Francis Stafford is a man of ideas. He is, I would say, almost constitutionally
incapable of superficiality, even when the situation would seem to call
A case in point came
Friday, Feb. 8, at a news conference hosted by the Canadian Embassy to
the Holy See to promote this summer’s World Youth Day in Toronto, set for
July 18-28. Stafford, an American, was present in his capacity as head
of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
The nature of the event
invited Stafford to boosterism: praise for Toronto, the pope’s love for
youth, and World Youth Day as a symbol of peace.
These notes were indeed
struck. But Stafford went further, laying down a series of intellectual
challenges he hopes young people, who will be the Catholic leaders of the
new century, will take up in Toronto. He named five:
Item three was a new one
for most in the press corps. Marco Politi, the vaticanista for Rome’s
daily La Repubblica, asked Stafford to say more.
War and peace
Growing hostility between men and women
How a Catholic citizen understands liberty
I was sitting in the
front row, and I believe I saw Stafford wince. I suspect he was worried
that he might hijack the news conference. Nevertheless, Politi’s question
was on the table and Stafford did not back away.
“Since the 1970s, a number
of studies on the relationship between men and women in Western society
suggest that despite a surface accord, there is a deeper uneasiness and
lack of trust,” he said. “There is a lack of trust in marriage, for example,
an unwillingness to make a lifelong commitment.
“Some studies indicate
that the increase in the obviousness of the gay culture is rooted in this
distancing between men and women, as well as an unwillingness to face up
to male/female differences and to rejoice in them,” Stafford said.
“There is an uneasiness
in Western society about the understanding we have of a woman’s role as
mother and wife, and our rejection of that role.
“What do we do about
that at World Youth Day?” Stafford asked. “All these issues will be before
us. It’s the question of what it means to be human. In part, it means to
be created as man and woman.”
Frankly, I don’t have
the command of psychology and gender relations to know what to make of
this. Quick research suggests that some studies pointing to male/female
hostility put the blame on feminism, hinting, perhaps, at ideological axes
being ground. But it’s a complex subject needing serious thought.
I admire Stafford for
putting the issue on the table, even at the risk of being misunderstood.
I do not believe he was being provocative for the sake of getting himself
in the papers. I think he was trying to reflect on experience, and inviting
future leaders of the church to join him. It’s an invitation that should
Stafford, who was the
archbishop of Denver during the World Youth Day held there in 1993, was
asked about the impact of that event, where crowds vastly exceeded expectations.
He said John Paul told him afterwards that Denver had been a “revolution”
“Prior to Denver, the
Holy Father and the curia were looking to the East for the revival of the
church,” Stafford said. “After Denver, they began also looking to the West.
ex occidente, not just oriente.”
Stafford said Denver
also changed the way North Americans, especially the press, look at the
pope. The “contentiousness,” he said, was reduced.
I suspect he’s right.
Prior to 1993, the dominant storyline on American Catholicism had been
“conservative pope and his unruly flock.”
Afterward, the genuine
affection most Catholics, above all young people, feel for the pope was
indisputable. Today the media tagline is more likely to be, “They like
the singer but not the song.”
* * *
The day after the press
conference, a colleague and I interviewed Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, a
Canadian and chief organizer for World Youth Day. A Biblical scholar trained
at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, Rosica is an impressive man.
He switches from English to French to Italian to Spanish to German with
ease, managing to keep people happy and work on track in all those languages.
We met Rosica inside
the Vatican. As we stood chatting by a back entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica,
a senior member of the Vigilanza, the Vatican police force, whom
Rosica had obviously befriended, approached us. Placing his hand on his
head where a bishop’s zuchetto goes, the officer pointed at Rosica
and said: “After Toronto, wait and see.” The obvious suggestion was that
Rosica is heading up the career ladder.
Rosica joked that after
Toronto he’ll be heading straight for the infirmary. As the cop walked
away, Rosica said to us: “Isn’t it funny how people around here are always
thinking in terms of careers?”
I quipped: “That doesn’t
make him wrong.”
Having covered the last
World Youth Day in Rome, I’m aware of the criticism that dogs the event
— that it’s a Catholic Woodstock, several days of pope-as-pop-star that
lacks a pastoral payoff. I recounted for Rosica what happened in Rome during
the winter of 2000, when a local Catholic charity appealed to young people
to help keep churches open at night so that the homeless could stay warm.
The project failed. An official wrote a letter that found its way into
the papers, asking why millions of young people would show up to cheer
the pope the previous summer, but not even a few dozen were willing to
live their faith when called by the local church.
Rosica didn’t shrink
from the challenge.
“The key to success of
World Youth Day is what we put in place for the immediate follow-up,” he
said. “All of the good will in the world does not count six months afterward.”
“We have built into this
World Youth Day, which has never been done before, a very serious social
justice component,” Rosica said. “In the afternoons on Tuesday, Wednesday,
and Friday, we will be offering about 500 service projects in the city
“The critics will say
it’s nothing more than a photo opportunity. Let them say that,” Rosica
I pressed him about claims
made last time around that tens of thousands of young people made confessions
in the Circo Massimo. Has that translated into increased sacramental practice
“We don’t hire statisticians
or ad agencies to follow up on these things,” Rosica said. “This work is
about the parable of the sower. It’s our job to sow the seeds lavishly.”
I suspect that in Rosica
the Canadians have found a pretty good sower.
Rosica said he’s expecting
between 450,000-500,000 people at Toronto, with some 50,000 from the United
States. (A U.S. bishops’ conference official told me that’s a realistic
number. There’s a sense, he said, that if the Olympics finish without incident,
the numbers may end up even higher).
* * *
Last week I reported
on an encounter in Rome between Palestinians and Israelis called “Meeting
the Other.” As part of the event, I had the chance to sit down over breakfast
with a genuinely impressive man: Hanna Siniora of Jerusalem, who chairs
the Christian-Muslim dialogue in Palestine.
Chances are you have
never heard of Hanna Siniora, a Latin Rite Catholic. That’s too bad, and
it illustrates the way media coverage of the Middle East ignores leaders
who don’t fire guns or throw rocks.
Siniora and some 60 other
laymen, Christian and Muslim, launched their dialogue in 1989 as a way
of handling problems before they get out of hand. For example, during an
Easter procession one year a handful of Muslim youth in Jerusalem jeered
at Christians, stoking animosity. Muslim partners in the dialogue immediately
visited the parents of the hooligans, and the activity was nipped in the
A similar sort of early
intervention helped curtail a budding drugs trade in East Jerusalem that
had threatened to evolve into street battles between rival Muslim and Christian
Siniora said that before
the dialogue, problems tended to be swept under the rug “because we wanted
to always show that there was complete solidarity and understanding between
Christian and Muslim Palestinians.”
As is well known, the
most serious threat to that solidarity in recent months has been a controversy
surrounding construction of a mosque near the Basilica of the Anunciation
in Nazareth. The hardline Islamic Movement has demanded the erection of
a large mosque that critics say would obscure the basilica, while equally
inflexible Christian leaders such as Patriarch Michel Sabbah are opposed
to any construction. The Israeli government has created a commission to
study the matter, though some Palestinians believe the Israelis will drag
out the dispute in a classic “divide and conquer” maneuver.
When the controversy
first erupted, Siniora’s dialogue offered a compromise: the construction
of a small mosque, or perhaps an Islamic school or library, on the proposed
site, with a larger facility nearby.
“Jerusalem is dotted
with mosques and churches side by side,” Siniora said. “So we feel that
if Jerusalem, which is the holiest of holy cities, can be like this, so
Given the way the issue
has been swept up in global geo-politics, with fundamentalist Islamic groups
on one side and an array of Christian factions on the other (including
the Vatican), the compromise proposal has had trouble finding traction.
Yet Siniora said he is convinced that if it were put to a vote, the majority
of both Muslims and Christians in Palestine would support it.
“Always when you take
too strong a position and don’t know how to compromise, you allow conflict
to grow,” Siniora told me.
As Israeli writer David
Grossman said in Rome, men such as Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon are almost
incapable of making peace because they are “prisoners of their own biographies.”
When a serious search for new leaders begins, I hope people such as Hanna
Siniora get a serious look.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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