National Catholic Reporter ®
The Word From Rome

August 9, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 50

Web address:
John L. Allen, Jr.
Inculturation at papal Masses; Maciel gets front-row seat; next, Poland and St. Faustina

As we were filing out to catch the press bus, a colleague from one of the American TV networks, a non-Catholic, said to me: “Hell, if they did Mass like this all the time, I’d come!”

Press coverage of John Paul’s July 30-August 1 trip to Mexico turned mostly on his statement of support for the “legitimate aspirations” of indigenous persons, putting it in the context of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, as well as inroads among indigenous groups in Latin America by Evangelical Protestants. The media focus was thus political and inter-religious.

     This is entirely proper, but I confess that my optic was more intra-ecclesial. I was in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe for both the July 31 canonization of Juan Diego, to whom the Virgin of Guadalupe is said to have appeared, and the beatification August 1 of two Zapotec Indians, Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Angeles, martyred in 1700. What struck me in both cases was the startling degree to which both liturgies were “inculturated,” meaning that they drew heavily upon the sacred traditions of the native cultures involved.

     When the pope pronounced the words of canonization for Juan Diego, conch shells began to blow, and the hundreds of indigenous persons present began to shake rattles they had brought for the occasion. Then native music began to thump out, as 11 dancers in Aztec costume slowly twirled their way down a specially prepared runway. As they snaked their way towards the pope, incense was burned and candles lit, while flower petals were strewn in their path. Finally red confetti was fired over our heads. It was an electrifying moment, and left the people inside the basilica cheering like it was Game Seven of the NBA finals.

     As we were filing out to catch the press bus, a colleague from one of the American TV networks, a non-Catholic, said to me: “Hell, if they did Mass like this all the time, I’d come!”

     The next day was a repeat performance. The Nahautl, Zapotec and Mixtec languages, all spoken in the martyrs’ southern hometown of San Francisco Cajonos, were used during the liturgy. When the pope formally beatified Bautista and los Angeles, once again native dancers appeared on the runway, this time accompanied by a welter of indigenous brass bands from Cajonos and other nearby towns. Thousands of indigenous persons clapped, sang and swayed in time, as the dancers made their way toward John Paul.

     Perhaps most remarkably, Indian women bearing smoking pots of incense brushed branches of herbs on the pontiff, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera and other prelates in a limpia, or purification, ceremony. The common Indian blessing is believed to cure spiritual and physical ailments by driving off evil spirits.

     Anyone who follows the Vatican knows that one of its most protracted internal tensions is between Bishop Piero Marini, responsible for the papal liturgies, and Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, who runs the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The latter makes the rules; the former sets the tone through what happens when the pope himself celebrates. Medina tends toward a traditionalist, by-the-book stance, while Marini is more reform-minded. 

     The Mexican celebrations, with their unapologetic embrace of elements of native worship, reflected the Marini imprint. But the $64,000 question is, whose side is John Paul II on? He signs Medina’s documents and yet celebrates Marini’s liturgies, so some accuse him of trying to have it both ways.

     As a general rule, I suspect John Paul tolerates this tension as an exercise in pendulum governance, giving a little bit here and a little bit there, never letting any wing of the church feel too alienated. On this theory, the pope sees not a contradiction but a dialectic. 

     While such inconsistency can be maddening to observers trying to figure out what the church stands for, I dare say if you look closely, most pontificates embrace seeming contradictions. It was John XXIII, the beloved reformer, whose 1959 Roman synod forbade priests from driving cars or going to the cinema, and who decreed in his 1962 apostolic constitution Veterum sapientia that only Latin be used in seminaries. It was Paul VI, the “pope of the council,” who gave us both the new Mass as well as HumanaeVitae. How to explain this? John XXIII once quipped that he had to be pope both of those with their foot on the accelerator, and those with their foot on the brake. Such a view of papal responsibilities sometimes makes for a muddled approach to policy, but perhaps also for a kind of balance over time that prevents the whole thing from spinning apart.

     On the issue of indigenous elements in Christian worship, however, I have two bits of datum suggesting the pope’s heart is with Marini — one theological, the other anecdotal.

     The theological reason is the way John Paul has developed the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on other religions. Vatican II for the first time spoke positively of other religions, saying that not infrequently they contain “elements of truth and grace.” Yet the Council did not resolve the question of how those “elements of truth and grace” got there. As Karl Rahner wrote, “The precise theological value” of non-Christian religions “was left open.” 

     The question at the close of the council was: Are the truths of other religions simply evidence of a universal human yearning for God, a kind of “natural religion?” Or are they inspired by God’s Holy Spirit as part of a salvation history more complex than we had previously imagined? 

     John Paul II has answered this question, defending the second, more progressive hypothesis: that God, through the person of the Holy Spirit, “inspires” at least some elements of other religions. 

     Consider this line from a radio address to the peoples of Asia, Manila, Feb. 21, 1981: “Even when for some he is the Great Unknown, He nevertheless remains always in reality the same living God. We trust that wherever the human spirit opens itself in prayer to this Unknown God, an echo will be heard of the same Spirit who, knowing the limits and weaknesses of the human person, himself prays in us and on our behalf.” Or this, from the pope’s annual address to the curia on Dec. 22, 1986, this time defending his inter-religious summit in Assisi in October of that year: “Every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person.”

     One could go on multiplying examples (by one count there are at least 50 such statements). As Jesuit theologian Jacques Dupuis writes in his recent book Christianity and the Religions: From Conflict to Encounter: “The peculiar contribution of Pope John Paul II to a ‘theology of the religions’ consists in the emphasis with which he affirms the operative presence of the Spirit of God in the religious life of the ‘non-Christians’ and in their religious traditions.”

     That’s the doctrinal reason I believe John Paul liked what he saw in Mexico. He believes those sacred dances, rites and gestures come from the Spirit and hence have a place in Christian worship.

     My anecdotal reason?

     I had a pair on binoculars with me, and I kept my eyes on John Paul on day two as the native dancers and mariachi bands did their thing. There was little response at first, but as the performance built up a head of steam, I saw the pope smiling broadly and tapping out the rhythm of the music. As papal endorsements go, it was indirect — but unmistakable.

* * *

     Speaking of the Mexico leg of John Paul’s journey, one bit of subtext was whether Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, would be present. Maciel is a Catholic celebrity in Mexico, and on John Paul’s four previous journeys he has been a leading actor. This time, however, Maciel faces highly public charges of sexual abuse from several former members of the Legionaries, and there was speculation as to whether he would be exiled from the papal orbit.

     On the day of Juan Diego’s canonization, I tried asking local organizers if Maciel were present. They had no idea. I asked four Mexican journalists, each one of whom proffered a different opinion. After attempts to spot him through binoculars failed, I tried a different tack, calling a Legionary friend in Rome. He declined to respond.

     That night I headed off to a press conference at the Inter-Continental Hotel scheduled for 6:00 p.m., to ask Monsignor Guillermo Ortiz Mondragón, the designated spokesperson for the papal visit. 6:00 p.m. came and went, and no Ortiz. I enlisted the help of several very polite young men who had been stationed in the hotel to help journalists. After a half-hour, one came back with the news that his sister “swore” she had seen Maciel at the basilica. When I informed him this was not sufficient, he returned to the hunt.

     Eventually they produced Ortiz. I put my question to him, and he responded: “I have heard nothing about Maciel being here, and I’m sure I would have heard if he were.” It was a curiously non-definitive response.

     The next morning, I rode to Mass in the company of a member of the papal entourage. I asked about Maciel, and he was finally able to resolve the question: “Maciel was in the front row yesterday,” he said, referring to the Mass for Juan Diego. “I said hello to him myself.” I then asked if Maciel had greeted the pope, and my source, who was in a position to know, said he had. 

     However low profile, I believe Maciel’s presence at the Mass, and his greeting of John Paul, can only be seen as a show of support from the pope.

     Two footnotes.

     A major newspaper recently printed a story saying that Maciel was “expected” to travel in the papal party. I don’t know exactly who held this expectation, but I was on the papal plane and Maciel was not there. Just to be sure, I asked Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesperson, on August 5, and he confirmed that Maciel did not travel with the pope.

     Second, about those helpful young men … it turns out they were students at Legionary schools. The press operation for the pope’s trip was run by prominent Mexican members of the lay branch of the Legionaries, called Regnum Christi.

* * *

     If you were tuned into the Italian press for coverage of the Mexico trip, you would have been following a dramatic “assassination attempt” against the pope.

     It was certainly a riveting story. The only flaw is that it wasn’t true.

     What happened is this. A fourteen-year-old Mexican, Erick Angel Hernandez Gomez, fired a BB-pistol out the window of his family’s apartment on the afternoon of July 31, along the route John Paul was to take from the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the papal nunciature. The shots were fired well before the pope went by. One pellet slightly grazed a Mexican police officer, though it did not cause a wound. The boy was briefly arrested, then released into his parents’ custody when it became clear he hadn’t meant to harm anyone. (The judge called the boy’s action “a stupid joke”).

     An Italian news agency, however, reported that the pope had been fired upon and that a Vatican security agent had been hit. With that, the chase was on. Italian reporters on the trip got urgent calls from their editors, demanding accounts of “panic in Mexico City” — despite the fact that a couple of steps out the hotel door was enough to prove that there was no such panic. 

     The lesson is not to be seduced by dramatic news flashes in the middle of a breaking story until confirmation emerges. This time it was the Italians, but it’s hardly a geographically limited temptation.

* * *

     John Paul’s next journey outside Italy will take place August 16-19 in Poland. Fans of the papal resignation hypothesis have long been licking their chops over this trip. Why go now? Why for only three days? Could it be to announce John Paul’s long-rumored exit from the papal stage, then spirit him off to a monastery?

     I seriously doubt it, though events could always prove me wrong.

     In fact, there is a precise motive for the visit, with a deep resonance in John Paul’s spirituality. He is going to dedicate the new Sanctuary of Divine Mercy at Lagiewniki, outside Krakow. It is named for a devotion to God’s mercy launched in the early 20th century by a Polish nun named Faustina Kowalska, whom the pope canonized on April 30, 2000 (making her the first saint of the new millennium).

     Faustina believed that Jesus had appeared to her in 1931with a message of mercy for all humanity. Her spiritual director commissioned an artist to render a painting of Jesus as he appeared in her visions, which has become the well-known image of Jesus with two rays of light streaming from his heart. (The red ray represents the blood that flowed from Christ’s side when struck with a spear on the cross, the white the water). Her 600-page diary of the visions is known as Divine Mercy in My Soul. She devised various prayers and spiritual acts to support this devotion before dying in 1938.

     Faustina has long been an important figure in the life of John Paul II. As an underground seminarian during World War II, he was influenced by Kowalska’s diary. When he became archbishop of Krakow, he began the process of her beatification, which he brought to fruition as pope.

     John Paul’s devotion to Faustina has critics. Some see her quasi-apocalyptic insistence on human unworthiness as excessive. Others object to the way the pope placed the divine mercy feast on the second Sunday after Easter, hence “disrupting,” according to some liturgists, the Easter season. (Especially given that Easter is supposed to be about the joy of resurrection, not our constant need for mercy). Still others say the pope shouldn’t use his office to foist his personal spirituality on the rest of the church.

     Those may all be valid points, but I still think there’s something to like about the Faustina story. 

     For almost 20 years, from 1959 to 1978, Faustina’s diary and her divine mercy devotion were officially banned by the Holy Office, today’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Working from what is today recognized as a faulty Italian translation of her diary, the Holy Office decided that Faustina’s private revelations were quirky and effectively silenced her movement.

     It was thus a minor bit of defiance for Archbishop Karol Wojtyla to open canonization proceedings on October 21, 1965, for someone whose lifework was still officially censored in Rome. The Vatican’s ban on Divine Mercy Devotion was finally lifted on April 15, 1978, and in short order Wojtyla became pope. His 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia is heavily influenced by Kowalska’s thinking, in its own way reminiscent of how certain documents of Vatican II were inspired by figures censured under Pius XII.

     Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has argued that its documents and disciplinary decisions participate in the “ordinary and universal magisterium,” which over time becomes the infallible teaching of the church. This may be, but as the case of Faustina shows — as did that of Padre Pio, also canonized by John Paul after having been disciplined several times during his life by Rome — only time can tell whether any given decision of the congregation really reflects that magisterium or not. In other words, even the Holy Office nods.

* * *

     Two weeks ago, I described an interview I conducted with Fr. Peter Gumpel, the man responsible for the sainthood cause of Pius XII, about the book The Popes Against the Jews by David Kertzer.

     Professor Kertzer was kind enough to respond, and among other points he boiled down the argument of his book into one paragraph. I asked his permission to reproduce it here. Kertzer wrote: 

     “The Nazis were behind the Holocaust, and the Nazis were also anti-Christian and anti-Catholic. But their ability to carry out the Holocaust depended on mass grass-root hostility to the Jews, and as I try to show, the Catholic Church played a significant (though far from exclusive) role in fueling these hatreds.”

     Stated that way, there perhaps is not as much distance between Kertzer and Gumpel as one might imagine, since Gumpel allowed in our interview that anti-Jewish sentiments expressed in organs such as L’Osservatore Romano and Civilità Cattolica may have reinforced prejudices against Jews in early 20th century Europe. 

     I suppose the real argument (not necessarily between Kertzer and Gumpel, but among students of the issue in general) is not whether the church played a role in shaping anti-Semitism, but whether it has sufficiently acknowledged that role, repented for it, and insured that it does not recur. 

* * *

     Finally, last week I wrote about a trip to a hospital for paralyzed and deformed children in Guatemala, named for Brother Pedro de San Jose de Betancurt. Several readers asked for an address to send donations. There is a U.S. 501(c)3 foundation that supports the hospital, to which contributions may be addressed: Hermano Pedro Social Works Foundation, P.O. Box 32, McLean, Virginia, 22101, USA. If you wish to drop a note of support to Fr. Giuseppe Contran, administrator of the hospital, you may do so at 6 Call Oriente No. 20, La Antigua, Guatemala, or by e-mail at

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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