Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

Where Irreligious Trends Lead After Decades

By Edward Pentin

ROME, JAN. 12, 2012 (Zenit.org).- To see how disturbing a secularist and increasingly irreligious society can become, one need only look to Sweden.

Abortion has been free on demand and available without parental consent in the country since 1975, resulting in the Nordic nation having the highest teenage abortion rate in Europe (22.5 per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 in 2009).

Swedish law does not in any way recognize the right to conscientious objection for health care workers (last year, the Swedish parliament overwhelmingly passed an order instructing Swedish politicians to fight against the rights of doctors to refuse to participate in abortion).

Meanwhile, sex education is graphic and compulsory, beginning at the age of six, and children from kindergarten age are taught cross-dressing and that whatever feels good sexually is OK. The age of consent is 15.

“We have so many violations of human dignity on so many levels, and so many problems when it comes to social engineering,” explained Johan Lundell, secretary-general of the Swedish pro-life group Ja till Livet. “This has been going on for the past 70 years.”

Lundell was a guest of ours recently at the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (Institute for Human Dignity) where he laid out a catalogue of offenses against human dignity in Swedish society. “We have the highest teenage abortion rate in Europe. Why? Because we say abortion is a human right, it doesn’t kill anything, just takes away a pregnancy,” he said. “And after 20 years of this, young people don’t care any more. Why should they? For 10 to 15 years no one has even said abortion should be legal but rare.”

Its sex education program, seen by some social liberals as groundbreaking but others as far too explicit, has been given by some as the principal reason for a low teenage pregnancy rate. But the high number of abortions among that age group are rarely discussed, nor are the figures disclosed. “No one talks about child abortions,” said Lundell. “They’re ashamed of them. Yet we’re the only country in Europe where there’s abortion on demand, there are no formal procedures, no parental consent, no informed consent.”

Nor are the number of rapes in Sweden widely known or advertised. Yet according to Lundell, over the past 50 years — during this era of loose sexual mores — they have risen by “1,000 percent.”

Lundell further noted that all other countries want to reduce the number of abortions, yet despite having 550 different government departments in Sweden, none has a mission to lower the number of terminations. “Children can see this is wrong, parents can see it’s wrong, and as a society we don’t want it and yet no one talks about it,” Lundell added. “It’s absurd.”

He said that Sweden should “definitely” be taken as a warning to other countries pursuing secularist, socially liberal policies “because then you can see what the agenda is for people, and how the European Union and the United Nations are copying these Scandinavian ideas.”

Returning to the subject of sex education, Lundell said Swedes generally don’t bother any more trying to argue that homosexuality is genetic– a common argument used to promote the same-sex agenda — because the movement is now so fully accepted that it no longer needs this argument as a support. “In sex education books, they don’t talk about someone being heterosexual or homosexual — there are no such things because for them everyone is homosexual,” he said.

Lundell referred to a brochure for children published by same-sex associations, and printed with the help of financing by the state. “They write positively about all kinds of sexuality, every kind, even the most depraved sexual acts, and it goes into all schools,” he explained. “The information is put on Web sites, and school children are told about the Web sites so they can see it.” Teachers, he said, are encouraged to ask students “What turns you on?” yet Lundell pointed out that if the chief executive of a company asked that at a business meeting, he’d be fired. “It would be sexual harassment,” he said. “And yet you train people to do this to children?”

Some parents have made formal complaints, branding it as carnal knowledge, too candid for the classroom and labeling the lessons as “vulgar” and “too advanced.” But the majority acquiesce to the curriculum, while the option to homeschool children is almost forbidden.

Yet to many outsiders, Sweden’s popular image is of a fair, ordered, just and harmonious society — the model example of a functioning welfare state. In many cases this is true if one looks at infant mortality rates, life expectancy, standard of health care and access to education. The level of poverty is also relatively low.

“It’s long been said that if it is not possible to bring about a socialist world in Sweden, then it’s not possible anywhere,” said Lundell. “That’s why some have tried to make it into a socialist paradise. But unlike in, say, Italy or Greece, in Sweden it’s not about the socialism of finances but rather the socialism of families — social engineering, which has been much more visible here than in southern Europe.”

Per Bylund, a Swedish fellow at the Von Mises Institute, once described the all encompassing power of the state thus: “A significant difference between my generation and the preceding one is that most of us were not raised by our parents at all. We were raised by the authorities in state daycare centers from the time of infancy; then pushed on to public schools, public high schools, and public universities; and later to employment in the public sector and more education via the powerful labor unions and their educational associations. The state is ever-present and is to many the only means of survival — and its welfare benefits the only possible way to gain independence.”

Yet this social engineering has had dire consequences. Few European countries have witnessed such a rapid decline in the institution of marriage, nor such an expeditious rise in abortion. During the 1950s and first half of the 1960s, the marriage rate in Sweden was historically at its peak. Suddenly, the rate started dropping so quickly that it saw a decrease of about 50% in less than 10 years. No other country experienced such a rapid change.

Between 2000 and 2010, when the rest of Europe was showing signs of a reduction in annual abortion rates, the Swedish government says the rate increased from 30,980 to 37,693. The proportion of repeat abortions rose from 38.1% to 40.4% — the highest level ever — while the number of women having at least four previous abortions increased from 521 to approximately 750.

With the exception of a few stalwart campaigners such as Lundell, most Swedish Christians — and particularly Christian politicians — remain silent in the face of the countless social violations against human dignity. Little resistance is also given to attacks on religious freedom for Christians, with priority increasingly being given to Sharia law.

Judging by the figures, it could almost be said the faith has packed up altogether. At the end of 2009, 71.3% of Swedes belonged to the Lutheran Church of Sweden — a number that has been decreasing by about one percentage point a year for the last two decades. Of them, only around 2% regularly attend Sunday services. Indeed, some studies have found Swedes to be one of the least religious people in the world and a country with one of the highest numbers of atheists. According to different studies carried out in the early 2000s, between 46% and 85% of Swedes do not believe in God.

Lundell said that although small, the Catholic Church has a good bishop and is helped by immigrants from Poland and Latin America. But Catholics are generally seen as outsiders with little influence and they are wary of overtly campaigning or being seen as “too tough,” he said. Even Pentecostals are reticent to raise objections. “They are probably the only Pentecostal church in the world that doesn’t,” he added.

But despite all this, Lundell, whose organization is attracting a growing number of young people, remains hopeful — and he remains ultimately loyal to his home country. “I’m so proud of Sweden I can’t imagine moving away,” he said. “But I am ashamed of the politics when it comes to the family, sexual politics and restrictions on freedom of religion.”

“Whole parts of society aren’t Sweden any more,” he added. “So we will fight, and we will do so with more eagerness than ever.”

Edward Pentin is a freelance journalist and Communications Director at the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. He can be reached at epentin@zenit.org.

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Former Baltimore Archbishop Comments on ‘Ad Limina’ Visit

By Ann Schneible

ROME, JAN. 20, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Christians must remain ever vigilant in confronting movements that seek to infringe upon religious freedom.

This was the reminder voiced by Cardinal-designate Edwin O’Brien when he spoke to ZENIT today about Benedict XVI’s address Thursday to U.S. bishops on their “ad limina” visit.

The archbishop of Baltimore from 2007 till last year, and now the Pro-Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, Cardinal O’Brien also served for a decade as the archbishop for the Military Services.

The Holy Father announced Jan. 6 that the 72-year-old prelate will be made a cardinal next month.

ZENIT: What have been your impressions of this ad limina visit, especially in light of the upcoming consistory in which you will be created Cardinal?

Cardinal-designate O’Brien: Well, I don’t see much connection, but I’m certainly taking an extra interest in things Roman, since I will be living here soon, as soon as my successor is installed — and I hope that’s very soon, but we’ve had no word on that yet. I will be moving permanently here to Rome, and the visits to these dicasteries have given me some good insight, some good orientation, and kind of a sense of expectation for what awaits me here.

ZENIT: The Holy Father in his discourse to the bishops spoke about the issue of religious freedom. Throughout the world Christians have been facing persecution, both through the secularization of the West and also with violent persecution in other places. What does it mean for you to be created a cardinal at this point in Church history?

Cardinal-designate O’Brien: Aside from being created a cardinal, I think we in the United States have always been concerned about persecution and intolerance around the world. I don’t think we ever expected it to come in the form it is coming in our own country, where the government is impinging on some very good work we are trying to do, to force on us values that are foreign to the Judeo-Christian heritage.

The highlight of this ad limina visit has been the visit with the Holy Father. I don’t think any of us expected as magnificent an allocution as we heard yesterday. He was right on, and made the proper distinctions and it applies perfectly to our country. I hope that we can make best use of that to help our fellow Americans realize that slowly but surely, “Big Brother” is closing in on religious communities such as ours and the good work we’re trying to do.

ZENIT: Could you speak a little more about this problem of the government infringing on religious freedom, such as regards abortion and same-sex marriage. For instance in Baltimore, there was the instance of the mayor speaking in favor of same-sex marriage.

Cardinal-designate O’Brien: In Baltimore, a couple of years ago, we had a novel requirement which would never have been dreamed of, where our pregnancy counseling centers were told by law, passed by the city council, that they had to put a sign up saying: “We do not provide birth-control or abortion services.” Why did we have to do that? That was totally arbitrary on their part, and an attempt to put us out of business in favor of Planned Parenthood. The courts so far have ruled in our favor on this.

[Moreover,] if we imitate other states that have passed legislation regarding same-sex marriage, the next step will be that we have to teach this as appropriate in all our schools, that every one of our institutions has to accept the principle, and the reality in their communities and wherever they work. The next step will be as it is in European countries: if you speak openly about the immorality of same-sex marriage, you’re open to prosecution. It’s a slippery slope, and it’s certainly going to happen.

The basic thing is, that to compare this to discrimination by race, discrimination by color — that’s pigmentation, that’s real discrimination. But we’re talking about the basic fundamental institution of marriage from the very beginning, from Scriptures and through civilized nations has [always] been between a man and a woman open to children. When we try out of sympathy or emotion to change that, it’s a huge and dangerous initiative, and one that is dangerous for our future.

ZENIT: As the Pro-Grand Master of the Equestrian Order of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, could you speak about the conflicts that are going on in the Holy Land, and how the Church in Rome can be present to the Christians there?

Cardinal-designate O’Brien: My responsibility will be to support the Christian institutions in the Holy Land, primarily — but not exclusively — as they relate to the patriarch of Jerusalem. And to encourage members of the order to take interest in what’s going on there: [such as] the diminishing number of Christians, and the many obligations we have in schools and hospitals, seminaries, the obligations we’ve taken on to support these Christian institutions, and many Catholic institutions, and the people living there. [With] so few people living there, help has to come from outside. That is the principle goal that I will have: to educate, to encourage members of the order to take greater interest — not only by their donations, and by their participation in the activities of the order, but certainly by pilgrimage.

Our main emphasis is the personal sanctity of every member of the order. If we accomplish that — and have that especially [present] in this upcoming Year of Faith — and work on the new evangelization with the various lieutenancies and members of our order, I think the rest will fall into place. Our attention and our help to the institutions in the Holy Land and our patriarch there will follow pretty quickly. We’re doing a lot already, but throughout the Church, this new evangelization reminds us that we never are where we should be. There’s always more we can do, and we should not presume without grace. And grace is available to us, and I think there will be many graces during this Year of Faith.

ZENIT: You were the archbishop of the Military Services. What is the state of the military chaplaincy, and how can this new evangelization be brought to the military?

Cardinal-designate O’Brien: From 1997-2007 I was the archbishop for the military services, which includes 1.5 million Catholics in the armed forces of the United States and their families, and veterans’ hospitals, over 170 of them. Archbishop Broglio is now the military ordinary, and he’s doing a wonderful job. Our biggest problem is bringing the faith to our brave and generous men and women of our armed forces and their families. And without priests we can’t do that adequately. We should have more than 800 priests serving in all the branches, and we’re well below 300 right now. And it’s still diminishing.

There are some good signs of vocations; Archbishop Broglio has done wonderful work, and I think there are over 30 seminarians now studying. They will belong to the various dioceses of the country, but after three years of ordination they will join the military. That’s a first, it’s a huge step forward. And I hope that, as a result of the experiences that some of our men have had in combat, and in the armed forces, the sense of generosity, of self-sacrifice, of discipline, there are ample signs that vocations are coming as a result of the reality of sin and hardship and suffering that’s taken place, and the importance of the Church to meet those needs. I think that’s what our young people are going to respond to when it comes to vocations.

Report Shows Historic Low

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JAN. 20, 2011 (Zenit.org).- For the first time since capital punishment was reintroduced in the United States in 1976 the annual number of new death sentences fell below 100 last year. Shortly before the end of the year the Death Penalty Information Center released “The Death Penalty in 2011: Year End Report.”

New death sentences dropped to 78 in 2011. This compares with the high point in 1996, which saw 315 capital punishment sentences. The decline started in the late 90s, which had seen an average of about 300 annual sentences. Since then the number has steadily dropped.

The number of executions also declined, down to 43, three fewer than the previous year.

Only 13 states carried out executions in 2011, 74% of which were in the South, the report pointed out. Only eight states, however, carried out more than one execution. As usual Texas was the state with most executions, with 13. Even so the report pointed out that this number is a 46% decrease from 2009, when there were 24 executions, and also a drop from 2010, when there were 17 executions.

Since 1976 out of the overall number of 1,277 executions Texas has accounted for no less than 477, which is 37% of the total. In 2011, nevertheless, there were only eight new death sentences.

In January, the Illinois legislature voted to repeal the death penalty. In its place is the option of a sentence for life without parole. This made Illinois the fourth state in as many years to abolish capital punishment.

One of the reasons behind the change in Illinois was the cost of the death sentence. A state commission found that $100 million had been spent on assisting counties with death penalty prosecutions over the past seven years.

“The evidence presented to me by former prosecutors and judges with decades of experience in the criminal justice system has convinced me that it is impossible to devise a system that is consistent, that is free of discrimination on the basis of race, geography or economic circumstance, and that always gets it right,” said Governor Pat Quinn as he signed the bill abolishing the death penalty.

This brings down to 34 the number of states that have the death penalty.

As well, in Oregon in November, Governor John Kitzhaber halted a pending execution and declared that no additional executions would occur during his tenure.

Among other news at the state level, in Ohio, the Chief Judge of the state’s Supreme Court convened a 21-person commission to study the problems with the death penalty. Meanwhile, the report said that in Pennsylvania a justice of the Supreme Court described the appellate work being done in many capital cases as marked by “disarray and inconsistencies” and called “for immediate reform.”

Opinion

Support for the death penalty also continued to decline. According to the report an annual Gallup Poll on the death penalty revealed that last year only 61% of people were in favor of the death penalty, the lowest level recorded in recent decades.

The report also observed that the application of death penalty sentences continues to be very arbitrary. In 1972 the Supreme Court stopped the use of the death penalty because it considered it was being applied in an unpredictable and arbitrary way.

Following changes to the laws in some states the Supreme Court allowed the use of the death penalty in 1976. Nonetheless, according to the Death Penalty Information Center death sentences continue to be applied in a very inconsistent fashion.

This accusation was reinforced by a study recently carried out by Professor John Donohue of Stanford Law School. He examined the death penalty sentences handed out from 1973 to 2007 in the state of Connecticut.

In its summary of his findings on Jan. 12 the Death Penalty Information Center reported that Donohue concluded that “the state’s record of handling death-eligible cases represents a chaotic and unsound criminal justice policy that serves neither deterrence nor retribution.”

Donohue found that “arbitrariness and discrimination are defining features of the state’s capital punishment regime.”

According to his study there is no meaningful difference between death-eligible murders in which prosecutors pursue the death penalty and those in which prosecutors do not.

Racial factors also heavily influence the likelihood of receiving a death sentence. Defendants who belong to a racial minority that commit death-eligible murders of white victims are six times more likely to receive a death sentence as minority defendants who commit murders of minorities, Donohue found.

Meanwhile, early news in 2012 suggests that the trend away from the death penalty will continue. On Monday, the Death Penalty Information Center reported that the Pennsylvania Senate recently passed a resolution to initiate a study of the death penalty. It will look at issues such as fairness, equality and costs of capital punishment.

Only three people have been executed since Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty in 1978, but there are more than 200 prisoners on death row.

Witnessing the Show in New York’s Own Colosseum

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JAN. 19, 2012 (Zenit.org).- On a recent trip to New York City, I was struck once again by the intense and dramatic contrasts that live side by side in this cosmopolitan mecca. The juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane that one witnesses there brings to mind some of the most dramatic moments in history.

Sometimes I can glimpse what it must have been like to be in Rome during the first years of legalized Christianity, when the pagans were desperately fighting the oncoming tide of conversion (a win for the Christians,) or in Paris during the Enlightenment when the secularists were mounting the offense against an established Church (things went badly for the Church on that one). Today it feels like another epic battle is raging over the soul of yet another city, and, as in the case of Paris and Rome, the result will have implications for the world.

The New York skirmishes and victories range from the sublime to the ridiculous. And while the political arena may seem to be the best place to watch the battle for America’s soul, I was actually more struck by stories from the contemporary Colosseum: the entertainment world. Amid the theaters and sound stages of New York, I saw innocents thrown to the lions of dance and music, the emergence of a new Ben Hur, and a quiet witness that has prayerfully watched the comings and goings for decades.

Lady Gaga gags the Gospel

Last Thanksgiving, while Americans were thanking God (or some unspecified, unseen benefactor) for their blessings, pop singer Lady Gaga, baptized Stephanie Germanotta, was offering thanks to herself for the gift of herself at her former high school, the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Manhattan.

Sacred Heart School was founded in 1881 by the French congregation of the Society of the Sacred Heart, and is the oldest private school for girls in New York. Ms. Germanotta filmed her “holiday” special at the school reflecting on the events and experiences of her 29 years.

Granted, Sacred Heart isn’t known for producing Nobel prize winners — most of the celebrity alumnae are actresses — but one wonders what alumna Eunice Kennedy-Shriver would have made of Ms. Germanotta crooning her hit “Born This Way” (the tired genetic excuse for unbridled sexual license) after Kennedy-Shriver’s lifetime crusade to help people born with disabilities to lead a life of dignity.

Ms. Germanotta is less known for her formidable singing talent than for her provocative get-ups and tawdry music videos, which are usually one step shy of pornography. Taking a page from her predecessor Madonna, Gaga has a penchant for using Christian imagery in her exhibitions, from wearing an upside down cross over her genitals to donning a parody of a religious habit in red latex and eating rosary beads. With this in mind one wonders whether she is truly the best role model for a K-12 audience in a “Catholic” school. As Catholics, do we honor anyone who achieves notoriety, or those who provide a model of Christian virtue?

More pointedly still, Ms. Germanotta is an active supporter of contraceptive and abortion providers, and a very determined proponent of gay “marriage.” Curious that this gave no pause to school leaders and parents who permitted 8-year-olds in their Catholic school uniforms to sing her anthems before a television camera.

This situation bears more than a passing resemblance to Notre Dame University’s 2009 decision to confer an honorary degree on the openly pro-abortion President Barack Obama. If we are going to offer platforms to those who denigrate our teaching, how can we be surprised if the faithful are confused?

But what is most striking to me, in the present climate of sex abuse and scandal, is that no one questioned Ms. Germanotta’s performance of her song “Bad Romance” in front of the high school students singing into a phallic-shaped microphone. Were a priest or a religious sister to do something of the sort, the law suits would (rightly) accumulate faster than Lady Gaga’s costume changes. As it stands, parents, children and teaching faculty proudly stood by and applauded. The New York notion of protecting youth and setting a good example for young women seems oddly contradictory.

This is not the first time Ms. Germanotta has returned to her old school. In 2010, she attended her sister’s graduation wearing a transparent lace bodysuit and black veiled hat, eclipsing the achievement of the graduates by drawing attention to herself. Even media sympathetic to the singer recognized that she was “getting even” with a school where she had felt “bullied.” Not unlike Lord Voldemort and Hogwart’s, Lady Gaga too got her revenge, unfortunately with the full support of the director of Sacred Heart School.

Book of Mormon vs. The Joy of Sex

Lady Gaga’s adolescent antics are minor compared to the expletive extravaganza set to music in the Broadway musical, “Book of Mormon,” which I saw together with a Mormon friend. Written by the authors of “South Park,” it opened in March 2011 to constantly sold out audiences. Critics heaped praise and awards on the musical, while detractors mutter that the teachings of the Church of the Latter Day Saints have been taken out of context. Yet most commentators suggest that it’s all fun and games set to catchy music.

I admit, I was an erstwhile fan of South Park and its equal opportunity satire, but Book of Mormon seemed less democratic in its jabs. The story is ostensibly about two young Mormon missionaries sent to Uganda to share their scripture. The villagers are uninterested as their lives are consumed by poverty, famine and AIDS. When the local warlord plots to mutilate the women of the village, however, the villagers decide to feign conversion so as to flee. When they go for instruction from the Mormons they encounter an especially ignorant missionary who makes up his own revelation from snippets of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. When the ruse is discovered, all conclude that religion is better when taken as a metaphor instead of literally.

My first red flag went up with the portrayal of the Ugandans, seen as virtually illiterate, and enslaved by their sexual instincts. I don’t know what a Ugandan would make of being presented as almost bestial in his desires and with a vocabulary limited to profanity. (In the show, all but one of the 75 instances of foul language are uttered by the Ugandans.)

Furthermore, the story presumes that female genital mutilation is a normal practice despite the fact that Uganda outlawed the practice in 2009, blazing the trail for other African nations. And although the plot supposes that the overwhelming majority of Ugandans are infected with the AIDS virus, Uganda has been the most successful battleground against AIDS with its “ABC” policy, of Abstinence, “Be faithful,” and Condoms, with the latter seen as a last resort. Thanks to this program HIV has declined dramatically in Uganda, and between 1991 and 2007, HIV infection rates dropped by more than 50%.

Frankly, the AIDS question made me realize this was not merely a satire of what Mormons believe, but also an attack on any religion that teaches morals, especially sexual morals. From that moment on, I saw every joke about the Mormon angel Moroni as if it were about Gabriel and the Virgin Birth, and the show became less funny.

The next, very catchy, number was called “turn it off,” about leaving painful experiences behind and forging onward. If these were Catholic missionaries, it would be called “offer it up.” After a few desultory lyrics about authentic family tragedies, the song gets to its real point: homosexuality. At this point the missionaries are transformed into a pink-sequined kick-line of sexually repressed young men.

That’s when I started to do a little math. Proposition 8, the California amendment banning gay marriage, was passed in November 2008, largely with the support of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who provided a great deal of the funding and the door-to-door canvassing to pass the legislation. The Mormons were very hard hit in the backlash from gay activists with everything from protests, to vandalism, to threats of violence.

“Book of Mormon,” like Lady Gaga’s return to high school, smacks of revenge served with music and lyrics. The authors claim to have a long-standing interest in Mormons, but I suspect that the rewrites between 2008 and 2010 underscored the homosexual angle.

Again, it seems that by slapping the LDS, the writers were really after any church that stands by its teachings. As a Catholic watching Broadway bully the Mormons, I kept thinking, why don’t you pick on someone your own size?

“Book of Mormon” is weakened further by its relentless obscenity. Even The New York Times review of the play admitted that the musical was “more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak.”

A friend and fellow art historian had perhaps the most reasoned criticism of the show, “So much expense, so much work and so much talent … for this?” The sexual humor and profanity soon become tired gags.

Engaging the camera

While the dark clouds of sex and satire obscuring stage and screen may suggest a bleak forecast, I also witnessed a great force for the year of evangelization, in the newly nominated Cardinal-elect Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York.

The morning of Jan. 6, I went to morning Mass in the cathedral (silly me, I thought Epiphany was a holy day of obligation) and saw Cardinal Dolan just hours after the nomination, as TV cameras and reporters were piling into the church. Archbishop Dolan met the cameras with ease, explaining his new duties and his commitment to his present responsibilities with a clarity, confidence and joy that was more engaging than any show tune.

He then walked across the street to the set of the Today show, and, pre-empting politics and entertainment, used his new status for a few instants of morning evangelization.

My most memorable New York moment, however, was walking out of the “Book of Mormon” theater, relativist mantras still resounding in my head, and seeing a little chapel directly across the street. It was the Actor’s Chapel dedicated to St. Malachy, which has been quietly sitting on 49th Street since 1902. The prayerful space holds chapels to St. Genesius, the patron saint of actors and St. Cecelia, the patroness of music. Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne, Bob Hope and Ricardo Montalban prayed here, and Jimmy Durante served at Mass.

The tabernacle with its little red Eucharistic lamp reminds us that Christ sees all. He has been mocked before, far more severely than any musical taunt could, and he has triumphed.

BLUEFIELDS, Nicaragua, FEB. 28, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Nicaragua is a country that has been ravaged by civil war, dictatorships and natural disasters. Today it is one of the poorest countries in the Western world.

Capuchin  is the auxiliary bishop of the Vicariate of Bluefields, which serves almost all of the eastern half of the country, including what is known as the Mosquito Coast.

The 62-year-old prelate is a native of East Chicago, Indiana, and he recently spoke of the life of the Church in Nicaragua with the television program “Where God Weeps” of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.

The transcription of the interview will appear in two parts. Part 2 will appear Monday.

Q: Bishop can you tell us, how did a Polish-American ended up in Bluefields, Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: My grandparents were the ones who came over from Poland about 100 years ago. I was interested in becoming a priest and I was attracted to the Capuchins. They seem to be a very happy group.

I went to the seminary and I heard stories about the missions in Nicaragua, and so I volunteered. My superiors responded, “We need you there.” I was ordained in June 1974, and in January 1975 I was in Nicaragua.

Q: What was your first impression when you arrived?

Bishop Zywiec: When I arrived I was a little surprised. I came with a classmate of mine. We came driving down in a jeep that was a donation. We were bringing it down to Nicaragua and I thought we’d get a kind of heroes’ welcome.

But the thing is, about a week before we came there was a kidnapping and the president imposed Marshall Law and a curfew in the country. We didn’t know that. So, we arrived at about 9 p.m. We are crossing the border right before it closed.

The other Capuchins said: “What! You’re coming in at this time? Don’t you know that there is curfew? Some half-crazy soldier could have shot you and left you for dead on the side of the road.”

So it was a realization of the violent reality there, and that was our first impression.

Q: Have you ever been threatened or felt threatened at all during your time in Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: Well, one time when I was working in the jungle. When I first arrived they sent “the older missionaries to the towns, the younger ones to the jungle.”

That was also at the time the Sandinistas, the organization rebelling against the government; they were hiding there [in the jungle], and I heard there were bombings over there and I was kind of afraid.

I said to myself, “My mom and dad are paying taxes to help the U.S. government, and the U.S. government is helping the Nicaraguan government, and they are dropping bombs on this area here, against the guerrillas.”

Well I never saw any of these bombs, but it made me a little afraid. But God is good, and I am here right now.

Q: What was the most difficult thing that you had to overcome or adapt to in your new life in Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: I arrived in 1975, and this was right after the Second Vatican Council. When I went through the seminary — studying theology — I felt pretty good, you know, because we had new theology, something about pastoral counseling. I felt I was up-to-date compared to these old missionaries.

But then the government army came and took some of the people prisoners and tortured them. Some “disappeared,” or we found out later they were killed. Over a two-year period of time we found that there were 300 people who were missing because of the government.

What do you do in situation like that? We never even had training for that!

Q: You never dreamt to you would confront this.

Bishop Zywiec: No, we never talked about this in theology class! We talked about pastoral counseling, and youth apostolates and so forth, and this was a crisis. The only thing I was able to do is just take the information and pass it to the bishop — Bishop Schlaefer — and I felt very supported by him.

Q: In the Bluefields Vicariate there is what is called the “Mosquito Coast.” Where did this name come from?

Bishop Zywiec: The Eastern part of Nicaragua, which is in the Bluefields’ Vicariate, was never conquered by the Spanish, and so the Miskito Indians who lived there were autonomous.

And they also were able to, you might say, have an empire that went all the way from the Caribbean Coast of Panama through Costa Rica along Nicaragua into Honduras. So they were powerful back then, in the 1700s.

Q: Vicariate Apostolic of Bluefields is an area of 22,825 Square Miles. It’s enormous! What does a typical pastoral visit look like for you in your travels to the villagers — in seeking out your parishioners?

Bishop Zywiec: Usually what I tell the people is that I like four things: I like time to hear confessions. Then I celebrate Mass and then a confirmation or some other sacrament is requested, such as a baptism or a marriage.

And then I like to have a meeting with the church board: It gives me more of a chance for dialogue.

Then I say: “I’d like something to eat.” Generally, you know, when the bishop comes — since there is no electricity — lots of times they’ll kill a cow or a pig because there is no refrigeration. So there is food for everybody, and everybody eats!

Q: Vicariate Apostolic of Bluefields is almost half of all of Nicaragua. You are 25 priests. Are you not a bit overwhelmed?

Bishop Zywiec: Yes, that’s a problem. We have roughly 1,000 chapels and 14 parishes. A small parish would have one priest with about 30 chapels to take care of. There is a priest from north of Milwaukee; he is in his late 70s and he visits over 100 chapels.

Every Sunday in the chapels, we’ll have a celebration of the Word, so those who lead these celebrations are called “Delegates of the Word.” Usually we’ll have two of them in each chapel so in case one gets sick or one can’t make it, we always have a back up.

Then we have a catechist for baptism, a catechist for first Communion and confession, catechist for confirmation, and catechist for marriage.

We have training courses usually once a year for these different catechists. Some parishes will have courses for musicians. And then there are movements — we call them retreat movements — and it’s a way of helping the faith grow, you know, preparing leaders. So we depend a lot on the laity.

Q: How many missionaries are you? You mentioned that you have a number of missionaries that are getting older. Where is the new generation of priests coming from? Are there vocations coming from Nicaragua?

Bishop Zywiec: The priests that we can count on would be the priests who come from the Vicariate of Bluefields; there are missionaries and there are people who help, but our native diocesan priest are the ones we are able to count on more, and we find that a lot of our vocations come from families that are leaders in the community.

For example, where there is a married deacon, or a Delegate of the Word, there is this Christian commitment and that’s fertile ground for vocations, not just to the priesthood but also to the religious life. For example, in one town of about 10,000, in the past 20 years, 15 girls have gone to the convent. I think that’s a beautiful thing to see something like that.

Q: What expressions of popular faith or devotions are there in the vicariate?

Bishop Zywiec: We have lots of processions. In my experience in the United States processions are usually held inside, but in Nicaragua it’s a warmer climate and the people are use to having processions outside, such as during Holy Week.

For Holy Week in some of the towns they have processions for the Way of the Cross, and for the Easter Vigil there is the blessing of the Pascal candle outside and then the procession into the church.

For our patronal feasts as well we have a procession with the statue of the patron saint going through town, singing songs, praying the rosary. This is a normal, normal part of church life. We just pray it doesn’t rain too much.

Q: Other than the size of the territory, what would you say is the greatest challenge to evangelizing the Miskito people?

Bishop Zywiec: Although the territory is big, it is perhaps not so much a problem of size, but of transportation and communication. I think in that whole area, we have about 100 kilometers (62 miles) of paved road and the rest is gravel road. It rains a lot, and lots of times there are places where you get stuck.

Another thing is that of the 1,000 chapels, 100 are Miskito-speaking; the rest are Spanish-speaking. They are mainly farmers — subsistence farmers — involved in dairy farming or cattle farming.

Perhaps one of our main concerns is that people are not only able to receive the sacraments — to be baptized — but also that they learn their faith and what it means in their daily lives to live a deeper evangelization. I believe too, vocational promotion is an important thing for us so that we have available priests for the future.

And human promotion is an important thing in the form of schools, in the form of our health programs so that people not just hear the Word of God, but are able to live a human life and be able to be involved in the national life, and not be, you might say, forgotten — to be able to participate and participate conscientiously.

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This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for “Where God Weeps,” a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.