National Catholic Reporter ®

May 31, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 40

Send This Page to a Friend   | Printer Friendly Version
Parsing papal parlance; Clearing up Navarro’s
clarification; following the popemobile’s lead

“Everything that has been confirmed, is confirmed. But something that is confirmed can be unconfirmed.

Vatican spokesperson
Joaquin Navarro-Valls


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 network. 

     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 actually occurred.

     Question: “Is the pope going to make his next trip?”

     Navarro: “Everything 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?”

     Navarro: “Everything 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 faith alive. 

     Unfortunately, however, 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 ideas?

* * *

     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 panic.

     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 the group.

     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 of disaster.

* * *

     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 best-seller. 

     It was called Shut Up, Korea.

     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 shame. 

     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 side. 

     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

© 2002 
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111

TEL:  1-816-531-0538
FAX:  1-816-968-2280