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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Modern Martyrdom; Debunking "Angels and Demons" New Manifestations of an Old Scourge

Catherine Smibert

ROME, FEB. 16, 2006 ( Many of the stories go untold, but persecution against religious missionaries happens every day around the world.

Since the earliest days of the Church, missionaries have faced risks. For many, that situation hasn't changed.

A grim reminder of modern-day martyrdom was the funeral held last week in the Basilica of St. John Lateran for Father Andrea Santoro, the Italian-born missionary slain in Turkey.

Then there were the reports of other attacks: another priest, beaten in Turkey; a Jesuit, known for his spiritual retreats, killed in Burundi; a longtime Franciscan friar murdered in Angola a couple of days later; the three Dominican religious sisters sentenced to death for "proselytizing" in Sri Lanka; a bishop and three priests pelted with stones by tribal rebels in India while opening a new school …

Is this a momentary spate of persecution? No.

"On average 30 to 35 Catholic missionaries are murdered every year -- assassinated," said Father Patrick Byrne of the Pontifical Mission Societies.

And there's no single reason behind such aggression. Father Byrne speculated that it could be that the activities of a missionary often challenge the status quo: "Many religious have denounced various practices in different countries."

A Divine Word Missionary, Father Byrne worked seven years in Colombia before his Vatican posting.

"You never know the hour you could catch a bullet," the Irish priest told me. "It's not usually people in an all-out crusade against the Catholic Church. Sometimes they just unfairly brand missionaries as having been sent by Western governments; and Christians can be associated with U.S. or U.K. policies."

Sister Janet Fearns, a Rome-based sister of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, said that she lives by Archbishop Oscar Romero's quote -- "to worry is when a priest is not killed alongside his people."

She noted that by living so closely with the people, a missionary takes on their troubles as his or her own.

"The time I came closest to laying down my life was before a general election in Zambia when some people were being imprisoned and the situation was unjust," Sister Fearns told me. "Certainly I had to be prudent, but the difference was that I could speak out more than those around me because I had some support from the embassies."

The director of the Rosminian Community's House of Study in Rome, Father Anthony Furlong, said that missionaries can also be targeted due to envy.

"Following the bishop of our diocese in Kenya, we established parish houses and Mass centers in a relatively huge area," he explained. "And it's in this ordinary pastoral process of spreading the Gospel that our priests are ambushed or mugged at gunpoint."

Father Furlong explained that as soon as the attackers see a car, they assume there is prosperity.

"We have even had to be increasingly careful about security at our sister house in Nairobi," he added. "After being established there for 10 years now, we're having to use armed guards, high walls and guard dogs to protect our students."

So if it's all so risky, why continue?

"I'd say it's because of the Gospel," Father Furlong observed. "Those words -- 'they persecuted me and they'll persecute you,' said the Lord."

Sister Fearns added: "Jesus himself told us to love -- even if we have to pay the ultimate price, but he didn't ask us anything that he wasn't prepared to do first."

Real Rome

A Jan. 28 article in the Financial Times, headlined "Unreal History in a City of Demons," reported on a mysterious tour in Rome.

The tour was based on the book "Angels and Demons" by author Dan Brown, set in the Eternal City. At the conclusion of the article, the journalist wrote that she would have preferred receiving the "real Rome" -- not Brown's version of it.

Some tour guides are trying to fulfill this wish, by showing the real Rome.

Some tour groups, of course, try to cash in on Brown's inventions. But this, according to Tony Polzer, the director of Three Millennia Tours, only leaves a tourist so confused that they can't appreciate the genuine beauty and intrigue of the city.

"Rome is an amazing city on many different levels," Polzer told me. "Whether you're talking about the assassination of emperors or the power of the aristocracy in the Middle Ages, to the popes of today -- there have been some incredible things going on throughout the three millennia history."

Polzer said that his tour aims to debunk Brown's myths about Rome and the secret Illuminati society, in order to genuinely illuminate his clients. "Like the one the reporter from the Financial Times went on," he said. "Our tour covers the path of the so-called Illuminati -- the four altars of science and the illuminate lair."

(That includes the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo; St. Peter's Square; Santa Maria in Victoria; Piazza Navona; and Castel Sant'Angelo, for those who haven't read the book.)

"The difference is that instead of giving our opening introduction by describing the illuminate according to Brown's vision, we commit to proving the group never existed in this way, or stage of Rome's history, at least," Polzer said.

Guides such as Polzer get into debates with novel-clutching tourists when they (the guides) reveal that the markers in St. Peter's Square -- which Brown says were placed by Bernini as lighting the way to the next stop along the path -- were "in reality, … placed there two centuries later by a Vatican scientist."

Other guides, such as Tyson Monfredini of Eternal City Tours (Rome's Catholic guides), are busy pointing out to Brownies that there never was a church in Piazza Barberini, let alone it being moved.

But architectural faux pas aren't the biggest problem with fanciful fiction, lamented Monfredini.

He warned of the spiritual damage that can come from using a fictional book as a blueprint guide to the heart of Christendom. It would be a shame, he said, for visitors who come to a place so filled with wondrous artifacts, to not uncover the faith behind the works.

When Monfredini describes the reality of Bernini, the committed family man who followed papal directions, some tourists' faces drop. "It seems that his being a pro-life Catholic, which is more logically consistent with our evidence, is more exciting these days than his representation as a pagan."

Vatican Radio at 75

Once upon a time, closet scientist Pope Pius XI was wondering if there might be a way to let the faithful beyond the Vatican hear his messages.

His sentiments were shared by the director general of communications for Vatican City, Father Giuseppe Gianfranceschi who had been drawing up plans for a "wireless" station since 1925.

When they finally turned their thoughts to the father of radio, Guglielmo Marconi, Vatican Radio was born.

Last Sunday, the "Pope's radio station" marked 75 years of broadcasting since those first words were uttered by Pius XI on Feb. 12, 1931.

Over time the station has seen trials and triumphs.

Today, the radio broadcasts in more than 40 languages (including Esperanto) in five continents. It is produced by some 400 people who hail from more than 60 nations. The sound is picked up at various stages throughout the 22-hour broadcast day. Its fare includes news, commentary and music.

Its influence has been vital at times. Hitler tried to bomb it due to its role in denouncing the existence of the concentration camps.

During World War II the station dedicated its resources to broadcasting the locations and status of prisoners of war.

The radio has even had its martyrs -- people shot during Communist regimes while kneeling before their radios in order to receive the Pope's apostolic blessing.

Jill Bevilacqua, who has been working at the radio since the end of the Second Vatican Council, oversees the station's Gospel-reflection show.

"The people who come to work here," she said, "come because this is one of the ways that an artist or a writer, or a speaker, or a thinker … can respond to Our Lord's call to use our gifts for his glory and make a contribution to the world and the Church."

Working there myself, I'd agree with Jill. It is stimulating to be in the center of it all and a great opportunity as a Catholic journalist to share the truth with the world.

Anyone who said that "video killed the radio star," made a great error. Our service is relied upon via shortwave in areas that still use drums to communicate among tribes. And our podcasts let the Pope's voice follow listeners wherever they go.

Now we're getting set for Benedict XVI's visit on March 3. Not a bad gift for a platinum anniversary!

Catherine Smibert can be reached at

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