Sr. Joan Chittister: An American Catholic in Rome
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Posted April 12, 2005 at 11:56 a.m. CDT

When demonstrations are not demonstrations

By Joan Chittister, OSB


In case you're wondering, no, there was no SNAP  demonstration at the Vatican yesterday, at least not in the style to which a democratic society is accustomed.

Or put it this way: If there was a demonstration in the piazza of St. Peter's yesterday, nobody I know saw it. I'm sure of that because I went down to St. Peter's Basilica myself to gauge the effect of such a thing on a Vatican audience. Instead, all I saw were swirling bodies of tourists on the square, gaggles of spike-haired Italian school children pushing through metal detectors on their way to the basilica, tired tourists lined up along the railings that define the area of liturgical celebration and straining sightseers trying to capture an array of Cardinals on photos taken too far away, too small, to be recognized.

Mass went on as scheduled, sound systems overhead boomed out the prayers while crowds of onlookers poured around the outside edges of the basilica, listening to tour guides,  gawking at the oversize statues or trying to decide if the corpse-like figures under the altars were real bodies or wax effigies. "How," I wondered, "did any message even begin to get through to the center of a system like this?"

Read Joan Chittister's weekly columns
Previous and current columns from An American Catholic in Rome

Adolescence or adulthood: which? Posted April 22, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
And he shall be called . . .  Posted April 20, 2005 at 4:30 p.m. CDT
I missed the smoke; I got the idea Posted April 19, 2005 at 10:00 a.m. CDT
Never mind the papabile, consider the papacy Posted April 17, 2005 at 3:30 p.m. CDT
The underside of the issue Posted April 16, 2005 at 4:10 p.m. CDT
Antigone or Ismene: The new choice Posted April 15, 2005 at 6:24 a.m. CDT
Win a couple, lose a couple Posted April 13, 2005 at 2:05 p.m. CDT
When demonstrations are not demonstrations Posted  
Posted April 12, 2005 at 11:56 a.m. CDT
The purpose of the interregnum Posted April 11, 2005 at 3:37 p.m. CDT
Be aware of Greeks bearing gifts
Posted April 10, 2005 at 10:42 a.m. CDT
He was the grandfather of their souls Posted April 8, 2005 at 10:21 a.m. CDT
Poignant and paradoxical Posted April 7, 2005 at 8:09 a.m. CDT

Two years ago this week, Sr. Chittister began writing a weekly Web column for NCR. Click on this link to read From Where I Stand by Sr. Joan Chittister,OSB.

But why are we surprised? Try to imagine what it would take in a Square that holds 350,000 people to stage a protest that the other possible 349,998 people could see.

In fact, the two SNAP demonstrators, leaders of the Survivors Network of  those Abused by Priests, who traveled all the way from the United States to protest the appearance of Cardinal Bernard Law as one of the celebrants of the nine memorial masses for the late Pope John Paul II, were confined to a small area beyond the colonnade, outside Vatican territory, police at the ready.

That does not mean that the gesture was futile or useless or without meaning, however. Paparazzi swarmed everywhere.  As one person put it, the demonstration was “two people and a crush of cameras.”

Most of all, it does not mean that they weren't seen. It simply means that they weren't seen in the Square. It also means that what used to take a riot to establish, now takes a video camera. It means that messages that are not welcomed can be  communicated in other ways, some of them more forceful than the first.

In fact, the effect of this quiet, controlled non-demonstration may have been made even more powerful by suppressing it than it might have been had it been simply ignored. First, CNN international ran short clips on Cardinal Law’s ‘novemdialis’ mass every half hour on the hour.  Then, at the end of the primetime news day, the channel did a full hour of in-depth reporting on the US priest-pedophile scandal and the role of US bishops, particularly Cardinal Bernard Law, in the cover-up of the story and a kind of toleration of the behavior. What might  have become more a matter of future cooperation on such issues--hopefully mutual, hopefully open--became an unstaunched open sore again. What was not seen in the piazza was seen around the world.

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And so the question rages beyond specific situations to the very meaning of what it is to be Christian, to be just.

Some say the issue is forgiveness, that Cardinal Law and others like him, not themselves the perpetrators, have recognized their complicity in the situation and repented it. They must be allowed to go on.

Some say that Law’s role as celebrant of one of the major masses celebrating the life of John Paul II was not a privilege, it was simply a duty that comes with being Archpriest of St. Mary Major.

Others, the survivors, say that the issue is blatant disregard for  the abused and signals continued toleration of the abuse. “It says that there are no consequences for this behavior,” Barbara Blaine, one of the protestors, said.

In the end, it raises as much a question for the whole church, you and I included, as it does for the institutional church itself in an era when the very concept of sin is changing. What is forgiveness and what does it require of the rest of us? What is justice and what does it require of us all? What is support and how do we show it?

These questions are not pertinent to the church alone. The whole society, every town in the United States, is wrestling with the question of the toleration of half-way houses, with the question of the public identification of past offenders, with the public rehabilitation of prisoners.

Do not doubt for a moment that these questions won’t factor into the election of a new pope, as well. Subterranean, perhaps, but real—however controlled, however protected the piazza of St. Peter’s might be from the unsavory presence of public protestors.

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