FaithWorld

Thirst for faith in Angola, but which kind?

“Those who are thirsty need to seek the right fountain: the one without the spoilt water” — Angolan Cardinal Alexandre do Nascimento

There seems to be quite a thirst for faith these days in Angola, which abandoned Marxism in the 1990s after three decades of civil war and is now experiencing a boom in religious sects that often mix traditional African belief in witchcraft with elements of the Christianity brought by the Portuguese colonialists.

Some 900 religious groups are waiting for the official registration required by the government, which has launched a campaign to stamp out illegal sects in the capital Luanda and provinces bordering Democratic Republic of Congo where witchcraft is believed to be widespread. Last week, an ailing 28-year-old woman died when her sect barred her from seeking medical treatment and 40 children were rescued from two other religious groups that accused them of possesing evil powers.

Cardinal Alexandre do Nascimento, the leading Catholic cleric in this mostly Catholic country, told Reuters in an interview (full story here) that he saw a bright side to the sect boom: “The positive side of this phenomenon is that it shows there is an increasing thirst for God. But those who are thirsty need to seek the right fountain: the one without the spoilt water.”

The Roman Catholic Church has also grown since in the early 1990s, but is increasingly being challenged by evangelical churches and these syncretic sects, often supported by poor people lacking jobs and education. Maybe the cardinal shouldn’t be so optimistic after all?

Bishop sees slow progress on churches in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s ban on churches on its territory is a thorny issue that loomed over the Catholic-Muslim Forum meeting this week in Rome. Some Catholics say the question of religious freedom for minority faiths in Muslim countries is so important that the Vatican should insist on strict reciprocity in such interfaith talks.  (In photo: St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church opens in Doha on 15 March 2008/Fadi Al-Assaad)

However, more believe it is not a good idea to make the dialogue hostage to a single issue, so it did not become a dealbreaker here. It did get discussed in the closed-door talks, which delegates said were quite lively at times, and it was referred to in the final declaration. Cynics may say nothing was resolved, but there are interesting nuances that could lead to change.

The final declaration had this to say: “Genuine love of neighbour implies respect of the person and her or his choices in matters of conscience and religion. It includes the right of individuals and communities to practice their religion in private and public.” Having Muslim delegates sign up to a statement that non-Muslims should be able to worship publicly in Muslim majority countries, i.e. have their own churches, is an important step. This is clearly aimed at Saudi Arabia, where the rights of other faiths are most clearly limited. A Catholic delegate told me some Muslims did not like the final part about practising religion in private and public but their delegation head, Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, reminded them that this passage could also help minority Muslims who want to build mosques in Western countries. This is an interesting example of how the globalisation of Islam is starting to influence the traditional Muslim world.

Look who’s celebrating Reformation Day today

Today is Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in eastern Germany and set off the Protestant Reformation. It is a public holiday in the five eastern German states, in Slovenia and — this year for the first time — in Chile.

Chile? Isn’t that traditionally a Catholic country? Even the Catholic parts of Germany don’t celebrate Reformation Day.

Yes, Chile is traditionally Catholic, but now only about 70% so. Like elsewhere in Latin America, Protestant churches — especially evangelicals and Pentecostals — have spread rapidly in recent decades. They now make up just over 15% of the Chilean population, up from 7% in 1970. It’s not a new story, but creating a holiday especially for Protestants is a symbolic step towards recognising the changes in the religious landscape in Latin America.

Pius polemics persist — more due next month?

Pope Pius XII/The Holy SeeReasonable people can agree to disagree on lots of issues, but some are so polarising that even reasonable people will hunker down in opposing trenches whenever debate about them flares up. The long-standing Catholic-Jewish dispute over Pope Pius XII and his role during the Holocaust is one of those issues. The 50th anniversary of Eugenio Pacelli’s death on Oct. 9, 1958 has recently mobilised both his defenders and detractors. After several pro-Pius comments from the Vatican and its friends and a firm but polite rebuttal by an Israeli rabbi, the umbrella group of French Jewish organisations, CRIF, has issued a stinging denunciation of Pius and warning that beatifying him would strike a “severe blow” to Catholic-Jewish relations.

CRIF logoThe statement (here in French) is clearly sharper than the latest call by the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) urging the Vatican to open its last wartime records to historians’ scrutiny before deciding to proceed with Pius’s beatification and eventual canonisation as a Roman Catholic saint. CRIF is the public spokesman for France’s 600,000-strong Jewish community, which is Europe’s largest. It regularly denounces anti-Semitism in France Anti-Defamation League logoand upholds the memory of the Holocaust, but has not been as active as the ADL in engaging the Vatican in the debate over whether Pius did as much as he could have to save Jews during the Holocaust.

A quick look at the timetable of the latest dispute puts the CRIF statement in perspective. Shear-Yashuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa in Israeli, became the first Jew to address a bishops’ synod in Rome on Oct. 6. Catholic-Jewish relations have improved markedly in recent decades and Cohen accepted the invitation in that spirit. But when in Rome he realised the meeting would also be commemorating Pius’s death, he told our Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella he might not have attended if he had known that. During his address, he told the bishops that Jews “cannot forgive and forget” that some major religious leaders during World War Two did not speak out against the Holocaust. He separately told reporters Pius “should not be seen as a model and he should not be beatified”.

Pius XII biographer raps rabbi for recalling Holocaust role

Cover of Tornielli’s book Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, A Man on the Throne of PeterA leading Italian biographer of Pope Pius XII has sharply criticised Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen for recalling the controversy about the pope’s role in the Holocaust during an unprecedented address to a synod of Roman Catholic bishops at the Vatican. Andrea Tornielli, the Vatican correspondent of the newspaper Il Giornale who has written four books defending the wartime pope, said no cardinal could have ever spoken that way at a major Jewish forum in Jerusalem.

Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa in Israel, was the first Jew to address such a synod. In unscripted remarks, he told the bishops that Jews “cannot forget the sad and painful fact of how many, including great religious leaders, didn’t raise their voice in the effort to save our brethren but chose to keep silent and helped secretly.” Defenders of Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, say he did he did his utmost to help Jews during the Holocaust; Pope Benedict repeated this recently in his first public statement on his predecessor. But his critics fault Pius for not publicly challenging the Nazis by denouncing the Holocaust.

Tornielli focused special attention on Cohen’s statement in a Reuters interview prior to his Andrea Torniellisynod speech. The 80-year old rabbi told our Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella that he might not have attended the synod if he had known in advance that Pius would be honoured there. The synod will mark the 50th anniversary of his death in 1958 with a special mass on Thursday at which Benedict may announce that Pius will soon be beatified. Tornielli wrote on his blog Sacri Palazzi (Sacred Palaces):

Some Kosovo “crypto-Catholics” embrace their faith publicly

Outside the Catholic church in Kravoserija, 8 Sept 2008/Hazir RekaSome of Kosovo’s “crypto- Catholics” are slowly coming out of hiding. Pressured into accepting Islam centuries ago by the victorious Ottoman Turks, some families in this Balkan country maintained their Christian customs in private while passing as Muslims in public. Some of them returned to their ancestral faith in the late 19th century, after the Ottomans withdrew. Now, almost 10 years after Serbian rule ended, more have decided to go back to Roman Catholicism. The Church says the conversions now run into the thousands.

Finding these Catholics for a feature was not too hard. At a local church in Pristina, priests provided information on people who had converted and names of other churches where it had happened.

The Sopi family in the central Kosovo town of Klina, which was highlighted in the feature, was initially wary of talking to the international media after a story in the local newspaper led their Muslim neighbours to regard them differently now. But after a long chat, they agreed to an interview as long as it was neither taped nor photographed.

No big change at Lourdes, despite eased miracle rules

A pilgrim prays at Lourdes, 5 Nov 2006/Regis DuvignauBishop Jacques Perrier of Lourdes caused a stir two years ago when he announced the Roman Catholic Church wanted to create new categories for recognising sudden healings at the famous shrine because so few of them claimed there actually qualified under current rules as certified miracles. Sceptics promptly dubbed the new categories “miracle lite” and even Catholics wondered what was going on.

The bishop patiently explained that Lourdes only had a very simple yes/no approach to recognising a healing as a miracle. He wanted to provide some kind of official Church recognition for a pilgrim’s sudden recovery and the spiritual experience that went with it, even if it did not clear all the hurdles to be declared miraculous. These recoveries certainly felt miraculous to the recovered pilgrims involved and also strengthened their faith, he said. Asking the binary question “was it a miracle or not?” did not do justice to the whole experience these pilgrims had. Lourdes needed new categories of declared, unexpected and confirmed healings to take that into account.

Having spoken to Perrier about this back then, I called him this week to find out what progress had been made with these new categories. None, he said, to my surprise. The idea was so new and different that it would take about 10 years to catch on. Huh?

Now they say incense could cause cancer

A man prays at the Yong He Gong (Tibetan Lama) Temple in Beijing, 7 July 2008/David GrayThere was a report last May saying researchers had found incense was a mind-altering substance. Now comes news of another scientific report saying it could cause cancer. Given its ceremonial role in several religions, this attention to incense is made for a blog like this one.

These reports leave an interesting question unanswered, however — why are scientists studying this now? Is there an upswing in incense burning around the world? Could this be linked to the Catholic Church’s plans to revive limited use of traditional liturgies? It’s hard to imagine that scientists would be watching religious trends. Is this just a coincidence?

Sydneysiders refuse to turn the other cheek for Pope Benedict

Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1 Jan 2008/Tim WimborneSydney is not a city famous for protests. In fact, people usually only get angry at traffic congestion, if their football team loses on the weekend or if rain stops them hitting the city’s sandy beaches. But Sydneysiders have become angry and many are aiming to vent their spleen at Pope Benedict and pilgrims attending the Roman Catholic Church’s World Youth Day here this month.

Except for a handful of people promoting the safe sex message of using condoms, nobody was publicly planning to protest during the Pope’s first visit to Australia. Australians mostly come from a Christian background and Catholics make up the biggest congregation.

But now every man and his dog seems to be planning to take to the streets in protest. What changed?

SSPX Bishop Fellay snubs pope’s ultimatum on rejoining Rome

Bishop Bernard Fellay, 13 Jan 2006/Franck PrevelIt seems there’s no need to wait until Monday* to see how the traditionalist Catholic Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) will respond to the Vatican ultimatum and pledge loyalty to Pope Benedict. Its leader Bishop Bernard Fellay spoke about the conditions last Friday (June 20) — before it was known that Benedict had called his bluff — and made clear the SSPX could not accept it. “They just say ‘shut up’,” he said in a sermon at an SSPX seminary in Winona, Minnesota. “We are not going … to shut up.”

In another part of the sermon, he says: “We are, shall we say, something like at a crossroads. In a certain way, Rome is telling us, O.K. we are ready to lift the excommunications, but you cannot continue this way. So we have no choice. We are not going this way. We are continuing what we’ve done. We have fought now for 40 years to keep this faith alive, to keep this tradition, not only for ourselves but for the Church. And we are just going to continue. Happens what happens. Everything is in God’s hands.”

Click here for our news report. Here is an audio file of his sermon (in English). Hat tips to Andrea Tornielli for breaking the story and blogging it along (in Italian) and La Croix’s Isabelle de Gaulmyn for the Vatican clarification (in French). The relevant part of Fellay’s sermon is copied out verbatim on the second page of this post (see below) to give the full context of his comments.