Church in Transition
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Posted April 19, 2005 at  8:00 a.m. CDT

A whistle stop, cardinal style

By Stacy Meichtry

Before 115 cardinals sequestered themselves in the Sistine Chapel Monday to thrash out which of them will rule Roman Catholicism in the next pontificate, several of the church’s “princes” spent their final day of freedom getting to know the local flock. Among these was Cardinal Ivan Dias of India, who ventured out to his titular parish nestled in EUR, a far-flung and curiously-named suburb, founded by Benito Mussolini as Fascism’s answer to the proverbial “city upon a hill.”

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The contours of Dias’s parish, Santo Spirito in Feratella, reach toward the heavens with colorless concrete walls that interlock at right angles—a posture that would have made Mussolini proud. By coincidence, the cardinal had come to Santo Spirito on Good Shepard Sunday, an annual Mass that parish priests traditionally dedicate to explaining their own job qualifications in a sermon. Although Dias is considered a dark-horse contender for Roman Catholicism’s top job, parishioners had been warned early on not to probe the cardinal about his papal qualifications, nor those of his 114 brother-electors. That said, Dias was ready to meet and greet.

This was his first trip to the parish since 2001, when he visited the church as its newly chosen archpriest, and at a Q&A session that followed the mass, Dias fielded a wide range of questions in flawless Italian. One man wanted to know about religious life in India, and Dias flew into a detailed breakdown of the geopolitical tensions along the Indian-Pakistani border. An elderly woman proclaimed her love of yoga, and Dias gave an appreciative nod. These exchanges prompted me to ask Dias how it felt to be back at Santo Spirito nearly half-a-decade after his last visit. The soft-spoken prelate spread his arms and exclaimed: “This is my home!”

If tradition holds, Rome will learn the identity of its next bishop the moment “Habemus Papam”—we have a pope—echoes through St. Peter’s Square. Whether the name that immediately follows happens to be Dias, Ratzinger, Arinze, Tettamanzi or someone else, the man who steps forth will have two immediate concerns on his mind. One: he must convince the millions of people watching him on television that he can relate to the myriad moral dilemmas and geo-political crises that are bound to come his way. Two: he must convince the throng awaiting him in the cobble-stoned square that Rome is his home.

During the John Paul era of Vatican media savvy, the answer to this ying-yang dilemma lay in set piece missionary events in which the church’s universal pastor could display attentiveness to the local needs of the church through a global medium. The cinematic television coverage that caressed John Paul’s papacy lives on despite the pontiff’s death. During last week’s so-called media blackout, television cameras were given free rein to silently tell the story of papal transition with cardinals “privately” praying before the papal crypt one day and processing into the Sistine Chapel another. Verbal exchanges, meanwhile, were nearly imperceptible.

The precise nature of Vatican body language found expression prior to John Paul’s death during a prescient exchange between Cardinal Dias and the Vatican’s exclusive broadcaster—Italy’s state-television network. According to Catholic News Service, the broadcaster’s chief correspondent asked for an interview, prompting the prelate to reply: "If you want pictures of me, I prefer you take them while I'm praying, not while I'm talking. People on their knees are more eloquent.”

"Humanity needs witness of faith, not orators," he added.

A similar scenario replayed itself during Dias’ visit to Santo Spirito when a television crew from CNN arrived at the church with permission to film Dias celebrating mass. The camera rolled as the prelate moved among his flock, waving and pausing for photographs. Dozens of children rushed to his altar to receive the Eucharist. During his homily, Giusy Cavalli, a member of the parish since 1991, whispered: “He speaks Italian better than Wojtyla,” referring to the late pontiff by his pre-papal surname. After Mass, crowds followed the prelate into the church sacristy, lining up outside its door as if awaiting autographs from a rock star. By the time the television crew had departed, Dias was ready to conduct his Q&A session. Aperitifs were served after the session ended, and Dias was conversing openly, prompting me to approach the prelate and attempt an introduction. Learning of my affiliation, Dias immediately said he didn’t do interviews. When I told him I wasn’t asking for one, he extended his index finger and poked me on the forehead three times, a gentle jabbing sequence that was both playful and scolding. “That’s what they always say,” he said, “Then you write about it.”

Dias was right. I did write about it. Whether or not the church needs a witness rather than an orator, however, remains to be seen. Twenty-six years under John Paul provided the church with ample amounts of each. His skills as an orator were made apparent the moment he gave his first Urbi et Orbi blessing. Emerging before thousands of dumbfounded Romans, who had just heard his non-Italian surname resonate through the square, John Paul won the locals over with a self-deprecating assessment of his fluency in Italian. In the later years of his reign, however, the public speaker in John Paul would deteriorate, culminating in a literal loss of speech after his tracheotomy operation. At this point, the Vatican acknowledged what had been apparent for years: John Paul was now a witness, in several senses of that word, and no longer an orator.

Through the course of John Paul’s metamorphosis, Catholics have experienced both growth and decline. The growth has occurred in the global South where the numbers of priests, religious orders and faithful are all on the rise. The decline, meanwhile, was centered in the Pope’s very own backyard: Europe and, to a certain extent, even Rome. A book-length study of the religious knowledge and attitudes of Roman youth tells the story. Commissioned by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for Rome, and published in 2003 Il Volto Giovane della Ricerca di Dio (“The Young Face of the Search for God”) by Mario Pollo showed that solid majorities of “adolescents,” aged 16-18, and “youth,” 22-26, believed in God. But their concept of divinity had little to do with Christian revelation.  Forty percent of the believers said God was the same for all religions. Many expressed hostility toward the church as an institution. The vast majority of young men that were interviewed, including those who belong to church groups, said they ignore church teaching on sexual morality with no qualms, while women struck a more ambivalent tone. All in all, the results were said to have left Ruini “flabbergasted.”

If cardinals look to correct this trend, a departure from the John Paul approach might be required. That would be a blow to candidates like Dias, who’ve been touted by Vatican watchers as a John Paul for the third millennium. Dias, the archbishop of Mumbai (Bombay), is a creature of the Vatican diplomatic corps, with junior postings in Africa, followed by papal nuncio assignments to Korea and Albania. Dias also served in the Holy See’s embassies in Scandinavia, Indonesia and Madagascar, and was subsequently posted to the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church in the Vatican. Through the course of his career, Dias is believed to have acquired up to 16 languages. Factor this linguistic capacity into his knowledge of geopolitics and a papal candidate in the image of John Paul emerges.

What continues to dog Dias, however, is his lack of pastoral renown. In India, he is known as a rare theological conservative, leading his critics to accuse him of being out of touch with local realities. At a press conference sponsored by the Legionaries of Christ in 2000, Dias dismissed India’s theology of religious pluralism, which includes other religions in God’s plan for humanity, as a contrivance of avant garde theologians rather than something accepted by average Mass-going Indian Catholics. Critics reacted to this observation, questioning whether Dias was in any position to assess religious life in India, since he’s spent most of his career outside the country.

A lack of pastoral repute, however, didn’t seem to bother the parishioners present at Santo Spirito for the Good Shepherd Mass. The crowd beamed with delight at the opportunity to mix with the pope-hopeful. One woman seized the occasion to yell: “I want you for pope!” Antonio Pillucci, 61, was taking notes for the parish newsletter. Having chronicled all major parish events for 18 years, including a visit by John Paul on April 4, 1989, Pilluci was well positioned to put Dias’ visit into perspective. “The church cannot go back,” he said, referring to John Paul’s world travels. Dias “is papabile because he has diplomatic skills, and he represents the East—a frontline region,” Pillucci said. “But whoever it is, the next pope needs to be a pastor. Whatever his diplomatic skills, he must first be a pastor.” 

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