Sunday, 22 June 2014

Pope Francis denounces the Mafia

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone who blesses with the Mafia is likely to end up dead – or, at least, considerably the worse for wear.”
Sadly, the misquoted opening line of Pride and Prejudice is frighteningly true. During my time in Rome, I knew an Italian accountant whose English was as bad as my Italian. We saw each other almost daily, exchanging our limited greetings and pleasantries. Our conversation never progressed beyond one or two sentences. My impression, however, was of a friendly man who knew his business and would probably not have suffered fools lightly. To my surprise, I discovered that he was influential in the Mafia, or, to be precise, the Camorra, since he came from Naples.

Working in Vatican Radio and being a keen walker, I also daily encountered street vendors as they sold their fake Gucci handbags along the banks of the River Tiber. Tourists thought they were buying a bargain, probably knew that the handbags were probably not genuine, but did notice the extent of their shoddy workmanship. An Indian Jesuit who had some contact with some of the Bangladeshi vendors explained. “They come over to Italy and look for accommodation. They are directed to a landlord who offers them room in his property. The men sleep in bunk beds, perhaps as many as ten to a room. They take it in turns to stay behind for the day in order to cook for their companions. The landlord charges exorbitant rents, but the men have no choice because they are often illegal immigrants. In order to have even a small space on the roadside where they can spread a sheet and display their wares, up to forty percent of their income is paid as protection money to the Mafia. If they do not pay, they have no way of earning a living, have little or nothing for their own survival and earn nothing to send back to Bangladesh for their families. As it is, many cannot afford to pay rent to the landlords and end up sleeping, homeless, under a bridge along the Tiber. They dare not tell their families back home that they are destitute. Some of the police are also in the pay of the Mafia.”

Pope Francis recently visited the town of Castrovillari in southern Italy and denounced the Mafia in strong terms. His words were picked up and broadcast by the world’s media. The general feeling was that the Pope was either extremely brave or extremely foolhardy. Few seemed to doubt that he had put his life on the line. Before his journey to the town where a three-year-old boy was killed in the crossfire between rival gangs of mafiosi, he had declared, “At my age, what have I to lose?”

Those who stand up to Mafia violence and extortion become victims. In March, a kindly parish priest whose Bishop described him as a "discreet martyr of charity", was murdered with an iron bar for refusing to pay extortion money. The body of Fr Lazzaro Longobardi was discovered alongside the murder weapon, presumably as a warning to those who might also think of not paying the “pizzo”, as the Mafia call their “tax”.

The trouble is that mobsters who call themselves Catholics, possibly object to having a Pope tell them that they are involved in “adoration of evil and contempt for the common good.” They might also dislike being informed that “Those who in their lives have taken this evil road, this road of evil, such as the mobsters, they are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.” During his recent visit to the Holy Land, Francis did not speak so bluntly to the members of Hamas and Hezbollah. Perhaps, as a result of his experience with Buenos Aires gangsters, he felt that he could speak as someone for whom the Mafia have at least some respect.

More than 200,000 people attended the Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in the small Calabrian town of Sibari. Although his words received applause from the majority, there is no doubt that some of the crowd were sufficiently angered so as to consider some form of retaliation. Only time will tell whether or not the courageous stance taken by the Pope will have earned their respect and, perhaps, a change of heart.

The Mafia is particularly associated with Italy, but because of the massive Italian diaspora, they are also represented within Italian communities around the world. An American commented, “My brother works in the construction industry in New York. If he does not pay protection money to the Mafia, that is the end of his business and, possibly, his life.”

Pope Francis is the son of Italian migrants to Argentina. In his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was no stranger to gangs and to the violence and extortion which he denounced whenever he could. Has his past experience with mobsters who call themselves Catholics shown him how far he can go in standing up to their evil? Is he just someone who is so appalled by gratuitous brutality that he is completely forgetful of his own safety in his desire to protect others? The same Jesuit who spoke of the Bangladeshi vendors in Rome, also commented that, “Our Jesuit training is such that, if necessary, we can stand alone.” Certainly, Pope Francis has shown himself to be “a man for others” of the calibre of whom St Ignatius of Loyola would feel justifiably proud.

There is growing rejection of the mafiosi in some parts of Italy. Even in Sicily, some individuals take their lives in their hands and refuse their demands. What has been needed has been somebody “at the top” to speak out on behalf of the many who are often both powerless and voiceless.

We have just witnessed yet another example of the exemplary leadership of Pope Francis. In denouncing the Mafia, he has done something that many people across the world and the years have longed to do, but have not felt sufficiently brave. A Catholic group called Libera, founded by a priest by the name of Don Luigi Ciotti, is one of many anti-mafia organisations active in Italy. Yet real effectiveness in confronting such a powerful and evil an organisation as the Mafia, requires an extraordinarily inspirational style of leadership; one which unites these small, courageous groups in a global renunciation of their power and violence.

In March 2014, Pope Francis met with a group of victims of Mafia violence. At the time, he declared of the Mafia, “This life you have now, it will not give you pleasure, it will not give you joy, it will not give you happiness. The power, the money you have now from so many dirty deals, from so many Mafia crimes, blood-stained money, blood-stained power – you will not be able to take that with you to the other life.”

“There is still time not to end up in hell, which awaits you if you continue on this road,” Pope Francis said. “You had a papa and a mamma. Think of them, weep a little and convert.”

Friday, 20 June 2014

When will humanity appreciate creation’s loveliness – in peace?

Fact is sometimes stranger than fiction. A recent episode of Gardeners’ Question Time on Radio 4 described the way in which soldiers in the trenches during the First World War frequently passed their time by growing flowers and vegetables. Whilst soldiers received medals for bravery, they were also awarded medals for their allotments. The gardening provided the embattled combatants with a source of fresh vegetables and a distraction from the horrors which surrounded them. Seeds sent from home ensured a continuing supply to satisfy the constant demand for their life-giving greenery. Competitions for the best home-grown produce guaranteed its quality. Apparently one long trench on the edge of no-man’s land was also known for its excellent celery. How many of the men who went “over the top” carefully watered their plants before they left for a fight from which many never returned? How often did a withering stick of celery indicate that the chaos of no-man’s land disguised the remains of someone for whom a vegetable had been a symbol of a vanished normality?

Still amidst the trenches of WWI, in May 1915, Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae, an army doctor, prepared the battlefield burial service for his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, an artillery officer killed at Ypres. McCrae commented, not on the manner of his friend’s death, but on the scarlet poppies which grew everywhere, defying the violence and bloodshed. Amidst the terrible scenes which McCrae had witnessed, he had also noticed the flowers and the bird song. In the squalor, suffering and carnage of the trenches, it took a special kind of insight to see the loveliness of a world beyond. As he marked a tragic loss of life, McCrae gave us a poem which has become iconic as we remember the sacrifices of the First World War.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”

Less than three years later, poppies also marked McCrae’s grave. In fact he died almost seven months to the day after my great-uncle, Austin Owens, and is buried in the same cemetery in Wimereux. Both now receive the care and attention of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

John Bradburne was an officer with the 9th Gurkha Rifles who was subsequently murdered by guerrillas in Zimbabwe in 1979. During WWII, he fought in Malaya and Singapore.  In Burma, as a member of a special force called the Chindits, he was specially trained to operate deep behind Japanese lines. His courage earned him the Military Cross...but he was also remembered for his awareness of every flower, insect and bird in the field of battle. In Southern Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then known, and working with the leprosy patients for whom he was killed, Bradburne wrote more than two thousand poems, many of them about the beauties of the natural world around him.
“Nature is wonderful, worthy of praise –
stars in the night and sun in the days,
snows on the mountains, streams in the vales,
birds of the forests and seafaring whales,
horses and elephants, fishes and snails...”

We are still learning of the monumental preparations made for the apparently inevitable invasion of Britain during the Second World War. The strength of the German army appeared ready to overwhelm Britain’s rapidly diminishing resources. Men and women were secretly enlisted to create a partisan force which would hopefully delay an invasion for at least two weeks. Vowed to silence, they dug trenches and positioned booby-traps, knowing that, should the German occupation occur, their life expectancy was very limited. In the midst of life, should the need arise, they prepared to lay down their own lives for the survival of others. Such was the secrecy with which they worked that their heroic efforts are only being revealed 70 years later. Yet, some years ago, surrounded by the beauties of the Surrey countryside and the silence of a summer afternoon, as the sound of horses passed by on the nearby road, it seemed incredible that this was also a hidden training location for these valiant members of our own Resistance. What stories might the trees have told had they been able to speak?

Elsewhere, on the banks of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, a hexagonal pillbox is today smothered with dandelions, rosebay willow herb, campion and meadowsweet. There, too, soldiers were concealed, ready and waiting lest their guns must find and larger victims than the occasional rabbit or pheasant.

During my recent visit to the Holy Land, our group of four Catholic journalists visited the ruins of Bethsaida, a town whose name is so familiar to Christianity. As we trod the ancient road which, surely, was well-known to Jesus and his disciples, our guide pointed out a flowering bush: “This was possibly the type of thorn used for the crown of thorns”, he explained as he indicated the inch-long protruding spines.

The loveliness of creation held other stories, some ancient and others, more recent. Those same hills where Jesus once walked were pitted with Syrian bunkers from which snipers overlooked the tranquil beauty of the Sea of Galilee. Before Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights in 1967, the beautiful hills were dotted with such deadly emplacements. One concrete bunker in particular resembled the ideal hide for any birdwatcher. Its uninterrupted view of the surrounding countryside is, today, an ornithologist’s dream come true. Yet, when it was built, a good sniper with a high quality lens could apparently see into houses at the edge of the lake. Tangles of grasses and a profusion of colourful wild flowers could not totally hide a barbed wire fence with its warning of undetected mines. In Belgium, too, ordnance from the First World War is still being found and defused almost 100 years after the war ended.

The natural world is able to overcome many of the worst effects of humanity’s attempts at apparent self-destruction. Chernobyl will be off-limits to most people for countless years to come. Yet naturalists report a flourishing wildlife, which thrives in spite of the high levels of radiation.

On 1 July, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, approximately 15,000 British troops died in what is still a world record for a one-day engagement. During a period of six months, British and French troops advanced about 8 miles from their original positions. There were an estimated 420,000 British casualties, including my great-uncle and many of his Liverpool Pals Battalion. There were a further 200,000 French, and approximately 500,000 German, casualties. Today, the peacefulness of the multinational war cemeteries hides the personal trauma of the individuals and families concerned. Flowers have replaced the craters made by exploding shells and bombs.

Yet the world seems to have learned little. Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Nigeria, Sudan and the Central African Republic are only some of the places where people currently confront each other in anger. Millions search for peace, but at a price. For some, it means peace on their terms and the word become synonymous with oppression, rather than freedom. People do not have to die in order for poppies to grow and look beautiful. When so many people long for peace, why is it so difficult to achieve? When will humanity appreciate creation’s loveliness – in peace?

Monday, 9 June 2014

Together in peace

The visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land would only ever make sense in retrospect. When he, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the Palestinian leader, President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s President Shimon Peres prayed together in the Vatican Gardens, it was proof positive that “Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims... can express his or her desire for peace for the Holy Land and for all who dwell there.” Praying in Hebrew, English, Italian and Arabic, the representatives of millions of men, women and children expressed “the desire of their respective peoples to invoke to God the common longing for peace”.

On his arrival in Rome, President Peres declared, “I have come to the Vatican from the State of Israel, together with the representatives of the main monotheistic religions in Israel for an extraordinary event for peace.” He expressed the thoughts of countless people across the world when he continued, ““I hope that this event will contribute to advancing peace between the parties and throughout the entire world.”

Pope Francis is realistic. Bringing together the two Presidents is unlikely to bring about instantaneous peace between Israeli and Palestinian. Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Franciscan Order in the Middle East, organized the historic joint prayer event in the Vatican Gardens. He commented, “The Pope wants to look beyond, upwards. Not everything is decided by politics.”

The prayer session took place in the quiet and neutral space of the Vatican Gardens. Amongst the representatives of Judaism and Islam, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim Professor Omar Abboud were also present. These two friends of Francis’ from Buenos Aires also accompanied him on his trip to the Middle East, Divided into sections for each faith, Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders read texts relating to peace from the Bible, the New Testament and the Koran.

Addressing people of all faiths and none, the Pope declared, “Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare.  It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict...” In his own message, Peres departed from his prepared text to say, “I was young. Now I am old. I experienced war. I tasted peace. Never will I forget the bereaved families — parents and children — who paid the cost of war. And all my life I shall never stop to act for peace, for generations to come.” For his part, Abbas prayed, "O Lord, bring comprehensive and just peace to our country and region so that our people and the peoples of the Middle East and the whole world would enjoy the fruit of peace, stability and coexistence."

The three leaders then jointly planted an olive tree as a sign of their commitment to peace.

When Pope Francis recently travelled to the Holy Land, he knew that he walked a spiritual and political tightrope between conflicting sensibilities. His was no pleasure trip. Every word was weighed in advance. Every syllable and gesture could have consequences which could further or disrupt any movement towards peace and reconciliation. Commentators across the world debated the effect of his three-day visit to the part of the world so sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and yet so torn by differences of outlook and understanding. Inevitably, his words and actions pleased some and irritated others.

High security surrounded his time in Israel. There were no walkabouts as in Jordan. The Pope’s journeys between venues were not surrounded by large and enthusiastic crowds as in Bethlehem. It is, perhaps, a backhanded compliment that one Israeli official wryly commented as the papal entourage left Israel, "I suppose we must count his visit as a success because he managed to irritate and to please both the Palestinians and the Israelis." By this, he referred to Francis’ unscheduled stop at the controversial security wall which divides the West Bank from Israel. Then, hours later, he visited the memorial for those Israelis who had been killed by Palestinian attacks. His words at the Holocaust Memorial of Yad Vashem must rank as some of the most sensitive and personal ever to have been uttered by a Pope. Nobody could have remained unmoved by the depth and urgency of his plea, "Never again, Lord, never again!"

On landing in Israel, Francis knew that he would meet, not only President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but also Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Their encounters would hold momentous significance for the future of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The meeting between Francis and Bartholomew in Jerusalem recalled the fiftieth anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenogorus. After the subsequent half-century of discussion and rapprochement, this get-together between Rome and Constantinople in the persons of Francis and Bartholomew was always to be highly significant. It turned out to have been more important than anybody could have realised. At a press conference a few hours later, Father Federico Lombardi SJ declared that, “It was a wonderful meeting that nobody wanted to end”. In fact, it over-ran by an hour.

In the days following that engagement, hopes have been expressed by the Pope and the Patriarch that 2025 will see another unique event: a joint and truly Ecumenical Council between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The proposed Third Council of Nicaea will mark 1700 years since the First Council in 325. One outcome of the First Council was the Nicene Creed, described as "the earliest dogmatic statement of Christian orthodoxy”. The Second Council of Nicaea differentiated between the worship and the veneration of holy images, condemning the first and supporting the second. Perhaps a Third Council might lead to the reunification of Catholic and Orthodox?

The Pope’s suggestion for such a high-level prayer meeting between a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim was groundbreaking. Francis made it even more historic by subsequently proposing to Patriarch Bartholomew that he also join them in the Vatican. The announcement that it would take place on the feast of Pentecost could scarcely have been more favourable. Whereas Christians celebrate the feast this year on 8 June, Judaism celebrated the same feast (Shavuot) on 4 and 5 June. For Christians, Pentecost marks the birth of the Church with the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles. The Jewish feast recalls the day that God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, in other words, the formal foundation of Judaism.

It speaks volumes about the credibility of Pope Francis that, in bringing together Peres and Abbas, he prayed with two men who long for peace but whose people are so often embroiled in violent conflict. There is no easy solution to the troubles of the Middle East. It is perhaps telling that John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, remarked, “This Pope knows he probably won’t be able to make peace. But preventing war – that he can do.”

 “An epidemic of peace” is unlikely to break out in the Middle East. Yet the joint time for prayer in the Vatican Gardens showed that it is entirely possible to come together and to talk about peace. The presence of Patriarch Bartholomew also demonstrated that the rift of many centuries between East and West can be healed. Mutually-inflicted wounds do not need to be picked at until they fester. The world CAN unite itself with the prayer of Pope Francis:  "Keep alive within us the flame of hope, so that with patience and perseverance we may opt for dialogue and reconciliation.  In this way may peace triumph at last, and may the words 'division', 'hatred' and 'war' be banished from the heart of every man and woman."

Willpower and the determination to work for peace will see that prayer granted.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Peace begins with the children

“We believe that in order to nurture peace and understanding, we must start very young. We must start with the children.” Amanda Weiss, Director of the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, is very clear about her responsibilities. “We bring the children together to the Museum and give them the opportunity to talk about their shared heritage in Abraham. Unlike some of their parents, they do not see whether their friends are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. All they see is other children and an opportunity for fun. In that way they do not realise that, from their earliest days in school, they are actually listening to each other, sharing and creating a foundation for the future.”

Laughing and excited, a group of about fifty small children of primary school age charged recklessly down a flight of stone steps, happily ignoring adult warnings to take care. Some of the boys wore the skullcap or yarmulke, which identified them as Jews. Of those, a proportion also had the side locks or payot of the Orthodox Jews. As for the others, their religious origins were not immediately identifiable.

As the wriggling horde of young visitors reached the bottom of the staircase, teachers and museum staff divided them into manageable groups. A few minutes later, a little boy of about six gloried in his shining scarlet cloak with its fur trimming. As he adjusted his impossibly high crown, he tried to look regal and commanding but failed. Clustered around the throne, his “subjects” giggled to see their new king and teased him unmercifully. Nearby, wearing white hoods decorated with floppy ears, other children attempted, equally unsuccessfully, to be sheep. History was about to come alive.

“In this museum, we arranged the exhibits chronologically rather than according to their place of origin”, Amanda commented. “This gives us the opportunity to show what was happening at any one time in this part of the world which is so sacred to so many people.” She continued, “The Bible is our history book. The Bible is ours and by ‘ours’, I mean all of the monotheistic faiths, from all directions and all streams - and there are so many that I cannot even count all of them. Even in Judaism, there are numerous streams. We are called the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem. We are about the journey of Abraham, the archaeological and historical basis which the lands of the Bible give us.”

Amanda Weiss is the daughter of Elie and Batya Borowksy, the two founders of the Museum. She described the moment when her mother’s inspiration led to its founding in Jerusalem in 1992. Elie, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, planned to house his collection of Near-Eastern antiquities in Toronto. Batya looked at (unknown to her at the time) her future husband. “If your collection is, as you say, the most important collection for the Jewish people and for the Judaeo-Christian heritage, for understanding from where we came and why we are here today, then it belongs here and no place else other than Jerusalem. A place for all faiths to visit must be in Jerusalem.” Batya won the day. The Bible Lands Museum was built in Jerusalem, rather than in Toronto. Today, as its website declares, it “houses one of the world’s most important collections of ancient Near Eastern artefacts, illustrating the world of the Hittites, the Phoenicians, the civilizations of Greece and Rome and the importance of Canaan, Judea and Israel at the cross-roads of the ancient world.”

Amanda continued speaking. “Biblical quotes throughout the Museum help us to orientate ourselves to our history, time and place. We do not just look at the Old Testament. We look at Christianity as well and Coptic Egypt... The intention behind creating this institution was so that it would be a universal institution for people of all faiths to come and to understand the history of the lands of the Bible because the Bible is our history.”

The noisy group of children enjoying their Museum visit was not unusual. “What kept me here was the potential, the power and the capacity of this museum to impact the lives of the people around us. We have educational programming for children from kindergarten through to adult. We have a whole Arab education department, run in Arabic by Arab staff because this is our shared, common heritage. It is not a Jewish story. It is not a Catholic story. It is not a Protestant story and it is not a Muslim story. It is the story of the development of civilisation from a biblical perspective and from a monotheistic vision.”

“We have one amazing project. It has been running for seventeen years non-stop and is called The Image of Abraham. We bring together Arab and Jewish children, their teachers and, in the end, their parents join in too, to learn about our shared common heritage of the journey of Abraham. They create an art project together so that they can take back into their schools something large which they all worked on together as a group project. Every one of these schools gets a project, which they can then put on display to show what they have done together. It is in Arabic in the Arab schools and Hebrew in the Jewish schools. It is a wonderful source for teaching, learning and for understanding.”

How does Amanda, as Director of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem see, not only the role of the Museum, but also her place within it? “It is a passion, but it is also a mission for all of us who work here,” she said. That much was completely obvious. Everything about the Museum spoke of love. Across the world, any Museum worth its salt goes to extraordinary lengths to reach out to its visitors. These days, as anybody would know who has wandered around museums in Britain and elsewhere, children are engaged in interactive events from the moment they hurtle through its entrance. A huge amount of time and effort goes into providing little ones with colourful displays which require buttons to be pushed, handles to be tugged, lids to be lifted and scents to be smelled.

Museums are meant to be exciting places for people of every shape and size. They are intended to provoke thoughts and to ask questions. It is important to know and understand the past in order to make sense of the present. It is difficult, if not impossible, to work towards a hope-filled tomorrow if today is filled with misunderstanding, division and prejudice.

An overriding memory on leaving the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, is the impression of sunshine that has little to do with its architecture and lighting. Some of the parents of the children clustered so happily on the Museum floor would normally have little positive interaction. However, just as in Britain children needing parental help with homework inspired an awareness of, for example, climate change so too, the young visitors to the Bible Lands Museum are building their own tomorrow. They see no reason why tomorrow should not be filled with peace, understanding - and fun! If they can bring their parents to see the value of listening to those of a different background, then it is all the better.