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The courage of Christian martyrs is a blessing for everyone, pope says

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Christians who never renounce their love for Christ and are faithful to the point of death are a blessing for everyone, Pope Francis said.

"There will always be martyrs among us. This is a sign that we're on the right path," the pope said in a video message for the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network, formerly known as the Apostleship of Prayer, released Feb. 27.

The pope's prayer intention for the month of March is dedicated to modern martyrs as witnesses to Christ.

"The courage of the martyrs, the witness of the martyrs, is a blessing for everyone," he said in his video message, noting that it is estimated there are more martyrs today than during the time of the early church. 

praying xavier
People stand in prayer in front of an image of St. Francis Xavier in this screen grab from a video from The Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network. (CNS photo/ThePopeVideo.org)

"Let us pray that those who risk their lives for the Gospel in various parts of the world might imbue the church with their courage and missionary drive. And to be open to the grace of martyrdom," he said. 

The pope began the video by sharing a story he heard from a Muslim man about his Christian wife while visiting a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece.

It is "a story that is a reflection of the church today. It is the story of a little-known witness of faith," he said. 

He said the man told him terrorists had confronted them "and asked what our religion was. They approached my wife with a crucifix and told her to throw it on the ground. She didn't do it, and they slit her throat in front of me."

The pope said the man "held no grudges. He was focused on his wife's example of love, a love  for Christ that led her to accept, and to be faithful to the point of death." 

For the martyrs of our day, witnesses to Christ

For the martyrs of our day, witnesses to Christ

The Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network released the pope's prayer intention for the month of March, which is dedicated to modern martyrs as witness to Christ.  

Pope cancels another day of meetings because of flu symptoms

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Saying Pope Francis was continuing to experience "mild flu-like symptoms," the Vatican announced he had canceled his appointments again Feb. 26.

The 87-year-old pope had led the recitation of the Angelus prayer as usual Feb. 25 and seemed to have no difficulty speaking or breathing, and he did not cough.

The previous day, though, he canceled a meeting with transitional deacons from the Diocese of Rome. The Vatican press office had put out a note Feb. 24 saying, "Due to a mild flu-like condition, as a precautionary measure, the pope canceled his audiences scheduled for today."

The press office provided no further information and did not indicate what those symptoms were.

The only information the press office added Feb. 26 was that the pope did not have a fever.

The cancellation came after Pope Francis and top officials of the Roman Curia took five days off for their Lenten spiritual reflections.

In November and January when the Vatican said the pope had "flu-like symptoms" they were respiratory difficulties, which Pope Francis described as bronchitis.

At a Jan. 12 meeting with Catholic communicators from France, the pope skipped reading his prepared text because, he told the group, "I have a bit of bronchitis, and I can't speak well."

In late November and early December, he also suffered from what he described as a very serious bronchial infection.

"Thank God it was not pneumonia," he told a group of health care managers. "I no longer have a fever, but I am still on antibiotics and things like that," he had said.

He had canceled his appointments Nov. 25 because of what the press office described as "flu-like symptoms" and went that afternoon to a Rome hospital for a CT scan of his chest. In the following days, he canceled some appointments and had aides read his prepared texts at other events.

That bout of respiratory difficulties also was what led him to cancel his plans to travel to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates Dec. 1-3 to address the U.N. Climate Change Conference.

Suffering from a respiratory infection, he also spent four days in March at Rome's Gemelli hospital.

He had undergone surgery in 1957 to remove part of one of his lungs after suffering a severe respiratory infection. He has insisted the operation has had no lasting impact on his health.

Pope Francis usually does not have any formal audiences on Tuesday; he was scheduled to hold his weekly general audience Feb. 28.


Freedom to Meet Migrants’ Basic Human Needs Must be Preserved, says Bishop Rhoades

WASHINGTON - Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, expressed solidarity with faith-driven ministries to migrants and noted the special need to protect religious liberty. His remarks commended the February 23 statement issued by the Catholic bishops of the State of Texas.

“It is hard to imagine what our country would look like without the good works that people of faith carry out in the public square. For this, we can thank our strong tradition of religious liberty, which allows us to live out our faith in full.

“As the tragic situation along our border with Mexico increasingly poses challenges for American communities and vulnerable persons alike, we must especially preserve the freedom of Catholics and other people of faith to assist their communities and meet migrants’ basic human needs. I join my brother bishops in the State of Texas in expressing solidarity with those seeking simply to fulfill the fundamental biblical call: ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”


Bishop Zaidan Calls for Peace and Humanitarian Aid as War-Torn Ukraine Marks Two Years Since Russian Invasion

WASHINGTON - As Russia’s war against Ukraine enters its third year, the need for humanitarian assistance has greatly increased to help the millions of Ukrainians impacted by violence and destruction. People are struggling to survive in the cold winter with little food, heat, or shelter, said Bishop A. Elias Zaidan of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon. As chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, he urged the U.S. government to provide more aid immediately to alleviate the suffering of Ukrainians. Bishop Zaidan also expressed concern at Russia’s targeting of religious communities in Ukraine, destroying churches, arresting religious leaders, some of whom have been tortured and killed.

“The magnitude of the suffering in the Ukrainian conflict continues to sear the conscience of the faithful. According to a UN report, the number of civilians killed and injured since February 2022 exceeds 30,000. Schools, hospitals, apartments, and basic infrastructure supplying power have been hit by missiles. In the face of such destruction and death, people are repeatedly displaced, insecure as to where to find safety.

“The Catholic Church, including many Catholic welfare organizations are trying to meet these enormous needs both within Ukraine and in other countries impacted by this war which has raged on for two full years. The USCCB’s national collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe has been critical in providing much-needed aid to the region. Additionally, Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative has greatly heightened global food security concerns, increasing food prices, and jeopardizing the health and lives of poor and vulnerable people dependent on food assistance for survival. I urge the U.S. government to do all that it can to provide much needed humanitarian assistance quickly.

“At the same time, there are reports of religious communities, particularly the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, being attacked by Russian forces in territories they have seized. Over 600 religious structures have been damaged, some occupied by Russian forces and turned into military bases. Clergy have been harassed, persecuted, kidnapped, and even killed.

“On January 8, Pope Francis spoke about Ukraine saying we cannot allow the persistence of a conflict that continues to metastasize to the detriment of millions of persons. He also underscored that it is necessary to put an end to the present tragedy through negotiations, in respect for international law. I join with our Holy Father in calling for an end to the violence in Ukraine and call on all the faithful and people of good will to join with the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, in setting aside February 24 as a solemn day of prayer, fasting for the end of the war and for peace to come to this war-torn land.”


Woe to those who end up in media 'meat grinder,' papal preacher says

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The media and social networks can be crueler than wild beasts, the preacher of the papal household told top Vatican officials and Vatican employees.

"When they point out the distortions of society or of the church," he said, then "they deserve all the respect and esteem," Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa said Feb. 23, offering his first Lenten meditation of 2024 in the Paul VI Audience Hall.

But there should be no praise when "they attack someone out of bias, simply because he does not belong to their side" or when they are driven by "malice and with destructive, rather than constructive, intent," the Capuchin friar said. 

Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household, presents a Lenten meditation for members of the Roman Curia and Vatican employees in the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican in this file photo from Feb. 26, 2021. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The reflection came after Pope Francis and members of the Roman Curia suspended their usual activities to participate in a week of personal spiritual reflection for the beginning of Lent Feb. 18-23. A number of chairs reserved for curial officials and Pope Francis were empty.

"Unfortunately, today there exists in society teeth that grind without mercy, more cruelly" than the teeth of wild beasts, Cardinal Cantalamessa said. "They are the teeth of the media and the so-called social networks."

"Unfortunate indeed is whoever ends up in this meat grinder today, be it a layperson or clergy!" he said.

"In this case, it is legitimate and necessary to assert one's reasons in the appropriate forums, and if this is not possible, or it is seen that it is of no use, all that remains for a believer is to join Christ scourged, crowned with thorns, spit upon," he said.

"It is a difficult and painful thing to say the least, especially if one's natural or religious family is involved," he said. "But the grace of God can make -- and often has made -- all of this an opportunity for purification and sanctification."

"It's about having faith that, in the end, as happened with Jesus, the truth will triumph over lies. And the triumph will be better served, perhaps, with silence than with the most aggressive self-defense," he said.

The papal preacher said he would dedicate each of his five Lenten reflections to five of the seven "I am" declarations Jesus revealed in the Gospel of John, starting with "I am the bread of life."

"How did he, Jesus, become the bread of life for us?" Cardinal Cantalamessa asked.

Jesus provided the answer in the Gospel of John (12:24) when he said, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit," the cardinal said.

The image of grain falling to the ground and dying, he said, indicates not only Jesus' destiny, but also "that of every one of his true disciples."

On his way to Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote how he was willing to become "food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God's wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ's pure bread," the cardinal said, quoting the saint.

"This has something to say to us, too," the cardinal said. "Each of us has, in our environment, these teeth of wild beasts that grind us" given that -- quoting St. Augustine -- human beings are "vessels of clay that are damaged by the slightest nick."

"We must learn to make this situation a means of sanctification and not of hardening of the heart, hatred and complaint," Cardinal Cantalamessa said.

"There are many opportunities not to be wasted if we, too, want to be ground to become God's flour, and everyone must identify and sanctify what is offered to him in his place of service," he said.

"One opportunity is to accept being contradicted, to give up justifying oneself, and to always want to be right when this is not required by the importance of the matter," he said.

The other is "to put up with someone whose character, way of speaking or acting gets on our nerves, and to do so without ourselves becoming irritated internally, thinking, rather, that we too are perhaps such a person for someone," he said.

Bernini's baldachin masterpiece disappears from public view until Holy Year

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Like a giant Tinkertoy construction, a skeletal tower of scaffolding slowly inched its way up the twisting bronze columns of the baldachin over the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica. 

baldachin scaffolding
Workers are erecting metal scaffolding around the 100-foot-tall baldachin over the main altar in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 21, 2024. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

Workers on the ground picked through piles of shiny metal platforms, poles, clamps and couplers to then hoist them up high with pulleys to their workmates above. They had begun erecting the scaffolding after Mass on Ash Wednesday Feb. 14 and it reached almost halfway by Feb. 21.

The 100-foot-tall baldachin was set to be completely covered by metal scaffolding before Easter to allow a team of 10 to 12 restorers to start cleaning, repairing and revitalizing the masterpiece designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1624 and completed around 1633.

The biggest problem facing the restorers "is getting there, that is, to be close enough" to the bronze and wood structures and many decorative details that need to be restored, Alberto Capitanucci told Catholic News Service. 

Alberto Capitanucci, the head engineer of the Fabbrica di San Pietro -- the office responsible for upkeep of the basilica -- poses for a photograph at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 21, 2024. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

Capitanucci, the head engineer of the Fabbrica di San Pietro -- the office responsible for upkeep of the basilica -- said the baldachin is a monumental architectural structure that is as high as a 10-story building.

But it is mostly empty space with its four fluted spiral bronze columns, each set upon a massive marble pedestal alongside the marble steps leading to the main altar over the tomb of St. Peter. The most delicate part of the structure is the canopy above, he said, which is made entirely of wood.

The wooden ceiling "is the size of a vessel, that is, it was designed to be the wooden planking of a boat," Capitanucci said.

Despite its enormous size, Bernini wanted the baldachin to resemble the light, open and airy cloth-covered canopy used in processions of the Blessed Sacrament. The term "baldachin" or "baudekin" comes from a special brocade fabric made in Baghdad and traditionally used for processional canopies. 

The twisting pattern on the gilded columns makes them look lighter and draws the eye upward along decorations of snaking branches of olive and laurel, bees and lizards, until it reaches the top which resembles canopy brocade and tassels blowing in the wind, he said. The top of the baldachin is meant to look like "a billowing sail" of a boat. 

cherubs baldachin
A cherub holding the keys of St. Peter and one holding up a papal tiara can be seen in this close-up photograph of the wooden canopy of the baldachin over the main altar of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this undated photo. (CNS photo/Fabbrica di San Pietro)

The angels holding floral garlands and standing at the four corners are 13 feet high, he said, and four scroll-like ornaments, shaped like dolphin backs, go from the corners up to a globe that supports a cross, which is 40 feet tall. There are four pairs of cherubs holding up the keys of St. Peter, a papal tiara and the sword and book of St. Paul.  

What looks small from below is, in reality, enormous in size, Capitanucci said, indicating that the bees on top are as long as a briefcase. Pope Urban VIII, who hired Bernini to design the baldachin, belonged to the Barberini family, whose coat of arms consists of three bees.

Capitanucci said they used drones to take over 6,000 photographs of the hard-to-reach canopy and its inner ceiling featuring the dove of the Holy Spirit surrounded by golden fire. The up-close images will help them plan how to proceed with the restoration, he said.

The entire structure will be covered in sheer cloth to shield workers from the public, he said, and still let in lots of natural light.

And, once the scaffolding is completely up, the wooden box now protecting the main altar will be removed so the altar can still be used for papal ceremonies for the rest of the year. The entire restoration should be completed by the end of December for the start of the Holy Year. 

enzo fortunato
Franciscan Father Enzo Fortunato, director of communication for St. Peter's Basilica, poses for a photograph at St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 21, 2024. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

Franciscan Father Enzo Fortunato, director of communication for St. Peter's Basilica, told CNS the baldachin "is the linchpin of the basilica."

It draws attention to the main altar, which is "the heart, where the Eucharistic sacrifice takes place, the Eucharistic celebration that is the source and summit of Christian life," he said.

The current restoration project, funded by the Knights of Columbus, marks only the second restoration since the baldachin was built, he said, the last restoration being in the late 1700s.

When works of art are preserved well, he said, it keeps alive the belief that "beauty leads to God" and it reminds people "what human genius can create."

The baldachin also symbolizes that it is possible for all people to work together to create something spectacular, Father Fortunato said. Many other artists worked with Bernini to build the masterpiece, including his fiercest rival, Francesco Borromini.

"This makes us understand that teamwork, working together, always bears beautiful and good fruit," the Franciscan friar said.

A historic restoration in St. Peter's

A historic restoration in St. Peter's

A look at a monumental restoration project in St. Peter's Basilica.

New Initiative Strives to Explain the Perennial Question: “What is Love?”

WASHINGTON – “Conversations about love, marriage, sexuality, family, and the human person can be confusing and polarizing”, said Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester. “This is why I am pleased to announce the launch of Love Means More to help bring clarity and compassion to those questions.”

As the month of February brings cultural attention to Valentine’s Day and with it, conflicting notions of love, Bishop Barron noted that “cultural narratives tell us love is mostly about feeling good. True love is deeper than that, calling us to follow Christ’s example of sacrificial love so we can live in union with Him forever.”

The Love Means More initiative is an ongoing campaign, based around a new website that takes a deep dive into the meanings of love. It is a versatile resource for Catholic catechists, as well as “seekers” from any religious background, but also welcomes those who profess no religious background at all. Bishop Barron is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, which is spearheading the initiative.

Love Means More renews the effort begun by Marriage: Unique for a Reason to promote and defend what Christ has revealed about marriage and family, but also addresses a broader range of topics in the area of human sexuality, organized around the central question, “What is love?” This approach enables learners to see how some difficult discussions can actually be the result of hidden assumptions about more basic questions, such as:

Is love only how someone makes you feel?
Does love mean ‘to will the good’ of the other?
Is unity necessarily the goal of all love?

The Love Means More initiative is the result of wide consultation with bishops, pastors, educators, medical and mental health professionals, and lay Catholic leaders involved with family life ministry. The initiative has also heard, and seeks to address, questions and concerns received from people who are uncomfortable with some Church teachings. These include those who uphold the possibility of divorce and remarriage, LGBT-identifying individuals, and those who defend pornography. As content continues to be added post-launch, this initiative will be a valuable resource for engaging in cultural conversation about love.

The website for Love Means More may be accessed at: https://lovemeansmore.org/


Vatican announces synod assembly dates; formation of study groups

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The second assembly of the Synod of Bishops on synodality will meet Oct. 2-27 and will be preceded by several formal studies coordinated by the synod general secretariat working with various offices of the Roman Curia.

The Vatican announced the dates for the assembly Feb. 17, indicating that the desire of some synod members to spend less time in Rome was not accepted. The fall assembly will be preceded by a retreat for members Sept. 30-Oct. 1, the Vatican said.

And in response to a formal call by members of the first assembly of the synod, Pope Francis has agreed to the establishment of "study groups that will initiate, with a synodal method, the in-depth study of some of the themes that emerged."

In a chirograph, or brief papal document, released Feb. 17, the pope said that "these study groups are to be established by mutual agreement between the competent dicasteries of the Roman Curia and the General Secretariat of the Synod, which is entrusted with coordination."

However, the papal note did not list the topics to be studied nor the members of the groups. The synod office said it hoped the approved groups and their members could be announced by mid-March.

Pope Francis at synod assembly
Pope Francis smiles as members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops approach the end of their work Oct. 28, 2023, in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis' note focused on the obligation of the offices of the Roman Curia to work with the synod since both bodies, though distinct, are established "to promote in a synodal spirit the mutual relations of the bishops and of the particular Churches over which they preside, among themselves and in communion with the Bishop of Rome."

In their synthesis report at the end of the first synod assembly, members voted to ask Pope Francis for several studies before the 2024 assembly, including on "the terminological and conceptual understanding of the notion and practice of synodality" itself; and another study on "the canonical implications of synodality," conducted by "an intercontinental special commission of theological and canonical experts."

Synod members also called for further theological study on the permanent diaconate and said, "theological and pastoral research on the access of women to the diaconate should be continued, benefiting from consideration of the results of the commissions specially established by the Holy Father, and from the theological, historical and exegetical research already undertaken."

"If possible," members said, "the results of this research should be presented to the next session of the assembly."

After a request of the women's International Union of Superiors General, Pope Francis established a commission to study the historic identity and role of women deacons. The commission worked from 2016 to 2019, and the pope gave a report on it to the superiors general, but it was not made public. He set up a second commission in 2020 after the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon; its results have not been published either.

The assembly of the synod on synodality also said, "We believe the time has come for a revision of the 1978 document 'Mutuae Relationes,' regarding the relationships between bishops and religious in the Church. We propose that this revision be completed in a synodal manner, consulting all involved."

Synod members at St. Peter's Basilica
​ Members of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops prepare to enter St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in procession as they pray the rosary for peace Oct. 25, 2023. (CNS photo/Paolo Galosi, pool)

On several occasions after his election in 2013, Pope Francis said he had asked the dicastery for religious to revise "Mutuae Relationes," a set of directives issued jointly with the then-Congregation for Bishops in 1978 to provide guidance to bishops and religious in their relationship. Pope Francis has said the norms need revision to ensure religious are not treated simply as employees or human resources for a diocese and to ensure that the orders' autonomy does not lead them to activities in conflict with a local church.

The synod assembly also called for "a thorough review of formation for ordained ministry in view of the missionary and synodal dimensions of the Church." Assembly members said that involves "reviewing the 'Ratio Fundamentalis' that determines how formation is structured."

The "Ratio Fundamentalis" was last updated in late 2016 and provides guidelines for preparing men for the Latin-rite priesthood and ensuring their continuing education, training and support.


Vices are 'beasts' of the soul that need taming, pope says at Angelus

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Vices, such as vanity and greed, are like "wild beasts" of the soul that risk tearing people apart, Pope Francis said.

Vices "must be tamed and fought, otherwise they will devour our freedom," he said Feb. 18 before reciting the Angelus prayer with about 15,000 visitors in St. Peter's Square. 

angelus crowd
Visitors gather in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to pray the Angelus with Pope Francis Feb. 18, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

The period of Lent, he added, helps Christians create moments of silence, prayer and reflection in order to correct those vices and perceive the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

On the first Sunday of Lent, the pope focused his main Angelus address on the day's Gospel reading about Jesus in the desert or "the wilderness." He remained there for 40 days, "tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him," according to the Gospel of St. Mark (1:12-13).

"We too, during Lent, are invited to 'enter the wilderness,' that is, silence, the inner world, listening to the heart, in contact with the truth," the pope said.

By entering into one's inner world, he said, "we can encounter wild beasts and angels there."

The "beasts" of the soul, he said, are "the disordered passions that divide the heart, trying to take possession of it. They entice us, they seem seductive, but if we are not careful, we risk being torn apart by them."

They include various vices, he said, such as coveting wealth, "the vanity of pleasure, which condemns us to restlessness and solitude, and the craving for fame, which gives rise to insecurity and a continuous need for confirmation and prominence."

However, the pope said, angels were also in the desert with Jesus. 

pope angelus
Pope Francis addresses visitors gathered in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to pray the Angelus with Pope Francis Feb. 18, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

"These are God's messengers, who help us, who do us good: indeed, their characteristic, according to the Gospel, is service," he said. "While temptations tear us apart, the good divine inspirations unify us and let us enter into harmony: they quench the heart, infuse the taste of Christ, 'the flavor of Heaven.'"

"In order to grasp the inspiration of God, one must enter into silence and prayer. And Lent is the time to do this," the pope said, encouraging Christians to dedicate the time and space needed for such reflection each day.

Pope Francis and leaders of the Roman Curia were to dedicate themselves to private prayer and reflection from the afternoon of Feb. 18 to the afternoon of Feb. 23. 

angelus cow
Farmers bring a cow, named Ercolina II, to St. Peter's Square for the recitation of the Angelus prayer at the Vatican Feb. 18, 2024. A man holds up a sign of a black and white image of the first Ercolina who was the mascot of dairy farmers who protested limits imposed by the European Union on milk production in 1997. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

After the Angelus, the pope greeted Italian agricultural and livestock farmers, who had come to St. Peter's Square seeking his blessing as they joined farmers across Europe demonstrating about rising costs, falling incomes and the impact of European Union regulations aimed at mitigating climate change.

The farmers had their mascot, a cow named Ercolina II, with them in the square. The first Ercolina had been the mascot of dairy farmers who protested limits imposed by the European Union on milk production and associated large fines for exceeding quotas in 1997.

Pope: Let prayer defeat war

Pope: Let prayer defeat war

A look at Pope Francis' Angelus Feb. 18.

Chalices and chasubles: Fair displays industries revolving around religion

BOLOGNA, Italy (CNS) -- Incense slowly drifted upward, not below the vaulted ceiling of Bologna's Basilica of San Petronio, but toward the fluorescent lighting and steel beams in the city's convention center, which for three days bore the trappings of a temple rather than those of a corporate meeting place.

From Feb. 11-13, the Italian city hosted more than 200 vendors of religious art, liturgical attire and services for churches, who showcased their offerings at the Devotio International Religious Products and Services Exhibition, sponsored in part by the Vatican Dicastery for Culture and Education.

Retailers, owners of religious shops, wholesalers and manufacturers of religious goods were the primary buyers at the convention, though priests and religious sisters also represented a sizable portion of the crowd wandering through Bologna's convention center. Organizers said more than 3,000 people attended.

A priest shops for a chasuble.
A priest shops for a chasuble with the help of his father at the International Religious Products and Services Exhibition in Bologna, Italy, Feb. 13, 2024. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

The rows of booths displayed items ranging from liturgical supplies and garments to wine and unleavened bread for consecration; a booth dedicated to promoting the Camino de Santiago, a popular pilgrimage route in northern Spain, also made a splash.

One day a group of Franciscan friars could be seen assessing chalices and patens, while religious sisters browsed wall art featuring the faces of saints painted onto hand-carved wooden shapes. One young priest shopped for a new chasuble in the company of his parents.

Solvari garments, a liturgical vestment producer from Bergamo, Italy, prominently displayed a Roman chasuble, predominantly used in the celebration of Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council. A company representative told Catholic News Service he had not seen increased sales of Roman chasubles in recent years, but he put it at the front of his display "because everyone can appreciate beauty."

Blessed Carlo Acutis statue.
A statue of Blessed Carlo Acutis is seen on display at the International Religious Products and Services Exhibition in Bologna, Italy, Feb. 13, 2024. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

Enzo Gandolfo of Gandolfo wines from Sicily had bottles of Mass wine available for sampling. Although wine used for consecration is not necessarily intended to optimize taste, "it's important for priests to have something they like" when celebrating Mass, he told CNS.

Reappearing constantly among the rows of devotional items was the face of Blessed Carlo Acutis -- the Italian website designer who catalogued Eucharistic miracles and Marian apparitions online before dying from leukemia at 15. Many hoping for his canonization are calling for him to be declared patron saint of the internet.

Elisabetta Bertelli, founder of Stringila religious art, displayed a cross-shaped pillow with Blessed Carlo's face. She said the pillows are not designed to be slept on but to hold onto during prayer, putting the person praying in physical contact with the cross.

Bertelli told CNS she wanted to put Blessed Carlo's face on the pillow with the hopes of spreading the beauty of prayer to young people. "He's a young person that has inspired so many," she said.

Holy Year 2025 official backpack.
The official backpack for the Holy Year 2025 is seen on display at the International Religious Products and Services Exhibition in Bologna, Italy, Feb. 13, 2024. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

Another booth was dedicated to official gear for the Holy Year 2025, including the pilgrim's kit and backpack which was presented at the expo. The kit includes items necessary for any pilgrim: a hat, rain poncho, water bottle, scarf and, of course, a rosary.

“I know well how useful a backpack can be during a pilgrimage and how important it is to preserve it, with the signs of time and wear, as a witness full of memories of those days of prayer and reflection, full of emotions and therefore unforgettable,” said Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the Vatican official in charge of coordinating plans for the Holy Year, in a statement. The Holy Year office will begin distributing the pilgrim kits to individuals online and at an official Holy Year shop in Rome in March and also will distribute them in partnership with dioceses and pilgrimage groups.

Beyond religious products, vendors at the expo also offered services such as designing and installing audio systems or lighting structures for churches.

Thomas Nell, senior partner at Spotlight -- a professional lighting services firm for the performing arts -- said that while his company does not specialize in lighting for religious spaces, churches are a performative as well as contemplative structures, and proper lighting "can help lift someone upward spiritually."

Yet churches often "go for what is cheap" and buy harsh fluorescent lights, he said, even though good lighting "can change the look of an entire space."

Stained-glass artist.
Sofia Malavasi, a stained-glass artist, works on a design at the International Religious Products and Services Exhibition in Bologna, Italy, Feb. 13, 2024. (CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

In one of the most engaging booth displays, Sofia Malavasi was scraping and shaping stained glass to form a floral decal. An apprentice at a local stained-glass workshop in Bologna, Malavasi told CNS that as a young person she hoped to advance the rich legacy of stained-glass work even as interest in churches and religious art wanes. She said that when she started her training, she was surprised and encouraged to learn how many people have stained glass in their homes.

But Malavasi was most proud of her workshop's coordination of the massive restoration of the windows in the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna.

"It was incredible to see the difference," she said, recalling how volunteers in the basilica were struck by how much natural light entered the space "just by restoring the glass to how it was intended to look."