By Catherine Smibert
ROME, JUNE 30, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Participants at a Vatican conference on the world's growing sex trade concluded that the time has arrived for the Church to take bigger steps toward freeing modern-day slaves.
The June 20-21 conference, organized by the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, presented shocking statistics and stories of the victims who are bought, sold and trafficked across the globe. Many of these souls face extreme physical and psychological exploitation.
An estimated 500,000 women from Eastern Europe are enslaved and forced to prostitute themselves on the streets of Western Europe alone. The data are even more staggering from Asia, India, Africa and the Americas.
Catholic organizations and religious communities are already active in the field of rescuing the victims of human trafficking. Yet, Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, the secretary of the host pontifical council, told me how the Church could improve in its role, especially in raising public awareness of the scourge.
"I believe that it's a problem and phenomenon affecting each country, and because the universal Church is incarnated in the different local Churches, it is important that every single one should have a conscious awareness of it," Archbishop Marchetto said. "They should aim at giving visibility to this problem. In spite of it being 'known,' its intricacies are highly unknown."
Officials said that human trafficking is the third biggest crime in the world, rivaling the illicit sale of drugs and arms. Archbishop Marchetto insisted that it's not good enough for us to just sit back and watch while the "saints" do the work.
"We, the faithful, cannot leave any questions open regarding this fight," he said. "It is a question of slavery and freedom or liberation."
"It's too big an issue to just be left to the pioneers or the very charismatic individuals like Italy's Father Benzi or Sister Bonetti, but must begin to officially be taken up as a shared responsibility for all."
Father Oreste Benzi is president of the Pope John XXIII Community, a private international association of faithful of pontifical right that aims to care for the marginalized. Sister Eugenia Bonetti, of the Italian Union of Major Superiors, is an expert in the problem of human trafficking.
Sister Bonetti was praised by the U.S. Department of State for her work in combating the crime. At the Vatican conference she offered practical guidelines for fighting human trafficking and emphasized how a new "focus should be on the demand for the services too."
Sister Bonetti said that she would not have to be trying to raise the 80,000 euros ($96,000) to free each young woman enslaved if society were better informed of the problems and imbued with stronger concepts of morality.
"We must give a voice to the voiceless in order to confront this evil," she told me.
Archbishop Marchetto translated this for me to mean that bishops will have to place trafficking on their agendas. "I hope that from here, the various episcopal conferences may realize how vital this battle is," he said.
The executive secretary for the Indian bishops' conference, Sister Lilly Francis, said it would not be an easy feat to encourage a pastoral plan for trafficked victims, but was "happy with this primary step taken by the Church."
"For a long time no one was talking about it," she explained. "I would try to tell them of our innocent tribal girls brought to our metropolitan areas like Bombay and of the abuse, but I was rarely heard."
Sister Francis says that it was extremely beneficial to make contact in Rome now.
"One certainty we share is that, whether we want to hear it or not, innocent women and children are unknowingly being sent into the extreme depths of perversion on a daily basis," she said. "In some cultures their families disown them, in others they disappear after their 'use-by date' of 30 if they are lucky to live that long. …
"Whatever the case, though, we cannot be quiet about it any longer."
[Work has been already done in this field in Rome through past conferences hosted by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. See ( vatican.usembassy.it/policy/events/index.asp.]
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Outside the Walls
When Rome prepares to celebrate the feast of its two great apostle patrons, the media coverage tends to revolve, understandingly, around St. Peter's Basilica.
This year, as the June 29 solemnity was approaching, I decided to be countercultural. With most eyes on the famous landmark at the Vatican, I went across town, to St. Paul's Outside the Walls.
En route, I noticed how Rome was preparing to venerate the memory of the first Pope and the Apostle to the Gentiles.
From the local buses draped in Roman flags, to saintly puppet-shows in city parks, everyone got in on the action. The city provided a variety of fireworks, along with musical processions lead by community bands followed by faithful carrying statues of the two saints and praying the rosary.
Before entering the basilica and making the traditional visit to St. Paul's tomb, beneath the baldacchino, I took a detour on my journey and was pleasantly surprised to find the original top-slab of the saint's coffin is in a small nearby museum.
Situated at Porta San Paolo, the museum houses sacred art objects, mosaics, souvenirs and many Roman artifacts which could be missed if you're not attentive.
St. Paul's stone slab of two fragments takes up a huge part of a wall. Crudely chiseled into it are the words sloping upward to the right -- "Paulus" and "Apostolo mart." The truncated last word was all the stonemason could fit in at the time. Still, the sheer enormity and semi-precision of it demonstrates that the carver was dedicated to his subject!
Accompanying St. Paul's original tombstone at this location is that of St. Monica's, the mother of St. Augustine. Nearby, broken parts of a wall include ancient graffiti bespeaking of both politics and faith.
Upstairs, the stone carving room holds more evidence of the early Christians, seen by their marking everything with a fish.
With all this in mind, I went to the basilica better prepared to kneel at the remains of St. Paul with people of other cultures and denominations and consider how far the Christian faith has developed beyond this Italian city.
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Remembering John Paul II
Over these past two weeks the Eternal City presented some significant works of the Holy See.
Two of these -- "Benedict's Europe in the Crisis of Cultures," by Benedict XVI, and "Go Out to the Whole World," by assorted Vatican journalists writing on Pope John Paul II -- were released on different ceremonious occasions.
What was striking about both events were the presentations made by leading Roman politicians.
Rome often is thought to be losing its knowledge of and fervor for the Church that it has hosted all these centuries. Yet recently there appears to be a resurgence of respect and honor for the Church, if not for the faith per se.
Attending the launch of Benedict XVI's book, the president of the Italian Senate, Marcello Pera, strove to express the vital link between both worlds, noting that "for the Christian, this event and this person of the Pope are essences of their faith … for the nonbeliever, the same event and persona are a part of their culture, history and identity."
A self-professed agnostic, Pera ventured to promote that there must be collaboration among Catholics, nonbelievers, and believers of other religions in order "to rediscover a common morality."
This was a theme also promoted by Pera when he wrote a book with the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, called "Senza Radici. Europa, Relativismo, Cristianesimo, Islam" (Without Roots: Europe, Relativism, Christianity and Islam).
Such conviction from a recognized nonreligious Roman leader was witnessed once more on Monday at the inauguration of a new volume on the late John Paul II by the Italian "Vaticanisti."
There, the city's mayor, Walter Veltroni, shed light on Rome's interaction with the Church, using a variety of insights from the book, along with his own experiences.
Veltroni spoke of the greatness of John Paul II's figure, not just for the world but particularly for Rome. "He reached us even in our own dialect," the mayor said.
The mayor recalled how his city wanted to give something back to the one had led them as their Bishop for a quarter-century.
"My city didn't just provide an efficient response for the practical elements surrounding the funeral of Papa Wojtyla, but rather, gave all its heart," he said. "There can be a cold efficiency, but you sense the difference when the efficiency is really felt like that."
On the eve of the opening of John Paul II's beatification process, Veltroni rhetorically asked those of us present: "In that call of 'Santo Subito' [sainthood now], what was there but the need to prolong an assured devotion … that responded to the great questions of our times, especially of this rich and opulent society in which we live?"
One of the reflections in the book, by Piero Schiavazzi, editor of the book, which is actually "Andate in Tutto il Mondo, I Vaticanisti Italiani Raccontano Giovanni Paolo II," summed up the journalists' sentiments. The journalists, Schiavazzi writes, express how "through him, Rome was able to reach the rest of the world in a way never before seen."
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Catherine Smibert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Catherine Smibert