14 August 2018
The Temple of Bel in Palmyra in Syria is a World Heritage Site that was destroyed by ISIS. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Many of the people and places CNEWA serves are somehow imperiled—whether by war, persecution, economic hardship or drought. Often, the stories we tell in our magazine, ONE, revolve around ways of life that are rapidly disappearing.
We aren’t the only ones chronicling this phenomenon. The United Nations has been involved in this, as well, and has actively taken steps to try and save what otherwise might be lost.
In 1965 the United States, under the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, hosted a conference entitled “World Heritage Trust.” The conference recognized the universal human significance of some sites in the world. These sites—both natural and cultural—touch the deepest part of what it means to be human in the best sense of the term. The conference recognized that natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon invoke a sense of wonder and awe that transcends language, culture and religious affiliation. Likewise some sites—buildings, cities, places of worship—also signify the heights human achievement can attain. It was recognized that these sites, while remaining under local state sovereignty, are nonetheless part of the patrimony of the entire human family.
In 1972 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Four years later, the World Heritages Committee was formed, with the express intent of creating the World Heritage List — places and landmarks to be treasured by all. As of 2017, there are 1,052 World Heritages Sites around the world. Of these, 814 are cultural, 203 are natural and 35 are “mixed.” (For a complete list of these sites, visit this link.)
While the World Heritage List revolves around those things both natural and created that bring out and reflect the best in humanity, it cannot be overlooked that in the list of the sites — in addition to noting whether the site is cultural, natural or mixed — there is a note as to whether is it threatened. Many are threatened — and some are threatened by deliberate human activity.
The Middle East, the world of CNEWA’s original mission, is one of the so-called cradles of civilization. Sixteen World Heritages Sites can be found in Jordan, Syria and Iraq alone. These countries have been involved in war for almost a decade. Hence, many of these sites are also the victims of war. Caught between fighting factions, places such as the citadel in Aleppo, the Nebi Yunus Mosque in Mosul and many others have been reduced to rubble. The Islamic State (ISIS), with its nihilist theology, deliberately destroyed many ancient sites because they were considered “infidel.” Ancient statues and artifacts and priceless, irreplaceable manuscripts have been wantonly destroyed.
On 18 August 2015, the 82-year-old Syrian scholar Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded by ISIS and his dead body was then publicly crucified. His crime? He refused to reveal to ISIS where the archaeological treasures of the World Heritage Site of Palmyra were hidden. Al-Asaad dedicated his life to studying and preserving the ancient heritage of his country and, indeed, the whole world.
He gave his life to save that heritage.
If the UNESCO World Heritage Sites were created to reflect and bring out the best of humanity, they have also been the victims of the worst of humanity.
While CNEWA does not work directly with UNESCO or the World Heritage Sites, we do strive to reduce the violence and inhumanity in all places where we work. By helping to meet the basic needs of people often left homeless, scarred by violence and war, we hope ultimately to meet their spiritual needs as human beings — beings who are compassionate, just, secure and open to things of beauty like the UNESCO World Heritages Sites, often in their own lands.
2 August 2018
Tags: Syria Iraq United Nations
In 1983, Pope John Paul II met in prison with Mehmet Ali Agca, who shot and wounded the pontiff in St. Peter's Square two years earlier. The pope publicly forgave him. (photo: CNS)
This year on Sunday 5 August—and on the first Sunday of August every year—many people around the world observe International Forgiveness Day. Although the observance is not connected with any specific religion, organizers note:
”Most world religions include teachings on the nature of forgiveness, and many of these teachings provide an underlying basis for many varying modern day traditions and practices of forgiveness. Some religious doctrines or philosophies place greater emphasis on the need for humans to find some sort of divine forgiveness for their own shortcomings, others place greater emphasis on the need for humans to practice forgiveness of one another, yet others make little or no distinction between human and divine forgiveness.”
Since much of CNEWA’s world is home to the three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—it’s worth considering how each of these faiths treats the notion of forgiveness.
The three religions all differentiate between God’s forgiveness of humans and human beings forgiving each other. Each of the three monotheistic faiths strongly emphasizes that God is merciful and ready to forgive.
In Judaism, this idea recurs repeatedly. Almost like an antiphon, the phrase “tender and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in graciousness and ready to relent” (Joel 2:13) is applied again and again to God in the Hebrew Bible. The entire book of the Prophet Jonah is dedicated to God’s mercy.
In Christianity, God’s mercy and forgiveness are a constant theme of the preaching of Jesus. In the New Testament, God is presented as a loving Father who is always ready to forgive. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ connects the forgiveness of God with our own readiness to forgive: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
In Islam one finds the Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God. They are God’s titles and characteristics. The first two names of God for Muslims are: rahmani and rahim, “the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious.” For Muslims these are the two primary and most important characteristics of God. Of the 114 chapters of the Qur’an, all of them except one (Chapter 9, al-Tawba) begins “In the Name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious.”
Of course, almost all religions have a form of the “Golden Rule:” do unto others as you would have them to unto you. Nevertheless, forgiveness of those who harm and offend us is treated slightly differently in the three monotheistic traditions. Part of this may be due to the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Qur’an contain legal material and are concerned in some cases with retributive justice. In these scriptures, the action of the offender is important: the offender must repent and ask for forgiveness. The Qur’an 42:41 is, however, instructive here. After reiterating the Law of Talion (an eye for an eye, etc.), it adds “but whoever forgives and brings about reconciliation, his reward is with God.”
But in Christian teaching, the New Testament is unique in its call for “gratuitous forgiveness.” In Matthew’s Gospel (6:14-15) Jesus connects his followers’ willingness to forgive with God’s willingness. When in Matthew 18 Peter askes Jesus how often he must forgive, Jesus responds “seventy times seven” or indefinitely. .” In Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus demands something unique in the monotheist faiths: love of one’s enemy. Jesus challenges his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In Luke 6:27-35 he expands the challenge and says “love your enemies and do good, lend without hope of return.” While dying on the cross Jesus asks God to forgive his executioners, although they clearly have not repented of what they are doing.
In our world today, mercy and forgiveness are needed perhaps now more than ever. There is a saying which is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian pacifist: if it is an eye for an eye, it won’t be long before the whole world is blind. Gandhi recognized that while forgiveness is very difficult and at times seemingly impossible, it is ultimately in our own self-interest too.
The world in which CNEWA works has seen more than its share of evil and violence. Genocidal attacks against Yazidis in northwestern Iraq, persecution of Christians and other religious minorities, destruction of churches, monasteries and sacred places, rape and slavery as tools of war and other atrocities are all crimes which cry to heaven. The drive towards vengeance can be very strong and very understandable.
But regardless of how strong or how understandable, vengeance must be resisted and must give way to mercy.
Wherever we work, CNEWA tries to be promote understanding, rebuilding of relationships, reconciliation and forgiveness — not only on International Forgiveness Day but every day.
In the words of a well-known commercial: it’s what we do.
19 July 2018
Tags: Christianity Islam Judaism
In this 2014 file photo, a man prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
On Sunday 22 July, Jews around the world quietly observe Tish’ah B’Av (“the ninth of Av”), Av being the fifth month of the Hebrew Calendar, corresponding to July/August. Tish'ah B’Av is a day of fasting and mourning for Jews. It commemorates primarily the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem. But, as we’ll see, the events being remembered can have meaning and significance to the wider world, as well— particularly in places CNEWA serves.
According to the biblical text (2 Kings 25:8 ff.), “in the fifth month on the seventh day of the month (587 BC)…Nebuzaradan, commander of the guard, an officer of the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem. He burned down the Temple of Yahweh, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem.” It was an unparalleled disaster for the Israelites, bringing the end of the almost 500-year dynasty of David, the end of his city Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple which Solomon built.
In Numbers 13:25-14:38 we find the story of the spies sent to reconnoiter Canaan by Moses. Upon their return, all but two spies give a very negative—and false—report on the possibilities of entering the Promised Land. On hearing the negative report, the people revolted against Moses and God and were punished. According to an ancient Jewish commentary on the biblical text, the Israelites wailed and complained against God for no reason. It was—according to the tradition—on the 9th of Av. God the punished them by making that a day on which they would really have something to mourn.
For Jews, the 9th of Av has become a day which commemorates all the tragedies which have come upon them. Although few of these events actually occurred on the 9th of Av, many have occurred during the months of July/August in the calendar. To name just a few:
· July 70 AD: the Romans entered and destroyed Jerusalem and, with it, the Second Temple, built in the time of Ezra and greatly expanded by Herod the Great (d. 4 BC).
· 4 August 135 AD: the Romans at Betar killed almost half a million people who had been part of the rebellion of Bar Kochba.
· 2 August 1941: the Nazi party approved “The Final Solution,” which brought about the extermination of six million Jews in Europe.
On the 9th of Av the biblical book of Lamentations is read in the synagogue. Jews fast for 25 hours, sit on the ground or low stools and avoid any type of entertainment. Although many non-Jews might not be as aware of the observance of Tish?ah B’Av as they are of Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, it is nonetheless an observance with profound meaning for the Jewish people.
But perhaps the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 587 BC and the Second Temple in 70 AD can have meaning for all people of faiths.
Without taking away from the poignancy of the Jewish tragedies observed on Tish?ah B’Av, we are reminded of the violence against sacred places around the world—and more importantly the persons who hold them sacred: the Buddhist statues in Bamyan, in Afghanistan; the bombing of churches in the Middle East; the destruction of Yazidi sacred sites and on and on.
The lands in which CNEWA works are no strangers to violence against places of worship and the worshippers who hold them sacred. Tish?ah B’Av, a sacred and solemn day to Jews, can serve as a reminder to all people of faiths. As long as one group of believers is the object of oppression and violence, no believer can be secure—and none can afford to be indifferent.
5 July 2018
Tags: Jerusalem Israel
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines (center), speaks during an interfaith conference on migrants and refugees at the U.N. headquarters in New York on 3 May (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In last week’s post on the movement of peoples—mass migrations—taking place in the contemporary world, we looked at the terms which are used to refer to these people and to indicate wherever possible the legal implications these terms might have.
Today, I’ll look at some of the international efforts to deal with the problem of a mass movement of peoples — efforts CNEWA and the Holy See have been involved with in many ways, for many years. It has been clear that since the problem is international in scope, the solutions must also be international. When individual nations attempt to solve the problem in isolation, the result is often merely to intensify the problem in other, surrounding countries.
Despite all the rhetoric and fear-mongering in some quarters, the problem of the mass movements of peoples is really one of a clash of rights.
First, there is the concern over the rights of the refugee (using that term in its broadest sense.). The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) holds that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” It also holds that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution;”
But secondly, there is the sovereign right of states to safeguard their borders, although that right is not absolute; a state, for example, cannot use racism and xenophobia (fear/loathing of foreigners) as reasons to “defend its borders.”
Excluding racism and xenophobia, there is, nonetheless, a true conflict of rights involved. The international community understands this — and understands, as well, that the uncontrolled movements of people can cause chaos and violent conflict. The United Nations, aware of conflict between these rights, speaks of the necessity of a safe, orderly and regular migration.
The UN General Assembly on 19 September 2016 passed the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. The lengthy resolution outlines the rights and obligations of both migrants and states. The declaration recognizes the magnitude and complexity of the problem as well as the necessity of a comprehensive, international solution. In the second Annex to the Resolution, the UN announced the launch of a “global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration.” The purpose of the global compact is to “set out a range of principles, commitments and understandings among Member States regarding international migration in all its dimensions” (Annex II, I, 2).
In fact, two global contracts have arisen: the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and the Global Contract on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM). As would be expected, these compacts have been the subject of intense and ongoing negotiations. Several drafts of both compacts have been published for further discussion and negotiations. It is hoped that “final” texts will be ready to submit to the UN General Assembly Session which convenes in September 2018.
In all this, Pope Francis has been very vocal on the need for a just and comprehensive solution to the problem of the mass movement of peoples. He spoke about this just last March, at the Plenary Council of the International Catholic Migration Commission. Recognizing the work of the UN, Pope Francis stated that the church “must encourage countries to coordinate more suitable and effective responses to the challenges posed by issues of migration.”
The Holy See has also engaged in practical efforts to deal with the crisis. Charitable organizations such as CNEWA, CRS, and Caritas Internationalis—to name just a few—are actively working on the ground to alleviate the sufferings of refugees in the Middle East, Africa and around the world. Likewise, the Permanent Observer Mission (Embassy) of the Holy See to the United Nations, under the leadership of Archbishop Bernadito Auza, has been very active in promoting the emerging Global Contracts through significant interventions in the General Assembly and symposia held at UN side events, co-sponsored by the Holy See.
A major side event, sponsored by the Holy See, was Sharing the Journey of Migrants and Refugees: An Interfaith Perspective on the Global Compacts on 3 May 2018. The website of the Mission of the Holy See to the UNmakes available all the statements and side events which the Holy See has sponsored on the problem of the movements of peoples.
The role which the Holy See and its charitable organizations, such as CNEWA, play is crucial. It is not unrealistically idealistic. It fully recognizes the competition, if not conflict, of rights and the incredible international legal and moral complexities involved here — and it attempts to achieve a just solution favorable to both sides. However, it is not merely engaged in abstract negotiations—as important as these are—but is actively engaged on the ground to help those millions of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes.
28 June 2018
Tags: Refugees United Nations
In this image from 2014, displaced Iraqis gather for Evening Prayer outside a church in Erbil, Iraq. (photo: Don Duncan)
The planet is experiencing a “movement of peoples” unseen in decades, if not centuries.
The UN recently (20 June) observed World Refugee Day in recognition of this problem. People are fleeing oppressive regimes, climate change induced droughts, floods and loss of land, wars and other forms of what the United Nations calls “drivers of emigration.” Although Europe and North America receive the greatest amount of media attention regarding the problems they face as new people try to enter, their migration problems are dwarfed by countries such as Jordan and Lebanon where refugees form up to 20 percent of the overall population. For comparison, 20 percent of the population of the U.S. would be 66 million people!
CNEWA has been in the middle of this movement of peoples — helping refugees, internally displaced people and those suffering from war and persecution in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and India. We have helped people in refugee camps obtain what they needed to get through winters, in addition to providing health, social and educational services.
It is important to note that this movement of peoples involves many types of people, leaving their homes for many different reasons and under a variety of circumstances.
There is often confusion in terms when speaking of refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, etc. Terms often have a specific, legal meaning. Putting all groupings together, the UN speaks of “populations of concern” and “forcibly displaced people.” The terminology and legal structure is, however, evolving. And the distinctions are important.
The UN estimates there are 68.6 million people in the world who have been forcibly displaced. Of these, 40 million are internally displaced people, who have been driven out of their homes and forced to live in other places in their home country. For example, many Christians in Iraq were forced to leave Baghdad for the Nineveh Plain and then driven from there to Iraqi Kurdistan. In Syria large numbers of people—Christian and Muslim—have been driven from their homes to live in other parts of the country.
The internally displaced are, however, only part of the present crisis. Millions of people are leaving their native countries entirely. And the numbers are overwhelming.
It is estimated that, legally speaking in terms of international law, there are 25.4 million refugees, 3.1million asylum seekers and 10 million stateless people in the world. The problem is unprecedented and is putting tremendous economic, cultural and political pressure on target countries throughout the world. Although countries in Europe and North America are often loudest in bemoaning the crisis, the top refugee hosting countries in the world according to the UN are Turkey (3.5 million), Lebanon (1 million), Pakistan and Uganda (with 1.4 million each) and Iran (979,000). In countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, the refugee population is so large — up to one fifth of the people— it can cause incredible— indeed existential—economic, social and political problems.
But it’s important to note that the UN differentiates between refugees, migrants, stateless persons and asylum seekers. Let’s look how the United Nations defines these terms.
According to the UN: “Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are defined and protected in international law, and must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk. Refugees are persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection. The refugee definition can be found in the 1951 Convention and regional refugee instruments, as well as UNHCR’s Statute.”
The UN says of migrants: “An international migrant is someone who changes his or her country of usual residence, irrespective of the reason for migration or legal status. Generally, a distinction is made between short-term or temporary migration, covering movements with a duration between three and 12 months, and long-term or permanent migration, referring to a change of country of residence for a duration of one year or more.”
Likewise the international legal definition of a stateless person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” In simple terms, this means that a stateless person does not have a nationality of any country. Some people are born stateless, but others become stateless. Statelessness can occur for several reasons, including discrimination against particular ethnic or religious groups, or on the basis of gender; the emergence of new States and transfers of territory between existing States; and gaps in nationality laws. Whatever the cause, statelessness has serious consequences for people in almost every country and in all regions of the world.”
Finally, while asylum seekers form a distinct category, their legal rights are not clearly delineated. The UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) holds that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” And “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, it is not worked out what limitations sovereign states may impose on these rights, since the UN clearly recognizes that sovereign states have control of their borders. An initial attempt at dealing with migration is the UN Global Compact on Migration (2017), which attempts to deal with the complexity of the problem. Archbishop Bernadito Auza, the Permanent Observer (Ambassador) of the Holy See to the UN, has been very active in developing and promoting the Global Compact on Migration.
Pope Francis and his representative at the UN have been advocates and voices of justice and compassion for the millions of people displaced by violence all over the world. Recent discussions at the UN recognize that these people are forcibly displaced, i.e. the do not want to leave their homes. There is an emerging notion of “the right to remain,” that recognizes that the “drivers of emigration”—war/violence, poverty, persecution of minorities, climate induced changes such as droughts, disappearing island nations, etc., need to be addressed in a just and equitable way, if the problems of the contemporary movement of peoples is to be alleviated. Moreover, there is a growing recognition that people have a basic right to demand that governments do everything possible to remove the drivers of emigration which are causing the global problem.
And the Church, in part through the work of CNEWA, is seeking to bring compassion and hope to many of these people on the move.
As Pope Francis said, marking the World Day for Migrants and Refugees this year:
“Every stranger who knocks at our door is an opportunity for an encounter with Jesus Christ, who identifies with the welcomed and rejected strangers of every age (Matthew 25:35-43). The Lord entrusts to the Church’s motherly love every person forced to leave their homeland in search of a better future. This solidarity must be concretely expressed at every stage of the migratory experience — from departure through journey to arrival and return. This is a great responsibility, which the Church intends to share with all believers and men and women of good will, who are called to respond to the many challenges of contemporary migration with generosity, promptness, wisdom and foresight, each according to their own abilities.”
15 June 2018
Tags: Refugees Iraqi Refugees Migrants
In this 2012 photo, a young Ethiopian woman plans to be smuggled to Israel — an elaborate process that would require dressing in a veil; crossing into Sudan, then Egypt, likely being arrested; claiming to be Eritrean as a cover story to prevent being sent home; and linking up with another smuggler and finding her way to Israel, where she has friends currently working as domestic servants. For more details, read The High Cost of Leaving, from the May 2012 edition of ONE. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
In a world in which it seems there are ultimately no secrets, we tend to believe that if we haven’t seen it blaring on the news, it just does not exist or at least does not exist near me.
On the other hand, we also have the expression “hidden in plain sight.”
Human trafficking is one of those things “hidden in plain sight” — an injustice against human life and dignity that afflicts far too many in our world, and in the world CNEWA serves.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines trafficking as “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power, or of a person of vulnerability, or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control of another person for the purpose of exploitation” — such as prostitution or involuntary labor. Human trafficking is also commonly referred to as “contemporary forms of slavery.”
Although human trafficking is relatively unknown to many people in Western Europe and North America, it is a huge problem. DoSomething, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) created to educate about human trafficking and to end it, estimates that:
There are approximately 20 to 30 million slaves in the world
600,000 to 800,000 people — 80% of whom are woman and 50% children are trafficked across international borders annually
Human trafficking is the third largest international crime industry (behind illegal drugs and arms trafficking)
Even the United States is not immune to this scourge. In 2017, 8,524 cases of human trafficking were reported across the U.S. Of this, more than 6,000 were for sex trafficking and more than 1,200 for forced labor. It is certain the number of cases reported is a small percentage of the actual trafficking going on. In addition, although there are some who dispute the statistics, it is estimated that cities where the annual Super Bowl is held often experience a spike in prostitution, a large part of which is carried on by girls and women in sexual slavery.
If this is the case in the developed world — where there are laws forbidding trafficking and law enforcement agencies to enforce those laws — one can only imagine the situation in countries where the rule of law has broken down and the fabric of society is badly rent.
One of the major works of CNEWA is to help and support refugees in the Middle East. While there is a difference in international law between smuggling people (of their own free will) into target countries and trafficking people (against their will), the distinction often blurs in regions where there are large populations of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. In some places, the situation is so bad that people in order to survive sell themselves or their children into what is, for all practical purposes, slavery. Very often people who believe they are being smuggled end up being trafficked.
In CNEWA’s world and elsewhere, it’s important to note that women religious have been at the forefront in the battle against human trafficking and sexual slavery. Both at the United Nations and on the ground, women’s religious communities have not only pressed for laws and international conventions against trafficking, they have also put their lives on the line in preventing it, rescuing those who have been trapped in all forms of slavery and trying to eliminate the causes which would bring people to sell themselves or their children into slavery.
Sister Winifred Doherty, RGS, a Good Shepherd sister, has worked with people at risk of becoming victims of trafficking in Ethiopia. She was interviewed by CNEWA for our magazine, ONE, in 2012. Sister Winifred summed up the situation in Ethiopia and the challenges so many women are facing:
“I think in Ethiopia, particularly in the rural areas, the situation of young girls is still critical,” she said. “Lack of education, lack of opportunities for childhood, then being forced to deal with many negative cultural practices like female genital mutilation, kidnapping and forced marriage. These practices don’t help to empower and promote women. This cycle must be broken. The poverty, lack of education, lack of good economic environment — this still has deep influences on women and continues to keep them in poverty.
Having said that, I think we have to look at the more positive things that have happened, through our own services, through the help of CNEWA, and through NGOs and other religious organizations that continue to empower women. So I prefer to look at it from the positive aspect. Changes are happening and are continuing to happen.”
7 June 2018
Tags: Migrants human trafficking
Pope John XXIII visits Regina Coeli jail on 26 December 1958. (photo: Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images)
In many of the places where CNEWA works, there are prisons. Most have appalling conditions; many are places where hope is in short supply. The March 2018 issue of ONE, CNEWA’s magazine, chronicles the work of prison chaplains in Ethiopia who are seeking to change that. While this story is, of course, unique, it is replicated by committed Christians all over CNEWA’s world — and, in fact, the whole world — who are responding to the Gospel mandate to visit the imprisoned.
This story offers us an opportunity to reflect on where that mandate originates, and why it matters so much.
To begin with, prisons appear several times in the Bible. In the New Testament, John the Baptist is imprisoned and ultimately executed by Herod. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and John are imprisoned several times as is Paul. In fact, in his letter to the Ephesians Paul describes himself twice as a “prisoner of the Lord.” However, perhaps the most important appearance of prison is in Matthew 25. In his description of the Last Judgment, Jesus harshly condemns those who are “on the left side of the Son of Man.” He condemns them: “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). This is one of the harshest statements of Jesus in all the Gospels. When he explains why these people are cursed, he notes they did not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the sick. These are actions which we would expect of a follower of Jesus, especially after he makes them quite literally the linchpins of salvation. What is interesting is that Jesus not only includes visiting the sick but also visiting the imprisoned. The seriousness of this cannot be overlooked. Visiting the imprisoned is for Jesus here a condition for salvation.
Since the time of Jesus, prisons have evolved — though, to be honest, rarely improved. In the ancient world, a prison was basically the place where criminals where held until they we executed, sold into slavery, etc. Imprisonment itself was not the punishment but merely the place where one was held before punishment.
In the Middle Ages, imprisonment itself became a punishment. The ability to execute and imprison people was a sign of power and authority and many a nobleman had a dungeon in his castle where people were held in the most degrading conditions. In the 18th and 19th centuries in England and among the Quakers in Pennsylvania a new concept of the prison evolved. These reformers saw imprisonment not merely as a punishment but as rehabilitation. Prisons became “correction facilities,” where the criminal would repent, reform and return to society as a productive, law-abiding citizen. While a noble idea, it didn’t get very far; centuries later, prisons are horrible places where a “correction facility” far too often releases people who arefrequently no better — and often worse — than when they were initially incarcerated.
Recent popes have been increasingly concerned with the plight of the imprisoned. After years as “prisoner of the Vatican,” the first pope to leave the Vatican was Pope John XXIII. On 26 December 1958 the pope’s first excursion out of Vatican City was a Christmas visit to the prisoners at Regina Cœli, the notorious Roman prison on the Gianicolo. Since that time, popes have regularly visited the imprisoned. Pope Francis has made Holy Thursday the traditional day for such a trip, traveling outside the Vatican to celebrate the Holy Thursday liturgy and wash the feet of prisoners. He is modeling for us what Christ taught — and embodying in a powerful and modern way the very message of Matthew 25.
We are privileged to follow that example in our own work. Supported by CNEWA, prison ministers — very often lay people — are bringing hope and a future to people who otherwise would not have it. Based on a deep conviction that people can change, that grace is more powerful than sin and goodness more powerful than evil, prison ministers help the imprisoned turn their lives around and ultimately return to society.
31 May 2018
Tags: Ethiopia Pope
This 18th-century icon of Mary by Pokrov Bogomateri hangs at the museum in Palekh, Russia. The Orthodox tradition reveres Mary, but never separates her from Christ. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Last week in our reflections on Mary, Mother of the Church, a new Marian feast initiated by Pope Francis, we looked at how Christians in the Western (Roman Catholic) church revere Mary. Today, we will look at how she is revered in the Eastern (primarily Byzantine Orthodox here) churches. These are churches that have a special relationship to CNEWA, for they are cornerstones of faith in many of the regions we serve. Understanding their devotion to the Mother of God helps us understand, as well, the piety of the people — many of whom draw strength and consolation from Mary.
Perhaps the best insight into the Eastern churches’ reverence for Mary can be found in “The Sanctity and Glory of the Mother of God: Orthodox Approaches” by Kallistos of Diokletia (The Way, Supplement 51, 1984), a scholar at Oxford and titular Metropolitan of Diokletia.
At the outset, Metropolitan Kallistos states that “she (Mary) is honored, revered, loved but not the subject of critical analysis. We have no developed ‘Mariology’; indeed, the very word, suggesting as it does an autonomous and systematically organized body of doctrine, has about it a non-orthodox flavor.” For Roman Catholics, accustomed to Marian devotion in the Catholic Church and (at best) Protestant discomfort with it, the Orthodox way is both interesting and important. The Orthodox approach to Mary shows that there is more than one way to approach reverence to the Mother of God and still be faithful to the church’s tradition.
Bishop Kallistos notes that — unlike in the west — there are only two titles of Mary which are fully recognized among all Orthodox: Theotokos (Mother of God) and Aeiparthenos (Ever Virgin). The primary title is Theotokos but — as the bishop correctly notes — the title speaks “not so much about the person of Mary as about the person of Christ.” Orthodox tradition never separates Mary from Christ. When Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Exhortation ”Marialis cultus” (2 February 1974) wrote of “the indissoluble link and essential relationship of the Virgin to the Divine Savior; we reject any tendency to separate devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary from its necessary point of reference — Christ,” Orthodox theologians and believers could only approve.
Bishop Kallistos treats two recent points of divergence between Catholic and Orthodox understanding of Mary, namely the Immaculate Conception (proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854) and the Assumption of Mary (Pius XII in 1952). It is not that the Orthodox reject these Catholic dogmas, although they sometimes understand them differently; rather, the Orthodox recognize that “the Mother of God was never a theme of the public preaching of the apostles,” while Christ was proclaimed to the whole world. With the traditional Orthodox sensitivity to the “ineffable” — or that which cannot be adequately expressed — Bishop Kallistos warns, “There is a danger of trying to say too much about the Mother of God. St. Basil’s warning is not to be forgotten: ‘Let things ineffable be honored in silence.’ “
The different ways of giving reverence to Mary reflect the different “theological cultures” of the Eastern and Western churches. While the West has a tendency to analyze, to define and to codify the “mysteries of the faith,” the Eastern churches have a tendency rather to contemplate in awe and silence. The same applies to a great extent to how the two traditions approach Mary in the church in the lives of believers.
We in the West might have something to learn from churches in the East. Not everything is best dissected, categorized and studied. Some things are best simply contemplated. While adding titles to the lengthy Litany of the Virgin Mary might be helpful to some Catholics, quietly entering into the deeply mystical relationship between Mary, Mother of God, and Christ her son might also be a useful thing.
24 May 2018
Tags: Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Mary
Apparitions of Mary are a relatively recent phenomenon, occurring primarily in the West, but they have served to popularize devotion to the mother of Jesus. This stained glass window at St. Mary Church in Manhasset, N.Y., depicts Mary appearing to St. Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France, in 1858. (photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In continuing our reflections on Mary, Mother of the Church, a new Marian feast initiated by Pope Francis, we will be comparing how Christians in the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (primarily Byzantine Orthodox, here) churches revere Mary.
While CNEWA works closely with Eastern churches in much of the world we serve, our mission is also to help build bridges between East and West. Understanding Marian devotion can serve to add more planks to that bridge.
This week, let’s look to the West.
First, a little history: In the earliest days of Christianity, the role of Mary was primarily, if not exclusively, as the virgin mother of Jesus. She is mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; never mentioned by name in John’s Gospel and never mentioned at all in the other books of the New Testament. This is not surprising since the kerygma — the Good News, the preaching and message of early Christians — was about Christ.
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), a Western Father of the Church, is one of the major theologians of the West in the first five centuries of Christianity. He produced a tremendous amount of letters, sermons, biblical commentaries and theological treatises. As A. D. Fitzgerald notes in “Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia,” Augustine never dedicated a separate treatise to Mary, “nor did he advocate a Marian devotion in any of his collected works.” Although Mary is the subject of intercessory prayer in Egypt as early as the second century, Augustine never addresses Mary as a subject of intercessory prayer.
Indeed, in the early centuries of the Western church, Mary’s role was secondary and subordinate to that of Christ. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared that Christians could rightly call Mary theotokos, “Mother of God,” something that had been common among the Syriac-speaking Christians. However, in calling Mary theotokos, Ephesus was concerned more with saying something about Christ than about Mary. In calling Mary theotokos, ”Mother of God,” the Council was stating that in the person of Christ, humanity and divinity were so closely united that what was said of his humanity could also be said of his divinity and vice versa. Nevertheless, the title gave impetus to devotion to Mary in the church.
The Middle Ages gave rise to the troubadour tradition, which paid great and romantic honor to the “pure woman”; coupled with this was the rise of the mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, which made devotion to Mary increasingly popular. Theologians and preachers from the 12th through 14th centuries — such as Sts. Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Bonaventure, Aquinas and Duns Scotus — all wrote and preached a great deal about devotion to Mary. As a result, during this time, Mary became a very important theme in theological treatises, sermons and, significantly, art. A new “theology of Mary” — Mariology — was developed which dealt with the person, titles, privileges and reverence due the mother of Jesus.
So intense — and, at times, extreme — was the Medieval reverence for Mary that the Protestant Reformation reacted to it negatively. Devotion to Mary was judged by the reformers to be unbiblical, diminishing the centrality of Christ, and was considered by some of the reformers to be idolatrous.
At the beginning of the modern era, a new Marian phenomenon began to emerge in the West — the apparition. The mystical suddenly became visible. Mostly, but not exclusively, in Western Europe, apparitions of Mary began to be reported. We find apparitions at Guadalupe (Mexico 1531), LaSallette (France 1846), Lourdes (France 1858), Knock (Ireland 1879), and Fatima (Portugal 1917), which gave rise to intense and widespread devotion to Mary. With most of these apparitions, the center of attention situated Mary in a particular geographic and cultural context.
As we noted last week, Vatican II (1962-1965) recognized the importance of reverence for Mary and also of correcting some of the exaggerations and at times abuses that had grown up around some Marian devotions. Also, by dedicating itself to ecumenism (i.e., the work for Christian unity), the Catholic Church took seriously some of the criticisms of the Reformation.
In our own day, the church thus situates reverence for Mary in the context of the saving work of God in Christ, which is always at the center of Christian faith and life. Recognizing the importance of local pilgrimage sites, the church underlines that Mary is the Mother — not just of a particular geographic locale or culture — of the entire church.
Pope Francis’ recent institution of a new Marian feast — Mary, Mother of the Church, observed the Monday after Pentecost (21 May this year) — is the fruit of the work of Vatican II, finally giving liturgical expression to an idea as old as Ambrose but as modern as Paul VI.
Next week, we will look at how devotion to Mary evolved in the traditions of Orthodoxy.
Hailing Mary, Part 1 — Mary, Mother of the Church
17 May 2018
Tags: Catholic Church history Mary
A new feast to honor Mary as Mother of the Church will be observed the Monday after Pentecost. Marian devotion is widespread among Christians around the world. Here, an altar server prepares for the liturgy near a statue of Mary in a Syriac Catholic church in Stockholm, Sweden. (photo: Magnus Aronson)
On 8 March this year Pope Francis initiated a new feast to honor the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. The feast — which will be observed on the Monday after Pentecost Sunday — will honor Mary as Mother of the Church. Monday 21 May 2018 will be the first observance of this feast in the Catholic Church.
The number of titles given to Mary in the Roman Catholic Church almost goes beyond counting. Some, like Mother of God (Greek: theotokos) are extremely ancient, while others like Mother of the Church seem more recent. In a sense,”Mary, Mother of the Church” is a title both ancient and recent.
Looking back, we find that mention of ”Mary, Mother of the Church” is rare in Catholic history. In 1895, Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical ”Adjutricem populi” (“Helper of the People”) referred to Mary as “Mother of the Church and Queen of the Apostles.” But we rarely hear mention of that title again until the Second Vatican Council.
There, it appears in the Vatican II document ”Lumen Gentium” (the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 21 November 1964). After dealing with the church from almost every aspect, the bishops at the Council decided to add a chapter (VIII) on “Our Lady.” Although the Council does not give him credit, the German theologian Hugo Rahner in 1944 showed that Ambrose (ca. 340-397), bishop of Milan and a Church Father, saw in Mary a type/image of the church. The Council refers to Ambrose and this teaching and develops it.
The title ”Mary, Mother of the Church,” as understood by Vatican II, is extremely important. The church at the same Council committed itself, among other things, to ecumenism — to the work of restoring unity to Christians. The Council was aware that there have been and continue to be different attitudes towards Mary among Christians. Protestant Christians have sometimes disapproved of Marian devotion, seeing it as taking away from the unique role of Christ. Some have even seen the devotion as idolatrous.
Vatican II was aware not only of the deep importance of devotion to Mary, but also aware of some of the excesses that had grown up over the centuries. The Council “strongly urges theologians and preachers … to be careful to refrain as much from all false exaggeration as from too summary an attitude in considering the special dignity of the Mother of God” (LG par. 67). It reminds the faithful “that true devotion consists neither in sterile or transitory affection, nor in a certain vain credulity, but proceeds from true faith.” (ibid.)
This title recognizes that faith, and recognizes Mary as the mother of all Christians. Her maternal embrace enfolds all under mantel. Modern popes have used the term repeatedly; since 1964, the title ”Mary, Mother of the Church” has been used by every pope since Pope John XXIII.
But it wasn’t until now, with this new feast, that Pope Francis has given it expression in the devotional life of the church.
Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox Christians — people with whom CNEWA works closely — have a great devotion to Mary. However, it is a devotion that is different — though no less intense — from that of Roman Catholics. We’ll explore more of that in the coming weeks.
It would be easy to believe that Pope Francis has just added another Marian feast to a liturgical calendar that is perhaps already overburdened with such feasts (a cursory reading of the liturgical calendar shows 15 Marian feasts a year). However, that is not the case. In fact, by instituting this feast, Pope Francis has countered a certain centrifugal force in Catholic Marian devotion. This centrifugal force can unmoor Mary from Christ, placing emphasis on specific geographical locations, acculturations, etc., which have at times occurred. ”Mary, Mother of the Church” focuses attention on Mary and her role within the church (very similar to the theology of Ambrose) and links her closely — indeed, inseparably — to Christ.
In the next two weeks we will look at how two ancient traditions — Catholic in the west and Orthodox in the east — revere and honor Mary, Mother of the Lord and Mother of the Church. Each tradition can enrich and also act as a corrective to the veneration of Mary among Christians.
Tags: Catholic Mary