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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 email@example.com
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
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