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February 10, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 23

John L. Allen Jr.


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The Word From Rome

John L. Allen Jr.

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Joan Chittister

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Papal Coverage: Read NCR's 25 days of non-stop coverage of the death of John Paul II and the elction of Benedict XVI. This includes Sr. Joan Chittister's essays, An American Catholic in Rome

Murder of priest gives insight into Christian-Muslim relations; Pope to visit Turkey; Laura Bush visits Benedict; Jesuits begin to prepare worldwide confab; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith holds plenary assembly


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Amid the global soul-searching triggered by Muslim backlash against the Danish cartoons, the Feb. 5 murder of Fr. Andrea Santoro, an Italian missionary in Trabzon, Turkey, will probably end up as a footnote, little more than a blip on the radar screen of a much larger story.

For religiously concerned people, however, that may prove a serious miscalculation.

Among other things, what Santoro's death illustrates is just how thin the veneer of civility sometimes can be in the border zones of the world where Christians and Muslims rub shoulders. In that sense, the lessons of the killing may have little to do with the cartoon controversy, but a great deal to say about the future of Christianity in majority Muslim nations.

On the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 5, a 16-year-old Turk entered St. Mary's Church in Trabzon and fired two bullets into Santoro's lungs and heart, shouting Allah akbar, meaning "Allah is great." He later said he had been agitated by the controversy surrounding the Danish cartoons.

Santoro, 61 at the time he was murdered, was a donum fidei priest, a priest released by the diocese of Rome to serve as a missionary on Turkey's Black Sea Coast. A popular Roman pastor, he left for Turkey at the age of 55, saying he felt the need to "start over again" in the place where one tradition holds that Abraham was born, in Urfa, and where the earliest Christian communities took shape.

"Being here, where what you can do is so limited, it's much more important who you are," Santoro told an Italian documentary last year, which was rebroadcast on the morning of his funeral. "You have to ask, 'What have I got inside?' If you love others only when you're surrounded by a certain apparatus, with a certain level of satisfaction, is that really love?"

"As Christians in this land, we carry a message of reconciliation, the same reconciliation that was born with the blood of Jesus," he said.

Santoro is the first Roman priest to be martyred in the 21st century, and his death has had an enormous impact in Italy. Pope Benedict XVI paid tribute to Santoro during his Wednesday General Audience, eliciting a sustained standing ovation from several thousand people in the Paul VI audience hall.

At Friday's funeral Mass, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar of the Roman diocese and president of the Italian bishops' conference, spoke of Santoro as a martyr.

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"Allow me, in this regard, to express frankly my personal conviction," Ruini said. "We will fully respect all the laws and the rhythms of the church in the process of beatification and canonization that I have in my heart to open. But already, I am interiorly persuaded that in the sacrifice of Fr. Andrea are present all the constitutive elements of Christian martyrdom."

The congregation at the Cathedral of St. John Lateran broke out into sustained applause.

I had the chance on Wednesday to speak with Bishop Luigi Padovese, a 58-year-old Capuchin from Milan who serves as the apostolic vicar in Anatolia, and who was Santoro's superior. Padovese was in Rome accompanying Santoro's body, and was set to return to Turkey after the funeral Mass Friday morning.

The coffin of Italian Fr. Andrea Santoro is carried into the Church of St. Mary in the Black Sea city of Trebizond, Turkey, Feb. 6. Father Santoro, 60, was shot dead in the church Feb. 5.
Listening to Padovese, the most chilling aspect of the story is perhaps how little indication there was that this young man harbored hatred strong enough to kill. The 16-year-old was not, Padovese said, raised in circles linked to any known radical groups or jihadist movement, although his brother has told Turkish media that the young man was influenced by an Islamic militant group he met on-line. His father was not an imam or a fundamentalist politician, but a local dentist. It was his father's pistol the teen used to gun down Santoro, and the father has said that his son was undergoing psychiatric care.

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I asked Padovese what he believes the real motive was for Santoro's murder. He said he doesn't know what demons drove this young man, but said dismissing it as an isolated act is a mistake. Rising Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Christian prejudice, Padovese said, shaped the context in which the teen acted.

"It's the anti-Christian climate that has been produced in Turkey," Padovese said. "There's a strong current of religious extremism, and that climate can fuel this sort of hatred. It's passed along in families, in schools, in the newspapers."

Padovese said that every week the Turkish bishops' conference prepares a bulletin citing "denigrating comments" or "banalities" about Christianity that have appeared in the Turkish press.

"There's a false image of our presence that usually goes unchallenged," he said.

As one example of what Padovese has in mind, the Catholic news agency "Asia News" recently carried an essay by a Western academic who had been doing research in a small Black Sea Coast town last summer, near Trabzon. During that time he saw a local newspaper article titled, "A priest sighted." It reported that local children had seen a priest in the vicinity of the town, but chased him off, to the great applause of the locals.

The article quoted a local politician: "The priests who arrive in our area want to re-establish the Christian Greek-Orthodox state that was here before. There are spies among these priests, working for the West. They are trying to destroy our peace."

That's the sort of misrepresentation Padovese has in mind.

Padovese stressed that he "loves the Turkish people," most of whom "are good people who want dialogue." At the same time, he said, "there are zones of Turkey which are completely 'Islamified,' where it is dangerous to be a Christian."

Padovese linked Santoro's death to the broader struggles of the small Christian population in Turkey, a country often lauded as a model of moderate, Western-style Islam, and currently a candidate for membership in the European Union.

"There were several million Christians in Turkey at the fall of the Ottoman Empire," he said. "How is it possible that in the arc of just 70 or 80 years we've become merely 60,000 or 70,000? The truth is that hundreds of thousands of Christians converted to Islam, taking Islamic names and hiding their identity, out of fear of persecution," he said.

"The Christian presence is still there, I know it's there," Padovese said. "Many of these people know that they are Christians, or come from Christian families, but cannot say so."

The same pressures, in different forms, affect Christians across the Middle East, which has helped produce a steady exodus among the estimated 20 million Christians in the region. Today there are more Palestinian Christians in Australia, for example, than in Palestine. The rapid decline of the Christian population has long been a source of concern in the Vatican.

Faced with these realities, some observers believe the pope has to do more to challenge anti-Christian prejudice.

In an interview in the Rome daily La Repubblica, for example, Italian Reforms Minister Roberto Calderoli called on the Pope to defend Christian rights.

"He has to do it and he has to do it quickly," said Calderoli, a member of the populist Northern League. "He must dialogue with the Muslim world to guarantee the reciprocity of rights and duties."

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Shortly before his death, Santoro penned an essay about Turkey for a Roman agency for pilgrims. About Islam, Santoro wrote: "I discovered the face of Islam in practice: an instinctive sense of God and His providence; spontaneous welcome of His word and His will; trusting abandonment to His guidance; daily prayer in the middle of one's activity; certainty about the afterlife and the resurrection; the sacredness of the family; the value of simplicity, of the essential things, of welcome and of solidarity. Alongside these lights, however, there are also shadows: the fear of true liberty; the limits placed on a more interpersonal and intimate relationship with God, seen as too majestic to come down among human beings; an image of women still very much to be discovered and given value; an individual and public practice of the faith that has to be more thoroughly linked with interior life; and an overly fearful attitude concerning dialogue between cultures and religions."

Inviting readers to visit Turkey, Santoro wrote, "God willing, I'll be here to welcome you."

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Coincidentally, the Vatican announced Feb. 9 that Benedict XVI has accepted the invitation of Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer to visit the country Nov. 28-30. Though plans still have to take shape, most observers expect that Benedict will arrive in Ankara, the national capital, on the 28th, and finish in Istanbul for a visit to the Patriarch of Constantinople on the 30th, the feast of St. Andrew.

As one sign of the importance the Turks attach to the visit, Sezer announced he will not attend a Nov. 28-29 NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, in order to receive the pope.

Aside from the ecumenical thrust, the pope's first visit to a majority Muslim nation will afford him a platform to address Christian/Muslim relations, as well as the question of Turkey's candidacy to enter the European Union. Prior to his election as pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed some skepticism about that prospect, worrying about its impact on the cultural identity of Europe.

Vatican sources told NCR Feb. 9 that the announcement of the trip was unconnected to the Santoro murder. Instead, those sources said, the timing followed the normal sequence. The Vatican always waits for the host government to announce a papal trip, and then confirms the dates. In this case, a letter from the Turkish government extending an official invitation arrived at the Holy See some time ago, and after the Vatican accepted, Turkish officials announced the visit.

It is difficult not to imagine, however, that the Turks' decision to announce the trip now, so far in advance, was motivated at least in part by a desire to show good will in the wake of Santoror's murder and other recent anti-Christian backlash.

Sources told NCR that Vatican organizers have not yet traveled to Turkey to make arrangements for the trip, which will involve negotiations with three parties: the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the small local Catholic community, and the Turkish government.

That task now falls to Alberto Gasbarri, a 53-year-old Italian layman named last October as the coordinator of papal trips. He succeeds Bishop Renato Boccardo, now the number two official in the government of the Vatican city-state. Gasbarri, the administrative and technical director of Vatican Radio, served for 20 years under Cardinal Roberto Tucci, who was the longtime organizer of travel under Pope John Paul II.

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First Lady Laura Bush paid a visit to Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, Feb. 9, on her way to the Winter Olympics in Torino. She's heading the American delegation to the games, which includes five former Olympians: skater Dorothy Hamill, gymnast Kerri Strug, skater Eric Heiden, skater Debi Thomas, and Herschel Walker, the former American pro football player who competed in the 1992 Olympics in the bobsled, finishing seventh.

The athletes, however, did not accompany Bush on her visit to the pope. Only her 24-year-old daughter, Barbara, came along.

The 20-minute meeting with Benedict was a private audience, and American sources characterized it as "not a policy visit." Bush did not meet afterwards with the Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, or with any other Vatican officials, and was said not to have brought any specific message from her husband other than best wishes.

U.S. first lady Laura Bush, her daughter Barbara, and U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Francis Rooney are greeted by Pope Benedict XVI as they arrive in the papal library at the Vatican for a meeting Feb. 9.
Bush told reporters, however, that she and the pope shared concerns about AIDS, hunger, and poverty. She also said she was "impressed with his spirit he seems to have a good sense of humor."

The fact that Bush did not come to Benedict to discuss foreign policy does not mean, however, that the visit was entirely free of political significance.

Outreach to the Catholic vote has been an important part of Republican electoral strategy since the Reagan era, and never more so than in the 2004 election, when George Bush beat John Kerry among Catholics 53 to 47 percent, winning an even greater majority among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week. He captured a total of 16.1 million Catholic votes, an increase of 3.3 million from 2000.

While analysts say many factors explain Bush's success with Catholics, one is the simple fact that he worked for it. In his first term, Bush visited John Paul II three times, the most papal visits in one term of any American president. Despite the disagreement between the Vatican and the White House on the Iraq war, Bush went out of his way to show interest in the Holy See and to respond to requests from Vatican diplomats for interventions on particular issues, especially matters of religious freedom in China, Russia, and the Middle East.

With mid-term elections coming up in the fall, Laura Bush's visit is thus an iconic way of reminding American Catholics of the efforts this administration has made to carve out good relations with the Vatican.

It would be unfair to chalk the trip up primarily to political calculation; sources describe the Bushes as sincere religious believers who were deeply impressed by John Paul II, and by the papacy itself. Yet politics never take a holiday, even when presidents, or their spouses, hit the road.

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The esteem of the Bush family for the Vatican is not a one-way street, especially on issues of bioethics and the family. As fate would have it, the same day Laura Bush visited Benedict XVI, the influential Italian journal 30 Giorni published an interview with Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, in which the Colombian prelate praised an "objective harmony" between the Vatican and the White House.

"We know well that some aspects of the policies of the United States can be criticized, such as the decision to undertake the war in Iraq, where today problems are certainly not missing," Lopez Trujillo said. "On this point, we also know well the prophetic thinking of John Paul II."

"But on the subjects of the family, marriage, abortion, and 'safe sex,' we must recognize, as did John Paul II himself when he received President Bush in audience, that there is an objective harmony between the American administration and the Holy See in respect for moral values and the defense of life and the family. For this we have to be grateful to the United States, while at the same time we must be alarmed at other realities in which an ideology of an opposed sort prevails. In time, however, it too will have to recognize where the truth is."

30 Giorni then asked Lopez Trujillo for his opinion on John Roberts and Samuel Alito, Bush's recent picks for the Supreme Court, who some conservatives hope will tilt the balance towards overturning or at least attenuating the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

"I believe that the Supreme Court has returned to its full compliment of members with people who have at heart the fundamental values of the human person," Lopez Trujillo said. "But I am not an American citizen, I am only a Christian who prays that the Supreme Court of the United States, like that of any other country, will always make decisions in favor of life and the family, for motives of reason, for scientific, legal and religious motives."

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With more than 22,000 members in 112 nations on six continents, the Society of Jesus is easily the largest and most complex religious order in the Catholic church. It's often seen as a bellwether for larger trends, which makes the news that the Jesuits will be holding a General Congregation in 2008, their most important policy-setting assembly, the stuff of significance.

The fact that the Jesuits will also be electing a successor to Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the Dutch superior general who has led the society since 1983, also adds drama.

I had the chance this week to discuss the General Congregation with Fr. Frank Case, an American Jesuit from Seattle who serves as Secretary of the Society, effectively the number two official after Kolvenbach. Prior to that, Case served for 15 years as Regional Assistant for the United States, making him the general's top advisor on American Jesuit matters. I met Case in his office at the Jesuit curia.

Case said the General Congregation, which opens on January 5, 2008, in Rome, will probably last a couple of months. It will produce a series of decrees which will guide Jesuit life for at least the next decade.

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Case said that a meeting of Jesuit provincials took place in Loyola, Spain, in late November and early December, which flagged five broad areas as priorities for discussion at the 2008 General Congregation:

  1. New Structures of Government in the Society
  2. Collaboration with the Laity
  3. Community Life in the Society
  4. Formation
  5. Jesuit Life and Mission in the Church and the World of Today

On point one, Case said the Jesuits are wrestling with the proper balance of power between their various layers of internal governance, over what one might term "collegiality."

In part, the Jesuits are trying to come to terms with the evolution of 10 regional "conferences," or groupings of provinces, within the society, and the office within each of "moderator of the conference." Historically, the Jesuit chain of command was clearly hierarchical: superior general, regional assistant, major superior, provincial, individual Jesuit. In recent years, however, it's not always been clear where the conferences fit into that structure.

In that sense, the debate is analogous to the question of where bishops' conferences fit into the relationship between the pope and individual bishops.

In light of the recent Vatican document on gay priests and the varying reactions it elicited from within the Jesuit world, it's worth nothing that under point four, "formation," the provincials suggested that the society "strengthen accompaniment in the processes of maturation and integration of the affective-sexual dimension through the most adequate means (a practical manual, formation seminars or workshops)."

Case acknowledged that these five points may seem a bit "internal," but said that other "apostolic preferences" of the society in terms of service to the broader world will also be discussed. He mentioned:

  1. Migration
  2. The Intellectual Apostolate
  3. China
  4. Africa
  5. Inter-religious Dialogue

On Africa, for example, Case said the African Jesuits would like to launch a "Jesuit University of Africa" in multiple locations, building on existing centers of study. It's a project that's probably a couple of decades away, Case said, and will require the support of the entire society.

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Kolvenbach's decision to step down can also be read as another indication of a shift in culture inside the Catholic church, in which papal resignation is slowly becoming more thinkable - not more probable, perhaps, but no longer an a priori impossibility.

Since Paul VI established new rules in 1966, bishops have faced mandatory resignation at 75 and cardinals have lost their voting privileges at 80. Both moves were seen as a gesture of compassion to elderly men, but also as recognition that medical science today can keep people alive well beyond their capacity to lead. John Paul's final testament, revealed after his death, shows that the pope had considered stepping down, which might be considered the logical conclusion of Paul VI's initiatives, but ultimately decided against it.

Kolvenbach's resignation represents another small precedent.

Since St. Ignatius Loyola founded the Jesuits in 1540, the custom has been for the general to reign until his death. The last general, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, stepped down, but that followed a serious stroke that left him incapacitated. Kolvenbach, on the other hand, leaves office in good health and of sound mind.

Admittedly, the resignation of the "Black Pope" doesn't pose the same theological conundrum as it would with the actual pontiff, because while the Jesuits informally talk about Kolvenbach as the "28th successor to Loyola," they don't hold that the general "becomes" Loyola in quite the same way that a new pope is said to "become" Peter, so that man and office merge. In that sense, it's easier to account for how a general could resign than a pope, because there isn't the same puzzle about renouncing personal identity.

That aside, the prospect raises many of the same concerns.

Some have already asked, for example, if a resigned general risks splitting the society between those loyal to the new regime and those still committed to the old. Some also worry that by deciding to step down while still in good shape, Kolvenbach may have tied the hands of his successors.

Most Jesuits, however, seem unfazed by such concerns. Many point out that they have long experience of watching superiors come and go in other congregations without difficulties.

Case told me Wednesday that in an era in which medical science can prolong life beyond the wildest dreams of the 16th century, it makes sense that the general should be able to provide an orderly transition to new leadership.

"We have jokingly said, there's a difference between ad vitam and ad vitalitatem," Case said with a laugh.

In a recent book, Cardinal Julian Herranz, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and one of two Opus Dei cardinals, wrote of a Dec. 17, 2004, discussion with Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul's private secretary, in which the subject of papal resignation arose.

First, Herranz recounted, Dziwisz said the pope could not resign because "he received his mission directly from Christ." Second, as Herranz recounts it, Dziwisz said the pope feared "creating a dangerous precedent for his successors because someone could remain exposed to maneuvers and subtle pressures by those who want to remove him."

The first is a theological argument, upon which the Jesuits' experience has no direct bearing; the second, however, is a prudential calculation, and perhaps watching the largest religious order in the church go through the process may provide some insight.

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As a footnote, there are three noteworthy differences between the elections of the 'Black Pope' and the Successor of Peter.

First, it takes only a simple majority to elect a new Jesuit general, not the two-thirds required in a conclave. In 1983, for example, it required only one ballot to elect Kolvenbach. (A result which, among other things, suggests that the quiet one-on-one consultation known as the murmuratio had its desired effect). Second, a validly elected general is bound by obedience to accept; the candidate elected pope, on the other hand, can say no, and history offers a handful of examples. (For example, at the conclave in Viterbo in 1271, St. Philip Benizi fled and hid until another candidate was chosen.) Finally, when a new pope accepts his election, he takes office from that moment, while the general's election must be confirmed by the pope.

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The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office long known as la suprema, held its Plenary Assembly this week. It's the most important policy-setting session of the year, bringing together the 23 cardinals, archbishops and bishops who are members of the congregation, along with staff and consultors.

One thing not on the agenda was the question of reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X, the followers of the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who broke with Rome over issues stemming from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), most symbolically the old Mass. Some press rumors to the contrary, there was also no meeting between the CDF and the Congregation for the Clergy this week to discuss what might be "offered" to the society; with the plenary assembly, sources told NCR, such a session would have been impossible.

Benedict XVI met with members of the doctrinal congregation on Friday, Feb. 10, acknowledging that he felt "a certain emotion" finding himself surrounded by the people who had been his closest collaborators for more than twenty years.

Picking up the central idea from his recent encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict said that "only truth is capable of taking possession of the human mind and giving it complete joy."

In fact, the pope argued, the doctrinal congregation's "service to the faith," which he said should be carried out in "a spirit of collegiality," is also "a service to joy, and this is the joy that Christ wants to spread in the world." In that sense, he said, the congregation's work "can be defined as 'pastoral.'"

Returning to one of his core ideas, Benedict reflected on the relationship between truth and freedom, saying that in Christ, human reason is "opened to the great response that always seeks and awaits it."

Benedict then identified two themes that had been on the agenda for the plenary assembly: "the Christian approach to the contemporary world, and the evangelizing commitment of the church."

He said that recent scientific progress has produced positive results, but that some assertions based on scientific research are "opposed to the truth" about the human person. That, he said, has caused "a certain confusion in the faithful, and has also constituted a difficulty for the proclamation and reception of the gospel."

The pope urged the doctrinal congregation to pursue dialogue with science and philosophy.

"A serious evangelizing effort cannot ignore the questions that arise from daily scientific discoveries and philosophical discussions," he said.

In his remarks to the pope, Archbishop William Levada, prefect of the congregation, said the plenary assembly had examined the doctrinal business of the last two years, as well as "other matters of a disciplinary order that pertain to the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," among other things an indirect reference to the sexual abuse crisis. Under rules approved by Pope John Paul II, the doctrinal congregation is responsible for studying accusations of sexual abuse against minors by priests.

Levada said the assembly had examined "some ecclesiological themes" as well as "some delicate moral questions regarding bioethics."

In addition, Levada said the assembly had considered "a certain confusion about the meaning of the term 'evangelization,' also due to a diffuse relativism and religious syncretism."

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

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