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A Church in Qatar

Despite the bleak news about the situation of Christians in much of the Middle East, there are occasional bright spots and reasons for hope. One glows in the southern part of Doha, the capital of Qatar, on a large parcel of land provided by the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, to the Catholic community for the construction of a church. The emir is much admired by Bishop Giovanni Gremoli, O.F.M.Cap., who served as apostolic vicar of Arabia for nearly 30 years. The emir has fostered international interfaith religious dialogue and in 2002 established diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

There are more than 100,000 Catholics resident in Qatar. Most of them are from from the Philippines and India; a smaller number come from Europe, Africa and the Americas. Taken together, they form a significant percentage of the country’s population. As the largest Christian group, they received the largest grant of land for a church building. On it they are raising the country’s first Catholic church, to be dedicated in February 2008 to Our Lady of the Rosary. The complex will also contain a conference center, residence, bookshop and café. To accommodate local sensitivities, it will not have a bell tower or a cross, and it will be open only to the members of the Catholic community. “Soon we will be able to celebrate Mass in a true church,” said the pastor designate.

Love of Church and Nation

The fruits of the lengthy and careful dialogue between the Chinese government and the Vatican became slightly more visible on Sept. 21, when Joseph Li Shan was ordained bishop at the Immaculate Conception cathedral in Beijing. The tightly controlled ceremony was witnessed by a thousand people. There were security guards, photos were prohibited and the foreign press was excluded. But the presider was Bishop John Fang Xingyao of Linyi, who was among the first of the Chinese bishops to seek approval of the Holy See for his own appointment. Only after the ordination did the official Chinese press and l’Osservatore Romano make mention of it.

In his letter to Chinese Catholics earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI called upon bishops in communion with Rome to make their ties known and to provide clear signs of their union with the successor of Peter. That is precisely what Bishop Li Shan did. At his ordination, while he was giving thanks to his family, who provided him with a Catholic education, and to the religious who formed him, he declared that his vocation is to love the church and his nation. And at his first public Mass as bishop in Beijing’s Saint Saviour Church, he stated, “I wish to thank the pope,” thus eliminating any ambiguities about his appointment. He called on the faithful to recognize the urgent need to live the mission of the Gospel with an awareness of their environment, since they live in a society that is seeking spiritual values. The unity shown in the ordination of Bishop Li Shan is another welcome step on the path to reconciliation and the normalization of relations with China. We would hope that formal talks between Rome and Beijing will soon follow.

Great Catholic Books

In a small room on New York’s Upper East Side, amid gilt candelabras, a hanging tapestry, dark portraits and a paneled ceiling, a little crowd recently gathered with Don Brophy, an ostensibly retired, longtime editor at Paulist Press, to launch his latest labor, 100 Great Catholic Books: From the Early Centuries to the Present (BlueBridge). As the publisher poured wine, Brophy explained the criteria for his choices: Catholic authorship, a span of centuries, a mix of genres, books still in print, one book per writer, accessible to readers today. He said he did not rank the entries or claim these as “the greatest” Catholic books. Then he began to read snatches from the book, commenting as he went.

The Rule of St. Benedict, he said, was perhaps the second “book of the church” after the Bible; Brother Lawrence did not even write his best seller himself, The Practice of the Presence of God, a selection of his sayings and writings gathered posthumously; Kristin Lavransdatter, the Norwegian saga by Sigrid Undset, may “win new readers” because of an award-winning new translation; and She Who Is, Elizabeth Johnson’s theological work, ponders a seldom-asked question in Catholic tradition: What would God be like imaged as a woman?

Afterward, the group asked about Brophy’s favorite—“It changes every day”—and which books might help a Jew better understand Catholicism—“Try the fiction.”

Mostly, the event celebrated the sheer joy of reading great books—the considered, well-crafted thoughts of another. Here was a roomful of people whose lives are shaped by authors who have reached them across experience, geography, culture, language and time. Given our culture’s infatuation with speed, which militates against reflection, could e-mail messages or blogs ever produce such an effect? Or will we celebrate books forever?

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