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Theological Notebook/Random: A Chinese Invite to the Pope in the works? WWI Vintage Cognac Found

Here's an interesting follow-up story to the overture made by Benedict XVI to Chinese Catholics in his recent letter to them. This isn't an official invitation from Beijing, but it certainly has some meaning in that it was allowed to be published by an official of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The feelers are definitely out.

I also include an odd, sad and funny little story about WWI having unusual payoffs for locals in Macedona.

Chinese Catholics Ask Pope to Visit
Jul 24, 10:45 AM (ET)

VATICAN CITY (AP) - A senior official in China's state-sanctioned Catholic Church said in comments published Tuesday that he would like Pope Benedict XVI to visit China.

Benedict did not dismiss the possibility but said the issue was "complicated."

Liu Bainian, vice chairman of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, made the comments in an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica in which he praised Benedict's recent letter to China's Catholics as "positive."

"I strongly hope to be able to see the pope one day here in Beijing to celebrate Mass for us Chinese," Liu was quoted as saying.

He said he wanted, through the interview, to send the pope a special greeting. "Let him know that we pray for him always and may the Lord give us the grace to welcome him here among us."

Benedict was asked about the comments as he left a church in Auronzo di Cadore, in northern Italy, where he was meeting with clergy from the region.

"I can't speak at this time," Benedict said, according to the ANSA and Apcom news agencies. "It's a bit complicated."

China forced its Roman Catholics to cut ties with the Vatican in 1951, shortly after the officially atheist Communist Party took power. Worship is allowed only in the government-controlled churches, which recognize the pope as a spiritual leader but appoint their own priests and bishops.

Millions of Chinese, however, belong to unofficial congregations that are not registered with the authorities.

Benedict has been trying to reconcile the divisions, and sent the letter to all Catholics in China on June 30 in a bid to unite them. In it, he praised the underground faithful but urged them to reconcile with followers in the official church.

Liu praised Benedict's letter, saying there was a "big positive difference" compared with the Vatican's previous positions.

"Every opposition to socialism disappeared. We weren't accused of schism. It marked the first time that, according to the pope, Chinese people could feel it was possible to be Catholic and love their own country."

He expressed optimism that the contentious issue of appointing bishops could be resolved.

"The problem can be resolved. It will be resolved, I hope soon," he was quoted as saying.

At the same time, however, Liu insisted that religion could never be used to interfere in China's internal affairs.

"Beijing will never accept what the church did in Poland," he said, referring to Pope John Paul II's support for the Solidarity movement, which helped topple communism in his homeland.

He explained Beijing's relationship with the Vatican by recalling China's bitter experience with foreign colonizers and missionaries, but stressed that Chinese Catholics always recognized the sole authority of the pope as far as religion was concerned.

"The Holy See is the only representative of Jesus on earth, and as Catholics we must follow it," he said. "What we must affirm is our political and economic independence; otherwise we remain a colonial church."

WWI Spirits Live on in Macedonia
Jul 23, 8:36 PM (ET)


GRADESNICA, Macedonia (AP) - French adjutant-chief Eugene Rouges died with several of his men here when a German artillery shell exploded in their trench on Nov. 16, 1916.

But their spirits live on in Gradesnica.

More than 90 years later, visitors are still drawn to this former World War I battlefield, a remote mountain village in southern Macedonia, where the lure is more than military history: A liquid fortune in vintage cognac and wine lies buried in the old trenches.

Stefan Kovacevski, 64, is among residents who tasted the French army rations that have matured into an exquisite elixir.

"At first we were afraid to taste the dark, thick liquid," he said. "But ... this must be what people mean by the nectar of the gods."

Villagers unearthed the first case of 15 bottles about 15 years ago. Since then, digs have yielded several cognac caches, usually of about two dozen bottles each. Some have been found by farmers plowing fields, and at least two batches came to light after a glint in the sand of an old trench caught a villager's eye.

The old-fashioned cognac bottles can fetch up to nearly $7,000 from collectors, according to Mihail Petkov, professor of viticulture and oenology at Skopje University.

"I never had a chance to taste something like that," he said. "What the villagers drank was probably a cognac, not a wine. The wines were intended to be consumed immediately ... and not to last for a long period of time."

"But with cognac the situation is different," Petkov said. "The older, the better."

Wine-producers in France were obliged to prepare certain amounts of wine and spirits especially for the army.

Gradesnica lies in the heart of the Mariovo region, near the border with Greece, 125 miles south of the Macedonian capital, Skopje. There is no asphalt road, and during the harsh winters the village is cut off from the rest of the world. Only army vehicles can get through with necessary supplies.

"This is probably the most beautiful part of the country, forgotten by all," said Dano Popovski, 64, owner of the village's only shop.

But in 1916, Gradesnica was at the heart of the fighting, during a drive by Allied forces to support Serbia and stop the advance of opposing troops.

"On this side were Germans and Bulgarians. On the other side of the front line were the French and their Serbian allies," said Najdo Koleskovski, 56.

He said it was in the nearby village of Gruniste, where he lives, that villagers unearthed the first case of 15 bottles. Holding up three empty bottles of wine and cognac, he reminisced about how he and three friends drank enjoyed every one.

"It was the best drink I ever had in my life," he said.

Gruniste, without electricity and home to four cattle farmers, lies on what was the French side of the front.

Villagers say foreigners - including many French - are scouring the area for cognac, maps in hand. None of the villagers said they had sold any of the bottles.

"Nothing tastes better, and that is why the French come here," said Petar Sindevski, 73, from the nearby village of Staravina.

"There must be a lot of stocks of cognac or wine buried in this area," he said. "It is a real treasure."
Tags: asia, benedict xvi, catholicism, church and state, historical, papacy, random, theological notebook, wine

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