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 The Word From Rome

June 25, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 44

global perspective


"What are all those confessionals for, since we don't do that anymore?"

French tourists quizzing a tour guide at the Shrine of Our Lady of Torreciudad in Spain,
built according to the wishes of the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva.

Pope displeased by Europe's rejection of Christian roots; Roots in Spain are robust; Bush's appeal to the Vatican; Possible papal travels


Italians called Pius XII il papa angelico, "the angelic pope," in part because of his impassive bearing. He seemed unruffled, unhurried, floating above normal human emotion. These were qualities that helped anxious Romans remain calm during the German occupation and Allied bombing of their city.

Though future generations may refer to John Paul II as "The Great," and they may even declare him a saint, no one will call him angelic.

This is a pope who has worn his emotions on his sleeve, from his joy when surrounded by youth, to his anger in Nicaragua in 1983 (shouting "silence!" at a crowd of Sandinista agitators), to disappointment while visiting Poland after adoption of a liberalized abortion law.

Papal passions were again on display June 20 when he delivered his Sunday Angelus address, his first public comment since the European Union adopted its new constitution. It acknowledges the "cultural, religious and humanist inheritance" of Europe, but omits the specific reference to the continent's Christian heritage that had long been requested by John Paul. It also makes no mention of God.

The result embittered the pope, and it showed.

"I want to thank Poland for faithfully defending in European institutions the Christian roots of our continent, from which have grown our culture and the civil progress of our time," he said in his native Polish.

Poland was among the handful of European nations -- Italy, Portugal, Malta, and the Czech Republic -- that persevered until the end in requesting a reference to Christianity, but in the end they were blocked by more powerful nations, especially France. (Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing headed the drafting commission).

Thus the papal barb: "One does not cut off the roots from which one is born."

Other Vatican sources reflected the pope's displeasure.

On Friday, spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls charged that governments that had blocked the reference to Christianity "failed to understand the historical evidence and the Christian identity of the peoples of Europe." On Saturday, L'Osservatore Romano said that Europe "seems to want to deprive itself of the solid foundation of its historical memory."

While this defeat was widely expected, it nevertheless marks a historic low water mark for the influence of the Catholic church in Europe. I suspect it will have three kinds of impact in the Vatican and in Church circles.

First, it strengthens the case that the next pope must have some sort of vision for Europe. Despite the internationalization of the college launched by Paul VI and extended under John Paul II, more than 50 percent of the cardinals are still European, and they know full well the "ecclesiastical winter" here. Although the center of gravity of global Christianity will increasingly be in the south, Europe is still the cradle of Christianity, and it is where much of the intellectual (and financial) capital originates. A damaged church in Europe is bad news everywhere. Hence, papal candidates will increasingly be evaluated by what they have to say about Europe.

Second, the outcome will probably push a few more European bishops to open their doors to new ecclesial realities such as Opus Dei, the Neocatechumenate, and the Legionaries of Christ. In a culture that often seems not just indifferent, but positively hostile, to organized religion, it may be that only disciplined, highly motivated groups operating outside traditional ecclesiastical structures will have the capacity to evangelize and catechize. If nothing else, the defeat on the constitution tells bishops that they need help.

Finally, I suspect the outcome will to some extent embolden the pro-American faction within the Vatican and the College of Cardinals. Broadly speaking, church leaders have long been divided between those who want Europe to emerge as a third pole in global affairs with a more Catholic vision of society, and those who think the church ought to cast its lot with the Americans because they're the only game in town. This second group would include figures such as Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for the diocese of Rome, and Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University. The failure of European leaders to even use the word "Christian," let alone articulate a Christian social vision, in their new constitution makes the pro-American argument that much more convincing.

* * *

I was in Spain last week doing research for future projects, around the same time that the country's new socialist prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, visited John Paul II in Rome. In its own way, that event too confirmed which way the winds are blowing in Europe.

Despite the fact that Spain is more than 90 percent Catholic, at least according to baptismal records, Zapatero has taken positions on a number of issues that clash with church teaching. He has pledged to streamline the process for divorce, legalize abortion in the early weeks of pregnancy and legalize gay marriage.

John Paul urged Zapatero to conserve cultural and moral values and to maintain the Christian roots of Spain, but there was no sign the papal intervention had any impact on the government's program.

Still, the mere fact that Zapatero came to Rome specifically to see the pope, without meeting any officials of the Italian government, indicates that he realizes he can't afford to write off the papacy or the church. Spanish Catholicism may have its problems, but Zapatero knows that it still has considerable strength at the grassroots.

"The strategy is to keep existing accords in effect and maintain an open relationship with the Vatican," he told reporters after the meeting. Meanwhile Vatican officials said they hope to cooperate with Zapatero on the promotion of peace and the struggle against terrorism, a sign that differences on cultural issues will not completely scuttle relations between Madrid and Rome.

* * *

Speaking of the strength of Spanish Catholicism, I saw three of the country's best known Marian shrines last week: Montserrat, Torreciudad, and the Virgin of Pilar in Saragossa. One is struck by the crowds they draw, and the palpable faith and devotion on display inside. If one were to judge solely by these places of prayer, the crisis of European Catholicism might not register at all.

I watched the elderly, the very young, and all ages in between lost in prayer before the tiny statue of the Virgin of Pilar in Saragossa, for example, and could not help thinking that there is life still in this tradition. (The story goes that Mary appeared to St. James here while she was still alive, encouraging him to continue with his efforts to evangelize the hard-headed Aragonians. It is the only alleged apparition of the Virgin during her lifetime.)

The shrine at Torreciudad is the most recent of these Marian shrines, built according to the wishes of the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva, whose mother had prayed to the Virgin when the infant Escriva was very sick and pronounced all but dead by the family doctor. When the child recovered, his mother took him on a pilgrimage to Torreciudad, which had been a site of Marian devotion for nine centuries. (The ancient tower, or torre, was originally built by the Moors to protect themselves from attack by Christians, and then converted into a Marian shrine when the Christians succeeded anyway).

I had the chance to chat over lunch with Manolo Fenández Gómez, a Spanish Opus Dei layman who gives tours of the sanctuary, which is very near the French border. One humorous moment came when Fenández described the difference between French and Spanish pilgrims. When busloads of French arrive, he said, one of the questions they usually ask when they get to the sanctuary's crypt is, "What are all those confessionals for, since we don't do that anymore?"

When Fenández protested that individual confession is still the discipline of the church, the young French translator traveling with the group decided to skip that part, one indication of some of the challenges facing French Catholicism.

A potent reminder of the power of popular faith struck me in the Cathedral of the Virgin of Pilar in Saragossa, where a large oil painting in St. Ana's Chapel of a man lying on a bed with a crutch propped up against it commemorates the famous miracle of Calanda. (Italian Catholic writer Vittorio Messori made this incident the subject of his book The Miracle).

Briefly, the story holds that in July 1637, a young peasant from Aragon, Miguel Juan Pellicer, was working as a farmhand at his uncle's house when he fell off a mule and a cart ran over his right leg, fracturing it under the knee. Eventually the leg was amputated. Pellicer became a beggar in front of the huge cathedral of the Virgin of Pilar, leaning on a wooden leg.

In March 1640, Pellicer went home to his village. On the evening of March 29, he went to bed around 9 p.m. (wildly early by Spanish standards, as I discovered on this trip). His mother went in to check on him between 10:30 and 11:00, and was startled to see not one foot sticking out from under the covers, but two. Two years and five months since the amputation, Pellicer, so the story goes, had an intact right leg.

As Messori notes, royal notaries arrived two days later to take down depositions about what had happened. These were officials of the crown, not clergy, and the records they created still exist.

One can of course make of this whatever one likes (Messori, for his part, believes that Calanda is a "great miracle" that almost all by itself demonstrates the authenticity of Christian claims about the miraculous). What is striking, however, is that in a secularized post-Christian age, a lively belief in the supernatural still surrounds places such as the Cathedral of the Virgin on Pilar.

Another example: ETA, the Basque terrorist organization, once planted a bomb at the sanctuary of Torreciudad. The bomb went off in the underground crypt, apparently with the object of bringing down the entire structure. It failed, although it did wipe out a couple of the chapels and most of the confessionals. The lone confessional that emerged unscathed, in fact, was the one in which Escriva and his successor, Fr. Alvaro del Portillo, had once heard one another's confessions. Many Opus Dei members and others who visit the shrine regard the event as a miracle.

Again, the point is that despite all the turbulence besetting Catholicism in Europe, the endurance of such beliefs suggests that there may still be a cultural bedrock upon which the church can rebuild.

* * *

Another sign of life for Christianity in Europe is currently taking shape against the skyline of Barcelona, capital of the Catalan region of Spain. It's the mammoth church of the Sagrada Familia, whose construction began in the late 19th century and is not expected to be complete for perhaps another 50 years.

Everything about it is sweeping; a local expert explained to me that the sound system is designed to be so powerful, for example, that if traffic were to be stopped, the organ and choir could be heard from any point in Barcelona.

The Sagrada Familia is the brainchild of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926), whose cause for beatification is currently underway. In 1915, the papal nuncio in Spain called Gaudí "the Dante of architecture."

Every detail has theological significance, so that the Sagrada Familia is a sort of Summa Theologica in stone. Its effect can be overwhelming. A Japanese sculptor named Etsuro Sotoo, for example, converted to Catholicism from Shintoism after spending time in Barcelona studying Gaudí's work. A Japanese architect, Kenji Imai, similarly converted to Catholicism after spending time at the Sagrada Familia.

If the beatification cause succeeds, Gaudí would be one of the few laymen raised to the altar for something other than martyrdom. Local supporters see him as on a par with Robert Schumann as a lay Catholic who has helped shape modern Europe, in Gaudí's case through architecture rather than politics. It would also, naturally, be a boost for the Catalan church, which sees in Gaudí perhaps its most eminent native son. Given Catalonia's eternal resentment with respect to Castilia, this would be a major moment indeed.

For the rest of the world, Gaudí's beatification, and eventual canonization, would be a reminder that embers of the old faith still stir, even in the midst of highly modern and secularized environments such as today's Barcelona.

* * *

From June 14-16, the Vatican sponsored a conference on the "New Age" movement, a multi-faceted spiritual awakening in much of the world that draws on such disparate sources of inspiration as ancient Gnostic texts, tarot cards, and Eastern practices such as Zen and yoga. The reference point for the discussion was the Vatican document "Jesus Christ, bearer of living water: a Christian reflection on the New Age," published in February 2003.

Representatives of the episcopal conferences of 22 countries and five continents, as well as members of the Roman Curia and a representative of the Union of Superiors-General, took part in the Vatican meeting.

The meeting's final report asserts that the "solid treasury of the spiritual, ascetic, and mystical patrimony of Christianity" is not well enough known, even among Catholics.

Having just completed a tour of Spanish Marian shrines, I can't help but feel they're onto something. If what contemporary seekers want is a mix of ancient wisdom with a lively sense of the angelic and the preternatural, places like Montserrat, Torreciudad and Pilar have it in droves. Perhaps rather than trying to reason its way out of the challenge posed by New Age movements, the church would do better to promote its alternatives.

* * *

Newsday asked me to write an op/ed piece about the story I broke in "The Word From Rome" two weeks ago about President George Bush's suggestion to Vatican officials that some American bishops are not aggressive enough on cultural issues, especially gay marriage.

Here's the piece, which appeared Wednesday, June 23.

* * *

Despite wearing his Christianity on his sleeve, President George W. Bush appears to be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't when it comes to the world's most important Christian leader, Pope John Paul II.

When Bush rejected the Vatican's moral criticism of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq a year ago, he was criticized for not listening to the pope. Now, however, that Bush has solicited the Vatican's help on "culture of life" issues, especially the anti-gay marriage push, he's blasted for mixing religion with politics.

This perhaps goes to show that where one draws the line on church/state separation often has a lot to do with what one thinks of whatever the church, or the state, has to say.

I recently broke the story that in a June 4 meeting with senior Vatican officials (not in his private encounter with John Paul II the same day), Bush, according to a Vatican source, said that "not all the American bishops are with me" on cultural issues. My sources said the president particularly had in mind a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The report triggered umbrage from critics who believe that Bush crossed a line by requesting political help from a foreign religious leader. For anyone familiar with the history of relations between the United States and the Vatican, however, this feels rather like Captain Louis Renault's being "shocked" to find gambling at Rick's.

For example, during the Second World War President Franklin Roosevelt sent Myron Taylor as his personal representative to the Vatican. In the recent book Inside the Vatican of Pius XII, diaries kept by Taylor's aide, Harold Tittman, reveal that Tittman once met with the head of the Jesuits, Fr. Vladimir Ledochowski, who warned that certain U.S. bishops might have pro-Axis sympathies. He had in mind Cardinal William O'Connell of Boston and Archbishop John Timothy McNicholas of Cincinnati, two Irishmen who felt ambivalent about the United States backing their traditional enemies, the British. The episode amounts to a mirror image of the Bush story, since Ledochowski, an informal conduit for Vatican views, was suggesting that the U.S. government should get American bishops on board with the president's policies.

Another example: It was President Ronald Reagan who convinced the Senate to establish full diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984. Part of his logic was to use Rome as leverage against the U.S. bishops, since Reagan felt the bishops were drifting too far to the left on nuclear deterrence and the economy, and he worried that they might undercut American Catholic support for his agenda.

The political dimension to U.S./Vatican ties is hardly surprising. The pope is not just another foreign head of state, but the supreme authority of a church with 65 million adherents in the United States. Though American Catholics rarely vote as a block, presidents dare not ignore them. This has never been more true than today, when Catholics are over-represented in the key battleground states that determine presidential winners and losers.

The pope is also the world's preeminent voice of conscience, and American presidents, who like to wrap their policies in moral language, often seek his support, or at least try to avoid his opposition. The Clinton administration, for example, tried to make a deal with the Vatican prior to United Nations conferences in the mid-1990s on women and reproductive rights. This was not just multilateral diplomacy; the White House was worried about alienating domestic Catholic opinion. (In the end these efforts came to naught, and relations between Clinton and the Vatican soured).

So why do some critics find Bush's request, as one put it, "mind-boggling?"

We're in election season, and everything that Bush does is seen through the lens of partisan politics. Hence his comment about some bishops not being with him is seen less as a president's appeal for support on moral issue, than a politician's craven attempt to win votes. The Bush people understand this, which is why a White House spokesperson recently said that the president knows the Holy Father "is not a political figure, and would not try to turn him into one."

It's a pious sentiment, but not fully honest. Popes are indeed spiritual figures, but their spiritual stands have political consequences. When presidents feel they're aligned with the pope, it's natural that they look to him for support, including tactical considerations with domestic political implications.

Anyone whose mind is boggled by this should find another spectator sport.

* * *

I often struggle to convince my fellow journalists, and other cynics, that the vast majority of cardinals do not want to be pope. This may be difficult for some people to believe, but in my experience it's true. There is both a noble and a more human explanation for this reality.

The noble reason is that the vast majority of cardinals are "true believers" when it comes to the traditional theological understanding of the pope as the vicar of Christ on earth and the successor of St. Peter. For one who truly accepts that teaching, being pope is an almost unimaginably august role, and most cardinals, knowing their own weaknesses and sinfulness, simply don't think they're worthy.

As the saying goes, anybody who wants this job doesn't understand it.

The more human reason is that being pope is a bone-crushing burden that one carries seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, until death. Being a retired cardinal, on the other hand, is a fairly sweet deal. You still get invitations to all the right cocktail parties, you still get the best tables at restaurants, but you don't have to go to work in the morning. There is time to read, to write, to travel, and to pray. Comparing those two options for their golden years, most men strongly prefer the latter.

Nevertheless, there is a certain kind of "campaigning" that goes on for the papacy, in the sense that cardinals cannot help but size one another up as candidates for the Church's top job. Hence every time a cardinal steps out onto the public stage these days -- for a major speech, a published interview, an important liturgy -- he is scrutinized as a possible pope.

Thus on June 22, when Cardinal Diogini Tettamanzi of Milan addressed the Israeli Knesset, his audience was broader than Israeli lawmakers. Much of the Catholic world was also paying attention.

The consensus afterwards was that while Tettamanzi didn't hit a home run, he didn't strike out either … a solidly hit single, as baseball announcers might say.

Tettamanzi called on all parties to the Middle East conflict to take a step back.

"The complex reality cannot be simplified by the dreams of those who want peace," he said. "But the parties to this conflict must have the capacity on each side to reverse themselves, to move in the direction of dialog and reconciliation. To accomplish this, it is necessary to be more humble, more courageous, and wiser."

Tettamanzi was in Jerusalem to take part in the "paths to peace" framework promoted by the Ecumenical Council of the Christian Churches of Milan (created in 1998 by Milan's now-retired Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini).

Tettamanzi also told the representatives, "In these past few days, I have encountered much suffering, but also many small experiences of peace and of reconciliation. … It is imperative for us all to build peace in the world."

* * *

I was recently asked by Ireland's national radio network to appear on their morning show after reports surfaced suggesting that there might be a papal trip under consideration to the Emerald Isle.

The producer was crystal clear about what they wanted me to discuss: "Is there any chance in Hell the pope could actually do it?"

As it turns out, my cell phone lost its signal in Rome's Fiumicino airport just as I was to go on the air, and hence the good people of Ireland were denied my insights. What I would have said, however, is this: Yes, the pope has the physical capacity to make the trip. Whether he actually goes, of course, depends on many other factors.

The 84-year-old pope, to tell the truth, is actually fairly stable. His circulation, heart rate, diet and sleep patterns are all within healthy limits, his doctors say, which means that he can bear his other problems with greater endurance than an elderly person whose underlying health was weaker. He can indeed still travel, and in fact he has not ruled out a trip to Mexico in October.

The main problem the pope has with traveling are the physical movements, such as getting in and out of the car or the papal plane. Because of his bad hip and arthritic knees, the exertions come at a high cost. He tires much more easily outside of Rome, which compounds all his other problems. This is the primary reason why, as my reporting showed some weeks ago, the pope has lost only 40 percent of his capacity in Rome, as measured by his official schedule, but some 75 percent on the road.

All this imposes a new modality on papal travel, which is to keep internal movements to a minimum. Hence the days when John Paul would barnstorm across a country are over. The new style is for people to come to him, so that he is likely to visit one or two sites at most on any given trip. His public schedule will also be minimal, to give him time to recover from those exertions he simply can't avoid.

Confirmation of the trip will also be delayed until the last minute, so that fluctuations in health can be monitored and downturns will not create the need for potentially embarrassing cancellations.

All this aside, most pope watchers expect that there will be additional trips even to relatively distant locations. Whether Ireland is on the itinerary, however, is anyone's guess.

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

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