|It is in some
ways a terrible thing to be pope, and one of the more agonizing bits has
to be the way the world press takes every slip of the tongue, or every
ambiguous phrase, as a signal of either mental decline or a shift in Vatican
policy. Given the potential for confusion when several different languages
are involved, the possibilities for mayhem are almost infinite.
On the last day of John
Paul’s May 23-26 trip to Bulgaria, he spoke off the cuff at the end of
a meeting with youth at the cathedral in Plovdiv, the city where the country’s
Catholic population is concentrated. The pope spoke in Polish, and his
comments were translated into Bulgarian. He said, “It is a pleasure to
be with you at the end of my trip to Bulgaria.” The translator, however,
rendered it as, “It is a pleasure to be with you at the end of my pontificate.”
The latter, of course,
sounds like the pope was hinting at either his death or resignation, and
it certainly got the juices of the press corps flowing. Ironically, I was
in the press pool for the youth meeting, so I was in the cathedral five
feet away from the pope for the first thirty minutes of the event. We had
to leave to reach the papal plane ahead of his arrival, however, so those
of us on site missed the remark in question completely.
I learned about it on
board the plane, where an argument was raging between those who insisted
the pope really had said “the end of my pontificate,” and those who upheld
the translation error theory. At least one Italian TV outlet had already
gone with the story, as had a major English-language wire service. The
correspondent for The Times of London had filed the quote, and then
given the confusion, had sent a panicked retraction. The cell phone traffic
from the papal plane probably came close to bringing down the entire Bulgarian
In the end, it turned
out that the pope had said merely “at the end of my trip,” and the furor
signified nothing. (Press planes generate rumors, it should be noted, the
way hospital wards do colds).
It is the kind of experience
that illustrates the “imperial papacy” that CNN, faxes and e-mail, theological
and ecclesiological stratagems from centralizing popes, and John Paul’s
own personal charisma have combined to create. There is no other religious
leader in the world who commands this kind of attention, whose every syllable
can become the subject of endless analysis.
Perhaps the next pope
will revise his own job description, making himself less ubiquitous, allowing
other points of reference in the church to re-emerge. Yet under any set
of circumstances, it will still matter what the pope says, and hence the
media will continue to dice and slice his utterances.
By the way, the journalists
on the plane were introduced individually to the pope just before we took
off to return to Rome. Some cynically suggested that it was a PR ploy to
offset a flurry of negative stories about his health. Others felt that
he knows he may not be making too many more of these trips, and wanted
to bid farewell. Naturally, it could also have been nothing more than a
kindly pastoral gesture.
In any event, I found
myself sitting next to this figure about whom I have undoubtedly written
million of words over the years. I would like to report that I summoned
some pithy remark, or exploited the maybe thirty seconds allotted to each
of us to clear up some long-standing journalistic mystery.
In fact, all I could
think of to say was, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Thanks.”
Not exactly inspired,
but at least I got the Italian out correctly. It could have been worse
… especially if I were being translated into Bulgarian.
* * *
Is John Paul II going
to Mexico and Guatemala in July? The only honest answer is that we don’t
know, after Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls made one statement
after another on the subject May 26, the last day of the pope’s trip to
Bulgaria, each more inscrutable than the last.
Exchanges like the following
Question: “Is the pope
going to make his next trip?”
that has been planned will take place, maybe with some modifications. Toronto
is for sure.”
Question: “Does that
mean Mexico and Guatemala are in doubt?”
Navarro: “For today,
everything that we have confirmed is still planned. Toronto, the appointment
with the youth, is clear. For the others, we shall see.”
Question: “Are Mexico
and Guatemala confirmed?”
that has been confirmed, is confirmed. But something that is confirmed
can be unconfirmed.”
In the end, it seemed
clear that Navarro was trying to tell us not to count on Mexico and Guatemala.
There’s certainly logic to dropping these two dates, which would come in
the middle of a very hot Central American summer after the grueling World
Youth Day in Canada.
The problem for Navarro
was that up until May 26, he had been insistent that there would be no
changes in the pope’s schedule, so he tried to phrase his new message in
such a way that it did not seem a reversal. Inevitably, the ambiguous phrasing
and refusal to utter simple declarative sentences made the press suspicious,
and probably helped make the announcement a bigger story.
It’s too bad, because
Sunday, May 26, was the only day that the world’s major news outlets were
set to actually report the message of the trip, rather than the pope’s
health, the American sex scandals, the Bulgarian connection, and other
assorted distractions. On Sunday, John Paul was underlining the shared
suffering of Orthodox and Catholics under the Soviets, beatifying three
Catholic priests executed in 1952. Two Orthodox prelates were on the platform
with him, and there were great stories to tell of heroism in keeping the
Navarro and his “will he or won’t he?” dance number on Mexico and Guatemala
stepped all over the pope’s own story. There’s a lesson in that somewhere.
* * *
Another nugget from Navarro.
Answering the ten millionth question about the pope’s health, Navarro said
the following, in English: “I can tell you that in the Roman curia, in
the Vatican, he is the one with the original ideas, pushing towards the
future. That is how it is.”
I’m sure it was probably
just the fact that Navarro was speaking a foreign language, but did he
really mean to suggest that there’s only one guy in the Vatican with original
* * *
Though I’m sure the pope
didn’t realize it, this was not the first time on the trip we had passed
a few moments together. On May 24, I was in a pool for visits to the Bulgarian
president, the Orthodox cathedral of St. Alexander Nevsky, and the National
Library (to lay a wreath in front of a statue of Sts. Cyril and Methodius,
the former having invented the Cyrillic alphabet).
Trying to perform my
duties diligently, I spent time poking around in the cathedral for Orthodox
to interview about the significance of the pope’s presence. Eventually
I realized that I had become separated from my colleagues, who had obviously
already moved on to the next event. I walked outside just as John Paul
was being placed into the popemobile, with no press bus in sight. Since
the zone where the pope stops is always blocked off, there were no cabs,
buses, or other modes of transport.
I will omit the details
of what wrath might befall a reporter in the Vatican press corps who misses
an appointment, but trust me when I say it is not pleasant. I felt a dry
Then, however, inspiration
struck. Though I did not know where the next stop was, I had one certainty:
wherever it was, the popemobile was headed there. Hence I ducked under
a barricade, flashing my press badge, and simply blended in briefly to
the security detail walking alongside the pope. When we rounded a corner
and I spied my colleagues behind some police tape, I broke off and rejoined
What this says about
papal security, I leave to someone else’s judgment. But I felt a small
surge of personal satisfaction at having snatched triumph from the jaws
* * *
With the World Cup getting
underway, journalists will be dusting off old stories about the bad blood
between Japan and Korea, since the two nations are sharing the event. I
remember back in the early 1990s, when Korea was pushing the issue of compensation
for the “comfort women” that the Japanese military had forced into prostitution
during World War II, a right-wing Japanese politician wrote a book that
captured popular frustration with the criticism, and became a run-away
It was called Shut
If recent trends continue,
I predict that one of the ecumenical hawks in the Vatican, frustrated with
a steady stream of criticism of the Catholic Church, is going to write
a similar polemic under the title Shut Up, Orthodoxy.
The thought comes after
the visit to Bulgaria, an overwhelmingly Orthodox nation. The loud public
criticism from the Russian Orthodox hierarchy that marked his June 2001
trip to Ukraine was missing this time, and the Bulgarian Orthodox themselves
have a history of tolerance. Bulgaria’s Eastern rite Catholics were never
forcibly incorporated into the Orthodox church, as happened in Ukraine,
Romania, and other parts of the Soviet empire, because the Orthodox patriarch
in Bulgaria told the communists to buzz off.
Yet even here in mild-mannered
Bulgaria, there were reminders of the things that drive hard-liners on
the Catholic side wild.
To take one example,
when John Paul II visited the Orthodox cathedral of St. Alexander Nevski
in Sofia, he was greeted by Metropolitan Simeon, whose jurisdiction is
Western and Central Europe, and whose residence is Berlin. I suspect few
caught the irony, but in recent weeks the Russian Orthodox have complained
bitterly about the Vatican’s elevation of four apostolic administrations
in Russia to dioceses. Patriarch Alexei II thundered that these are Orthodox
sees and the Catholics had no business naming their bishops to them. Yet
here was the Bulgarian Orthodox bishop in Berlin, part of Western Christianity
since the first millennium, saying hello to the pope without a trace of
The Russian Orthodox
have their own bishops in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and a number of other
Western sees that have always been part of the Latin church. It’s a seeming
double standard that in Vatican corridors is the stuff of lively conversation.
A kind of disdain for
the heathen West is also something many Catholics in the dialogue with
Orthodoxy complain about, and we had an experience along these lines. A
number of us went to the Holy Monastery of St. John of Rila, one of the
cradles of Slavic Christianity, which is on a mountaintop perhaps 75 miles
out of Sofia. We hoped to talk to one of the seven monks there, a space
built for 300 that had been shuttered under the Communists.
We waited in the church
until a monk emerged and began to light candles. We politely approached
to see if we could ask a couple of questions, and were told multi-lingually
to drop dead. Our guide then knocked on a door to see if someone would
talk to us, and eventually a small, kindly layman emerged, who turned out
to be the director of the monastery’s museum.
As he began to recount
for us the vicissitudes of the monastery’s history, a small cluster of
monks formed to our left. I asked if we could interview them, and the museum
director responded that they were “very busy.” Other than glaring at us,
I could not see what was so urgent.
This impression was confirmed
a few minutes later, when a young woman approached to snap a picture. A
monk took one look at her blouse, which revealed a thin sliver of midriff,
and flew into a rage. I missed most of what he was shouting, but I caught
the repeated “prostitute, prostitute!” Obviously this guy found time in
his busy schedule to communicate his thoughts.
(As a footnote, the woman
in question was accompanied by her husband and small children).
Of course, one cannot
draw sweeping conclusions from a few isolated experiences. Yet almost every
Vatican official I know who deals with the Orthodox has stories like this
one to tell, indicating that the attitude of righteous indignation coming
from Moscow is generating an equal and opposite reaction on the Catholic
All of which makes John
Paul’s unrelenting pursuit of unity the more remarkable. One hopes it will
be matched by similar graciousness from the other potentates on both sides.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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