Friday, December 7, 2012

Christmas in Cuba; The Pope's @Pontifex Twitter Account; News from Mars

Catholics in Cuba have a new challenge: remembering what they believe when their government isn't quite so hostile to their faith. Catholics in the United States are still being kept on our toes:to an extent. I'm not sure whether I'm happy about that, or not.

Another blogger made a good case for celebrating, even though the November election was a trifle disappointing:

Cuba, Twitter, and Mars

Cuba's new(ish) Christmas policy, the Pope's new Twitter account, and Martian chemistry are what I picked from this week's news:
  1. Christmas in Cuba
  2. @Pontifex: Benedict XVI's Twitter Account
  3. Mars Soil Analysis: Organic, Yes;
    Life, Too Soon to Say

Science? In a 'Religious' Blog?!

I don't have to be interested in God's creation to be a Catholic: but I don't see a point in cultivating ignorance of the wonders that surround us.
"...the things of the world
and the things of faith
derive from the same God...
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

"...The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man's intellect and will."
(Catechism, 341)
The quaint idea that science is against religion, and that religious people have to hate science, popped up in the 19th century. ("Beauty, Science, and a Crazy Idea" (March 14, 2012)) I think the 'science is icky' attitude is as silly as whalebone corsets, too, and that's another topic. Topics.

I'm a practicing Catholic, which may not mean what you've been told it does. Yet more topics:

1. Christmas in Cuba

"After decades-long ban, Christmas holds new meaning for Cuba"
CNA/EWTN News (December 4, 2012)

"Local Catholics say that the reinstatement of Christmas as a national holiday in 1997 after decades of being outlawed has brought enormous good 'to the life of the nation,' but that its deeper meaning still needs to be understood.

" 'Once again Christmas proves to be a source of happiness: however, we cannot forget that this beneficial aspect of Christmas has its roots and its nature in the religious event of the birth of Jesus Christ,' wrote editors from the Diocese of Pinar del Rio's magazine titled Vitral.

" 'The more Christmas in Cuba is imbued with its roots and its Christian religious nature, as it was in the past, the more good it will bring to the Cuban people.'..."
I'm glad to see that Cubans have Christmas as a public holiday: to be celebrated, or not.

Depending on who you listen to, anywhere from 60% to 85% of Cubans are Catholic, with maybe 5% (or more) going to Mass regularly. The rest are Protestants, Jews, followers of Santeria, and the ubiquitous "other." (Religion in Cuba, Wikipedia; "Cuba," The World Factbook, CIA (page last updated November 29, 2012))

I can understand a country not having Christmas as a national holiday, if only a handful out of every hundred folks are Christian. Nations like Cuba, or the United States, though? Unless a state-sponsored church demands that everybody pretend to celebrate, I don't see a problem.

Whether or not it's suitable to use public funds for 'religious' displays like Sauk Centre's "HAPPY HOLIDAY" sign - - - is another topic.

Driven Underground: For a Time

"...Since its beginning as a nation, Catholic liturgical celebrations were the primary source of unity for the people and were highly important for the new nation, the editors said.

"But although 'Christmas united Cubans,' the Communist government banned public celebrations of the holiday in 1969.

" 'Christmas was still celebrated in Catholic and Protestant churches and in Christian homes, but public celebrations disappeared.'..."
Living in a society that encourages public displays of religious feeling has its advantages. On the other hand, being forced into choosing between popularity and principle also presents opportunities.

Today's America isn't the country I grew up in, where going to the 'right' church was as important to upwardly mobile company men as was choosing the 'right' golf club.

As I've said before, I don't miss the 'good old days.'

These days, there's another set of folks with power and influence in America. I get the impression that 'organized religion' and 'vast right-wing conspiracies' have replaced the red menace and pinkos as bogeymen.

The new 'tolerance' is as open minded as the old HUAC and Hollywood blacklist. My opinion.

Happily, quite a few Americans are as recalcitrant about stifling our faith, as our Cuban neighbors.
In the long run, I think the current establishment in America will be as successful in eradicating serious religious beliefs as Cuba's leaders have been.

2. @Pontifex: Benedict XVI's Twitter Account

"Pope Benedict will make Twitter debut with @pontifex"
Estefania Aguirre, CNA/EWTN News (December 3, 2012)

"The Pope's Twitter account will be @Pontifex and will start on Dec. 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Vatican representatives announced.

"The news of the 85-year-old tweeting came out weeks ago, but officials finally revealed the account's name and that it will be launched on the Marian feast day, which they said was a coincidence.

"But instead of informing people of his favorite band and other trivia, the Pope's goal will be to impart spiritual messages to people around the globe...."
As of yesterday (Thursday) morning, around 10:00 a.m. here in Minnesota, Benedict XVI / @Pontifex had 522,922 followers: including me. Quite a few folks on Twitter have been commenting on Benedict XVI's @Pontifex Twitter account.

What's said about @Pontifex by folks on Twitter is serious, silly, clueless, rude, or obscene: depending partly, I suspect, on how much the person knows about the Catholic Church and Catholicism. Yes, I know about the pedophile priests; and I agree with Fulton Sheen:
"There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church - which is, of course, quite a different thing."
(Bishop Fulton Sheen, Foreword to Radio Replies Vol. 1, (1938) page ix, via Wikiquote)
Moving on.

Pontifex: Pope and Bridge Builder

"...Greg Burke, who was recently appointed media advisor to the Holy See's Secretary of State, explained that the name was chosen because pontifex means both 'Pope and bridge builder,' and the Holy Father desires to reach out to everyone with the initiative.

"On Dec. 12, Pope Benedict will personally tweet, but after that assistants will tweet content he approves.

" 'They will be his words and no one will be putting words in his mouth,' Burke explained. 'My personal input will be to see that it happens as often as possible.'..."
Estefania Aguirre)
I'll be interested in seeing how Benedict XVI deals with Twitter's 140 character limit. Even his comparatively brief general audiences run much longer, like this example:
On the other hand, there's precedent for message compression:
"My dear children, love one another."
("St John, Apostle and Evagelist," EWTN) [quoted (June 24, 2012)]

Money, Security, and the Vatican

"...Security will be dealt with if any problems occur, Burke said, adding that it's an issue that the Vatican website deals with on a daily basis.

" 'There are many imitators out there - some of them are good willed, some of them are not,' he said.

"The initiative will not cost the Vatican much money since they already have the manpower...."
(Estefania Aguirre)
The Vatican's website,, is part of what's probably among the world's most high-profile Internet domains. It's in eight languages, and provides access to a growing fraction of documents the Church has accumulated. Considering what a tempting target it is, I'm a bit surprised that there aren't more successful attacks:
I'm glad to hear that maintaining the Pope's Twitter account won't cost much money, but not because I think spending on anything I don't do is a sinful waste: or worse. The Catholic Church is far from bankrupt, although some American parishes have been closed:
That doesn't mean that the Pope is the evil mastermind of a global conspiracy to plunder the pockets of the poor. I think part of the Church's apparent over-abundance of wealth comes from our being under the same management for two millennia. Stuff accumulates.

The Not-So-Vast Vatican Offices

Vatican City is only about a half-mile across, with a population of about 836. (Holy See (Vatican City), The World Factbook, CIA (page last updated October 24, 2012))

One of the departments, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has a staff of 45 handling information coming from about 1,100,000,000 Catholics. (January 8, 2012) Top-heavy the Catholic Church's organization isn't.

Present, Yes: Launched, No

"...The Pope's account is expected to be launched at around noon, after the weekly general audience, and the inaugural day will feature answers to a handful of chosen questions related to faith, in honor of the ongoing Year of Faith.

" 'I think it's a great means, despite the fact that the Vatican has been cautious about doing it with the Pope, because it's one thing for a movie star or soccer player to do it and it's another thing for the Pope to put his name on tweets,' Burke said.

" 'But I still think it's a great way to reach a whole lot of people, and the more we can do it, the better.'

"The account will include tweets in seven languages besides English. Those languages are Spanish, Arabic, German, Polish, French, Portuguese and Italian...."
(Estefania Aguirre)
@Pontifex is already 'launched,' in the sense that it's on Twitter with distinctive graphics and more than a half-million followers. But it's not 'launched' in the sense that there aren't any Tweets yet.

I'm looking forward to December 12 and the first of Benedict XVI's messages.

3. Mars Soil Analysis: Organic, Yes; Life, Too Soon to Say

"NASA Mars Rover Fully Analyzes First Soil Samples"
(December 3, 2012)

"NASA's Mars Curiosity rover has used its full array of instruments to analyze Martian soil for the first time, and found a complex chemistry within the Martian soil. Water and sulfur and chlorine-containing substances, among other ingredients, showed up in samples Curiosity's arm delivered to an analytical laboratory inside the rover.

"Detection of the substances during this early phase of the mission demonstrates the laboratory's capability to analyze diverse soil and rock samples over the next two years. Scientists also have been verifying the capabilities of the rover's instruments.

"Curiosity is the first Mars rover able to scoop soil into analytical instruments. The specific soil sample came from a drift of windblown dust and sand called 'Rocknest.' The site lies in a relatively flat part of Gale Crater still miles away from the rover's main destination on the slope of a mountain called Mount Sharp. The rover's laboratory includes the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) suite and the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument. SAM used three methods to analyze gases given off from the dusty sand when it was heated in a tiny oven. One class of substances SAM checks for is organic compounds -- carbon-containing chemicals that can be ingredients for life...."
NASA says it's fairly certain that the chlorine was on Mars when Curiosity landed: but that the carbon may have been carried along from Earth. 'None of the above' is a strong indication that there's life on Mars.

Organic Stuff and Life

Organic compounds are always in living organisms, at least the ones we're familiar with. But living organisms aren't the only place where compounds containing carbon (or carbon and hydrogen) show up.

I'm particularly impressed that some regions of interstellar space contain complex organic compounds:
Components for life seem to be spread throughout the universe. Maybe we're living on the only planet where there's life: but then again, maybe we're not.

I'm fascinated by what we're learning: and what might, possibly, be still unknown.

Pictures of Dirt: Martian Dirt

(from NASA/JPL-Caltech, used w/o permission)
"This collage shows the variety of soils found at landing sites on Mars. The elemental composition of the typical, reddish soils were investigated by NASA's Viking, Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rover missions, and now with the Curiosity rover, using X-ray spectroscopy....

"...The Mars Exploration Rover Spirit's landing region in Gusev Crater is seen in both pictures at top; Viking's landing site is shown at lower left; and a close-up of Curiosity's Gale Crater soil target called 'Portage' is at lower right.

"In Gusev Crater, several white subsurface deposits were excavated with Spirit's wheels and found to be either silica-rich or hydrated ferric sulfates."
(NASA Multimedia)
Angry Red Planet (1959); © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved. Used w/o permissionWhat was a little surprising was how much Mars looks like Earth, although our home doesn't have quite so much reddish-tan sand and gravel. Sure, the atmosphere is unbreathably thin, and mostly carbon dioxide; and the gravity is about a third of what we're used to: but the real Mars isn't the entertainingly odd place we used to see in the movies.

It's a world where snow can be crystals of water, or carbon dioxide; where water once flowed; and where we're finding many of the chemicals needed for life. The real Mars is a great deal more interesting than Hollywood's "...Angry Red Planet." My opinion.

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.