KUALA LUMPUR — On April 7, Taiwan’s foreign ministry posted a short video clip on Twitter that it said showed the razing of a Catholic Church building in Shaanxi in central China. The tweet tagged Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, who had said in a March 8 speech in Hong Kong that “the Chinese government’s abuse of members of Catholic communities has continued” — despite a September 2018 deal between the Catholic Church and Beijing ostensibly covering the appointing of bishops in China. Questions sent to the Taiwanese foreign ministry about the source and date of the video had gone unanswered at the time of this writing, but leveling of the building was reported on websites such as AsiaNews.it, which publishes articles from Catholic sources inside China and which dated the razing to March 31. Asia News reported April 9 that local Catholics in the diocese also had rallied to protect a Marian shrine from police and government officials who were seeking to destroy it. An estimated 12 million Chinese Catholics are split between the so-called “underground” Church, the faithful who follow the Pope, and the government’s Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The Vatican has expressed hope that the September deal could lead to better relations between its faithful and those Chinese subject to the state-run version. But the clip, if authentic, is but the latest indication that China’s Catholics continue to be oppressed.
ROME – The day after former Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio was elected head of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Catholics, Ariadna Estetania Cabello Rendace was among a group of Argentinians standing in the evening cold in St Peter’s Square, watching on video screens in the vast cobble-stoned piazza as the new Pope said Mass under the blue-background splendour of Michelangelo’s Biblical frescoes inside the Sistine Chapel. “Last night, when they announced the new papa, we were standing over there, near the fountain,” she said, pointing across the square. “When he said ‘Argentina’, I said ‘What? Who? I cannot believe’.”
VATICAN CITY — With a Colombian flag tied around her shoulders, Sister Laura Teresa took a last look back at the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, where, moments before, Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio emerged to greet the world as Pope Francis. He is the 266th pope, but the first Latin American, the first Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope and the first non-European since 741. “Yes, there is history here tonight,” said the religious sister from Bogota. Speaking amid a din from the estimated 200,000 umbrella-wielding onlookers making their way out of the vast horseshoe-shaped piazza after the end of the conclave, Sister Laura said that “I am surprised and happy that there is a Holy Father from South America.”
ROME – If you’re on Twitter, #conclave has been one of the best places to follow news about the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. On Tuesday evening Rome time, between start of the vote, and the inconclusive end to the first ballot, tweets were coming in at around 40 per minute by my count, a mix of news updates from Rome, smartphone pics from around the Vatican, lewd comments from unknown locations on some of the recent scandals, and some light-hearted gags. But most are just tuning in to hear the results, which should come within three days, according to Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi. The Vatican’s system for spreading news is sending black smoke up through temporary chimneys to announce that a round of voting failed to produce a winner. Everyone’s waiting for the white smoke, followed by the ringing of the St. Peter’s church bells, when there’s a result.
ROME — “We are praying for it,” says Ferdinand de Guzman, standing in the doorway of the Santa Pudenziana church, about a mile from the Colosseum and the Lateran Basilica, two famous Roman landmarks. The Filipino Catholic was speaking about the possibility that his compatriot, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, could emerge as Pope after the conclave, which starts Tuesday. “If God wills it, he will be Pope, but if not, we will surely support our new Holy Father whoever that may be,” said de Guzman, from Tarlac in the Philippines but now in his 20th year living in Rome.
DUBLIN — As Archbishop Charles Brown takes up his new post of papal nuncio to Ireland, he will face what some see as unprecedented difficulties for the church in Ireland. After the publication of a series of reports outlining gruesome cases of sexual abuse by priests in Ireland over recent decades, coupled with a falloff in church attendance, and less quantifiably, a perceptible decline in religious belief and practice, it’s little wonder that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin predicted that his archdiocese faced its toughest challenge “since Catholic Emancipation,” the 1829 changes to British law that removed many of the discriminatory provisions against Catholics in the United Kingdom, of which Ireland was then a part. Archbishop Martin was commenting on a drop in Mass attendance in Dublin to 14% and declining priest numbers, but the remarks were seen by many as appropriate to the wider church in Ireland, which now operates within what Irish writer John Waters described to the Register as “the most anti-Catholic country in Europe.”
TIBERIAS – The breeze cooling the furnace-like lakeshore funnels down between hills that are redolent of history like so much else in the Holy Land. One, an extinct volcano popularised as the “Horns of Hattin,” marks the site where Saladin defeated a Crusader army in 1187. Closer again is the cliff-face where, over a thousand years before, Jews are said to have committed mass suicide rather than be taken captive by the Romans in 67 AD, 3 years before the destruction of Jerusalem and a better-known mass suicide at the Masada. Downhill is the reed-laden lakeshore along the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus Christ walked. He may well even have preached in what is a startling discovery 200m from the water’s edge at Magdala, a town thought to be the home-place of Mary Magdalene, 5km from Tiberias and around the same from Capernaum. The discovery is a synagogue dating to the first century AD, possibly destroyed during the same Jewish revolt, and uncovered during excavations for the construction of a new Catholic pilgrimage center.