National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly

?Sign Up Here For Weekly E-mail

 1 Archives  | 

 The Word From Rome

May 16, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 38

global perspective


If the church today is not missionary, it is fatally destined to become co-responsible for the progressive disappearance of the Christian faith.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini
Vicar for Rome
A response to the interview with Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the Holy See; Debate in Israel’s tiny Catholic community; Evangelizing Roman youth; The Kazan icon


Franciscan Fr. David-Maria Jaeger is, by any measure, a remarkable man.

Born of Jewish parents in Tel Aviv, Jaeger converted to Christianity and became a Catholic priest in 1986. A noted canon lawyer, he is credited with being the principal drafter and lead negotiator of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and Israel that took effect in 1994. He continues to be involved in negotiations on subsidiary agreements. He is also the spokesperson for the Franciscans who govern the holy sites in Jerusalem and environs.

Jaeger didn’t accomplish all this by being meek, and indeed he is not one to mince words when something important is at stake. Thus I braced myself when I heard his voice on the other end of my cell phone a couple of weeks ago, barking that he was “very angry.” The reason was my April 30 interview with Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the Holy See, Neville Lamdan. In that conversation, Lamdan reviewed the Vatican/Israeli relationship, and offered his reconstruction of events during an April 2002 standoff over the Shrine of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Like Lamdan, Jaeger was in Rome during the Bethlehem crisis, and like Lamdan he was in daily, in some cases hourly, contact with other parties to the negotiations.

I offered to interview Jaeger to hear his side of the story, and we agreed to sit down over lunch in a trattoria near the Antonianum University in Rome where he teaches canon law. (One of the blessings of my work is how much of it happens over meals). Giving Jaeger a platform seemed only right, since Lamdan had called Jaeger’s role during the crisis “thoroughly unhelpful.”

Jaeger brought a typed three-page statement, the full text of which may be found in the Special Documents section of the NCR Web site. Follow this link: Special Documents. Its main assertions, contradicting claims made by Lamdan, include the following:

  • There was no diplomatic confusion between the Vatican and the Franciscans, or among Franciscans, during the standoff;

  • Lamdan’s statement that Israel proposed a secret diplomatic mission for Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a frequent papal trouble-shooter, which was blocked by Yasser Arafat, “does not correspond to anything known to me, or, I imagine, to anyone else;”

  • A remark from Pope John Paul to Israeli President Moshe Katsav that 2003 should mark a “turning point” in the Vatican/Israeli relationship was not a gesture of rapprochement, but a signal the Vatican is impatient with Israel’s lethargy in on-going talks;

  • Jaeger was not part of an appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court to force the army to restore food and water supplies to the shrine, and that appeal did not “fail”;

  • The primary responsibility for the standoff was Israel’s. The army “practically herded the Palestinian armed men into Manger Square” and then wanted to storm the basilica;

  • The Franciscans did not harbor “terrorists,” but prevented the basilica from being profaned through bloodshed. “The only hostage was the basilica,” Jaeger said.

In a concluding note, Jaeger said he could not explain why “NCR should have chosen to host [Lamdan] in this manner, without an opportunity for rebuttal in the same article."

* * *

As it happens, Jaeger is at the heart of another fascinating story making news this week.

A terrific piece by Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, an advisor to the U.S. bishops on international affairs, in the May 19 issue of America magazine sheds light on a bitter debate within Israel’s tiny Catholic community. The row pivots on whether the community’s future lies in becoming a separate Hebrew-speaking ecclesiastical jurisdiction, with its own bishop and clergy, or in deepening ties with the predominantly Arab Latin Rite Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Proponents say a separate jurisdiction would allow Hebrew-speaking Catholics to better pursue dialogue with Judaism and to address Israeli civil society from within, while detractors say it would divide Christians in an already fractured environment. They also argue a split would serve Israeli interests by weakening the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michele Sabbah, an Arab who has criticized Israel’s policies with respect to the Palestinians.

Sources say the idea has been around since the late 1980s.

According to proponents, the jurisdiction could take the form of a personal prelature along the lines of Opus Dei, or an apostolic administration similar to what was recently created for traditionalist Catholics in Campos, Brazil.  Though sources in Rome tell NCR the proposal is on hold, they also say support for it is not going away.

That support comes from at least two divergent sources, who agree on the need for a jurisdiction but not the logic for it.

First, there is a community in Israel called The Work of St. James, founded in 1955 to serve Hebrew-speaking Catholics and to pursue dialogue with Judaism. It is under the authority of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and claims some 250 members. Its leader is a French Benedictine abbot, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Gourion of the Monastery of the Resurrection in Abu Ghosh.

The other proponent is Jaeger.

Both Gourion and Jaeger are converts from Judaism. The two men have different visions for a Hebrew-speaking church, sources tell NCR, and their rivalry complicates the debate.

Gourion and the Work of St. James, sources say, are attracted to a separate jurisdiction as part of a larger project of building a Christian community that reflects the early church of Jerusalem as described in the “Acts of the Apostles,” fully immersed in Jewish life and culture.

“Christianity arises from the Jewish people and should continue to be grafted on the true olive tree,” Gourion argued in a January 2002 presentation to a delegation of presidents of episcopal conferences in Jerusalem.

Jaeger, meanwhile, told NCR that the Catholic Church needs a voice within Israeli civil society, and a leader who can speak to the culture in its own language. At present, he says, Sabbah is incapable of playing that role.

“The church in Israel is in the absurd position of being absent from the society,” Jaeger said. Noting that Catholic bishops in Israel are Arab-speaking and minister largely to Palestinians, Jaeger said, “It’s as if the only bishops in Spain were Basque, or the only bishops in the United States spoke Navajo Indian.”

“There are important debates going on in Israel right now over labor, over the economy, over family law, and the church is not part of those debates because it has no voice,” Jaeger said.

Jaeger also makes the canonical argument that according to the document Christus Dominus of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), ecclesiastical jurisdictions should correspond to natural human communities.

Opponents argue that new divisions are the last thing the Christian community in the Holy Land needs.

“Our future is as one church, or not at all,” said one Christian source in Jerusalem.

In his “America” piece, Christiansen suggests that the Israeli government is backing the plan to split off Hebrew-speaking Christians as a way of weakening Sabbah and “discrediting the Palestinian cause.”

A church source in Jerusalem agreed. “The Israelis want a national church that will swear allegiance to the State of Israel,” the source said. It is analogous, the source said, to the way the Israeli government has long attempted to prevent the Greek Orthodox Church in the Holy Land from electing patriarchs perceived as hostile to its interests.

“Forming a separate church in Israel could invite government control, like the Patriotic Association in China,” a Vatican official told NCR May 14.

Exactly how many people might be the subjects of a Hebrew-speaking jurisdiction is disputed.

Jaeger told NCR the potential membership is in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands. At its core would be a few hundred Jewish converts. Then come Christian immigrants from the former Soviet Union, estimated by Jaeger to number in the tens of thousands, though most are traditionally Orthodox. There are also recent Catholic migrants living in Israel for economic reasons, such as Filipinos and Poles. Jaeger says there are tens of thousands of these people, many undocumented, whose children will grow up in Israel speaking Hebrew as their principal language.

Other sources in Jerusalem, however, told NCR that most of these immigrants are temporary workers who will not put down roots, and whose most pressing need is pastoral care in their own language, not a separate church structure in Hebrew.

Vatican sources told NCR that no move to create a jurisdiction should be expected soon.

“We are awaiting resolution of the political situation,” one official said. “We need to see what happens with the roadmap and the peace process. As long as the intifadah is underway, there certainly will be no decision.” 

* * *

2003 marks the 25th anniversary of the election John Paul II. He is now the third longest-serving pope whose reign we can date with precision. (The Vatican says St. Peter’s reign was some 35 years, but this is guesswork.) The only popes around longer were Leo XIII (25 years, 5 months), and Pius IX (31 years and 7 months). If his health holds up, John Paul would move into the top spot in April 2011.

In the meantime, this anniversary year is studded with tributes. One such event took place May 8-10 at the Lateran University, traditionally known as the pope’s university, with an all-star cast of cardinals, ecumenical dignitaries and journalists offering assessments of John Paul’s legacy.

This was not a setting in which one should expect critical commentary, and indeed all the speakers were admiring. Within the basic pattern of laud, however, there were several interesting points.

Most agreed that a defining aspect of John Paul’s thought is the “anthropological turn,” i.e., taking the human person as the starting point.  The pope himself stressed this idea in May 9 remarks. “The person must be at the center of every philosophical or theological reflection,” he said. “The church is at the service of the human person.”

Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, emeritus prefect of the Congregation for Saints, commented on the pope’s extraordinary saint-making proclivity (as of Sunday, May 18, John Paul will have canonized 474 people). He offered three explanations:

  • The will of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which called for greater attention to the role of the Holy Spirit;

  • Offering local churches models of holiness from within their cultures;

  • Promoting an “ecumenism of holiness.” The common experience of martyrdom in the 20th century gulags, for example, is a powerful force in bringing Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers together.

French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray reflected on the pope’s travels. John Paul has spent 572 days on the road, which works out to 1 year and 7 months. Add the countless hours spent preparing for, and debriefing from, these trips, and one gets a sense of what a huge chunk of the pontificate has been devoted to travel.

Etchegaray quoted John Paul on his first trip to Africa in 1980, speaking off the cuff to locals, by way of summing up his philosophy.

“Some in Europe think the pope should not travel, that he should stay in Rome like he’s always done,” John Paul said. “I read this in the papers and I receive advice in this sense. I want to say, however, that it’s a grace of God to be able to come here because I can get to know you. How else would I know who you are and how you live? This reinforces my conviction that the time has arrived in which the bishops of Rome, that is the popes, must not consider themselves solely the successor of Peter, but also as the heirs of Paul, who, as we well know, never stopped moving; he was always on the road. What’s true for the pope is also true for those who work with him in Rome.”

Etchegaray said out loud what pope-watchers have long believed, that John Paul’s heart longs above all to visit Russia and China, the two great nations missing from his list of 129 countries visited.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s address was, as usual, full of insight and even humor.

“It’s absurd to try to cover 14 encyclicals in a half-hour,” he began. “But out of obedience sometimes I do absurd things.”

Ratzinger offered the following scheme for organizing John Paul’s encyclicals:

  • Trinitarian Triptych: Redemptor Hominis, Dives in Misericordia, Dominum et Vivificantem;

  • Social Encyclicals: Laborem Exercens, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Centesimus Annus;

  • Ecclesiological Themes: Slavorum Apostoli, Ut Unum Sint, Redemptoris Missio, Redemptoris Mater, Ecclesia de Eucharistia;

  • Great Doctrinal Texts: Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, Fides et Ratio.

The key to Redemptoris Hominis and to all of John Paul’s thought, Ratzinger argued, is the idea that Christ is the key to the human mystery, that anthropology and Christology may never be separated.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, spoke on collegiality, arguing that John Paul has promoted a more effective co-participation of bishops in the governance of the church through the Synod of Bishops and through his “familiar, casual” style. This pope, for example, invites bishops on their ad limina visits to join him for working lunches, breaking the tradition that popes eat alone. Re also cited the participation of bishops in reviewing the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law and the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Most of Re’s talk was devoted to the importance of balance between a strong Petrine office and episcopal collaboration. There was a rather surreal moment, however, when Re asserted that there is “no conflict between Rome and the bishops” over collegiality. While one can certainly defend the pope’s policies, it is difficult to deny that conflict exists -- as evidenced by the 52 members of the most recent Synod of Bishops, for example, who complained about over-centralization.

Speaking of collaboration, the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey proposed that leaders of other Christian churches accompany Catholic bishops when they come to Rome for ad limina visits. This idea had already been floated in the American Anglican-Catholic dialogue. Carey argued that personal contact with the pope might help other Christians see his office in a way that would not be “obscured by those who serve him in the curia.”

During the Friday morning session, Carey and his wife greeted the pope. Carey kissed his ring, an unusual gesture from an Anglican prelate.

 * * *

At the end of one of my favorite movies, Planet of the Apes, Dr. Zaius warns Taylor not to seek the answer as to how humans came to be ruled by apes. “Don’t look for it, Taylor,” he says. “You may not like what you find.”

The advice came to mind recently as I read the results of a book-length study of the religious knowledge and attitudes of Roman youth commissioned by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for Rome. Ruini is said to have been “flabbergasted” by the results, which do not paint a rosy picture.

The book is Il Volto Giovane della Ricerca di Dio (“The Young Face of the Search for God”) by Mario Pollo, a sociologist at Rome’s Free University of Most Holy Mary Assumed, known by its Italian acronym, Lumsa. The research is based on 120 interviews with Roman youth, divided into “adolescents” (16-18) and “youth” (22-26).

While solid majorities in both groups believe in God, their concept of divinity often has little to do with Christian revelation. Some see God as a ray of light, some as a force of nature, some as an abstract idea such as love.

Some 40 percent of adolescents say they believe God is the same for all religions, leading Pollo to note a “growing syncretism … a relativization of one’s own religious experience and a sort of equivalence among all the others.”

Similarly, many Roman youth have a concept of Jesus that is clearly not what the Catechism teaches. Three-quarters of adolescents say Jesus is a man of great values, but not the Son of God.

Many express hostility towards the institutional church.

“I’m sure of one thing,” one young man said. “If I needed something, I wouldn’t go to them.”

While three-quarters of older youth accept the divinity of Christ, their concepts of God are sketchy, with many believing in an impersonal “life force” behind all religions.

Both adolescents and youth tend to accept an afterlife, but most reject both Hell and Purgatory.

One point of light in Pollo’s research is the impact of movements or associations, such as Sant’Egidio, Catholic Action, or the Salesian youth group. For youth involved in these movements, knowledge of the faith and belief is much stronger, and attitudes towards the church are more positive.

Yet on issues of sexual morality, not even the movements suffice to foster acceptance of church teaching. The vast majority of young males, even those who belong to a church group, say they ignore prohibitions with no qualms. Young women tend to be more ambivalent.

From one point of view, there’s little surprising here. The impact of secularization and de-Christianization has been clear in Europe for decades, and it would be absurd to think the mere presence of the Vatican could inoculate Rome against these trends.

Yet Rome inevitably has an emblematic status. If evangelization of the young is in such disarray here, “in the pope’s backyard,” parents and educators elsewhere will undoubtedly feel demoralized.

Perhaps it’s for that reason that Ruini laid down a gauntlet in his preface to Pollo’s book. While he noted some encouraging findings, he did not shrink from the conclusion that for the 90 percent of Roman youth not involved in a movement, the situation is dire.

“If the church today is not missionary, it is fatally destined to become co-responsible for the progressive disappearance of the Christian faith,” Ruini wrote.

 * * *

Thinking Catholics generally try to hold two values in healthy tension: fidelity and criticism. Fidelity without critical thought is hollow, while criticism without fidelity becomes dissent for its own sake. How far in either direction is too far is a constant matter of debate.

A fresh example comes from Bavaria, where the Bishop of Regensburg, Gerhard Müller, has removed a layman named Johannes Grabmeier from parish, regional and diocesan councils to which he had been elected. His offense was belonging to the reform group We Are Church. (His wife is one of six national co-chairs of the organization).

We Are Church was founded in Austria in 1995 during upheaval related to a sex abuse scandal, and quickly spread to Germany. The group garnered 2.3 million signatures on a petition demanding five reforms:

  1. A loving church … where the People of God participate in selecting bishops and pastors;

  2. A church with equal rights for women, where women … are welcomed in all ministries, including the ministerial priesthood;

  3. A church where priests may choose either a celibate or non-celibate way of life;

  4. A church that affirms … a positive presentation of sexuality and the primacy of conscience in sexual morality;

  5. A church that offers good tidings rather than threats … that embraces and welcomes divorced and remarried, married priests, theologians and others who exercise freedom of speech.

I reached Grabmeier by phone on May 13, and he affirmed his agreement with all five of these principles. He said he has written to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, arguing that Müller did not observe the procedures outlined in the Code of Canon Law before removing him.

His position has drawn support from Hans Joachim Meyer, president of the powerful Central Committee of German Catholics, the most important lay Catholic organization in Germany. The governing board of the Central Committee recently declared that “church loyalty and church criticism are not mutually exclusive, but rather church loyalty is the basis and condition of church criticism.”

Müller is by conventional standards a theological conservative (he was a professor of dogmatics at the University of Munich before becoming a bishop, a member of the International Theological Commission and a friend of Ratzinger), but he does not seem a blind authoritarian. Just 10 days before Grabmeier was fired, Müller told his diocesan council that he would be willing to consider allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics under certain conditions to return to the sacraments, without calling into question the general prohibition.

Grabmeier for his part told me he did not intend to challenge Catholic discipline. “I am in the middle of the church, of the Second Vatican Council, and of Jesus Christ,” he said.

The heart of the debate shapes up as whether a bishop is within his rights to insist that a Catholic in good standing cannot hold the views implied in the “We Are Church” petition. In that sense, this is more than a local German story, and it will be interesting to see if, and how, Re responds to Grabmeier’s appeal.

A footnote: We Are Church is back in the news for another reason. Despite John Paul’s reaffirmation of church discipline on inter-communion in his recent encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, We Are Church is planning to sponsor three liturgies featuring “Eucharistic hospitality” during the May 28-June 1 ecumenical Kirchentag, or “Church Day,” festival in Berlin. In conjunction with another reform group called Initiative Church from Below and a Protestant parish, We Are Church has organized  a Catholic and a Protestant service in which all Christians will be invited to receive communion, plus a “meal of solidarity” with the poor and people on the fringes. Though the liturgies are not part of the official program, they are sure to make a splash.

 * * *

Inside the Vatican magazine is an excellent resource for anyone who follows Vatican affairs, and it is especially good on Russia and Orthodoxy since these are strong personal interests of publisher Robert Moynihan. The magazine celebrates its 10th anniversary this week, and Moynihan marked the occasion with a May 15 panel discussion on the icon of Our Lady of Kazan and the possibility of a papal stop in Russia to return the icon to Patriarch Alexy II.

The possibility of a brief appearance in Kazan in conjunction with John Paul’s anticipated August trip to Mongolia has been under Vatican consideration, but to date Orthodox authorities have reacted coolly.

The Kazan icon, through a circuitous series of circumstances, has been in the pope’s private apartment since March 1993. John Paul has expressed a desire to return it to Alexy. It is a treasure of Orthodox spirituality that, among other things, was a dynastic symbol of the imperial Romanov family.

Recent analysis has raised doubts about whether the object in the pope’s chapel is the original Kazan icon, one of three “great copies” commissioned at different times, or another copy made even later. In Orthodox tradition, copies of famous icons take on their luster, and can become equally venerated objects themselves.

The focus on authenticity alarms some who believe the potential importance of the icon goes far beyond antiquarian concern with when it was painted.

This point was made during the panel discussion by Frank Shakespeare, former American ambassador to the Holy See.

“If Alexy were to say that he’s had a statue of Mary for 10 years in his apartment, that he has prayed to it so that this split which has affected all the civilized world could be healed, and he then proposed a meeting with the pope with this statue as the symbol of his hopes … if the split were indeed healed, that statue would become the most important statue in all the world,” Shakespeare said. “That’s what will happen to this icon if the spilt between Rome and Byzantium is overcome.”

Moynihan argued that devotion to Mary through the Kazan icon could be a spiritual catalyst leading Russia to a new vision of the human person, which in turn could be the “conversion” of Russia predicted in the Fatima revelations.

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

Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2003 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280