National Catholic Reporter ®
The Word From Rome

October 4, 2002 
Vol. 2, No. 6

Web address:
John L. Allen, Jr.
Insta-analysis of papal appointments; three Roman gatherings; a “no” to women deacons that wasn’t; lunch with Fr. Sirico

 “We begin the new century with a post-Christian West, and a post-Western Christianity.”

Andrew Walls, a Scottish Methodist addressing Christianity in the Third World

Instant analysis is a trademark of the age of 24-hour news cycles. Events don’t finish these days before an army of pundits appears on TV, radio and the Internet, offering expert opinions rooted in perhaps 30 seconds of actual reflection. 

     Thus it was that I found myself on the air on Tuesday, Oct. 1, commenting on how to interpret the pope’s latest shuffle of senior curial officials, just moments after the changes were announced. In case you missed them, the moves are:

  • Cardinal Francis Arinze, 69, Nigerian, takes over as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments;

  • Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, 65, English, succeeds Arinze as president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and thereby is automatically elevated to the rank of archbishop;

  • Archbishop Renato Martino, 69, Italian, succeeds the recently deceased Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Martino has been the Holy See’s observer at the United Nations since 1986;

  • Bishop Attilio Nicora, 65, Italian, becomes head of the Apostolic Patrimony of the Holy See, the Vatican’s finance office. It was Nicora who oversaw the 1984 revision of the concordat, or basic agreement, between Italy and the Vatican. Nicora too automatically becomes an archbishop;

  • Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, 68, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, has been elevated to rank of “cardinal-bishop,” the highest of the three grades of the cardinal’s office (the other two being cardinal-deacon and cardinal-priest).
     What’s my insta-interpretation?

     First, I do not read it as John Paul “designating his successor,” as some have suggested, with Arinze. Indeed, if the pope were thinking solely in terms of electoral politics, and assuming he wanted to help Arinze, he probably would have done better to leave him where he is. Aside from some traditionalist circles, few people are opposed to polite conversation with other religions. At Worship, however, Arinze will have to make lots of tough decisions, and that can create enemies as well as friends. 

     Similarly, the honor for Re is, in one sense, further confirmation that John Paul likes and trusts his former sostituto, the official in the Secretariat of State responsible for day-to-day church affairs, a job Re held for 11 years. Yet again it’s important not to over-interpret. The prefect of the Congregation for Bishops is normally made a cardinal-bishop, as space opens up, so Re’s ascent is not terribly surprising.

     Bottom line: Both Arinze and Re were already papabili, or serious contenders to be pope, and they remain so after these appointments.

     I think the more interesting choices, at least in terms of papal politics, are those at the Councils for Inter-religious Dialogue and for Justice and Peace. Broadly speaking, both Fitzgerald and Martino are theological moderates and social progressives. Assuming both become cardinals, which usually goes with the territory, it would strengthen the small center-left wing in the College of Cardinals, what I call in my book Conclave the “Reform Party.” 

     Fitzgerald, a member of the Missionaries of Africa (“White Fathers”), is a widely respected expert on Islam. He is known inside the Vatican as a man of wit, integrity, with an open mind and a deep sense of loyalty. His theological orientation can be glimpsed from a seminar in April 2001 at the Gregorian University, where Fitzgerald praised Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, the Jesuit theologian whose attempts to assign positive theological significance to religious diversity had been criticized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

     Fitzgerald said he wished “to put on the record a debt of gratitude to Fr. Dupuis and his pioneering work.” 

     “I had the honor of being present in this hall during a presentation of Fr. Dupuis’ book,” Fitzgerald said. “Some have spoken of ambiguities, but since theology is a developing science, it is only natural that various theories will be presented, discussed, and brought into a synthesis.”

     It was a polite, loyal way of registering dissent.

     I don’t know Martino personally, but I hear he’s a dynamic figure. He is certainly no leftist by the standards of secular politics, since he was the Vatican’s point man in the titanic battles of the 1990s over reproductive policies at the U.N. conferences in Cairo and Bejing. Yet Martino has also been a strong voice for human rights and socially responsible economic policies, and as a professional diplomat, he abhors absolutist positions as a matter of instinct.

     As for Nicora, he is a rather standard conservative on church politics. As bishop of Verona in 1996, he forbade his priests from cooperation with a petition drive asking for changes in church policy on women’s ordination, celibacy, and a host of other issues. Yet one has the impression that he is not especially interested in theology. I asked an Italian friend who’s quite well known in church circles for his take on Nicora. “If I needed someone to baptize my son, he wouldn’t necessarily be the man I would call. But to balance my bank account, yes, sure.” 

     Sounds like a reasonable endorsement for the new head of APSA.

* * *

     Early October is my favorite time of the year in Rome, because the ecclesiastical life of the city returns to full swing. Every day brings another meeting, another press conference, another book presentation, another intriguing Catholic personality in town with whom to have lunch or dinner. It’s a period when Rome’s status as the crossroads of the Catholic world is on full display.

     I’ll cite three quick examples, each of which would easily be worth an entire column under different circumstances.

     Rescuing Memory

     This week an ecumenical group of librarians, archivists and scholars of mission studies is meeting under the aegis of the International Association for Mission Studies and the International Association of Catholic Missiologists. The conference, entitled “Rescuing the Memory of Our Peoples,” is taking place at the Centro Internazionale di Animazione Missionaria at the Urban University, run by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. 

     The group of 50 some experts, including Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Anglicans, is in effect trying to organize a race against the clock to preserve the historical memory of Christianity, and especially its missions, in the Third World. Under the pressures of globalization, poverty, war, and neglect, lots of irreplaceable historical resources – documents, oral traditions, physical remains – are in danger in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

     Andrew Walls, a Scottish Methodist who is among the leading experts on Christianity in the Third World, summed up the archivist’s spirit: “Never destroy a piece of paper until you make at least two copies of it.”

     Walls gave a fascinating keynote address in which he reviewed the well-known statistics about the 20th century inversion in Christian demography. At the beginning of the century, 80 percent of Christians lived in Europe and North America; today 60 percent live in the Southern Hemisphere. “We begin the new century with a post-Christian West, and a post-Western Christianity,” he said.

     In this context, Walls argued, building archival resources in Africa, Asia and Latin America is a matter of survival for Christians everywhere. Given that theological reflection arises out of the lived faith experience of a community, if it doesn’t happen in the South, “there won’t be theological studies anywhere much worth caring about.”

     One thing that struck me was the way conference participants seemed to hold together their high ideals and the nitty-gritty details their work necessarily involves. I never thought I’d hear a discussion about the best way to combat paper rot in front of the bright red flag of Brazil’s Movimento Sem Terra, or movement of the landless, but there it was.

     Further information can be found at

     Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue

     I spent Oct. 1-2 in Terni, a small industrial town about an hour north of Rome, which is the diocese of Bishop Vincenzio Paglia. Before becoming a bishop Paglia was a key figure in the Sant’Egidio Community in Trastevere, and he remains a great friend and supporter. (Paglia’s heart has always been with issues of social justice. As one sign of that commitment, he was named the postulator, or coordinator, for the sainthood cause of El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero. Paglia wears Romero’s pectoral cross).

     The occasion in Terni was a Catholic-Russian Orthodox dialogue, sponsored by Sant’Egidio. The theme was “Holiness and Charity in the Christianity of East and West: A Path for the Churches in the Age of Globalization.” Given the strained Catholic-Orthodox relationship these days, especially since the expulsion of Bishop Jerzy Mazur from his diocese of St. Joseph at Irkutsk in Siberia, along with several other priests from different parts of Russia, the dialogue was remarkable for the very fact of being held.

     Catholic and Russian Orthodox figures took turns giving talks on monks and holy men and women from the two traditions who illustrate the link between sanctity and concern for the poor. Example: An Orthodox priest, Dimitrij Rumjancev, spoke on St. Ioann of Kronstadt, a 19th century Orthodox saint, while Fr. Tomas Spídlik told the story of Padre Pio. 

     The head of two of Catholicism’s largest religious orders, the Franciscans and the Benedictines, were on hand to speak about Saints Francis and Benedict. Abbot Primate Nokter Wolf of the Benedictines found himself doing double duty, also chairing an afternoon session on Monday. Wolf, a Bavarian, speaks nearly flawless Italian that failed him only once, but it was good for a laugh. At one point Wolf thanked i nostri amici rossi, which literally means “our red friends,” when he meant to say i nostri amici russi, “our Russian friends.” The unintended double entendre brought guffaws.

     The meeting’s star attraction was Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who is more or less the Russian Orthodox equivalent of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, i.e., the number two figure in the hierarchy. Kirill’s boss is the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II.

     Kirill gave a spirited talk, referring to the need for “bilateral relations” between Orthodox and Catholics, and the importance of “collaboration before this world of today.” He then told the story of the oppression of the Russian Orthodox Church during the Soviet period, which he referred to as a “true and proper genocide.”

     The most striking moment came when Kirill revealed that his own father, a railroad mechanic, had been sent to a Soviet prison camp simply because he went to church and sung in the choir. Kirill said this sort of suffering was widespread, but added the “miracle” was that the Orthodox Church’s crucifixion actually became a source of strength, because the example of these new martyrs has renewed the faith of many millions of Russians.

     Kirill’s comments helped me understand why, from the Russian Orthodox point of view, Catholic “proselytism” must seem so unfair. Having emerged from a period of suffering, they feel Catholics are cynically exploiting the weakness that those years of oppression imposed. (The Vatican denies being involved in proselytism in Russia, arguing that the small number of converts are coming from among the legions of unchurched, not practicing Orthodox believers).

     At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking of friends who have a different perspective on Russian Orthodoxy under the Soviets. I recalled people I know in the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, for example, whose relatives were exiled, imprisoned and killed for refusing to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leaders in some cases collaborated with the Soviets in the suppression of Greek Catholics to ensure their own survival. That of course is part of the problem – everyone has suffered, everyone can make a case for being a victim, everyone can find a reason to lack faith in the good will of the other. Somehow Catholics and Orthodox must both find a way to break the cycle of blame.

     Meanwhile, two signs of the times. 

     First, no Vatican official was present to hear Kirill, a conspicuous and distressing absence. I don’t know if this was worked out in advance; perhaps Kirill himself felt it would be politically easier to accept the invitation without a Vatican delegation present. But this inability to be in the same room, at least in public, is troubling. 

     Second, I ran into a Russian Orthodox priest in Rome just before I left for Terni, and I mentioned that I was heading off to see Kirill. The priest turned white, and urged me not to tell Kirill he was in Rome hanging out with Catholics. That fear of being seen as “consorting with the enemy,” unfortunately, speaks volumes about the real state of the Catholic-Orthodox relationship.

     Faith and Light

     I’ve had occasion recently several times to be with Jean Vanier, the remarkable founder of the L’Arche community as well as the “Faith and Sharing” and “Faith and Light” movements, all devoted to building relationships with mentally handicapped persons. 

     (Vanier co-founded “Faith and Light” in 1971 with French laywoman Marie Helène Matthieu after taking a group of mentally handicapped persons on a pilgrimage to Lourdes and being shocked by the reactions. Many tourists and townspeople suggested that people this badly deformed or disoriented simply shouldn’t be allowed out in public).

     For 38 years, Vanier has lived in a community with handicapped persons in Trosly, France, close to Paris. He is as close to being a living saint as anyone I expect to meet in my lifetime; I get from him the same sense of being plugged into genuine holiness that others tell me they got from Mother Teresa. He describes his mission as “revealing the face of Jesus to people in pain,” and his life story tells you he means it.

     Vanier was in Rome for a weeklong meeting of “Faith and Light” members from around the world. The movement brings people with a handicap, plus parents and friends, together for sharing, celebration and prayer. These communities, of which there are more than 1,000 around the world, meet once or twice a month. Vanier then went up to Terni for the Sant’Egidio-sponsored dialogue with the Orthodox, where I had the good fortune of more time to talk with him. 

     Last Saturday I went to the Mondo Migliore conference center in the hills outside Rome to interview the American “Faith and Light” delegates. These were “ordinary people” – a high school teacher from Denver named Tim Buckley, a deacon from Colorado Springs named Mike Ciletti, a Capuchin who runs a soup kitchen in Detroit named Bob Malloy, a married couple named Pat and Frank Dani whose daughter has a handicap, and so on. But in truth there was nothing ordinary about this group. They came across as extraordinarily gentle and generous, capable of discerning the gifts handicapped persons carry well below the level of what can be seen or heard. All had obviously been touched by Vanier’s example.

     It didn’t strike me until afterwards, but this was the first time since January I have talked for more than an hour with a group of American Catholics without a single reference to the sex abuse scandals. It’s not that these people lack views. On the contrary, they struck me as informed, thoughtful Catholics who surely have reflected much on the crisis in the American church. But their energy is on a different plane, focused on living the gospel in direct contact with hurting people, who nevertheless can also be full of great joy.

     I’m planning on writing a profile of Vanier and the “Faith and Light” movement in an upcoming issue of NCR

* * *

     The International Theological Commission, the chief body of theological advisors for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is meeting this week. On Sept. 30, I had the chance to look over the three documents under consideration. (They are, technically speaking, supposed to be confidential until final publication). One text concerns the office and role of the deacon, another revelation and inculturation, and the last the human person and the image of God (a rubric under which issues of bioethics and environmentalism are treated).

     Public interest will focus on the question of female deacons, which has become widely discussed in recent years. Though the Vatican has never definitively foreclosed the possibility, it issued a statement last year cautioning against preparing women to become deacons because the church “does not foresee such an ordination.” 

     It had been expected that the commission’s document might go further in closing the door.

     In fact, if the document survives the week’s deliberations in the form in which I saw it, it stops short of saying that women cannot be ordained as deacons, but offers two “indications” for future discernment that lean in that direction.

     First, the document says that deaconesses in the ancient Christian church “cannot purely and simply be compared to the sacramental diaconate” that exists today, since there is no clarity about the rite of institution that was used or what functions they exercised. Second, it asserts that “the unity of the sacrament of orders” is “strongly imprinted by ecclesiastical tradition, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium,” despite clear differences between the episcopacy and priesthood on the one hand and the diaconate on the other.

     Both points would seem to support a ban on women deacons. The document, however, does not draw this conclusion. Instead it says that “in light of present historical-theological research,” there is a need for “discernment about what the Lord has established for the church.”

* * *

     I was invited to a lunch Oct. 2 with Fr. Robert Sirico, head of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is devoted to the relationship between religion and liberty. Sirico is a leading Catholic defender of a free market and limited government. He and the Acton Institute recently collaborated with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace on a compendium of Catholic social doctrine.

     The lunch took place at the apartment of Gaetano Rebecchini, a councilor of the Vatican city-state and the son of a former mayor of Rome, on the Via della Conciliazione. (The view of the Vatican is truly spectacular.) Rebecchini is the founder of the Centro per Orientamento Politico, a kind of think tank with a conservative flavor, and Sirico was in town to speak at one of its conferences.

     I ended up seated across from Sandro Magister, a talented Italian Vaticanista who leans somewhat to the right, and this arrangement led to predictable jokes about how with Magister and I both present, all the Catholic bases were covered. (Actually, in my experience, journalists tend to regard one’s “nose for news” as a far more fundamental value than ideology, which Magister and I confirmed by revealing that we are avid readers of one another’s work).

     Though Sirico struck largely predictable notes, such as the perils of the United Nations and the need to distinguish Catholic social thought from liberation theology, I found him open and thoughtful. His analysis of how the crucial inter-religious conversation of the future will be between progressive Muslims and “faithful” Christians was especially penetrating.

     A suggestion for Martino, incoming president at Justice and Peace: It would be fascinating to sponsor a public event in Rome that would bring Sirico into conversation with Catholic social thinkers from other points of departure – the Catholic Worker movement, for example, or even a liberation theologian such as Gustavo Guttierez. Given the polarization that too often poisons conversation in the church, there’s urgent need for dialogue, and this would be a marvelous model. 

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

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