(MCT) — Chicago's Cardinal Francis George celebrated Mass here with other American cardinals Sunday in honor of more than 60 seminarians becoming acolytes in the church, including a young man of Middle Eastern descent from Tinley Park.
Khalil Hattar, 25, said he was grateful that this year's institution of acolytes coincided with the papal transition, because it meant George, his own archbishop, could participate.
"He brings the Catholics of Chicago with him, and he puts them in the sanctuary," Hattar said. "It's wonderful. It reminds me of the people back home I'm going to serve."
The institution of Hattar, the son of a Palestinian mother and Jordanian father, highlighted one of the many concerns facing George and other cardinals as they prepare to select a new pope. Last week in Rome, George talked about the danger that Christians encounter in many parts of the world, including the Middle East.
He said the new pope "should understand clearly what the faithful are fighting" in communist countries and those where the interpretation of Islam condones persecuting Christianity. Sincere priestly vocations, he said, are part of the solution.
"Certainly the church is well-loved by the men made acolytes today," George said after the Mass at Pontifical North American College, a seminary in Rome overlooking St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. "As long as that love is deep in the hearts of many of the faithful, the church is secure."
George said more conversations occurred over the weekend as cardinals from around the world prepared to assemble twice Monday to discuss issues facing the church. While he said a date could be set for the conclave as early as Monday afternoon, he doubts that his fellow cardinals will decide on a date that quickly.
"As you get closer to the event, it does become more intense," he said. "We haven't lost a lot of time. We've been talking among ourselves."
Vatican expert John Allen said the statistics of Christian persecution around the world are too staggering for the next pope not to address it. According to the International Society for Human Rights, a nonpartisan monitoring group based in Germany, 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world are directed at Christians, Allen said.
"There is a strong conviction among cardinals, not just with George, the next pope has to be sensitive to the issue," said Allen, the author of "Conclave," a primer on the papal election process. His next book "The Global War on Christianity" comes out later this year.
"The pope needs to be a tribune for those people," he said. "There are some cardinals who would say that Benedict XVI has been terrific about engaging the issue of secularism in the West. But the next pope needs to be equally energetic in raising consciousness about the experience of Christians in other parts of the world."
Hattar's parents met in Jordan after his mother's family fled its Palestinian homeland. They immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1980s. Hattar grew up in Tinley Park, attended St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church in Orland Hills and was educated at Loyola University Chicago.
But he didn't examine his faith until after high school, when his plans to become a doctor took a turn.
"I began to realize that the plan I had charted out for my life no longer excited me as before," Hattar said. "I spent an increasing amount of time reflecting on who God is. What could he want with people?"
He was taken aback by the absence of Arab priests in the archdiocese. Pope Benedict XVI added Arabic to the Vatican's official languages last year. Raised speaking Arabic and English, Hattar now studies Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He hopes to minister to the Arab community when he returns to Chicago in several years.
Becoming an acolyte is the third of five steps toward the sacrament of Holy Orders, or priesthood. After serving as an acolyte, he expects to become a deacon, then a priest.
"Being here (in Rome) gives you a love for the universal church and the scope and breadth of Catholicism and all of its beauty," Hattar said. "At the same time, being separated gives you this longing to go back to your own home. ... You miss just being in the parish, being around (people), interacting with them, walking through the faith with them."
Still, he's grateful that his time in Rome coincided with such a historic event in the church.
"He's going to be here when the next pope is elected," George said. "Not all seminarians get that chance."