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Rome Notes: Immaculate Link; the First Freedom

Feeling at Home on a Marian Solemnity

By Catherine Smibert

ROME, DEC. 10, 2004 (Zenit) - On Wednesday, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a visitor to the North American College could feel a particular union between Rome and the United States.

In the college's magnificent chapel devoted to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the students and their comrades in the community sang the praises of their Patroness.

On entering this chapel I am always overwhelmed by the enormous, brilliant mosaic of the Mother of God that benevolently overlooks the celebrants and congregation. One of the concelebrants receiving this gaze Wednesday was Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minnesota, here on his five-yearly visit to the Holy See.

Bishop Nienstedt, a NAC alumnus who served in the Vatican Secretariat of State, told me how he felt "very privileged to be here at this time, especially this year when we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception."

The only issue was having too many good options, he said.

"I was kind of torn as to whether or not to go to that 9:30 Mass in St. Peter's Basilica along with some of the other bishops, but I have two students studying here at this distinguished institution, the NAC, and as it was my community for those many years, I really felt that this was the place to be that morning," he said.

Bishop Nienstedt consoled himself that, later in the day, he would be joining the crowds in Piazza di Spagna with the Pope for the crowning of the Blessed Mother.

The bishop was quick to remember his people back home as they celebrated the day through both their parishes and television coverage of the Mass in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., where a papal envoy celebrated.

"Our people have a deep devotion to the Mother of God," he told me. "I would say at least a third of the churches in my diocese are named after her titles, and so there is that deep sense of closeness that the people continue to have today to Mary, the Mother of God.

"Universally, the significance of this feast is the fact that God had a plan for Mary, the first of disciples, and therefore God has a plan for us."

"That plan, as the Holy Father keeps reminding us, is centered in the revelation of Jesus Christ," he added. "The Pope continually notes that Jesus, who was formed in the womb of Mary, is the center of Church history and human history and when we contemplate the face of Jesus, we really contemplate what he has in mind for us."

* * *

Freedom's Call

In its mission statement, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See states that "Today [we are] working with our bilateral partner to promote freedom, human rights, democracy and peace throughout the world."

Last Friday was the fourth in a series of conferences organized by U.S. Ambassador James Nicholson to achieve this, especially in the year marking 20 years of U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations.

The latest conference, held at the Gregorian University, was on religious freedom as the cornerstone of human rights.

The Holy See opened the conference emphasizing that "libertas Ecclesiae" is the "first freedom" which we should all strive to promote. This was outlined in the speech made by Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's secretary for relations with states.

Archbishop Lajolo discussed how imperative well-structured, bilateral and multilateral diplomacy is. And he described the stringent agreements set out by the Vatican in concordats with other nations as an example to others of their functional responsibility.

Diplomacy is also one of the core solutions to the problem of religious liberty for U.S. experts, represented in Rome by John Hanford, their ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

"The main purpose of my office," Hanford told me, "is to engage in vigorous diplomacy worldwide on behalf of religious believers who are imprisoned, tortured, beaten, or otherwise prevented from practicing their faith."

To the conferees he said: "We work with like-minded governments, faith groups and NGOs to craft strategies to help bring about improvements, advocating on behalf of all peaceful religious believers ... in order that they be allowed to practice their beliefs."

Another speaker, Father Daniel Madigan, president for the Institute for Study of Religions and Cultures at the Gregorian University, said that he is concerned as to whether all factors are taken into account when a nation decides to embark upon the saving of a people.

"I think that the question of religious liberty is very complex," he said, "because of definitions like, What do we mean by religion? How are ...

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