National Catholic Reporter ®

December 21, 2001 
Vol. 1, No. 17

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Feeling upbeat about the pope and fasting;
Rome’s really good guys in red (and yellow)

I sympathize with Catholics who believe that decentralization in the church is legitimate and urgent. But for all those who clamor in knee-jerk fashion for a downsized papacy, Dec. 14 might offer an object lesson. When the pope, with his enormous bully pulpit, finds the right button to push, the results can be impressive.

It’s moral capital that should not be squandered.

I don’t know how John Paul II’s call for Friday, Dec. 14, to be a day of fasting and prayer for peace was received in other parts of the world. I live in Italy, however, where if the pope sneezes the entire country catches cold, and hence by the nature of things the day was a big deal here.

     Some of my Italian friends resent the 800-pound-gorilla kind of influence the pope exercises on their political and cultural life, and given the checkered history of the Papal States, I understand the sentiment. Sitting down for a glass of wine in Rome’s Campo de Fiori beneath the massive, brooding statue of Bruno, burned to death on the spot on Feb. 17, 1600, is enough to dispel any lingering nostalgia for theocracy.

     But after three striking experiences connected to the Dec.14 fast, I found myself with a renewed appreciation for the papacy’s capacity to awaken the good in Catholic hearts.

     John Paul first called for a day of fasting and prayer for peace on Nov. 18. He returned to the idea in the Angelus address of December 9, explaining that since Dec. 14 was the last day of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, the fast would also unite Christians with Muslims. 

     It was a gesture with obvious, and enormous, relevance given the post-Sept. 11 world situation.

     For those who just can’t let go of the notion that the lone storyline of this papacy is “conservative pope vs. progressive dissenters,” Dec. 14 offers a classic counter-example. The strongest critics came from the Catholic right, who complained that the fast risked syncretism, or putting Islam on the same level with the One True Faith.

     Fr. Gianni Bagget Bozzo, a high-profile Italian priest who advises the conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said he refused to fast, in order to avoid “confusing the Christian faith with that of Islam.” Bagget Bozzo insisted that Allah is “another god” who has “nothing to do with the God of the Bible.”

     “Many other priests,” he said, “feel as I do but don’t have the courage to say so.”

     The Bishop of Como in northern Italy, Alessandro Maggiolini, said much the same thing. He announced that he would fast on Dec. 14, but not with pleasure. 

     “I’ll do it while holding that my faith is different from that of Islam, because my faith is true, while Islam is not,” Maggiolini said.

     It was heartening to see that, despite this criticism, the Vatican and most of Catholic Italy was undeterred.

     I started Dec. 14 in St. Peter’s Basilica at 8:00 am, where Cardinal Virgilio Noè, the vicar general for the Vatican city-state and the archpriest for the basilica, led a lovely Liturgy of the Word for Vatican personnel. It took place at the altar of St. Peter’s Chair, where I sat next to several guys who work on the Vatican grounds crew.

     Noè rightly emphasized that penance is implicit in a day of fasting. He said that if we want peace in the world, we must first seek it in our own hearts, pointing out that the humility needed to acknowledge fault is often in short supply.

     “We prefer to be condemned on our feet rather than forgiven on our knees,” Noè said. But that pride, he warned, prevents us from feeling “the joy of a sinner forgiven,” which he called a “very beautiful prospect” and a “great hope” for peace.

     Noè then moved to practical matters, suggesting various modes of carrying forward the fast. One could carry life’s burdens a bit more lightly, he said. One could foreswear certain diversions, such as TV. With a twinkle in his eye, he told his audience, made up largely of nicotine-addled Italians, that abstaining from cigarettes would be a nice touch. 

     I could actually hear the shivers run down the spines of the fellows on the grounds crew.

     Finally, Noè said that fasting during Ramadan invites Christians to appreciate the values of submission to God and compassion for the needy that Islam fosters.

     Noè knows what he’s talking about when he invokes concepts such as acceptance and hope. He spent most of his career working in the Congregation for Worship, implementing the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He then became a victim of the rollback on those reforms in the latter half of this pontificate, shunted off to relatively inconsequential appointments while more conservative forces took control. Privately, Noè is known to be frustrated with the direction being set by Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina, whose aim is a more uniform, traditionally Roman liturgical style.

     Yet Noè is also a man of faith, a loyal servant of the church, and continues serving as best he can, confident that all will work out in God’s time. Hence I found his counsel especially moving.

     Later in the morning I arrived at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, where several curial departments with offices in the nearby Piazza San Calisto had organized a service. These include the Council for Laity, Council for the Family, Cor Unum, the Council for Peace and Justice, the Council for Pastoral Care for Migrants, and the Council for Culture. 

     Japanese Archbishop Stephen Hamao, who heads the Council for Migrants, gave the opening reflection. (Hamao, by the way, collapsed during the October synod of bishops and was rushed to the hospital for very serious emergency surgery. Thankfully he is more or less recovered).

     Hamao called the fast “an attempt at dialogue and communion” between Catholics and “our Muslim brothers.” He prayed that fasting would open hearts to the need for peace. He said that in Japan some Buddhist monks perform a 10-day fast every two or three years. Their motto is: “Empty stomachs, full souls.”

     During the Mass that followed, Cardinal Giovanni Cheli’s homily offered the strongest anti-war statement I have heard from any Vatican official since Sept. 11. 

     (Cheli, now retired, is the former head of the Council for Migrants, where he was the boss and patron of exorcist Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo. His soap opera-style marriage riveted the world last summer. To Cheli’s credit, he stood by his friend, and is credited with helping bring the affair to resolution).

     After Sept. 11, Cheli said, people found themselves asking, “How can we bring an enduring peace to the world?” 

     “The Western powers decided that war is the only way to attack terrorism and bring peace, and so war with all its force has fallen upon Afghanistan,” Cheli said. “Inevitably it has taken the lives of unarmed persons, destroyed homes, created orphans and widows, produced hunger, and left sick people without medicines.”

     “Today,” Cheli said, “we see the result. Even worse evils are loose in the world, in the Middle East and elsewhere. There is a new level of hate, of desperation, of violence.”

     Nothing can justify terrorism, Cheli said. But there are “enormous injustices” in the world, he said, such as the denial to whole peoples of the right to determine their own future. “The fight against terrorism,” he said, “must start here.”

     “Our arms must be prayer, penance and charity,” Cheli said. “They are the only ones that can secure the victory.”

     Finally, to get a sense of how the fast was playing outside the circle of papal employees, I dropped in on CIPAX, the Inter-confessional Center for Peace, on the Via Ostiense. It’s run by a former Italian priest named Gianni Novelli, one of the gentlest people on the planet, and is an indispensable port of call for peace and justice activists in Rome. 

     During the hour or so I spent there, one member of the group read aloud a searing letter from a 22-year-old Afghan woman whose infant son lost his legs during the bombing of Kandahar. She wrote of having promised to keep her child safe as the bombs began to fall, and her powerlessness to keep that promise. 

     It may be that what the West has done in Afghanistan is necessary. But anyone tempted to feel the least bit of pride should listen to this letter. 

     “How can you explain to a little child that the world hates terrorism, which means killing the innocent, but as a response they bomb us?” she asked.

     Silent meditation followed. Then we were then led through an exercise in which we were asked to name our own enemies, a step towards overcoming personal tendencies to violence. One person mentioned a colleague who doesn’t listen, another anyone who passes by without noticing that she exists.

     Afterwards, the CIPAX group headed out to a mosque for joint prayer with Muslims. I peeled off to go home, tired and reflective.

     I found myself struck by how the spiritual and intellectual energy I had witnessed, the soul-searching inside and outside official church structures, had been unleashed by a very personal initiative of John Paul II.

     I sympathize with Catholics who believe that decentralization in the church is legitimate and urgent. But for all those who clamor in knee-jerk fashion for a downsized papacy, Dec. 14 might offer an object lesson. When the pope, with his enormous bully pulpit, finds the right button to push, the results can be impressive.

     It’s moral capital that should not be squandered.

* * *

     Readers who have never lived in Rome may be surprised to learn that the most popular men in red in this town are not cardinals like Sodano or Ratzinger. They are instead soccer stars such as Francesco Totti and Gabriele Battistuta, who play for the giallorossi — the red-and-yellow-shirted La Roma soccer club (or as the Italians call the game, calcio).

     Sodano and Ratzinger may be big ecclesiastical cheeses, but nobody in Rome plunks down fistfulls of lire for replica cassocks with their names on the back, as they do for Totti and Battistuta jerseys.

     As of this writing, Rome is coming off a huge 1-0 win against Milan that puts them in a tie for first place in the Italian championship.

     Calcio to Italians is something like the NFL, Major League Baseball, and March Madness all rolled into one. The season goes almost all year, and fans rise or fall emotionally on the fortunes of their squad. Last year, amid all the carefully choreographed public events of the papal Jubilee, the lone spontaneous outpouring I witnessed came in May, when Rome claimed its first championship since 1983.

     Why do I mention this?

     I offer it as a tip for anyone who will ever have contact with the Vatican, whose personnel can be notoriously reserved around strangers. If you find yourself on the phone or in a curial office, in need of an icebreaker, I suggest something like the following:

     “You think La Roma has a shot this year?”

     You will be amazed at how many scowls turn to grins, how many closed doors open a notch or two, by virtue of raising the subject. In my experience, there are few better modes of entry. This works, by the way, not just in the curia but in virtually any realm of Italian life.

     Hence as part of my solemn duty to keep readers informed, I’ll pass along periodic updates here on La Roma. (Think NCR will pick up the cost of my satellite dish as a business expense?)

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

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