By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
18-25 marks the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an annual celebration of the
ecumenical movement. Opening the week in his Angelus address on Jan. 18, John
Paul II urged Christians to unite for the sake of peace.
world that thirsts for peace, it is urgent for the Christian community to
announce the Gospel in a harmonious way,” the pope said.
departure from custom, John Paul will not go to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside
the Walls on Sunday, Jan. 25, for the ecumenical vespers closing the week.
Instead, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for the
Promotion of Christian Unity, will lead the service.
Sunday Jan. 18, Anglican Bishop John Flack, the representative of the Archbishop
of Canterbury in Rome, preached at the Sunday Mass at the Oratory of St. Francis
Xavier del Caravita, an English-speaking Catholic community founded by a group
of Jesuits and a Viatorian. He spoke about ecumenical ties.
share a common baptism, and that is a staggering fact,” Flack told the assembly
at Caravita. “It is the first of all Christian sacraments, and thus much of what
divides us takes a secondary place.”
Thursday, Jan. 22, Fr. Hermann Pottmeyer gave a lecture at the Centro Pro Unione,
Rome’s main ecumenical center, which was followed by an ecumenical service
presided over by Rev. Pieter Bouman, pastor of the Ponte Sant’Angelo Methodist
Church in Rome. Flack delivered the sermon.
Pottmeyer, an eminent German Catholic theologian and member of the International
Theological Commission that advises the Vatican on doctrinal matters, began with
a metaphor. Theological debate between the divided Christian churches, he said,
sometimes resembles a frontier zone between countries that have been at war,
scarred by trenches and the residue of conflict, including land mines. The most
dangerous theological land mine, he said, is the dogma of the primacy of the
successor of Peter.
Pottmeyer meant is that no point looms larger in dialogue between the Catholic
church and the other branches of the Christian family than the power of the
pope, and, by extension, of the Roman Curia. Most other theological problems
could perhaps be resolved, but debates over papal authority are where ecumenical
dreams go to die.
Pottmeyer’s subject was the ministry of the pope as defined at the First Vatican
Council, with its two-part dogma of papal primacy and infallibility. The heart
of his argument was that the minority at Vatican I, which initially resisted a
declaration of papal infallibility on the grounds that it was “inopportune” and
then worked to have its terms made less sweeping, succeeded in keeping the
doctrine “open” to collegiality and a communio ecclesiology.
Ironically, the majority and minority positions between Vatican I and Vatican II
more or less flip-flopped.
minority at Vatican I feared a betrayal of the ancient tradition of the church”
by an exaggerated emphasis on papal authority, Pottmeyer said. “The minority at
Vatican II feared a betrayal of Vatican I.”
securing a limited declaration of papal primacy and infallibility that does not
exclude the involvement of the whole College of Bishops in the governance of the
church, Pottmeyer said the minority at Vatican I deserves a “place of honor in
the ecumenical hall of fame.”
his sermon, Flack emphasized friendship as the foundation of ecumenical
the pendulum of formal inter-church relationships swing backwards and forwards,
and most of what we do together will be unaffected,” he said.
proposed this maxim: “Always do together whatever we do not have to do
* * *
sympathize with those weary of the controversy surrounding the alleged papal
reaction, “It is as it was,” to Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ.”
Not even the most rabid ultramontanist believes papal infallibility extends to
movie reviews, so the film will rise or fall on its own merits, apart from
anything John Paul thinks. Moreover, the increasingly farcical “he said, she
said” nature of the story is hardly edifying.
there are times when a story is important not so much for its content as for
what it reveals about the players involved, and the institutions they serve.
Such is the case with the pope’s alleged comment, and I’m afraid it doesn’t
reveal much flattering about anyone.
developments this week began with a scoop on the part of Cindy Wooden, a veteran
Vatican writer for the Catholic News Service. On Jan. 19, she filed a story
based on exclusive comments from Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s
private secretary, denying that the pope had made the lapidary comment ascribed
to him by Vatican sources in NCR and elsewhere: “It is as it was.”
response, Gibson’s production company issued a statement saying it had
communications from Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesperson, confirming
the alleged comment and authorizing its use. Icon Productions, however, refused
to release any documents and declined further comment.
Another wrinkle came Jan. 21, when the assistant director of the movie, an
Italian named Jan Michelini, released a statement to NCR insisting that
he heard Dziwisz confirm the pope’s positive reaction.
January 22 column, Catholic writer Peggy Noonan, who originally reported the
pope’s comment on the Web site of the Wall Street Journal more or less
simultaneously with NCR, said she had seen an e-mail allegedly from
Navarro advising Steve McEveety, the movie’s producer, to use the papal comment
“again and again and again.” She said, however, that in response to a
colleague’s query, Navarro had denied that the e-mail is authentic. Dallas
Morning News columnist Rod Dreher, the colleague mentioned by Noonan, wrote
about the e-mail on Jan. 21.
have seen the e-mail allegedly from Navarro, which reads: “The piece on the
WSJ was something and it remains ‘the’ point on our position. Nobody can
deny it. So keep mentioning it as the authorized point of reference. I would
try to make the words ‘It is as it was’ the leit motive [sic] in any discussion
on the film. Repeat the words again and again and again.” The e-mail is
date-stamped Sunday, Dec. 28, at 6:00 am.
Finally, on Jan. 22, Navarro-Valls finally broke his long public silence on the
controversy with a statement released by the Vatican press office.
“After having consulted with the personal secretary of the Holy Father,
Archbishop Dziwisz, I confirm that the Holy Father had the opportunity to see
the film ‘The Passion of Christ,’” the statement said. “The film is a
cinematographic transposition of the historical event of the Passion of Jesus
Christ according to the accounts of the Gospel. It is a common practice of the
Holy Father not to express public opinions on artistic works, opinions that are
always open to different evaluations of aesthetic character.”
There’s some Vatican-speak here, but the thrust seems clear. Navarro is saying
the film depicts what’s in the Gospel, which was the essence of the “It is as it
was” remark, and while the pope doesn’t make public statements on such matters,
Navarro is not denying that John Paul may have passed along a private reaction.
Here’s how we got here.
Dec. 5 and 6, a Friday and Saturday, John Paul II watched “The Passion of the
Christ” in his private apartment along with Dziwisz. On Monday, Dec. 8, Dzwisiz
received McEveety; McEveety’s wife; Jan Michelini; and Alberto Michelini, Jan’s
father. Their conversation took place largely in Italian, a language McEveety
and his wife don’t speak. The Michelinis afterwards translated for McEveety what
they believe they heard Dziwisz say, namely, that the pope’s reaction to the
film was, “It is as it was.” Later that night, McEveety screened the movie for
the Michelinis had access to the pope is not difficult to explain. Alberto
Michelini is a well-known Italian journalist and politician, who in 1979
accompanied the pope on his first trip to Poland. Chatting with the pope during
the visit, Michelini expressed regret that he was away from home and thus
missing the birth of Jan and his twin sister. John Paul volunteered to make it
up to Michelini by doing the baptisms himself, so Jan and his sister were
actually the first two babies he baptized as pope. The fact that the pope
baptized the assistant director 24 years ago certainly helps explain why John
Paul wanted to see the film.
the record, both Alberto Michelini and Navarro are members of Opus Dei.
Michelini, in a widely reported footnote to the story, was struck by lightning
twice in connection with work on “The Passion.” Michelini told me recently that
one of these incidents took place on Dec. 5, the day the pope saw the first part
of the film).
Dec. 17, the National Catholic Reporter and the Wall Street Journal
independently reported that John Paul II had said, “It is as it was.” The
Wall Street Journal cited Dziwisz as its source, relayed through McEveety.
NCR cited an anonymous “senior Vatican source.” Reuters and the
Associated Press ran stories confirming the quote the next day.
Dec. 24, the Catholic News Service cited two anonymous Vatican officials to the
effect that the pope had not made any such remark. Other news agencies jumped
into the fray, some citing anonymous sources confirming the pope’s comment,
others casting doubt. I went back to the original source of the NCR
story, who repeated that the pope said, “It is as it was.”
the Jan. 19 CNS piece, other news outlets, including the New York Times,
cited Vatican officials anonymously who maintain the pope probably said it.
Here’s what CNS quoted Dziwisz as saying:
said clearly to McEveety and Michelini that the Holy Father made no declaration.
I said the Holy Father saw the film privately in his apartment, but gave no
declaration to anyone. He does not make judgments on art of this kind; he leaves
that to others, to experts.”
“Clearly, the Holy Father made no judgment of the film,” he said.
Whatever the truth of the matter, why would Dziwisz issue a public denial?
Observers see three motives, all falling under the heading of “protecting the
Dziwisz doesn’t want the pope drawn into the controversy over whether or not
“The Passion” is anti-Semitic;
• The pope is not supposed to give commercial endorsements;
• The leak, whether true or not, represents an invasion of the pope’s privacy.
Finally, here is the full text of the statement Jan Michelini released to NCR
confirm what I have already stated: The pope has seen the ‘Passion’ by Mel
Gibson and has appreciated it because it represents a faithful transcription of
He has seen the movie
together with his secretary, Mons. Stanislaw Dziwisz, in his apartment during a
strictly private and informal screening. For this reason there never was, nor
could there ever have been an official communiqué, nor a public statement about
the screening. Faced with some specious criticism, the secretary of the Holy
Father couldn’t but deny. It is upsetting to see how the semantic
interpretation of the few words said during a private conversation between the
secretary of the pope, the producer Steve McEveety, and myself have been
incorrectly used by some journalists.
This is what I have
finally to say regarding this issue.”
does all this leave us?
one can have ironclad certainty about what the pope said. Based on Navarro’s
Jan. 22 statement, it is possible that the pope said something like “It is as it
was,” but intended this as a private reaction. My original source continues to
insist this is the case. On the other hand, there is no confirmation of the
one comes out of this mess looking good.
makers of the film have been widely accused of either lying about the pope’s
comment, or abusing John Paul’s confidence by publicizing a private remark. If
either of those charges is true it would be reprehensible, but if not, their
reputation has been done a serious injustice.
Reporters, myself certainly included, look like naïfs who have been spun every
which way, or worse yet, like willing partners in someone's dishonesty. If
nothing else, it's a wake-up call about the dangers of reliance on anonymous
sources, a fact of reporting life in the Vatican. Officials here rarely speak on
the record, so those of us who cover the Vatican are constantly dealing with
unnamed sources. This incident undoubtedly has raised the bar on caution for all
Pundits in the States who have confidently pronounced on the story — both those
who embraced the pope’s alleged comment because they’re favorably inclined to
the movie, and those who shot it down because they’re not — look like spin
doctors more interested in scoring ideological points than establishing the
Vatican has made the worst brutta figura. Even if officials were acting
for the noblest of motives, they have stretched the meaning of words, on and off
the record, to their breaking point. Aside from the obvious moralism that it’s
wrong to deceive, such confusion can only enhance perceptions that the aging
John Paul II is incapable of controlling his own staff, that “no one is in
charge” and the church is adrift. These impressions are not healthy in a time
when the church’s public image, especially in the United States, has already
taken a beating on other grounds.
cynic might say that all this free publicity can only help the film, and perhaps
that’s true; we’ll see when it opens Feb. 25 on 2,000 screens in the United
States. But if this is someone’s idea of good luck, I’d hate to see bad.
* * *
a chance to see “The Passion of the Christ” at a Rome screening on Jan. 22. I am
neither a movie critic nor a theologian, so I will spare the world my personal
opinion about the merits of the film.
Speaking as a former Catholic high school teacher, however, what I can say is
that the film makes a powerful impression, and is sure to arouse intense
curiosity in those who see it, especially the young. Viewers will want to talk
about what they see; they will want to discuss what happens in the movie, why,
and what to make of it. One Vatican official who has seen the film believes
there will be conversions because of it. That’s possible, but what I’m sure of
is that there will be questions.
hope, therefore, that the church in the United States is preparing itself to
respond to this curiosity. I hope youth groups and small faith communities and
Bible study groups and Catholic schools are preparing ways for people to come
together, and not just the usual suspects, but people who ordinarily have little
contact with the church but who will feel the need to talk.
terms of pastoral response, whether one likes Mel Gibson or approves of “The
Passion” really isn’t the point. The controversy has all but guaranteed that
people will see the film, and thus it represents a “teaching moment.”
* * *
TV networks broadcast images of the devastation caused by an earthquake in the
Iranian city of Bam on Dec. 26, which claimed some 40,000 lives and left tens of
thousands homeless, most people saw it as the beginning of a humanitarian
ten Boer saw it as that too, but also as the end of his vacation.
a Dutchman who works for the Catholic aid agency Caritas in Indonesia, had just
arrived with his family in Holland for a long-awaited vacation. When the news
about Bam broke, however, Boer knew a phone call might come asking him to
mobilize as part of an emergency Caritas relief team. When it did, his family
looked at the near-apocalyptic scene on TV and told him, “You have to go.”
reached Boer in his hotel a few kilometers outside Bam on Jan. 19.
told me that he’s been part of teams responding to both natural disasters and
wars, in places such as Kosovo and parts of Africa, but Bam is the worst scene
he’s ever witnessed.
“Every family was affected,” he said. “I met one woman who lost her husband and
all her children. I met another who lost five children. It’s had a huge impact.”
the same time, Boer said, he’s optimistic that Bam can be rebuilt. There’s a
huge economic zone on the outskirts of town that’s still standing, he said. It
features a mammoth factory of the Korean corporation Daewoo. Bam is also famous
throughout the Middle East, Boer said, for the quality of its dates.
also gave credit to the Iranians for effective emergency response. The Red
Crescent was on the ground immediately. Electricity was back on within a few
days, and the water pipes are being repaired.
main problem right now, Boer said, is not a lack of food or medicine, but the
fact that many people don’t want to leave the ruined city in part because
they’re still trying to dig out their valuables, such as centuries-old Persian
rugs. Hence it’s difficult to distribute supplies to the people who need them.
After a prescribed 40-day mourning period for the dead, Boer said, more people
may begin to move into camps where it’s easier to get them help.
Boer’s job is to organize food supplies for a village called Esfikan on the
outskirts of town. It’s a village of some 2,400 people, of whom 700 were killed
in the quake. The population has been swelled, however, because some of the
homeless from the city have crossed a river to put up tents in the village.
Long-term, Boer said, the relief teams are racing against the clock to get up
temporary shelter prior to the cold mountain winds of March-April and then the
brutally hot days of late spring and summer, when temperatures can soar to 45-50
degrees Celsius. The Iranian government and the Turkish government have provided
some 12,000 trailers to serve as lodgings, but that leaves another 13,000 still
“We’ve got to get these people out of tents and into proper shelter before the
hot period starts,” Boer said. “Otherwise that’s another disaster all its own.”
Anyone wishing to support the Caritas effort can direct donations to your local
Caritas affiliate. (In the United States, that’s Catholic Relief Services). If
you don’t know whom to contact, you can send a message to Caritas headquarters
here in Rome at
firstname.lastname@example.org, and they will put you in touch.
* * *
attended the gala papal “Concert of Reconciliation” on Saturday evening, Jan.
17, featuring choirs from Krakow, Pittsburgh and Ankara performing an original
piece of music dedicated to Abraham, father of the three monotheistic faiths, as
well as Mahler’s Second Symphony, the “Resurrection Symphony.”
Seated next to the pope were Rabbi Elio Toaff, emeritus chief rabbi of Rome and
a friend of John Paul, as well as Abdulawahab Hussein Gomaa, imam of the Rome
mosque. The images of the three religious leaders together underscored the
evening’s theme of reconciliation among the three monotheistic faiths. (For
anyone who thinks this is cheap symbolism, let me point out that a Christian
radio station in Pittsburgh accused the pope of asserting that Judaism,
Christianity and Islam are equally valid paths of salvation, something John Paul
did not say. But it illustrates the theological sensitivity surrounding
inter-religious gatherings, a sensitivity that has its echoes inside the
his remarks, the pope made a plea for understanding.
history of relations among Jews, Christians and Muslims is characterized by
lights and shadows,” the pope said, “ and unfortunately it has know painful
moments. Today, we feel a pressing need of a sincere reconciliation among the
believers in the one God.”
“Jews, Christians and Muslims cannot accept that the earth be afflicted by hate,
that humanity be overwhelmed by wars without end,” the pope said. “May God find
in us the courage of peace.”
the concert, the Knights of Columbus hosted a reception held, appropriately
enough, at the Hotel Columbus on the Via della Conciliazione, the broad avenue
leading up to St. Peter’s Square. Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the
Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism, who had introduced
the concert, offered a brief greeting.
* * *
Vice President Dick Cheney will meet John Paul II and other Vatican officials on
Tuesday, Jan. 27, and it seems increasingly probable that he’ll like much of
what he hears.
Cheney is scheduled to see the pope privately at 11 a.m., then meet with
Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State.
Holy See has not changed its opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Recent
weeks have seen a number of subtle signals, however, that it wants to
disassociate itself with some of the forms that opposition took, especially the
more shrill versions of leftist anti-Americanism and a kind of quasi-pacifist
naiveté about the risks posed by international terrorism.
pope’s message for World Peace Day was toned down after officials in the
Secretariat of State found some of the rhetoric too sharp, especially
suggestions that the United States had ridden roughshod over international law
in its invasion of Iraq. In the end, the text not only steered clear of such an
accusation, it stated that international law itself needs to be reviewed in
light of the new threat posed by stateless terrorism — an argument President
Bush has been making since 9/11.
Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, is sponsoring a conference on
“International Law and New Threats” tentatively scheduled for March 26, which
will involve Vatican officials in a dialogue on this question.
Jan. 15, the pope himself spoke in somber tones about terrorism, addressing
leaders from the city of Rome and the surrounding region.
“Together it’s essential to overcome tensions and conflicts,” John Paul said.
“It’s necessary to fight in compact fashion against terrorism, which,
unfortunately, has not avoided touching even this our beloved city.”
week, the Vatican’s new foreign minister voiced understanding for a key Bush
doctrine — so-called “preventive” war, the Italian equivalent for what in
American argot is called “preemptive” force. In an exclusive interview with
NCR, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo added that such a use of force should occur
under the auspices of the United Nations, not individual states, but it was
nevertheless a clear sign of understanding for the U.S. position. (If you missed
the interview with Lajolo, it is still on the NCR Web site; follow this
Interview with Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo.)
Cardinal Renato Martino, the president of the Pontifical Council for Peace and
Justice, whose comments on Saddam Hussein being treated “like a cow” stirred up
such controversy, got in on the reconciling act. At a Knights of Columbus
reception in Rome on Jan. 17, following the gala papal concert, Martino
announced that Supreme Knight Carl Anderson will be appointed a consultor for
his council. In the context of the recent row, it seemed a kind of olive branch
recently spoke to a senior Vatican diplomat who told me that the Holy See
believes it’s essential for the United States to play a strong leadership role
in the world, because of its commitment to human rights, democracy and religious
freedom. This is precisely why, the official said, the Vatican is alarmed by
what it perceives as a rising tide of anti-Americanism in world opinion, related
to impressions that the United States is indifferent to the international
can’t say to the United Nations, ‘Do what I want or you make yourself
irrelevant,’” the official said. “That will only make people angry.”
President George Bush vowed in his Jan. 20 State of the Union address that the
United States “will never seek a permission slip to
defend the security of our country,” this was the sort of rhetoric the
official had in mind.
when Cheney comes to town, he will likely hear great admiration and support for
much of what the United States is trying to accomplish — and a friend’s plea to
do a better job of bringing the rest of the world on board.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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