Editor’s Corner Where the Action Is
COMPASSION Published Quarterly
Spring, 2010 No. 91
Editor: Paul Zilonka, C.P. Co-Editors: Mary Ann Strain, C.P. Kevin Dance, C.P. Art/Layout: Suzanne Thomas Circulation: James Fitzgerald, C.P. Publisher: Joseph Jones, C.P. Provincial, Eastern Province Internet Edition: www.cptryon.org pzilonka@cpprov. org Photo & Graphics: Sr. Mary Ann Strain, C.P., cover Gregg Tacozza Patricia Tryon Compassion 526 Monastery Place Union City, NJ 07087
Since the earth shook violently beneath the feet of millions of Haitians on January 12, we Passionists have shared the anguish and relief efforts in various ways. Along with so many people and organizations who were committed to Haiti before this recent disaster, we have prayed and assisted our confrere, Fr. Rick Frechette, C.P. in his labors as a doctor and overseer of hundreds of orphans and hospital patients. International news reporters caught up with him eventually because he, like many other Passionists, is where the action is. He had been there for years before they showed up with their camera crews. In this issue, we throw a little light on some people associated with Fr. Rick, and with our worldwide Passionist mission from Rome to Passionists International at the United Nations. The tremendous generosity in donations which we received from so many people for Fr. Rick’s work in Haiti was complemented by the personal service which medical personnel from our Greenville NC parish, and other friends of Fr. Rick, offered in this national emergency. None of these people sought the spotlight. They consider it a grace and privilege to have served in this extraordinary time of need. Meanwhile, lay members of Passionist Volunteers International work quietly in the hills of Honduras, accompanying young children and their parents in a formative time of their lives. Finally, Italian Passionist Fr. Ciro Benedettini’s Vatican City Press Office at St. Peter’s Square keeps him right at the center of the international conversation which the Catholic Church seeks to foster with the entire world. Come, share in the action! Paul Zilonka, C.P. 2
A Passionist Parish Reaches Out to a Passionist Mission
By Justin Kerber, C.P.
On the Sunday after the earthquake in Haiti, Bishop Michael Burbidge directed that all second collections in the Diocese of Raleigh be taken for the relief of the suffering Haitian people. I decided to preach on our solidarity with these people and read a letter that our Passionist Fr. Rick Frechette had just sent to our Province. The parishioners were deeply touched hearing how Fr. Rick left his dying mother’s bedside to be with the victims of the earthquake. The letter mentioned the lives lost and the devastating damage to the clinic and St. Damien’s Hospital for Children. That second collection brought in over $30,000 for Haiti. But there is even more. A number of doctors and medical personnel volunteered to go to the Passionist Mission in Haiti in order to offer their services as surgeons, doctors and nurses. St. Peter’s Passionist parish is located in Greenville, North Carolina, which is home to one of the finest medical facilities in the south, Pitt County Memorial Hospital. Over six hundred medical doctors live in this town. Many of our parishioners work at PCMH. Dr. Greg Murphy was one of the first to ask if he could be of assistance to Fr. Rick in Haiti. Greg called our Provincial, Fr. Joe Jones, who had been pastor here. Fr. Joe put him in contact with Fr. Jerome Vereb, who used all his diplomatic skills to arrange through the State Department and the various Vatican Nunciatures for a relief mission from the Passionist parish of St. Peter to the Passionist Mission Hospital in Port-au-Prince.
Blessing— Bishop Burbidge and Fr. Justin bless the medical team bound for Haiti. 3
Fr. Jerome arranged for jets, passports and security all along the way. Fr. Rick was contacted and after complicated negotiations, a medical team of eleven was set to leave on Thursday, January 28th. Six of the doctors, surgeons, registered nurses and a retired medical administrator are members of our parish, Dr. Gregory Murphy, Dr. Mark Dellasega, Dr. Kurt Voos, Dr. Marcus Albernaz, Robert Klug RN, and Gregg Tacozza. Upon learning of this heroic venture, Bishop Burbidge came to St. Peter’s for the commissioning. Over three hundred parishioners came out for that noon service led by the bishop, who blessed the volunteers and presented each with a cross. “We are reliving a practice of the early church—the eager sending of its members to other peoples. This will strengthen our bond of communion with the Church in Haiti. I am so proud of the people of this diocese for responding to this plea for help. In the midst of so much hardship, I believe you will return from your mission and speak only of miracles.” The bishop noted to the young people present that they would remember this ceremony all their lives and the heroic generosity of the eleven men leaving on this mission. Afterwards, the Bishop told me that this service was the most touching he has had as a bishop. There were few dry eyes in the church as we listened to the choir sing: “The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor,” and saw the medical team’s living response to that cry. As the men hurried out of the church to the airport with their loads of medical supplies, wives and many young children were hugging and kissing their husbands and fathers as they headed off to Haiti. They spent the night at Our Lady of Florida Passionist Retreat Center in North Palm Beach, Florida. At five A.M., Fr. Paul Wierichs and Fr. Pat Daugherty drove them to Fort Pierce for their flight with their precious supplies for the suffering people of Haiti. Back in Greenville, Wendy Murphy, wife of Dr. Greg, Margie Dellasega, wife of Dr. Mark, and Jennifer Voos, wife of Dr. Kurt kept me informed on a daily basis. I heard how impressed the medical team was with the Passionist Community in Florida, how Fr. Rick met them at the airport in Haiti, how amazingly resilient and gentle the people were. The team spoke of the gratitude and faith of the Haitian people which so touched the doctors. Some of the non-Catholic doctors were inquiring about the Catholic faith. The team had cared for over six hundred patients at one site alone. I heard of hundreds 4
Medical Team—Perrin Jones, MD, Eric Lindbeck, MD, Chris Hasty, MD, Mark Dellasega, MD, Cliff Hambrook, RN, Gregory Murphy, MD, Gordon Koltis, MD, Rob Klug, RN, Marcus Abernaz, MD, Gregg Tacozza of children who were amputees. We daily prayed for the medical team and for the people of Haiti. All safely returned February 6th. Our six parishioners on the team shared their experience over that weekend at the Masses. Gregg Tacozza summed it up well. “There is no doubt that God’s grace is sustaining efforts there. Otherwise our human nature would be overwhelmed. I felt I was totally in the presence of God the whole time there. The Passionist connection from beginning to end was particularly meaningful for many of us. What a blessing and privilege it was to be able to go.” Everyone, without exception, said they felt they had worked in the presence of an exceptionally saintly Passionist priest, Fr. Rick. One doctor who had previously done missionary work in Calcutta, Africa and Central America said he had never before seen such misery and poverty and devastation. In the midst of all this sadness, these men did see miracles and the face of Christ in the poor. Our parish is so very proud of the entire team and especially our parishioners: Despite their very busy schedules, they sacrificed to respond to the suffering Christ in Haiti. They literally risked their lives. They put the needs of Christ before their own. This is a glorious chapter in the history of St. Peter’s Church in Greenville, North Carolina. ✙ Fr. Justin Kerber, C.P. serves as pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Greenville, North Carolina. 5
Make a Joyful Noise
By Patty Bell
Of all the Bible references I thought that I would reflect on, Psalm 98 was the last that I expected. Yet, that is what I found during my trip to Haiti. I arrived in Port-au-Prince two and a half weeks after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that had devastated the country. It took that long to set up the logistics of getting to Haiti and finding a place to work. So many doctors and nurses were just showing up at clinics and hospitals alone without a plan. All of the articles implored medical professionals to go as part of an organized group. Each night, I prayed for a way to find a group. I would fall asleep truly feeling the people of Haiti in my arms. Through the help of Dr. Anthony Alessi, we discovered Fr. Rick Frechette and St. Damien’s Hospital.
Miragoane— Some members of the team set up a clinic at Miragoane an outlying village where people needed follow-up treatment. St. Damien’s is a children’s hospital that is part of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos International (NPH). While researching the hospital, I discovered that Fr. Rick, a Passionist priest, and I were both graduates of Assumption College in Worcester, MA. I knew that I had found the right place. My prayers were answered. We arrived in West Palm Beach, Florida on Thursday, January 28th and spent the night at Our Lady of Florida retreat house. The next morning after breakfast and a prayer service, we were driven to Ft. Pierce, Florida to the Missionary Flights International hangar.
MFI flies about five trips a day directly into Port au Prince with supplies and medical volunteers. The hangar is packed with food, tents and other needed supplies. It is staffed by volunteers, sorting and packing the donations for delivery. Normally, MFI flies DC-3 planes built in the 1940s. But we flew on a jet provided by Hendrick Motorsports, though we did take a DC-3 on the return flight. After dropping our bags off at St. Damien’s, we were taken for a ride into downtown Port-au-Prince. The scenes on TV don’t come close to the reality. It is so hard to describe what makes it different. I think it’s a combination of the sights, the smells and the eye contact of the people. There’s no garbage pickup, so trash was burning in the streets; pigs and dogs were foraging through rotting fruit on the side of the road and culverts were loaded with trash. I only saw two port-apotties in downtown, yet there were dozens of tent cities.
Kurt Voos, M.D.— Teams at St. Damien’s Hospital are working on providing temporary artificial limbs to children with amputations. 7
â€˜Tent Cityâ€™ is a misnomer; there were very few tents. Mostly, sheets or tarps were clipped onto sticks. In some cases, stones were set up in a rectangular shape to cordon off a living space with no shelter at all. People were forced to bathe on the side of the road where perhaps a pipe was dribbling water. And yet, that same scene had children kicking a soccer ball around, waving to us as we drove by, and vendors hawking their wares. Life was happening. There were four of us from Norwich. Cindy Davis, a Post Anesthesia Care Unit nurse, spent the first two days in an outlying village called Miragoane. She and a few others from our group set up a clinic at the cathedral. They saw hundreds of patients who had received initial treatment, but no follow up. The Bishop flew in to greet them and a riot almost broke out. The residents thought his helicopter was bringing a food drop. Dr. Alessi, Dr. Tom Bell (my husband) and I stayed in the compound of the hospital. Dr. Alessi, a neurologist, was needed to see all of the patients with head and spinal injuries. Eventually he also took on the responsibility of coordinating the transfer of patients to and from the USNS Comfort, an American hospital ship anchored in the Port-au-Prince harbor. Dr. Bell was performing surgery, visiting post operative patients (both adult and pediatric) and changing dressings in a procedure room for patients who needed anesthesia. I was assigned a post-operative ward that started out with an adult population, but children were admitted after the pediatric ward became full. The majority of the injuries that I saw were fractures and crush injuries. The surgeries were reduction of fractures with both internal or external fixation and amputations. We also were seeing diseases such as tetanus. The villages were seeing malaria and cholera as well. Our day began with Mass at 7 a.m. By that time, the med evac helicopters had been flying for about two hours. The beautiful circular stained-glass window behind the altar was broken and there was a crack coming down the wall, but the building was deemed safe by the Italian engineers. Mass was offered predominantly in English, but some prayers and songs were in Creole. It inspired our work for the day.
The families of the patients stayed in the room 24/7. They took care of all of the patients’ personal needs, emptying bedpans and providing home cooked meals if possible. The hospital fed both the patients and the families if they were unable to find food. Family members would sleep in sleeping bags or on flattened cardboard at the patient’s bedside. I have never seen so much devotion. In the morning I could hear singing in the shower. It was difficult to comprehend how one could sing during these difficult times. Of all my patients, only one still had a house. My translator lost his entire family and his house. He just happened to be visiting a friend next door.
Patty Bell and patient — “I love you like a mother.”
One of my patients lost her house, but her sister and parents were still alive. She was just about finished with nursing school in Laogone. The school is destroyed. This particular patient was very sick. We were trying desperately to save her leg but we finally lost. When she got back from surgery, I was scurrying around taking her vital signs and hanging IV antibiotics for her. Her sister and a male cousin stood at her bedside with their eyes closed, holding hands and singing the most beautiful religious songs in Creole. I tried hard not to make any noise, but my tears were dropping on the pillow. My patient reached up and grabbed my hand to comfort me. After the songs and prayers, she looked at me and said, “I love you as a mother”. It was the first time that she spoke any English around me. I still choke up thinking of that afternoon and of the many other events that took place. But, in my mind, I hear the songs at the bedside, the songs in the shower and the songs of the women carrying large bags of food on their heads. These are times that could shake the very foundation of one’s faith. And yet, it’s hope and praise that I hear in their voices—a joyful noise. ✙
The Western Origins of Haiti’s ‘curse’
By Adele Webb
Haiti is a country that has seen unfathomable suffering, and has been at the epicenter of natural disasters in recent years. The poverty and powerlessness that is so widespread (even before the earthquake, three-quarters of Haitian people lived in poverty) left the people defenseless against the horrific events of 12 January. It’s no wonder people are asking whether this nation is cursed. Across the world there arose an extraordinary spirit of generosity and solidarity in the wake of the earthquake, but sadly this is unlikely to last. Tearful comments projected onto our television screens have ceased, and as the coverage starts to diminish, the plight of the Haitians will fade from our minds and our consciences. But what if events took another course? What if the momentary sorrow we felt led to some deep searching about why this Caribbean nation has been so unlucky? If we did indeed do this thoughtful analysis, we would find that the story of Haiti, even from the earliest decades of its independence, is one of a downward spiral into debt and underdevelopment. As a nation, it has been at the short end of the stick, time and time again, in its relationships with richer and powerful countries. Haiti, it turns out, never stood a chance.
The story of Haiti
Until the late 18th century, Haiti was a French colony used to produce food, principally sugar, for a prosperous France. In 1803 the Haitian people staged the only successful slave revolt in history, defeating Napoleon’s French army and winning freedom for themselves and their nation. But the cost was high. The fighting destroyed infrastructure and killed thousands of the country’s people. And Haiti was punished for its ‘rebellion’ — not by God, as some have dared to suggest, but by the European colonizers who were angered by the dangerous precedent that the Haitian liberation movement had set. In 1825, with warships positioned off the coast, France threatened to reinvade and re-establish slavery unless Haiti compensated slave owners for the loss of ‘property’. With other western powers also threatening an embargo, Haiti agreed to pay a sum of 150 million francs in return for recognition of sovereignty. 11
The new debt, equivalent to US$20 billion in today’s currency, was 14 times larger than Haiti’s annual export revenues, so instead of spending its income on infrastructure and public services, the government was forced to divert up to 80 per cent to western banks for the right to self-govern.
A camp of makeshift tents sprawls at Port-au-Prince’s golf course, where many Haitians displaced by the earthquake have set up shelter. UN Photo/Marco Dormino The freedom won in the previous century didn’t last. In 1914 a marine expedition from the US landed on Haitian soil, at least in part to facilitate the establishment of US plantations. For 20 years the US illegally occupied the country, only withdrawing when the government agreed to remove the constitutional provision prohibiting foreigners to own and run businesses. The military occupation was followed by more of the same. For nearly three decades, between 1957 and 1986, the infamous father/ son dictatorship of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier ruled the country. With the US, international institutions, and other western donor governments turning a blind eye, the Duvaliers used foreign aid to pay for Manhattan shopping excursions, fur coats and government death squads. 12
Despite widespread reports of the brutality, corruption and mounting foreign debt, the loans and political backing continued to flow so long as the dictators remained ideological allies in the Cold War. When the reign of the family ended, Haiti was left with an external debt totaling more than $1 billion, while $900 million worth of expropriated funds awaited the Duvaliers in French and Swiss bank accounts. Even at the end of the dictatorships, foreign powers continued to exert strong influence over the political and economic scene of Haiti. In the 1980s and ‘90s the IMF was used to bail out the commercial banks who had lent more money to developing countries like Haiti than the countries could ever afford to repay. The IMF, which claimed to be helping countries like Haiti fight poverty, began to dictate policy to ensure that repayment of foreign debt continued. Spending on public services was cut, tariff protections on export industries were removed, and new ‘aid’ loans were diverted almost directly back to the banks in wealthy countries. The government was left with little to no capacity to invest in nation building. In just one example of this phenomenon, the IMF forced the Haitian government to drop tariffs on agricultural production. As a result, the USA began to dump their own subsidized agricultural production on the Haitian market, putting most local rice farmers out of business. As many as two million people relocated from farming areas to the slums of Port-au-Prince, and this desperate pool of workers became the cheapest labor in the world. The country has since become home to a booming sweat shop industry.
Does this history matter today? Haiti’s impoverishment can’t be viewed independently from a global economic system and a model of international development that is dysfunctional — that works in the interests of wealthier countries and powerful developing country elites. Yet the real events are not reported by the popular media. To this day there has been no acknowledgement of the odious nature of the debt accrued by Haiti’s dictators, nor any recognition of bad policy advice by donor countries and international institutions. As a result it is all too easy for us to live in ignorance. Instead, the people of Haiti have been characterized by a narrative depicting them as miserable, violent and incapable of solving 13
their own problems. It should come as no surprise then, that recent proposals to ‘help’ the benighted country in the aftermath of this most recent tragedy offer solutions cast from the same mold. It is hard to imagine what more could be extracted from this country where half the population struggle for one meal a day, and yet the international community’s political interventions are as much about pushing its own agenda as helping Haiti become independent and self-sufficient, and the results will thus again be ineffective. The IMF has offered the Haitian Government a new loan of $102 million, attached to which are the same harmful economic policy conditions that have to date undermined the country’s ability to chart its own development future. The private sector is preparing to seize the opportunity, with a ‘Haiti Investment Summit’ to take place in Miami soon. Corporations will be pressuring their governments to make sure they win reconstruction contracts through tied bilateral aid, or through influence in the international development banks. In terms of foreign debt, Haiti’s deficit still stands at over one billion dollars. The G7 nations have agreed to cancel 100 per cent of the bilateral debt owed to them in response to massive public pressure. Now we must put weight on the international financial institutions, particularly the IMF, to do the same. People will be asking whether cancellation of this debt will simply reward a corrupt government and continue a cycle of dependence. But playing the corruption card is all too often a convenient way of avoiding some uncomfortable truths. If Haiti’s elites were corrupt and venal, it was only because we in the West taught them to be that way, and more often than not supported them because it served our interests to do so. In fact, a more profitable line of questioning would be: Who is holding the international community accountable for its role in Haiti? Beyond the immediate relief, how will aid money be spent in Haiti? Will big donors and international institutions continue to dictate how the money must be spent, giving preference to those parts of the reconstruction process which benefit foreign companies the most, and which encourage the exploitation of cheap labor in foreign-owned export industries? Or will the aid money be spent in a 14
way which puts the people’s basic needs first; to build a system of efficient free public education, a new public health system and a sustainable local agricultural industry? Most of us wish greater democracy for Haiti. But authentic democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. It must be home-grown. We should be asking how we can support self-empowerment of Haitian people and public institutions. This means listening to the voices of grassroots groups and civil society movements who for decades have been on the front line of the struggle for democracy and the fight against their nation’s underdevelopment. In an open letter to international NGO partners, the coordinating committee of Haiti’s progressive civil society movements made its desire clear: ‘We are advocating a humanitarian effort that is appropriate to our reality, respectful of our culture and our environment, and which does not undermine the forms of economic solidarity that have been put in place over the decades by the grassroots organizations with which we work.’ One thing is certain: the people of this embattled nation are facing the challenges with courage and optimism. Days after the earthquake, at a public gathering in the Court of Human Rights to honor the victims, those present declared in solidarity that they are not a people cursed, but a brave people who will rise from the ashes. As for me, I’m choosing to be on the side of the brave. ✙ Adele Webb is National Coordinator for Jubilee Australia, a Sydney -based anti-poverty NGO researching the root causes of poverty, and lobbying to challenge the economic policies and structures that perpetuate it.
A Lunch that Empowers for Life
By Jean Baumgardner
In front of the soccer field in the neighborhood known as Nuevo San Diego in Talanga, Honduras is a small brick house with a sign that reads Comedor Infantil Pasionista (Passionist dining room for children). If you walk through the doors any Monday through Friday between the hours of 10:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., you will see children like Tanya, a bright four-year-old, coloring calmly at a picnic table, or mischievous Luis trying to kill the frog that lives in the latrine. But little Luis never manages to get the frog! Among the mothers who come to prepare the meals and us, somebody is always keeping a watchful eye on the kids. The four magical words, “ya esta la comida” (the food is ready) always set the kids into a quick routine to clean up, join hands in a circle to
When we started, the children sat on the floor to eat their meal. As the people of Talanga became aware of our needs, donations of tables, shelves and even a refrigerator poured in. 16
say grace and then sit in anticipation for the mothers to bring them whatever is on that day’s menu. Comedor Infantil Pasionista is a lunch program which currently serves twenty of the poorest children ranging in age from four to six. But Comedor is so much more than just food. It is a place of empowerment and community.
Jean Baumgardner shares reading time at Comedor Infantil Pasionista
Luis When you walk through the market of Talanga beyond the vendors of food and clothing, you will see two dumpsters where children and dogs compete for the scraps of food. During our first week here, Luis, the musician at the church in Talanga, noticed the shocked look on my face as I watched the children picking through the garbage, filling bags with food and empty plastic bottles. He informed me that children who scavenge through the dumpster are considered among the most marginalized groups in that region. Luis pointed to an empty building across from the dumpsters— Comedor Infantil was painted across the top in bright blue letters surrounded by a mural of animals. Shaking his head, he explained that the building had remained empty for years. “Your group could start a Comedor Infantil. You just have to want it to happen. But you have to get to know them first,” nodding his head towards the group of 17
children sitting against the sides of the dumpsters. Then in typical Luis fashion, he put on his hat, hopped on his bike and scooted off leaving me there in front of the dumpsters with my head spinning.
Comedor Infantil Pasionista (Passionist dining room for children)
Dumpsters So I began to go to the dumpsters regularly. Every morning I would sit next to the children on a small square of cardboard and talk. They told me about their families, their favorite reggaeton song (reggae and rap), and laughed whenever I pronounced a word wrong. But even as we conversed, they would watch out of the corner of their eyes. When they spotted scraps of food or something they thought valuable, they would shyly snatch it up filling their large thatch bags, which by mid-afternoon they would balance on their heads as they walked back home.
Little by little, they let me into their lives. Gabriela shared with me her love of dancing. As we five Passionist Volunteers began to develop relationships with these children and the larger community of their poor neighborhood, their situation moved us deeply. We began to embrace the dream of opening a Comedor Infantil. Paulo Cuelho writes in The Alchemist, “When you really want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” And so it seemed. Luis the musician was right. The more we began to want the Comedor to become a reality, the more we found that this desire was in the hearts of many members of the Talanga community.
Marlin During our Monday meetings with the women of our domestic violence group, we shared how we had been affected by our encounters with the kids near the dumpsters and how we wanted to open a Comedor Infantil. One of the women in our group, Marlin, enthusiastically volunteered to help cook. We gathered a formation team of Hondurans who would meet in our living room. After starting with a prayer, we furiously brainstormed ideas and began to plan our first steps. Luis showed up at our door bright and early to help us go around to the businesses, explaining our dream and asking if they would help donate something monthly. Amazed, we watched as the business owners, who themselves struggle to make ends meet, pulled food off their shelves. Some gave a few pounds of rice and beans while others filled the trunk of our car, each according to their ability to give. It was as if all of the universe, well, at least all of Talanga, was conspiring to help us open the Comedor.
Enthusiasm With the help of a local social worker and Marlin, we selected twelve children to start with and enlisted their mothers to help cook. When we opened on November 17th, the children sat on the floor to eat their nourishing meal. As the people of Talanga became aware of our needs, donations of tables, shelves and even a refrigerator poured in. Marlin, who washes her clothes in the river in Nuevo San Diego alongside the children’s mothers, comes everyday to open the kitchen and start the fire. She prepares the food with the other mothers while talking, 19
Washing up – The kids wash up before lunch laughing, and dancing to the music of the radio. Before going to her regular job, she takes us to more businesses to ask for donations. She volunteers so generously because it hurts her to see her neighbors’ children struggling, She knows each child and their mother’s story. When we thank her, she simply says, “I feel happy when we can give them food.” The sign on our door carries the Passionist name. But our decision as members of Passionist Volunteers International to open the Comedor was just the beginning. The dream, the desire, the vision, the essence of what Comedor is and will become is what we share with the community of Comedor mothers. They bring their spirit, 20
their energy, and walk with us as we constantly learn together how to make each day better. Our relationships with them are truly special. They invite us into their homes to visit, take us to see the waterfalls on the nearby mountain, paint our nails and fix our hair, but most of all they humbly and honestly share their lives with us. Some have begun to come to our domestic violence group on Mondays. I often see them visiting each other’s homes. We Volunteers, Marlin, the Comedor families, and the community of Talanga are all a part of Comedor. As it evolves each day, I witness how we are all empowered. As a member of Passionist Volunteers International, my mission —our mission— is ‘accompaniment’: walking with, bearing witness to the crucified people of today, and letting this witness transform me. For me, Comedor embodies my idea of accompaniment. As I enter the front door each day, I feel as if I’m entering a sacred space, because it’s here that we share our desires, our dreams, and our journeys. In this sharing and that search, I encounter God, and, of course, little Luis in the latrine trying to catch the frog, unsuccessfully. Praise the Lord! ✙ Jean Baumgardner, and four other Passionist Volunteers are giving a year of service in Talanga, Honduras. For information see: www.passionistvolunteers.org.
News from the Center of the World
Compassion interviews Padre Ciro Benedettini, C.P. who serves as Deputy Director of the Vatican Press Office.
Padre Ciro Benedettini, C.P. Would you please give us some information about an ordinary workday at the Vatican Press Officeâ€”or is everyday extraordinary? I reach the office shortly after 8 a.m., and the staff dealing with the press review updates me on any important news from the night before. As soon as the Director arrives, we examine any relevant news together and the daily schedule. I oversee any briefings and pools of journalists who take part in Vatican events, check the midday bulletin with the Papal appointments, receive the staff, and meet any journalists, guests, or diplomats. At 11:30 a.m., we often have a press conference. At 2:00 p.m. the phone starts to ring with calls from the other side of the globe. Later in the afternoon, I go back home for lunch, but I stay available by mobile phone 24 hours a day. Unexpected events can potentially make any day extraordinary. Anything is enough to create an emergency, even a sentence said by the Pope in an ordinary speech. Then we need to explain, clarify, correct, by voice or by e-mail, sometimes with a press release. What are some of the most moving events which you have covered in your fourteen years with this Vatican department? Without doubt, that would be the events that followed the sickness and death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI. The day of the funeral (perhaps the greatest media event in Church 22
history) we had 6,600 media operators accredited. The journalists, some in tears, came to us with their condolences, as if we were the Pope’s relatives. I was moved by the faith of the people of Rome, who welcomed the new Pope, Benedict XVI, with joy, trust and enthusiasm. Two other events come to mind. On the “Day of Forgiveness” (March 12, 2000), the Church asked forgiveness from God and humankind for all the wrongs done by Christians in the past and present. I treasure the memory of the pleading eyes of Pope John Paul II when he was looking at the Crucifix. It seemed that all the sins of the Church were on his shoulders. On May 7, 2000 at the Colosseum, the Church celebrated the day of the witnesses of faith, revealing an aspect of cruelty that ran through the 20th century, the one with the highest number of Christian martyrs, more than in all previous nineteen centuries together. When have you traveled with Pope Benedict XVI on his journeys and what impresses you about these events? As Deputy Director, I accompany the Holy Father on his journeys through Italy. Abroad, I followed John Paul II to Cuba and Nigeria. John Paul II had an enormous charisma in addressing the crowds. I remember his homily at Havana on January 25, 1998 in Revolution Square (until then reserved to the celebrations of the Communist Party.) One million people listened to the Pope, with Fidel Castro in the front row. The homily became a dialogue between the Pope and the crowd, who acted as one person, repeating with one voice the words “freedom” and “Cuba libre,” every time these words were uttered by the Pope. But every journey of the Pope stirs enthusiasm. I am always surprised by the people’s attention to the words of Benedict XVI, which are always challenging. People desperately seek values, meaning, and sure spiritual guidance. The Pope is a leader who inspires hope, courage, and commitment. How does your familiarity with world events and the role of the Church touch your life as a Passionist dedicated to the memory of Passion of Jesus? It helps me see the power of the Cross in action: the Cross as mystery of evil in the immense suffering and humiliation of so 23
many brothers and sisters and in the persecution of Christians; the Cross as a means of redemption in the struggle against evil for a better world; the Cross as pedestal to resurrection in the good that most men and women carry out, frequently in silence, and in the Church’s capability, with all its limits, to proclaim hope and salvation, driving humankind to solidarity and love.
Since the journalists come from all over the world and different religions, what things do they tend to ask about the Catholic Church, and how do you help them to understand our Christian faith? The Holy See Press Office is one of the great outposts of information in the “global village.” Major international agencies, international TV corporations, and daily newspapers from all over the world have at least one person accredited in our Office. We have more than 400 international journalists permanently accredited and during the year we welcome on average 3500 journalists for special events. We do not ask the journalists their religious affiliation, only their professional qualification. Newly accredited journalists are recommended a series of books or sources that may help them understand the reality of the Catholic Church. Every year, a Roman pontifical university offers a specific course for newly accredited journalists Sign at Vatican Press Office on the Catholic Church and the organization and work of the Holy See. Unfortunately, secular media favor a polemical attitude and scandals in providing religious information, at the expense of the religious message proper, of which Benedict XVI is an unequaled master. It is doubtless, furthermore, that in some areas of the world there is an anti-Catholic prejudice. Modern movies like the DaVinci Code often portray the Vatican in negative ways. What can ordinary Catholics do to keep spreading the positive message about the Church’s mission in today’s world? It is not a lack of interest in religion that we have today. There is even too much talk about religion, especially Catholicism, which is 24
partial and faulty, stressing only the negative facts, without providing complete information on the reality and activity of the Church. Bad information is fought with good information. Catholics need to be informed, and the structures of the Church need to help Christians with correct information. I often notice a sense of distrust in Catholics, especially with regard to the hierarchy, and an excessive readiness to believe in those who have an interest in throwing discredit on the Church or to thrive at the Church’s expense. It is not a matter of denying scandals, which rather must be denounced, or hiding the negative aspects of the Church. The problem is to offer and seek a more realistic and complete picture of the Church. The Vatican has recently made great strides to communicate with modern technology. Are people around the world taking advantage of these new efforts, and experiencing more of what the Church can contribute to the quality of faith and life in the modern world? The word that perhaps best describes the reality of the Church is “communication.” The Church exists to communicate the Good News. Therefore, it must use all means that technology provides in order to communicate. Unlike many other communicators, we have beautiful, useful, and indispensable things to say and we cannot be silent or timid. Ours is the era of the “information society”. Every day we are subject to a deluge of information while proper religious information is weak and marginal compared to the rumble of global communication. Christians must be capable of selecting among the many sources of information. Otherwise, faith is overrun by doubt, suspicion and apathy, and the dutiful and loving bond with Christ and the Church is weakened. The receivers need to make an effort to be in tune with the informer. Without the readiness of the user, Christian information, which requires a certain endeavor, is destined to remain a voice in the desert. One last observation: However beautiful audio and video messages may be, however powerful and pervasive the new means of communication may sound, the holiness of people, especially of the clergy, is the most convincing message and the most effective means of sharing the faith. ✙
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