|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
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
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
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
“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
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
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
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