Friday, 30 December 2005

Smallest army keeping check on purse snatchers

Vatican Letter
Patrick Comerford


The world’s smallest army is celebrating its fifth centenary in the world’s smallest state. The Vatican City is the tiniest sovereign state in the world, and the celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of the Vatican’s official army, the Swiss Guards, reach their climax on January 22nd – on that evening in 1506, a group of 150 Swiss soldiers entered the Vatican for the first time and were blessed by Pope Julius II.

The imposing size of St Peter’s and the lengthy history of the Papal power make it difficult to grasp that the Vatican has been a sovereign state for less than 80 years and that it is such a tiny independent entity.

Apart from his role as head of the Catholic Church and Bishop of Rome, the Pope is also head of state in the Vatican City.

It is a state with its own sovereign government, governor, legislature and judiciary, its own police force and its own army in the form of the Swiss Guards.

It has its own radio station, daily newspaper, heliport, train station, filling station and duty-free shops, post office and stamps, diplomatic corps, internet domain (.va), and a resident population of over 920 people, including some Vatican staff and the 100 members of the Swiss Guards.

The Vatican State even has its own coins and banknotes. Despite popular jokes, they are not known as Peter’s Pence, and Vatican-issued euro coins and notes are quickly snapped up as collectors’ items.

The three Lateran treaties signed with Italy in 1929 acknowledged the full sovereignty of the Vatican State, restored some of the temporal powers of the papacy and established the territorial extent of the new state, which is totally landlocked within the City of Rome by a land border of 3.2 km. With a land area of 0.44 sq km (108.7 acres), the Vatican State is comparable in size to a small farm in Ireland and easily outpaced by Europe’s next smallest states, Monaco and San Marino.

The sovereign territory is so tiny that any visitor to St Peter’s and the Vatican Museums visits the state many times over, constantly stepping in and out of Vatican and Italian territory.

But Vatican sovereignty also extends to 13 other buildings speckled across Rome. These extraterritorial anomalies include Castel Sant’Angelo, a number of historical papal places, including the Lateran Palace and the Palace of the Holy Office, significant basilicas, including St John Lateran, St Mary Major and St Paul Outside the Walls, and some pontifical colleges, including Propaganda Fide close to the Spanish Steps and the Gregorian University.

Extraterritorial status even extends beyond Rome to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence in the Alban Hills, and the adjoining Villa Barberini.

Other properties outside Rome ceded to the Holy See include the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, St Anthony’s Basilica in Padua, the Basilica of the Holy House in Loreto, and an area in Cesano, north of Rome, where Vatican Radio’s controversial antennae are located.

Because these extraterritorial places are outside Italian jurisdiction, tourists can buy Vatican stamps and use the Vatican postal system in St John Lateran and St Mary Major, or find lower Vatican taxes mean cheaper drinks in the bars in Castel Sant’Angelo and at St Paul’s Outside the Walls.

Inside the walls of St Peter’s, the Swiss Guards and Vatican police ensure only Vatican employees top up with cheaper petrol at the Vatican's own filling station.

But the few privileged visitors to the Vatican Gardens can enjoy the high-class, low-tax shopping facilities in a former train station.

Because the Vatican has a small resident population but millions of visitors each year, St Peter’s is a paradise for pickpockets and purse snatchers and the Vatican has the highest per capita crime rate of any nation – more than 20 times higher than Italy’s, according to the Vatican’s chief prosecutor, Nicola Picardi.

The perpetrators are visitors too and are rarely caught, with 90 per cent of crimes unsolved.

Other crimes included embezzlement, fraud and insulting the police and civil servants, although the last serious crime was in 1998 when a disgruntled Swiss Guard shot dead his commander and the commander’s wife before killing himself.

Every tourist wants to be photographed with the Swiss Guards in their Renaissance-style striped uniforms.

Popular myth says the uniforms, in the traditional blue, red and yellow of the Medici, were designed by Michelangelo, but they are only 100 years old and were designed in 1905 by a Swiss Guard commandant inspired more by scenes in the Raphael Rooms than by Michelangelo.

The guards, who stand watch from the outer gates of the Vatican to the doors to the Pope’s private apartments, are limited by law to 100 soldiers, who are male Swiss Catholics who have finished basic training in the Swiss army, are fluent in five languages, aged 19-30 and stand at least 174cm (5ft 9in) tall.

New guards take an oath to “faithfully, loyally and honourably serve the supreme pontiff and his legitimate successors with all my strength, sacrificing if necessary also my life to defend them.”

They are fully trained with the sword and halberd, but since the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981, a stronger emphasis is placed on functional, non-ceremonial roles and Swiss Guards are now trained in unarmed combat and issued with SIG P 75 pistols and Heckler and Koch submachine-guns.

Rome’s secular authorities spent €8 million this year on events around the death of Pope John Paul and the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI, when four million pilgrims visited the city.

Tourist figures in Rome were up 10 per cent this summer, but the 20 million tourists in Rome each year are a drain on the finances of a city struggling.

With a national cap on public spending and the high costs of restoring historic buildings, maintaining public transport and cleaning up the city, some proposed solutions include a nightly bed tax.

Eternal problems eternally beset the Eternal City.

This news feature was first published in The Irish Times on 30 December 2005

Wednesday, 9 November 2005

Rise of Christianity as phenomenal as economic boom

Letter from China
Patrick Comerford


Miao children attend church in the mountain top village of Haima, where all 700 villagers are said to be church members (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As China becomes the world’s fastest-growing capitalist economy, Chinese society is also experiencing growth in other areas – this is world’s fastest-growing market for mobile phones, and an increasing number of children are facing eating-related disorders such as obesity.

But a more phenomenal growth is the rapid rise in the number of Christians. According to the latest figures from the Amity News Service, there were over 18 million Protestants in China in 2004, a one million increase on the figure for the previous year. With at least 12 million more Catholics, the most conservative estimates say there are at least 30 million Christians in China, but more optimistic estimates put the figure at 80 million or more.

With many Christians belonging to unrecognised or so-called “underground” churches, it is impossible to verify these figures. But no one denies the current astounding growth in Christianity in China.

When Mao’s Communists came to power in 1949, China had less than a million Protestants and about three million Catholics. But over the last two decades, the mainstream Protestant Church has opened three new places of worship every two days, church building continues at a rapid pace in every province and region, and the Amity Printing Press in Nanjing has printed an average of two million Bibles each year since 1987.

The dividing line between the mainstream and “underground” churches is becoming blurred, with church leaders using the term “meeting place” to describe outlying church plants, often with hundreds of members, using rented, unregistered premises but identifying with the larger churches in the towns and cities.

The largest church in China today is Chong-Yi church in Hangzhou (Hangchow), a city of 6.5 million people south of Shanghai. Bishop John Curtis of Zhejiang (Chekiang), a former Irish soccer international who lived in Hangzhou, was one of the last Anglican missionaries to leave China in 1950. He could have hardly imagined the rapid church growth in Hangzhou half a century later.

Chong-Yi church, with seating for more than 5,000 people, was dedicated last May. On a recent Sunday, about 2,500 people took part in the main service, with over 2,000 receiving Holy Communion.

Further south, I attended the opening of the new Guizhou Bible School. Over 3,000 people were present for the opening ceremony in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province and a city of over 3.5 million people.

The school was the brainchild of Pastor Samuel Tang, a rural doctor who has funded the training of pastors, evangelists and lay leaders from his earnings at his clinics.

Out in the mountains of remote provincial Guizhou, I found one of the many rural churches benefiting from the Pastor Tang’s vision. It takes four hours by private transport to reach the mountain-top village of Haima. The people belong to the Miao ethnic minority, and it takes the villagers of Haima as long to travel to Beijing by public transport as it took me to fly from Dublin to Beijing. But this distant village has a church dating back to the early 20th century, and all 700 villagers are said to be church members.

In Shanghai, as part of the government response to the surge in support for Christianity, the former Anglican cathedral on Jiujiang Street has been handed back to the church after almost six decades of use as a theatre and cinema. After colonial rule in Shanghai came to an end in 1949, the cathedral choir school was used as a police station and visa office.

But in the past year the former school has been refurbished as the new headquarters of the China Christian Council and the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, the official state-recognised Protestant Church in China.

There is an officially-recognised Catholic Church, but in the past its adherents were not allowed to recognise the pope’s authority. Everyone agrees the official figure of 12 million vastly underestimates the real number of Catholics in China.

But if China’s Catholics were divided in the past between the state-recognised Patriotic Catholic Association and the so-called “underground” church, Chinese Catholics were united earlier this year in mourning Pope John Paul II, who never achieved his life-long ambition to visit China.

In recent years, the Patriotic Catholic Association, established in 1951, and the “underground” Catholic church, which continued to maintain loyalty to Rome, have moved ever closer to one another.

In Shanghai’s Xujiahui Cathedral last June, Bishop Joseph Xing Wenzhi (42) was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai, China’s largest Catholic diocese, by Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxia. The ailing Bishop Jin (89), who spent 29 years in labour camps and in prison, has been the state-recognised Bishop of Shanghai since 1985.

But Bishop Xing’s appointment as his successor has the approval of both the state and the Vatican, with the Vatican indicating it will not appoint a successor to the unofficial or “underground” Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang. Similar consecrations in the dioceses of Zhengding and Hengshui show the boundaries between the official and unofficial church are becoming blurred and vary from area to area, as does the attitude of local governments towards the two expressions.

On the other hand, it may take decades to heal the divisions between China's Protestants and Catholics, who often see each other as members of two different religions.

The search for unity may become increasingly important as the church in China faces a new future. In the past, it learned with difficulty to live alongside the Red Flag; now it may be facing new difficulties as it adapts to living alongside the secularism and commercialism that come with capitalism and rapid economic growth.

• Rev Patrick Comerford is a Church of Ireland priest and has been travelling throughout China with a delegation representing churches and mission agencies in Ireland, Britain and Germany.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 9 November 2005


Wednesday, 19 October 2005

Diverse cultures still flourish
in China’s remote corners

Letter from Guiyang
Patrick Comerford


In south-central China, there is an old adage that Guizhou is a province where no three days pass without rain, where there are no three miles without a mountain, and where no one has three coins to rub together.

Guizhou is twice the size of Ireland but it is landlocked and surrounded by provinces that border Tibet, Laos and Vietnam. Even by Chinese standards, Guizhou is a remote province – the capital, Guiyang, is at least a 2½-hour flight from Beijing, so it takes people from the towns and hillside villages as long to reach Beijing by public transport as it takes others to fly from Dublin to Beijing.

Guizhou has a mild climate, its industrial output is growing, and with its mountains and rivers it can boast great natural beauty – the Huangguoshu Falls is the third-highest waterfall in Asia.

But natural beauty has not saved Guizhou from widespread rural poverty, exacerbated by the high rainfall and the fact that 80 per cent of the land is covered with untillable mountains and leached limestone soil.

But if the land is poor, Guizhou and its provincial capital, Guiyang, have rich diversity in terms of the people who live there. It is the province’s remoteness that has ensured that the traditions and lifestyles of its ethnic minorities have been preserved. Guiyang sits in a valley on the banks of the Nanming River and is hemmed in by the surrounding hills. Today it is a bustling, vibrant, industrial city, with a population of about 3.5 million.

Yet, despite the rapid industrial growth in Guiyang since the Communist revolution, a stroll through the backstreets soon leads to Qianming Si and its cramped and smoky halls, dating back to the Ming dynasty.

Guiyang has been an important provincial city since the Ming dynasty ruled China between 1368 and 1644. The surrounding areas, however, were not fully incorporated into China until the reign of the succeeding Qing dynasty.

When there was a population explosion in central China in the 17th century, wave after wave of immigrants flooded into northeast Guizhou from neighbouring Sichuan and Hunan. The local tribes rose in rebellion, and it was said that there were minor revolts every 30 years and major rebellions every 60 years during the Qing dynasty.

The rebelling tribes survived, and today at least 30 distinct nationalities or ethnic groups form more than one third of Guizhou’s population of almost 40 million. They include the Miao or Hmong people and the Dong people, each with their own regions in the eastern highlands; the Bouyei, who are similar to the Thai people, in the south and west; and the Yi and Muslim Hui people in Panxian and western Guizhou.

The 7.5 million Miao people in China are closely related to the Hmong people of Vietnam and Laos.

Since the Tang dynasty (AD618-907), migrations and forced resettlement programmes have caused the Miao to spread throughout southern China. Along with other minority peoples, they were often treated as slaves and serfs by China's majority Han people.

Eventually, the Miao were driven into the remote mountain areas, but their rebellions continued into the 19th century, under leaders such as Zhang Xiumei.

Zunyi, 170 km north of Guiyang, was the location of the crucial Zunyi conference in 1935, when Mao persuaded his followers on the Long March that China’s revolution could only succeed by mobilising the peasants.

It is easy to understand how the Miao people, in their desperately poor state in the first half of the 20th century, were active in the resistance against the Japanese invasion and gave tacit support to the communist revolutionaries.

The revolutionaries rewarded the Miao for their sympathies by giving them their own autonomous region. Although the Cultural Revolution from 1966 on was a setback, the Miao people have benefited from increased government assistance in the health, education and transport sectors since the 1980s, and their culture is flourishing.

In western Guizhou, the Bouyei people, who number 2.5 million, are found in the city of Anshun and the surrounding towns and villages. Both the Miao and Bouyei remain proud of their traditional costumes. The Bouyei can still be seen in the muddy fields around Anshun in their colourful blue skirts, planting rice and ploughing with their buffaloes.

The first Christian missionaries to work in the region came from the China Inland Mission, founded in 1865 by James Hudson Taylor, who died 100 years ago in 1905. Many of the churches in Guizhou, even in remote mountain-top villages, have survived since they were established by the mission more than a century ago. Christianity appealed to many of the oppressed minorities, and it is not unusual in this remote corner of China to meet Miao and Bouyei people who say their families have been Christian for up to seven generations.

To some western visitors, this part of China is known for its dog food. But Guizhou ought to be better known for its rich cultural diversity.

Both the Miao and Bouyei are famous for their batik-making traditions, dating back 2,000 years.

The characteristic spirals and curves in molten wax, applied with copper knives on indigo linen, are produced primarily in Guiyang and Anshun. With their monochrome portraits of Bouyei brides and their stylised depiction of mythical figures and animals, they are testimony to an ethnic diversity that is prospering in the face of economic challenges, even in the remotest corners of China.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on Wednesday, 19 October 2005

Sunday, 3 April 2005

Sermon on the death
of Pope John Paul II

The Revd Patrick Comerford

Southern Regional Co-ordinator,

Church Mission Society Ireland (CMS Ireland)


Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin.

Sunday, 3 April 2005: 2nd Sunday of Easter (Low Sunday),

Readings: Acts 2: 14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1: 3-9; John 20: 19-31.

May all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise and glory of the Eternal Trinity, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

“Peace be with you.”

“Peace be with you.”

“Peace be with you.”

We find this phrase three times in this morning’s Gospel reading. It is a phrase spoken by the Risen Christ three times, with a Trinitarian resonance that reminds me of the three times God says to Moses, “I am …”, or the three visitors who receive hospitality from Abraham and who remind him of God's commitment to fulfilling his plan for all creation.

This phrase “peace be with you” is a saying in the post-Easter story in Saint John's Gospel that identifies the Risen Christ, now living in the Glory of the Trinity, in the same that the phrase "Be not afraid" is phrase that identifies the Risen Christ in the post-Resurrection narrative in Saint Matthew's Gospel.

That phrase, “Be not afraid”, kept being repeated by commentators and analysts on all the media channels over the last few days as they were asked to comment on the pontificate of Pope John Paul II as they waited for his death. But as I was working my way through this Gospel passage in the past week, I realised that this other phrase of the Risen Christ, “Peace be with you,” was equally significant as I thought about the significance of Pope John Paul, and his impact not just on his own branch of the Catholic Church, but his significance for the whole Christian Church as one, his impact on the world-wide community of faith, beyond even the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and his significance for the whole world.

In some churches, we can be too glib about that phase, “Peace be with you,” when it comes to exchanging the sign of peace. We can be a little glib, not just with our handshake, but with what we are actually wishing each other, in our hearts.

The peace that Jesus wishes his disciples is not the usual sort of peace that we often wish one another on Sunday mornings: Sometimes, on Sunday mornings, it has become yet another saying robbed of its real significance, with no more heart-filled meaning than the supermarket till operator who says, “Have a nice day, missing you already.”

The peace Christ is bringing to his disciples this morning is not a cheap way of saying “Good morning lads.” It is a peace that the Disciples sorely need. It is a peace that a deeply divided church needs. The Disciples have been sorely divided by the dramatic and traumatic events of the previous week or so. They know they are a deeply divided body of believers.

One of them has betrayed Jesus, perhaps sold him for a pocket full of coins. Why, there are even rumours that he has now run off and killed himself, or that he is speculating in property with the money.

Another, a most trusted disciple indeed, has denied Jesus, openly, not once, but three times, in public.

He and another disciple went to the grave on Sunday morning, but weren't quite sure of the significance of the open, empty tomb. Indeed, it took a woman to wake them up to the reality of what was taking place.

And yet another disciple is refusing to believe any of this at all. Was he calling us liars? Was he ever a true believer? Was he thinking of quitting? After all, he hadn’t turned up for a few of the last meetings.

It is to this deeply divided body of Disciples that Jesus comes, breaking through all the barriers, physical barriers and barriers of faith, and says to them, not once but three times, “Peace be with you.” It is not a mere greeting. It is a wish, a prayer and a blessing for those Disciples. And it is a wish, a prayer, a blessing that Christ still has for his Church today.

We are still divided, separated from each other, in the same way as those early Disciples were separated and divided. These divisions are not necessarily along the old traditional fault-lines that once marked the separation between the different branches of the church: rather, they cross those barriers so that conservative Catholics and conservative Presbyterians find it more easy to make common cause with each other than with other Catholics or other Presbyterians who hold more liberal views.

We are like those Disciples: mutually suspicious, thinking others may not have realised the full significance of the message of the Risen Christ; finding it easier to know how others have denied Christ than to face up to our own denials; demanding of others a proof of faith that we would not demand of ourselves.

Those silly, petty divisions that were hurting and breaking the early Church are similar in many ways to the silly, petty divisions now threatening to tear the Anglican Communion apart. If we kept our eyes on the Risen Christ, rather than trying to make the worst of other's intentions, then we might allow ourselves to see that the same Risen Christ breaks through all barriers, physical, geographical, spiritual, the barriers of time and space, and the barriers that separate liberals and conservatives, Protestant and Catholic, the radical and the Orthodox. The Risen Christ breaks through all those barriers and wants to gather us together into one, healed and whole body.

I found it surprising over the last few days how generous most of the commentators were in their assessment of Pope John Paul's Papacy. As I watched some of the prayers on television, I remembered how [the Revd] Kevin Moroney used to say that the dedication of this church was celebrated on the feastday of Saint John Lateran. It is possible today for us to be more generous in our responses that we might have been in an Anglican Church a few generations ago, even an Anglican Church in the Catholic tradition, as a Pope lay dying.

Our first concern, I suppose, should be for our neighbours. In love, we should understand their grief, mourn with them, grieve with them. For Irish people, not just for Roman Catholics, it was an honour that Ireland was one of the first countries he had chosen to visit after his election.

Next, perhaps, we should hope that in the weeks to come, as his successor is being elected, they look for a Pope who will be a true witness to the Risen Christ; a Pope not afraid to say that the words "Peace be with you!" need to transform the whole Church, so that as the Body of Christ we reflect not the broken body on the Cross, but the Risen Christ; and a Pope not afraid to say that the message of the Risen Christ, “Peace be with you!” has real significance for the world today.

Meanwhile, we should be ready to give thanks for the life and witness of Pope John Paul II. Who can forget him kneeling in silent and humble prayer beside Archbishop Robert Runcie in Canterbury Cathedral? Like many, I have been frustrated with the way the ARCIC process of dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions has been stymied and stalled, often facing insurmountable roadblocks during this Papacy. But then there have been surprising moments of hospitality, when Anglican bishops have been welcomed as “brother bishops” by the Pope in the Vatican.

This Pope managed in a joint statement with Lutherans to publicly state that the differences between Lutherans and Rome at the time of the Reformation were differences of language and emphasis that should never have resulted in a breach or rupture.

This Pope has tried to mend fences with the Orthodox world, with his visits to Eastern Europe. If only the Orthodox Church in Russia had been prepared to be as open and welcoming in Moscow as John Paul was in Rome and in going to Athens, Jerusalem, the Ukraine and Romania.

John Paul will be remembered as the first Pope to have visited and prayed in a synagogue, to visit Auschwitz, to visit Yad Vashem. His dignified, silent prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem was no mere gesture: it was faith-filled proof that the God we worship is the same God Jesus worshipped in the synagogue, the same God the Disciples worshipped in the Temple, even after the Resurrection and Ascension. It was a faith-filled moment full of the resonances of sacramental healing needed by our post-Holocaust generations.

And yet, despite his deep-hearted empathy with Judaism, he was not afraid to speak out for the rights of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank ... whether they were Christians or Muslims was almost irrelevant. He was the first Pope to be open to the Islamic world. He visited mosques, met Muslim leaders, and continued throughout his papacy to take an active interest in Muslim-Christian dialogue.

He was a significant Christian leader who could challenge those post-modern trends that would sideline and marginalise religious voices, and say instead that Christianity is not merely a matter of private belief but has a crucial message for the world today. And despite his age, he could go against the trends, and make religion appealing to a younger, much younger generation.

In the past few days, commentators have emphasised his role in bringing democracy to his native Poland. But this was no selfish nationalism: its implications for all of Eastern Europe, indeed for all of Europe, have been broad and immense in the past 15 or 20 years.

Some women will object to his opposition to the ordination of women or his stand on contraception and abortion. Yet he was outspoken in promoting women's rights at work and in political and civil society. What has been labelled a “pro-life” stance was, at least, principled, for it extended to every aspect of life. That was why he appealed passionately in Drogheda for the IRA to abandon violence, why he took a principled stand against torture, the death penalty, wars of oppression, nuclear weapons, and the invasion of Iraq.

You may not have agreed with him on one, indeed on many, of these points. But he was a Pope who made it acceptable once again to say that the Gospel of the Risen Christ is a message not only for individual believers or the Church, but for the whole world, secular and political as well as religious.

If we are Disciples of the Risen Lord, then we cannot stay locked away in the Upper Room waiting for God to put everything right at the end of days. We must take courage from the Risen Christ, we must have an Easter faith that allows us to take to heart that message “Be not afraid”, and go out with the message, “Peace be with you”, a message that must be made real in the lives of our own section of the Church, throughout the wider Church, and that must have the power to transform the world we live in today.

This Sunday in Easter is traditionally called “Low Sunday”. But we can be in high spirits because of the Risen Christ. “Peace be with you!”

And now may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise an glory of the Risen Christ, Amen.

This sermon was preached in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin, on Sunday 3 April 2005.