Pope to Mafiosi: Turn away now from the road to hell
Stairway to heaven: Vatican backs effort to restore Holy Stairs shrine
VATICAN CITY —Just like someone gently unwrapping a present, a restorer carefully peeled back a thin wet veil of paper from a black sooty wall to see what was hidden underneath.
From behind the layers of grime and dirt emerged the frescoed images of a fallen Roman column, a flock of fluffy sheep and a pink sunset sky over a forgotten ancient city.
The surprise that restorer Chiara Munzi was unveiling was a 16th-century fresco by Flemish master Paul Bril -- a rich, colorful landscape scene that hadn't been seen with such vivid detail for centuries.
Pictured: Pilgrims from the Diocese of Charlotte climbed up the Holy Stairs (Scala Sancta) in Rome on their knees during the ad limina pilgrimage in May 2012. The Holy Stairs are believed to be the actual 28 steps that Jesus climbed the day He was sentenced to death. Tradition holds that the stairs were ordered sent from Jerusalem to Rome by St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine in 334 A.D. (Photos by SueAnn Howell, Catholic News Herald) See more photos and journey the virtual pilgrimage.
Four levels of scaffolding put restorers and visitors within inches of freshly uncovered images of trailing ivy, angels playing lutes, the solemn and wise faces of doctors of the church and bucolic landscapes.
Bringing blackened or dulled walls and ceilings back to their original "brightness and immediacy transports us right back to the moment they were painted," Paolo Violini, the Vatican Museums' top expert in fresco restoration, told Catholic News Service.
A team of nearly a dozen restorers spent nine months just on the chapel's vaulted ceiling. They are using surgical scalpels, pulses of laser light, de-oxidizing chemicals, thin Japanese paper sprayed with ammonium bicarbonate and soft sea sponges to bring back the original splendor of the Medieval sanctuary's 18,300 square feet of Renaissance frescoes and decorative paintings.
In addition to the frescoed chapels and walls, the pontifical sanctuary houses the "Scala Santa" or Holy Stairs.
According to tradition, the Holy Stairs are the ones Jesus climbed when Pontius Pilate brought him before the crowd and handed him over to be crucified. It's said that Constantine's mother, St. Helen, brought the stairs to Rome from Jerusalem in 326 A.D.
The 28 marble steps are covered with thick wood panels, now worn smooth from centuries of human traffic. A minimum of 2,000 pilgrims a day visit the shrine, and many of them climb the stairs on their knees, pray at the Sancta Sanctorum -- the first private chapel of the popes -- and venerate a silver and jewel-covered Byzantine image of Christ.
The sanctuary, which is dedicated to the Passion of Christ, is entrusted to the care and protection of the Passionist fathers, who have a special devotion to Christ's passion.
The sanctuary's rector, Passionist Father Francesco Guerra, told CNS that the Holy Stairs shrine is a unique place of worship in Rome.
"When we pray and at the same time we do something that is physical" -- like climbing the stairs on one's knees -- "we may in some way feel that we may touch what Jesus touched at that time, and we feel that we are near Jesus," he said.
Father Guerra said many people who come to the sanctuary are experiencing a difficult moment in life and they offer "their own suffering to Jesus to be near him, to be helped by him."
U.S. art gallery curator Mary Angela Schroth is coordinating the Holy Stairs project. She said it was difficult and slow-going to get the needed funding and support to restore such a complex and large sanctuary.
"It's not glamorous like the Sistine Chapel. This is the people's sanctuary" -- a place that has been popular with and loved by simple people of faith for centuries, she said.
The fame of Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel has, in a sense, overwhelmed its intended spiritual significance and purpose as an active place of worship, she said.
The Sanctuary of the Holy Stairs' restoration "is really a project to renew faith" and support people's "spiritual experience of the Holy Stairs" not just preserve its historic art, Schroth said.
The Vatican Museums is overseeing the restoration project, which should take another five years to complete, culminating in the cleaning of the frescoes along the Holy Stairs; the frescoes depict Christ's journey from the Last Supper to his passion, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven.
The work is being funded through the Vatican Museums' Patrons of the Arts chapters and donors in the United Kingdom, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The patrons coordinate funding from people worldwide to help restore and preserve, not just the museums' in-house collections, but any architectural or artistic treasure belonging to the Vatican. That includes properties outside the walls of Vatican City, like the sanctuary, which is located near the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
The preliminary studies needed for restoring the entire sanctuary had been completed more than a decade ago. "The last piece of the puzzle was the financial support, so that's why the patrons got involved," said Legionaries of Christ Father Mark Haydu, director of the museums' Patrons of the Arts office.
Father Haydu said sacred art is invaluable, not just for its material beauty, but also for its power to help transform people's lives.
"If it can even bring solace to someone who's suffering, if it can convince someone mired in a challenge, a difficulty, a weakness, that they can't find the moral courage to overcome, and have a spiritual experience before the passion of Christ, for example," then the church needs to care for that heritage, too, he said.
"If that missing link is the atmosphere that helps them get over the hump, well, there's infinite value there," the U.S. priest said. "The financial investment, the returns go beyond anything anyone could ever imagine and that's what's powerful, that's what's beautiful and that's why the church cares about its art in the end."
— Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service
Pope announces upcoming day of reconciliation
'24 hours for the Lord' this weekend
Boston cardinal, abuse survivor among members of Vatican commission
VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, four women -- including a survivor of clerical sex abuse -- two Jesuit priests and an Italian lawyer are the first eight members of the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
Pope Francis established the commission in December; announcing the first members March 22, the Vatican said they would help define the tasks and competencies of the commission and help identify other potential members.
Cardinal O'Malley is also one of eight members of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis on the reform of the Roman Curia and governance of the church. When the child protection commission was announced, Cardinal O'Malley told reporters it would take a pastoral approach to helping victims and preventing abuse, given that much of the Vatican's attention thus far had been on implementing policies and legal procedures for investigating allegations of abuse and punishing guilty priests.
The cardinal said the commission would look at programs to educate pastoral workers in signs of abuse, identify means of psychological testing and other ways of screening candidates for the priesthood, and make recommendations regarding church officials' "cooperation with the civil authorities, the reporting of crimes."
The first eight members of the commission include Marie Collins, who was born in Dublin. At the age of 13, she was sexually abused by a Catholic priest who was a chaplain at a hospital where she was a patient.
Addressing a major conference in Rome in 2012 on the protection of children, she said being abused led to depression, despair and deep loss of trust in the Catholic Church. "Those fingers that would abuse my body the night before, were the same fingers that would give me holy Communion the following day," she said.
In 1997, the priest that had abused her -- and other young girls over a period of three decades -- was finally brought to justice. She founded an organization to help victims of sexual abuse, worked with the Archdiocese of Dublin to set up its child protection office and helped draft the child protection policies of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the commission would take "a multi-pronged approach to promoting youth protection, including: education regarding the exploitation of children; discipline of offenders; civil and canonical duties and responsibilities; and the development of best practices as they have emerged in society at large."
"In this way, and with the help of God, this commission will contribute to the Holy Father's mission of upholding the sacred responsibility of ensuring the safety of young people," Father Lombardi said.
Jesuit Fathers Hans Zollner and Humberto Yanez, who also were appointed to the commission, were instrumental in organizing the 2012 conference where Collins addressed representatives of bishops' conferences and religious orders from around the world.
Father Zollner, a German psychologist and psychotherapist, chaired the committee that organized the conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University and is chairman of the steering committee of the Center for Child Protection that developed out of the conference. Father Yanez, director of the moral theology department at the Gregorian, was a member of the conference's theological board.
Meeting reporters in 2013 to discuss follow-up to the conference, Father Zollner said: "Unfortunately, the matter will be with us for a long time. The church is working much more than people know, but is also the object of criticism because of its errors, its failures and the sins of the past. This is why it is extremely important to continue the work of prevention with every available means."
In addition to Collins, the other women on the commission are: Hanna Suchocka, a former professor of law, who served as prime minister of Poland, 1992-93, and Polish ambassador to the Vatican, 2001-13; Catherine Bonnet, a French child psychiatrist specializing in helping victims of incest; and Baroness Sheila Hollins, a mental health specialist who has focused her research on people with learning disabilities.
The eighth member of the commission is Claudio Papale, an Italian who holds degrees in both civil and canon law and works in disciplinary section of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The office is responsible for investigating allegations against priests.
— Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
Abuse survivor says new Vatican commission must achieve real change
DUBLIN — The lone clerical abuse survivor nominated by Pope Francis to sit on the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors said the commission needs to achieve concrete change in order to "show other survivors that the church is going to get it right."
Marie Collins, who was abused by a chaplain as a sick 13-year-old at Crumlin hospital in Dublin in the 1960s, told Catholic News Service that many survivors will be watching the new Vatican commission "with interest, but many will have written it off as merely a PR exercise."
"Survivors will not be satisfied with more words or promises, they need to see real change," she said.
Collins, who campaigns on behalf of abuse victims, said her priority is "a strong worldwide child protection policy which would include sanctions for any member of the church in a position of authority who ignored these rules."
She added that too many bishops who have protected abusive priests have been allowed to remain in place undisciplined.
Pictured: Irish abuse victim Marie Collins, the lone clerical abuse survivor nominated by Pope Francis to sit on the new Pontifical Council for the Protection of Minors, said the commission needs to achieve concrete change in order to "show other survivors that the church is going to get it right." She is pictured in a 2012 photo. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)
"I would like to see the way survivors and their families have been treated change. The concentration on often-abusive legalistic responses instead of caring for those hurt needs to end," she said.
The cultural attitude within the church and laws that "categorized child abuse as a moral lapse rather than a criminal offense also have to be tackled," she told CNS.
The Dubliner is seeking greater transparency because "the secrecy of the past led to enormous failures."
The initial eight members of the commission will be free to decide what issues they are going to deal with, how they are going to work and who else will join the commission, Collins told CNS.
Though it is in its early stages, she said her understanding is that the commission will make its recommendations directly to Pope Francis and will not communicate through any Vatican departments.
Asked who else she would like to see on the new commission, she told CNS she would like to see Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin because he "is the template for how child protection should be handled at ground level," and also Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who really "got it" when it came to addressing clerical sexual abuse.
Collins told CNS that she met another commission member, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, in 2011 as he led the Vatican investigation of the Archdiocese of Dublin and was "very impressed with his openness and his ability to listen."
She also worked with another member of the commission, Baroness Sheila Hollins, during the Toward Healing Symposium at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 2012.
"I feel we worked very well together. She is very devoted to the cause of the vulnerable adult and has great expertise in this field. I am looking forward to working with Cardinal Sean and Baroness Hollins."
However, Collins said she was "disappointed" listening to Pope Francis' recent comments when he said no one has done more on the issue of child sexual abuse than the church, and yet the church is the only one to be attacked.
"He seemed to miss the point that the huge anger directed at the Catholic Church has not been caused by the fact it had abusers in its ranks but by the unique situation whereby those in authority were willing to protect these men. This has been shown in inquiry after inquiry around the world," she told CNS.
She said it was up to the new Vatican commission to change the pope's mind on this.
Asked what it means to have a survivor on the commission, Collins said in the past there had been a fear of survivors and "an inability to handle their justified anger."
At other times, survivors were seen as people who could be placated by words of apology but this "underestimated the damage done to lives and the hurt and anger and thirst for justice that so many survivors feel."
"In this context it is a big step for the church to include a survivor on the commission, but a very necessary one," she commented.
She has already been contacted by many survivors and survivor groups from various parts of the world. The majority responded positively, wanting her to take their particular concerns to the commission. She said some have suggested that she is a "token survivor" appointed just to give the church good public relations.
"I have remained a Catholic but not without much difficulty and struggle," she told CNS. "There have been periods when practicing my faith has been impossible. I have tried to separate the institution of the church from the faith. My belief in God has never wavered. Being appointed to the commission has not changed anything in this regard."
— Sarah MacDonald, Catholic News Service