Tag Archives: Vatican

A month to learn more about the heavens

April 16, 2011

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April marks Global Astronomy Month — 30 days that annually bring together astronomy enthusiasts to cultivate interest in sky watching among the general public.

Astronomy clubs, planetariums, observatories, amateur observers and others around the world are sponsoring a host of GAM educational and viewing opportunities. There are online events and even an astropoetry blog.

GAM, organized by a group called Astronomers Without Borders, hopes to ride the wave of enthusiasm about space that accompanied 2009’s Year of Astronomy, an observance the Vatican said could help people better appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.

GAM is a great opportunity to introduce youth to the wonders of the universe. I realize that convincing kids to stand under the night sky to learn the constellations or peer through a telescope to spy the rings of Saturn may seem like a tough sell in an age when video games and multimedia entertainment options compete for young people’s attention.

I know because I have a 12-year-old son who, it seems, would spend all day playing computer games if you let him. But I have also heard him express awe at seeing sunspots through a telescope with a solar filter and shout with excitement as he watched the bright streaks of meteors flash across the sky. After such experiences, I typically field a litany of questions from him about the phenomena and why they happen.

Video games are fun, he once told me. But this cool stuff is real. And, he’s been hooked ever since.

I think other kids would get excited about astronomy, too, if they had a chance to experience it the same way. That’s what GAM is all about.

There is still time to take advantage of official GAM events, but you can do a lot on your own, too. Purchase an inexpensive star map and make it a family contest to see who can identify the most constellations. A simple guidebook will explain the mythological stories behind the star formations. (Astronomy magazine has a good website to help kids learn constellations.)

Looking at the moon though binoculars is a pretty awesome sight. The rings of Saturn currently are in position to be seen clearly with a small telescope. And, this month also brings the Lyrid meteor shower (The best viewing conditions will be under rural skies on the night of April 22/23.)

The Vatican had its own astronomy event this month when Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican astronomer, gave a talk on faith and science April 7 at the American Academy in Rome.

It was on a hill in that location 400 years ago that Galileo gathered with the top scholars of his era to look through his telescope, an instrument he helped to perfect just a few years earlier. They saw the moons of Jupiter — no doubt an awesome sight for these privileged few.

Astronomy has come a long way since Galileo. Thanks to a variety of cheap and plentiful resources, sky watching is now accessible to anyone who is interested.

So, take advantage of GAM to learn more about heavens. If you have kids, pull them away from the video games for a while to show them the cool graphics God has waiting for them in the night sky.

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Cardinal John Foley’s remarks at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Catholic Bulletin/The Catholic Press

January 14, 2011

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REMARKS OF CARDINAL JOHN P. FOLEY

GRAND MASTER,

ORDER OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE OF JERUSALEM,

100th ANNIVERSARY OF THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT,

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA,

JANUARY 6, 2011

Your Grace, Archbishop Nienstedt, my brothers and sisters in Christ:

First of all, I want to thank Bob Zyskowski, the associate publisher of The Catholic Spirit, for his invitation to celebrate with all of you the 100th anniversary of The Catholic Spirit.  I also want to thank my friend of twenty-six years, Archbishop John Nienstedt, for his kind hospitality. I remember when he assured that my mother got an invitation for Thanksgiving in Rome in 1984, and I remain ever grateful to him.

I also remember when Bob Zyskowski worked with me at The Catholic Standard and Times in Philadelphia thirty-five years ago.  One of his final responsibilities was to assemble the pre-and post- Eucharistic Congress issues of the newspaper in 1976.  It was an enormous task, and he did it very well, as always!

I fact, Cardinal Krol, then the Archbishop of  Philadelphia and our publisher, asked me if I would have a special supplement for the Second Coming of the Lord, and I responded “yes”.  When he asked what advertising I would get for the issue, I responded, “Going out of business sales!”

In 1975, as Bob will well remember, Cardinal Krol made a Holy Year pilgrimage, not only to Rome but also to the Holy Land, Egypt and Lebanon.

In Egypt, he visited the pyramids – and said to me – “Father Foley, they want me to get on that camel.  Should I get on that camel?”  I answered that I did not think he should get on the camel – so he got on the camel.  He was wearing a white cassock, and had a slight beard – and they put a kaffiyeh, or Arab headdress, on him.  He looked somewhat like Yassir Arafat.  Naturally, as a newsman, I took a photo of him on the camel.

After we got home, he began to get letters from Jewish groups lamenting that it looked as if he had embraced the Arab cause.

He asked me why, if I had counseled him not to get on the camel, I took a picture of him on the camel, and I replied that, as a priest, if asked, I would say what I thought he ought to do, but as a journalist I would cover whatever he did.  He smiled and made no more comment.

I hope that the environment to which Bob Zyskowski owes at least part of his formation was one of respectful candor – taking God and His Church seriously, but not ourselves – and insisting always on knowing and telling the truth.

It certainly comes as no surprise to me that Bob has produced an outstanding paper.  As far as I’m concerned, he is a blessing to the Catholic Press.  As many of you know, Bob was also president of the Catholic Press Association at the time I was named a cardinal – and so he decided to give me – in the name of the association – the clothes I’m wearing.  He thought it would be appropriate if a representative of Catholic journalism could be seen running in the red.

The Catholic Spirit, of course, has a wonderful tradition.  Established by the legendary Archbishop Ireland 100 years ago as The Catholic Bulletin, the diocesan newspaper of St. Paul – Minneapolis flourished until the mid-1990s when its circulation fell to about 26,000.  Reborn as The Catholic Spirit in 1996, 15 years ago this week, your weekly newspaper has gotten into the habit of winning the general excellence award of the Catholic Press Association.  You can be very proud of your newspaper.

Apparently, the only instruction given to the first editor of the paper was to publish and interesting, well-written and well-edited Catholic newspaper, non-political and non-controversial, which did not necessarily reflect the Archbishop’s views on any subject.

My own view was that a diocesan newspaper must be a source of information, formation and inspiration to supplement and indeed sometimes correct what is found in the secular media.

I have been fortunate to have known personally a number of your editors.  The first one I knew was the legendary Bernie Casserly, with whom I was very well acquainted during his last fifteen years at the paper.  I also knew Dan Medinger, who went on to service in Baltimore.  Finally, I knew well Paulist Father Tom Comber, a fellow Philadelphian, who did much to promote the newspaper.

You can be proud of The Catholic Spirit.  It serves your diocesan family well – and, indeed, it is one of the very best instruments for helping to form your diocesan family.  All of you are fortunate indeed to have Archbishop John Nienstedt as your spiritual shepherd, but he is fortunate indeed to have The Catholic Spirit as an instrument of information, formation and inspiration in his historic and dynamic archdiocese.

Congratulations to him, to associate publisher Bob Zyskowski, to editor Joe Towalski, to the staff of and contributors to The Catholic Spirit – and to all of you, its subscribers and supports – on 100 years of dynamic, stimulating, informative and inspiring Catholic journalism in America’s heartland.  God bless you all!

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At Vatican, always room for one more statue

July 9, 2010

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POPE-AUDIENCEPope Benedict XVI blessed a the Vatican’s newest statue July 7 — a 16-foot-tall St. Annibale Di Francia carved from Carrara  marble. The statue was placed in one of the Basilica of St. Peter’s outside niches, joining the host of statues of other founders of religious orders who have been filling in the gaps since 1999.

According to a Catholic News Service story by  John Thavis, the architect designed these niches not to be filled. Yet, they are. Why, he asks, does the Vatican need more art, when its impressive collection already has an overwhelming number of pieces? He writes:

The Vatican is home to far more stone figures than living residents — many times more, if you count the Vatican Museums’ approximately 20,000 statues.

Why add more? That question was asked in the 1600s, when the remaining 39 empty niches inside St. Peter’s began filling up with founders of religious orders. Already the interior was crowded with more than 300 statues of popes, bishops and saints, not to mention the winged cherubs that appear all over the place.

Yet it is traditional at the Vatican to keep adding works of art and decorative architecture. That’s why visitors to the Vatican Museums can wander into rooms full of contemporary painting and sculpture, part of a vast collection of modern art works assembled under Pope Paul VI.

One fascinating fact stated by Thavis: All statues commissioned for the Vatican have to be carved by Carrara marble, which is known by the northwestern Italian city from where it comes. It’s known for a creamy white color, and it was the favorite of Michelanglo, the subject of yesterday’s blog post. The last time I was in Italy, my train stopped in Carrara, and before I saw the city’s sign, I was captivated by the white crevices of the surrounding mountains. My dad and I were debating whether it was marble or snow, because it was so white, and the Italian man sitting across from us — who had not uttered a thing to us up until this point — understood enough of our conversation to put it to rest. He pointed out the window, looked at us, and said “Pieta.”

Additionally, yesterday the Holy Father urged St. Annibale’s congregation to keep praying for vocations. According to Zenit, the Pope told the Rogationist Fathers:

“Follow his example and joyfully continue his mission, still valid today, even though the social conditions in which we live have changed. In particular, spread ever more the spirit of prayer and of solicitude for all vocations in the Church; be eager laborers for the coming of the Kingdom of God, dedicating yourselves with every energy to evangelization and human development.”

I’m guessing it’s this example of which the saint’s new statue is intended to be a reminder.

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What’s a Catholic to think about the book version of ‘Angels & Demons’?

May 14, 2009

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“Angels & Demons,”
by Dan Brown

Okay, it’s taken me some time to get to “The DaVinci Code” pre-quel, but I figured I’d better read the book as well as see the movie if I want to have any credibility in talking or writing about the controversy that has some in the Catholic community feeling anxiety at the least and threatened at the most.

So, here on the day before the movie is released in the United States, let me say this about the book version of “Angels & Demons”: Potboiler.

Nothing special in the way of literature, writing or even a good mystery.

Clever use of the geography of Rome? Yep.

A compelling story? Nope.

A page-turner? Not really.

If you haven’t figured out half-way through the 700-plus pages where this puppy is going to end up, you need to read more paperback mysteries. If I tell you that the hero — the same guy who is the super sleuth in “The DaVinci Code” — gets the girl in the end, will you really be surprised?

The Catholic concern

So why do some in the Catholic community have their undies in a bunch about the movie “Angels & Demons?”

It’s not so much that the church is attacked by the plot. The action of some of the clergy and hierarchy might be something some would say clergy and hierarchy would never do, but nowadays with some of the news our priests and bishops make, that argument is specious at best.

What author Dan Brown does is continue an insidious train of thought about the Catholic Church that tends to drive Catholics crazy. It’s the matter-of-fact way of writing that makes statements about religion and about the church that have an anti-religion and anti-Catholic bias.

Some examples:
  • The theme behind the plot is that science is getting revenge on religion “after centuries of persecution” by the church. References to Galileo and Copernicus are one part of the evidence for that, but conveniently missing are references to the likes of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian priest who is rightly called “the father of modern genetics,” or Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, “the father of modern chemistry,” a Catholic beheaded during the French Revolution.
  • There’s a tangential passage that takes hero Robert Langdon back recalling a Harvard University classroom scene in which he cleverly points to Catholic rituals as being unoriginal and borrowed from other cultures. Take the Eucharist: How the “god-eating” rite of the Aztecs were supposedly “borrowed” by Christianity seems to be quite a stretch, given that a man such as the evangelist Paul, writing in the 1st century, and the writers of the synoptic Gospels for that matter — pegged between 60 and 115 AD, aren’t likely to have even known of the existence of the Aztecs, the first reference to which appears in the 6th century.
  • One of the minor characters sees the church as “an innocuous entity…a place for fellowship and introspection…sometimes just a place to sing out loud without people staring at her.”

And then, of course, there is that hauling out of the tired demonization of the Catholic Church for its “wealth.” Looking down a hallway at the Vatican, one character “was sickened by the opulence,” author Brown writes. “The gold leaf in the ceiling alone probably could have funded a year’s worth of cancer research.”

Is it jealousy that makes others point at the church and say it should give away all the timeless works of art therein to end poverty? Maybe the Louvre should do the same? And while we’re at it, let’s sell the U.S. Supreme Court Building to the highest bidder and put the court in the rented space of a closed auto dealership. Who needs artistry, craftsmanship and beauty? — bz

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Take a Sistine Chapel tour without ever leaving home

January 19, 2009

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“Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,”

by Andrew Graham-Dixon

If you’ve ever taken a tour with a guide who wasn’t connecting with his or her group, you come to appreciate really good tour guides, people who not only know their subject but engage you in the topic, bringing information, insight and even entertainment.

My wife and I had that excellent kind of guide — Liz Lev — with a group touring the Vatican Museums. Everything we saw became so much more meaningful thanks to a great guide who was able to help us see not just artistic value but intention and the works’ place in history.

With “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” Andrew Graham-Dixon offers much of the same insight to his readers.

It’s not quite halfway into his book that the London-based art critic begins an absolutely thorough interpretation of Michelangelo’s famous paintings on the ceiling and wall of the Sistine Chapel.

But that’s because he sets up his art instructing by first giving readers a rather complete picture of the artist and his world at the beginning of the 16th century.

Inside Michelangelo’s world
No piece of the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti is left untouched, and I came to feel that the biographical section of this book was as helpful and important for understanding the Sistine Chapel as the interpretation of the world-renown paintings itself.

We learn of the artist’s family background, his training, his benefactors — and most importantly his faith.


Graham-Dixon’s analysis is that Michelangelo felt the hand of God in his life:

“Before he was ever chosen by the Medici, or the pope, he had been chosen by God. . . . He felt that he had been given his gifts by God, and charged with serving the purposes of the divine will.”

Using those God-given skills then, “Michelangelo did not just invent a new kind of art, but a new idea of what art could be,” Graham-Dixon claims. “He put his own sensibility, his own intellect, his own need and desire to fathom the mysteries of Christian faith, centre stage.”

A superior user’s guide
The heart of the book, written in observance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the work by Michelangelo in 1508, is Graham-Dixon’s interpretation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling itself. While not ignoring style, he focuses on what Michelangelo meant by what he painted, how the pictures’ meanings unfold, the subtle ways through which the artist gave expressive life to this amazing group of interlinked compositions.


As a user’s guide to the Sistine Chapel, this book is superb.


Graham-Dixon walks us through each section and each panel of each section, pointing out not only beauty and the technical skill but why each figure is painted the way it is.

What we learn is that Michelangelo was a student of Holy Scripture — especially the Hebrew Books — and that he aimed to paint “his own vision of what he believed to be the eternal truths of Christianity,” the author states.


Readers will come to understand the geography of the chapel ceiling, how the famous depiction of creation — with God’s pointed finger reading out to touch the finger of Adam — fits into the rest of the biblical history, with the great cast of characters including Eve, Noah, David and Goliath, Judith, Jeremiah, Jonah and on and on.


Graham-Dixon gives his excellent interpretive skills to helping readers grasp in much the same way Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement,” painted 15 years after the ceiling. Taking up the entire wall behind the chapel’s altar, it is a monumental fresco as rich with meaning as the ceiling above.


Sadly, details of this beautiful work are depicted only in black and white photos, which hardly do justice to this colorful masterpiece.

Bigger would be better
And, if there is any fault at all in “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” it is the small size of the pages — six inches by nine inches. There are 32 full-color pages that bring the Sistine’s ceiling right into our hands, but I couldn’t help but think how much more delight to the eye would have been deivered in a larger format. Perhaps Skyhorse Publishing will be able to work that out in a later edition.

As it is, though, I compared the printing in this latest book with the same Sistine Chapel panels printed in a larger, coffeetable-sized book given to me as a gift several years ago.

The color work — the brightness and the clarity — in “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel” is far superior.

If you plan to visit the Vatican, take this along to read on the plane ride. It’s a fact-filled yet easy read with the beautiful prose that is the hallmark of a fine writer.– bz

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Come look inside John Paul II’s Vatican

November 24, 2008

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“Pope John Paul II: An Intimate Life,”

by Caroline Pigozzi

One thing you have to say for Caroline Pigozzi: She’s got guts.

The French journalist talked her way into getting behind the scenes at the Vatican to observe the late Pope John Paul II in his day-to-day rituals inside St. Peter’s, inside the offices of the Holy See, and inside the papal apartment.

Once she gets her toe in the Vatican door, she meets and befriends the right people who open yet more doors, and her persistence at documenting what she see and what she hears makes — surprisingly for me — interesting reading.

As I was, you may be poped-out on John Paul by now, but this very different, detailed look at the life of a pope isn’t so much about what the pope said or did as it is about how the pope lived: what he enjoyed, whose company he relished, how he operated as the leader of a world-wide church. With the “ski” at the end of my name, it was interesting for me to read about the special treatment Polish clergy and seminarians received and about the “parallel curia” of Poles that some accused the former Karol Wojtyla of building at the Vatican. Fair warning: Pigozzi as an author is pretty much a hero-worshiper, so you’re not going to read about the dark side of John Paul (if there is one) in this book published under the Faith Words imprint (http://www.faithwords.com/).

You don’t have to read this book to feel that you know what John Paul II stood for, but if you want to know more about the man and how he lived, Pigozzi has detail after detail — some as innocuous as who polished the pope’s shoes — that give insight into the whole man. -bz
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Sex and a 17th century pope? More innuendo than facts, but lots of interesting facts, too

September 15, 2008

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“MISTRESS OF THE VATICAN,”
by Eleanor Herman

When I’m at the bookstore or library I tend to pick up anything that has “Vatican” in the title, so I couldn’t pass up something as titillating as “Mistress of the Vatican” when publisher William Morrow offered a review copy.

The jacket cover suggested hanky-panky with the bare-shouldered portrait of a beautiful woman with a painting of St. Peter’s Basilica and Square covering her, uh, feminine charms, and a subtitle, “The True Story of Olimpia Maidalchini: The Secret Female Pope.”

The adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover still applies.

Author Eleanor Herman offers no real evidence that 17th century Pope Innocent X had a sexual relationship with Olimpia, his sister-in-law, as the term “mistress” would suggest.

She offers no facts that Olimpia was pope, although she apparently was extremely influential in papal decisions.

Even the cover artwork is misleading: You’d think that the beautiful woman depicted is Olimpia, but no; the jacket painting is of “Venus at the Mirror,” by Tiziano.

Despite that, this book was hard to put down.

She’s done the research

Herman has culled the diaries and papers of Vatican officials of the period and the works of commentators during the mid 1600s, and what she’s come up with are some things about our church at the time that today we’d consider unthinkable. The nepotism, the bribery, the selling of church offices, the misuse of church funds — they saturate these 419 pages, and that’s without the bibliography and index.

Even those of us who love our church ought to know that at times in the past some pretty ridiculous things have been done in the name of our faith. Herman points out the silliness of some of the practices surrounding relics, for one thing. An Italian church claimed to have preserved the umbilical cord of Jesus, another drops of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk.

What gets tiresome, though, is the author’s tendency to slip into extended “filler” — background information that seemingly has little or nothing to do with the story of Donna Olimpia and her brother-in-law the pope.

Early on she extrapolates the cultural mores of the era and presumes much. While there is no factual evidence that Olimpia did this or that, women of the times did things this way, so Olimpia must have as well, she posits. It’s a bit too much innudendo for my taste.

Evidence shows Olimpia’s influence

There seems to be little doubt, though, that the widow of Pope Innocent X’s brother was extremely influential in day-to-day decisions concerning the Papal States. The evidence author Herman brings to light shows that Olimpia’s fingerprints are on the appointments of cardinals, on the finances of the church, on the church’s relationship with the governments and royalty of nations such as France and Spain, among others, and much, much more.

Be ready to read a boatload of language pointing out how anti-woman the Catholic Church is and has been through the ages. And the author uses some misleading descriptions that makes you wonder if she made this stuff up or is actually quoting some 17th century theologian or document.

Take Holy Orders: She writes that priestly ordination was “a sacrament that was thought to tattoo the human soul with an invisible but ineradicable seal that prevented marriage.”

Tattoo the soul?

I hadn’t heard that one before. But then, I really hadn’t been up on some of the less-flattering history of our church, like the regular elevation of papal nephews to rank of cardinal although they might still be in their teens, the regular practice of popes to appoint their relatives to jobs in the Vatican, the fawning of European royalty to curry the pope’s favor with expensive gifts, etc.

The saving grace is that at some point Innocent did have a crisis of conscience and put the dignity and integrity of the church first, and that many of the laughable practices of those times are long gone.

So read this. It’s not sexy. It promises one thing and delivers another, but it’s still a good read. — bz

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Will the Pope survive terrorists shooting up St. Peter’s?

August 26, 2008

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“The Messenger,”
by Daniel Silva

Will Israeli super-spy Gabriel Allon be able to save the life of the Holy Father and get revenge on the Islamist extremist who planned attacking the Vatican? And what and who might be other targets for the terrorists?

The pope is a draw in this page-turner of a novel, but concerns about the pontiff and St. Peter’s really is the cookie part of the Oreo. The creamy filling is how the Israeli and American spy guys infiltrate a Saudi billionaire to get to the terrorist they’ve targeted.

Silva has a good thing going as he takes advantage of post-9/11 fears and anti-Arab sentiments rampant in the West.

He’s also milking his creation of the character Allon, who restores paintings to their original glory when he’s not putting away bad guys. He’s a hero we can’t help but support, and Silva is taking advantage of his protagonist’s popularity now with a fistful of novels.

All are good international thrillers, and “The Messenger” joins the rest as worth your time because it’s a good premise and a good plot.

But know there’s a definite slant to his work, and a message Silva is not shy about: There is evil out there, and the world needs to be more attuned to the threat posed by those who hate capitalism, Christianity and democracy. – bz

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Thanks for the “Pope” pulp, but you shouldn’t have

February 29, 2008

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“High Hat,”
by Greg Mandel

I hadn’t read four complete paragraphs of “High Hat” when I began asking myself if I’d had enough and it was okay to stop.

The same question came to mind many times, but I kept forcing myself on, just to see if Greg Mandel could pull off this wacky idea of a Mickey Spillane-type pulp fiction novel in which the private detective has a day job — as the pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

After plodding through all the obtuse private-eye vernacular for 130 pages, the answer was, “No.”

Sorry, Greg. All the kitsch in the world can’t save a hokey plot. And how many 130-page paperbacks can you describe as having to plod through?

It’s like the author put all the energy into trying to come up with cute similes and metaphors ala Mike Hammer and forgot that realistic drama was an essential element to hold readers’ attention.

The storyline has someone trying to get possession of the bones of St. Peter because they allegedly have mysterious powers. The pope, as alter ego A. Pope — get it? — Vatican City’s only private detective, stumbles on the bad guys and goes through the usual ups and downs the pulp fiction genre requires, getting into as much hot water as, well, as Mandel might have put it, enough hot water to bathe the whole College of Cardinals.

And the creative P-I lingo? Papal garments are call “the holy muumuu;” lips are “ruby smoochers;” the pope never walks anywhere, he “ankles” over; the Mennonite splinter group bad guys are “pretzel benders.” All that’s campy for a while, and silly almost to the point of funny, but not quite.

Save yourself the two hours. If you need a fix of stuff like this, find a “Batman” rerun on cable TV. That’s about the quality of the story and the action — and you’ll only be wasting 30 minutes of your life. — bz

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