Global encounter of WYD challenges nationalism, walls

By Carol Glatz
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The joyous harmony of people coming together from so many different nations for World Youth Day stands in sharp contrast to today’s “sad” situation of confrontational nationalist feelings, Pope Francis said.
“It is a sign that young Christians are the leaven for peace in the world,” he said at his general audience Jan. 30 in the Vatican’s Paul VI hall.
The pope dedicated his weekly reflection to his trip to Panama Jan. 23-27 to celebrate World Youth Day.
The hundreds of thousands of young people from five continents who attended the events “formed a great symphony of faces and languages,” he said.
“To see all the flags flying together, fluttering in the hands of young people, happy to encounter each other is a prophetic sign, a sign (that goes) against the tide of today’s sad tendency toward confrontational nationalist sentiments that erect walls, that close themselves off from universality, from the encounter among peoples,” he said.
He praised the enthusiasm and prayerful reverence young people showed at the many events and recalled the dedication he saw on the faces of many who declared themselves open to God’s will and ready serve the Lord.
“As long as there are new generations able to say, ‘Here I am’ to God, the world will have a future,” he said.
Another image that struck him during the trip, he said, was seeing so many mothers and fathers proudly holding up their children as he passed by in the popemobile.
They showed off their children “as if to say, ‘Here is my pride, here is my future,’” he said.
“How much dignity is in this gesture and how eloquent (given) the demographic winter we are living in Europe,” the pope said. “The pride of those families is the children; children are security for the future. A demographic winter without children is hard.”
Young people are called to live the Gospel today “because young people are not ‘the tomorrow,’ not ‘in the meantime,’ but they are the ‘today’ of the church and the world,” he said.
Pope Francis also urged people to pray the Way of the Cross, saying it is “the school of Christian life” where one learns about a love that is “patient, silent, concrete.”
He then said he wanted to share a secret with everyone and pulled out a small box, showing it to the crowd, explaining it was a pocket-sized kit for praying the Way of the Cross.
He said he loved following the Via Crucis “because it is following Jesus with Mary on the way of the cross where he gave his life for us, for our redemption.”
“When I have time,” he said, he takes the prayer kit out and prays, and he urged others to do the same.

Lord’s Prayer is reaching out for father’s loving embrace

By Carol Glatz
VATICAN (CNS) – To pray well, people need to have the heart of a child – a child who feels safe and loved in a father’s tender embrace, Pope Francis said.
If people have become estranged from God, feel lonely, abandoned or have realized their mistakes and are paralyzed by guilt, “we can still find the strength to pray” by starting with the word, “Father,” pronounced with the tenderness of a child, he said.
No matter what problems or feelings a person is experiencing or the mistakes someone has made, God “will not hide his face. He will not close himself up in silence. Say, ‘Father,’ and he will answer,’” the pope said Jan. 16 during his weekly general audience.
After greeting the thousands of faithful gathered in the Paul VI audience hall, the pope continued his series of talks on the Lord’s Prayer, reflecting on the Aramaic term, “Abba,” which Jesus uses to address God, the father.
“It is rare Aramaic expressions do not to get translated into Greek in the New Testament,” which shows how special, important and nuanced “Abba” is in reflecting the radical and new relationship God has with his people, the pope said.
St. Paul, he said, wrote to the Romans that they were now “children of God, for you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’”
Jesus teaches his disciples that “Christians can no longer consider God a tyrant to be feared,” but instead feel a sense of trust growing in their hearts in which they can “speak to the creator, calling him ‘Father,’” the pope said.
The term “Abba,” the pope said, “is something much more intimate and moving that simply calling God, ‘father,’” It is an endearing term, somewhat like “dad,” “daddy” or “papa.”
Even though the Lord’s Prayer has been translated using the more formal term, “Father,” “we are invited to say, ‘papa,’ to have a rapport with God like a child with his or her papa.”
Whatever term used, it is meant to inspire and foster a feeling of love and warmth, he said, like a child would feel in the full embrace of a tender father.
“To pray well, one must have the heart of a child, not a heart that feels adequate” or self-satisfied, he said.
People must imagine this prayer being recited by the prodigal son after he has been embraced by his father, who waited so long, who forgave him and only wants to say how much he missed his child, Pope Francis said.
“Then we discover how those words take on life, take on strength,” he said.
People will then wonder, “’How is it possible that you, God, know only love? That you don’t know hate? Where inside of you is revenge, the demand for justice, the fury over your wounded honor?’ And God will respond, ‘I know only love.’”
The father of the prodigal son also displays the maternal qualities of forgiveness and empathy, the pope said. Mothers especially are the ones who keep loving their children, “even when they would no longer deserve anything.”
“God is looking for you even if you do not seek him,” he said. “God loves you even if you have forgotten him. God sees a glimpse of beauty in you even if you think you have uselessly squandered all of your talents.”
“God is not just a father, he is like a mother who never stops loving” her child.
At the end of the general audience, in preparation for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Jan. 18-25, Pope Francis said, “ecumenism is not something optional.”
The purpose of the week of prayer and encounter, he said, is to foster and strengthen a common witness upholding “true justice and supporting the weakest through concrete, appropriate and effective responses.”

Prayer involves recognizing self as God’s beloved child

By Carol Glatz
VATICAN (CNS) – Christians are not better than other people, but they do know that God is their father and they are called “to reflect a ray of his goodness in this world thirsting for goodness, waiting for good news,” Pope Francis said.
Leading his first general audience of 2019, the pope continued a series of talks he has been giving about the Lord’s Prayer. But he also welcomed artists from CirCuba, the national circus of Cuba, who were performing in Rome over the holidays.
One of the performers even had a very willing pope help him with his act by balancing a spinning ball on his finger. At the end of the audience Jan. 2, the pope praised the performers for their hard work and for the way they lift people’s spirits with their shows.
In his main audience talk, Pope Francis explained how the Gospel of Matthew presents the Lord’s Prayer as part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which also includes the Eight Beatitudes.
Proclaiming the beatitudes, the pope said, Jesus affirms the blessedness and happiness of “a series of categories of people, who – in his time, but also in ours – are not particularly esteemed. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the humble of heart. This is the revolution of the Gospel! Where the Gospel is, there is revolution because the Gospel does not leave things as they were.”
With the beatitudes, he said, Jesus is telling people that those “who carry in their hearts the mystery of a God who revealed his omnipotence in love and pardon” are those who come closest to understanding him.
The core of the Sermon on the Mount, he said, is: “You are sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven,” which is why Jesus then teaches the crowd to pray the Our Father.
Summarizing his talk in Spanish, Pope Francis said, “God does not want to be appeased with long streams of adulation, as the pagans did to win the benevolence of the deity; it is enough to talk to him like a father who knows what we need before we even tell him.”
“The Christian is not someone who tries to be better than others, but one who knows he or she is a sinner,” the pope said. A Christian knows how to stand before God with awe, to call upon him as Father and try to reflect his goodness in the world.
Jesus urges his followers not to be like the hypocrites who pray just to be seen, the pope said. “How often have we seen the scandal of those people who go to church, spend the whole day there or go every day and then they live hating others or speaking badly of others – this is a scandal. It would be better not to go to church.”
“If you go to church, live like a child (of God) and like a brother or sister” to others, Pope Francis said.
In teaching the Our Father, Jesus was helping his followers learn the essence of prayer and the importance of not thinking that using more words makes for a better prayer, he said. “The pagans thought that by speaking, speaking, speaking, they were praying.”
Praying isn’t like being “a parrot,” who repeats an endless stream of words, the pope said. “No, praying comes from the heart, from inside.”
“It even could be a silent prayer,” he said. “Basically, it is enough to put yourself under God’s gaze, recognize his fatherly love – and that’s enough to be heard.”
“How beautiful it is to think that our God does not need sacrifices to win his favor. He needs nothing,” the pope said. “He asks only that we keep open a channel of communication with him to discover continually that we are his beloved children.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for things from God in prayer

By Carol Glatz
VATICAN (CNS) – No one should be afraid to turn to God with prayer, especially in times of great doubt, suffering and need, Pope Francis said.
Jesus does not want people to become numb to life’s problems and “extinguish” those things that make them human when they pray, the pope said Dec. 12 during his weekly general audience in the Paul VI audience hall.
“He does not want us to smother our questions and requests, learning to put up with everything. Instead, he wants every pain, every apprehension to rise up to heaven and become a dialogue” with God, the father, he said.
Continuing a new series of audience talks on the Our Father, the pope reflected on the simplicity of the prayer and the way it addresses God with intimate familiarity.
With this prayer, Jesus shows an “audacious” way to address God immediately as “our Father” without any pomp and “preambles,” the pope said.
“He doesn’t say to turn to God calling him ‘O, the All-Powerful’ or ‘O, the One on high,’ or ‘O, You who are so far from us and I am the wretched one ….’”  
“No. He doesn’t say that, but simply (uses) the word, ‘Father,’ with great simplicity, like children who turn to their daddy. This word, ‘Father,’ expresses intimacy, filial trust,” he said.
The prayer invites people to pray in a way that “lets all the barriers of subjection and fear fall away,” he added.
While the Our Father is rooted in “the concrete reality” of every human being, prayer, in essence, begins with life itself.
“Our first prayer, in a certain way, was the first wail that came with our first breath”, and it signals every human being’s destiny: “our continual hunger, our continual thirst, our constant search for happiness.”
Prayer is found wherever there is a deep hunger, longing, struggle and the question, “why?” Pope Francis said.
“Jesus does not want to extinguish (what is) human, he does not want to anesthetize” the person in prayer, he said. Jesus understands that having faith is being able to “cry out.”
“We all should be like Bartimaeus in the Gospel,” he said. This blind man in Jericho kept crying out to the Lord for help even though everyone around him told him to be quiet and not bother Jesus, who – they felt – ought not be disturbed because he was so busy.
Bartimaeus did not listen and only cried out louder “with holy insistence,” the pope said. Jesus listened to his plea and told him his faith is what saved him.
The pope said this shows how the cry for healing is an essential part of salvation, because it shows the person has faith and hope and is “free from the desperation of those who do not believe there is a way out of so many unbearable situations.”
“We can tell him everything, even those things in our life that are distorted and beyond comprehension. He promised us that he would always be with us,” he said.
When greeting visitors at the end of the audience, the pope greeted all those from Mexico and Latin America, noting that Dec. 12 marked the feast “of our patroness,” Our Lady of Guadalupe. He asked that she help people surrender themselves to God’s love and to place all of their hope in him.
Before the audience, the pope blew out a few candles on a birthday cake a visitor had prepared for him. The pope will celebrate his 82nd birthday Dec. 17.
Greeting visitors at the end of the audience, the pope met with a delegation from Panama, representing the upcoming World Youth Day events in January, and he greeted a delegation of Austrian members of parliament who were marking the 200th anniversary of the song “Silent Night,” whose melody was composed by an Austrian school teacher.
The pope said that “with its profound simplicity, this song helps us understand the event of that holy night. Jesus, the savior, born in Bethlehem, reveals to us the love of God the father.”

From beach to basilica: ‘Sand Nativity’ brings unique style to Vatican

By Junno Arocho Esteves
VATICAN (CNS) – From the beach town of New Smyrna, Florida, just a stone’s throw away from Daytona Beach, Rich Varano never imagined his unique talent of sculpting sand would take him to the heart of Christianity.
Varano is the artistic director of the “Sand Nativity,” a massive 52-foot-wide sculpture made of sand imported from Jesolo, an Italian seaside resort town roughly 40 miles north of Venice. It will be the centerpiece of the Vatican’s annual Nativity scene on display in St. Peter’s Square.
“What does it mean for me to be here? I think, quite understandably, it’s the greatest honor there is” and certainly the biggest client he’s ever had, Varano told Catholic News Service Nov. 21.

A worker sculpts an angel on a Nativity scene made entirely of sand in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Nov. 26. The 52-foot wide sculpture is made of sand from Jesolo, an Italian seaside town near Venice. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The American artist and three other sculptors were charged with creating the intricate sculpture, which, along with a 42-foot-tall red spruce tree donated by the Diocese of Concordia-Pordenone in the northern Italian region of Veneto, was to be unveiled at the Vatican’s annual tree lighting ceremony Dec. 7.
Bas-relief sand sculptures, like the one to be featured in St. Peter’s Square, are a tradition in Jesolo, which, since 1998, has been the home of an annual sand sculpture festival. Varano is an accomplished sand sculptor with over 40 years’ experience and has organized various international sand sculpture festivals, including the annual event in Jesolo.
Yet, his artistic journey in sand sculpting began many years before his artistry would hit the sands of the Venetian resort town and, subsequently, the cobblestone square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“I’ve been sculpting sand since I was 6 years old,” Varano told CNS. “My father was an amateur and the beach where I grew up had good sand.”
Varano began as an amateur, too, “until I discovered that people would pay for it in my late 20s. And within a year, sand sculpting was the only thing I’ve been doing professionally ever since.”
The process of creating the sculptures, however, is more than just molding and shaping sand. Unlike the sand castles vacationers often see disintegrate from a single touch or the occasional passing wave, sand sculptures are made durable enough to even withstand light rain through a process of compression.
The sand, which was delivered from Jesolo to St. Peter’s Square in massive trucks, is mixed with water and compressed into layers of blocks stacked on top of one another.
Varano said that this process allows for the sculpture to last “indefinitely as long as it wants to be left on display.” The “Sand Nativity” scene and tree will remain in St. Peter’s Square until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord Jan. 13.
“It’s like a tiered cake going upward and when you get to the top, you’re finished,” Varano told CNS. “Then it can be sculpted immediately; it’s suitable to carve right away.”
Unlike sculpting harder materials like marble, which artists can work on at any given part, sand sculpting begins from the top. The artists must ensure their artwork is finished before continuing downward.
“You don’t carve something below first because if you try to go above, it affects what’s below. So, it’s a process, like a scanning, from the top down to finish.”
Another important aspect, he added, is the composition of the sand, which needs to hold enough moisture to allow it to be sculpted and subsequently “stay in its shape and dry like a mud pie in the sun.”
“Really, the only difference that separates us as professionals and people that play on the beach doing it is that we understand the basics of why sand sticks or, more importantly, why it doesn’t stick,” Varano explained.
Of the 20 artists he works with creating sand sculptures at the annual Jesolo Sand Festival, Varano selected three of his top sculptors not just for their talent, but also “for their ability to work well together, (which) is kind of critical.”
“This piece is over 700 tons but, with 15 days, it still needs to be done in a way that everyone can work productively and stay out of each other’s way and help each other,” he said. “So, this team is very well versed in that; they’re used to working with each other, not just here in Italy, but around the world. So, it’s a good fit.”
Varano and his team have created sand Nativity scenes for the past 17 years in Jesolo, which allowed them to flesh out different more elaborate pieces that told various stories, such as “a day in the life in Bethlehem” and ending with the “crescendo piece” of Christ’s birth.
However, the sand art piece in St. Peter’s Square will feature the “basic, iconic and traditional scene” complete with “the angel with Jesus, Joseph and Mary and then the three kings on one side, the (shepherd) and the sheep on the other side and, of course, the donkey and the ox.”
Nevertheless, for Varano, the intricate planning and subsequent labor that goes into creating one of the most unique art pieces to feature in St. Peter’s Square is worth the effort.
“A lot of expense goes (into) it to bring joy to people. To be able to do the kind of work that we do that is joyful for us and brings joy to others, it can’t be beat,” Varano told CNS. “And to do it in a place like this, there really aren’t words to convey how special it is.”

(Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju)

Defend church from those who seek to destroy it

By Junno Arocho Esteves
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – As the Synod of Bishops finished its work, Pope Francis called on all Catholics to defend the church from those who are influenced by the “great accuser” seeking to destroy it.
After thanking the synod members, observers and experts following the vote on the final document Oct. 27, the pope said that although church members are sinful, “our mother (the church) is holy,” but “because of our sins, the great accuser always takes advantage.”
While in some parts of the world, Christians suffer persecution because of their faith in Jesus, there is “another type of persecution – continuous accusations – in order to dirty the church. The church cannot be dirtied. The children, yes, we are all dirty, but not the mother. Therefore, this is the time to defend the mother,” he said.
“It is a difficult moment,” he continued, “because through us, the great accuser wants to attack the mother. And no one touches the mother!”
Before concluding the synod’s final meeting, Iraqi Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako of Bagdad, the Chaldean Catholic patriarch and synod president-delegate, said the synod “was a gift for us and for the whole church.”
Cardinal Sako also appealed to the pope, the synod members and young people to not forget about the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
“If the Middle East is emptied of Christians, Christianity will be left without its roots,” he said. “We need your humanitarian and spiritual support as well as your solidarity, friendship and closeness until the storm passes.”
The patriarch also reiterated the support of the world’s bishops for Pope Francis. Citing an Arab saying, Cardinal Sako told the pope that “the fruitful tree is struck with stones.”
“Go forward with courage and trust,” he told the pope. “The barque of Peter is not like other ships. The barque of Peter, despite the waves, remains firm because Jesus is inside, and he will never leave it.”
Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops, also expressed the assembly’s “filial affection and profound adherence to your Petrine ministry.”
Addressing the young people who served as synod observers, Cardinal Baldisseri thanked them for “their presence, their contributions, their interventions and their suggestions. They have show us the freshness of their youth, their generosity, imagination and resourcefulness.”
In his off-the-cuff remarks, Pope Francis also thanked the young men and women at the synod “who brought their music here to us in the hall.”
“Music is the diplomatic word for uproar,” he said to laughter and applause.
The synod, he said, “is not a parliament” but rather “a protected space for the Holy Spirit to act.”
The fruit of the synod, he added, is not just a final document for Catholics around the world, but a work of the Spirit that must first “do something in us, it must work in us.”
“We are the recipients of the (final) document. It is primarily for us. Yes, it will help many others, but we are the first recipients. The Holy Spirit did this among us. Do not forget this, please,” Pope Francis said.
“It is the Holy Spirit who gave us this document, for all us including myself, to reflect on what he wants to tell us.”