By Catherine Smibert
ROME, OCT. 14, 2004 (Zenit.org).- A famed hostage negotiator, Monsignor Héctor Fabio Henao, had a sobering message this week at the Caritas Internationalis official launch of a campaign for peace in Colombia.
“Colombia is in a humanitarian crisis and it seems that no one knows or cares about it,” the monsignor told participants gathered Wednesday at a meeting in the Vatican’s Piazza San Calisto.
His listeners included key players in the Colombian peace negotiations. Caritas Secretary-General Duncan MacLaren described the aim of the group’s peace program as being to make an “imprint on the social agenda of the international community.”
MacLaren explained that Colombia is the “third worst humanitarian disaster in the world after the Sudan and Congo.”
I attended this conference, and Monsignor Henao, who also directs Caritas Colombia and the bishops’ social-pastoral program there, told me how “the building and sustenance of peace are priorities of the bishops’ conference in Colombia.”
These are the same bishops who recently returned home after their five-yearly visit to Rome.
“Throughout Colombia’s 40-year-old conflict,” Monsignor Henao explained, “the Church has often been the only channel of communication between warring factions. In isolated regions, the clergy fill a void left by the absence of state authority.”
While in Rome, Bishop Luis Felipe Sánchez Aponte of Chiquinquira told me that the Church provides structured forms of mediation between warring factions. Where the Church’s approach differs from the government’s is one of “profound examination,” he said.
“The government is difficult to work with as they tend not to examine the root causes of the struggle,” the prelate said.
This is why “the bishops appreciated the importance of the regrouping and analytical exercises offered to them during this ‘ad limina'” visit to the Holy See, Bishop Sánchez Aponte said.
The war in Colombia pits government forces against two main Marxist guerrilla groups. A paramilitary force, originally established to combat the guerrillas in rural regions, has now become a party in its own right. Several splinter groups from these factions have formed, complicating the political and military outlook.
Another speaker at the Rome conference was Claire Dixson, the head of the Latin American section of the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, CAFOD.
She confirmed the difference between the Church and state when she recounted, “It is only through the Catholic Church’s persistent studies that we have discovered the extent of the civil rights violations and the 3 million officially displaced people in Colombia.”
“When the issue of displacement was brought up to the government a few years back,” she continued, “they denied it was a problem affecting their country.”
John Paul II has continually reinforced the necessity for Colombia’s bishops to focus on peacemaking in their country.
During this recent Rome visit, the Colombian bishops discussed their personal role in resolving the country’s long and bloody civil war. The Church plays no formal role in political affairs, but bishops and other Catholic officials continue to play a vital role as they arrange and sometimes mediate meetings between government officials and rebel leaders.
“Our main challenge is to obtain dialogue or approximation between the government and the guerillas,” Bishop Sánchez Aponte said.
For the past nine years, the Colombian bishops’ conference has maintained a permanent Commission for National Reconciliation, which gathers respected public figures from various parts of society.
When those talks broke down in 2002, for example, the bishops continued to act as mediators between the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government. The bishops have also begun to arrange talks between government officials and leaders of the rebel ELN and AUC.
In May, the Church even helped broker a deal between the government and striking workers for the state oil company, Ecopetrol.
The Pope has urged the bishops to contribute to building a society upon the Christian principles of truth, justice, love and freedom.
Bishop Sánchez Aponte and Monsignor Henao told me that their country’s bishops want Colombians to join together and express their thinking, not only about the armed conflict but also about the urgent need they have to convert their lives to the love of God and of their brothers and sisters.
“As bishops,” Monsignor Henao explained, “their main concern is that of the evangelization of the people.”
Bishop Sánchez Aponte agrees. “Our real challenge is to obtain a religious culture, a culture of Christ,” he said. “This is to give a new spirit to a culture that has no real sense of what life really means … it is in this culture where ultimate peace will be found.”
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Rome’s Response to “Mane Nobiscum Domine”
“Mane Nobiscum Domine” (Stay with Us Lord), the apostolic letter released last Friday, gives the Church at large “a renewed sense of responsibility regarding their presentation of the Blessed Sacrament,” the prelate secretary of the Vicariate of Rome told me.
Monsignor Mauro Parmeggiani outlined the ways that Rome will respond in active and celebratory ways to this apostolic letter. At the Vatican press conference that presented the document, he said that he “hopes we will be able to set an example for other dioceses seeking ideas as to how to best highlight the importance of this yearlong theme.” The Year of the Eucharist begins this Sunday.
I asked Monsignor Parmeggiani why it was so important for the heart of Christendom to reflect so much on the Eucharist. His concerns went straight to the young people.
“The Eucharist is the center of our faith,” Monsignor Parmeggiani said. “But it is difficult to impart this teaching to many people, especially the Roman youth of today, due to its transcendental nature. … They are almost used to the Church just being all around them that they’ve almost forgotten why it is there.”
He added: “Attempting to transmit the truth that the bread and wine, consecrated during the Mass, become the living body and blood of our Lord, could almost be seen as a metaphysical crisis.”
“However,” he said, “the fact that it still has the capacity to stupefy and fascinate humanity is witness to many of its mysterious glory and that’s what we need to show.”
The Roman Vicariate has already been active, in the days leading up to the presentation of the apostolic letter and the International Eucharistic Congress, in Mexico.
“We have already begun by having outdoor Eucharistic adoration and reflective music in one of the city’s major squares,” Monsignor Parmeggiani told me. “In fact, 14 nations will be represented.”
Meandering around the center of Rome, one does get the impression that the Eucharist is opening doors, which may never have been opened before.
Every Thursday evening, for example, a group of young people have been witness to many “off-the-street conversions” as they meet to adore the exposed Blessed Sacrament in the Church of St. Agnes, situated in the very center of town.
“People just walk in off the street, whether they be tourists, artists, pilgrims — you name it,” explained John Kunz, one of the groups of “stranieri,” or foreigners, who stop in for adoration at the church.
A student at the University of the Holy Cross, in Rome, Kunz told me that “the evening attracts or draws in everyone, through the reflective music played, the incense burning, the sense of prayer, confession options in different languages, and the presence of the youth adoring the divine presence of Our Lord.”
Such a dedicated collection of young people in Rome can also be seen nightly at the Vatican-run Centro San Lorenzo.
“Eucharistic adoration is the fulcrum of our daily activities,” explained Anne-Sophie Cutté, a new director of this youth facility inaugurated by John Paul II in 1983.
“We try to encourage pilgrimage groups to do as the Holy Father designed for this place and ‘reawaken the sensitivity for the reality of God’ as they gaze at him,” Cutté said.
This is a similar aim that the Church of St. Anastasia has, though it focuses more on its own Rome-based pilgrims.
This statuesque quasi-ancient structure is just above Circus Maximus. Its chapel, which has round-the-clock Eucharistic adoration and a signup sheet for turns, is almost always full, according to my personal experience. It’s difficult to not have a new sense of devotion when walking away from one’s time there.
Monsignor Parmigianni expressed his desire to get “other churches in Rome to follow suit.”
But the vicariate doesn’t want to stop here. “Art and music will also be modes in which we will encourage creative souls to express and present the Body and Blood of Christ to the world,” he said.
Rome offered some wonderful musical concerts and exhibitions over the last week — from a classical spectacle with Vatican liturgical music expert Monsignor Marco Frisina, to youths playing guitars in Piazza Navona.
But though these activities “are all wonderful,” Monsignor Parmeggiani said, “it is vital to take necessary care to help the faithful to properly prepare for the celebration of the day of the Lord. Catechists will receive a special Eucharistic formation this year prior to teaching religion in the schools and parishes.”
This ideal was supported by the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, Cardinal Francis Arinze, during the Friday press conference.
He said that as many people, including the faithful, have forgotten or don’t understand the full significance of the Eucharist, it is up to those in positions of leadership to organize activities at the grass-roots level.
The cardinal noted: “The Holy Father says that the whole celebration program is really entrusted to bishops and priests. … Bring it down to the parish level!”
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Catherine Smibert can be reached at email@example.com.