Monday, August 3, 2015

Christian perfection is not the privilege of a few

Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai
Vatican City
August 3, 2015

To read one’s own personal history in faith is often an exercise in deepening the awareness of God’s loving presence in one’s own life.

That is why Pope Francis invites us to experience the joy of encountering Christ and to renew it constantly, asking us to re-read our own personal story and to scrutinize it in the light of God’s loving gaze.

It is God who, out of his great love, gives us life and calls us to abide in him.

My parents were not Catholics when I was born. They were neither atheists nor adherents of any specific religion. They gave me a name: Tai-Fai (in Cantonese), literally meaning “great light”.

There was a reason for this: an existential one. A few years before my birth, my elder brother passed away. My parents followed the customary belief that some spirits came and took him away. To prevent this from happening again, my parents gave me a big name, in the hope that the spirits might be kept at a distance. However, what they never imagined was that God would come to take me and place me in his service within the Church.

My brother and sisters were studying in Catholic schools. My elder brother was the first convert in the family. After his baptism, the other siblings could also do the same, but at a younger age. As a result, I was baptized at the age of 10. My Christian name is “Dominic Savio,” literally meaning that I am “of the Lord in a wise way.”

In my case, God gave me the wisdom to treasure the light of faith I had received as a great gift of Jesus in my baptism. Those following the steps of Jesus will never lose sight of the divine light he brought to us in his Incarnation. It is through their constant imitation of Christ that the same divine light shines forth from the Church. This divine light constitutes the holiness of the Church, to which all of the faithful are called by virtue of their baptism.

Two years after I was baptized, I joined the Salesian minor seminary. In 1969, I made my first profession as a Salesian, and God has never failed me along my vocation journey. In spite of all my limits and imperfections, I still want to respond even today to his call and to serve him in the Church.

Baptismal grace

All that matters for baptism is love. God is love. He pours out into our hearts his love, by which we love him above all things and our neighbor as ourselves, including those with whom we have no direct contact: all because of God.

Baptismal consecration is the starting point of Christian life by virtue of the initiation sacraments.

Sacraments of initiation (baptism, the Eucharist and confirmation) are three distinct celebrations. Yet there remains a strong unity among them. The equal dignity of all the members of the Church is closely related to these three sacraments. I use “baptism” to mean the three.

As Son, Jesus lived his consecration through the Paschal event, loving the Father above everything, submitting Himself totally to the Father’s will. All the faithful by means of the anointing received at baptism are incorporated into him, and consecrated to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit, belonging to God alone unreservedly and decisively. So each of them is called to share the mission of Christ. This consecration constitutes the identity of every Christian.

Thus, all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness as such a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society. Christian perfection is not the privilege of a few. Every member of the faithful is consecrated.

If laying down one’s life for one’s friends is the greatest proof of love, Jesus offered his own life for all, even for his enemies, in order to transform their hearts.

However, his death must be seen in the light of his Resurrection. In my religious life, I was given different responsibilities as schoolteacher, assistant of the young in the boarding school, theology professor, director of an institute, even Provincial Superior, but none of these, strictly speaking, are my mission.

My mission is to be one with Christ so as to be freely sent by Him to whatever community, to carry out whatever service, for whatever people, and in whatever responsibility. Everyone in the Church is called to holiness.

Called to shine forth

When I started with a re-reading of my own personal story and the meaning of my name, I tried to scrutinize these things in the light of God’s loving gaze. The meaning of being “called to shine forth” has become clearer to me.

Only then we will have found the beauty of the truth that redeems. Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty seen through the eyes of faith, and the light that shines forth from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.

Being called to shine forth bears a particular urgency regarding the care for “our common home,” as our Holy Father has recently called it. Pope Francis has expressed his great concern for an integral ecology by offering his new encyclical, Laudato sì'.

In fact, he especially shares the attitude of Saint Francis of Assisi in his concern for God’s creation and for the poor and the outcast. Saint Francis loved, and was deeply loved, for his joy, his generous self-giving, and his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim, who lived in simplicity and wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature, and with himself.

Pope Francis shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

What we need above all in this moment of history are people who, through an enlightened and lived faith, make God credible in this world.

In a time where the certainty of a meaningful life is losing its strength, where the natural capacity for beauty is curtailed, and where nature, as “our common home”, is being diminished, we need consecrated people who are willing to plunge themselves into a serious form of evangelical radicalism.

Then, after all the purifications that they will be obliged to undergo, they will somehow mysteriously manage to become the light of the world, and to found a city upon a hill, gathering from the various ruins every possible strength to rebuild and reshape a new world.

Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai SDB is secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples

Monday, July 20, 2015


By Fr. Vito Scagliuso, SX

Driven out of China, where they had been working in the Honan for over 50 years and had founded the dioceses of Cheng-chow and Loyang, the Xaverian Missionaries had to find new hospitable shores in order to continue the work initiated four centuries before by their patron saint, Francis Xavier. On the way to the Indies, Francis Xavier had made a stop in the land of the Temnes and Sherbros of Sierra Leone, whose villages, scattered along the estuary of  the Rokel river, provided to the European ships a refuge, abundant drinking water and other goods (often even slaves), before continuing their voyage towards the Cape of Good Hope.

The founders of the Xaverian Mission in Sierra Leone, Bishop
Azzolini, Fr. Calza, Fr. Olivani, and Fr. Stefani.
In the summer of 1950, the four pioneers of the first xaverian adventure in Africa retraced the atlantic route of Francis Xavier. A merchant ship discharged the missionaries Calza, Olivani, Stefani and the dean of the group Azzolini on the pier of the Freetown port, where two Irish missionaries were waiting for them. Soon they left for the Northern Province of Sierra Leone, where they had been previously assigned by the Roman authorities, to plough a territory as large as Lombardy, almost entirely Islamized.

At Lunsar, a mine centre of the Region and in Makeni, an important base of the English colony, the Italian missionaries found a minute group of Christians and many school projects to be realized. They had been sent to the North, not too open to external ethical and cultural influences - so  much so that several people had commented: “They only go to waste time!” – to answer the appeal of  local chiefs, educated in the missionary schools of Bo and Freetown, who were keen to extend the benefit of education also to their villages.

They wasted no time. Within a few years they built schools, dispensaries, hospitals and professional centres. Groups of catechumens, too, sprouted as well as parish centres and a seminary, to welcome the first vocations to the priesthood. Other Xaverians came to help them and more institutions dedicated to education, to the care of the disabled, to the assistance of the poor and needy of society and to the promotion of women.

When in the spring of 1987 Bishop Azzolini handed over the responsibility of the diocese to Bishop
George Biguzzi, who had been a teacher  in St Francis’ secondary, Makeni, for several years and then Regional Superior of the Xaverians in Sierra Leone, the diocese already numbered 30,000 Catholics, distributed in 10 parish centres and many outstations. More than 35,000 students were attending his primary and secondary schools and the Makeni Teachers’ College. The Lunsar hospital and the dispensaries of Makeni, Kambia and Kalamba were among the most appreciated in the country, together with an efficient network of mobile clinics for the local service to leprosy patients, polio children and other sick people. Rightly the President of Sierra Leone, Dr Shiaka Stevens, when conferring on him the highest honour of the state, the Rokel of the illustrious benefactors, stated: “You and your missionaries have worked miracles in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone”.

In the autumn of 1985 the octogenarian Pa Shiaki, as he was called by the people, handed over power to the former Chief of staff of the army, Joseph Momoh, who would reveal himself unable to solve the problems of the country. The situation became more and more unmanageable to the point of provoking a coup d’etat, improvised and corrupt military governments, rebellions in the army and guerilla warfare. All this precipitated the country into the gulf of the civil war and into the savagery, to which the whole world looked with horror.

In 1987 the new Bishop G. Biguzzi inherited a church that was well organized and lively in its manifold realities, but also conditioned by a history that looked to new things with mistrust. The pioneers who had introduced in the Northern Province considerable innovative contributions in the educational, social and religious fields, were still present and active: honoured and esteemed both by christians and muslims. Makeni diocese already had 7 local priests and about 30 seminarians. By the year 2000 they would have doubled.

Towards these privileged sons of Sierra Leone the new Bishop directed his attention as a shepherd, in order to ensure a future without traumas to his church, threatened by the approaching of a revolution that seemed to put into question all the ethical and cultural values of the past. When the civil war mercilessly erased many works and places of Christian piety, the Bishop supported and encouraged the hidden, yet alive, communities in the villages, in the bush, in the refugee camps. He worked hard to find a safe place for his priests, his young seminarians, the missionaries, the religious men and women, who had often given witness by imprisonment, by physical and moral sufferings and by life itself, to their faithfulness to Christ and to their service to the brethren.

Through the radio and by all other means, he tried to convince those who were fighting on various fronts to desist from unreasonable plans. He managed to set up and lead a delegation of religious leaders to convince the combatants to accept a truce, to facilitate negotiations of peace and to promote reconciliation in the country. He appealed even to the United Nations that they might not forget Sierra Leone, in need of urgent political and humanitarian interventions, of specific help to safeguard its own natural and civil resources, to make it possible for this small country of W. Africa to rise from the ruins and to look to the future with serenity.

When accompanying to Rome a delegation of former child soldiers for the Jubilee 2000 and on the occasion of international acknowledgements and prizes for his commitment in favor of minors, particularly hit by civil war, he called the attention of the world to the thousands of  the young victims of  hatred and violence that needed rescuing, re-education and re-union with their families, so that they might return to a normal life, to a childhood of playing, of dreams and of the school in their villages of the hinterland.

On 7th January 2012 Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of the Bishop of Makeni, Bishop George Biguzzi, for having reached the age limit.

In the Northern Province of Sierra Leone, for some time both the clergy and the people had been waiting as his successor a local Bishop from their own Province. They felt that the time had come for a priest of the Northern Province to be consecrated Bishop. The procedure for the appointment of the new Bishop in a diocese as large as half of Sierra Leone came to be entangled and divisive. After several consultations, Fr Henry Aruna, a priest of the diocese of Kenema, in the South East of Sierra Leone, was chosen as Bishop. He was a lecturer of philosophy in the St Paul’s Major Seminary and also the secretary of the Episcopal Conference.

He was not accepted by many priests, religious and Christian communities and, later, by the population of the Northern Province, Muslims and protestants included. The designated Bishop Henry Aruna has not been able yet to make his entry into the diocese of Makeni. Some journalists have called this crisis of regional pride “tribalism”, a “schism” or a serious “rebellion” to the Pope. An Apostolic Administrator, the Xaverian Fr Natale Paganelli, is still in charge of the diocese, while waiting for the Holy See to make a final decision about the situation.

Almost contemporaneously to this sorrowful religious crisis, Sierra Leone had to face, after the
Fr. Carlo Di Sopra, Provincial of the Xaverian Missionaries
in Sierra with some friends near Kabala.
disastrous civil war that lasted more than 10 years (1989-2001), more suffering owing to a virus called Ebola, which started in neighboring Guinea and has caused thousands of human victims; it continues to worry all W. Africa.

We are now waiting that this latest trial may definitively cease and wipe away, with Ebola, also the divisions and the grudges in the small and tormented Sierra Leone. May the diocese of Makeni sing again the Alleluia of a newly found unity, under the leadership of a Bishop accepted and loved by the whole population of the Northern Province. We hope and believe that this may come about soon.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Secular Humanists and Religious Believers Connecting on Common Ground

By Fr. Carl Chudy, SX

The Xaverian Missionaries USA are pleased to announce a conference of dialogue between secular humanists and religious believers called COMMON GROUND: GROWING UNDERSTANDING & COOPERATION BETWEEN RELIGIOUS BELIEVERS AND SECULAR HUMANISTS.  It will take place October 8 at Rutgers University, from 8 am to 6 pm. 

In an unprecedented collaboration between a national atheist association and a Roman Catholic religious order, the Xaverian Missionaries are working together with the American Humanist Association in efforts to search out our common ground together. It is graciously hosted by Rutgers University which provides an opportunity for students to dive into this very important conversation and dialogue between faith and secular culture, a dialogue they confront sometimes on a daily basis.

Common Ground 2015 is an all-day conference, free and open to the general public, that aims to bring together religious believers, secular humanists, and nonbelievers in conversation to gain perspective on each other’s ways of seeing the world, while embracing commonalities in our human experience that unite us for social change. Through four panel sessions and networking attendees will hear academics and leaders from national and local organizations discuss views on finding meaning in life, ethics and values, and how to collaborate for social action. 

Common Ground friends in 2013 gathered at the Scottish House of Parliament
where we led a panel discussion.
Why This Dialogue?
In 2013 we began this "Common Ground" project with the Xaverian Missionaries in the United Kingdom, spending an entire weekend with those invited from the British and Scottish Humanist Societies, Catholics, Church of Scotland, Muslim, Bahai, and other religious traditions to tease out where we stood on common ground in such areas as a community, ethics, family, education, and more. As Catholics, Pope Francis shared from the Joy of the Gospel: 
“As believers, we also feel close to those who do not consider themselves part of any religious tradition, yet sincerely seek the truth, goodness and beauty which we believe have their highest expression and source in God. We consider them as precious allies in the commitment to defending human dignity, in building peaceful coexistence between peoples and in protecting creation.” 
The Pope here raises up an enormous concern that threads through his predecessors from Pope Paul VI's establishment of the Secretariat Non-Believers in 1965, and the strengthening of that work of that secretariat which became the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-believers by Pope Saint John Paul II. The Pontifical Council for Culture of the Roman Catholic Church created a program, already underway in parts of Europe called Courtyard of the Gentiles through the direction of Benedict XVI. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Council says this:  "We wish to broach a dialogue, maintaining ourselves sturdy in our territories, but respecting the identities. It is the place to search for common itineraries, without shortcuts or distractions or disturbances, in which listening becomes fundamental in spite of the differences.” For Catholics, we have far to go and much to do to allow this concern of the Church to be internalized in the plans of the new evangelization in each and every diocese, particularly in Europe and the United States.

Ordinary People Seeking Meaningful Connections
Secular humanists and religious
discussing common social
One of the remarks that surfaced consistently in our Common Ground conference among humanists
and religionists was that it seemed easier to find ways to dialogue among religious believers and humanists because we all believed this dialogue was important to undertake and came to the conference for that explicit purpose. This in fact was one aspect of “common ground” we all found. We all need to be in this dialogue relationship. That conviction that we all saw so apparent in our conference is in fact not shared at all with many of our colleagues, friends and fellow believers. In some ways, for theists and atheists, the necessity of this dialogue and collaboration is still new.
The labels we use with each other often deter us from understanding the real diversity and real, human deep concerns of both believers and secular humanists. It is not so much a dialogue of convictions or faiths as much as it is a dialogue of persons who hold convictions and faith very imperfectly. The things we hold precious, the convictions we live by are hard fought and shaped and honed over years of living life. It is much more than a communication of convictions and faith, it is a sharing of our lives where trust is enlivened, where our love and concern can be shared in words and in the nonverbal. This dialogue thrives on friendship and service.

The Mysticism of Encounter
Pope Francis invites us to live the"mysticism of encounter": "The ability of hear, to listen to to other people. The ability to seek together the way, the method...also means not being frightened of things." Our driving force is a solicitude for the world and for humanity, inspired by Vatican II. Like secular humanists, we Catholics also wish to honor and serve humanity, to strengthen its ties with each other and to embark on our common human journey where we walk shoulder to shoulder.Moved by the Spirit of Christ, we are called to recognize what is truly human, Dominated as we are by pervasive and global communication, and at the same time a failure often to communicate what is true and authentic, we are called to be welcoming, transparent, and sincere, to see ourselves as a community open to the complementary of meeting in fellowship those who are different. 

A Muslim and Humanist participant at the Common Ground Conference in Scotland.
Growing Circles of Dialogue
Our hopes with the Common Ground Conference at Rutgers University is that it will spur further opportunities for secularists and religious believers to come to understand one another more profoundly in many walks of life.. The first thing that often changes in these encounters is our minds about each other. We often in religious circles imagine ourselves at battle with secularists, a fear driven outlook which deters us from seeking further the real truth that we are allies in a world that is often sick and violent, called to heal together. For Catholics, this is indeed an opportunity to unveil our own eyes in order to gaze at the powerful and pervading presence of the Trinity in all persons.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Whirlwind--Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran

By Father John Crossin, OSFS

A small but powerful whirlwind blew through Washington a few weeks ago in the person of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. His visit included major addresses at the Nostra Aetate Symposium at the Catholic University of America, and at the Georgetown University hosted conference The Second Vatican Council: Remembering the Future. His itinerary included visits with Hindu, Jain, Muslim and Jewish leaders.

During the visit, he reviewed the Declaration on Interreligious Dialogue [Nostra Aetate] for its 50th Anniversary, visited local communities, encouraged local and national dialogues and set an agenda for the future.

I heard his Catholic University address “The Catholic Church in Dialogue with Islam since the Promulgation of Nostra Aetate” on Tuesday evening May 19th. In it the Cardinal:

• Reminded us that Islam is simultaneously a religion, a political system and a civilization;

• Recalled that Nostra Aetate did not begin dialogues—these began centuries before—but that it pointed to a “a more positive attitude towards and a constructive relationship with the followers of other religious traditions.”

• Encouraged local dialogues that build from sharing about our lives, to sharing work for the good of the community, to sharing about our faiths, to sharing our personal spiritual journey.

• Noted that we cannot be passive as our Muslim brothers and sister struggle with modernity, religious liberty, and a host of other issues. Our presence must be one of friendship and support in the midst of the struggles of our neighbors.

• Suggested that we are entering a new period of Muslim-Catholic dialogue where Catholics in all parts of the church will need to learn more about Islam and where Muslim-Catholic theological reflection will become more prominent.

Cardinal Tauran also led by example. He met informally with Muslim leaders while at the CUA Symposium and he joined Cardinals Koch and McCarrick, Bishops Rozanski and Madden in conversation with Jewish leaders. The following weekend he dialogued with Hindu and Jain leaders at their temples and shared a meal with them. I joked with him that he had more pictures taken of him with interreligious friends during this visit than the Pope has on one of his trips!

Despite jet-lag and non-stop speeches/conversations, Cardinal Tauran exemplified the genuine humanity and the perseverance that are essential as we move into deeper relationships.

Father John Crossin is an Oblate of St. Francis De Sales and executive director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Pope Francis & Rabbi Skorka: Forging a Deeper Relationship

Ruth Broyde Sharone - TIO Correspondent 

“The Grandeur that You See in the Other”

There may come a moment in long-standing interfaith friendships when individuals deeply devoted to their religious traditions notice how the differences that separate them from their dialogue partner begin to recede or even dissolve. While recognizing that philosophical and religious differences still exist, they begin to experience a form of familiarity and kinship that supersedes religion, dogma, tradition, and history.

Such a moment occurred between Pope Francis and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, whom the press likes to call “the Pope’s rabbi.” He was born and raised in Argentina, the son of immigrants from Poland. Today Rabbi Skorka is the rector of the Marshall T. Meyer Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, which trains Conservative rabbis, cantors and educators in the Latin American Jewish community.

Rabbi Skorka has known Pope Francis since he was Archbishop Bergoglio. Starting in the mid-1990s, they often met at celebrations of state ceremonies in Argentina. After connecting, they soon discovered they were interested in many similar subjects, including theology and an ongoing enthusiasm for rival soccer teams, they both like to point out.

They didn’t bond over soccer, however. Their intellectual and theological curiosity led them to plumb their holy texts together. In the process, they discovered they also shared a mutual appreciation for interfaith dialogue, “without apology or hiding,” as Rabbi Skorka describes it. In fact, their interfaith friendship ultimately steered them to co-author a book on interfaith dialogue, titled On Heaven And Earth (2013).

Travelling Together
Breaking tradition from the very beginning of his papacy, the unpredictable Pope invited both Rabbi Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud, a Muslim cleric from Buenos Aires, to accompany him to the Holy Land in May 2014, marking the first time a Pope has ever invited other religious leaders to join an official papal visit. The Pope addressed both Israelis and Palestinians, in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. Making a special point of visiting the wall that divides the two peoples, the world eagerly watched to see how H.H. would deal with the current political standstill of one of the most intractable conflicts in the world.

Acknowledging freely that they don’t always see eye to eye on certain issues, Rabbi Skorka and the Pope are both acutely aware of the PR value provided by their trip to the Holy Land and their continuing friendship, at first for the Argentine community and now for the world at large

“Today, both Pope Francis and I believe that we must work to revitalize the type of conversations between our faiths that existed from the beginning of the first century into the second century,” Rabbi Skorka wrote in an article published in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal during his visit last January, just a month shy of the 50th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s historic proclamation Nostra Aetate (In Our Time). “Only by coming to the table with open minds can we truly understand the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism that goes back 2000 years, to understand who the other is, and the significance each faith holds for the other.”

Among other important declarations on the relations of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate condemned anti-Semitism, canceled the imperative to convert Jews, and even acknowledged Jews as the Catholics’ “older brothers.” It was a groundbreaking document which may help to explain the Pope’s predilection for a frequent phrase he uses: “Inside every Christian is a Jew.”

Rabbi Skorka’s came to the U.S. recently, on a tour sponsored by Masorti Olami, a global organization that promotes Conservative Judaism in places such as Europe, Latin America and Israel, where Orthodox practices predominate.

During his stay in LA, as a guest speaker at Loyola Marymount University, he was asked to describe a highlight of their Holy Land trip together. The Rabbi chose not to speak about the political implications of that visit. Instead he cited a more intimate moment he shared with the Pope in the Church where Jesus was supposed to have celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples, above the Tomb of David, on Mt. Zion. Noting that usually the Pope conducts mass for thousands and tens of thousands, “on that occasion, however, the Pope led mass for just a few of us who were present. I was deeply moved by the sacred silence of that moment,” the rabbi recalled. “I stood beside him and learned humility from him in that silence and in the quality of the silence. Interfaith dialogue is the most valuable when you can accept the grandeur that you see in the other.”

Perhaps the most fascinating development in their friendship, however, occurred in the Vatican itself, in the fall of 2014.

Rabbi Skorka had been invited to attend an important dialogue to be held at the Vatican, which included dinner. Realizing that it would fall on the eve of the last day of Succoth, called “Shimini Atzeret,” the rabbi called the Pope to request permission to stay overnight in the Vatican for religious reasons. He explained he could not travel on the holiday and the nearest hotels were too far away for him to walk.

 “Of course, my friend, you’ll stay in the Vatican,” the Pope responded immediately, “even if I won’t be there.”

Following his election as the new head of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, Pope Francis had a surprise for everyone. Preferring not to occupy the Vatican’s traditional papal quarters, he installed himself instead in a nearby hotel which meant that Rabbi Skorka would be his guest at the Vatican even though the Pope would not be there himself.

Rabbi Skorka then added some other essential information to their conversation. “I will have to say the ‘kiddush’ (blessing over the wine) and the ‘motzei’ (blessing over the bread) at the beginning of the meal, which means I’ll have to bring in special kosher wine and challah bread.”

“Of course, my friend,” the Pope said, “whatever you need to do, you’ll do.”

So the Rabbi arrived at the Vatican to spend the night, suitcase in tow, laden with enough kosher
wine and challah to share with everyone at the table. The Pope seated Rabbi Skorka next to him, on his right, and the evening meal began with Rabbi Skorka’s Hebrew blessings in the presence of the cardinals and archbishops in attendance.

And that night the Rabbi slept in the Vatican. It was a “first.”

Their friendship continues to grow. They email each other frequently and often talk on the phone, as good friends do. But perhaps the most revealing moment in their relationship occurred in a recent email the rabbi received. His voice was overcome with emotion as he shared details of the story at the Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Los Angeles.

“Archbishop Bergoglio, as I knew him then in Argentina, and Pope Francis, as I know him today, would always began each of his letters to me with the same salutation: ‘Querido Amigo’ (Dear Friend).

“But in his most recent email to me, he began with a new salutation: ‘Querido Hermano’ (Dear Brother).”

From friend to brother, the interfaith path holds great rewards for those with courage, persistence, and the willingness to see the grandeur in the other.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Schools in Sierra Leone Open Sporadically After Nine Month Ebola Shutdown

Fr. Franciskus Xaverius Sudarmanto (pictured above saying mass), or as his friends call him, "Sudar," reports on the spotty opening of schools after being shutdown throughout the country for nine months due to the Ebola Crisis. Presently, even though neighboring Liberia, Sierra Leone has not been declared Ebola free yet. 6 days have passed since the last positive case was reported in Sierra Leone. Presently there are two hotspots: Moa Wharf area of the East 1 Chiefdom of Freetown and Kambia districts, which borders Guinea, where cases are reported in Forecariah (about 10 every week in that nation). We were worried about Kabala, when 23 days ago a woman died in the hospital and was tested positive. But it remained an isolate case. 731 Contacts are currently being followed in Sierra Leone and 22 are still admitted in the Treatment Centers. Every day about 300 samples are analyzed. In light of this we share a post from Sudar on the opening of schools again in Sierra Leone.

On Thursday, 23rd April, a few days after the official reopening of the schools in Sierra Leone, I went to Karifaia to visit the school. I could not wait to see the pupils cheerful with their teachers in the classrooms. But I was a little bit shocked when I found nobody in the school. While moving around slowly in the land rover in town, I met Hawa Koroma, one of our youths who has just taken the BECE exams this month, and Mary Kabba, just promoted to class six: they told me that school would start the following day, Friday. Then I met Mr. Sendeka, the former Regent Section Chief, who told me that many students and parents were still afraid to go to school. Unfortunately, I did not meet the acting head teacher because he was not in town, but had gone to the farm. When I asked if there were any teachers in town, Hawa and Mary told me that all teachers were in their farm. Many children were in town, but the teachers were still in their farms!

I continued my journey as far as Walia, hoping to find a different situation in the school. Surprisingly, on the way, I met Mr. Mohamed Marah, a community teacher, with his wife, holding a bunch of “locust” (a kind of fruit). They stopped me and asked me to give them a lift to town. Reluctantly I helped them. When we reached the school compound, I was shocked again to see that there, too, there was nobody, all the doors were locked. So I went straight to town. I stopped at the house of the head teacher and found shelter under a mango tree. I was tired. When the town chief came to meet me, some children, too, came around. They took some benches and a chair for me, then we sat down together under the mango tree.

When I asked the whereabouts of the head teacher, the Town Chief, a very simple man, told me that he was in Kabala for HTC distant course. Where were the other teachers? One of them was in Farana, Guinea, to get his motorbike repaired. As for the other one, they didn’t know where he was. The Town Chief then promised to talk to the people in the community, who would come to town on Friday, the following day, and ask them to send back their children to school the following Monday.

As in Karifaia, I saw children around the town, though not many. While they were gathered around me, I started singing together some Koranko songs. “Dinimbo kinambo ma ala bato...” “I kana wasu, mba fe mbi bolo...” “Mo wal ming ke la i wole sara sorna...” Then counting... 1, 2, 3, ... then spelling the alphabet ... a, b , c... They were all happy. My disappointment changed, little by little, to accepting the situation and hoping to see the following week something better.

While we were singing, counting, spelling, the town chief asked a big boy to climb the mango tree to pick some for me. The other two boys helped to gather the mangos. They put the mangos in a bag, which they gave to me. I knew, they were grateful for my coming, and tried to show it by giving a bag of mangos. But what made me keep smiling was that they look encouraged and motivated to make more effort in calling the community to cooperate for the reopening of the school and sending back their children to the class room.

On my way back to Mongo, I met some children in the bush, shouting, “Father... Father...” and stopped me just to greet. I stopped. They approached me, gave me some mangos, so I told them, “I will come back next week... You have to go to school... See you in the school!” Then I continued my way back to Mongo, while my heart could not stop praying for these children.

This morning, Mr. Foday Kamara, the head teacher of RC Walia popped in at the mission in Mongo, to say sorry for the school of Walia, which had not opened yet, due to his absence. I told him that to say sorry is not enough, the next step is to start the school next week in earnest. As it is common among the people here, the head teacher answered: “Yes, Father, by God ihn power!” [Krio: with the help of God]. Anyway, this answer reminded me of what St. Peter says in the first reading of the Mass today: “The God of all grace, who called you to eternal glory in Christ, will see that all is well again: he will confirm, strengthen and support you” (1Peter 5:10).

May the reopening of the schools be really a way for a healing process of our young people, pupils and students in our country, Sierra Leone. We need to encourage them. It is through us that God’s power will confirm, strengthen and support the people of Sierra Leone.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

An Easter Reflection on What Christians and Atheists have in Common

In light of our dialogue work with Atheists and Humanists, we found this article by John L. Allen, Jr. in Crux to be quite thought provoking.  We re-present his article for you here with the one caveat. Mr. Allen seems to naively equate Atheists with  Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchins, not realizing perhaps these two do not represent many Humanists and Atheists who are not so negative about religious persons. As much diversity and division there is among Christians, you can find similar differences among Atheists and Humanists. For more information about our work in this area click here.

This week, Holy Week no less, two stories broke that together illustrate a towering irony about the rise of violent Islamic extremism: In a growing number of places these days, nobody has more in common than Christians and atheists.

In Kenya, the militant Islamic group Al-Shabaab launched an assault on Garissa University College, beginning by shooting up a Christian prayer service. The gunmen then moved on, leaving Muslims unharmed while killing or abducting Christians. All told, 147 people are believed to have died.

It’s not clear if the militants deliberately chose one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar for the assault, though Christmas and Easter tend to be periods of special risk for Christian minorities in many parts of the world.

In Bangladesh, a blogger passionately opposed to religious fundamentalism named Washiqur Rahman was hacked to death in Dhaka by two men wielding knives and meat cleavers. It followed the eerily similar murder of Bangladeshi-American atheist blogger Avijit Roy in late February. Roy was assaulted by two men with machetes.

Reports out of Bangladesh assert that over the past two years, several other atheist bloggers have either been murdered or died under mysterious circumstances.

Both these Kenyan and Bangladeshi victims were targeted not just for being non-Muslims, but a specific kind of non-Muslim.

Among Islamic radicals incensed with the West, no two groups stir rage like Christians and atheists. Christians symbolize the perceived sins of the Western past, while atheists embody what Islamists see as the decadence and apostasy of the Western present.

In Europe and North America, we tend to think the primary cultural fault line pits liberals against conservatives, with religious believers often concentrated on one side. American pollsters, for instance, say one good predictor of whether someone will vote Republican or Democrat is how often that person goes to church.

In much of the rest of the world, that’s just not how things align.

Instead, the clash that matters is between those who support a secular state and those seeking to impose theocracy by force. Radical Islam tends to be the most lethal version of the latter option, but it takes other forms, too, including Buddhist radicalism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Hindu extremism in India, and even forms of Christian militancy in conflict zones such as the Central African Republic.

When the question is framed as pluralism vs. intolerance, the result is to put religious minorities, non-fundamentalist followers of the majority religion, and non-believers in the same boat, with Christians and atheists often at special risk should intolerance prevail.

That’s why no voice in the Catholic Church has emerged as a more eloquent advocate of secular governance than the bishops of the Middle East, for whom separation of religion from the state isn’t a theoretical concept, but a survival strategy.

When the Middle Eastern bishops gathered in Rome for a 2010 summit called a “synod,” they issued a strong call for “a sound democracy, positively secular in nature … completely respecting the distinction between the religious and civic orders.”

It’s a platform even the most ardent atheists ought to be able to embrace.

Given those dynamics, one unintended consequence of the threat posed by religious fanatics may be to recalibrate the relationship between non-believers and religious moderates.

Bangladesh, for instance, is a country of 156 million people that’s 86 percent Muslim; Christians form just 0.4 percent of the population. It’s hard to imagine any two groups there with more to gain from making citizenship, not religious affiliation, the basis of civil rights than Christians and atheists.

For such a coalition to emerge, each side will have to give.

Non-believers will have to move beyond the conceit that religion itself is the problem, acknowledging that one can be both a person of faith and also committed to pluralism and equality. That’s not just a theory, but the lived reality of untold millions of religious believers all around the world.

Believers, including Christians, will have to acknowledge that they’re not the only ones suffering. They’ll also need courage to say to fundamentalists that a secular society makes room not only for different religious traditions, but also for the Avijit Roys of the world.

If that kind of partnership is to become a global force, Pope Francis may be well positioned to help put it together.

The pontiff has already carved out a good relationship with some atheists, including a series of conversations with a leftist Italian journalist named Eugenio Scalfari, a man with a demonstrated knack for attracting admiration in secular circles.

As shocking as it may seem, one could almost imagine Francis inviting Richard Dawkins, the best-selling atheist pundit, to join him in denouncing the atrocities in Kenya and Bangladesh and defending “healthy secularism,” meaning a state that makes room for both religion and non-belief, but doesn’t impose either one.

Had Christopher Hitchins still been alive, perhaps the pontiff might have considered reaching out to him … and for the record, many of us would have paid real money to watch that exchange.

Whether such a dazzling gesture actually ensues is anybody’s guess. What’s certain is that as Christians observe Easter today, a growing number may have good reason to look on their atheist neighbors as their new best friends.