|By JOHN L.
eve of his return to Jerusalem, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the Holy
See granted NCR an exclusive, wide-ranging April 30 interview, looking
back over his three years in what he called “the most challenging mission
in my 37 years as a career diplomat.”
interview, which stretched over more than two hours, took place at his
residence in Rome’s Parioli neighborhood. The apartment was virtually empty,
as Ambassador Yosef Neville Lamdan made way for his successor, Oded Ben-Hur.
We sat on the veranda on a beautiful Rome spring afternoon, savoring the
last bottle of wine of Lamdan’s three-year Italian stay.
Lamdan was speaking from an Israeli point of view, and there are certain
points where his interpretations may be open to challenge. Nevertheless,
it was a fascinating panorama.
divulged two matters never before revealed.
during a 39-day standoff between Palestinian gunmen and the Israeli army
over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002, the Israelis and
the Vatican had agreed on a dramatic initiative for retired Cardinal Roger
Etchegaray, a frequent papal trouble-shooter. The aim was to get innocents
inside the church out of harm’s way. The initiative was blocked, Lamdan
said, by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who Lamdan believes wanted to
drag out the conflict in order to pressure Israel to free up his movements
around his headquarters in Ramallah.
Lamdan revealed that when Israeli President Moshe Katsav met with Pope
John Paul II on Dec. 12, 2002, the pope gave the president a private vow
that he wanted 2003 to mark a “turning point” in the Israeli/Vatican relationship.
It was a commitment that surprised even the pope’s own lieutenants, he
said. Since that exchange, Lamdan said, there have been clear signs of
new Vatican engagement.
a fascinating bit of analysis, Lamdan also said he believes that under
the pressure of recent world events, including 9/11 and the Iraq war, the
Catholic Church’s primary inter-religious relationship is increasingly
no longer Judaism but Islam. It is a situation, he said, that could pose
dangers both for Israel and for the broader Catholic/Jewish dialogue.
arrival as ambassador to the Holy See was sandwiched between two watershed
events. He came to Rome in September 2000, just five months after John
Paul’s March 21-26, 2000, visit to the Holy Land, which produced hopes
of dramatic new breakthroughs – and just 10 days before the beginning of
the Second Intifadah, which put those hopes in a deep freeze.
and the Holy See enjoy a “very special relationship,” Lamdan said, in part
because it’s a focal point for the broader relationship between Catholicism
Israeli ambassador is regarded by the Vatican as the most senior representative
of the Jewish people resident in Rome,” Lamdan said. Inevitably, the ambassador
is a conduit for inter-faith dialogue. This February, the embassy played
a behind-the-scenes role in engineering an unprecedented dialogue between
the Vatican and the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem. This was a breakthrough,
since previous Catholic/Jewish exchanges had been dominated on the Jewish
side by Americans.
embassy, Lamdan said, was able to reassure the rabbis that there was no
“hidden agenda,” and especially that the dialogue was not a Trojan horse
designed to promote proselytism.
Vatican drive for dialogue, Lamdan said, comes from John Paul II himself.
When he presented his credentials in September 2000, Lamdan said, John
Paul told him that his 1986 visit to Rome’s synagogue, the first by a pope,
represented the first “station” along a new path. The second station, the
pope said, was the Jubilee Year visit to the Holy Land. It was time, the
pope said, to build a third station.
the pope’s commitment, however, Lamdan said he detects a sea change in
the Vatican’s inter-religious priorities in the direction of Islam.
do think that in some corporate way some type of decision, possibly a strategic
one, has been taken by the Vatican in the last two years to try to redefine
the relationship with Islam,” Lamdan said.
one example, Lamdan pointed to the now-famous rhetorical question posed
by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, about the
prospect of war in Iraq: “Is it really worth irritating a billion Muslims?”
Vatican, Lamdan said, has three core concerns with Islam. The first is
the fate of Christians in the Arab world; the second is Afro-Asian competition
for new adherents; and the third is the rising Islamic presence in Europe.
new engagement with Islam does not have to come at the expense of the dialogue
with Judaism, Lamdan said, but he warned of two dangers.
first is “politicization,” by which he meant a tendency for the Catholic
Church to take “pro-Islamic” political positions. He pointed to two recent
joint statements between the Vatican and Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, widely
considered the Vatican of the Islamic world. Both called for an end to
“occupation” in the Holy Land, which Lamdan referred to as a “code word”
for criticizing Israeli policy.
second danger is that the Catholic dialogue with Judaism will be overshadowed.
He said he does not see this happening under John Paul II. What might happen
under a future pontificate, however, is anyone’s guess.
said his most tense moments as ambassador came during the standoff over
the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Israeli forces, who had entered the West Bank as part of an
operation to root out Palestinian militants, encircled the church April 2, 2002,
as Palestinian gunmen fled inside. Several dozen other people, including a
number of Franciscans, were thus trapped in the church. The Israelis described
the situation as an "occupation" by terrorists, the Palestinians as a "siege" by
the Israeli army.
described the next 39 days as a time of “huge concern” and “almost hourly
contact” with the Vatican’s top diplomats, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran
and his deputy Celestino Migliore (now an archbishop and permanent observer
of the Holy See at the United Nations).
is one of the most holy places in the Christian world, and our fear was
that it would suffer some kind of disaster,” Lamdan said.
efforts, Lamdan said, were muddied by a cacophony of voices on the Catholic
side, many singing different tunes. Chief among them, Lamdan said, were
the Franciscans, among whom he said the Israelis eventually identified
five different factions. They were:
Arab Franciscans inside the church;
Non-Arab Franciscans inside the church;
The Franciscan custodians of the Holy Sites, with offices in Jerusalem;
Franciscans in Assisi, who led a worldwide letter-writing campaign to pressure
The headquarters of the Franciscan order in Rome.
Arabs and non-Arabs inside the basilica, Lamdan said, had different views
about the situation, with the Arabs generally more sympathetic to the 39
Palestinian gunmen, including 13 figures Israel defined as “senior terrorists.”
times, Lamdan said, the Franciscans inside the basilica floated plans for
resolving the standoff that were “totally naïve.” Lamdan did not want
to be more specific, but NCR reported at the time that one such
scheme called for Bethlehem Christians to enter the basilica for Mass.
The gunmen would lay down their arms, and everyone would walk out together,
with the gunmen simply dispersing. Both the Vatican and the Israelis rejected
the idea, in part for fear that the Christians would either become hostages
or be caught in a cross-fire.
also bluntly called the role played by the Franciscan custodians, especially
spokesperson Fr. David Jaeger, “thoroughly unhelpful.” Jaeger led an ultimately
failed attempt before Israel’s high court to force the Israeli army to
restore electricity, water, food and telephone communication to the basilica.
player was the Latin Rite Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michele Sabbah, whose
role Lamdan also called “unhelpful.” At one stage, Sabbah said the Palestinians
were “guests” of the church, denying they were holding anyone against their
then revealed that the President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, had proposed
a diplomatic mission for Etchegaray, who had been dispatched by John Paul
II to try to mediate a resolution. The aim was to separate the civilians
from the gunmen. The Vatican was prepared to accept the plan, Lamdan said,
but it was “turned down flat” by Yasser Arafat.
drama played out at the same time that the Israelis were confining Arafat
to his headquarters in Ramallah, and Lamdan believes Arafat hoped to use
the situation in the church to gain freedom of movement. This “delayed
resolution,” Lamdan said.
European governments agreed to take 13 of the gunmen Israel identified
as the most dangerous, and 26 more were allowed to return to the Gaza Strip.
the final analysis, Lamdan said, the crisis in Bethlehem “illustrates the
limits of Vatican diplomacy,” because as a matter of fact they had “no
influence whatsoever.” Moral authority, he argued, had no sway over gunmen
with “no respect for religious sensitivities.”
said the Vatican’s diplomats had a “realistic, accurate evaluation,” but
there were discordant voices within the Holy See. L’Osservatore Romano,
for example, the official Vatican newspaper, regularly referred to the
standoff as an Israeli “siege,” even accusing the Israelis of trying to
“exterminate” the Palestinian people. The paper falsely reported, Lamdan
charged, that the Israelis had killed a Catholic priest and injured a group
of Brigittine nuns. The paper ran photos showing Israeli soldiers “in the
worst possible light,” Lamdan said. At one point, Jewish leaders accused
L’Osservatore of anti-Semitism.
asked Lamdan if he ever complained. “Our experience is that L’Osservatore
Romano is not open to dealing with foreign diplomats,” he said dryly.
revealed that at one stage the embassy had supplied material to the Vatican
to rebut a particular charge L’Osservatore Romano intended to publish.
Under orders from the State Secretariat, the article was pulled at the
same phenomenon of contrasting voices, Lamdan said, was visible in the
Vatican’s statements on the Iraq war, a fact that he said had generated
“a certain amount of uneasiness” in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps.
for the future of the Vatican/Israeli relationship, Lamdan said he hopes
it overcomes the chill of the Second Intifadah. Once the violence began,
Lamdan said, the Vatican said bilateral relations had to be put on hold.
The result, he said, is that the relationship has been “robbed of content.”
freeze extended even to seemingly minor matters such as cultural exchanges.
For example, Lamdan had wanted to bring to the Vatican an art exhibit from
Jerusalem on the Holy Land as the cradle of Christianity. The Secretariat
of State, however, bluntly refused, explaining that staging such an exhibit
could be seen as “showing partiality.”
turning point, Lamdan said, came with the Jan. 12, 2002, visit of Israeli
President Moshe Katsav to John Paul II. In their private exchange, Lamdan
said, Katsav told the pope that the 10th anniversary of diplomatic
relations between the Holy See and Israel was approaching in 2004, and
if things didn’t improve, there was a danger the commitment on both sides
would “wither away.” Speaking in English, the pope responded that he wanted
to make 2003 a “turning point” in the relationship.
Katsav exited the pope’s studio and repeated the “turning point” phrase
to those waiting outside, Lamdan said, Sodano was visibly surprised. Sodano
later returned to the pope to find out what exactly John Paul had said.
Through channels, Lamdan said, word came down that the pope had indeed
meant it – 2003 was to be a turning point.
that time, Lamdan said, there are telling signs of forward movement. In
March, for example, the Vatican hosted a concert to mark the third anniversary
of the pope’s trip to Israel. The previous two years they had refused to
do so. Also, the Vatican consented to a recent academic conference at the
Lateran University that was co-sponsored by an Israeli think tank. Lamdan
himself was invited to be part of a panel at the Pontifical Committee for
Historical Science, something that had not happened over three years on
“John Paul has been a revolutionary pope vis-à-vis the Jews, and
a very positive pope with regard to the State of Israel,” Lamdan said.
said that he “treasures” the ties between his country and the Holy See.
relationship is still young,” he said. “Israel is still discovering the
Vatican. I’m sure the Vatican is still grappling with the notion of a Jewish
state in the Holy Land. … But this will be a long-standing relationship,
and it will not be stopped.”
had the pleasure of meeting Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare
movement, at an April 28-30 congress held at the movement’s conference
center in Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence in the hills outside
83, launched the Focolare (“hearth”) phenomenon in 1943 after the bombing
of her hometown of Trent in Italy. Its goal is to promote unity and universal
brotherhood, which has led the focolarini (as members are called)
to be active in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues. One of the reasons
they are prized by John Paul is that they have never soft-pedaled their
Catholic identity, and are known for tenacious loyalty to the pope and
is present in 182 nations, and claims two million members and sympathizers.
There are three levels of affiliation. Consecrated members take vows of
celibacy, live in Focolare communities, and turn over their earnings to
the community. Married members turn over what they can afford. Affiliates
have a looser connection. All told, there are 18 branches to the Focolare
cluster of groups and associations. Several Vatican offices have focolarini
topic of this congress was Mary and the rosary. In Church documents, Focolare’s
formal name is the Opera di Maria, or the “Work of Mary,” so the
movement has a special Marian interest. Lubich gave a much-anticipated
talk explaining the role of Mary within the spirituality of Focolare. Mary
is the “personification of scripture,” Lubich said, and Focolare is in
a sense a “continuing presence” of Mary on earth.
comments to the press afterwards, Lubich revealed that she had once asked
John Paul II over lunch if he was comfortable with a woman being president
of a major international Catholic movement (the Focolare constitution actually
requires that the president be a woman). Magari! was the pope’s
Italian response, roughly the equivalent of “Are you kidding?” He was content
with the arrangement, Lubich said, because he believes in what Catholic
theologian Hans von Balthasar described as a balance between the “Petrine”
and “Marian” principles in the church, between the hierarchical and the
asked Lubich about the frequent complaint that Marian devotion, and especially
the rosary, is “anti-ecumenical.” She responded that “we have to explain”
these things to our non-Catholic conversation partners.
requires good judgment, and we have to be prudent,” she said. “In the Focolare
movement we have 350 different Christian groups with us, and it’s a wonderful
show of unity. We are called to respectfully explain what Catholics believe,
but never to impose it,” she said.
focolarini plan to replicate the Castel Gandolfo Marian congress
on a smaller scale in several spots. The National Shrine in Washington,
D.C., will host one such congress on Sept. 14, with the participation of
Cardinals Theodore McCarrick and William Keeler. Chicago will have a similar
event Sept. 6 with Cardinal Francis George.
for the focolarini was reflected in the fact that 28 bishops were
in attendance at one point or another at Castel Gandolfo, including the
former secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop
Tarcisio Bertone, now the archbishop of Genoa. Indeed, the facility itself
is a sign of papal favor, since the Focolare center in Castel Gandolfo
is the former papal audience hall, handed over to the movement as a personal
gift of John Paul.
the most interesting prelate spotted in Castel Gandolfo was Zambian Archbishop
Emmanuel Milingo, whose on-again, off-again marriage to Maria Sung of the
Unification Church was the biggest soap opera of the 2001 Roman summer.
When Milingo made his dramatic return to the Catholic Church (whose opening
act was knocking at the door of the pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo),
the focolarini took him in. Milingo passed several months in a Focolare
center in Argentina, and now has a focolarino assigned as an assistant
had hoped to interview Milingo, but word came back that he had turned down
all requests from journalists. Watching him at the congress, however, he
seemed in good spirits and enjoying his connection with the focolarini
from around the world.
Sunday, April 27, the pope beatified six Italians, including five founders
of religious orders – one man and four women. The lone non-founder is in
some ways the most interesting. He is Marco d’Aviano, a 17th
century Capuchin priest famed for rallying Christian armies to defeat the
Ottoman Turks, the world’s last great Islamic empire, in the siege of Vienna
beatification has been welcomed by Europeans alarmed by Muslim immigration
and by the rising fundamentalist tide in Islamic states.
will make Christianity wake up, posing de facto the basis for a
second crusade, this one in defense against Islamic assault, after the
first that defeated communism,” said Italian parliamentarian Edouard Ballaman.
He led a delegation from the far-right Italian political party Northern
League that attended the ceremony.
director Renzo Martinelli, who is making a film based on the life of Marco
d’Aviano, asserted that “without him Italian women would today be wearing
must add that d’Aviano was hardly a bloodthirsty fanatic. When Belgrade
fell to the Christian armies, for example, he demanded that the lives of
some 800 Ottoman troops be spared. Some years before, in 1684, he saved
the Jews of Padova from an auto-da-fé. Rumors were circulating
that Jews in Buda had attacked Christians, and the people of Padova sought
d’Aviano’s blessing for reprisals against the Jews there. D’Aviano refused.
the decision to beatify a preacher of anti-Islamic crusades puzzled some
observers, since John Paul has perhaps the best track record on outreach
to Islam in papal history.
the extent that John Paul wanted to make a political point, it was perhaps
less to celebrate victory over Muslims than to stress the Christian unity
of Europe. The European Union is currently preparing a constitutional document,
and the Vatican has insisted that it must include an explicit reference
to the Christian roots of the continent. It’s a position that a number
of European states, led by France, have opposed on the grounds of multi-cultural
sensitivity. This is exactly the sort of approach the pope believes is
premised on historical amnesia.
the pope said in his April 27 remarks, reminds the European continent “that
its unity will be more stable if it is based on its common Christian roots.”
of Africa Fr. Justo Lacunza, president of the Pontifical Council for Arab
and Islamic Studies, told me April 30 that to date he’s not aware of any
negative reaction to the beatification in the Islamic world. At the same
time, he said, one has to wonder if it was a good idea to “add fuel to
the fire” at such a delicate moment in Christian/Muslim relations.
footnote: D’Aviano left at least one other trace in history. Legend has
it that after the Turks abandoned Vienna, they left behind stacks of their
famously bitter coffee. To lighten the taste, the Viennese decided to blend
in some milk. They named the resulting drink for the religious order of
d’Aviano, their liberator. Hence it became a cappucino.
Italians the star of the April 27 beatifications was Fr. Giacomo Alberione,
founder of the Pauline family of religious communities (not to be confused
with the Paulist Fathers in the United States). Alberione is known as an
apostle of mass communications, and the Paulines here run a multi-media
empire, including one of the largest circulation newsmagazines in the country,
April 24 I attended a round table on Alberione at one of the many Pauline
centers in Rome.
John Foley, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications,
was a featured speaker. Foley was introduced by a Pauline nun, who gently
reminded him that Alberione just topped an on-line poll to find a patron
saint for the Internet. He edged out fellow northern Italian St. John Bosco.
made the point that if the world is “our parish,” then Catholics “cannot
close ourselves in a ghetto.” Evangelizing with TV, radio, the Internet,
and other technologies is essential.
other premier speaker was Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran
University and a member of Cardinal Camillo Ruini’s inner circle.
applauded Alberione’s efforts to translate the gospel into accessible language,
saying it anticipated John XXIII’s intuition in calling the Second Vatican
Council (1962-65). He called Alberione’s lifework a “colossal undertaking,
also had a challenge for the Pauline family, some of whose publications
have at times been controversial. In February 1997, Pope John Paul II asked
Bishop Antonio Buoncristiani to take charge of the Paulines to bring their
editorial policies more in line with Church teaching, after Famiglia
Cristiana had advised parents not to force their views onto an adult
son if he chose to be gay. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top
doctrinal official, had previously written to Famiglia Cristiana in
1991 advising them to be more careful in what they wrote on moral issues.
More recently, Pauline publications have been strong supporters of the
anti-war movement, which some in Ruini’s circle regard as uncritical about
elements hostile to the Church.
said that Alberione realized that “true evangelization could be carried
out only in fidelity to the pope” and with a spirit that is “fully Christian.”
undertake other paths that solely on the surface can seem more attractive
is equivalent to running the serious risk of becoming an amorphous reality,
without history or tradition, and for this reason destined for failure,”
Maurilio Gausco gave a very funny, but also illuminating, analysis of Alberione’s
life and formative influences. I was struck by his observation that
Alberione entered the seminary in 1896, when the Catholic world buzzed
with energy generated by the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII. After a string
of 19th century popes who solved the problem of modernity by
basically ignoring it, Leo aimed to “win back the world for the Church,”
calling for a vast “Christian reconstruction of society.” Alberione was
shaped in this optimistic, forward-looking ethos. Eventually the currents
unleashed by Leo XIII and Alberione crested at Vatican II.
week I carried an interview with an Italian writer and political scientist
named Ernesto Galli della Loggia. An Italian reader wrote to complain that
his views would be of little interest to “progressive Catholics.”
am happy for the e-mail, because it gives me the chance to make a point
that perhaps bears repeating. I do not write this column for progressive
Catholics, any more than I write it for conservatives, traditionalists,
moderates, or any other faction. I write for people who are interested
in Vatican affairs.
the case of Galli della Loggia, he is an important presence on the Roman
scene, and his views illustrate the kinds of input Vatican officials receive.
It is of course up to readers to decide whether they agree with those views
Fr. Bruce Harbert, the executive secretary of the International Commission
on English in the Liturgy, was kind enough to alert me that Cardinal Francis
Arinze, who heads the Vatican’s liturgy office, will visit ICEL headquarters
in Washington on May 16. There will be a series of brief presentations
about current projects. Lunch will follow, then an afternoon conference
sponsored by the U.S. bishops conference to mark the 40th anniversary of
Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II decree on liturgy. As for
the much-anticipated new statutes for ICEL, a draft has gone to the member
bishops’ conferences in a form that Harbert believes will win assent. The
ICEL bishops should be able to give final approval in July.
Saturday and Sunday, May 3 and 4, I will be in Madrid, Spain, on the papal
trip. It is the 99th foreign journey of John Paul’s pontificate
outside Italy, and the first since the Iraq war. Interestingly, it takes
him to the backyard of one of the war’s major supporters, Spanish Prime
Minister Jose Aznar. Watch the “breaking news” section of the NCR
web site for a story Monday morning.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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