National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
The Word From Rome

January 23, 2004 
Vol. 3, No. 22

Web address:
John L. Allen Jr. 

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; Update on 'The Passion'; Caritas work in Bam, Iran; The Concert of Reconciliation; Anticipating a visit from Dick Cheney


"Always do together whatever we do not have to do separately."

Anglican Bishop John Flack,
the representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury in Rome speaking on ecumenism





Jan. 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.

“In a world that thirsts for peace, it is urgent for the Christian community to announce the Gospel in a harmonious way,” the pope said.

In a 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.

On 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.

“We 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.”

On 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.

What 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.

“The 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.”

By 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.”

In his sermon, Flack emphasized friendship as the foundation of ecumenical progress.

“Let the pendulum of formal inter-church relationships swing backwards and forwards, and most of what we do together will be unaffected,” he said.

Flack proposed this maxim: “Always do together whatever we do not have to do separately.”

* * *

I 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.

Yet 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.

The 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.”

In 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.

In a 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.

I too 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.

On 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 Navarro.

That 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.

For the record, both Alberto Michelini and Navarro are members of Opus Dei.

 (Jan 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).

On 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.

On 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.”

After 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:

 “I 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 pope:”

• 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 Jan. 21:

“I 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 the Gospel. 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.

Where does all this leave us?

No 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 remark.

No one comes out of this mess looking good.

The 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 of us.

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 truth.

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.

A 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.

* * *

I had 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.

I 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.

In 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.”

* * *

When 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 crisis.

Tom ten Boer saw it as that too, but also as the end of his vacation.

Boer, 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.”

I reached Boer in his hotel a few kilometers outside Bam on Jan. 19.

Boer 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.”

At 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.

Boer 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.

The 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 needed.

“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, and they will put you in touch.

* * *

I 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 Vatican).

In his remarks, the pope made a plea for understanding.

“The 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.”

After 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.

* * *

U.S. 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.

The 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.

The 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.

James 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.

On 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.”

Last 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 link: Interview with Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo.)

 Even 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 for Americans.

I 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 community.

“You 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.”

When 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.

Hence 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

Copyright © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  1-816-531-0538      FAX:  1-816-968-2280