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Irish Gay Marriage Vote ‘A Defeat For Humanity,’ Vatican Says

By Alvise Armellini, dpa (TNS)

VATICAN CITY — Last week’s referendum legalizing gay marriage in Ireland “is not only a defeat for Christian principles, but also a bit of a defeat for humanity,” according to a top Vatican official.

Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin — who is the Vatican’s second-in-command after Pope Francis — made the comments late on Tuesday at an awards ceremony. Vatican Radio published them the next day.

“These results make me very sad. Of course, as the archbishop of Dublin has said, the Church must take into consideration this reality, but in the sense that, in my opinion, it must redouble its commitment and make an effort to evangelize,” Parolin also said.

Ireland, a traditionally Catholic country where homosexual acts were illegal until 1993, conducted a public vote Friday on gay marriage in which the “yes” camp won 62.1 percent to 37.9 percent. The results emboldened gay rights calls elsewhere in Europe.

“We sincerely regret that some representatives of the Catholic Church fail to acknowledge that equality for LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) people does not go against Christian values at all,” Evelyne Paradis, executive director of ILGA-Europe, said.

“Throughout the (Irish) campaign, several practicing Catholics have come out in support of marriage equality saying that being a Christian is about loving all equally,” said Paridis, whose organizations campaigns for gay rights in Europe.

The Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said Monday that the Catholic Church was not going to issue any “anathema” — the harshest language it can use in relation to excommunication — but had to “pick up the challenge” posed by the Irish vote.

On Wednesday, the head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, said the church was not opposed to recognizing gay people’s “individual rights,” but said their unions could not be given rights similar to those enjoyed by married couples.

Criticizing a draft law in the Rome parliament, Bagnasco said: “Leaving terminology aside, it de facto equalizes the legal status of homosexual unions to families based on the union between a man and a woman.”

The Catholic Church has always seen homosexuality as a sin, and there is no suggestion its stance may change.

When Pope Francis was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, he opposed gay marriage laws that Argentina introduced in 2010. He said they represented “a real and serious anthropological step back.”

However, the pontiff set a new, less confrontational tone on the issue with a famous 2013 statement. He said: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”

Francis has not made any direct comments on the Irish referendum. On Wednesday, he reiterated the importance of marriage for the Catholic Church, addressing engaged couples in his weekly audience in St Peter’s Square.

“The alliance of love between a man and a woman is an alliance for life. It cannot be improvised, it is not something you do from one day to the next,” he said.

Photo: C. via Flickr

Pope Wants Free Debate During Vatican Summit On Family

By Alvise Armellini, dpa

VATICAN CITY — Prelates taking part in a summit on how Catholic Church teachings could be adapted to modern lifestyles should not be afraid to speak their minds, Pope Francis said Monday.
Until Oct. 19, 191 bishops, cardinals and other church leaders are taking part in a meeting known as a synod. It is to discuss family-related issues such as marriage, divorce, homosexuality, single parenthood, contraceptives and premarital sex.
“A basic, general condition is this: Speak clearly,'” Francis said in introductory remarks to the synod, where debate began Monday after a Mass in St Peter’s Basilica Sunday. “Nobody should say, ‘I can’t say this. They will think this or that of me.'”
Synod participants should “speak with parrhesia,” the pontiff said, using an ancient Greek-derived term for free speech, but also “listen with humility” and “welcome with an open heart” what is said by others.
The run-up to the Vatican meeting was dominated by conservative and progressive cardinals sparring bitterly over whether a ban on remarried divorcees taking communion should be softened, for example, by allowing them into the rite after a period of penance.
Another proposal under discussion is to streamline church procedures for the annulment of marriages, a cumbersome and expensive alternative to divorce that allows Catholics to marry again without breaking with doctrine.
Francis is usually associated with church progressives because he has shown himself willing to embrace non-orthodox lifestyles. Last month, for instance, he married a woman who had a daughter out of wedlock.
In an interview published Sunday by the Argentine newspaper La Nacion, Francis said he enjoys debating with bishops who are “very conservative, but intellectually sharp” and wants all sides to contribute to the synod.
However, he warned that at the end of the exercise, he will have the last word.
“Freedom is always very important, but governing the church is another matter,” he said. “That is in my hands after the necessary consultations.”
Francis said he was worried in particular about the decline in marriages among younger generations.
“A lot of young people prefer to live together without marrying,” he was quoted as saying. “What should the church do? Expel them? Or rather, get close to them, embrace them and try to bring the word of God to them? I support the latter position.”
In synod discussions Monday, French Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois said, “The pastoral mission of the Church … is not to make life more difficult for the children of God but to help them in their search for truth in their lives.”
The head of the European confederation of bishops, Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo, also called for compassion, noting, “The church must have recourse to the medicine of mercy rather than to oppose error with the weapons of rigidity.”
Bishops and cardinals were expected to produce a document at the end of this month’s discussions. It will serve as the base for a second synod in a year’s time, which would be expected to submit reform proposals for the pope’s final approval.

AFP Photo/

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New Vatican Bank Chief Vows Focus On ‘Catholic, Ethical Investments’

By Alvise Armellini

VATICAN CITY — The newly appointed head of the Vatican’s bank, the Institute for Religious Works, pledged on Wednesday to focus on “Catholic, ethical investments,” as part of plans to clean up the scandal-plagued institution.

Over the decades, the Vatican bank has been involved in a long list of financial scandals, allegedly offering safe haven to the funds of Italian mobsters, politicians and entrepreneurs, going beyond its prime remit of assisting worldwide church operations.

“Catholic, ethical investment will drive how we will be managing assets on behalf of our clients,” French financier Jean-Baptiste de Franssu, the new bank president, said in his inaugural press conference.

He said the mission of the bank, which holds around $8.16 billion of customer assets, was “to help the Holy Father and the [Catholic] Church to increase their work towards the poor and towards the propagation of the faith.”

As part of efforts to prevent fresh scandal, the Vatican said the bank would be “gradually” stripped of asset management duties. De Franssu said a new entity would take over those roles on behalf of the entire Vatican.

“If I were to give you a date, I will say it will happen in the next 24 months,” he said.

With the reforms, the Vatican bank was expected to be downsized significantly, turning it into a sort of local savings and loans bank for Vatican staff. Pope Francis toyed with the idea of closing it down completely, but decided against it in April.

De Franssu, a 51-year-old former chairman of the European Fund and Asset Management Association, replaced German lawyer Ernst von Freyberg, who lasted less than 17 months as bank president. He was appointed in February 2013, in the twilight of Benedict XVI’s papacy.

Under von Freyberg’s watch, the bank pursued major reforms — finally subjecting to scrutiny its murky client database and closing down more than 3,400 accounts as a result — but remained embroiled in controversy.

It published 2013 accounts on Tuesday, showing a sharp fall in net profits to $3.9 million, partly due to the writing off of bad investments. Press reports say one of them was a $20 million loan to a media firm tied to a former top cardinal, Tarcisio Bertone.

“I have had in my time at IOR surprises and good surprises,” von Freyberg said. He explained he was leaving because he could not serve as president full time, rather than part time, and because the bank needed to be led by someone with greater financial expertise.

De Franssu has been advising the Vatican on economic and administrative matters for the past 12 months. In March, he was made a member of the Council of the Economy, an advisory committee set up by Pope Francis to spearhead reforms.

Critical Italian media reports noted that his son works for the U.S. compliance consulting firm Promontory, which the Vatican bank hired last year to screen its customer accounts, at a cost of about $10.9 million. De Franssu said he would declare any relevant conflict of interest.

Earlier this year, Francis also tapped Australian Cardinal George Pell to chair a new Secretariat for the Economy — a quasi-finance ministry that will be expected to pull all the economic strings in the new administrative setup.

“We are working so that international financial standards will be followed in all the dicasteries and sections” of the Vatican, Pell said Wednesday. “At the moment we are not quite at that stage,” he added.

The cardinal announced other changes, including plans to give central bank duties to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, and the creation of a panel led by former BBC Trust chairman Lord Chris Patten to reform sprawling Vatican media operations.

Photo: @Doug88888 via FLICKR

Rabbi, Muslim Leader To Accompany Pope On Middle East Trip

By Alvise Armellini

VATICAN CITY — The leader of the Catholic Church will be accompanied by a rabbi and a Muslim leader on a trip to the Middle East this month, the Vatican said Thursday, hailing Pope Francis’ symbolic gesture as “formidable.”

Abraham Skorka and Omar Abboud, both based in Buenos Aires, are longtime friends of the Argentina-born pontiff. Skorka is the head of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary while Abboud leads the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue.

By taking them along with him, Francis is sending “a formidable message,” namely that “good interreligious dialogue is a normal part of the holy father’s way of life and of presenting himself,” said Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

Official papal delegations have never included members of other religions.

Francis is to visit Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel May 24-26. The main purpose of the trip is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Eastern Orthodox Church leader Patriarch Athenagoras.

Skorka is to join the papal party in Bethlehem May 25 because he will observe the Shabbat the previous day while Abboud will be alongside the pope from May 24 when Francis is due to arrive in Amman, Lombardi said.

Despite usual security concerns for high-profile visits in the region, the pope is not planning to use any armored cars and will ride an open-top jeep to celebrate Masses in an Amman stadium and in Bethlehem’s Manger Square.

Lombardi expressed the Vatican’s “obvious condemnation” of recent acts of anti-Christian vandalism in Israel but said there were “no grounds to doubt” that the papal trip “would not take place in an absolutely serene manner.”

During the trip, Francis is likely to renew calls for peace in Syria and between Israelis and Palestinians, condemn the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, urge Christian unity and reach out to other religions.

Francis is due to meet Athenagoras’ successor, Patriarch Bartholomew I, sign a common declaration and jointly recite Our Father prayers in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem — an unprecedented gesture of reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

In Israel, Francis is to visit the Wailing Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center. He will not celebrate a public Mass in the country, but in a first for a visiting pontiff, he will lay flowers at the tomb of Zionist movement founder Theodor Herzl.

AFP Photo/Andreas Solaro

`Pray For Me,’ Francis Tweets On First Anniversary As Pope

By Alvise Armellini

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Thursday marked the first anniversary of his election with a typically humble message, telling his followers on Twitter: “Please pray for me.”

No celebrations were planned for the occasion.

“Today the Pope is doing nothing special or different from other days. He prays,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters.

Francis has canceled all public engagements this week. Until Friday, he is taking part in pre-Easter, closed-door “spiritual exercises” with senior Vatican officials at a retreat just outside Rome.

In keeping with his no-frills style, the Argentine-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio traveled by bus on Sunday to the hill town of Ariccia, located about 20 miles southeast of Rome, accompanied by members of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s bureaucracy.

Francis took over the leadership of the Catholic Church at a time of deep crisis. His predecessor, Benedict XVI, was the first pope in almost 600 years to resign, leaving in the wake of a string of financial and sex abuse scandals.

Since then, Francis has transformed public perceptions of the papacy, but he also has embarked on major administrative and pastoral reforms. Those changes have attracted him the sympathies of the world’s media, but also aroused suspicion among church traditionalists.

“He has accomplished far more than any of us could have reasonably expected, both in terms of style and in terms of substance,” John Allen, a veteran Vatican correspondent working for The Boston Globe, told Vatican Radio.

He cited the recent decision to set up a Vatican finance ministry and to appoint tough-minded Australian Cardinal George Pell as its head as evidence that the pope is serious about shaking up the Vatican’s bureaucracy.

In the coming weeks, Francis will be busy with preparations for Easter, the most important feast in the Christian calendar, which this year falls on April 20. A week later, he is due to canonize his predecessors John Paul II and John XXVIII, an event that is expected to attract millions of pilgrims to Rome.

He is scheduled to make two foreign trips later in the year: to the Holy Land in May, stopping in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, and in South Korea in August, marking the first papal visit to East Asia since 1995.

AFP Photo/Andreas Solaro

Francis Rejects `Superman’ Status, Says More Popes May Resign

By Alvise Armellini

VATICAN CITY — The leader of the Catholic Church is “a normal person,” Pope Francis insisted in an interview published Wednesday, in which he said he was offended by media portrayals of him as “some kind of Superman.”

Since his election a year ago, Francis’ popularity has skyrocketed. He is seen as humble, unorthodox, reform-oriented and media-savvy, and has attracted almost universally flattering headlines — even from unlikely publications such as Rolling Stone.

“I don’t like ideological interpretations, a certain mythology of Pope Francis,” he told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera. “To paint the pope as some kind of Superman, some kind of a star, I think it is offensive,” he added.

“The pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps peacefully and has friends like everybody else. A normal person,” Francis insisted.

Despite his protestations, Francis did appreciate graffiti that appeared on the walls near the Vatican, representing him as a flying superhero. His account retweeted the image in January, and last week he met the artist who drew it.

Wednesday’s was the third media interview Francis has given as a pope, coming days before the one-year anniversary of his March 13, 2013, appointment. He previously spoke to La Repubblica, another Italian daily, and to Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica.

Francis was promoted to the papacy after his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, became the first pontiff to resign in almost 600 years.

Noting that retired bishops did not exist until the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s but have now become “an institution,” Francis said “the same must happen” with retired popes.

“Benedict is the first, but maybe there will be others,” he said.

Once again dismissing concerns about the unusual “two popes” situation, Francis said he asked his predecessor “to go out and participate in the life of the Church.”

Upon retiring, Benedict said he wanted to remain “hidden to the world,” but he took part in last month’s ceremony where 19 new cardinals were ordained. “The pope emeritus is not a statue in a museum,” Francis said.

Speaking after Vatican-commissioned surveys revealed that many Catholics do not follow teachings on contraceptives and sex before marriage, Francis said the Church had to take “a long walk” and find ways to respond to the crisis of the modern family.

“Young people do not marry much. There are many separated families whose project of a shared life has failed. Children suffer a lot. We must give an answer. But for that we must reflect very deeply,” the pope said.

Confirming previously expressed views, Francis signaled that there would be no major changes in doctrine on hot-button issues. But he stressed the need to take into account real-life situations, and gave a diplomatic answer on gay unions.

“Marriage is between a man and a woman. Secular states want to justify civil unions … moved by the need to regulate economic issues between people, such as health care coverage.”

“We need to see different cases and evaluate them in their variety,” he added.

Responding to questions about his private life, Francis said he was reading a book about the role of women in the church, and that the last film he watched was “Life is Beautiful,’’ an Italian 1997 Oscar-winning comedy-drama about the Holocaust.

He also spoke about his love life before becoming a priest. He recounted that he had a girlfriend at the age of 17 and that another girl made his head “spin for a week” while he was at seminary school.

“Pardon the indiscretion, but how did it end?” the interviewer asked. “We were young. I spoke about it with my confessor,” the pope was said to have replied, flashing a broad grin.

Photo via AFP

Renzi Nominated As Italian Prime Minister

By Alvise Armellini

ROME — Italy’s leader-in-waiting said Monday that he would need “a few days” to form a new Italian government, but he promised that as prime minister he would launch major reforms to revive the country’s moribund economy and modernize its inefficient political structures.

Matteo Renzi, who leads the center-left Democratic Party, or PD, and is mayor of Florence, was nominated for the premiership by President Giorgio Napolitano. It was widely expected, following last week’s Renzi-orchestrated ouster of the outgoing premier, Enrico Letta.

“I will put in all the courage, effort, energy and enthusiasm of which I am capable,” Renzi said, before returning to Florence to attend his last city council meeting.

Renzi showed up for presidential talks looking serious, in a dark suit and tie. But the normally casual 39-year-old retained a degree of informality, driving around with no escort, and posing for pictures with fans in Rome’s train station.

He reiterated that he wanted to lead a government until the end of the current parliamentary term, in 2018, and indicated that it would take “a few days” to form it.

Renzi still needs to pick a team of ministers, return to Napolitano for a swearing-in ceremony, and secure a vote of confidence in both houses of parliament before he can officially take office. The process could be over by the end of the week.

He accepted the premiership “with reserve” — a usual precaution that allows prospective leaders to sound out coalition partners before formally taking up office.

Once installed, Renzi pledged to deliver reforms in quick-fire succession: a parliamentary breakthrough on a new electoral law and other urgent institutional changes was scheduled for February, followed by a jobs package in March, bureaucratic and tax overhauls in April and May.

There were expectations that Renzi could have been quicker in forming the government, but Italian media reported that he got bogged down in negotiations with coalition partners, such as the New Center Right Party of outgoing deputy premier Angelino Alfano.

He remains on track to become Italy’s youngest-ever head of government — beating by a few weeks Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini — and the youngest in the European Union, a bloc whose rotating presidency will fall on Italy from July 1.

Former British Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair — often evoked as a model for Renzi — gave him his endorsement.

“The challenges are absolutely formidable but Matteo has the dynamism, creativity and toughness to succeed, with the combination of realism and idealism necessary for the times in which we live,” Blair told the Italian news agency Adnkronos.

“Europe needs Italy to take its rightful place in the leadership of Europe, and Europe’s leaders should get fully behind Matteo as he takes responsibility for the future of his country,” Blair added.

Renzi also celebrated his first election victory since taking over the PD in December: His party’s candidate Francesco Pigliaru won Sunday’s regional elections in Sardinia, unseating conservative incumbent Ugo Cappellacci.

The Sardinian vote, however, was marked by a very low turnout, down to 52.2 per cent compared to 67.5 per cent in 2009. It was seen as another sign of voters’ apathy towards politicians, which Renzi has pledged to counter.

He faces a somewhat hostile public opinion, after breaking a promise to seek the premiership only after a general election win. An Ipsos poll broadcast Sunday on RAI state television indicated that 64 percent of voters were unhappy about the Renzi-Letta handover.

Most Italians would have preferred to return to the polls to pick a new leader, Ipsos said. But Napolitano and Renzi ruled it out, because current electoral rules are almost certain to deliver a hung parliament, prolonging political instability.

The Ipsos survey showed that 52 per cent of Italians agreed that reforms under the outgoing government had stalled, suggesting that Renzi could regain popularity if he managed to unblock the political stalemate.

“The entire country, even those who would never vote for him and perhaps do not appreciate his brusque manners, should hope that Renzi will make it,” the Corriere della Sera said in a front-page editorial.

Photo: Yewenyi via Flickr