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Christian monument ‘Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer’ being constructed in England 

Rendition of the Eternal Wall interactive monument being constructed near Birmingham, England, featuring a million prayers. It is expected to be completed in 2026. / Photo courtesy of Eternal Wall

London, England, Aug 26, 2023 / 07:00 am (CNA).

The building of a major Christian monument in the heart of the United Kingdom is expected to be completed by 2026.

The Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer will be an interactive monument made up of 1 million bricks, each representing an individual’s answered prayer, and will be situated between the M6 and the M42 motorways near Birmingham, England.

Using a bespoke app (custom-made software), visitors will be able to hold their phone up to a brick and discover the specific answered prayer it represents with either audio, video, or text.

The founder of this ambitious project, Richard Gamble, a Christian, told CNA that the inspiration for the prayer monument first began during Easter 19 years ago when he heard God’s voice telling him to carry a cross around his U.K. hometown of Leicester.

“At the time I was considering being a pastor of a church,” he said in an online interview in July. “And I just sort of prayed and said ‘God, what do you want to do now? What do you want me to do next?’ And it’s difficult to describe, but it was sort of like a flash image through my head and this idea of building a national landmark wall made of a million bricks where every brick represents a story of answered prayer.”

“So, I just sort of went home and my wife recognized the little twinkle in my eye and was like ‘ohh, what’s going on here?’ And I said, ‘I think we’re going to build a national landmark.’ So that was 19 years ago, in 2004, and I had 10 years of praying not knowing what to do because I’m not an architect, I’m not an engineer, I can’t even put up a set of shelves in the house. But nine years ago, I just felt, ‘OK, this is time to get it started.’ And you know, it’s been an amazing roller coaster journey.”

The founder of the Eternal Wall interactive monument, Richard Gamble, said the inspiration began 19 years ago when he heard God’s voice telling him to carry a cross around his U.K. hometown of Leicester. Photo courtesy of Eternal Wall
The founder of the Eternal Wall interactive monument, Richard Gamble, said the inspiration began 19 years ago when he heard God’s voice telling him to carry a cross around his U.K. hometown of Leicester. Photo courtesy of Eternal Wall

Gamble’s vision began to bear fruit after a successful crowdfunding appeal to buy a piece of land. Then the project began to gain momentum.

“I needed somebody who understood building, so I prayed,” he said. “That day I met somebody who understood how to build it and he said, ‘I know how to build it. I’ll help you.’

“Then another day [I’m at] at church and I’m praying that somebody will be there to help me with planning permission, and it just happens that one of the leading barristers in the country on planning applications for faith projects is in the room! Some people might put this down as coincidence but I think a wise man once said ‘the more I pray, the more coincidences happen.’”

Gamble and his team are hoping to have 200,000 prayer testimonies by the time the project opens and had already received 36,726 at the time of the interview with CNA.

He said among the testimonies was the story of a single mother who had run out of food and prayed the Our Father for “daily bread” when her doorbell rang and it was a supermarket delivery man offering her a free delivery of food.

Gamble also stressed that the Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer was not simply about sharing testimonies where God has answered prayers with a “yes.”

“When we pray, God listens and he answers, but sometimes the answer is no, and so we’ve got some stories where people have prayed and the answer’s been no but that the outcome is really powerful,” he said.

Gamble also received a powerful story from a young couple who lost a child at an early age. 

“They look back on it years later and say actually the experience, and God walking with them through that grief and suffering, has enabled them to find comfort and contentment in life, whatever their circumstance. I think that’s a really powerful story.”

The Eternal Wall project has been supported by a variety of different Christian denominations, including Catholics.

Monsignor Timothy Menezes, dean of St. Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham and pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Aston, was invited to support the project as a Catholic representative during the summer of 2016 and has been involved ever since.

In an email exchange with CNA on Aug. 14, Menezes said the wall will be “a Christian symbol in an increasingly secular society.”

Menezes’ main hope and prayer for the wall is that it will give Christians “a sense of pride that our faith is still as relevant as ever in the modern world; that those who do not know prayer in their life will be able to ask their questions; that people can come to see that faith, in general, is a power for good, when people of faith unite.”

Menezes also explained that he had arranged for a tree to be planted on the same site as the Wall of Prayer, sponsored by the Catholics of Birmingham, as part of a larger organizational effort for a number of trees to be planted, with each one representing a hero of faith.

“The faith hero we identified is St. Maximilian Kolbe,“ Menezes told CNA. “Bringing together the Death Wall of Auschwitz and the Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer seems to me to be a transformation of evil to good, from despair to hope, from misused human power to the honoring of the only true power — the power of God.”

To share your answered prayer, visit the Eternal Wall of Answered Prayers website.

German cardinal disappointed over staff’s attempts to access pornography 

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne. Credit: / null

CNA Newsroom, Aug 21, 2023 / 11:45 am (CNA).

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki expressed profound disappointment over an internal IT report finding that employees in his Archdiocese of Cologne had attempted to access pornographic websites.

“To some, the consumption of pornography may seem harmless. But I stand firmly with Pope Francis, who unequivocally condemns it and warns of its insidious dangers, particularly the egregious violation of human dignity,” Woelki said, according to CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner. 

“Upon learning of this unsettling news, I immediately called for a thorough examination of the incidents and insisted they be addressed in strict accordance with legal regulations,” the German prelate said in a public statement.

German media outlets reported that the archdiocese’s internal investigation exonerated the cardinal, confirming he was not among the “users of the incriminated sites.”

Cologne’s public prosecutor’s office, which is in possession of the archdiocese’s list of implicated users, stated that there was “currently no suspicion” of criminal activity warranting an investigation, CNA Deutsch reported.

Woelki took the opportunity to defend the reputation of the Church’s workforce. “We have a large number of committed and reliable employees in the Church sector. It is crucial to me that we do not cast a shadow of general suspicion over everyone at this time,” he emphasized.

The archdiocese revealed that the discovery was made during a routine IT security check undertaken a while ago. “There had been no indications of criminally relevant behavior,” the archdiocese stated. “Our firewalls had effectively blocked access to these problematic sites. The checks were explicitly not aimed at scrutinizing the usage behavior of individual persons.”

Pope Francis has been vocal about the perils of pornography, warning that it “weakens the soul.” 

The pontiff cautioned seminarians in October 2022: “The devil comes from there: It weakens the priestly heart.” He urged everyone to “reflect on whether they have ever fallen into the temptation of digital pornography,” adding: “Dear brothers, be careful of this. The pure heart, the heart that receives Jesus every day, cannot receive this pornographic information.”

However, a few weeks later, one German priest advocated for pornography as a form of “sexual relief” for celibate people. Criticizing Pope Francis, Father Hermann Backhaus in November 2022 argued that pornography could serve as a “pressure relief valve” for priests and religious individuals committed to celibacy.

‘All the way in love’: Pope Francis praises example of Mafia-slain priest

Pope Francis sits in front of an image of Blessed Giuseppe "Don Pino" Puglisi during a meeting with young people in the Archdiocese of Palermo, on the Italian island region Sicily, on Sept. 15, 2018. / Vatican Media.

Rome Newsroom, Aug 20, 2023 / 09:00 am (CNA).

Blessed Giuseppe “Don Pino” Puglisi “went all the way in love,” Pope Francis said in a letter published ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Sicilian priest’s death at the hands of the Mafia.

The blessed was shot and martyred by hitmen under the direction of the Sicilian Mafia group Cosa Nostra on Sept. 15, 1993, his 53rd birthday. Despite threats to his life, for years the priest had quietly fought organized crime through the education of young people in his parish’s poor Palermo neighborhood.

“Following the example of Jesus, Don Pino went all the way in love,” Pope Francis wrote in a letter to Archbishop Corrado Lorefice of Palermo, published Aug. 20.

The priest, he continued, “possessed the same traits of the meek and humble ‘good shepherd’: His boys, whom he knew one by one, are the testimony of a man of God who favored the small and defenseless, educated them to freedom, to love life and to respect it.”

In his letter, the pope addressed the priests of Sicily, a southern island region of Italy, and encouraged them “not to stop in the face of the many human and social plagues of the present hour, which still bleed and need to be healed with the oil of consolation and the balm of compassion.”

He urged the Sicilian clergy to take up a renewed pastoral care corresponding to the concrete needs of the day and to not forget the preferential option for the poor.

Francis pointed to Blessed Pino Puglisi’s “practical and profound” wisdom, summed up by his frequent encouragement that “if each of us does something, then we can do a lot.”

“Let this be the invitation for everyone to know how to overcome the many personal fears and resistances and to work together to build a just and fraternal society,” the pope said.

Pope Francis venerates a relic of Blessed Giuseppe "Don Pino" Puglisi in the Cathedral of Palermo, during a one-day visit to the Archdiocese of Palermo on the Italian island region of Sicily on Sept. 15, 2018. Vatican Media.
Pope Francis venerates a relic of Blessed Giuseppe "Don Pino" Puglisi in the Cathedral of Palermo, during a one-day visit to the Archdiocese of Palermo on the Italian island region of Sicily on Sept. 15, 2018. Vatican Media.

Puglisi was born on Sept. 15, 1937, to a working-class family in Palermo. He entered the seminary at 16 and was ordained a priest in 1960 at the age of 22.

As a priest, he was known for speaking out against injustice, including communism, the Mafia, and problems within the Church.

The blessed was also passionately involved in youth ministry and in promoting religious vocations. In 1990, he was transferred to the parish of San Gaetano in the Mafia-ridden neighborhood of Brancaccio.

Puglisi’s approach in the crime-controlled neighborhood was the same: to win over the young people and to be a pastor to his flock.

“Father Puglisi was not a typical anti-Mafia priest. He did not organize rallies or make public condemnation of Mafia,” Archbishop Michele Pennisi of Monreale told the National Catholic Register in 2013. “[The] Mafia does not see that kind of priest as dangerous.”

Puglisi was considered to be more dangerous “because he educated young people,” Pennisi said. He would convince the boys of the neighborhood not to steal or quit school and encouraged them away from the Mafia, who would often use children to traffic drugs and other illicit materials.

Puglisi preached against the Mafia, banned them from leading religious processions, and even stealthily gave clues to the authorities about their latest activities in his homilies. It was revealed after his death that his life had been threatened numerous times.

Pope Francis visits the home and office of Blessed Giuseppe "Don Pino" Puglisi in the Brancaccio neighborhood of Palermo during a one-day visit to the Italian island region of Sicily on Sept. 15, 2018. Vatican Media.
Pope Francis visits the home and office of Blessed Giuseppe "Don Pino" Puglisi in the Brancaccio neighborhood of Palermo during a one-day visit to the Italian island region of Sicily on Sept. 15, 2018. Vatican Media.

On Sept. 15, 1993, Puglisi was apprehended on the street and shot in the neck at point-blank range by hitmen directed by the local Mafia bosses Filippo and Giuseppe Graviano. He died of his injuries.

One of the hitmen, who later confessed to the crime, revealed that the priest’s final words were: “I’ve been expecting you.”

Puglisi was declared a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and beatified in 2013.

Pope Francis visited Puglisi’s former Palermo parish in 2018 to mark the 25th anniversary of the blessed’s assassination.

“May the disarming smile of Father Pino Puglisi spur you to be joyful and bold disciples, available first of all to that constant inner conversion that makes you more ready to serve your brothers and sisters, faithful to your priestly promises and docile in obedience to the Church,” Pope Francis said in his letter to priests for the 30th anniversary of Puglisi’s death.

“You,” he said, “who daily uphold the responsibilities of priestly ministry in contact with the realities that inhabit this territory, be always and everywhere a true image of the welcoming Good Shepherd, have the courage to dare without fear and instill hope in those you meet, especially the weakest, the sick, the suffering, the migrants, those who have fallen and want to be helped to rise again.”

“Young people will then be the focus of your care: They are the hope of the future.”

Faith meets ecology: Rosaries made from ocean plastic shine at World Youth Day

null / Shutterstock

CNA Newsroom, Aug 18, 2023 / 09:46 am (CNA).

In a unique blend of faith and environmental activism, pilgrims from Vancouver, British Columbia, handed out rosaries crafted from recycled ocean plastic to attendees of World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, this August. This initiative, backed by Plastic Bank, aimed to spotlight the dual themes of religious devotion and ecological stewardship.

Plastic Bank, a Vancouver-based social enterprise, has carved a niche for itself by transforming plastic waste into items of value. Their mission is twofold: curbing the flow of plastic into oceans and simultaneously addressing poverty by making plastic a resource too precious to discard.

“Of the 1,000 rosaries crafted, 100 were distributed during World Youth Day,” Peter Nitschke, who is at the helm of Community Partnerships at Plastic Bank, shared with CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner. “The response was overwhelmingly positive.”

He expressed hope that these unique rosaries would resonate with Pope Francis’ message in Laudato Si’, urging global citizens to care for the planet. “In intertwining faith with environmental consciousness, our aim is to galvanize both pilgrims and the wider public to embrace the social recycling ethos,” Nitschke stated.

The inception of this initiative, as Nitschke recounted, was serendipitous. 

“Taylor Cannizzaro, our chief relationship officer, was en route to Rome for discussions on potential collaborations between Plastic Bank and the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development. A chance encounter with a fellow passenger, a rosary artisan, sparked the innovative idea of crafting rosaries from plastic destined for the oceans.”

The process, as detailed by Nitschke, is community-centric. “Locals collect plastic waste from varied sources, ranging from coastal areas to urban neighborhoods. This not only aids in environmental cleanup but also economically uplifts these communities.”

He highlighted a commendable effort from Brazil, where a parish succeeded in gathering over 24,000 kilograms (about 53,000 pounds) of plastic in a brief span. “Such endeavors underscore the transformative power of grassroots movements,” Nitschke remarked.

Once collected, the plastic undergoes a metamorphosis, eventually finding its way into various products, including the rosary beads.

A rosary made from plastic refuse collected from the ocean. Plastic Bank
A rosary made from plastic refuse collected from the ocean. Plastic Bank

Nitschke also touched upon the societal implications of their initiative. “These rosaries are meticulously crafted by individuals at the Manila City Jail as part of a special program by the Philippine Bureau of Jail Management and Penology. This program offers inmates, termed as People of Deprived Liberties, avenues for skill development and earning opportunities.”

Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’: “The growing problem of marine waste and the protection of the open seas represent particular challenges” and emphasized “our duty to care for the oceans as part of an integrated vision of human development.”

Marian embrace: Gänswein speaks of loneliness and solace in first public appearance

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, former prefect of the Papal Household, speaks at Maria Vesperbild in Bavaria, Germany, on the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15, 2023. / Credit: Bernhard Weizenegger / Maria Vesperbild

CNA Newsroom, Aug 16, 2023 / 13:00 pm (CNA).

In the bustling heart of Catholicism that is Rome, Archbishop Georg Gänswein once stood as a close aide to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. On Tuesday, the former prefect of the Papal Household found himself seeking solace in a tiny Bavarian hamlet called Maria Vesperbild, which typically boasts a modest population of 34. 

Yet, on the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, this quiet village in Bavaria’s Swabian district was transformed, drawing several hundred pilgrims, all eager to witness the archbishop’s return to the public eye.

The contrast was stark: from the grandeur of Vatican corridors to the serene simplicity of a rural shrine dedicated to Our Lady. But it was here, amid the rolling wooded hills and devout pilgrims, that Gänswein’s voice resonated with poignant clarity, calling to attention the significance of the day. 

“We can only be grateful to mother Church that she has refrained from taming or dumbing down the faith, preferring to expose herself to ridicule and incomprehension rather than end up as a slick and indifferent thing that no one will disagree with but that no one will celebrate anymore,” the prelate said. 

“Mary’s assumption promises the acceptance that every person longs for.”

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, former prefect of the Papal Household, speaks to hundreds at the tiny Maria Vesperbild in Bavaria, Germany, on the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: Bernhard Weizenegger / Maria Vesperbild
Archbishop Georg Gänswein, former prefect of the Papal Household, speaks to hundreds at the tiny Maria Vesperbild in Bavaria, Germany, on the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: Bernhard Weizenegger / Maria Vesperbild

Speaking publicly for the first time since leaving Rome after the death of Benedict, Gänswein made it disarmingly clear that he is no stranger to emotional turmoil and desolation. 

“Every person longs to be accepted,” the 67-year-old reflected during his sermon, a sentiment that seemed to echo his personal journey. The archbishop alluded to the many doors that had been shut in his face, the “slander from the shadows,” and the profound feelings of loneliness one can grapple with.

His words struck a chord, not just for their theological depth, but because they revealed a man coming to terms with his past and seeking a path forward.

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, former prefect of the Papal Household, speaks at Maria Vesperbild in Bavaria, Germany, on the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: Bernhard Weizenegger / Maria Vesperbild
Archbishop Georg Gänswein, former prefect of the Papal Household, speaks at Maria Vesperbild in Bavaria, Germany, on the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: Bernhard Weizenegger / Maria Vesperbild

The Marian shrine’s director, Monsignor Erwin Reichart, speaking of Gänswein’s visit, remarked: “In Maria Vesperbild, he is primarily seen as an archbishop, a successor to the Apostles. But beyond titles and roles, he’s a man who has found a semblance of ‘home’ here.”

Gänswein’s departure from the Vatican following the death of Benedict XVI and subsequent dismissal by Pope Francis had left many speculating about his future. His relocation to his home diocese of Freiburg, away from the epicenter of Catholic power, was seen by some as a fall from grace. Yet, in his recent appearance, there was a sense of rejuvenation. His humorous remark during a book presentation — “I am here, looking for work, so to speak” — showcased a resilient spirit laced with a touch of humility.

As the Tagespost noted, almost a decade ago Gänswein celebrated the pontifical Mass on the solemnity of the Assumption in the local Fátima grotto. This year, he returned to Maria Vesperbild, not just as a celebrant but as a beacon of faith for many — and a point of personal connection to the late Bavarian pontiff, Benedict XVI.

A candle-lit procession through the woods followed an open-air Mass with Archbishop Georg Gänswein, former prefect of the Papal Household, at Maria Vesperbild in Bavaria, Germany, on the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: Bernhard Weizenegger / Maria Vesperbild
A candle-lit procession through the woods followed an open-air Mass with Archbishop Georg Gänswein, former prefect of the Papal Household, at Maria Vesperbild in Bavaria, Germany, on the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: Bernhard Weizenegger / Maria Vesperbild

The open-air Mass at Maria Vesperbild, followed by a candle-lit procession through the woods, is an annual highlight, drawing thousands. But this year, with Gänswein at the helm, it held a special significance. His association with the pilgrimage site was evident in the warmth with which he was received.

While the future remains uncertain for the archbishop, his appearance suggests a man on a path of redemption and acceptance, ready to embrace whatever lies ahead.

Ukrainian Catholics receive warm reception at World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon

Marina Aleykseyeva, 31, from Kiev, Ukraine, (second from left with a pink baseball cap), together with fellow pilgrims from Ukraine, attended World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 1–6, 2023. She said they traveled to the international gathering to pray for peace in their country. / Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

Lisbon, Portugal, Aug 16, 2023 / 08:22 am (CNA).

Ukrainian pilgrims who attended World Youth Day in Lisbon earlier this month said they were amazed by the number of people from around the world who assured them of their prayers and support amid the war with Russia.

Marina Aleykseyeva, 31, who lives in Kyiv, spoke to CNA before the Aug. 6 WYD closing Mass about the experience of their delegation, which was made up of about 500 Ukrainians living all over the world and more than 140 who traveled from Ukraine itself.

“We are here to pray for the country, to pray for peace,” she said. “This World Youth Day is very, very special because all [of us] Ukrainians came here to pray for peace, to pray for the soldiers and for our families.”

She added that this World Youth Day was also particularly significant because of the many people, especially young men, who could not come because they were fighting in the war.

Aleykseyeva said “it was unbelievable” how many people stopped them on the streets of Lisbon during the international youth gathering to say they were praying for Ukraine.

“Now we can return to our country and tell everyone that so many people who believe in God are praying for us from all over the world.”

The Ukrainian Catholic pilgrims to WYD 2023 included both members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the smaller Latin Church in the country.

Aleykseyeva, a Latin Catholic, said these differences mattered little to them, especially now.

“We are all here together to pray. No one now is thinking about whether you are Greek or Latin, you just pray together,” she said, adding that “God is one,” so it does not matter if someone prays differently or makes the sign of the cross differently.

During the week, the Ukrainian delegation celebrated Mass together and did other activities as a group.

On Friday, before the Stations of the Cross with Pope Francis, they marched together wearing T-shirts with the faces of children who were killed since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Aleykseyeva said they wanted “to show that our children, our little children, die every day because of missiles.”

“We have to show that it is not over,” she emphasized.

The young Ukrainian woman said she and the other members of her group were even checking their phones during the WYD vigil the night of Aug. 5 to follow news about another air raid on Ukraine. The Ukrainians were joined in prayer by some young women from Italy who were nearby them in the field.

The journey to Lisbon, Portugal, for World Youth Day Aug. 1–6 was not easy, Aleykseyeva said, especially the 14-hour wait to cross the border into Poland.

But the group was also able to visit beautiful places in Germany and France during their five days of travel, she added, including the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes.

She said everyone in Ukraine has a relative fighting in the war and everyone knows someone who has lost his or her life.

Meanwhile, the support shown in Lisbon “is something that we will keep in our hearts and bring to our families,” she noted.

Priest brings the prayers of Mary to revive small mountain churches in the Alps

Place of worship in the Alps: Chapel of Trezanne, Trièves, France / Photo credit: Anna Kurian

Paris, France, Aug 15, 2023 / 02:00 am (CNA).

The natural region of Trièves in the French Alps south of Grenoble is a haven of spiritual, natural, and architectural treasures. For the few missionary priests in this vast, secularized territory, keeping parishes alive is no easy task.

Father Guy-Alexandre Kouya, who has come to the Alps from Côte d’Ivoire, has launched a prayer event this year, from Aug. 1 to Aug. 15, the solemnity of the Assumption, to revive these mountain churches and their communities.

Church of Chichilianne, Trièves, France. Photo credit: Anna Kurian
Church of Chichilianne, Trièves, France. Photo credit: Anna Kurian

Cordéac, Cornillons, Sinard, Treffort, Mens, Roissard — villages along the road that winds between the cities of Grenoble and Gap — reveal picturesque bell towers of the Trièves that can be seen on the mountainsides. But despite the beauty of these places, workers are few and far between. For lack of priests and faithful, some churches are rarely open.

In this rural environment, Kouya has been in charge of the 27 small churches belonging to the Notre-Dame d’Esparron Parish for the past four years. The parish covers an area of over 600 square kilometers (about 231 square miles), perched between 310 and 1,740 miles above sea level. 

“It’s the largest and poorest parish in the Grenoble-Vienne Diocese,” the young priest, originally from Ivory Coast, told CNA. 

To reach out to those who live further afield, he and his parish team have launched a unique initiative in the mountain pastures. Every evening for the past two weeks, he has led a meditative rosary and the celebration of Mass on the altar of one of the forgotten mountain churches, which will end on the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Village Le Percy and its church tower, Trièves, France. Photo credit: Anna Kurian
Village Le Percy and its church tower, Trièves, France. Photo credit: Anna Kurian

A presence in mountain villages

This two-week prayer event has been an opportunity to let the daylight in behind the quaint wooden doors and to remove the cobwebs from the rustic benches. It’s also been an opportunity to rediscover the statues of Sts. Therese of Lisieux, Anthony of Padua, Joseph, Joan of Arc, various apostles, and the archangel Michael, nestled in the whitewashed side chapels.

Kouya hopes to “give the church some visibility” in the Alpine mountains, where only about 2% of the population — out of 10,000 inhabitants — attend Sunday Mass. 

“We’re grafting onto the incessant call of Pope Francis, who invites us not to remain within ourselves but to go towards others. We have decided to go to the peripheries by keeping our churches alive, which were closed,” he told CNA.

Mass with Father Guy-Alexandre Kouya at the Church of Treffort, in Trièves, France. Photo courtesy of Anna Kurian
Mass with Father Guy-Alexandre Kouya at the Church of Treffort, in Trièves, France. Photo courtesy of Anna Kurian

The priest intends to tour the entire parish, which covers a vast area. 

“We’re making our way slowly, going to the little chapels to inaugurate visits,” he explained. “I take the opportunity to encounter this or that person. For the years to come, we’d like to combine this initiative with a visit to the whole village for a time of fraternity, a time of exchange, just a free time with everyone, before our evening of prayer.”

‘The only weapon we have’

Each evening, the parishioners involved in the initiative prepare a meditation based on the words that popular tradition attributes to the Virgin Mary at apparition sites officially recognized by the Church on every continent. This has included prayers from Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), Our Lady of Vailankanni (India), Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal and Our Lady of Lourdes (France), Our Lady of Knock (Ireland), Our Lady of Fatima (Portugal), Our Lady of Banneux (Belgium), Our Lady of Akita (Japan), and Our Lady of Kibeho (Rwanda).

Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, church of Chichilianne, Trièves, France. Photo credit: Anna Kurian
Statue of Our Lady of Lourdes, church of Chichilianne, Trièves, France. Photo credit: Anna Kurian

The idea was first and foremost to give “space” to the mother of Jesus, he explained. “In France, we have Mary as our patron saint, and she has a fundamental place in the Church,” said the priest, who noted with regret that the feast of the Assumption used to be celebrated “with great processions,” while today it goes “virtually unnoticed.” 

“We give less meaning and less place to the Virgin Mary,” he lamented, adding: “As John Paul II used to say, France is the ‘eldest daughter’ of the Church, so we can’t afford to just watch and do nothing, without getting moving,” he said, urging everyone to follow the model of Mary, “who rises up in haste, to propose something else to people.”

Kouya is convinced that if there are crises and wars in the world, it’s because Christians have given up. “We have no common weapons; the only weapon we have is prayer,” he said, encouraging his small flock to “not give up” and professing his faith in the power of Christ’s message.

Church of Monestier de Clermont, Trièves, France. Photo credit: Anna Kurian
Church of Monestier de Clermont, Trièves, France. Photo credit: Anna Kurian

A sense of togetherness

Evening to evening over these last 15 days, a few local residents have invited themselves into the churches, intrigued. 

“People who don’t usually travel to other villages are happy to see that there’s a prayer in their own village, that their own bell tower is open,” Kouya said. “A number of them have thanked me because these initiatives help to support these small, threatened churches, which municipalities sometimes want to close.”

“Some are not Christians but are happy to see an activity that opens the church, to hear the bell ring, to feel a presence,” Kouya shared. “Some of us were leaving… thinking that in some places there would be no one ... and there are 20 of us! One lady told me yesterday that she felt refreshed.”

Interior of the Chapel of Trezanne, Trièves, France. Photo credit: Anna Kurian
Interior of the Chapel of Trezanne, Trièves, France. Photo credit: Anna Kurian

“This preparation for Aug. 15 creates a mutual welcome,” said a faithful parishioner named Myriam, who is involved in the initiative. “It’s a special time, a special moment of rediscovery of the Virgin Mary,” she said. “This pilgrimage to all these chapels and churches we don’t know creates a sense of unity in a very large parish.” 

The participants are ultimately few, but Kouya intends to encourage further evangelistic activities and remains confident about the future. 

“People will come... It’s not worldliness or development that makes a world stand upright — it’s love,” he said.

St. Maximilian Kolbe’s life as a child prepared his path to holiness

Maximilian Kolbe, 1939. / Public Domain.

Rome Newsroom, Aug 14, 2023 / 15:16 pm (CNA).

On Aug. 14, 1941, the eve of the solemnity of the Assumption, in Block 11 of the Auschwitz concentration camp, a man who had the number 16670 sewn onto his prison uniform was killed by an injection of carbolic acid. 

His name was Maximilian Kolbe. He was a Conventual Franciscan friar and would later be canonized. 

The Polish religious was one of the most beautiful figures of holiness of the last century and a visionary in several respects. He spread Marian devotion through the press including the radio; he carried the Gospel message as far as Japan, a land he loved and lived in; and he was a martyr, who offered his life in that Nazi concentration camp, taking the place of a family man, Franciszek Gajowniczek.

During the canonization process, Gajowniczek shared in his testimony that he saw the Polish saint say to Hans Bock, head of the inmates’ infirmary, in charge of carrying out the fatal injection in the arm: “You have not understood anything about life. Hate is useless. Only love creates!” 

The last words of St. Maximilian Kolbe, extending his arm to the lethal injection, were: “Ave Maria.” 

But let’s take a step back, and try to understand where that friar had come from. What were his origins? What kind of child was he? How did he come to be a Franciscan religious?

To answer these questions, ACI Stampa interviewed an exceptional witness: Father Raffaele Di Muro, dean of the San Bonaventura-Seraphicum theological faculty in Rome and director of the Kolbe chair. Di Muro is also the author of countless essays on Kolbe.

Father Raffaele, let’s start right from the early years of Maximilian’s life, or rather Raymond’s — his name before making his vows. Where does this rich spirituality come from?

Raymond Kolbe was born in Zduńska Wola, a small village not far from the Polish capital, Warsaw. It was Jan. 8, 1894. Raymond grew up in a family with a very rich religiosity.

His parents, Julius Kolbe and Maria Dąbrowska, worked as weavers. The house where little Raymond lived was very modest — made of wood, according to Polish tradition. It was a two-story house and it’s still possible to see it today. On the first floor there is the textile workshop with the looms and all the work tools, and the second floor has a single bedroom.

His parents were Franciscan tertiaries and it is said that both, at a young age, had thought of joining religious life. Then, however, the two respective families of origin decided to have them marry. This desire [for the religious life], after all, we could say will almost be a spiritual inheritance for their three children (three, at least they are the ones who would survive). Francis, the first; the second, Raymond, and then Joseph. All three would become friars. Francis and Raymond would enter religious life together. Then they were followed by Joseph. All this managed to give us an idea of how holy this family was.

In Raymond’s early years, we find a biographical episode that we could define as “a seed” of what would later be his holiness. In fact, when he was 10 years old, Kolbe had a vision of the Immaculate Conception. Can you tell us how this episode in the life of the Polish saint went?

The story comes from his mother, Maria Dąbrowska, in her testimony during the canonization process. St. Maximilian Kolbe left nothing written about this. When the incident occurred, Kolbe was about 10 years old. At the time, the family had moved to another small town in Poland called Pabianice. Here, there was a small church dedicated to St. Matthew. The Kolbe house was not far from the little church. In this parish, there is a beautiful altar dedicated to the Immaculate: a beautiful picture is placed above the altar. We need to start with a fact: of their three children, little Raymond was the most spirited, the most restless. He was so lively that one day his mother, almost exasperated by his behavior, said to him: “What will become of you, little Raymond?”

Faced with this question, the little boy was a little upset. Obviously, he took it as a harsh rebuke and so he went to cry right in that little church near his home.

And it was precisely here that the vision of the Immaculata bearing two crowns took place: She, the Virgin, offered him the choice between the two crowns that she was holding: one red, for martyrdom; the other white, for purity and chastity. Kolbe accepted both. Obviously, he didn’t know what he was doing, what he had chosen. Through this episode, the mother understood what the life of her son would be like. “She kept all these things in her heart,” just like the Virgin with Christ. Only at the time of the canonization process would she tell everything.

Let’s make a jump in time and place: 1917, Rome. Maximilian is in the Eternal City at the San Bonaventura College, near the Imperial Forums. It is at this college that a historic event takes place that will determine the life of Maximilian Kolbe: the founding of the Militia of the Immaculata.

Yes, the Militia was born in Rome. In the city of Sts. Peter and Paul, Kolbe arrived in 1912. He was very young — only 18 years old. This is a singular moment for the Church as there was the unification of Italy; many people still openly demonstrated against the Church. Kolbe went through this period with great suffering. It is at this point that a question arises in him: what can I, a young friar, do for the Church? Thus on Oct. 16, 1917, the Militia of the Immaculata was born — trying to spread devotion to Mary by any means to oppose those who are against the faith and the Church. A brilliant idea!

What about Rome and the young Kolbe? There are, in fact, two other places in Rome that were important for the young St. Maximilian.

The first is the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle. Here, on April 28, 1918, the fourth Sunday after Easter, the hands of the cardinal vicar Basilio Pompilj were extended over the head of Friar Maximilian: Kolbe became a priest. But another place, deeply linked to the Virgin, is also present in Maximilian’s life: It’s the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte. 

Here, the day after his ordination, he celebrated his first Mass. In fact, he had written in a letter: “The conversion of Ratisbonne in that church, thanks to the vision of the Virgin Mary, and the influence that the miraculous medal had on him have always fascinated me. All members of the Militia of the Immaculata wear the Miraculous Medal. The conversion of Ratisbonne through this medal and the vision of the Virgin Mary are connected with this church. This is the appropriate place for my first Mass.”

On the back of the keepsake of this Mass it is written: “Who am I, Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me to this point?” (2 Sam 7:18). “My God and my all.” Remembrance of the first Mass celebrated by Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe, a Franciscan at the altar where Mary the Immaculate deigned to appear in Ratisbonne. Allow me to praise you, Holy Virgin. Give me strength against your enemies. Rome, April 29, 1918.”

And these two places are followed by a third: St. Peter’s Basilica.

This is the place chosen by St. Maximilian for his second Mass. To the question posed by Father Giuseppe Maria Pal, co-founder of the Militia, “Where will you celebrate your second Mass, Father Maximilian?” Kolbe replied without delay:

“In the basilica, on the tomb of the martyr St. Peter and first vicar of the Lord. The intention of my second Mass will be for the grace of the apostolate of martyrdom.” And on Aug. 14, 1941, he made a gift of his life for his brothers through martyrdom.

This story was first published by ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Interreligious events at World Youth Day in Lisbon sparsely attended but ‘useful’

The Radha Krishna Temple outside of Lisbon held one-hour tours for WYD pilgrims to learn more about what Hindus believe. / Photo credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

Lisbon, Portugal, Aug 10, 2023 / 13:20 pm (CNA).

During World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, last week, pilgrims had the opportunity to participate in an initiative called “Spiritual Routes,” which included guided visits to a Muslim mosque, Hindu temple, Jewish synagogue, and three historic Catholic churches.

A one-hour tour of the Radha Krishna Temple on Aug. 4 included explanations of the religious symbols in the temple and basic Hindu beliefs. There was also an open exchange with the tour’s leader, a member of the Lisbon Hindu community, about Catholic beliefs and traditions.

The tour of the temple was offered multiple times a day Aug. 2–4, but organizers informed CNA the final day that only eight people had participated. Meanwhile, an average of 200 pilgrims per day visited the Central Mosque of Lisbon Aug. 1–4.

The grounds of the Radha Krishna Temple where an open exchange with a member of the Lisbon Hindu community took place Aug. 4, 2023, about Catholic beliefs and traditions. Photo credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA
The grounds of the Radha Krishna Temple where an open exchange with a member of the Lisbon Hindu community took place Aug. 4, 2023, about Catholic beliefs and traditions. Photo credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

The timing of the visits and the locations of the religious buildings may have had an influence on attendance. The Hindu temple was more than four and a half miles — a 20-minute drive — from the center of Lisbon, while the mosque was just a 10-minute walk from Parque Eduardo VII, the location of the main WYD events Aug. 1–4.

Poor advertising may also have contributed: Several pilgrims questioned by CNA said they didn’t know about interreligious activities at World Youth Day. Teresa Ngo, 33, from Atlanta, said she followed the main WYD schedule but did not see any information about them.

A 23-year-old pilgrim from Portugal, Luis Graca, said he heard about some of the interreligious activities after they happened but not before.

Besides the visits to religious buildings, initiatives included a tree planting on Aug. 2 and musical events led by groups from different religious backgrounds.

Cardinal Manuel Clemente, patriarch of Lisbon, highlighted the interreligious and ecumenical aspect of WYD in his homily at the event’s opening Mass on Aug. 1.

“Welcome all!” he said in Lisbon’s Parque Eduardo VII. “Welcome also in the ecumenical, interreligious, and goodwill breadth that these days have and also bring together. I desire for you all to feel ‘at home,’ in this common home where we will live World Youth Day.”

The priest who oversaw the interreligious activities during WYD said it was important to him that it was still clear that the international gathering is an event “called by the pope and run by the Catholic Church.”

Father Peter Stilwell, who is in charge of the Committee for Ecumenical Dialogue in the Lisbon Patriarchate, told the National Catholic Register that “just because interreligious dialogue is difficult doesn’t mean that it can’t happen.”

“My personal experience working in the interreligious field has been that meeting other religions and people from other religions has made me more aware of what is my particular Christian tradition,” he said.

Another building on the grounds of the Radha Krishna Temple where a tour Aug. 4 for WYD 2023 pilgrims included explanations of the religious symbols in the temple and basic Hindu beliefs. Photo credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA
Another building on the grounds of the Radha Krishna Temple where a tour Aug. 4 for WYD 2023 pilgrims included explanations of the religious symbols in the temple and basic Hindu beliefs. Photo credit: Hannah Brockhaus/CNA

As part of the “Youth Festival” program of World Youth Day, the KAICIID Dialogue Centre, an intergovernmental organization based in Lisbon, organized several events aimed at interreligious dialogue: a panel discussion with religious representatives from different continents, a screening of a documentary about Catholic Justine Auma’s involvement in the Catholic Church and interreligious dialogue in Uganda, and the chance to play a board game about dialogue with other young people.

On Friday, Aug. 4, several young fellows of the interreligious center had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis at the apostolic nunciature.

Elena Dini, from Rome, participated in the panel discussion on Aug. 1. A Catholic, Dini is senior program manager of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue.

A rabbi from Argentina, a young Muslim woman from Tunisia, a Buddhist monk from Myanmar, and a Greek Orthodox woman from Lebanon also made up the panel.

Dini said about 100 people attended the panel discussion, while 240 came to watch the documentary and approximately 210 participated, over two days, in playing the dialogue board game.

“Some of the young people who participated in these activities already had experience in interfaith dialogue and some did not,” she explained.

Dini told CNA there was a lot of positive feedback from participants in the activities, including the idea, mentioned several times, of having a kind of WYD-type event for young people of different religious traditions.

She also recalled having a lengthy discussion with a young Catholic woman who saw the model of dialogue as a useful tool to use with different groups within the Catholic Church itself.

“She, for example, suffers greatly from the division in the Catholic world between different communities that speak ill of each other because they think differently with respect to certain issues, pray differently, have different political orientations,” Dini said. “For her, the dialogue she saw with our activities these days and the model we offered in interacting with those who are different ... begins in the Catholic world.”

Dini also found it moving to attend the opening Mass of World Youth Day with a Buddhist and Muslim. “These are the moments that make us all grow in knowledge, in sharing, in faith, in recognizing that God is always acting,” she said. 

“As I had the opportunity to share during the panel, for me WYD 2000 was a turning point in my personal faith life, and to be back at a WYD to speak to young people about how faith and dialogue are not contradictory and how for me God speaks in both dimensions of my life was nice.”

Armenian Christians trapped and facing genocide: an explainer

Demonstrators rally in support of Karabakh to demand the reopening of a blockaded road linking the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia and to decry crisis conditions in the region, in Yerevan on July 25, 2023. / Credit: KAREN MINASYAN/AFP via Getty Images

CNA Staff, Aug 9, 2023 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

More than 120,000 Christian Armenians are currently trapped, without food or medicine, behind a blockade of the Nagorno-Karabakh region maintained by the Muslim-majority nation of Azerbaijan. 

Former ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom Sam Brownback, who recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Armenia, said Azerbaijan is “strangling” the Christians in the region and that the blockade is the regime’s latest attempt at “religious cleansing.”

“They’re working to make it unlivable so that the region’s Armenian-Christian population is forced to leave, that’s what’s happening on the ground,” Brownback said in June. 

Why is Armenia at war with Azerbaijan? 

Since 1988, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, or “Artsakh,” as the Armenians call it.

Though some see the conflict as strictly one over borders, experts have emphasized that religion also plays a central part in the war between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan. Armenia wants to retain its hold on Artsakh, while Azerbaijan wants to expel the Armenian Christian population to solidify its hold on the region, according to Brownback.

Azerbaijan is both politically and philosophically aligned with the major regional power, Turkey. Brownback believes Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has ambitions to reestablish the Ottoman Empire, which committed genocide on Armenian Christians in the early 20th century. 

Sandwiched between the Muslim nations of Turkey and Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus Mountains, Armenia has long been under threat from its larger and more powerful Islamic neighbors.

With Christian roots that go back to ancient times, Armenia has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

Both nations were part of the Soviet Union until it fell in 1991. After the Soviets’ collapse, both claimed Nagorno-Karabakh as their own.

The conflict has escalated into outright war multiple times throughout the years, with several unsuccessful truces being unable to keep the peace.

What’s at stake?

According to several experts who have spent time on the ground in Armenia, the Christian community in Nagorno-Karabakh is facing genocide.

“The situation is extremely urgent and existential,” Robert Nicholson, president of the human rights group the Philos Project, said in June.

“This is the oldest Christian nation facing again for the second time in only about a century the possibility of a genocide,” Nicholson added.

Commentators say international intervention is needed immediately to allow food and necessities to get to the Armenians trapped in Nagorno-Karabakh.

What is the blockade about? 

In 2020, with the backing of Turkey, Azerbaijan reignited the long-simmering conflict by invading Nagorno-Karabakh. A six-week conflict ended in Azerbaijan seizing control of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

The war killed 6,800 combatants, displaced 90,000 people, and left over 100,000 Armenian Christians cut off from the rest of Armenia. A narrow road less than four miles long, called the “Lachin Corridor,” connects Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and is the only way to get food and supplies to the Armenians living there.

In December 2022 pro-government Azerbaijanis, ostensibly protesting Armenian environmental violations, began blockading the Lachin Corridor, cutting off all access to aid. In April, the protests ended after Azerbaijani troops, defying warnings from the international community, established a military checkpoint on the road, continuing the blockade.

How is the blockade threatening Christian lives? 

Since the start of the blockade in December 2022 the plight of the 120,000 Christian Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh has steadily worsened. 

Lusine Stepayan, project manager at the Catholic relief group Caritas Armenia, told CNA in February that the blockaded population includes 30,000 children, 20,000 elderly people, and 9,000 people with disabilities.

“The blockade of the Lachin corridor has left Nagorno-Karabakh without food, medicine, electricity, or natural gas,” Simon Maghakyan, a Denver-based researcher and human rights advocate, told CNA.

“The situation for the entire population is dire,” Maghakyan said. “They are on the brink of mass starvation. But the goal is psychological terror: to make the indigenous Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, who have lived in the region for 2,500 years, feel helpless and hopeless and leave at the first opportunity [when the blockade is lifted] for good.”

What does the pope have to say? 

In his Dec. 18, 2022, Sunday Angelus remarks, Pope Francis voiced his worries about the situation in the Lachin Corridor.

“I ask everyone involved to commit themselves to finding peaceful solutions for the good of the people,” the pope said. 

“In particular, I am concerned about the precarious humanitarian conditions of the populations, which risk further deterioration during the winter season,” Francis added.

Despite the pope’s words and protests from Armenia, international human rights groups, and the United Nations, Azerbaijan has refused to lift the blockade and in January denied that it exists.

According to the Azerbaijani government, Azerbaijan guarantees the safety of civilians, vehicles, and goods traveling through the Lachin Corridor. In its view, these guarantees include “the prevention of abuse along Lachin Road.”

In July, the Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, traveled to both Armenia and Azerbaijan to meet with leaders of both countries. During his visits he discussed strengthening ties between those countries and the Holy See and emphasized the need for dialogue. Parolin's visit drew little media attention at the time, but it was hailed by media outlets in Armenian and Azerbaijani as an important step toward fostering peace in the region.

What are Catholic relief agencies doing?

Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the U.S. bishops’ international aid organization, has been supporting Armenian Christians in Nagorno-Karabakh through financial contributions to Caritas Armenia, the Armenian arm of the international Catholic relief group Caritas.

“After the outbreak of the war in 2020 CRS presence and direct and immediate support came very soon, from the very first days of the war,” Stepayan said. 

The agency provided emergency humanitarian relief, financial support, and capacity-building support to Caritas Armenia.

Caritas International has also supported Caritas Armenia’s fundraising and emergency appeals. 

What can the U.S. do?

Despite the blockade and preceding armed conflict, the U.S. has continued to give Azerbaijan millions of dollars in economic aid, according to U.S. State Department numbers. The U.S. sent more than $13 million in aid to Azerbaijan in the 2022 fiscal year. 

France and the European Union also continue to give Azerbaijan tens of millions of dollars in economic aid in recent years. 

This leads many to believe that international pressure can resolve the situation. 

Former ambassador Brownback has called on the U.S. government to invoke Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act of 1992

Section 907 mandates that U.S. aid and funding “may not be provided to the government of Azerbaijan until the president determines, and so reports to the Congress, that the government of Azerbaijan is taking demonstrable steps to cease all blockades and other offensive uses of force against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.”

Despite continued conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the U.S. has waived this restriction for more than 20 years. 

What’s next? 

The U.S., European Union, Russia, and several other nations helped to facilitate several peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan in May and June. 

In the span of those two months, leaders from the warring nations met in Washington, D.C.; Moscow; Brussels; Chisinau, Moldova; and Ankara, Turkey, leading many to be hopeful that a diplomatic, peaceful solution could soon be on the horizon. 

Though Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has recognized Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani-sovereign territory, he continues to advocate for the rights of the Armenians trapped in the region. 

Thus far there have been no official agreements or resolutions signed by either nation.