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 The Word From Rome

March 28, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 31

global perspective


“It should be clear to all that war as an instrument of resolution of differences among states has been repudiated, first by the charter of the United Nations, then by the conscience of the great majority of humanity, save for legitimate defense from an aggressor.  The vast contemporary movement in favor of peace … translates this conviction of people of every continent and every culture.”

John Paul II

Persistent sex abuse victims get message from pope; Two cathedrals, two world views; the Blair rumors


At any given time, Rome is swimming with people who believe they have some urgent reason to see the pope. Motives run from the kooky (wanting to brief John Paul on the latest Masonic plot to subvert the church) to the charming (a Boy Scout troop wants to give the pope an honorary merit badge). I once happened to be standing at the bronze door of the apostolic palace waiting for an appointment, and in a span of no more than twenty minutes five different parties showed up to make their case for being received by the Holy Father.

     For most of these folks, the closest they’ll ever get to the pope is a Swiss Guard explaining how to get tickets to the Wednesday general audience. Especially these days, John Paul has neither the time nor the physical capacity to meet everyone who wants a piece of his attention.

     Thus when Americans Gary Bergeron, his 78-year-old father Joseph, and their friend Bernie McDade, all from the Boston area, arrived in Rome on March 23 to seek a private meeting with John Paul II, they faced long odds. And in fact, they flew back to Boston the morning of March 28 without any face time with the pontiff. 

     They took home, however, something that the vast majority of seekers never get: a personal message from the pope, carried to their hotel by one of his senior aides, communicated over the course of a private meeting that stretched over more than an hour.

     What makes the Bergerons and McDade different? All three say they were sexually abused at the hands of Catholic priests, and they came to Rome to try to make the pope understand the nightmare they and the American Catholic Church have lived through.

     Gary Bergeron and McDade are in their early forties, and say they were abused by the same Boston-area priest, Fr. Joseph Birmingham, when they were altar boys. Only after Gary disclosed this experience to his father did Joseph reveal that he, too, had been abused, also when he was an altar boy. The pain of that revelation seems not to have dulled; during a March 24 press conference at Rome’s Foreign Press Club, the elder Bergeron did not speak, but wept quietly.

     “I would like five minutes to explain what is really going on,” Gary Bergeron said that day of his request to see the pope.

     In search of that five minutes, the three men spent the better part of a week knocking on doors, making phone calls, and sending faxes. They visited the apostolic palace each morning, to the point that they developed a joking relationship with the Swiss Guards, who would ask them: “How far did you get today?”

     All of this activity was complicated by the fact that the tiny hotel they selected on the Via Gracchi, a 10 minute walk from the Vatican, was having problems with its phone system. Hence the three had to go to a coffee bar across the street to make or receive phone calls.

     By way of summing up their efforts, Bergeron told me they tried six times to get in touch with Bishop James Harvey, an American who heads the papal household. They left three messages and sent a fax to Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s personal secretary. They left two messages for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, and two other messages for another official in Ratzinger’s office. They also sent two letters to Fr. Ciro Benedettini, the deputy director of the Vatican press office.

     The result? Nothing. No response.

     To be fair, Bergeron told me, the people at the American embassy to the Vatican were helpful, and one English-speaking Vatican official did take an interest in their situation, apologizing that he couldn’t do more to help. Yet by mid-afternoon Thursday, facing a return flight home and with little to show, the three men were feeling stymied by what Bergeron jokingly called “a Roman hex.”

     Then the phone at the coffee bar rang. It was Msgr. James Green, newly appointed as the head of the English desk in the Secretariat of State. It’s an important job with access to the pope; previous occupants include the current head of the papal household, the secretary of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the archbishop of St. Louis.

     “We understand you want something from us,” McDade said Green told him.

     Green declined comment on the story.

     McDade said he briefly explained why they wanted to see the pope. Green was cautious, but offered to come see them that evening at 6:30. McDade said Green was concerned that there not be any lawyers; McDade assured him they would be alone.

     As a footnote, Vatican officials at Green’s level don’t just hop into cars and go see the Boy Scouts and the conspiracy theorists clamoring to see the pope. His willingness to meet the three men signaled above-average interest.

     When Green arrived, along with a second American priest, he opened the meeting with an “Our Father.” At the end of the session, Joseph Bergeron, who describes himself as a very devout Catholic, asked for a blessing. The group also prayed the “Hail Mary.” Green passed out rosaries.

     In the end, Bergeron told me, the meeting was “very intense, very emotional, very good.” Green, Bergeron said, wanted to know what they made of the U.S. bishops’ new sex abuse norms, their views about Bishop Richard Lennon (the interim replacement for Cardinal Bernard Law), and in general about the climate in Boston and the American church. “Everything was on the table,” Bergeron said.

     The most unexpected development came when Green told the men he had a “direct message” for them from John Paul II.

     “The Holy Father realizes the seriousness of this problem, and is doing all he can,” Bergeron said Green told them, saying they were free to share the message with other victims. “He will continue to do all he can to heal the church and to pray for the victims. He will see that this doesn’t happen again.”

     Bergeron said Green then told them that the pope had also directed him to bring back messages from the three men that very night.

     Joseph Bergeron went first. “The Holy Father needs to make sure that this never, ever, ever happens to another child,” he told Green.

     McDade followed. “The Holy Father needs to heal the church, not just the survivors but the church itself. He needs to realize how the church in the United States is hurting.”

     Gary Bergeron concluded. “The Holy Father needs to put a face with the problem, meaning he needs to meet with us,” he said. “If not me, meet with my father. If not him, then some victim he can associate with the problem. Only then will he understand the depth of the wound.”

     Bergeron said Green seemed “adamant” that they were unlikely to get a meeting with the pope. Yet Bergeron told him they planned to be back in Rome on July 29, his father’s birthday, and would come knocking on the door again. 

     “Maintain your courage,” Bergeron says Green told them.

* * *

     Anyone who knows the Catholic world must realize that the present anti-war chorus from church leaders is a better index of the force of John Paul II’s personality than of any genuine consensus on the Iraq conflict. Under the papal banner are grouped Catholics with very diverse ideas about the causes of this war, its rights and wrongs, and what its implications are for global geo-politics.

     Example: Italy’s left-leaning Catholic Action movement is marching under the slogan “no to the war, yes to peace”; the right-wing Communion and Liberation movement says “no to the war, yes to America.” They’re against the same thing, but have contrasting ideas about what they’re for.

     These divisions were transparent in two public events in Rome on Monday evening, March 24. All one had to do was to move across town, from the Basilica of the Holy Apostles to the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, to move in two different Catholic worlds.

     Holy Apostles was the site of a Mass commemorating the 23rd anniversary of the murder of El Salvador’s fabled Archbishop Oscar Romero, long a hero to progressive Catholics. The war lent this celebration an even more explicitly political subtext.

     The altar was draped abundantly in the rainbow-colored banners with the word pace that have become the symbol of the anti-war movement. (Conservative Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna, through a press spokesperson, has observed that the banner bears a striking similarity to the flag of an Italian pro-gay movement called Arcigay. One assumes that, from Biffi, this is a note of disapproval).

     The rainbow peace banner, along with a sky-blue United Nations flag, was carried at the head of the offertory precession during the Mass to bring up the gifts. Hard to imagine a more overt polemic against U.S. “unilateralism.” The first prayer at the Mass was a meditation which, among other points, stated that the Church “repudiates” the war. Several prayers of the faithful later invoked anti-war themes, drawing strong murmurs of approval from the packed house of perhaps 2,000 people.

     Bishop Tommaso Valentinetti, president of the Italian branch of Pax Christi, a Catholic peace-and-justice group, celebrated the Mass. I noted at least one priest from the Roman Curia among the concelebrants.

     Also joining the long line of concelebrants was Fr. Vitaliano Della Sala, an activist priest beloved in young radical circles and a bete-noire for conservatives. He was suspended a divinis in 2000 and removed in 2002 as pastor of his tiny country parish for what his bishop described as chronic disobedience. 

      In the back of the basilica was a table collecting signatures for Amnesty International petitions demanding that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair observe international human rights agreements in their conduct of the war. I checked: there was no similar petition addressed to President Hussein.

     In his homily, Valentinetti referred glowingly to a “prophecy born in the heart of the church,” a kind of “weak strength,” that “raises its voice to proclaim the madness of this war, the folly of using violence to solve problems between nations.” Valentinetti prayed that Catholics will be “truly and fully inserted in the temple of the church” rather than in “the lies spoken in the places where they decide for the works of death.”

     I left the Mass at Holy Apostles to make my way cross-town for the evening’s other event, a lecture on “Work, Solidarity, Liberty: A Global Society in a Humanistic Key?” by Cardinal Diogini Tettamanzi of Milan. The event was part of a series called “Dialogues in the Cathedral” sponsored by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for the Rome diocese and John Paul’s personal choice as president of the Italian bishops’ conference.

     Ruini is probably the figure in the Italian bishops’ conference who enjoys the closest relationship with Italy’s current center-right government, led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has generally supported the American position on Iraq. Constrained by overwhelming public opinion against the war, Berlusconi was forced to promise that Italy would not cooperate in the assault, but he did manage to secure a parliamentary vote for overflight rights and to allow U.S. forces to use their bases in Italy for logistical support. 

     Ruini has high expectations that Berlusconi will deliver on greater state aid for Catholic schools, a new bioethics law shaped by church teaching, and will hold the line on calls for recognition of de facto couples. More generally, Ruini and his circle breathe the same air, ideologically and culturally, as the conservatives in the Berlusconi government. There is a basic continuity in values and vision, therefore, between the vicariate of Rome and the current parliamentary majority.

     That symphony was clear Monday night at the Lateran. There were no peace banners, and no young anti-war activists swaying and chanting. The VIP seating section in the basilica was dotted with politicians from the center-right “House of Liberty” majority, along with a number of prelates, such as the former Archbishop of Genoa, Cardinal Giovanni Canestri. 

     Waiting for the event to begin, I bumped into Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University and a trusted Vatican advisor. Fisichella was one of the primary contributors to the 1998 papal encyclical Fides et Ratio. Fisichella, an auxiliary bishop of the Rome diocese, is also considered the “chaplain” of the Italian parliament.

     Fisichella, whose English is exceptionally good, is a long-time friend of the United States. He was the main celebrant at last December’s Immaculate Conception Mass at the North American College, the feast that also marks the foundation of the American seminary in Rome during the pontificate of Pius IX.

     Fisichella told me that “this direction we are moving in, of isolating the United States, is terrible.” He said that in Italy there are forces “manipulating” the anti-war humor of the moment to grind ancient ideological axes against the United States and against the West. It was clear that while Fisichella basically shares the pope’s views on the war, he also has deep concerns about political exploitation of the church’s anti-war position. 

     Hence two basilicas, two worldviews. 

     The crowd at Holy Apostles was against the Iraq war as part of a broader and deeper critique of social injustice, violence, U.S. foreign policy and the entire world order being shaped by globalization. The more conservative crowd at the Lateran was also against the war, but on the basis of a limited strategic calculation, and with nagging concerns about whether the church has pitched its tent on the wrong ideological ground.

     Ruini struck a similar note in an address earlier in the day to the Italian bishops’ conference. He called for “constant discernment … in order that the commitment to peace not be confused with markedly different objectives and interests, or polluted by arguments that are really based upon conflict.”

     To those with ears to hear, it’s clear what kind of “pollution” Ruini had in mind — a secular leftist peace movement that shades off into opposition to the Atlantic alliance.

     Ruini later made an explicit plea for solidarity with the United States.

     “The reasons for solidarity that bind together the nations of the West retain their profound validity even after the fading of the threat of the ‘cold war,’ as their roots are planted in a heritage of values that they still have in common, even amid undeniable differences,” he said. “This solidarity finds new motivation in the great changes that are dawning on the world’s horizon and which will require constructive and harmonious responses from the West.”

     All this suggests that when it comes to analysis of the underlying causes of this conflict, and what it means in terms of global alliances and policy, there is nothing like Catholic unanimity, and there are some very difficult debates to come.

     There are signs that the Vatican, especially in the Secretariat of State where the diplomatic heavy lifting is done, is becoming sensitive to the risk that its peace message could be construed as an ideological choice against the U.S.-led coalition.

     It was striking, for example, that in the first public statement after hostilities began, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navaro-Valls was painstakingly balanced. 

     “On the one hand, the Holy See laments that the Iraqi government has not received the resolutions of the United Nations and the appeal of the pope, that asked for disarmament of the country,” the statement said. “On the other hand, the Holy See deplores that the route of negotiations was interrupted, according to international law, for a pacific solution of the Iraqi drama.” 

     Along the same lines, L’Osservatore Romano’s March 24-25 issue carried a front-page denunciation of the display of dead and captured Americans by the Iraqis, calling it “an ostentation that offends human dignity.”

     To date, there are few signs that any of these considerations are influencing the pope’s own public commentary. Quite the contrary; on March 25, in a message to military chaplains meeting in Rome, John Paul actually appeared to endorse the sprawling peace movement whose composition is of obvious concern to aides such as Ruini.

     “It should be clear to all that war as an instrument of resolution of differences among states has been repudiated, first by the charter of the United Nations, then by the conscience of the great majority of humanity, save for legitimate defense from an aggressor,” the pope said. “The vast contemporary movement in favor of peace … translates this conviction of people of every continent and every culture.”

* * *

     When the war began, the United States asked governments worldwide to sever ties with the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, to expel Iraqi diplomats and/or to freeze Iraqi assets until new authorities are in power in Baghdad. It has been widely reported that the Vatican “refused” this request, but sources on both sides tell NCR this is not so.

     The story took on legs when Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, gave an interview on the subject to Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily.

     “I’m not aware of a request and it’s not in my competence to deal with it, but certainly the Holy See will not withdraw its own  nuncios and will not break any diplomatic relations,” Poupard said. “(The Vatican) will always take the opportunity to maintain every possible channel of communication, above all at times of conflict. It is not wise to leave the talking to missiles.”

     It’s true that the Vatican has not withdrawn accreditation for Ambassador Al-Anbari Abdul Amir, Iraq’s representative to the Holy See. However, both American embassy sources and Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navaro-Valls have told NCR that the Americans did not make any specific request to the Vatican to expel diplomats or cut ties. Hence it is inaccurate to suggest that the Vatican has “refused” or “spurned” a step that the U.S. government asked that it take, because there has been no such request.

     On Wednesday, March 26, another Roman newspaper reported that the Vatican was planning to offer exile to four Iraqi diplomats that have been kicked out of Italy. For the record, Navarro told me this is “rubbish,” that no request has reached the Holy See, and that the Vatican has no plans to take in the expelled diplomats. 

     “It would be very strange,” Navarro said to NCR March 26. 

* * *

     Not every church leader, by the way, is against the Iraq war. On Thursday, March 20, I met Bishop Mar Bawai Soro of the Western California diocese of the Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient Christian church descended from the Nestorians. It numbers some 400,000 faithful worldwide, including perhaps 60,000 still in Iraq, its historical center.

     Soro has been based in the United States for some years, but he remains in close contact with church members in Iraq. He takes a positive view of what the U.S.-led coalition is attempting to achieve.

     “You don’t know what it’s like to live under tyranny,” said Soro. “Why has Iraq been brought so low? This is a rich society, a sophisticated society,” Soro said. “This government has laid waste to the country.”

     Speaking the day the conflict opened, Soro predicted that coalition forces would be welcomed by many Iraqis. He also said he was “surprised” by the anti-war line from the Vatican, which he felt to some extent does not reflect the reality of life in Iraq.

     Since the war began, I have also been calling every day Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman, head of the Latin rite Catholic Church in Baghdad. With American troops bearing down on the city, Sleiman’s small flock is obviously worried about what the immediate future holds.

     Sleiman said March 24 that his people are “anguished and frightened.” As of Tuesday, March 25, Sleiman said his central Baghdad neighborhood still had water and phone services, though he had just lost electricity. Despite the fact that U.S. troops are bearing down on the city, Sleiman said the government is trying to project a sense of normality. On Monday, residents were encouraged to go back to work for at least two hours, a request further complicated by a terrible sand storm.

     Sleiman said that the first casualty of the coalition bombing campaign in Baghdad was a young Chaldean Catholic, whose parish has since celebrated his funeral.

     Sleiman said it was “premature” to comment on what his small church is hoping for on the other side of this war. “There are different views,” he said. “They don’t know what to expect.”

     Hussein’s lay government has up to now enforced a certain peaceful co-existence among religious and ethnic groups, Sleiman said. One fear for Iraqi Christians is what might come if this layer of insulation from Islamic fundamentalism is removed.

     I spoke to a senior Vatican diplomat on Thursday, March 27, who expressed the same concern. “The problem is not just the war, but what comes next,” he said. “What happens to the Chaldeans if a Shi’ia government takes power in southern Iraq? It’s very worrying.”

     I spoke to Sleiman on Thursday, March 27, and he said to date this fear has not materialized, that there has been no anti-Christian backlash in Baghdad. In part, he said, this may be because the police and other Iraqi forces of order remain visible and very much in control. Among other things, this would suggest that images of a regime on the verge of collapse may be somewhat exaggerated.

     As we spoke, an explosion could be heard in the background. Sleiman said that the bombing of a market the day before obviously had people even more worried. Some were angry, he said, though it wasn’t always clear just who was the real target of that anger.

     (A footnote: It is a surreal experience to call Baghdad in these days of war and suffering, and while waiting for Sleiman to come to the phone, to hear the upbeat Ragtime theme from The Sting, which is the music you get while on hold).

     Catholics in Baghdad held a special Way of the Cross liturgy last Friday, Sleiman said, in which the bishops consecrated the country under the special protection of the Virgin Mary. His Baghdad parish is continuing to offer its daily 4:30 pm Mass, Sleiman said, but few come because of the fear of going outside.

     “We all pray for a swift end to the war,” Sleiman said.

* * *

     As a matter of policy I don’t like to write about rumors unless I’m in a position to settle them. Thus I have avoided referring to the buzz in Rome surrounding whether or not Prime Minister Tony Blair of England received Communion at a private papal Mass on Feb. 23. I don’t know what really happened, and hence it seemed pointless to simply fuel the speculation.

     Several readers have contacted me, however, wanting to know about the incident, so here goes.

     Blair is an Anglican; his wife, Cherie, is Catholic. Their children are Catholic, the family attends Catholic Mass, and by most accounts Blair himself is seriously considering conversion to Catholicism after his term as prime minister. 

     Yet none of that means he is entitled, as a routine matter, to receive the Catholic Eucharist. In 1996, then-Cardinal Basil Hume wrote to Blair to clarify the point after it was revealed that he had been receiving Communion while attending a Catholic parish in London, St. Joan of Arc in Highbury, with his wife and children. Blair subsequently stopped receiving Communion.

     Since then there have been a few occasions in which Blair has taken Communion at a Catholic Mass, usually in situations, such as his occasional vacations in Tuscany, when there is no Anglican church nearby. 

     Catholic legislation on inter-communion is contained in the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1993. The norm for a non-Catholic to receive is: “The person [must] be unable to have recourse to a minister of his or her own Church or ecclesial Community, ask for the sacrament of his or her own initiative, manifest Catholic faith in this sacrament and be properly disposed.”

     Under these criteria, one can see why it would be unremarkable if Blair did indeed receive Communion in the Feb. 23 papal Mass. While there are three Anglican churches in Rome at which he could have attended Sunday services, none of them are within Vatican City, and in any event it’s hardly the same thing as a papal liturgy, which is by definition an extraordinary circumstance. Clearly Blair’s desire for the sacrament and his manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament are not in doubt.

     So, did it happen?

     The story first broke in the Church Times, an Anglican publication. That report, which is the basis for most of the public speculation, was attributed (though not by name) to a particular liturgist in Rome. I know the man in question, and he denies having said any such thing. Moreover, he was not at the Mass and has no privileged insight into what happened.

    The Mass is being treated by both the Vatican and 10 Downing Street as a strictly private affair, hence they’re not talking. A Vatican spokesperson told me that it would be “incorrect” for the Holy See to either confirm or deny an incident pertaining to the prime minister’s private life. A spokesperson for Blair was similarly circumspect. “We said from the outset that this was a private meeting and that remains the case. But I can also say to you that the prime minister has no intention of converting to Catholicism. We have nothing else to say.”

     Aside from the Blair family, there were a few seminarians at the Mass. A colleague who has spoken with some of the seminarians reports that one saw Blair move up the Communion line with his arms crossed, signaling that he wanted a blessing rather than communion, but the priest administering communion (not the pope personally) gave it to Blair anyway. As a non-Anglo-Saxon, the priest may simply not have been familiar with the gesture.

     Other seminarians with whom I have spoken, however, say they saw no such thing. Another colleague of mine, a veteran Rome hand, says he talked to someone who was “fully briefed” about the Mass, and who is adamant that Blair did not get Communion.

     Bottom line: I don’t know what happened, and short of a personal statement from Blair, I doubt the uncertainty can be resolved.

     From one point of view, all this may seem idle curiosity. Yet consider this note from a friend of mine in a well-known English monastery: “The Abbot has asked me to find out what I can [about the Blair rumor], since he believes that it may have repercussions on a forthcoming pilgrimage. It’s a situation where many non-Catholics may wish to receive Communion and, if the Blair story is true, may also be in a position to receive a dispensation.”

     Vatican officials would no doubt say that the abbot’s question is answered in the EcumenicalDirectory. Yet the point is that what VIPs do, and how rules are adjusted for them, inevitably sets a model for the rest of the world. As long as we don’t know what happened at that papal Mass, the speculation will continue. 

* * *

     Two other quick notes. 

Pacifist Jim Douglass arrives in Baghdad

     An update on Catholic pacifist Jim Douglass, profiled in the last “Word from Rome.” His nine-member “Christian Peacemaker Team” was able to make it into Baghdad from Amman, Jordan, arriving at the Al-Daar Hotel on Tuesday, March 25. The group drove 15 hours across the Iraqi desert, passing through a U.S. checkpoint where Iraqi soldiers appeared to be surrendering to the Americans, with the burnt-out remains of vehicles clearly in sight. The group later had to pass through an Iraqi military checkpoint before reaching their destination. They issued a statement before their departure: “Our Christian faith calls us to Baghdad. We want to be with the Iraqi people under our bombs because we know God loves them and weeps for them. Bombs cannot liberate them from violence. We believe in Jesus’ way of liberation through the nonviolent cross of God’s love. The cross calls us to give life rather than take it. If our soldiers are willing to risk their lives to wage violence, then we as Christians should be willing to risk our lives to wage peace and reconciliation.”

Station churches

     One of the most lovely of Roman customs is the visiting of the “station churches” during Lent. Each morning at 7:00 am, Americans and other English-speakers in Rome gather for Mass at a different Roman church. The custom goes back to the Middle Ages, when the pope would himself visit the various churches. While the pope no longer follows the circuit, it remains a terrific way to experience the churches of Rome while connecting with fellow Americans — an especially meaningful experience in these days of war. Readers in Rome should note that the station church for Saturday, March 29, happens to be Santa Susanna, which is the American parish in Rome. If you intend to make only one of the station church liturgies, this would be a good choice. Among other things, there will be coffee and cornetti after the Mass.

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

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