Pope Celebrates Mass in Azerbaijan

AZERBAIJAN, May 23, 02 (CWNews.com) - About 1,500 people-- more than ten times the total number of Catholics in the country-- were on hand as Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, on Thursday.

The Pope's arrival at a sports arena in Baku did not draw the sort of enormous crowds that the Pontiff has frequently caused in other cities around the world. But at least 500 Muslims attended the liturgical celebration, along with Orthodox and Protestant Azeris, and Catholics from other nearby countries. Because the local Catholic community has very limited means, the decoration for the occasion was kept to a minimum: There were flowers around the altar, and a few banners hang around the interior of the arena.

The Mass was celebrated in Russian, with Cardinals Angelo Sodano and Cresencio Sepe-- the Vatican Secretary of State and the prefect of the Congregation for Evangelization, respectively-- concelebrating. The Holy Father remained seated for much of the celebration, standing only for the Consecration and to give his blessing. Although he did not seem as exhausted as he had been on Wednesday when he arrived in Azerbaijan, John Paul delivered only the first and last paragraphs of his homily; he handed over the prepared text to a local priest who read the bulk of it aloud.

In that homily, the Holy Father paid tribute to «all those who succeeded in staying faithful to their Baptismal commitments» during the years of persecution under the Communist regime. He also offered thanks to the Orthodox Church for having allows Catholics to worship in Orthodox parish churches when their own churches were destroyed.

«The Pope is here today to share in your joy at freedom restored,» he continued. But he warned the people of Azerbaijan that freedom can be maintained only at a cost. In particular he encouraged efforts to provide young people with a proper education, solid moral principles, and opportunities to build a better society. Otherwise, he observed, they «run the risk of giving in to the illusions of aimless idleness and easy but dishonest gain.»

A group of refugees from the embattled province of Nagorno-Karabakh were present for the Mass. One man, whose legs had been amputated, threw himself toward the Pope in an effort to hand him a note. He was easily stopped by security guards, but the incident created a momentary panic in the arena. When the Mass was concluded, the Pope asked to see the man, along with the other refugees, and handed them a check for $100,000 to ease the conditions at their refugee camp outside Baku.

Before leaving Azerbaijan for the next stage of his trip, which will take him to Bulgaria, Pope John Paul visited the single Catholic parish in the country. There he met with the representatives of the country's different religious groups, and delivered another check-- for $20,000, which is rumored to part of the ransom paid to Chechen rebels for the release of an Orthodox priest.

The Pontiff also paused to bless the cornerstone of a new church building for the Catholic parish. This will be the first Catholic church built in Azerbaijan since an older basilica, constructed in 1888, was destroyed during the 1930s on orders from Stalin.

CWNews DAILY NEWS BRIEF © Copyright 2002 Domus Enterprises
23. mai 2002

av Webmaster publisert 23.05.2002, sist endret 23.05.2002 - 23:41