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Being curator of meteorites allows Jesuit to 'find God' in all things

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By James Ramos

HOUSTON (CNS) -- At the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo near Rome, Jesuit Brother Robert Macke finds his work as the curator of meteorites for the Vatican Observatory -- formally founded in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII -- allows him to, as the Jesuit saying goes, "find God in all things."

"The universe is a big place, and all of it belongs to God's creation, so all of it is a source of wonder and inspiration," he said. "The motto of the Vatican Observatory is 'Deum Creatorem Venite Adoremus' ('Come, Let Us Adore God the Creator'). In studying the universe and all that it contains, we can better appreciate the God who created it. For us, doing science is a form of worship."

Signs of the Apollo missions are found throughout the Vatican Observatory, he said an interview with the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, from the observatory.

Brother Macke cares for a moon rock from Apollo 17, a goodwill gift from United States to the Vatican. A display case also holds a piece of the "Moon Tree," a sycamore at the Lunar and Planetary Lab in Tucson, Arizona, that was grown from seeds that flew on the Apollo 14 mission.

The Vatican Observatory guestbook has a signature of Frank Borman, dated Feb. 15, 1969, less than two months after he, James Lovell and William Anders became the first three men to orbit the Moon on the Apollo 8 mission, Brother Macke said.

Borman also gave the Observatory a signed print of the famous "Earthrise" photograph, which now hangs on an Observatory wall next to a signed photograph of Eugene Cernan from Apollo 17 that is addressed to St. Paul VI.

In one of the observatory domes, Brother Macke said a photograph shows St. Paul VI watching the Apollo 11 landing from that exact location.

Working with his Vatican Observatory colleagues, including observatory director and fellow Jesuit, Brother Guy Consolmagno, among dozens of other clergy and laity, Brother Macke said "every day is different ... which keeps the work fresh and exciting."

Today, Brother Macke finds the Apollo missions "very inspiring."

"My office is littered with models of the Apollo spacecraft, unmanned space probes, and space telescopes," he said. "My research has even included work with Apollo moon rocks, which has involved several trips to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center."

He said the Apollo missions reflect a time of unity, a sense that's missing in today's society.

"The Apollo missions ... should serve as a source of inspiration for us all," he said. "Going to the moon was thought to be impossible, but with the whole nation working together toward this goal we could accomplish it. Today we live in a society that is polarized and contradictory. This will get us nowhere. We need to work together. By working together, we can accomplish the impossible."

He pointed out how the Apollo missions were accomplished by human beings and "not by robots."

"The astronauts and the army of support personnel were people who brought their humanity with them," he said. "From the very start, this included religious faith. The crew of Apollo 8, in orbit around the Moon on Christmas of 1968, read to the people of Earth from the Book of Genesis."

While he was born in Fort Worth, Texas, after the Apollo missions, Brother Macke said he's still inspired by others such as the Viking missions to Mars, or the Voyager expeditions to the outer planets.

"My father, who was trained as a geologist but spent his career in the Air Force, would bring us photos from these missions," he said. "He filled our home library with countless books about space and related sciences. I dreamed of visiting these planets myself."

Brother Macke said that since all creation is from God, "it is good, and therefore worthy of study."

"The science that I do is the same science that everybody else does. I collaborate with scientists of all faiths (and no faith) and together we produce good science," he said. "However, for me the context within which I do my science is very much informed by my faith. Science, for me, is an extension of the awe and wonder that I experience when I contemplate God's grandeur and his immeasurable love manifested in the universe that he gave us."

Brother Macke said he loves his work for the Vatican Observatory.

"I find inspiration all around me, from the meteorites that I study to the photographs of deep space hanging on the wall," he said. "I am also very inspired by my fellow astronomers of the Vatican Observatory, all of whom are priests or vowed religious, and all of whom are very accomplished scientists."

"Some days I am in the laboratory performing research. Some days I am talking to school groups about the Vatican Observatory," he said. His days bring him to conferences sharing his research with other collaborators and scientists, creating content for the Observatory's several social media outlets, as well as academic research and paper writing.

"And occasionally, a day might be marked by a papal audience," he said.

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Ramos is a staff writer and designer for the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Update: Administration to apply 'third country' rule for asylum-seekers

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters

By

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Trump administration announced the U.S. departments of Justice and Homeland Security are adopting an interim "third country rule" requiring immigrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border to first apply for refugee status in another country.

News that the rule was taking effect July 16 brought quick condemnation by Catholic and other immigrant advocates, including the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.

And as it had vowed to do, the American Civil Liberties Union the same day filed suit against the regulation in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which is based in San Francisco. Representing four California-based immigrant advocacy groups, the ACLU said the "crackdown" violates federal immigration and regulatory laws. ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt called the new rule the Trump administration's "most extreme run at an asylum ban yet."

Cardinal DiNardo called the new rule "drastically" limiting asylum "unacceptable," especially because it comes on the heels of the "misguided and untenable" actions by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to carrying out deportation orders for some immigrants.

"It is contrary to American and Christian values to attempt to prevent people from migrating here when they are fleeing to save their lives and to find safety for their families," the cardinal said in a July 16 statement.

ICE enforcement actions are creating fear in immigrant communities and now added to "to this climate of fear" is the administration's "further unacceptable action to undermine the ability of individuals and families to seek protection in the United States."

"The rule adds further barriers to asylum-seekers' ability to access life-saving protection, shirks our moral duty, and will prevent the United States from taking its usual leading role in the international community as a provider of asylum protection," the cardinal continued. "Further, while still reviewing the rule, initial analysis raises serious questions about its legality."

He urged President Donald Trump "to reconsider these actions, the new rule and its enforcement-only approach."

"I ask that persons fleeing for their lives be permitted to seek refuge in the U.S. and all those facing removal proceedings be afforded due process. All who are at or within our borders should be treated with compassion and dignity," Cardinal DiNardo added.

Other reaction to the third-country asylum rule included a statement from including Christopher Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network.

"Yesterday, Catholics around the world attending Mass heard the 'Parable of the Good Samaritan' and a message of love for one's neighbor proclaimed in the Gospel," Kerr said July 15. "Today, our nation awoke to the news of the president of the United States seeking to shut off access to safety and refuge for Central American families facing horrific violence, repression and poverty in their home countries."

"This is not the act of a good Samaritan -- instead it is an effort that does not honor the inherent dignity of those seeking asylum in our country," Kerr said.

The rule will not only have "a profound impact on Central Americans facing poverty and gang violence" but also will affect people from many other countries fleeing religious persecution and other forms of abuse," he said.

"Asylum is an internationally recognized life-saving process that is firmly embedded in U.S. law and history," said Anna Gallagher, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. "Attempting to subvert this process is a betrayal of American history and our legal system. Asylum-seekers need our protection, not another door slammed in their faces."

Gallagher's comments were included in a joint news release of reaction from several faith groups issues late July 15 by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition.

"As Pope Francis said last week in his return to the immigrant-receiving island of Lampedusa, we are called to be, as Scripture asks, 'those angels, ascending and descending, taking under our wings the little ones, the lame, the sick, those excluded.' Our call to care for others doesn't get much plainer than that," Gallagher added.

Kathryn Johnson, policy advocacy coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee, said that at a time of "multiple refugee crises across the world, the United States should be expanding U.S. protection for refugees, asylum-seekers and others seeking safety and taking in more of the world's persecuted people."

"Instead, she added, "this administration is shamefully putting more refugees' lives in danger through this and other attacks on our asylum system."

The new rule, being published in the Federal Register, says that "an alien who enters or attempts to enter the United States across the southern border after failing to apply for protection in a third country outside the alien's country of citizenship, nationality, or last lawful habitual residence through which the alien transited en route to the United States is ineligible for asylum."

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

50 years on, moon landing still generates a wistful sense of wonderment

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Dennis Sadowski

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong gingerly stepped onto the surface of the moon July 20, 1969, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno had no idea that some day he would become the director of the Vatican Observatory.

Sixteen at the time, he had followed the space program since Alan Shepard's 15-minute suborbital flight eight years earlier. But becoming a scientist was not foremost in the mind of the teenage Consolmagno as he watched the grainy black-and-white televised images of Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin going about their tasks on the surface of another world.

Still, the events unfolding that Sunday evening 50 years ago left an impact on Brother Consolmagno, an avid reader of science fiction who especially enjoyed stories about what it might be like to travel into space.

"That put the connection in my mind that the things we fantasize about can actually happen. So dreams carry with them an important sort of reality," he told Catholic News Service as the golden anniversary of the first moon landing approached.

"In the long run, it made me recognize the importance of our aspirations, the importance of our dreams, but also it really ties into the Jesuit idea that I really hadn't understood yet of looking for God in your deepest desires."

Years later, Brother Consolmagno would pursue studies in astronomy and then enter religious life. Today he heads one of the most prestigious astronomical institutions in the world while living his vocation and continues to marvel at the possibility of traveling to other planets. He sees God's handiwork in it all.

"I can feel God in any of that work," he said. "To me, you feel God in the joy of the moment. That the universe is logical and the fact that there is also beauty and understanding, it is a source of joy."

The accomplishments achieved through scientific endeavors such as the moon landings can provide a glimpse into the way things work and what it means to be human, both key components of God's creation, said Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, professor of theology at Villanova University.

"It tells us about us and our capacity to invent, to discover that which has never been seen, that which has never been walked upon," she said. "It tells us about the human person and the openness to this creation that God has given us the freedom to explore."

Discovery also can serve -- if humanity allows -- to help people realize the universe is so much larger than the planet human beings currently inhabit, Sister Delio explained.

"It's obviously very, very hard for us to get our heads around the fact that we are on a planet that's moving through space, that space is filled with all sort of material life and perhaps intelligent life that we have yet to discover. But the landing on the moon shows we can discover new things when we thought never before this could be done," she told CNS.

"That's what these discoveries are pointing to: a humble stance in this incredibly vast cosmos."

Astronaut Nicole Stott, 56, has had two opportunities to experience a small corner of that cosmos during a pair of space missions -- the first in 2009 when she spent three months aboard the International Space Station and the second in 2011 on a 13-day space shuttle mission.

Among Stott's most awe-inspiring moments was seeing the thin layer of Earth's atmosphere as she circled the globe every 90 minutes. "That little thin blue line is like Earth's spacesuit, and we need to protect it," she told CNS from Florida.

Stott, who is Catholic, retired from flying as an astronaut in May 2015. She admitted that watching the first moon landing as a 6-year-old while eating a grilled cheese sandwich didn't necessarily inspire her career choice to become an engineer and eventually work for NASA.

"And I remember going outside and looking at the moon afterward," she said. "I have colleagues who told me from that moment (of the landing) on that they knew they wanted to be an astronaut. I didn't have that sense."

But her parents encouraged the family to explore varied interests and -- because her father was a licensed pilot -- nurture a love of flying.

It was while working at NASA that Stott and her husband reconnected with their Catholic faith. Today, she sees no conflict between that faith and the pursuit of science to better understand God's universe.

She said during her 27 years with NASA -- 15 as an astronaut -- she worked with astronauts and NASA employees who were inspired by their faith to explore space.

"The thing that was surprising to me in general was that there seems to be this perception that astronauts would be agnostic or atheist," Stott said. "I was so happy to find that it's more the other way, that there are more people of faith associated with the (space) program. It was a pleasant surprise to find how deeply faithful they were."

The first moon landing itself was not without its religious connections. In preparation for the historic Apollo 11 flight, messages from religious leaders were among the artifacts collected to be flown on the lunar lander, reported National Catholic News Service, the predecessor of CNS. They remain there to this day for posterity.

The messages include one personally penned by St. Paul VI alongside the printed text of Psalm 8: "For the glory of the name of God, who gives men such power, we pray and wish well for this wondrous endeavor."

The pope was particularly enamored with the flight. As Aldrin and Armstrong collected rocks and set up experiments while the third member of the crew, Michael Collins, orbited overhead, St. Paul went to the observatory at papal summer home at Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome. He looked through a telescope at the moon, eyeing the Sea of Tranquility where the first landing occurred.

Three months later, St. Paul welcomed the astronauts to the Vatican during a private 20-minute meeting.

Such wonder about what it's like on other worlds and the many natural mysteries God has planted for humans to encounter also tugs at Father James Kurzynski, an amateur astronomer who is pastor of St. Olaf Parish in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

"Part of the human heart is to explore and discover," he said, "so why wouldn't we want to explore?"

Father Kurzynski, 45, is too young to remember the Apollo missions. "My connection was more as a Space Shuttle kid," he said. But he held a deep fascination with the heavens and over the years he has read about the history of spaceflight. That's how he encountered Aldrin's description of the stark lunar landscape as a scene of "magnificent desolation."

"There's something to that that really spoke to me spiritually. In our spiritual life, especially in Ignatian spirituality, we talk about desolation," Father Kurzynski said. "How can we see beauty amid desolation?

"Even though at one level one can see walking on the moon as (asking), 'Why go there? There's no trees, there's no atmosphere. It's just desolate.' I would love to see an earthrise. There's something amid that desolation that can heighten that beauty," he said.

"Finding this odd sense of beauty that seems to contradict the desolation is true in the spiritual life, that there are some very desolate moments in our life," he continued. "Then there's an earthrise, something that changes our disposition of heart and allows us to view this desolation differently from the standpoint of profound beauty as opposed to lifelessness."

So when Father Kurzynski shares with friends or parishioners a telescopic view of the moon, the planets or a deep sky object, he feels he is sharing insight into the beauty God has spread across the universe.

That leads Father Kurzynski to the question why humanity has not been to the moon in nearly 50 years.

"When we go back, how will it be received and what kind of missions will go forth in light of the technical changes we've had?" he wondered. "My hope is when we go back to the moon, I'm hoping that citizen science programs will not only increase the interest in the moon landing, but also increase future citizen contribution to the moon landing."

Such involvement might yet again get people excited about space exploration and, by extension, think about the place of humanity in God's creation, said Duilia de Mello, vice provost and professor of physics at The Catholic University of America.

"We today are losing a little bit of touch. We need that kind of experience (of the celebration of discovery) to get perspective and see the planet from above and see how small we are in the universe, and at the same time see how special we are," de Mello told CNS.

While de Mello was just 5 during the first moon landing and has no memories of the event, as a young teenager she started reading about interplanetary space probes that the popular media widely covered in the 1970s. That exposure moved her to become an astronomer and she now studies the structure of galaxies and works with the Space Telescope Science Institute.

She urged scientists, educators and even the Catholic Church to renew a sense of curiosity in students -- as she experienced -- so they can better connect science in daily life.

It just may be inspire some of those students to help achieve humanity's first landing someplace other than the moon.

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski

 

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

Vatican Museums loan Leonardo da Vinci work for special anniversary

IMAGE: CNS photo/A. Bracchetti, Governatorato S.C.V. via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is marking the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci with a painting by the artist that will draw crowds but also pay solemn tribute to the larger-than-life Italian Renaissance painter, architect and inventor.

"Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness" -- an unfinished painting on wood on loan from the Vatican Museums -- will be on special exhibit July 15-Oct. 6.

According to the museum, the painting is displayed "in a gallery by itself, starkly illuminated within an otherwise darkened space to heighten the picture's contemplative dimension, which Leonardo intended. The solemn, chapel-like setting will be an evocative nod to the funerals of great Italian artists, which typically featured one of the artist's works as part of the funerary display."

The work depicts St. Jerome during the later part of his life which he spent as a hermit in the desert. Unlike other artists' renditions of St. Jerome, in his study or writing at a desk, this image of the biblical scholar and church father is of an old, gaunt, nearly toothless man, draped in cloths and kneeling in a cave, holding a rock in one hand while beside the silhouette of a lion, his companion in the desert, according to legend.

St. Jerome, who lived from 347 to 420, is known for his translation of most of the Bible into Latin and his commentaries on the Gospels.

New York Times art critic Holland Cotter said those who get the chance to see the painting at the Met will instantly recognize that it is "a work in progress: fined-tuned here, slapped down there."

"Incompleteness is part of its power. And powerful this picture is, as dramatically rich as a three-act opera, with a full-throttle aria of scorching anguish at its center," he wrote. He said the saint and the lion in the work are untamed but that the "real focus is Jerome's agonized face," which he said portrays "inflamed spiritual grief."

The saint's gaze is to the side corner in the direction of a sketched crucifix. Behind him, on the upper left, is a faded landscape that upon a closer look is said to reveal da Vinci's fingerprints.

Max Hollein, the museum's director, said the Met is "thrilled to honor Leonardo da Vinci's legacy by displaying this rare and exceptional painting, as it provides an intimate glimpse into the mind of a towering figure of Western art."

He also noted the St. Jerome painting was one of "possibly six paintings whose authorship by Leonardo has never been questioned."

The artist, famous for the "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper" paintings, began working on this piece in Milan in 1483 and is said to have kept the painting with him until he died in France in 1519.

Although da Vinci painted a number of religious works, his own faith is subject of speculation.

A Catholic Encyclopedia entry on the artist notes that: "Either through prudence or through scorn of abstract ideas, Leonardo seems to have avoided declaring himself on this subject," but that as an artist, "he accommodated himself perfectly to the Christian tradition."

The Vatican Museums' description of the St. Jerome painting says there is no information about who commissioned the work. "Still in the sketch state, it is one of the most enigmatic works of the great Tuscan painter, sculptor, architect, engineer and philosopher," it adds.

The museum's description said the earliest mention of this painting appeared in the beginning of the 19th century when the Swiss painter Angelica Kaufmann acquired it. Pieces of the panel had been cut in two, the lower half was covering a box and the upper half covered a stool in a shoemaker's shop. A close look at the current exhibition reveals these repair lines.

Throughout the year marking da Vinci's May 2, 1519, death, museums around the world are hosting special exhibits and programs and travel groups are offering special tours to the places where da Vinci lived.

The simple one-piece work in New York adds to the yearlong celebration without a lot of fanfare but clearly with something to say. An overview of the exhibit on the museum's website said the "unfinished painting provides viewers with an extraordinary glimpse into Leonardo's creative process" and "will pay homage to one of the most renowned geniuses of all time."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

 

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

A HOLY YEAR OF PREPARATION

Bishop Kevin Vann announced in a decree on June 28, 2018, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, a Holy...

Vatican City State set to end sale of single-use plastics

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After current supplies run out, Vatican City State will no longer be selling any single-use plastic items on its tiny territory.

While the European Union pledged in May to ban single-use plastic starting in 2021, the Vatican had already begun limiting its use and soon "it will no longer be sold," said Rafael Ignacio Tornini, head of the department handling Vatican City State's gardens and waste collection.

"We have been making an effort to sort as much (plastic) as possible, and the state has limited all sales of single-use plastic," he told the Italian news agency ANSA July 16.

After all previously stocked items are gone, no more single-use plastic will be sold, he said.

Single-use plastic include bags, water bottles, cutlery, straws and balloons. The top five single-use plastic items polluting European shores are cigarette butts, bottles and caps, food packaging, cotton swab sticks and wet wipes, according to research in 2016 by the European Commission.

The Vatican has long been working to get green, most notably with the installation of a solar power system on the roof of the Paul VI audience hall in 2008.

After starting a recycling program in 2008, Tornini said 55% of its municipal solid waste is now being properly sorted and recycled through a private contractor in Italy. Their goal, he said, is to reach EU standards of recycling 70-75% of regular waste.

With less than a thousand residents, but thousands of employees and countless visitors, Vatican City produces 1,000 tons of refuse a year.

Individuals are expected to place recyclable items in the correct bins or curbside dumpsters, while the department handles door-to-door pickup of organic waste and cooking oil, he said.

After food waste collection began five months ago, he said, the amount of total unrecycled waste has dropped by 12 to 13% each month.

In an effort to better recycle what tourists leave behind, Tornini said, "we have been able to collect about 22 lbs. (10 kg) of plastic a day" from containers under the colonnade of St. Peter's Square.

He said they have had great success in recycling up to 98% of waste brought to its "eco-station" that handles "special" waste like batteries, tires, expired pharmaceuticals and other hazardous refuse.

Despite all the recycling programs and equipment put into place, what was really needed, Tornini said, was a change in mentality.

He said, "We took to heart the Holy Father's guidelines in 'Laudato Si'.' Our common home needs safeguarding, and if it doesn't start with us ...."

 

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.

When Islamic State came, Iraqi monks had just finished hiding manuscripts

IMAGE: CNS photo/Dalia Khamissy

By Doreen Abi Raad

BEIRUT (CNS) -- The first time a band of Islamic State militants "visited" the monks, they presented the monks with a kind of suggestion, in a nonthreatening manner: "Why don't you become a Muslim?"

Already, the four monks at the ancient Syriac Catholic Mar Behnam Monastery in Khidr, Iraq, had felt they were under siege. Ten days earlier, on June 10, 2014, five carloads of militants roared through the peaceful road leading to Mar Behnam, announcing through megaphones that the Islamic State was in control. Not long before that, the Iraqi army had withdrawn from a checkpoint near the monastery, located southeast of Mosul.

"Visits" from the terrorists the next few weeks intensified: banging on the monastery doors and accusations of the monks being infidels.

"Quite frankly, we were more than frightened," said Syriac Catholic Father Youssef Sakat, who had served as Mar Behnam's superior.

The monks kept up with their regular daily routine of prayer and Mass in the monastery, which dates back to the fourth century. They prayed for protection through the intercession of St. Behnam, a martyr, with faith that "we were in a blessed place," mindful that generations of Syriac Catholic Christians had also faced persecution, and still the faith had endured, Father Sakat told Catholic News Service.

The monastery "was built by local people, stone by stone," he said of Mar Behnam. "I'm sure they put their hearts into their work. I feel it was made with love."

Under Father Sakat's direction since 2012, Mar Behnam had flourished, welcoming up to 250 visitors on weekends -- even from around the world -- for retreats and lodging with the goal of helping people to better understand the monastic life. The monks would engage the children in lively faith-based activities.

"We wanted to show them that Mar Behnam is their home, too," Father Sakat said.

A Muslim friend the monks trusted was keeping them abreast of the worsening situation, but even he was becoming fearful.

"I'm sorry, Father, I can't come to the monastery anymore," he told the priest. "Even I'm being watched. It's becoming very dangerous. They want to kill you."

All the while, Father Sakat was deeply concerned about how to safeguard the chalices and other sacramentals and the monastery's extensive collection of religious manuscripts from inevitable destruction by the militants.

The 630 manuscripts, dating from the 12th to 18th centuries, were written in a range of languages, including Syriac, Greek, French and Latin.

Twice, Father Sakat tried to leave by car, with the intention of taking manuscripts to Qaraqosh, nine miles away. Each time, the militants at the Islamic State checkpoint near Mar Behnam told the priest that he was not allowed to take anything from the monastery.

"It doesn't belong to you," they said. On his third attempt, he was ordered to return to the monastery: "If we see you outside, we will kill you."

On their own, the monks could not come up with a solution, Father Sakat said.

He recalled that on July 19, late in the afternoon, "I felt in my heart: I have to hide them now." He chose a long, narrow closet under a stairwell that was used to store cleaning supplies.

"It was the Lord who directed us," Father Sakat said.

Beginning at 8 p.m., the monks worked together, carefully placing the sacramentals and manuscripts into nine steel barrels used for storing grain. With cinderblocks from a monastery renovation project, they built a false wall in the closet, hiding the barrels behind it. With a cement mixture, they painted all the walls to give them the same appearance. Cleaning supplies were put back in place in the closet. The monks even left the closet door ajar, so as not to rouse suspicions of any Islamist intruder.

They finished their work at 3 a.m.

At 1:30 p.m., four Islamic State militants barged through the Mar Behnam door with a sheikh. The monks were given three choices: either become Muslim, pay the jizya tax or leave.

"We prefer to leave," Father Sakat told the Islamists. They were allowed 15 minutes to vacate. Father Sakat was ordered to turn over all the keys to the monastery and vehicles.

Banished from his beloved monastery, as he walked out the door, "I looked back and told Mar (St.) Behnam, 'I did what I had to do. Now I entrust them under your intercession, by the power of God. Keep them safe. They are under your protection,'" Father Sakat recounted of his plea to safeguard the sacramentals and manuscripts.

The monks were ordered into one of the militants' vehicles. Two miles from the monastery, the militants left the monks on the road, warning: "Whoever looks back, we will shoot him."

The monks walked several hours to Qaraqosh. Their reprieve from terrorism was not for long. Soon that city and other Christian villages in the Ninevah Plain also fell to Islamic State.

In June 2015, the Syriac Catholic patriarch called Father Sakat to Lebanon for his new mission, helping Iraqi Christian refugees who had come to Lebanon from Kurdistan, in northern Iraq.

Now the priest heads the Syriac Catholic Holy Family center in an area of Beirut where many Iraqi Christians settled, with the hope of being resettled in Western countries. Initially, there were 1,200 Syriac Catholic families, totaling 6,700 people. Many are now scattered all over the world; 600 families remain in Lebanon, waiting.

In March 2015, the Islamic State blew up part of Mar Behnam, and the monastery remained under the militants' control until the area was liberated in October 2017.

When Father Sakat visited the monastery that December, he said he was shocked at the destruction.

Graffiti covered the walls. The pillars of the altar were incinerated. One by one, all religious phrases, crosses and symbols inscribed into the monastery's stones were drilled out and defaced, including the names of priests inscribed on tombs. Religious statues were smashed, a statue of Mary beheaded.

"It's like they want to erase all the history of Christianity," Father Sakat said.

Father Sakat stood with anticipation as the wall concealing the manuscripts was chiseled away with a jackhammer, to reveal, intact, the nine steel barrels containing the sacramentals and manuscripts.

The manuscripts were individually packed, this time into car trunks to transport them to the Queen of Peace Syriac Catholic Church in Irbil for safekeeping.

Restoration of the monastery is currently in progress, but "it needs some time," Father Sakat said.

"I'm waiting for the Lord's will, to go back (to Mar Behnam)," he added.

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Coverage of international religious freedom issues by Catholic News Service is supported in part by Aid to the Church in Need-USA (www.acnusa.org).

 

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