VATICAN CITY — There's a joke going around St. Peter's Square: Next thing you know, to comply with his ecclesiastical vows of poverty, the pope is going to put the Vatican up for sale!
That day hasn't yet arrived, but the idea speaks as much to Pope Francis' unpredictability as to his now famous acts of humility and renunciation of worldly goods. Though few in Rome want to draw conclusions just six months after the election of this uncharacteristic pontiff, the first ever from Latin America, everybody agrees that there's a new feeling in the air. A sort of "Roman Spring," welcomed by many — even if it is hard to know what the long term effects might turn out to be.
"I notice a certain universal empathy toward Francis, a popularity without equal," admits French Cardinal Tauran, a veteran of several top jobs in the Roman Curia. "People come to me and say: We used to come to see John Paul II, to listen to Benedict II," he says. "Now we come to touch Francis."
The crowds during the weekly Wednesday general audiences seem to confirm this. The pope devotes more of his time in St. Peter's Square embracing and greeting the people than delivering erudite catechesis.
Without any spectacular reform, without changes in the Church's doctrine, the fact of the matter is that the pope's message and his insistent willingness to refocus the Church on the world's sufferings make him hard to criticize.
"Francis clearly set the Church back in motion: He gives believers the impression that they all have a role to play, that he won't let the Church go moribund and lose its importance," says Philippe Chenaux, historian at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.
A Roman theologian is enthusiastic: "We are just coming out of a phase of depression, and all of a sudden this pope has put the Church back at the heart of the issues where it can help," the Catholic scholar says. "Being close to the poor, working for peace, understanding rather than judging, setting an example, engaging in conversation with the rest of the world ... And because he says it simply and actually embodies it, people can hear it!"
Officially, even the pope's insistence on criticizing the institution, to shake up the Roman Curia headquarters of the global Church, move the clergy, to denounce "the airport bishops, the sycophants, the careerists, the slanderers," is welcomed. "We accept everything from this pope because he doesn't mean to humiliate people but to make them better," Cardinal Tauran assures.
"It's not a nice feeling, but it encourages self-examination," adds a Curia prelate.
By being so outspoken, Francis would have "freed up speech" in Catholic circles — but only to a certain point, as several Roman sources asked not to be named. "It lifted some taboos. One notices a sort of liberation regarding complexes, prejudices, and rites that weighed down the Church," assures Jesus Colina, chairman of the Catholic news agency Aleteia. "By not going into some subjects, such as liturgy, ethical and moral issues, he normalizes them."
Francis has called on clerics to show more "creativity" and recognized the right to be wrong — both of which offer a glimpse of a freer, less controlled Church. On the other hand, that didn't prevent him from recently excommunicating an Australian priest who was in favor of gay marriage and the ordination of women priests.
As weeks go by, more and more people also say they were happy that somebody was finally in charge again. Despite his numerous consultations, the pope himself gave hints that he could make a decision, at the risk of appearing authoritative: Those ousted from the Vatican Bank are evidence of this.
Can it last?
After years of malfunction, due in part to Benedict XVI"s managerial weakness, Francis' approach reassures part of the institution. Even the more moderate see in him "a credible pope that embodies once again a global moral authority." "With his outspokenness against military strikes in Syria, the Vatican has even made a notable comeback on the international stage," a European diplomat confirms.
But can the honeymoon period last? Can Francis continue to speak so much and shake up minds like he does without engendering resistance?
Some already foresee the limits of his mandate. Launching a reorganization of the Church's government will take months, if the first ideas mentioned in meetings are anything to go by. Others worry that the pope's words might be misunderstood, that they might cause disappointment or tensions.
"He talks a lot, writes little: There could be ambiguities in his formulations, which would leave room for interpretations, and that is dangerous," worries one senior Vatican official. Thus, his insistence to assure atheists that there is no "absolute truth" or that “each of us has a vision of good and of evil" might have destabilized believers and raised suspicions of "relativism."
"Benedict XVI used to do too much explaining, perhaps Francis doesn't do enough," ventures a theologist.
The fact that he pushes forward a somewhat more lenient moral theology, inherited from Jesuit casuistry, also raises concerns amongst some Conservative ranks that the pope is softening on doctrine. Many observers find these fears unjustified and reckon instead that Francis "hasn't let go of anything." The day after he released the text in which he asked of Catholics not to "talk all the time" about moral issues, he restated his strong opposition to abortion.
Some find irritating the "excessively positive" reactions to his speeches. Indeed, the excitement in some circles on Francis' stance on the status of divorced and remarried Catholics belittles the fact that Benedict XVI used to say the same. "The staging is different but the script hasn't changed," another expert sums up.
The pope and those around him are supported unreservedly by the Church's progressives, and his views on the role of women and secularists, on marriage for priests and on ethical issues have aroused great expectations. But this may end up leave many disappointed. "Appointing a woman to head a dicastery is pure science-fiction," judges, for instance, one Curia official close to Pope Francis.
Deeply rooted in his role of a shepherd, the pope exhorts, denounces, prophesizes, but has so far taken very few decisions that turn his vision of the Church into acts. In order to succeed, he is undoubtedly betting on his creed: "The first reform must be that of attitudes."
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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