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Joseph Grodahl Biever


Start of a new HRC session in Geneva

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaking at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, unveiling the "Wild and Precious" exhibit for World Wildlife Day.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaking at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, unveiling the “Wild and Precious” exhibit for World Wildlife Day.

Monday began the 25th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The function of the session over the next four weeks is for both the Council and Member States to present their perspectives on particular human rights issues or the human rights records of particular States. The session began with the High-level Segment, featuring statements from government ministers,  heads of state from various countries, as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. The first day also featured a lunch event sponsored by the Mission of Thailand, generously offering Thai food and drink to all, at which the Secretary General ceremoniously unveiled a beautiful photography exhibit on the occasion of World Wildlife Day.

After the high-level segment concludes tomorrow, the Council will look at specific issues and countries. This session will include reviews of reports from appointed Special Rapporteurs or independent experts on such topics as the freedom of religion, children in armed conflict, the right to food, torture, and more. Special attention will also be given to the human rights situations in North Korea, Syria, Central African Republic, and more. The Holy See, as a permanent observer, will be present throughout the session, as well as making its own interventions on some of the issues presented. It will be a very active few weeks!



“As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death.”

Pope Francis spoke these words in his homily at his Sept. 7th prayer vigil for peace in St. Peter’s Square, with tens of thousands joining in person and countless more Christians, Muslims, and others joining in prayer around the world. Many of us at the Mission joined the mass dedicated to peace here at the beautiful gothic Notre Dame Basilica that evening, with the Nuncio concelebrating. The place was packed, and although I understood only marginally more than “Alleluia” and “Amen”, it was quite beautiful.

The long and bloody civil war in Syria, and in particular the possibility of a military strike by the United States and France against the government of Bashar al Assad, has of course been the focus of much attention here in Geneva lately. Yet, perhaps as the fruits of prayer, we have seen some small signs of hope here. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met here in Geneva late last week, agreeing to keep communication open. Also, the Human Rights Council this week held a meeting to focus on the situation there. The Nuncio made the position of the Holy See clear, that “no military solution is a viable option in Syria.” Particularly poignant to me was noting that “justice and peace are not mutually exclusive and both can be pursued together so that impunity is not tolerated and reconciliation made possible.”

You can view the Nuncio’s statement before the Human Rights Council here (To skip ahead to his statement, scroll down to Chapter 51).

The Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian (Deir Mar Musa) in Syria. (Bernard Gagnon, Wikipedia)

The Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian in Syria.
Source: Bernard Gagnon, Wikipedia

On a personal note related to Syria, I discussed with a Lebanese colleague about the uncertain status of Fr. Paolo Dall’Oglio, SJ, an inspiring Syria-based Italian priest I had the privilege to meet in 2001. Dall’Oglio ran the restored ancient monastery of St. Moses the Abyssinian, dedicating it as a center of hospitality and Christian-Muslim friendship. I remember staying the night at this wonderfully peaceful place, waking up early to climb the hills above the monastery to watch a breathtaking sunrise over the Syrian desert. That he may have been killed in this awful war is potentially a sad loss for the Syrian people and for all. Please pray for him and for all Syria.




Modern Slavery

The Nuncio delivers a statement on contemporary forms of slavery at the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council.

The Nuncio delivers a statement on contemporary forms of slavery at the 24th Session of the Human Rights Council.

“Modern day slave trade… affects some 30 million persons. This criminal $21 billion-a-year industry is entrenched in almost all the supply chains providing food, clothes, and electronics to the world market. The products of our daily usage should remind us of the responsibility to be aware of how workers, who make our life more comfortable, are dealt with.”

Thus began the Nuncio’s statement Thursday before a meeting of the Human Rights Council focused on the issue of contemporary forms of slavery. Given the dark but now seemingly distant history of slavery in the United States, it is especially difficult for me as an American to stomach both the existence and scope of modern day human slavery around the world. 30 million is a number nearly equal to the entire population of Canada, something nearly impossible to fathom, at least for me.

You can view the Nuncio’s statement before the Human Rights Council here (To skip ahead to his statement, scroll down to Chapter 26).

The Holy See’s focus before the United Nations on this scourge of modern slavery is in line with attention given to it by Pope Francis.

The UN Office at Geneva (formerly housing the League of Nations) commands a prominent place along the western shore of Lake Geneva.

The UN Office at Geneva (formerly housing the League of Nations) commands a prominent place along the western shore of Lake Geneva.

Incidentally, as my own work is primarily at the Mission, this meeting also was my first visit to the UNOG (United Nations Office at Geneva). Obtaining my security badge, exploring a bit of the premises, and hearing the flurry of languages was certainly exciting for me, even while the gravity of the meeting topic was itself sobering.

Hearing the statements of various nations in the meeting, it was apparent that the issue of modern slavery is one of grave concern to all nations of good will. And it was gratifying to hear the forceful statement by the Nuncio, pointing both to the practical realities of the issue while also harkening to the underlying principles:

“A culture of greed and total disregard of human dignity is at the root of the slavery phenomenon. This culture detaches freedom from the moral law with the consequence that the victims of contemporary slavery become a mere commodity in the market of consumerism.”

Reflecting back on the meeting, I am reminded of St. Josephine Bakhita, a 19th century Sudanese saint who was kidnapped and sold into slavery at a young age. She has a gripping story and is an appropriate source of intercession for all those trapped in slavery today.

St. Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.


Heading into the Mountains

Catching a glimpse of the choir chapel at the monastery, with a solitary nun in prayer.

Catching a glimpse of the choir chapel at the monastery, with a solitary nun in prayer.

This past Sunday, the Nuncio generously invited me and another intern to come along on a short trip up into the mountains, about an hour east into France. He was making the journey to say Mass that morning at a Carthusian monastery, Le Monastère de Notre-Dame de la Gloire-Dieu – Les Montvoirons. With the session of the Human Rights Council beginning this week in Geneva, and much other work to be done at the Mission, it was a nice blessing to be able to escape for a few hours.

The setting was truly magnificent. Although formed in the 1960s, relatively new as monasteries go, walking onto the monastery grounds and into the church nevertheless conveyed a sense of being transported out of the modern world. On a clear day, which alas was not this day, there is a breathtaking view of the Alps, particularly Mont Blanc. To make up for my failings as a photographer, I suggest visiting the website of the monastery for a better view of the place.

Apart from daily prayer together, and some time on Sundays, the nuns at this monastery live a life of solitude and silence, hallmarks of their order. They live a highly contemplative and only slightly less ascetic life than that of the monks of Grande Chartreuse seen in the 2005 documentary film Into Great Silence. There was a particularly glorious moment for me when, during the “sharing of the peace” in Mass, two of the sisters went to each and every visitor gathered in the congregation (there were many) to share “la paix du Christ”. It was a stirring moment to see the joy on the sister’s face and the depth of peace in her eyes. A remarkable place, one which I am already hoping to find a reason to return for another visit.


First Week in Geneva

The view from my apartment, looking west toward Geneva with the Jura Mountains of France in the background.

The view from my apartment, looking west toward Geneva with the Jura Mountains of France in the background.

With only a couple minor hiccups, I managed to get through my first week of living and working in Geneva. With the current exchange rate for the dollar, it can feel like a pretty expensive city for an American, albeit with a silver lining—chocolate, wine, and cheese actually seem to cost less. I am being generously put up in an apartment attached to a Dominican monastery, a short tram ride west to the city center, and a short tram ride east to the French border (and cheaper shopping). Having heard how difficult it can be to find housing in Geneva, I am most grateful to be provided a place in such a wonderful location.

Work has been new and exciting. As with many jobs, it is hard to truly know what your work will entail until you actually start. And upon more fully understanding my role, I am all the more excited to be here.

I am interning with the Caritas in Veritate Foundation, an independent organization with offices at the Holy See Mission to the United Nations in Geneva. The Foundation’s purpose is to provide the representatives of the Holy See, the Order of Malta, and Catholic NGOs present in Geneva with a source of research and expertise from academia and elsewhere. It aims “to make the positions of the Catholic Church more understandable and visible, thus increasing their impact on the elaboration of international culture and law.”

It is exciting to be a part of a young organization working to establish itself into its important role. This week I attended a meeting near Palais des Nations (UN) with several Catholic NGOs to discuss their upcoming activities and research needs, and began work at the Mission on the two main research projects currently on my plate in the areas of religious freedom and disarmament. The Mission is a joyful yet dedicated workplace, with at least six different nationalities represented in a relatively small group, all gathered to serve the Church in its work in Geneva.

Pope Francis has called for tomorrow to be a day of prayer and fasting for peace. Tomorrow, many of us at the Mission will be attending the special evening mass to that effect at the cathedral here in Geneva. So my closing thought would be to encourage everyone—of all faiths—to join us as we pray for Syria and pray for peace.


Preparing for Geneva, Pt. 2

To understand God’s mercy, the very mercy that caused Jesus Christ to die on the cross and which forms the basis of the Christian, Catholic faith, it is helpful first to understand man’s fallen nature and our capacity for evil. And there is perhaps nowhere on Earth where man’s capacity for evil is more apparent than at Auschwitz. I visited this indescribably dark place the day after visiting Częstochowa. I can imagine no greater contrast. As the bus approached Częstochowa the day before, I felt as though I could sense the peace and transcendence of the place. As the bus approached Auschwitz I felt as though I could sense the darkness and evil of the place. Although most of us have seen pictures or video clips, it is a bone-chilling experience actually to walk under the gate with that revoltingly cynical message telling prisoners “Arbeit macht frei” (Work brings freedom).

Gate to Auschwitz I

Entering Auschwitz.

Our group first went through Auschwitz I, a former Polish army barracks taken over by the SS shortly after capturing Poland. Exhibits within the barracks displayed the depth to which the SS sought to deprive Jews, and other prisoners, of their humanity. One room had displays on both sides stretching perhaps 50 feet with massive heaps of human hair from untold tens of thousands of human beings. The SS took the hair of prisoners and made it into fabrics or insulation for use by Nazi soldiers.

It was after going through these displays that we next came to the torture cells of Block 11, “the death barracks,” where among the victims of Nazi crimes was St. Maximillian Kolbe. He was a Franciscan priest taken to Auschwitz for sheltering refugees in his friary, including 2,000 Jews. While he was in Auschwitz, an escape prompted the SS commandant to select 10 other prisoners for execution as a deterrent to future escape attempts. One of the men pleaded for his life, crying “My wife! My children!” Kolbe volunteered to take his place, and spent two weeks without food or water in a cell in “the death barracks” before finally being executed. Outside the building, near the Execution Wall where so many prisoners were executed, sits the small window of Kolbe’s cell, with a small red candle resting in the well, presumably left by one of the faithful inspired by this saint. This little candle was like a flickering light of grace in the midst of the utter darkness of this terrible place.

St. Maximillian Kolbe, pray for us.

Outside the cell where St. Maximillian Kolbe died.

At my hostel in Kraków, I had an encounter that helped to take my experience at Auschwitz even further beyond the abstract. My roommate there was an older gentleman named Ishai traveling on business from Haifa, Israel. He told me of how in 1932 his mother wanted to move from Antwerp, Belgium to Palestine. Her family pleaded with her not to go to Palestine where locals were committing violence against Jews but to stay in Antwerp “where it is safe for Jews.” In youthful rebellion, she disregarded her family’s wishes and moved anyway. I could not help but be moved by those words, replaying them in my mind as I thought back to the horrors I had seen with my own eyes earlier that day.

Even after I write all these words, I must acknowledge that no words can truly do that place justice, except perhaps that well-known motto, “Never forget.”

If one wants to understand why after World War II it was necessary to form the United Nations, and why the Church was, is, and must remain actively engaged in the work of the United Nations, a visit to this awful place might be a starting point.

St. Maximillian Kolbe, pray for us.


Preparing for Geneva, Pt. 1

As the Geneva half of this fall’s Murphy Scholar presence at the United Nations, I desired a bit of extra spiritual preparation before arriving. To do this, I searched for and found a place steeped in history yet also modern, a place whose people exhibit a vibrant Catholic faith, and just as importantly a place with great food and drink. Where on Earth could that be, you ask? Why, Poland, of course!

I stayed in Kraków, the archdiocese where Karol Wojtyła sat as archbishop before becoming Pope John Paul II. I had the great privilege to meet a few locals while there, including one young man, Marek, who had lived in Kraków his entire life, with the exception of one year as an exchange student in the U.S. Showing me around his city, he exhibited a great love for the place and its rich history and medieval charm, as well as for the Catholic faith and Bl. John Paul II, a love quite common among Poles.

Jasna Góra Monastery

In front of the Jasna Góra Monastery, home of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.

When I told Marek of my intention to take a daytrip to Częstochowa, he heartily approved, as it is a sort of spiritual capital of Poland. The monastery of Jasna Góra overlooking the town of Częstochowa houses an icon of the Virgin Mary known as the Black Madonna or Our Lady of Częstochowa. According to tradition, the icon was originally painted by the apostle St. Luke, traveling a long and winding journey over centuries to finally end up at this monastery in 1382. It has survived invasions and the wear of time to endure as a central symbol of Polish Catholicism.

At Częstochowa and in Kraków, I had the opportunity to attend Mass and pray alongside Poles several times. Being in places so steeped in history and heavy in significance for the faith of so many, and participating in the life while only understanding a handful of words, I grew in my appreciation for the universality and transcendence of the Catholic faith. Such an understanding is central to appreciating the importance of the Church’s voice at the United Nations. Its voice is not an American voice or an Italian voice or a Polish voice, but a Catholic voice, at once both human and transcendent. It is a great honor to be a Murphy Scholar with the opportunity to  serve in a small way as that voice is presented in Geneva.

Our Lady of Częstochowa, pray for us!


U Babci Maliny for some amazing pierogis and vodka.

P.S. Of course, Kraków has its share of other fun as well, and I certainly had my share. If you are ever in Kraków and want to find the best pierogis and a fine vodka selection to boot, all with a down-home ”swojski” atmosphere that (mostly) skips the tourist prices, I suggest the place my local friends directed me to: U Babci Maliny. Na zdrowie!