Signs of the Times

Report Links Religious Freedom to Democracy

A nation that lacks freedom of religion is stunting its own social, economic and political development, said speakers presenting an annual report on religious freedom around the world. Religious freedom guarantees the establishment and protection of democracy and “without religious liberty, there can be no democracy or peace in the world,” said the Rev. Joaquin Alliende Luco, president of Aid to the Church in Need. This Catholic organization, which funds religious projects in 136 countries, released its annual report at a press conference Oct. 23 in Rome.

One of the panelists presenting the 2008 report, the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, who heads the Rome-based missionary news agency AsiaNews, said violations of religious freedoms impoverish a nation. He said today violence against people professing a particular religion decreasingly stems from “irrational fundamentalism,” colonialism or political ideologies. Instead, such aggression is mostly “simply motivated by power,” he said.


The organization’s annual report compiles information directly from the churches the aid agency assists, news articles, official government documents and human rights organizations.

Two Jesuits Murdered in Moscow

Two Jesuit priests were murdered in Moscow after being brutally attacked with blunt objects. Otto Messmer, S.J., 47, and Victor Betancourt, S.J, 42, were found dead late Oct. 28 in their Moscow apartment. In a note distributed to journalists at the Vatican press hall, the Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, S.J., said a police investigation was under way.

Father Lombardi reported that authorities suspect Father Betancourt had been killed before Oct. 26, since he had not shown up to celebrate Sunday Mass that day. Father Messmer may have been killed Oct. 27, since he had returned to Moscow from Germany that night. Concerned about not having seen or heard from the priests, another Jesuit went to their apartment Oct. 28 and found them dead.

Father Adolfo Nicolás, superior general of the Jesuits, called on all Jesuits to pray for their brothers in Russia and for an end to all violence. Father Messmer, a Russian citizen, was born in Kazakhstan. He had been head of the Russian independent region of the Society of Jesus since 2002.

Father Betancourt, an Ecuadoran citizen, studied in Argentina, Germany and Rome and had been working in Russia since 2001. The two priests worked together at the Church of St. Louis de France in Moscow.

Nun Raped by Extremists in Orissa State

The government of Orissa State has decided to expedite the case of a Catholic nun who was raped during the recent anti-Christian violence in the eastern Indian state. The move came after the nun spoke at a press conference Oct. 24 at the Jesuit-managed Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, according to a report by UCA News. The 28-year-old nun, who addressed the media with her face covered up to her eyes, was flanked by another nun and a female lawyer. She fought tears while reading a four-page handwritten statement recounting how Hindu fanatics attacked her. She said she had no faith in the Orissa police, who she alleged refused to help her but aided her attackers. A day after the nun met the press, Orissa’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik convened a meeting in the state capital and directed officials to speed up the case.

Sister Emmanuelle’s Life of Charity Recalled

Catholic bishops in France and Belgium have praised the veteran charity worker Sister Emmanuelle, the Notre Dame de Sion nun who died on Oct. 20, just before her 100th birthday. At a Mass on Oct. 22 in Notre Dame Cathedral, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris said Sister Emmanuelle’s personality and use of the media “made her an emblematic figure. But the authenticity of her service showed itself in her capacity to gather all kinds of people behind her work.”

The Belgian bishops’ conference said in a statement on its Web site: “For almost a century, this great lady radiated generosity and contagious enthusiasm throughout the world. Her life invites us to increase solidarity in times of trial and reminds us it is love which saves the world.”

The Paris-based Friends of Sister Emmanuelle said the nun had died peacefully in her sleep of natural causes in her order’s retreat house in Callian, in southeastern France.

Symposium on Gifts of People With Disabilities

The message proclaimed at the Diocese of Harrisburg’s Symposium on Disabilities Ministry was clear: People with disabilities bring many gifts to the church and are witnesses of hope for all. From its morning liturgy and keynote presentation to its workshops and general atmosphere of camaraderie and togetherness, the Oct. 18 symposium celebrated what people with disabilities bring to the church and offered practical information on how to include them in the life of the church. “In God’s Image: Disabilities Ministry and Catholic Social Thought,” organized by the diocese’s Commission on Catholic Social Doctrine, drew hundreds of clergy, religious and laity, with disability advocates and disabled people among them. Dennis McNulty, director of disability services for Catholic Charities’ Health and Human Services in the Cleveland Diocese, who was the keynote speaker, gave highlights of the U.S. bishops’ 1978 pastoral statement on people with disabilities.

Campion Award to Jon Hassler

Chris Manahan, S.J., superior of the Jesuit Novitiate in St. Paul, Minn., and a former editorial intern at America, presents the 2008 Campion Award and accompanying citation to Gretchen Hassler, widow of the honoree Jon Hassler, who passed away last spring. Hassler was a gifted storyteller whose Catholic imagination imbued a score of works—fiction, short story, nonfiction, children’s books—from Staggerford (1977) to North of Hope (1990) to Dear James(1993) and more. Small-town life in the Midwest was often the setting depicted by this literary talent and Minnesota’s favorite son. The award, named after St. Edmund Campion, S.J., a writer, champion of the faith and martyr, is given by the editors of America.

In Hard Times, Be Both Generous and Prudent

In these uncertain economic times, “the church has to set an example of what it means to be generous but also be very deliberate about how we spend the temporal goods the people have given to us,” said Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester, Mass. He sent a letter to pastors recently urging them to be vigilant with the finances of the parishes. “In times like this the wisest thing is not expansion,” he said during an interview with The Catholic Free Press, the Worcester diocesan newspaper, in late October. “We have to be very prudent” not to embark on any parish improvement projects that involve significant funds, he added. The economic crisis also can lead people to seek spiritual comfort from the church. “Sometimes challenging times help people to put things into perspective. And if we are honest in our evaluation of what’s gone on for the last number of years, in some ways some people have been living over their heads,” the bishop said. In a pastoral letter dated Oct. 24, Bishop McManus said, “For many, the opportunity exists to rediscover a life of trust in God, of simpler choices, or the blessing of family life.”

New York Seminar Against Torture

Participants in a Fordham University forum on Oct. 21 discussed the response of American political, military, religious and medical groups to the use of torture during interrogations of prisoners by the United States since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Retired Col. Patrick Lang, president of the Global Resources Group and a former defense intelligence officer, said the Army “understands fully that physical coercion is almost never an effective thing, and is destructive.... If you let people do things forbidden by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, they become uncontrollable and you lose control, you break down self-respect and things go to hell in a handbasket very quickly.”

Lang said the government has to make it clear that torture is a crime and will be punished, and the Army has to inculcate its higher values in a new generation of officers.

“The intellectual justification of torture began with St. Augustine, who justified what he called ‘coercion’ by distinguishing between the good of the body and the good of the soul,” said Drew Christiansen, S.J., editor of America. “You could torture the body for the sake of the good of the soul,” he said. Although this position was not universally accepted within the church, Father Christiansen said it persisted until Pope John Paul II on the first Sunday of Lent in 2000 issued an unprecedented jubilee-year “request for pardon” for the sins of members of the church, committed at times in the name of the church, including the Inquisition. In June 2008, the U.S. bishops issued a study guide entitled Torture Is a Moral Issue, looking at church teaching as it relates to the use of torture by government authorities around the world.

The event was sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and drew 150 people to two sessions at the Lincoln Center campus of Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York.

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