International Women’s Day

How and whether it was observed depends on perspective.

I happened to be in Rome, in the middle of a brief visit with my son, who came by the hotel in time to head to St. Peter’s Square for the Angelus and read me the message on his cell phone from Vodafone (in Italian) which said something like ‘If the world is an epic, it is thanks to woman.’ The message then said in celebration, free internet access would be given to all subscribers that day… And I asked him to repeat that. Neither of us knew anything about this Festa taking place on a day already important to me and marked for celebration for other reasons. So he said it’s apparently Women’s Day in Italy, and we thought it nice that the cell phone company started it off with a nice message. It was a little baffling to us both, since Italy celebrates Mother’s Day as the US does, and this day was set apart from that to celebrate all women, which we did not know.

Then we headed to St. Peter’s. I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Sometime late that day, a splendid one in Rome with family spending hours outside in glorious weather walking, dining, strolling, talking, enjoying gelato, with more strolling amid countless other families, I went online ever so briefly. And learned that articles and blog posts were dedicated to revealing the origins of International Women’s Day in socialism and communism, something most citizens of the US never knew because it’s not celebrated here and hardly noticed as an international story.

But when we read that, it stood so at odds with our experience in Rome, the first experience of this occasion. Whatever it is or was for anyone else anywhere, here’s how I first encountered the Day of the Woman (besides the Vodafone message my son read to me).

At the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis finished his remarks relating to the Sunday Gospel with these remarks.

…“a greeting to all women! To all the women who work every day to build a more human and welcoming society. And a fraternal thank you to those who in a thousand ways bear witness to the Gospel and work in the Church. This is for us an opportunity to reaffirm the importance and the necessity of their presence in life. A world where women are marginalised is a barren world, because women not only bring life, but they also give us the ability to see beyond – they see beyond themselves – and they transmit to us the ability to understand the world through different eyes, to hear things with more creative, more patient, more tender hearts. A prayer and a special blessing for all women present here in the square and for all women! Greetings!”

It was a beautiful finish to a message that sent us off on what I said was a glorious day, and along the way we saw everywhere the Italian bouquets of ‘mimosas’, the small yellow flowers that symbolize the day, and I was greeted by shop owners and restaurant hosts with a warm ‘Buona Festa!’

Reading the stories online later about the socialist roots of the day, decades earlier, I thought of the many times we had crisscrossed the Pantheon walking around Rome those days. It was originally erected as a pagan temple or building of some sort, possibly dedicated to many gods. It was later consecrated as the church of St. Mary and the Martyrs. Which seemed emblematic to me, of meeting something where it is and bringing to it a Christian presence, reflecting the glory of what Pope Benedict referred to as the ‘new humanism.’

Like when my family visited Ireland and came upon the Hill of Slane, on which St. Patrick lit a Paschal fire to rival the ‘festival fire’ on the opposite Hill of Tara lit by a pagan king, initiating a longstanding, sacred Catholic Easter Vigil rite.

In other words, it is indeed what you make of it.

So since my initiation into this festival honoring women on March 8th happened as it did in Rome, hearing Pope Francis honor the role of women as he did, it seemed to me a current day acknowledgement of the unique role of women recognized by the Second Vatican Council in its closing remarks, among countless individual ones by popes and councils. After addressing different, diverse identity groups, the Council fathers said this:

And now it is to you that we address ourselves, women of all states — girls, wives, mothers and widows, to you also, consecrated virgins and women living alone — you constitute half of the immense human family. As you know, the Church is proud to have glorified and liberated woman, and in the course of the centuries, in diversity of characters, to have brought into relief her basic equality with man. But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.

Simply not falling? That’s it? Yes, that is what they were saying.

You women have always had as your lot the protection of the home, the love of beginnings and an understanding of cradles. You are present in the mystery of a life beginning. You offer consolation in the departure of death. Our technology runs the risk of becoming inhuman. Reconcile men with life and above all, we beseech you, watch carefully over the future of our race. Hold back the hand of man who, in a moment of folly, might attempt to destroy human civilization.

Wives, mothers of families, the first educators of the human race in the intimacy of the family circle, pass on to your sons and your daughters the traditions of your fathers at the same time that you prepare them for an unsearchable future. Always remember that by her children a mother belongs to that future which perhaps she will not see.

How beautiful is that?

And you, women living alone, realize what you can accomplish through your dedicated vocation. Society is appealing to you on all sides. Not even families can live without the help of those who have no families.

How sensitive an understanding of roles that was, and is.

Especially you, consecrated virgins, in a world where egoism and the search for pleasure would become law, be the guardians of purity, unselfishness and piety. Jesus who has given to conjugal love all its plenitudes, has also exalted the renouncement of human love when this is for the sake of divine love and for the service of all.

Lastly, women in trial, who stand upright at the foot of the cross like Mary, you who so often in history have given to men the strength to battle unto the very end and to give witness to the point of martyrdom, aid them now still once more to retain courage in their great undertakings, while at the same time maintaining patience and an esteem for humble beginnings.

What a profound statement of understanding, acknowledgement, appreciation and appeal this is, even in its brevity.

Women, you do know how to make truth sweet, tender and accessible, make it your task to bring the spirit of this council into institutions, schools, homes and daily life. Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.

This needs to be recalled now. We are presently in the midst of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Next Monday, my radio program will be dedicated to the proceedings of some lively, engaging, and intense meetings. And to giving voice to women who speak to the role of life giver, nurturer, caregiver, humanizer, peacemaker, and the witness of what Vatican II saw as “the vocation of woman…achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved.”

Which beats the hell out of whatever socialists and communists intended by fabricating something like an international women’s day according to their designs.

Advancing radical agenda

Sometimes, it seems like we’re dwelling in Wonderland. But some of us who are aware are doing a lot of wondering. Especially about headlines and stories that are too bizarre to make up, but too extreme to be true. Except…they are.

Like this one. The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women just wrapped up over last weekend, and it was quite a fiasco, as usual.

“The sexual behavior of men can be a form of violence against women because it can result in pregnancy,” stated an official of the U.N. Secretariat earlier this week during negotiations at the annual U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), at which the U.N.’s typical loopiness has abounded.

The New York Times got into the game this week with an unsigned editorial claiming the Holy See, Iran and Russia are “trying to eliminate language in a draft communiqué asserting that the familiar excuses—religion, custom, tradition—cannot be used by governments to duck their obligations to eliminate violence.”

The Times accuses this “Unholy Alliance” of being indifferent to violence against women and of using religion to protect wife-beaters, reminding us that, “The efforts by the Vatican and Iran to control women are well known.”

Yet the claim that these groups are seeking to strip protections from women “is a flat-out lie,” as one person close to the negotiations told me. In fact what is happening is the Holy See and her allies are blocking proposals by the U.S. and E.U. that would be used to promote a right to abortion.

Just look at the disconnect right there. The theme of this year’s CSW was ‘violence against women,’ and yet the radical abortion lobbyists don’t see, understand or consider what abortion is and does. Putting aside for now the trauma to women who have abortions, the procedure itself terminates the life of millions of human beings, roughly half of whom are females. All the worse, they should think – if they thought – when the abortion is procured because the baby is a girl. Gendercide is not just happening in China, bad enough as it is there. It’s happening in the US and other places. Where’s the outrage?

I’ve got a little bit here…

The U.S. and E.U. also are pushing language calling for comprehensive sexuality education covering the farthest frontiers of sexuality.

Austin Ruse, who wrote this piece, was my guest on radio this week. I was ashamed to learn what a leading role the US played, together with the EU, in pushing this radical agenda.

But admittedly glad when they failed.

Failure to deliver agreed conclusions was never an option at this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). But the two week session was fraught with worries about negotiations collapsing, as happened in 2003 when violence against women was last taken up by the UN commission, or last year, when bullying by the US delegation derailed consensus. But the fears never materialized. By Friday afternoon only seven paragraphs remained to be decided, and agreed conclusions were adopted Friday evening.

Abortion advocates, in and outside governments, wanted to move the ball forward for abortion rights. The United States and Nordic countries pressed pro-life nations to scrap previous agreements that place abortion in a bad light. To argue their case activists and the media reported falsely that pro-life countries wanted to use religion to excuse violence.

The United States brought in veteran activist Adrienne Germain to direct their negotiators. She was instrumental for the Clinton administration at the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) where “safe abortion” first became a rallying cry for the global abortion lobby. At this year’s CSW abortion groups found themselves stymied by that very landmark conference. ICPD does not recognize abortion as a right and says it should never be used as a backup to contraception.

Ambiguous terms sometimes used to disguise abortion, like reproductive rights or sexual and reproductive health, were included in the policies adopted by CSW. But they were  included “in accordance with ICPD.” The 1994 agreement also respects the sovereignty of UN member states to legislate according to custom, religion and tradition. Abortion groups are claiming this last point was conceded, even though the agreed conclusions include a paragraph that recognizes the “significance of national and regional particularities” as well as “historical, cultural and religious backgrounds” in legislation that implements UN policies.

The global abortion lobby has waited for years for the right moment to go beyond ICPD. Some Latin American states have signaled they are willing, but UN member states overall are not comfortable moving away from ICPD, at least on abortion, population control and other controversial policies like special new rights for homosexuals.

Last week’s agreement not only reaffirms the ICPD standard for abortion, but extends it to the morning-after pill. Deceptively called “emergency contraception,” the controversial pill can destroy nascent human life.

Follow the arguments and connect the dots. Because the radical agenda lobbyists thrive on distortion, confusion and lack of awareness.

And here’s a very important point, one I made on a riff on radio, when we have a young Pakistani girl shot in the head because she advocates the right for girls to have an education.

The myopic focus of some delegations on abortion and homosexual rights tragically prevented the commission from addressing other widespread forms of violence against women. The commission failed to denounce sex-selective abortion, as well as the thousands of women that die each year because of religious persecution.

Thankfully, Helen Alvare was there, with her eloquent address and elegant reasoning.

Helen Alvaré, a professor at George Mason School of Law, delivered an official statement on behalf of the Holy See. “Respect for human life is the starting point to confront a culture of violence,” she stated. Abortion is a form of violence and the “only proper response (to a woman in need) is radical solidarity.” The Holy See also decried the commodification of women that has resulted from the spread of a “sexual ideology” that sees women as objects.

“The cause of women’s freedom is unfinished,” she concluded, quoting John Paul II.

Indeed. Watch this space.

Pope Francis surprises

It hasn’t yet been a week since he was elected, but the man announced as Cardinal Bergoglio/Pope Francis who first appeared to the world on the loggia of St. Peter’s and stood stiff and straight and speechless for what seemed a long time took only a few minutes to throw the world off balance. In a good way.

The ‘firsts’ are legendary now. First Jesuit pope, first Pope Francis, first pope to ask for the people’s prayers for him and bow to receive it in a moment of silence, before he blessed them. And so on. He is who he is, and so profoundly and historically weighty an elevation as this was not going to change him. Take a look at this brief video of the cardinals greeting him after the election. Many of them left laughing. And the account of the doorman at the Jesuit house in Rome who answered the phone when the pope called to thank the Father General for his gracious letter of congratulations.

Over the weekend Facebook was filled with photos of the new pope checking out at his hotel in Rome and paying his own bill from his own funds, in his white papal garments. Which were quickly followed by photos from inside the bus where cardinals were shuttled around Vatican grounds and there in one of the bus seats was a white-robed pope. He opted for that ride instead of a chauffered car. The Vatican is not used to this.

He greeted the credentialed journalists who covered the  conclave and his election – about 6,000 of them – and disarmed them with his ready wit and easy smile. And a message that was pointed and direct but warm.

The role of the mass media has expanded immensely in these years, so much so that they are an essential means of informing the world about the events of contemporary history. I would like, then, to thank you in a special way for the professional coverage which you provided during these days – you really worked, didn’t you? – when the eyes of the whole world, and not just those of Catholics, were turned to the Eternal City and particularly to this place which has as its heart the tomb of Saint Peter. Over the past few weeks, you have had to provide information about the Holy See and about the Church, her rituals and traditions, her faith and above all the role of the Pope and his ministry.

I am particularly grateful to those who viewed and presented these events of the Church’s history in a way which was sensitive to the right context in which they need to be read, namely that of faith.
Historical events almost always demand a nuanced interpretation which at times can also take into account the dimension of faith. Ecclesial events are certainly no more intricate than political or economic events! But they do have one particular underlying feature: they follow a pattern which does not readily correspond to the “worldly” categories which we are accustomed to use, and so it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wider and more varied public. The Church is certainly a human and historical institution with all that that entails, yet her nature is not essentially political but spiritual…

He also gave them a scoop.

Some people wanted to know why the Bishop of Rome wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis De Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes [OFM]: a good friend, a good friend! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: “Don’t forget the poor!” And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor! Afterwards, people were joking with me. “But you should call yourself Hadrian, because Hadrian VI was the reformer, we need a reform…” And someone else said to me: “No, no: your name should be Clement”. “But why?” “Clement XV: thus you pay back Clement XIV who suppressed the Society of Jesus!” These were jokes. I love all of you very much, I thank you for everything you have done. I pray that your work will always be serene and fruitful, and that you will come to know ever better the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the rich reality of the Church’s life.

The next day, his first to celebrate Mass and deliver the traditional mid-day Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, Francis took to the streets near the Vatican in an impromptu outreach to the people. It must have given the papal security detail fits. But that’s how he sees the mission of helping people ‘to know ever better the Gospel’ and ‘rich reality of the Church’s life’ and it’s the way he did it in Argentina.

So what did papal biographer George Weigel, one of the top world experts on the Catholic Church and the papacy, chief Vatican analyst for NBC News, have to say about this pick, after all? After the beloved and legendary John Paul II. After Benedict XVI. Excellent philosopher succeeded by excellent theologian, both of whom had participated in Vatican II and the blueprint for the Church’s engagement with the modern world. After Weigel recently released his latest book ‘Evangelical Catholicism’ as a blueprint for ‘Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church’?

With great aplomb, Weigel called Francis ‘The First American Pope’, and pronounced him just the right pick.

The swift election of Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., as bishop of Rome is replete with good news — and not a little irony. To reverse the postmodern batting order, let’s begin with the good news.

A true man of God. The wheelchair-bound beggar at the corner of Via della Conciliazione and Via dell’Erba this morning had a keen insight into his new bishop: “Sono molto contento; e un profeta” (“I’m very happy; he’s a prophet”). That was certainly the overwhelming impression I took away from the hour I spent with the archbishop of Buenos Aires and future pope last May — here was a genuine man of God, who lives “out” from the richness and depth of his interior life; a bishop who approaches his responsibilities as a churchman and his decisions as the leader of a complex organization from a Gospel-centered perspective, in a spirit of discernment and prayer…

A pope for the New Evangelization. The election of Pope Francis completes the Church’s turn from the Counter-Reformation Catholicism that brought the Gospel to America — and eventually produced Catholicism’s first American pope — to the Evangelical Catholicism that must replant the Gospel in those parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored, while planting it afresh in new fields of mission around the globe.

Weigel nailed that, “parts of the world that have grown spiritually bored.” How to address the global culture today, and even find mission fields?

Here, in a statement that then-cardinal Bergoglio had a significant hand in drafting, is what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have called the “New Evangelization” in synthetic microcosm:

The Church of the 21st century cannot rely on the ambient public culture, or on folk memories of traditional Catholic culture, to transmit the Gospel in a way that transforms individual lives, cultures, and societies. Something more, something deeper, is needed.

Something much more, and much deeper, and much more accessible is needed.

That is the message that Pope Francis will take to the world: Gospel-centered Catholicism, which challenges the post-mod cynics, the metaphysically bored, and the spiritually dry to discover (or rediscover) the tremendous human adventure of living “inside” the Biblical narrative of history.

Judging from the boatload of other stories to cover, from Washington politics to Wall Street and Eurozone finances, Middle East flashpoints and middle America unrest, UN humanitarian relief missions to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, this is one to get right to get the rest at all. Because they are all centered on the dignity and humanity of the human person, and the right order of the way things ought to be, beautifully articulated in the Declaration of Independence, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other documents issued in between and since.

Pope Francis is officially installed at the Mass of Inauguration on Tuesday. It may be just another day to a lot of people. But it’s a new day for a lot of humanity.