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'100 Nativities in the Vatican' seeks to show true meaning of Christmas

Vatican City, Dec 17, 2018 / 04:18 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- More than 100 nativity scenes are on display near the Vatican as the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization seeks to share the history and spirituality behind the nearly 800-year-old Christmas devotion.

“The nativity, in addition to being a beautiful cultural tradition transmitted [by] the genius of St. Francis of Assisi and spread throughout the world, is a strong instrument of evangelization,” Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the president of the pontifical council, said at the exhibit’s opening.

“Every Christmas many people stop before the mystery of God-made-man, represented with statues, which in many cases are authentic masterpieces of art, to pray, reflect and discover the love of God who becomes a child for us,” Fisichella continued.

The indoor nativity display brings together 126 diverse nativities from Taiwan to Panama made from a variety of materials including pinecones, aluminum, coral, yarn, and papier-mache. Among the many historical nativities from Italy is a modern rendition of the nativity made entirely out of pasta.



The exhibit is completely free to encourage families and school trips to rediscover the meaning of Christmas -- the birth of Jesus, organizers said. While viewing the nativity scenes, visitors can read reflections on the meaning of the nativity from saints throughout history.

St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in 1223 in a cave outside of Rome using a live donkey and ox to surround a manger and an altar with the Holy Eucharist as the presence of the newborn Christ child.

Francis was partly inspired by the relic of the wooden boards from Christ’s manger in the crypt the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome, where they can still be viewed and venerated today.

The mystic St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) received a vision of the nativity in which “the Virgin knelt down with great veneration in an attitude of prayer.”

“She gave birth to her son from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour that the sun was not comparable to it,” St. Bridget wrote.



Several of the historic seventeenth and eighteenth century nativity scenes from Italy display the nativity scene among ruins of ancient columns of palaces. This imagery both alludes to Jesus’ royal lineage from the House of David, and to a pagan legend that the Temple of Peace in Rome would collapse if a virgin gave birth.

The annual “100 Nativities” exhibit was started in 1976 by Italian Manlio Menaglia, who worried that the Catholic devotion was being overshadowed by other Christmas decorations. This is the first year that the nativity exhibition is under the leadership of the Vatican.

“100 Nativities in the Vatican” can be viewed inside the Saint Pius X Hall along the Via della Conciliazione. It is open every day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. through January 13, 2019.

Credit for all photos: Courtney Grogan / CNA.

In Haiti, Catholic Relief Services builds hospital to last

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Dec 17, 2018 / 04:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The tremor lasted less than a minute. Dr. Jude Banatte’s car was shaking, and then it was not.

Banatte assumed he was driving too fast as he made his way home from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince that day in January 2010. He slowed down.

But while the tremor Banatte experienced 30 minutes outside of Port-au-Prince was barely enough to shake a car, the earthquake at its epicenter had wrought large-scale devastation and would soon bring Banatte to the project that would have a hand in redefining healthcare aid in Haiti.

Before the 7.0 magnitude earthquake, St. Francis de Sales Hospital was a mainstay outreach of the Catholic Church in Haiti. The nearly 100-bed facility, run by the archdiocese, was established in 1881 in the heart of downtown Port-au-Prince. The hospital served a population of about 3.3 million; including the city’s poorest and most vulnerable populations.

About 70 percent of St. Francis de Sales was destroyed in the earthquake, including the hospital’s maternity and pediatric wards. Dozens of its patients and staff were killed, along with the archbishop of Port-au-Prince, who was a member of the hospital’s board of directors.

“We...realized that the hospital was pretty much destroyed,” said Banatte, who was the program manager for Catholic Relief Services in Haiti and was one of the first responders after the 2010 earthquake, which damaged or leveled thousands of buildings in Port-au-Prince and killed an estimated 230,000 people.

“We had to make a decision, because a lot of people came to that site looking for assistance, for medical care,” he told CNA. “Where were we going to send them?”

The hospital’s medical director initially believed closing was the only option. The infrastructure was no longer there to meet the needs of the community. But the hospital decided to stay open after a team of Flemish doctors arrived, looking for ways to help.

“I automatically became some sort of ad hoc chief medical officer,” Banatte said.  

Banatte and his team used the hospital’s remaining generator to reconnect power to the field hospital. They found plumbers to help re-establish running water. A team of firefighters dug a path through the remnants of the hospital, and Banatte crawled through this path to retrieve critical medical supplies.

“I would go into that space and find my way through the walls - under the rubble - bringing back what I thought was useful depending on the cases I saw outside in the parking lot,” Banatte said.

A trained physician, Banatte was able to recognize the equipment medical volunteers in the field hospital would need. He went into the rubble and emerged with material for sterilization, profusions, materials from the blood bank.

Within two days of the earthquake, the hospital’s courtyard and parking lot had been transformed into a makeshift field hospital complete with triage, operation rooms with plastic ceilings, and a post-operation ward. The goal was to provide immediate, emergency medical assistance to victims of the earthquake, including open-air surgeries to save limbs.

On the first day, they served 50 patients.

“When people started to know that services were being offered at St. Francis de Sales...even more people started to come,” Banatte said.

As the number of patients rose, so did the number of volunteers and services. A trauma team from the University of Maryland-Baltimore arrived to the site within weeks of the earthquake and set up tents over the field hospital. The team of volunteers then performed more than 1,000 surgeries.

By summer, the Church moved the field hospital to another site, leveled what remained of the historic St. Francis de Sales Hospital and began discussions of rebuilding. It soon became clear that if they were going to rebuild, they would have to be smart about it.

“Healthcare in Haiti is notoriously not good,” said Robyn Fieser, communications officer for CRS in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“I think people started talking pretty quickly about the need - if you’re gonna build this back, and build it back well - the need for long-term training and support for the future doctors and nurses.”

Then there was the question of CRS’ involvement. The organization has served in Haiti since 1954. The nation was one of its biggest programs, with education and literary initiatives, agriculture and several health and nutrition initiatives.But emergency relief had always been at the core of CRS’ business, not hospitals and healthcare.

“We were really skeptical,” Banatte said. “There were a lot of emotions. But we also thought it was the best way to honor the memory of the archbishop and to help the Church get back on its feet.”

CRS also already had an established relationship with the hospital. Prior to the earthquake, Banatte was working to develop an infectious disease post-graduate program at the hospital, in partnership with the University of Maryland-Baltimore and the Haitian University of Notre Dame.

By the end of the year, CRS committed to managing the $22 million reconstruction project; in partnership with the local archdiocese, the Catholic Health Association and the Dominican Republic-based nonprofit Sur Futura Foundation.

It was clear that if they were going to rebuild the hospital, they would have to rebuild it to last.

“What will set it up to run for the next 50 years without having to depend on constant support and subsidy from the outside?” Banatte said.

Banatte and his team did extensive research into soil assessment and earthquake standards. They met with Partners in Health, which was constructing a similar 300-bed facility, to get recommendations for contractors.

They also began an economic feasibility study, which Banatte said was key to the success of the hospital.

“The Church used to have this hospital providing charity care in the most needed areas of Port-au-Prince,” Banatte said. “The Church wanted to be back in a position to be able to do so, but not to be running out of bankruptcy.”

“As we are rebuilding the walls, we also have to rebuild the mentality, the way the Church would conceive the delivery of high-quality care in a charitable way. The construction followed that business model.”

They developed a system of public and private care to ensure private care - which makes up about 25% of the hospital today - would subsidize free care. The hospital also has its own oxygen plant and it sells tanks of oxygen as a revenue stream.

Another key component was training for the medical staff. Banatte and his team hired a new medical director, whom they sent to the U.S. to observe the operation of other hospitals. The new medical director also met with suppliers to ensure St. Francis de Sales would receive the correct supplies in the future.

St. Francis de Sales Hospital officially reopened in January of 2015, with a blessing ceremony attended by CRS’ then-CEO, Carolyn Woo, and the then-president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz.

The hospital has almost twice the original number of beds. It has its own emergency room and its staff uses electronic medical records. The hospital continues to open new departments, including physical therapy units, to serve Port-au-Prince’s most vulnerable populations.

Once construction was completed, CRS handed St. Francis de Sales back to the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince. The hospital is still independently operated by the archdiocese and all doctors and nurses are locals.

CRS’ country representative in Haiti, Chris Bessey, said the St. Francis de Sales project was unique to CRS, but it was a natural outgrowth of the organization’s focus on providing healthcare to vulnerable populations.

“It was the only time CRS led a $22 million project in one place that would last the next 50 years,” Banatte said.

For Banatte, the hospital’s reopening was a dream come true.

“It was a blessing that I was able to be there from ‘Day 1’ to that point,” Banatte said. “It was also living proof that together, we are stronger. And together, we can achieve many things out of our differences.”

 

This article was originally published on CNA April 19, 2018.

Pro-life group concerned over NIH head’s support of fetal tissue research

Washington D.C., Dec 17, 2018 / 02:53 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A pro-life group dedicated to electing pro-life officials is calling on U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration to “correct” comments supportive of fetal tissue sales and research, recently made by National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins.

At a meeting of an NIH advisory panel in Maryland on Dec. 13, Collins said that while fetal tissue sales are currently being audited by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and alternatives to fetal tissue are being explored, fetal tissue “will continue to be the mainstay” of federal scientific research.

“There is strong evidence that scientific benefits can come from fetal tissue research, which can be done with an ethical framework,” he added.

His comments come at a time when HHS, the parent agency of NIH, has terminated contracts with groups over their use of fetal stem cell tissue, has declined new contracts with other groups over the same, is auditing the use of fetal stem cell tissue throughout the department, and is exploring alternatives to the use of fetal tissue research.

For the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List, a pro-life group that works to end abortion and elect pro-life officials, the remark drew deep concern.

The comments from Collins “put him at odds with HHS and the whole Trump Administration in the audit process and begs the question of whether anything can truly change while he’s in charge at NIH,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA List, said in a statement.

“We urge HHS to correct his comments, which are dramatically out of step both with President Trump and the pro-life voters who elected him,” Dannenfelser said.

In comments to reporters, Collins argued that fetal tissue is necessary for certain kinds of research, and said that “even for somebody who is very supportive of the pro-life position, you can make a strong case for this being an ethical stance...That if something can be done with these tissues that might save somebody’s life downstream, perhaps that’s a better choice than discarding them.”

Dannenfelser said in her statement that “there is absolutely no moral or ethical justification for treating these children like commodities to be chopped up and sold piece-by-piece to anyone - especially the federal government with taxpayers footing the bill.”

“These hearts, eyes, livers and brains belong to fellow members of the human family. They are ‘harvested’ following abortions that deprive these unborn boys and girls of their right to life,” she said.

She urged correction of Collins, noting that pro-life voters are looking to the administration for pro-life action.

“Pro-life voters across America reject the use of their tax dollars to purchase the ‘fresh’ body parts of unborn children and are looking for a pro-life policy change.”

 

Pope Francis: Death penalty a ‘legalistic’ value, not a Christian one

Vatican City, Dec 17, 2018 / 12:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The death penalty is always a rejection of the Gospel and of human dignity, and therefore must be rejected by all countries, Pope Francis told the Delegation of the International Commission against the Death Penalty on Monday.

In his meeting with the delegation at the Vatican, the Pope set aside his prepared remarks and gave an impromptu address.

In his prepared text, which was then handed out to the delegation, Francis said he has prioritized the abolition of the death penalty throughout his ministry because of the great harm it does to human dignity.

“The certainty that every life is sacred and that human dignity must be safeguarded without exception has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to work at different levels for the universal abolition of the death penalty,” he said.

The Pope in August ordered a revision of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, calling the death penalty “inadmissible” and urging its elimination. The Pope called for the changes in May, the final draft of the new paragraph was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Catechism previously taught that the state had the authority to use the death penalty in cases of “absolute necessity,” though with the qualification that the Church considered such situations to be extremely rare.

The previous version of paragraph 2267 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church had stated: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

In his address on Monday, Pope Francis said the change in the Catechism expressed a “progress of the doctrine of the most recent Pontiffs as well as the change in the conscience of the Christian people, which rejects a penalty that seriously harms human dignity.”  

The death penalty was a lingering value of bygone centuries, Pope Francis said, during which “the instruments available to us for the protection of society were lacking and the current level of development of human rights had not yet been achieved.”

It hearkens to a time when legal values were extolled over Christian ones and justice prevailed over mercy, he added.

“The Church cannot remain in a neutral position in the face of the current demands for the reaffirmation of personal dignity,” he said.

Today, the Church rejects the death penalty in all cases because it “counters the inviolability and the dignity of the person” and denies guilty people the “hope of redemption and reconciliation with the community,” he said.

Pope Francis encouraged members of the United Nations to continue to observe the group’s moratorium on the use of the death penalty, first issued in 2007, which asks member countries to suspend the application of the death penalty and to work toward its total abolition.

He also invited non-UN-member countries to take steps toward eliminating the death penalty.

“The suspension of executions and the reduction of crimes punishable by capital punishment, as well as the prohibition of this form of punishment for minors, pregnant women or people with mental or intellectual disabilities, are minimum objectives with which leaders around the world must engage,” the pope said.

Francis urged those who work in the field of criminal justice to work to understand the root causes of violence and crime, in order “to address the ethical and moral problems that arise from conflict and social injustice, to understand the suffering of the specific people involved and to reach other types of solutions that do not deepen those sufferings.”

He also condemned the “regrettably recurrent phenomenon” of “extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions” carried out by state authorities in many countries.

“As a consequence, any use of lethal force that is not strictly necessary for (self-defense and preservation of life) can only be considered an illegal execution, a state crime.”

The Pope thanked then the delegation for their work and assured them of the Church’s support.

“The Church is committed to (the abolition of the death penalty) and I hope that the Holy See will collaborate with the International Commission against the Death Penalty in the construction of the necessary consensus for the eradication of capital punishment and all forms of cruel punishment.”

 

The youth center at the center of the Church

Rome, Italy, Dec 17, 2018 / 11:00 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Though it sits just steps from St. Peter’s Basilica, it goes unseen by the thousands of people that pass by every day. In a city of churches, it’s a church that can’t be found by accident, but must be sought out. And many do.

It is St. Lawrence in Piscibus, a tiny and simple church from the 12th century, tucked behind buildings which make it undetectable from the main thoroughfare to St. Peter’s Basilica.

The church has gone through many evolutions over the centuries. Eventually, it was deconsecrated and used as a study hall and sculptor’s studio, until in the 1980s Pope St. John Paul II asked that it be transformed into an international youth center.

Today it has become the thriving Centro San Lorenzo, affectionately called the “Centro,” where young Romans, and those passing through on pilgrimage, can stop by for prayer, Mass, and other spiritual and social activities.

As the events start up again after the summer break, now under the apostolate of the Shalom Catholic Community, the center has begun offering daily adoration and prayer for the successful work of the Synod of Bishops, taking place just minutes down the street inside the Vatican.

The Center’s chaplain, Fr. Cristiano Pinheiro, said people of all kinds pass through the center and take part in a “chain of intercession,” that includes Shalom missionaries, young people, priests, and even bishops attending the synod.

During the entire month of October 2018, the church held adoration of the Blessed Sacrament from 9:00 am to 5:30 pm Monday through Friday, followed by Mass at 6:00 pm; open to anyone who wanted to stop by. Two Saturdays of the month they also hosted a special program of prayer and fraternity.

Archbishop Peter Comensoli of Melbourne, who was in Rome to take part in the youth synod as a bishop delegate, said he found the church through his connection with the Shalom community.

“It’s a particularly beautiful church in my mind for an Italian church,” he told CNA. “It’s very plain and simple and the focus is directly on the Blessed Sacrament in the sanctuary area; it’s lovely.”

“It’s wonderful that there are people just praying, just praying for what’s happening in the synod and the work that’s going on here. It’s a great gift,” he said.

The San Lorenzo Center was founded by Pope St. John Paul II, who discovered the church of St. Lawrence in Piscibus – owned by the Vatican since 1941 – and thought it could be put to the service of youth. He reconsecrated the church with a special Mass in March 1983.

A few years later, it also became the home of the original wooden cross of World Youth Day (begun in 1985) and an icon of Salus Populi Romani, a copy of the ancient painting which hangs in the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary in her title as patroness of Rome.

The small church also bears a San Damiano cross, a replica of the one hanging in the Basilica of St. Clare in Assisi, Italy, which is believed to be the cross St. Francis prayed before when he received the request from God to rebuild the Church.

One manager of Centro San Lorenzo, Jhoanna Climacosa, 27, said she finds it a “true joy,” to serve in that place, which is “at the heart of the Church, at the heart of Rome, and through which pass many pilgrims from every part of the world.”

Prior to its new life as a place of evangelization and welcome for pilgrims, especially youth, the church spent a few decades as a study center and the studio of artist Pericle Fazzini, who completed his large bronze sculpture of “the Resurrection” in 1977, and which stands at the back of the Vatican’s Pope Paul VI hall.

The façade of St. Lawrence in Piscibus was hidden from sight when part of the area surrounding the Vatican, Rome’s Borgo neighborhood, was destroyed in the late 1930s to 1940s to construct the grand thoroughfare of Via della Conciliazione, which leads up to the main square and entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica.

The church was preserved from demolition, but a large palazzo was built around it, marking the start of the Pio XII Square in the style of an ancient Greek “propylaea,” an architectural term which means a gateway building.

After different renovations over the centuries, one which gave it an ornate Baroque design, for structural and financial reasons it was eventually returned to what is believed to be its original, bare-stone Romanesque appearance.

Around the same years that John Paul II founded the Center, the Shalom Community was beginning in Brazil, though this is the first time their movement has been given the care of the youth center.

Cristiano knew the place from years earlier, as a seminarian studying in Rome. “Somehow I always felt connected with the church,” he told CNA. “I never imagined I would come to work here and to evangelize here.” His first Mass in Rome, after being ordained in Brazil, was at the Center in 2015.

“Now it’s a new time, a Kairos of the youth of the Church,” he said, referencing a Greek word which means “opportunity,” or “a propitious moment for decision or action.”

“We feel honored and we feel called by God to be at the service of the Church exactly at this time,” he said, explaining that he believes there is “a very difficult spiritual war taking place right now.”

“With the scandals and difficulties, God’s Enemy doesn’t want to see this Kairos happening in the Church. So, we need to fight against it, which we do by praying,” he stated.

 

This article was originally published on CNA Oct. 11, 2018.