Monday, July 28, 2014

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Lourdes, France, Jul 28, 2014 / 10:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- This weekend, shortly before today's centenary of the beginning of World War I, an English bishop has said that the Marian shrine of Lourdes remains “undimmed” and still invites everyone to see the “light of the Gospel,” Jesus Christ.

“A hundred years ago this week, the world descended into what is now called the First World War, the second war would quickly follow and a Cold War would bring humanity to the brink of nuclear extinction,” Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury preached July 26.

“It is hard to believe how in those summer weeks of 1914 the beginnings of this whole catastrophe would be welcomed by ecstatic crowds and enjoy wide, public support.”

He said that Lourdes has “continued its clear witness to the value of every person, especially those most in danger of being discarded” despite global war and ideologies which aim to “strip human life of its value and dignity.”

Bishop Davies preached during a Mass said at the grotto of Lourdes, which marks the spot where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernardette Soubirous 18 times in 1858. The apparition told St. Bernardette, a sickly 13-year-old, to pray for sinners and to drink from a spring.

The shrine and its waters have become a place for many miraculous healings.

Bishop Davies said St. Bernardette “represents all those little ones Pope Francis describes as discarded humanity. Mary of Nazareth greets and gently bows to Bernadette of Lourdes. And Bernadette asks, like Elizabeth: 'why should I be honoured with a visit from the Mother of my Lord?'"

"Mindful of the millions who would fall victim to the wars and inhuman ideologies of the century and a half which followed Lourdes calls us to recognise the Gospel anew," he said.

The Lourdes shrine shows that the Church is against “everything which demeans the eternal value of the human person” and that the Church is for “the life and dignity of every man, woman and child.”

“Mary shows us here how placing those who are weakest, frailest at the centre our concerns brings not sadness and loss but joy, the joy of conversion.”

Bishop Davies noted the push to legalize assisted suicide in England and Wales, suggesting that the change in public opinion is “not dissimilar” to the emotionalism which led up to and accompanied World War I.

“At a time when our country is actively considering 'assisting' the sick and aged to kill themselves it seems once again that many who rejoice in such notions of 'progress' fail to see the consequences of 'the culture of death' they are creating.”

He cited Cardinal Vincent Nichols’ recent comment that Lourdes teaches about the human dignity of the sick and dying and “the exhausting demands and rewards of caring for them, the horizon of eternity.”

The Archbishop of Westminster had said at Lourdes July 17 that “here no one points to the dark door of suicide, assisted or not. Lourdes has far more to teach us about dying than the killing clinics of Holland or Switzerland.”

Bishop Davies said Lourdes is a cause for hope.

“It must give encouragement to all who work for ‘the cause of life’ that, as war and ideologies have passed, this light shining in Lourdes has remained undimmed.”

“We the generation of 2014 are surely invited here to glimpse anew the value of each and every person in the light of Heaven, in the light of the Gospel Mary brings with such urgency: Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Some 900 people from the Diocese of Shrewsbury, ranging in age from infancy to 95, are on the diocese’s annual pilgrimage to Lourdes. Their prayer intentions include world peace and reconciliation on the anniversary of World War I, as well as prayers to uphold the rights and dignity of the elderly and vulnerable.


Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Jul 28, 2014 / 04:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- After nearly two years of preparation, Father José Almy Gomes, 40, almost wasn’t ready for Pope Francis’ World Youth Day pilgrimage to Rio de Janeiro.

A student at Rome’s Patristic Institute Augustinianum from 2003 to 2007, Fr. Almy was the pastor of St. Dominic’s in Perdizes – a rural neighborhood of São Paulo. He worked from June 2011 to August 2012 organizing a group of over 100 international pilgrims, including 20 Americans, for a three-week Catholic dream experience: seven days of tourism and cultural immersion in São Paulo, a week of mission work in Rio’s favelas, and seven days of WYD celebration on Copacabana Beach.

His only hope, for the sake of the project’s success, was not to be transferred before then.

But in February 2013, fewer than five months before WYD, Rio’s Archdiocese of St. Sebastian came calling. Fr. Almy was directed to Our Lady of the Rosary parish - just two blocks from where Pope Francis would stand on Copacabana Beach.

Shaken by his transfer, Fr. Almy faced the immediate challenge of building his new parish’s volunteer efforts almost completely from scratch.

“We had just one volunteer signed up when I arrived,” he said in Portuguese, his native language. “World Youth Day just didn’t seem very important here.”

Located in the Rio favela of Babilônia, Our Lady of the Rosary has long been a controversial setting in the heart of a neighborhood searching for a faith identity.

Favela violence

Of Rio’s 976 recognized favelas, Babilônia is among the most famous for its violent history. A subject of the internationally popular Brazilian film “Elite Squad,” the favela was governed exclusively by Rio de Janeiro drug-trafficking cartels for nearly 80 years before government police pacification forces took over in 2009.

According to Fr. Almy, residents lived amid frequent gunfire and constant law changes when new cartels assumed control of the neighborhood. Babilônia’s laws included a 6 p.m. curfew and restrictions on religion. Violators of the law were often executed.

Favela law nearly shut down Our Lady of the Rosary, as Mass was permitted only on church grounds. For three years before pacification, priests were prohibited from celebrating Mass in public areas or visiting Babilônia’s residents in their homes.

“To pray here with residents, the archbishop would have to ask for permission from a 17-year-old boy guarding the favela entrance,” Fr. Almy explained. “And the boy would normally grant permission, but only if priests used archdiocesan automobiles to enter the neighborhood instead of their own.”

Magical Faith

Though the majority of Babilônia’s residents are Christian, their beliefs are often radical and come from a variety of cultures from across the world, says Fr. Almy. Popular religions within the favela include Pentecostalism, practiced only by an estimated 11-15 percent of all Brazilians and the Afro-Brazilian religions of Candomblé and Umbanda, practiced by less than five percent of the country’s population.

Among Babilônia’s Roman Catholics, Fr. Almy emphasizes the need for a stronger spiritual formation to fight a “magical” view of Christian faith. The combination of extreme devotionalism with non-Catholic beliefs such as reincarnation, he says, has mixed Catholicism with other favela customs and traditions.

“Spiritually, our community needs to have a stronger Catholic proximity,” he said. “It’s important … to have an accurate spiritual education.”

He refers to Our Lady of Fatima, whose statue passed through Babilônia as part of a three-year celebration in Brazil for its upcoming 100-year anniversary in 2017, as an example. In honoring the Virgin Mother, Fr. Almy stresses the importance of thinking, beyond pure devotion.

“It’s important to be devout, to pray the Rosary, but also think beyond the image - what did Mary do? What qualities did she have that we can imitate?”

To educate residents, Fr. Almy is exercising new legal rights for Babilônia clergy members: the freedom to evangelize and participate in the favela’s community. His involvement includes celebrating Saturday Mass in Babilônia’s community centers, attending interfaith community meetings, bi-weekly visits to residents’ homes, and leadership in new seasonal church activities such as  prayer of the Christmas Novena and neighborhood participation in an annual Emmaus Walk.

“My goal is to speak the language of our neighborhood and give a rationalized perspective,” he said. “I want to translate a high-level of theology into a language that’s more accessible, and being a consistent presence is one way to do that.”

Making it to WYD

With just one volunteer registered fewer than five months before World Youth Day, Fr. Almy put his new parish to work. Forming WYD community groups among Our Lady of the Rosary’s 300 parishioners, he began celebrating weekly Saturday Mass in Babilônia, and by May 2013 had recruited an additional 10 WYD volunteers from the favela.

Though the parish’s efforts were growing, Fr. Almy still felt unprepared to host the 70 French and Portuguese pilgrims scheduled to lodge in the parish two months later.

“I thought people here were still closed to the Holy Spirit in the months before World Youth Day, like no one really wanted this experience.”

But as Fr. Almy’s community groups continued to grow, so did Babilônia’s participation in WYD-related preparation. By July, Our Lady of the Rosary had 15 registered WYD volunteers, and an additional seven parishioners offered to help out part-time.

To make the church suitable for visitors, Fr. Almy used parish funds to rent eight bathrooms, adding to Our Lady of the Rosary’s single bathroom, and solicited food donations from the parish.

“Food was probably our biggest concern. We wanted to at least be able to offer snacks to our pilgrims.”

As parishioners divided responsibilities, food donations picked up, and it appeared that the church would have enough food to feed all of its WYD visitors.  

But when Our Lady of the Rosary opened its doors to pilgrims on July 19, it wasn’t 70 French and Portuguese pilgrims, but 141 that arrived expecting WYD lodging. An additional group of French journalists also lobbied for a spot at the parish, in hope of easy access to Copacabana Beach.

“It was difficult. We thought we were pretty well-organized, but there was certainly confusion at the start.”

With more pilgrims than parish space available, some visitors were left to sleep on the floor in Our Lady of the Rosary’s church and in Babilônia community centers. As demand for lodging picked up, favela residents also stepped in. A total of 45 pilgrims were given housing by Our Lady of the Rosary parishioners in Babilônia, the neighboring favela of Chapéu Mangueira, and the surrounding neighborhood of Leme.

Most importantly, Fr. Almy attests, the combined effort of the parish and community successfully provided lodging and food for everyone who asked for it.

“Who are we, as the Church, to say no to someone in need? We always asked ourselves, 'what can we offer so that other people can be taken care of'? We may not have had the resources right away, but we provided for everyone that needed our help.”

After eight decades of violence, a favela once known for suppressing Catholicism had played a key role in the success of one of WYD’s most relevant host churches in Rio’s largest ever Catholic event.

“I was happiest about the way people were welcomed here,” Fr. Almy said. “I think the way our community opened it arms to our visitors was the most important thing.”

Lasting lessons and mission

The success of WYD 2013 has brought a greater awareness of Pope Francis’ teachings to Babilônia and Our Lady of the Rosary, according to Fr. Almy. As Catholic residents grow stronger in Catholic faith formation, he believes the Holy Father’s presence in Brazil and his Latin American roots provide for a closer connection with residents and parishioners.

“I think the Pope’s effect, more than anything, was that people here learned to see themselves in him and really love him. He knows how the church here functions and the perspective of our people.”

Lucia Kiris, one of the parish’s 15 registered WYD volunteers and host of two French pilgrims, agrees, adding that Pope Francis’ messages of acceptance and welcoming are becoming more characteristic among the favela’s residents.

“He reminds us to stay true to our identities,” she said, “as grateful, caring, and loving people.”

Another Babilônia resident, David Bispo, owner of an internationally-awarded restaurant in the favela, attests to a lasting spiritual impact from WYD that remains nearly 11 months after Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Rio.

“Pope Francis passed a strong energy through here, a happiness and a simplicity,” Bispo said. “His presence rings strong in our neighborhood and across all of Rio de Janeiro.”

As the community’s pastoral presence, Fr. Almy continues to celebrate weekly Saturday Mass in the favela, attend community faith dialogues, and make visits to sick parishioners’ homes. His presence, Fr. Almy says, is based on WYD’s mission to “Go and make disciples of all nations.”

“After WYD I decided, from now on, I’m really going communicate the Word of God to all of his creatures,” he said, “because through dialogue, a person grows closer to others and makes friends. Then, after, that person can listen and teach.”

He speaks especially about a weekly women’s community group, composed of eight Babilônia residents from Catholic, Pentecostal, and Afro-Brazilian communities, among others. Though often criticized by non-Catholic group members, Fr. Almy values the chance to facilitate conversation and to clarify misunderstandings among group members.

“These opportunities only exist because I’m present there,” he said. “Because I studied the Word, I studied theology, I can give people a stronger perspective. This small contact is important, because if I wasn’t there, people wouldn’t be able to ask these questions.”

Thanks to WYD, his involvement in the community, and improvement in basic amenities available to residents – such as computers and internet access, Fr. Almy says more people in Babilônia follow Pope Francis on a consistent basis, and he’s receiving more questions than ever about the Holy Father’s teachings.

“Even if I don’t talk about the Pope, they still ask about him. When I’m asked, ‘Pope Francis said this, what does it mean?’ I’m honored to answer. The fruits of WYD gave people here a new, more positive vision of the Church – a vision we needed for a rationalized, authentic view of the Catholic faith.”


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