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Pope's antidote to secularism: saints, not structures

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Lisbon, Portugal

tChristianity’s love-hate relationship with secularism is a core theme of Benedict XVI’s four-day trip to Portugal, and this evening he asked an especially evocative question: In a social context in which basic Christian belief can’t be taken for granted, is the church too worried about structures and power and not enough about the fundamentals of the faith?

tThe pope raised that query, without quite supplying an answer, during an open-air Mass for an estimated 80,000 people in Lisbon’s Palace Square. It’s certainly an evocative spot to contemplate the demise of Europe’s once-intact Catholic cultures: It was here in 1908 that the penultimate Catholic monarch of Portugal, Charles I, was assassinated in 1908, with the erection of a secular republic not far behind.

Filled pews

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My 23-year-old cousin from Italy has been staying with us for three months. A lot of things have surprised him about Los Angeles -- the wide streets, old buildings that were only built forty years ago, and that fact that people actually fill the churches around here.

My cousin is a business graduate student back at home, and is staying with us while doing a corporate internship in town for his master's thesis. He's gone to Disneyland and downtown, to Hollywood and Malibu -- but our local parish has made a real impression.

A trace of reality in hierarchy's take on abuse

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Perhaps a trace of reality is beginning to insinuate itself into the hierarchy’s understanding of the clergy sex abuse scandal. Although it took him sometime to get to the point, Pope Benedict XVI, in a plane on the way to Portugal, described the crisis as “terrifying” and further stated unequivocally that the problem did not originate with sources outside the church or with the media but within the Catholic community.

A few days before, as John Allen notes here, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, in a clear breach of hierarchical protocol, directly accused another cardinal, Angelo Sodano, the secretary of state or number two figure in the Vatican, under Pope John Paul II, of complicity in covering up sex abuse allegations against the late Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer of Vienna. Schonborn told a news conference that Sodano had blocked an earlier investigation of Groer.

Pope on secularism: Seek dialogue, but be ready for martyrdom

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Lisbon, Portugal

tFacing the “plurality of value systems and ethical outlooks” associated with secularism, Pope Benedict XVI today urged Portuguese Christians to embrace the “nucleus” of their faith. The pontiff also hinted they should expect blowback, calling Christians to be ready for “the radical choice of martyrdom.”

tBenedict hailed the secular separation of church and state for “opening up a new area of freedom for the church,” but also warned that the ethical pluralism can sow confusion about “the human meaning of life” and also “marginalize” the public role of religious faith.

tDuring comments aboard the papal plane, Benedict nonetheless stressed the importance of dialogue with secular culture.

“The presence of secularism is something normal, but a separation of cult from life, a separation of secularism from cult and faith, is anomalous and must be overcome,” Benedict said. “The great challenge is for the two to meet and to discover their true identity … this, as I said, is a mission for Europe and a human necessity in our time.”

Women, process, and Spirit at work in Rome

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Rome

Consider for a moment how the leadership of the world’s women religious, brought together under the aegis of the International Union of General Superiors (UISG), operates.

Looking for a theme for its 2010 conference, the UISG staff decided to survey the ideas of its membership, the women themsleves. They asked for ideas. What the staff received – and they report, “overwhelmingly,” – was the twin theme of "mysticism and prophecy," the simple idea of examining the interior spirit before determing how they were being called to live and act in the world. Or, as many put it, "two sides of the same coin."

Alas, it became the conference theme.

Sex abuse crisis 'terrifying,' pope says

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Lisbon, Portugal

tEn route to a May 11-14 visit to Portugal, Benedict XVI called the reality of the sexual abuse crisis “terrifying” and said that the greatest persecution of the church comes not from external attacks but from sin within the church.

Benedict's insistence that the real problem is internal seemed to distance the pope from other senior Vatican officials, who in recent weeks have blamed the media and other parties for unjust criticism of the Catholic church.

tWhile those comments came in response to a question, the questions were submitted to the Vatican by reporters covering the trip several days in advance – suggesting that Benedict wanted to address the crisis and chose his words carefully, rather than being caught off guard.

tBenedict also said that while forgiveness must be part of the church’s response to the crisis, that must not come at the expense of justice.

In total, the pope’s session with the press this morning lasted approximately 16 minutes. Beyond the sexual abuse crisis, Benedict also touched upon the relationship between secularism and religious faith as well as Europe's current economic turmoil.

'Babies' beyond cute

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Just in time for Mothers Day, French documentarian Thomas Balmès ' new film "Babies" or Bébé(s) opened on Friday.

"Babies" follows the first year in the life of four babies: Ponijao, from Opuwo, Namibia, Africa; Bayarjargal () from Mongolia, Asia; Mari, from Tokyo, Japan; and Hattie from San Francisco, California.

In interviews, Balmès says that he was commissioned to make a "wildlife documentary" about babies. His interpretation of the assignment begins just before the birth of each child when we meet the mothers in a state of immediate expectation. Each child's umbilical cord is cut, and they (one boy, Bayar, and three girls) begin their life's journey outside the womb.

Do we want a living tradition or a petrified one?

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Quote of the Day

“Dialogue with them is not easy. The main problem with them is not the Mass in Latin, but the concept of tradition. Do we want a living tradition or a petrified one?”

-- Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's chief ecumenist, on talks with the Society of Saint Pius X, a schismatic group that broke with the Catholic Church decades ago and that Pope Benedict XVI is trying to woo back into the fold. Kasper was quoted by Reuters.

Reflections on Britain's Brown resigning as party leader

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I remember watching him from the gallery above. Through the thick protective glass between the gallery and floor (installed after someone threw a paint balloon to the floor below a few years before) I cringed as Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave a lackluster response during that oh-so-British of institutions, Prime Minister's Questions. In them the leader of the British Government subjects him or herself every week to questions from the opposing parties and to the rest of the elected members of parliament. Normally they're equal amounts interrogation and displays of stunning wit among the different members.

Brown was being grilled by Conservative leader David Cameron about knife violence in central London, who was using a rather large amount of dry humor to get his point across. Brown, the leader of the Labour party which has held power for the past 17 years, responded with an off-putting amount of seriousness - as if Cameron could not ever possibly know the real answers to the situation. When he sat down it was with a certain 'hmmph' which said 'I'm right, you're wrong and get over it.'

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