|By JOHN L.
One of the challenges on papal trips is keeping the
forest in view and not just the trees. Depending upon what scoop is churning at
any given moment, one’s sense of the “big story” can oscillate from hour to
hour. Becoming absorbed in the sideshows and missing the main event is a
Paul’s June 5-9 trip to Croatia, the 100th of his pontificate, makes
the middle of the day on Friday, June 6, the news out of Croatia didn’t seem to
concern Croatia at all, but Mongolia. A string of Vatican officials, pressed by
reporters, cast doubt on the much-anticipated but unconfirmed papal trip in
August. (More on that later).
on Saturday, June 7, the winds shifted, and the focus became rumored “threats”
against the pope from Islamic extremists. (Again, more later).
general, this sort of “breaking news” assumes a half-dozen shapes and sizes
before the truth sorts itself out. The trick, therefore, is to keep one’s eyes
on the prize: What’s the real story, beyond whatever is occupying copy and
airtime in any given moment?
Croatia, there was a real story to tell, although it struggled to break through.
The deep logic for the trip was that it gave the pope a chance to move the ball,
so to speak, on his top priorities for both Western and Eastern Europe.
pope has long feared that the secularized culture of Western Europe suffers from
amnesia, forgetting that Christianity shaped its history and value system. Cut
off from its roots, John Paul worries, Europe could drift into nihilism, or
become fertile ground for the spread of aggressively missionary religious
alternatives such as Islam.
Paul believes the Catholic nations of the former Socialist bloc can inject a
religious booster shot into the Western bloodstream. That’s why he is anxious
for Croatia, Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia to join the European Union, and it’s
why last December the Vatican expressed disappointment that Croatia didn’t apply
early enough for the first round of new entries. As things stand, Croatia will
likely join in 2007.
Croatia’s tenacious brand of Catholicism has been shaped in part by geography. A
nation of 4.4 million that’s 87 percent Catholic, Croatia finds itself at the
extremities of Western Christianity. To the east is Serbia and Orthodoxy; to the
south, Bosnia and Islam. Hence Croatia is an outpost of Western Christianity of
symbolic and strategic importance.
is my hope,” the pope said June 6 in Dubrovnik, “that the patrimony of human and
Christian values, accumulated down the centuries, will continue, with the help
of God and of your Patron Saint Blaise, to be the most precious treasure of the
people of this country.”
beatification of 20th century nun Sr. Marija Petkovic on June 6, the
first Croatian woman to be beatified, was a reminder to Croats that their
Catholic heritage is not just a dusty medieval relic, but something realizable
in the here and now.
Croatia trip came just a week after a drafting commission released the proposed
text of the preamble for the new European Union constitution. Despite strong
Vatican pressure, the preamble makes no reference to Christianity, an omission
that has angered Church officials.
draft says that Europe was nourished by “Hellenic and Roman civilizations,” then
“marked by the spiritual impulse that runs through it and whose traces are
present in its patrimony,” then finally “by the philosophical currents of the
Enlightenment.” Hence Greece, Rome and the Enlightenment are mentioned, but not
specifically Christianity, as the sources of European culture.
inter-governmental commission must examine the draft, then the parliament of the
European Union will vote.
asked Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls in Dubrovnik June 7 if he felt
the Vatican could still prevail in the battle to place a reference to
Christianity in the text, and he responded: “The answer is an unconditional
Navarro said some heads of state are coming around to the Vatican position,
recognizing that omitting Christianity from the list of forces that have shaped
European civilization is “ridiculous from a historical point of view.”
the Western logic for the pope’s Croatia trip was to urge the Croats to maintain
their heritage, and to use it to propel all of Europe into a greater
appreciation of Christianity’s spiritual and moral contributions.
for the East.
dominant leitmotif of this phase of John Paul’s pontificate is the effort
to reconcile Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and nowhere have the two traditions been
at one another’s throat with greater ferocity than in the Balkans. During the
fighting from 1991 to 1995, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs butchered one
another with a savagery that left the world aghast.
Bitter memories remain in Croatia, where the conflict is remembered as a “War of
Liberation” against Serbian aggression, even if the nationalist party of former
President Franjo Tudjman is out of power.
“People are hurt,” said Tatiana, 19, a Croatian who spoke to a reporter during
the pope’s June 7 Mass in Osijek. She declined to give her last name. “They lost
children, cousins, whole families … for them it is very hard to forget.”
Another Croat, Krunoslav Thanner-Ognjenovic, who grew up in Osijek, put it this
way: “We’re not angry with the Serbs, but we’re bitter because they destroyed
this context, John Paul brought a message of pardon.
“After the trying times of the war, which has left the peoples of this region
with deep wounds not yet completely healed, a commitment to reconciliation,
solidarity and social justice calls for courage on the part of individuals
inspired by faith,” the pope said in Osijek.
returned to the theme on the last day of the trip.
remember your suffering caused by war, which is still visible on your face and
in your lives,” the pope said in Zadar June 9. “I am close to those bearing the
tragic consequences of the war.”
Animosities bred by the war remain the central challenge to improved ecumenical
relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, traditionally among the most
ferociously conservative in the Orthodox world.
Paul offered an olive branch during his June 7 Mass in Osijek.
greet our brothers and sisters who share with us faith in Jesus, the Son of God
and the one savior of the world,” the pope said. “In particular I greet
Metropolitan Jovan and the other bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church. I ask
them to convey to His Beatitude Patriarch Pavle my fraternal greetings in the
love of Christ.”
is head of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
the end, the jury is out on how much difference the Croatia trip could make on
either the Western or Eastern front.
Croatia makes its way into the European Union, it will face the same pressures
of secularization as the rest of Western Europe. Already the church suffers from
what the Croatian bishops called in 2001 “the worrying fact of a steadily
declining number of candidates for the priesthood,” and fertility rates are
among the lowest in Europe. It’s not clear the pope offered a stimulus powerful
enough to reverse these trends.
the same way, resentments against the Orthodox Serbs generated by the Balkans
war don’t seem destined to heal anytime soon. Inside the walled old city of
Dubrovnik, for example, a map shows sites damaged during the siege of1991. It
reads: “City map of the damages caused by the aggression by the Yugoslav army,
Serbs and Montenegrians, 1991-92.” With those kinds of historical ghosts on the
prowl, it’s hard to believe that many Croats will embrace a policy of “forgive
Still, those looking for positive signs can draw comfort from the fact that at
the June 7 Mass in Osijek, just a few kilometers from Vukovar where destruction
from the war was near total, representatives of both Islam and the Serbian
Orthodox Church were on hand. John Paul thanked them for their presence.
of the warmest applause of the trip came in response.
* * *
further question related to the war, though one that never surfaced during the
trip, is Croatia’s relationship with the international war crimes tribunal in
government has pledged cooperation, but Croatia has dragged its feet on handing
over military officials, most famously Gen. Janko Bobetko. That chapter closed
with Bobetko’s death April 29, but several other former Croatian military
leaders sought by the tribunal remain at large.
Croatian priests and bishops have opposed the tribunal. Bishop Ante Ivas of the
southern town of Sibenik, for example, has criticized the government for
“humiliating and dishonoring” the country’s “defenders” by threatening to turn
Vatican has tried to press the Croat bishops to soften this opposition. It’s not
clear whether the pope raised the issue again during a June 8 closed-door
luncheon with the bishops.
Minister Ivica Racan told reporters after his June 8 meeting with the pope that
the two men did not discuss war crimes. “A meeting like this was too short,”
* * *
papal trip in June runs the risk of hot weather, but in Croatia, which gets the
most days of sun of any country in southern Europe, the heat was especially
brutal. During the pope’s June 7 Mass in Osijek, temperatures soared to 100
degrees, and news reports indicate two people in the crowd of some 200,000 died.
Standing in the press gallery, I saw a couple of priests wilt and be carried off
During the Osijek Mass, an eagle-eyed colleague of mine, producer Hada Messia
of CNN, spotted Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, the pope’s physician, standing near the
press gallery snapping pictures of Croats wearing native costumes. We
approached, and I asked Buzzonetti how the pope was coping with the heat.
coping with it just like you and me,” Buzzonetti said. “It’s uncomfortable, but
you go on.”
asked if the layers of liturgical vestments the pope wears during public
ceremonies make things more difficult. Buzzonetti responded that these are not
old-fashioned vestments, which were heavy and bulky. They are made out of
lightweight materials that “don’t create too many problems,” he said.
the end, perhaps the best indication that John Paul was not excessively fatigued
is that his personal physician felt he had time to be taking pictures of the
locals while his patient was on stage.
* * *
Paul II’s anticipated August trip to Mongolia may not materialize, according to
senior Vatican officials, though the reasons given vary slightly.
all depends on his health,” said Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary
of State, in comments on the first day of the pope’s Croatia trip.
can’t ask such a great sacrifice without a valid reason,” Sodano said, seeming
to suggest that Mongolia by itself would not justify a 10-hour plane ride.
Navarro-Valls, on the other hand, emphasized the potential complications created
by the SARS crisis as the chief factor placing the trip in jeopardy. He said a
decision could some as early as this week.
June 2, there were nine reported cases of SARS in Mongolia. Government officials
say, however, that no new cases have been recorded in recent days.
During the Mass in Dubrovnik, I asked Msgr. Renato Boccardo, the chief organizer
of papal travel, about Mongolia. He downplayed both the health issue, saying
this was an obvious consideration for every trip, and the SARS question, noting
that the World Health Organization has taken Mongolia off the list of countries
at risk. Boccardo added that if the trip doesn’t happen in August, it would have
to be put off until next year, since by September harsh winter weather is
already on the horizon.
some months, Vatican officials had worked to try to arrange a stop-off in Russia
in conjunction with the Mongolia trip, to return a famous Russian Orthodox icon
to Kazan. Given that the Russian Orthodox Church is hostile to the visit,
however, such a stopover seems impossible.
contacted Msgr. Wenceslao Padilla, the apostolic administrator in Mongolia, to
ask what his latest information was about the trip. His response:
far as I know, the papal visit is still on and is tentatively scheduled at the
end of August till beginning of September. It will be a very short visit, just a
matter of less than two days altogether in Mongolia.
doesn’t matter if the visit will be delayed as long as he comes! It might even
be better if he comes later (but not so late) so we can prepare better. The
working committees that I put up are already working on their respective
programs/activities. It's like working in the dark but we can't take the risk of
unpreparedness if he really comes!”
* * *
the subject of the threats against the pope.
On Friday evening, the
national Croatian news agency HINA reported that it and a Catholic news agency
had received e-mails threatening to kill the pope “in the name of Allah.” The
e-mails, signed “the Islamic Front of el-Mujahadeen” and addressed to “the
infidels,” appeared to have originated in Bosnia, said Interior Ministry
spokeswoman Zinka Bardic. She said police agencies were investigating, but that
there was no danger to the pontiff because of heavy security.
Navarro-Valls said that the Vatican had received indications of a threat two and
a half weeks before the trip, and had passed them on to the local authorities.
He told me that the report had come from a foreign, non-Italian intelligence
Navarro said that while the pope receives similar threats from time to time,
most turn out to be false alarms, and his program has never been changed in
response to one of them. In this case, Navarro said, the threat did not seem
credible, in part because it warned of an action “between Zagreb and Bajna Luka,”
and the pope’s route never took him to Zagreb.
fact, Navarro told me, the object of the threat was probably to try to
discourage the pope from going to Bajna Luka on June 22.
the way back to the press bus after the Osijek Mass, I literally bumped into
Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo. I asked if the “threats” had him worried
about the pope’s June 22 stop in Bosnia.
“They’re nothing,” he said. “It’s like a game. They’re not interfering with our
preparations in any way.”
I asked if that meant the
“Islamic Front of el-Mujahadeen” didn’t exist, or was a tiny group. He said no,
they exist and they’re not small, but “it would be impossible for them to
organize something because everything is under control.”
* * *
of the most important journalistic pay-offs of papal travel is that you can
sometimes find Vatican officials out of their natural habitat, hence without the
normal filters that protect them from your questions.
was the case June 6 on the catamaran that ferried John Paul, his entourage and
the press corps to the island of Krk. On board, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the
Vatican’s Secretary of State, came back for an impromptu press conference. He
then got a glass of beer and sat down, and started taking questions once again,
this time in the spirit of a graduate seminar on foreign policy. It was a
fascinating round-the-world tour of the views of the Vatican’s most senior
begin, Sodano said that Palestinians expelled from their property in what is
today Israel following conflicts in 1948 and 1967 have the right to return, or
at least to be compensated for their loss.
you expel me from my home, then in justice you need to let me come back, or at
least give me something,” he said.
Sodano suggested that Europeans have a special sensitivity to the question,
since at various points of the 20th century Poles, Germans, and
Italians have been driven from areas traditionally considered theirs.
Sodano also suggested that in order to bring peace to the Middle East, Israel
will have to sacrifice at least some of its settlements in the occupied
territories. He said that a “Gruyere state” for the Palestinians is
unacceptable, referring to a kind of cheese full of holes – a metaphor for the
comments reflect standing Vatican positions, but were delivered in unusually
asked if U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had pressed the Vatican for a
concrete commitment on Jerusalem in his meetings last Monday at the Vatican,
Sodano responded, “We’re the ones who should be asking for a commitment from
Sodano reiterated the Vatican’s long-standing position in favor of international
jurisdiction for the holy sites in Jerusalem.
then wanted to know if Sodano believes the U.S. commitment to the so-called
“road map” for peace in the Middle East is genuine.
international diplomacy, you have to take people at their word,” Sodano said.
“They tell us they are committed, so we accept that they are committed. I
believe there is hope.”
freewheeling reflection on Christianity and Islam, Sodano acknowledged that the
Arab world is a “little unknown to us -- 260 million people, 22 states, and the
Arab League,” but said there are encouraging examples of a “tolerant,
dialogue-ready Islam” in various places around the globe.
He cited the example of
Senegal, where he said that on the occasion of John Paul’s February 1992 trip,
the president, a Muslim, praised the pope “in extravagant terms that heads of
state in the West would not be able to use.”
Sodano also pointed to
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where at one stage four
ministers of the federal government, including the defense minister, were
Christians. He acknowledged, however, that Christian/Muslim relations have
deteriorated in recent months.
tolerant, dialogue-ready Islam still has to arrive in the Arab world,” Sodano
* * *
final curiosity from Croatia. The person beatified by John Paul II on June 6,
Sr. Marija Petkovic, is one of the few candidates for sainthood whose miracle is
something other than the healing of a sick person. In fact, Petkovic came to the
aid of an inanimate object – a submarine.
Aug. 26, 1988, the Peruvian navy submarine Pacocha crashed into a Japanese
fishing vessel near the Peruvian port of Callao. When the submarine began to
sink, a young officer named Roger Cotrina Alvarado prayed to Petkovic, whose
life story had been read to him by his mother.
that moment, Cotrina Alvarado was able to close an inside door with his arms,
despite the pressure of the water. The maneuver was considered “humanly
impossible” by two commissions, one military and the other Vatican. Nineteen
other officers were saved; six crew members died.
* * *
Sunday, June 8, my cell phone went off as I was on the press bus to cover the
pope’s meeting with Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan. It was radio station
WBUR in Boston, reacting to a Boston Globe story that morning that said
the appointment of Cardinal Bernard Law’s successor was imminent, expected
perhaps as soon as Tuesday June 10, and that it was likely to be Bishop Donald
Wuerl of Pittsburgh. Did I know anything about it?
didn’t, so I called my wife in Rome and asked her to get the Globe story
on-line and read it to me. Armed with that information, I pulled aside Vatican
spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls during the meeting, which was held at the
archdiocesan seminary in Rijeka where the pope was staying, and asked for
comment. He said he didn’t know anything about the Globe piece.
returning to Rome on Monday, June 9, I reached a senior Vatican official who was
able to clarify the situation. NCR posted a story based on this
information in the “breaking news” section of our web site Monday afternoon.
bottom line is that there would be no announcement in the next few days, but we
might have something in two weeks, and that as of now no decision on Law’s
replacement has been made. The story can be found here:
footnote, I went to the Vatican press office on Tuesday, June 10, a little
before noon, since American bishops’ appointments are usually released on
Tuesdays. I had told my Boston colleagues there would be no story, but a couple
of them wanted to set up phone interviews just in case. All this reflects the
intense, and understandable, interest in Boston about the succession.
* * *
wife and I went up to the Dominican headquarters at Santa Sabina, on Rome’s
Aventine hill, on June 11 to see Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, the former master
general of the order. Radcliffe was in town at the end of a round-the-world
speaking tour. He is a faithful reader of “The Word from Rome,” and suggested we
come by for lunch.
his other stops, Radcliffe had been in Boston, and that led us to talk about the
sexual abuse crisis. I voiced worry about polarization in the American Church. I
said that perhaps this is a generational concern, because whereas the 50 and
60-year-old cohort that came of age in the 1960s is instinctively hostile to
authority, my generation tends instead to be hostile to ideology. Any system
that seems too comprehensive and self-contained, whether it comes from left or
right, is likely to rub us the wrong way.
as he always does, had a more elegant way of putting the point. He said that the
Enlightenment imposed upon the Catholic Church an artificial division between
tradition and progress, with tradition identified as “right” and progress as
“left.” But in the authentically Catholic understanding, any genuine progress is
always a return to tradition. Hence whenever we allow ourselves to get bogged
down in a debate between right and left, we are already lost.
Interestingly, Radcliffe said, a better way of phrasing the debate within the
Church may come from China, where divisions are less between left and right than
between openness and closure – between those who want to open to the world, and
those who want to stay closed.
not sure how to foster a climate of conversation in the Church that could bridge
our ideological paralysis. I suspect, however, that the problem would solve
itself if we had more people such as Timothy Radcliffe to point the way.
* * *
those “Word from Rome” readers who are truly Vatican wonks, here’s a brain
teaser. What do the following cardinals have in common: Giovanni Battista Re,
Eduardo Martinez Somalo, Giuseppe Caprio, and Edward Cassidy?
Astute Vaticanologists will recognize that all four men once held the office of
sostituto, or deputy Secretary of State for internal church affairs. That
explains what they were doing at a June 12 papal audience in honor of John Paul
II’s 100th foreign voyage, an occasion to which the journalists who
traveled on the papal plane were also invited. The sostituto is one of
the key figures in making the logistics of papal travel work.
John Paul II entered the Sala Clementina for the audience, a brass band made up
of Legionaries of Christ seminarians burst into the famed Mexican ballad
Cielito Lindo, a way of recalling that his very first trip was to Mexico in
1979. Mexican TV journalist Valentina Alazraki Crastich presented the pope with
the chalice he used to celebrate Mass on that visit as a momento.
Paul gave a speech looking back over his trips, recalling them primarily as
pilgrimages in which he travels to the “sanctuary” formed by the people of a
given place, a sanctuary in which he can contemplate the face of Christ. He also
said these trips have a ecclesiological motive, to make Catholics around the
world experience in a concrete way the papacy as what the Vatican II document
Lumen Gentium called a “lasting and visible source and foundation of the
unity both of faith and of communion.”
Afterwards, we were invited to the Old Synod Hall for a reception by Secretary
of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano. All the people who make the trips happen, from
the Swiss Guard to Alitalia airlines, were present, and it was nice to see them
getting some well-deserved credit.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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