Immaculate Link; the First Freedom

Feeling at Home on a Marian Solemnity

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, DEC. 9, 2004 (Zenit.org).- On Wednesday, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a visitor to the North American College could feel a particular union between Rome and the United States.

In the college's magnificent chapel devoted to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the students and their comrades in the community sang the praises of their Patroness.

On entering this chapel I am always overwhelmed by the enormous, brilliant mosaic of the Mother of God that benevolently overlooks the celebrants and congregation. One of the concelebrants receiving this gaze Wednesday was Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minnesota, here on his five-yearly visit to the Holy See.

Bishop Nienstedt, a NAC alumnus who served in the Vatican Secretariat of State, told me how he felt "very privileged to be here at this time, especially this year when we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception."

The only issue was having too many good options, he said.

"I was kind of torn as to whether or not to go to that 9:30 Mass in St. Peter's Basilica along with some of the other bishops, but I have two students studying here at this distinguished institution, the NAC, and as it was my community for those many years, I really felt that this was the place to be that morning," he said.

Bishop Nienstedt consoled himself that, later in the day, he would be joining the crowds in Piazza di Spagna with the Pope for the crowning of the Blessed Mother.

The bishop was quick to remember his people back home as they celebrated the day through both their parishes and television coverage of the Mass in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., where a papal envoy celebrated.

"Our people have a deep devotion to the Mother of God," he told me. "I would say at least a third of the churches in my diocese are named after her titles, and so there is that deep sense of closeness that the people continue to have today to Mary, the Mother of God.

"Universally, the significance of this feast is the fact that God had a plan for Mary, the first of disciples, and therefore God has a plan for us."

"That plan, as the Holy Father keeps reminding us, is centered in the revelation of Jesus Christ," he added. "The Pope continually notes that Jesus, who was formed in the womb of Mary, is the center of Church history and human history and when we contemplate the face of Jesus, we really contemplate what he has in mind for us."

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Freedom's Call

In its mission statement, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See states that "Today [we are] working with our bilateral partner to promote freedom, human rights, democracy and peace throughout the world."

Last Friday was the fourth in a series of conferences organized by U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson to achieve this, especially in the year marking 20 years of U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations.

The latest conference, held at the Gregorian University, was on religious freedom as the cornerstone of human rights.

The Holy See opened the conference emphasizing that "libertas Ecclesiae" is the "first freedom" which we should all strive to promote. This was outlined in the speech made by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's secretary for relations with states.

Archbishop Lajolo discussed how imperative well-structured, bilateral and multilateral diplomacy is. And he described the stringent agreements set out by the Vatican in concordats with other nations as an example to others of their functional responsibility.

Diplomacy is also one of the core solutions to the problem of religious liberty for U.S. experts, represented in Rome by John Hanford, their ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

"The main purpose of my office," Hanford told me, "is to engage in vigorous diplomacy worldwide on behalf of religious believers who are imprisoned, tortured, beaten, or otherwise prevented from practicing their faith."

To the conferees he said: "We work with like-minded governments, faith groups and NGOs to craft strategies to help bring about improvements, advocating on behalf of all peaceful religious believers ... in order that they be allowed to practice their beliefs."

Another speaker, Father Daniel Madigan, president for the Institute for Study of Religions and Cultures at the Gregorian University, said that he is concerned as to whether all factors are taken into account when a nation decides to embark upon the saving of a people.

"I think that the question of religious liberty is very complex," he said, "because of definitions like, What do we mean by religion? How are various liberties negotiated? Not all liberties are absolute, even according to Church teaching or to political scientists. These things need to be negotiated before going in and saying 'we've got the answers.'"

Ambassador Hanford says his office continues to study the variables at close range. He discussed how, as part of his team members' work, they "actively monitor religious freedom developments, engaging in firsthand investigations ourselves, and relying on fact-gathering and investigation of abuses by our U.S. embassies and consulates around the world."

"We work with much information and proofs of horrifying abuses and restrictions," he told me, which have been compiled and produced in their annual report on religious freedom worldwide.

"In the summary of our International Religious Freedom Report," Hanford said, "we document several broad categories of religious freedom violations, with the first two categories of abuses being the most serious."

Conference participants agreed that international attention needs to be focused on the abuses surrounding religious freedom violations. But some questioned the strategies used by U.S. agents to convince oppressive governments to change their policies.

Hanford refers to the Freedom Act of 1998 saying that it "also requires that our government, on an annual basis, identify those countries that have engaged in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom."

He explained that such countries are designated a "country of particular concern," or CPC, carrying with it the likely application of some form of measure to pressure the government to improve its behavior. "Often, but not always, this entails some form of economic sanction."

Father Madigan told me that "assistance is fine. But to help people become free is a different thing than trying to force them to become free by using sanctions or something of that kind, because often, religious repression ... is really an expression of something else."

"Generally it's the case that the government doesn't care less about religion in itself," he said. "What they do care about is whether the group in question has links with a foreign government or links with a multinational structure like the Catholic Church -- I mean, does China really want its Catholics dealing with all the other Catholics in the rest of the world? For China, that's something rather difficult.

"So the religious repression isn't necessarily about religion as much as it's about isolationism, xenophobia, an attempt to protect a cultural integrity which is seen as under threat." Father Madigan proposes that by "putting pressure on the problematic government sometimes makes it worse, as they see only force behind the sanctions."

While agreeing when Ambassador Hanford says that "our protecting the rights of minority religions around the world helps secure basic freedoms for all of us," Father Madigan says though there is no easy answer, it would do well to "ultimately work for all freedoms and for all aspects of human dignity to get at the core of religious persecution."

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Cheers to Spirituality

Catholic spirituality can raise its head anywhere in this city. Even in a pub.

That's what Theology on Tap is all about. Although popular around the world, it is new to the Eternal City. It offers people a chance to come into a casual environment where they can tap into a part of the faith they may not attend to often.

Jennifer Cole is the volunteer coordinator of the lecture series that began Dec. 1 in The Bull Pub. She told me that she thought Advent was the most opportune time to begin.

"Theology on Tap began in Chicago over 20 years ago, and I would say that in the States it's taken off in the last few years," Cole said. "So I thought it was a shame that the English-speaking community in Rome wasn't reaping the benefits."

Rome, filled with pontifical universities, seminarians, tour guides and embassies, and known to be a European melting pot, offers a wonderful occasion to build on the original design of Theology on Tap, said Cole.

She noted, however, that, "though this is the heart of our Church, there's still some kind of disconnect."

"There are a lot of people who aren't plugged in, those who aren't taking advantage of the richness of what our city has to offer through its history and art, through its faith," Cole said. "This is why Theology on Tap isn't just a classroom.

"It may be for the mind but it's also for the heart and soul, and Rome has so much to offer that it just felt like a natural fit that we would try and bring it together."

Indeed, the crowds have been great for the two sessions held so far. People from all walks of Roman life told me how they were drawn in by the offer of topics and speakers that they couldn't hear every day.

Cole reeled in the first group with the topic "Was There a Mrs. Jesus: Cracking the Da Vinci Code" which had Father John Wauck of Opus Dei dissecting Dan Brown's best seller.

"Catholics need to really aware of the culture around us and address some of these things," Cole said as people were still cheering on Father Wauck, a professor at the Holy Cross University, in the background.

Theology on Tap is an opportunity to look at different aspects of pop culture with a more ecclesiastical approach.

A week after the "Da Vinci Code" session, it looked at often-confusing topic of papal elections. This talk was brilliantly presented by the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen, author of "Conclave" and "All the Pope's Men."

"The next talk," Cole explains, "will take a more personal look at the individual's faith with the help of Father Thomas Williams, dean of theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum. We don't just need to look at an issue that's out there either, but rather challenge the core of our hearts and our own spiritual lives too."

Cole is taking suggestions on topics and speakers at totroma@hotmail.com.

"What we hope to deliver is good theology in a comfortable atmosphere where you get to meet fun and normal people and to consider what's good for you," she said. "And that's going to take on a different flavor as we go along."

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Catherine Smibert can be reached at catherine@zenit.org.