is taking the entire Church towards a place that we don’t think about anymore, towards Christianity, towards Jesus Christ, towards the Gospel. And how does he do this? He does it through mercy, which is not a mushy thing but a severe virtue. Francis is always moving, he goes from the least to the least.” Benigni highlighted the Pope’s visit to Lampedusa and the opening of the Holy Door in Bangui.

And Benigni himself never stopped. His rapid fire talk, continuous smile and nonstop hand movements and gesticulating are his hallmarks – and they were in full force today, especially when he mentioned the Pope’s name, or the words ‘mercy’ and ‘joy’ and ‘love’.

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Lombardi noted the reciprocal esteem that Pope Francis feels for Benigni when, in his last homily of 2014, he spoke of the actor – though not by name – calling him “a great Italian artist,” who was then involved in a “Ten Commandments” special for television.

Benigni said, “only Pope Francis could think of presenting this book with a Venetian cardinal, a Chinese prisoner and a Tuscan comic.”

Continuing his exuberant presentation, he said, “you cannot speak in moderation about this Pope.”

The comic said, “when I was little, I wanted to be a priest. In school I was asked, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ I answered, “the Pope.” Well, everyone began to laugh and then I understood I had to be a comedian!”

And the hundreds of guests in the Augustinian, including Fr. Lombardi and Cardinal Parolin, laughed with him.

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The Tuscan actor and comedian then spoke of the telephone call received from the Vatican about possibly talking at today’s presentation. “As soon as I heard the words ‘His Holiness would like…’, I didn’t even want to hear the rest of the sentence and I immediately said ‘yes’. I’m ready to be a Swiss guard, the Pope’s driver, whatever Francis needs.”

As to the book, Benigni said, “it is so beautiful” and “so full of mercy, you could sell it by the pound.” “It is also aimed at nonbelievers. Life is an eternal struggle between those who believe and those who don’t believe, between love and no love and loving meaning depending on someone who could be taken away from us. What is this divine risk?20160112_110355

He added: “The text raises our hearts without watering down our brain. Mercy is not a firm virtue seated on a chair: it is active, it never stops for a second. Mercy goes to sinners and to the poor. It is filled with joy, joy in pain. These two are the weight- bearing columns of Christianity. We must challenge the unhappy, we must love happy people who are humble and joyful and close to God.”

Noting the first miracle of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, which he said was his favorite Gospel, Benigni spoke of the healing of St. Peter’s mother-in-law, saying, “you know he healed her because afterwards his mother-in-law would cook for all of them. Jesus so enjoyed the joys of life.”

(Vatican Radio reported that Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, on Tuesday expressed his sorrow for the terrorist attack which took place in Istanbul, Turkey. “What is happening [in Turkey] pains us. What is happening there, what continues to repeat itself, confirms that the best medicine in the face of these evils is always mercy.”

At least 10 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack Tuesday morning in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, near the city’s famous Blue Mosque.

His words came in response to a sideline question at the presentation of “The Name of God is Mercy.” In the book, the Holy Father answers 40 questions posed by Andrea Tornielli, and is divided into nine chapters.)