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Chasing the devil from Tasmania

January 25, 2019 CNA Daily News 0

Hobart, Australia, Jan 25, 2019 / 01:46 pm (CNA).- The wind blows in great gusts over snow-capped mountains on the other side of the world, across the island of Tasmania. Whipped up by the Southern Ocean’s infamous Roaring Forties, wave upon wave of wind buffets the Australian state on the very peripheries of the world.
“Separated from the Australian mainland by 140 miles of the treacherous pitch and toss of Bass Strait, Tasmania is a byword for remoteness…it is like outer space on earth and invoked by those at the ‘centre’ to stand for all that is far-flung, strange and unverifiable,” Nicholas Shakespeare aptly writes in his book “In Tasmania.”
If you seek out the peripheries, in other words, whether from Rome, London or Washington, it is hard to get any further away than Tasmania. And yet there, on the other side of the world, on a heart-shaped island the size of West Virginia, a new Jerusalem is emerging.
The Monks

Tasmania’s first Benedictine monastery is gradually taking shape on over 3,000 acres of green pastureland, felicitously named Jerusalem Estate and abutting an eponymous creek in the island’s idyllic Midlands. On a visit in late August 2018 – in the middle of Australia’s winter, drawing in an Antarctic chill – the monks were still living in trailers and sheds fashioned from corrugated iron on a rented paddock at Rhyndaston, several miles down the road from their future home.
Once a day they travel to the neighboring town of Colebrook, to pray and celebrate Mass in the local church. They have decorated the altar and put out fresh flowers for Our Lady. Though they live like beggars, their liturgical prayer is dignified, and their Gregorian chant nothing short of divine.
Soon, thanks to the archdiocese, an old church will be brought in by truck from the north of the island, the monks tell CNA. Then the young Benedictines – their average age is less than 30, and most of them, with the exception of one monk and the American prior, hail from mainland Australia – will at last have a first church of their own in which to sing, pray and celebrate.

Notre Dame Priory is led by Father Pius Mary Noonan, a monk from Kentucky who lived previously as a monk in a French monastery in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain.

One day an Australian couple knocked on the door, asking the abbot to help organize a retreat in their country. That was almost 10 years ago, and Father Pius – one of the few fluent English speakers at the French abbey – became a regular pilgrim to Australia.

The retreats – which are still going strong, and are now run from Notre Dame Priory – were so successful that a permanent presence was increasingly the only feasible proposition.

The Archbishop

So how did Prior Pius and his young band of monks end up in Tasmania? The answer is the Archbishop of Hobart, Julian Porteous.

The monastery is under the direct supervision of the 69-year-old prelate who, like a skilled gardener, has devoted himself to helping Catholic life flourish in the fertile – though, many say, spiritually barren – soil of the island that is his diocese. The Benedictines are but one of several seeds Porteous is sowing and planting. Each plant serves a different purpose, and each, is designed to serve strengthen and enrich the garden.

The archbishop and his team face a challenge of Biblical proportions. Even compared to rest of Australia – where the percentage of Catholics attending Mass is in the single digits – – Tasmania trails behind. Today, only about 16 percent of Tasmania’s population is Catholic – about 80,000 of roughly 530,000 Tasmanians — the lowest proportion of any Australian state or territory. And, like everywhere in the West, the number of Australians professing to be agnostics or atheists is on the rise.

(What is more, Tasmania did not experience the influx of Catholic migrants from continental Europe that since the 1950s has contributed – in many ways – to a more diverse Australia. Catholics have constituted the largest Christian denomination in the country since 1986, when their population overtook the number of Australian Anglicans).

To tackle this situation, Porteous says, over a cup of coffee in his unpretentious office, “we have to find a way of strengthening Catholic life, Catholic identity, Catholic spirituality. And at the same time, we mustn’t withdraw from society.”

Paradoxical though it might seem, that is why the Benedictine monks play an important role, the archbishop tells CNA.

“I think it’s very important at this moment when there are strong secularizing tendencies in society that do permeate through the Church, that we have, if you like, some pockets of strong Catholic Life that firstly can be a source of encouragement to many in the Church but secondly, can become a witness to the society.”

Striking a balance

Referring to Rod Dreher’s influential 2017 book “The Benedict Option,” the archbishop tells CNA: “One of the possible implications behind the Benedict Option would be a certain withdrawal in to a safer environment, a more consistently Catholic kind of life that the people were kind of close in.”

But just like Benedictines did in Europe over centuries, Porteous says that his work is about striking a balance – and cultivating the beauty and richness of Catholicism by using the different charisms to strengthen, rather than compete with, parish life.
For that reason, the archbishop invited the South American movement Palavra Viva – the Living Word – to establish a community of consecrated lay members in the town of Launceston.

And when visiting Sunday Mass in the picturesque Huon Valley, where forestry workers, organic farmers and artists live, one can see young religious sisters in a striking blue habit usher a youth group of missionary school attendees into their seats. These are the Sisters of the Immaculata, who were formed in Sydney in the December of 2008 and moved to Tasmania in 2014.

The sisters came, as foundress Mother Mary Therese explains “with the desire for spiritual renewal in parishes, through Adoration and faith formation.”

Porteous is “very happy” with the Sisters: “They’ve got a dozen young people doing four to five month mission school at the moment. In this summer, they’ll probably have 150 young people come through the nine day program they run here in Tasmania. So they will be representative of what I believe is a new flowering of Catholic life in the Church.”

Equally, there is no lack of interest in the young Benedictines from Notre Dame Priory. “I get a fair bit of email”, Prior Pius tells CNA, huddled into an ancient armchair next to a woodfire heater struggling to warm up the rickety farmhouse they use to receive guests.

“There is a lot of interest in what we are doing.”

And what about the Tasmanians they meet in everyday life? How do they react to the troop of young men with white habits and distinct hairstyles? The prior laughs.

“People are curious. We get asked a lot of questions. They want to know: Who are you? They’re usually very happy to hear that we’re monks”, he says and adds with a laugh, “although some have been disappointed that we’re not Buddhists.”

The Catholics of this new Jerusalem have their work cut out for them.



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Commentary: A few books for 2019

January 4, 2019 CNA Daily News 2

Denver, Colo., Jan 4, 2019 / 04:47 pm (CNA).- It’s probably a little late for retrospectives, but if you’re planning your 2019 reading list, here are six great novels and memoirs I read in 2018.

I am not including on this list my perennial favorites, but I am not limiting myself to books published in 2018 either. Rather, these are six books that gripped my heart and imagination last year, and might do the same for you.


The Devil’s Advocate” Morris West, 1959.

Father Blaise Meredith is an English priest, a canon lawyer, and official in the Sacred Congregation of Rites, the predecessor to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Father Meredith is precise, meticulous, intelligent, and disconnected: lacking living relationships, and the experience of love. His life is ordered, peaceful, and gray. When he discovers he is dying, his Vatican superiors send him to investigate the cause for canonization of a complicated figure from a complicated place, a man who was executed by Communist partisans in Calabria at the end of World War II. In Calabria, he discovers more about faith, hope, and about himself than he ever would have expected.  

Lincoln in the Bardo” George Saunders, 2017

George Saunders is weird, and so is his fiction. A lapsed Catholic and a practicing Buddhist, the impact of a Catholic education and a Catholic worldview is never entirely absent from his work, which explores questions of spirituality, morality, and relationships from new approaches and perspectives.

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the story of the afterlife of Abraham Lincoln’s deceased son, Willie. While not reflective of Catholic doctrine, and at times upsetting for some readers, the book is funny, tragic, and, in its own way, offers beautiful insights on living and dying well.  

The Book of Aron” Jim Shepard, 2015.

Aron is a poor, Polish, Jewish boy who endures the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, where his family lives in a tenement flat. His world is miserable before the Nazis arrive, and it falls apart as they force Warsaw’s Jews into ever-worsening conditions. When he can no longer survive by his own wits, he discovers what it is to be loved, by Janusz Korczak, director of a Warsaw orphanage. While Aron, Korczak, and everyone they know march toward an inevitable evil, that love endures, as a powerful counter-witness of hope.


The Last Homily: Conversations with Fr. Arne Panula” Mary Eberstadt, 2018

“How great,” wrote St. Francis de Sales, “is a good priest.” Fr. Arne Panula was a good priest: holy, humble, cultured, and human. It takes a writer as skilled as Mary Eberstadt to capture the beauty of a good and holy priest preparing for a good and holy death. In this book, she has done exactly that. Do not miss the prophetic witness of Fr. Panula, captured in the prophetic prose of Eberstadt.

From Fire, By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith” Sohrab Ahmari, 2019

The story of an Iranian immigrant, who discovered in America first nihilism, then communism, and then eventually the Lord. Ahmari’s memoir took me to places I have never been, and gave me a fresh look at people and places that seemed very familiar. Most especially, Ahmari’s book explored a restless human heart, searching and seeking, until, quite unexpectedly, coming to rest in the Lord.


With God in Russia” Fr. Walter J Ciszek, SJ, 1964.

As a young priest, Fr. Walter Ciszek wanted to preach the Gospel behind the Iron Curtain. He spent more than a decade in Soviet labor camps, preaching and witnessing to the Gospel in extraordinary ways. His story is the story of the Lord’s Providence, and one man’s fidelity to Christ.

I asked CNA reporters and editors to suggest the best books they read in 2018. Here are some of their suggestions, in no particular order:

“The Other Francis: Everything they did not tell you about the pope” Deborah Lubov, 2018
“Life and Love: Opening Your Heart to God’s Design” Terry Polakovic, 2018
“Why Liberalism Failed,” Patrick Deneen, 2018
“By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed,” Edward Feser, 2017
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” Walter Miller Jr., 1984
“The Magnolia Story” Chip and Joanna Gaines, 2016
“In Sinu Jesu”  A Benedictine Priest, 2016
“Crossing to Safety” Wallace Stegner, 2002
“Gilead” Marilynne Robinson, 2006
“Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name” Leah Libresco, 2018
“A Call to a Deeper Love: The Family Correspondence of the Parents of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus” Louis and Zelie Martin
“Hillbilly Elegy” J.D. Vance, 2016
“My Squirrel Days,” Ellie Kemper, 2018
“The Buried Giant” Kazuo Ishiguro, 2016
Every Sacred Sunday Mass Journal
“I’ll Be Gone In The Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer” Michelle McNamara, 2018
“The Power of Silence”  Cardinal Robert Sarah, 2017
“Deaconesses: An Historical Study” Aime G Mortimort, 1986
“The Idea of a University” John Henry Cardinal Newman, 1852
“Don Quixote” Miguel de Cervantes, 1605



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Gänswein: Sex abuse crisis is Church’s ‘9/11,’ but seeking God is the only way forward

September 11, 2018 CNA Daily News 1

Rome, Italy, Sep 11, 2018 / 03:58 pm (CNA).- While the current sex abuse crisis is tantamount to the Church’s own ‘9/11,’ Catholics can maintain hope if they remain focused on seeking God above all else, said Archbishop Georg Gänswein, personal secretary of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
“I perceive this time of great crisis, which today is no longer hidden from anyone, above all as a time of Grace, because in the end it will not be any special effort that will free us, but only ‘the Truth,’ as the Lord has assured us,” the archbishop said.
Gänswein, who is prefect of the Papal Household, spoke at a Sept. 11 presentation of the German edition of Rod Dreher’s recent book, “The Benedict Option.”
In that book, he said, Dreher notes “that the eclipse of God does not mean that God no longer exists. Rather, it means that many no longer recognize God, because shadows have been cast before the Lord.”
Today, Ganswein reflected, “it is the shadows of sins and of transgressions and crimes from within the Church that for many darken His brilliant presence.”
The archbishop noted the timing of the presentation, which fell on the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
He drew attention to “the report of the Grand Jury of Pennsylvania, on which now the Catholic Church too must cast a horrified glance at what constitutes its own ‘9/11,’ even if this catastrophe unfortunately is not only occurred on a single day, but over many days and years, and affecting countless victims.”
Ganswein clarified that he was “neither comparing the victims nor the numbers of abuse cases in the Catholic Church with those 2,996 innocent people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 9, 2001.”
However, he said, the reality of the souls damaged by the actions of Catholic priests in the U.S. is catastrophically grave.
Benedict XVI had warned in vain about this damage to souls when he lamented to the U.S. bishops in 2008 “the enormous pain that your congregations have suffered as clergy have betrayed their priestly duties and responsibilities through such gravely immoral behavior,” Ganswein said.
He reflected on other words from Pope Benedict XVI that shed light on the current crisis in the Church. Speaking to journalists onboard a flight to Fatima in 2010, Benedict had cautioned, “The Lord told us that the Church would constantly be suffering, in different ways, until the end of the world… attacks on the Pope and the Church come not only from without, but the sufferings of the Church come precisely from within the Church, from the sin existing within the Church.”
Five years earlier, as a cardinal reflecting on the Stations of the Cross, Benedict – then Josef Ratzinger – had observed, “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!”
Even before the recent revelations of sex abuse and cover-up, people have been leaving the Church in drastic numbers in some countries, Ganswein said, pointing to recent statistics indicating that “of the Catholics who have not yet left the Church in Germany, only 9.8 percent still meet on Sunday” for Mass.
In his book, Dreher highlights the monasteries founded by St. Benedict in the 500s as a template for preserving culture amid social turmoil.
But in implementing this model, Gänswein said, it is important to note Pope Benedict’s observation that “it was not [the monks’] intention to create a culture nor even to preserve a culture from the past.” Rather, their motivation was simply to seek God.
This is the task for those today who hope to contribute to the rebuilding of the Church, the archbishop said.
“If the Church does not know how to renew itself again this time with God’s help, then the whole project of our civilization is at stake again. For many it looks as if the Church of Jesus Christ will never be able to recover from the catastrophe of its sin – it almost seems about to be devoured by it.”
But ultimately, Catholics have hope in the promise of the Christ, that sin will never prevail over the Church, he said.
Pope Benedict recognized this truth as well, in the first Mass of his papacy, when he said, “[T]he Church is alive. And the Church is young. She holds within herself the future of the world and therefore shows each of us the way towards the future… The Church is alive – she is alive because Christ is alive, because he is truly risen.”
With this reality in mind, Catholics can face the future with hope, Archbishop Ganswein said, praying that the present crisis may be transformed a time of purification and renewal.
“Even the satanic ‘9/11’ of the Universal Catholic Church cannot weaken or destroy this truth, the origin of its foundation by the Risen Lord and Victor.”
Translations from German by Anian Christoph Wimmer