It’s a ghoulish feature of the Vatican beat,
that so many journalists hang around John Paul in order to be in the right
place when the end comes. Yet I suppose this is all part of the pope’s
bully pulpit. He knows journalists will follow him wherever he goes, waiting
for him to stumble, but in the meantime we’ll have to justify our presence
by finding something to report. So he drags us to corners of the world
many news organizations would otherwise never visit, forcing us to tell
their stories. He is, in effect, a one-man agent of globalization.
|I write this week from the
road, as part of the press corps following John Paul II’s 96th
pastoral visit outside Italy, this one to the former Soviet republic of
Azerbaijan and the former Soviet satellite state of Bulgaria.
I’ve followed the pope
around several times, but this is my first time on the papal plane, so
I made sure to grab all the freebees that Alitalia, the Italian national
airline, showers on VIP guests. The haul included perfume, toilette kits,
and (anti-smoking zealots in the States will be horrified to learn) cigarettes.
It’s nice stuff, though frankly I would have preferred they slice a few
hundred dollars off the airfare and trust me to supply my own comb and
To be fair, I should
report that I accidentally left my bag of loot on the plane — unmarked,
with no name or identifying marks — and an Alitalia official actually tracked
down the next day to give it back. Kudos for an unusually high commitment
to keeping journalists happy!
For Vatican specialists,
the voyage is an intriguing one. The ordinary pastoral motive for a papal
trip clearly takes second place this time, since there are barely 100 Catholics
in Azerbaijan and perhaps 80,000 in overwhelmingly Orthodox Bulgaria. In
Azerbaijan, the pope for the first time visited a majority Shi’ite nation,
though it is his 24th foray onto Muslim territory. With Iran
looming across the border, and with the embers still burning from a conflict
over the Nagorno-Karabach region that saw Christian Armenians and Muslim
Azerbaijanis at each other’s throats for the better part of a decade, the
pope wanted to reject wars waged in the name of religion.
In Bulgaria, meanwhile,
John Paul will fling himself once more into the breach with the Orthodox,
hoping to promote East/West Christian unity, despite recent signals that
the Orthodox, at least in Russia, aren’t interested.
There are also intriguing
bits of color. For example, Azerbaijan marks the first time the pope has
ever stayed in a hotel. It’s customary for John Paul to stay in the papal
embassy in the country he’s visiting, or a religious house such as a monastery.
Since Azerbaijan has
none of the above, he is instead lodging on the sixth floor of the three-star,
15-room Irshad Hotel, which just happens to be owned by the head of the
State Committee for Relations with Religious Organizations, Rafik Aliev.
The Azerbaijani government has given the hotel extra-territorial diplomatic
status for the 24 hours of the pope’s stay.
There was also the bizarre
episode at the papal Mass in Baku where a 40-year-old Azerbaijani refugee
from Armenia, Kazim Azizov, “rushed” the papal altar, ending up just 15
feet away from John Paul before he was wrestled away by security personnel.
I put “rushed” in quotes because the man was on two crutches, and hence
wasn’t really capable of “rushing” anyone, yet there he was on the platform
with the papal altar before anyone was the wiser.
It turns out he merely
wanted his picture with the pope, and at the end of Mass, he was brought
back out by Vatican personnel to get his wish, a gesture of compassion
that went over well with the largely Muslim crowd. The mystery remains,
however, how the man got so close to the pope. Describing the security
as “lax” seems putting it too mildly.
None of this, I must
say, cuts a great deal of ice with my colleagues in the secular press.
For the major wire agencies, newspapers and TV networks of the world, the
trip flirts with being a non-event, lacking a sufficiently dramatic storyline.
(Right now, certain colleagues are trying to track down the three Bulgarians
who were charged, and later acquitted for lack of evidence, by Italian
courts with complicity in the 1981 assassination attempt on the pope. If
they turn up, things could get more interesting).
In the absence of any
guarantee of a hot story, why is the press here?
It is the dirty little
secret of papal travel: the world’s press follows the pope around largely
in case he dies outside Rome. No one wants to be at home if “the story”
breaks in Baku, or in Sofia, or somewhere along the way.
As we waited to board
on May 22, I chatted with a colleague who writes for one of the world’s
major papers, who told me she had gone to the mat with Vatican personnel
to get on the papal plane. They suggested that a charter flight organized
for the rest of the press corps would work just as well, a possibility
she strenuously rejected.
“What happens if the
plane has to be re-routed to a hospital?” she asked. “I can’t afford to
be anywhere else.”
This way of thinking
can translate into an almost obsessive focus on the pope’s physical condition.
As John Paul boarded the plane on May 22, for example, reporters craned
their necks to scrutinize the special lift that brought him onto the plane,
allowing him to avoid climbing stairs. (It was the first time the device,
quickly dubbed the “pope-lift,” was used for health reasons.)
It’s a ghoulish feature
of the Vatican beat, that so many journalists hang around John Paul in
order to be in the right place when the end comes. Yet I suppose this is
all part of the pope’s bully pulpit. He knows journalists will follow him
wherever he goes, waiting for him to stumble, but in the meantime we’ll
have to justify our presence by finding something to report. So he drags
us to corners of the world many news organizations would otherwise never
visit, forcing us to tell their stories. He is, in effect, a one-man agent
A quick anecdote from
aboard the plane. Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls comes back
to the journalists’ compartment on each leg of the trip to answer a few
questions. As the first cluster broke up on the way to Baku, someone asked
what the pope was doing at the moment, and Navarro said he was reading
a book. A colleague from Reuters joked that he was probably reading my
new book on the conclave, at which point Navarro laughed and said: “Yeah,
I think so.”
He was kidding … I think.
* * *
There’s often more give
and take at Vatican press conferences than 700-word news stories afterwards
can capture, and a recent session dedicated to Misericordia Dei,
a new papal document about confession, was no exception.
Given that three of the
highest profile prelates of the Roman curia, Joseph Ratzinger (doctrine),
Jorge Medina Estevez (liturgy), and Julian Herranz (legislative texts)
were in attendance, there was a high level of interest.
One moment that deserves
to be recorded came when Farley Clinton, the Rome correspondent for the
a far-right U.S. publication, challenged Ratzinger.
Clinton noted that Medina
had called the decline in individual confession a “doctrinal problem.”
If that is so, Clinton asked, why has Ratzinger’s Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith not acted more forcefully to cut off its roots? Clinton
pointed to the “modernist crisis” of the early 20th century,
whose key figure was the French priest Alfred Loisy, and the reformist
theological currents that fed Vatican II, especially the writings on the
sacraments of Jesuit Fr. Karl Rahner. Why, Clinton wanted to know, has
there been no condemnation of Rahner?
The question was asked
in English. Ratzinger smiled, then answered in Italian.
“As for dear Fr. Rahner,
you know that the congregation has procedures that are very rigorous, but
also very just, in my opinion,” he said.
Then his bottom line:
“Please leave to the congregation its study and its practice.”
It could, I suppose,
seem an authoritarian response, the rough equivalent of “none of your business.”
In context, however, it came off as an invitation to charity. Ratzinger
seemed to be saying: “Why don’t you leave the condemnations to us?”
A historical footnote.
Ratzinger knew Rahner, who died in 1984, well. Both men were well-known
German theologians who served as periti, or theological experts,
at Vatican II. They collaborated on a draft of the document on revelation
that came to known as the “Rahner/Ratzinger draft.”
Despite their friendship,
Ratzinger has long harbored reservations about Rahner. Here is what Ratzinger
wrote in his 1997 memoirs, Milestones: “Rahner for the most part
allowed himself to be ‘sworn in’ according to the progressive slogans,
and allowed himself as well to be pushed into adventuresome political positions
difficult to reconcile with his own transcendental philosophy.”
Rahner likewise felt
misgivings about the drift of Ratzinger’s career. In 1979, when Ratzinger
was archbishop of Munich, he refused to allow progressive theologian Johann
Baptist Metz to teach at the University of Munich. Rahner published an
open letter to Ratzinger, in which he wrote: “Twenty-five years ago the
Holy Office in Rome forbade me to write anything further on the subject
of concelebration. That was a senseless, unscientific manipulation by church
bureaucrats. I judge your action against Metz to be of the same category.”
I have often felt that
the love/hate relationship between Ratzinger and Rahner, encapsulating
as it does so many of the great tensions of 20th century Catholicism,
would make a great piece of drama. Playwrights out there, take note.
* * *
Knowledge of history
is probably the most effective inoculation against the distortions of ideology,
and this certainly holds true in the church. I have sometimes felt the
Common Ground initiative would do better to avoid polarized debates on
liturgy, women, or collegiality, and instead foster common study of the
Bogomils, or Jansenism, or the development of Byzantine Christianity. I
suspect all sides would return to contemporary debates better informed,
more flexible, more prepared to see shades of gray.
It is thus with satisfaction
that I report the launch of a new specialization at the Pontifical Athenaeum
of St. Anselm, the Benedictine institute of theology in Rome, devoted precisely
to the “History of Theology.” Under the aegis of the “Mabillon Institute,”
named after a 17th century Benedictine who founded the science
of dating manuscripts, the idea is to promote “a more integrated global
perspective … on the diverse influences that have contributed to the historical
development of theology and theologies in the different Christian traditions.”
I went up the Aventine
hill in mid-May to talk about the new program with Fr. Mark Sheridan, an
American Benedictine who grew up in Washington, D.C., and who is the dean
of theology at S.Anselmo.
“The development of historical
consciousness is a relatively recent phenomenon,” Sheridan said. “We’re
learning a great deal about how theological concepts developed, where they
came from, and that affects how one looks at them. Theologians need to
be aware of this development.”
As an example, Sheridan
told the story of a recent doctoral defense in which the candidate made
repeated references to an ancient church father’s concept of “salvation
history.” Sheridan gently asked if the candidate knew where the phrase
“salvation history” came from, and when the candidate conceded he did not,
Sheridan pointed out that the term was introduced by German Lutheran theologian
and scripture scholar Johann Christian Konrad von Hofmann in 1841. To speak
of a writer’s concept of salvation history from the Patristic era, therefore,
is to some extent to engage in an anachronism. It may be a defensible exercise,
so long as the theologian realizes what’s going on.
“If we know where concepts
come from, we’re in a much better position to use them. It’s a kind of
self-knowledge,” Sheridan said.
There are four core courses
in the new program, which divide the 2,000 years of church history into
four periods: the patristic, the medieval, the era of humanism and reform,
I asked Sheridan the
inevitable question of whether, given the politicized environment in which
Catholic theology operates these days, there was a “hidden agenda” in the
Mabillon Institute to promote either a “conservative” or “liberal” view.
He smiled, having expected
something along these lines.
“In terms of the usual
political ways of thinking, the goal is not to take sides,” he said. “It’s
One hopes the Mabillon
Institute will draw students from all camps in today’s church, who, after
two years with patient and careful scholars such as Sheridan, may be in
a better position to talk with, rather than at, one another.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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