In Rome, June 3 is the feast of Corpus Christi-- a feast which is celebrated on the following Sunday in the United States. As he presided at ceremonies in the basilica of St. John Lateran, the Pope said that the Eucharist is "the sacrament of the gift that Christ has made of himself; it is the sacrament of love and peace, which is plentitude of life." The Pope also called attention to the prospects for a peace agreement in the Balkans, and gave thanks that "on this night, in our prayer we find solace in view of the hope that has finally begun to arise."
At the same time, Archbishop Nguyen Van Thuan, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was celebrating Mass with a congregation of about 200 people in Belgrade. The archbishop-- who had been detained at the border when he arrived in Yugoslavia, and was released only through the intercession of the papal nuncio-- had been personally commissioned to convey the Pope's paternal concern for the Serbian people.
Similarly, Bishop Diarmuid Martin, the secretary of the same Pontifical Council, celebrated Mass in Skopje, Macedonia, while Msgr. Giampaolo Crepaldi, the Council's undersecretary, presided at a liturgical celebration in Tirana, Albania. Each of the Vatican officials had plans to confer with local relief workers and political leaders, and to visit refugee camps, before returning to Rome.
Pope John Paul II has underlined the determination of the Holy See to pursue ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox churches, in spite of recent setbacks and obstacles.
In a letter addressed to Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, the Holy Father called for "renewed intensity" in ecumenical work with the Eastern churches. That new effort is required to overcome "the difficult that still remain," he said.
The Pope's letter, released by the Vatican on June 4, acknowledges that dialogue with the Orthodox world has been inhibited by the war in the Balkans, and that tensions still surround the Eastern-rite Catholic churches.
The Kosovo crisis caused the postponement of a meeting of a joint Catholic- Orthodox theological commission. The meeting-- the first session of that commission since 1993-- had been scheduled to take place in Baltimore in June; it was postponed until next year "by mutual agreement." Pope John Paul observed that the postponement, which was announced on April 26, was a prudent move; he said that it was crucially important for the meeting to take place in circumstances that would encourage "the serene pursuit of truth."
In 1993, the Vatican's theological dialogue with the Orthodox broke down over the question of the Eastern-rite Catholic churches. Orthodox leaders have consistently protested that these churches are engaged in "proselytism," and constitute an offense against the Orthodox. The Pope has said that this is a "difficult" question, which should be addressed with "patience and a fraternal spirit." At the same time, he has pointed out that Catholics of the Eastern-rite are full members of the Church, with all the same rights and duties as other Catholics.
On a first reading, the statistical tables appear as dry as all sociological studies with scientific characteristics. But on closer reading, the pages offer some astounding revelations.
The number of baptized Catholics has grown progressively throughout the world, going from 757 million to more than a billion (exactly 1,005,254), over the last twenty years. But the demographic growth of the planet has maintained a higher rate, so that the percentage of Catholics in the world, which in 1978 was 17.99%, is presently 17.27%. Of these, almost half (49.32%) are in the Americas; 28.18% in Europe; 11.23% in Africa; 10.47% in Asia; and 0.80% in Oceania.
The priesthood, however, is experiencing an opposite tendency. The number of ordained ministers in this period has moved from 420,000 to 404,000 -- a decrease of 3.98%. This phenomenon reflects the crisis of vocations of the two previous decades, felt especially in Europe, which is counterbalanced in Africa and Asia, where priests have increased by 49.35% and 46.00% respectively.
The most acute crisis the Church is experiencing at this time has to do with religious. Two decades ago, women religious numbered almost one million, 991,000 to be precise. At present, their number has decreased to 819,000 -- a 17% decrease. Men religious (excluding priests), have decreased from 76,000 in 1978 to 58,000 in 1997. The number of priest religious, which twenty years ago was 158,000, has decreased to 140,000. The crisis is most acute in Oceania and Europe. Once again, Asia and Africa represent the hope of the future, as these have experienced constant growth in consecrations to the religious life.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the statistics are the vocations to the priesthood. In 1978 there were 63,882 seminarians; at present there are 108,517, an increase of 69.87%. The increase in Africa and Asia, in fact, is incredible. Over the last twenty years, these two continents have seen an increase of 238.50% and 124.01% respectively. In all the continents there has been a decisive increase in vocations, with the exception of Oceania, where the figures went from 784 to 797 seminarians. Even Europe has seen an increase of 16.47% (from 23,915 to 27,853), resulting from the rebirth of Christianity in the East and the end of the vocational crisis. America has become the great seedbed of the Catholic Church's vocations. At present, it has 35,000 seminarians; twenty years ago it had 22,011.
The general picture confirmed by the Holy See's Statistical Yearbook is a tendency which has been noted for some time: Africa is the continent where the Church is experiencing the greatest growth in the world, followed by Asia. The continent with the least growth is Europe, suffering from disillusionment and secularization. Nevertheless, the number of those baptized in Europe increased by 6.36%, higher than the rate of population growth. On the threshold of the third millennium, half the Catholics of the world are in the New World and this, of itself, is a phenomenon whose consequences it is too early to predict. ZE99060307
The Armenian news agency Snark reported on June 4 that the papal visit had already been put off. But the Vatican did not confirm that story, and the Armenian ambassador to the Holy See told reporters that preparations for the trip are still underway. However, the ambassador did allow that the medical condition of the Catholicos was a matter of concern, and could lead to the cancellation of the trip.
The letter is notable for its sincerity and clarity. "Have you stopped to think, at least for a moment, of the evil you are doing, of the damage you are causing, and of the suffering you are inflicting on innumerable people, who are the victims of the insensitivity of your actions?" Archbishop Duarte asked the guerrillas.
The Archbishop added, "It is not by committing injustice that justice is won, nor by attacking innocent beings that one achieves peace."
Archbishop Duarte, who already excommunicated the terrorists, asserted: "What you have done places you indisputably outside the Church, if you still have any sense of belonging to it. In the end, it is not possible to be a Catholic by hating, murdering, kidnapping, violating religious liberty, and ignoring the most elementary human rights."
The Archbishop nonetheless appealed to the guerrillas to return to God. "The human being can turn around, acknowledge his faults, repent of these and do reparation, at least in principle, for the damage caused. The Lord generously forgives the person who turns to Him."
The way offered by the Archbishop to express this change of attitude is, perhaps, obvious: "the immediate liberation of the persons who are being held by you, so unjustly deprived of their liberty." ZE990600410
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