|At any given time, Rome is
swimming with people who believe they have some urgent reason to see the
pope. Motives run from the kooky (wanting to brief John Paul on the latest
Masonic plot to subvert the church) to the charming (a Boy Scout troop
wants to give the pope an honorary merit badge). I once happened to be
standing at the bronze door of the apostolic palace waiting for an appointment,
and in a span of no more than twenty minutes five different parties showed
up to make their case for being received by the Holy Father.
For most of these folks,
the closest they’ll ever get to the pope is a Swiss Guard explaining how
to get tickets to the Wednesday general audience. Especially these days,
John Paul has neither the time nor the physical capacity to meet everyone
who wants a piece of his attention.
Thus when Americans Gary
Bergeron, his 78-year-old father Joseph, and their friend Bernie McDade,
all from the Boston area, arrived in Rome on March 23 to seek a private
meeting with John Paul II, they faced long odds. And in fact, they flew
back to Boston the morning of March 28 without any face time with the pontiff.
They took home, however,
something that the vast majority of seekers never get: a personal message
from the pope, carried to their hotel by one of his senior aides, communicated
over the course of a private meeting that stretched over more than an hour.
What makes the Bergerons
and McDade different? All three say they were sexually abused at the hands
of Catholic priests, and they came to Rome to try to make the pope understand
the nightmare they and the American Catholic Church have lived through.
Gary Bergeron and McDade
are in their early forties, and say they were abused by the same Boston-area
priest, Fr. Joseph Birmingham, when they were altar boys. Only after Gary
disclosed this experience to his father did Joseph reveal that he, too,
had been abused, also when he was an altar boy. The pain of that revelation
seems not to have dulled; during a March 24 press conference at Rome’s
Foreign Press Club, the elder Bergeron did not speak, but wept quietly.
“I would like five minutes
to explain what is really going on,” Gary Bergeron said that day of his
request to see the pope.
In search of that five
minutes, the three men spent the better part of a week knocking on doors,
making phone calls, and sending faxes. They visited the apostolic palace
each morning, to the point that they developed a joking relationship with
the Swiss Guards, who would ask them: “How far did you get today?”
All of this activity
was complicated by the fact that the tiny hotel they selected on the Via
Gracchi, a 10 minute walk from the Vatican, was having problems with its
phone system. Hence the three had to go to a coffee bar across the street
to make or receive phone calls.
By way of summing up
their efforts, Bergeron told me they tried six times to get in touch with
Bishop James Harvey, an American who heads the papal household. They left
three messages and sent a fax to Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s personal
secretary. They left two messages for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s
top doctrinal official, and two other messages for another official in
Ratzinger’s office. They also sent two letters to Fr. Ciro Benedettini,
the deputy director of the Vatican press office.
The result? Nothing.
To be fair, Bergeron
told me, the people at the American embassy to the Vatican were helpful,
and one English-speaking Vatican official did take an interest in their
situation, apologizing that he couldn’t do more to help. Yet by mid-afternoon
Thursday, facing a return flight home and with little to show, the three
men were feeling stymied by what Bergeron jokingly called “a Roman hex.”
Then the phone at the
coffee bar rang. It was Msgr. James Green, newly appointed as the head
of the English desk in the Secretariat of State. It’s an important job
with access to the pope; previous occupants include the current head of
the papal household, the secretary of the Council for Promoting Christian
Unity, and the archbishop of St. Louis.
“We understand you want
from us,” McDade said Green told him.
Green declined comment
on the story.
McDade said he briefly
explained why they wanted to see the pope. Green was cautious, but offered
to come see them that evening at 6:30. McDade said Green was concerned
that there not be any lawyers; McDade assured him they would be alone.
As a footnote, Vatican
officials at Green’s level don’t just hop into cars and go see the Boy
Scouts and the conspiracy theorists clamoring to see the pope. His willingness
to meet the three men signaled above-average interest.
When Green arrived, along
with a second American priest, he opened the meeting with an “Our Father.”
At the end of the session, Joseph Bergeron, who describes himself as a
very devout Catholic, asked for a blessing. The group also prayed the “Hail
Mary.” Green passed out rosaries.
In the end, Bergeron
told me, the meeting was “very intense, very emotional, very good.” Green,
Bergeron said, wanted to know what they made of the U.S. bishops’ new sex
abuse norms, their views about Bishop Richard Lennon (the interim replacement
for Cardinal Bernard Law), and in general about the climate in Boston and
the American church. “Everything was on the table,” Bergeron said.
The most unexpected development
came when Green told the men he had a “direct message” for them from John
“The Holy Father realizes
the seriousness of this problem, and is doing all he can,” Bergeron said
Green told them, saying they were free to share the message with other
victims. “He will continue to do all he can to heal the church and to pray
for the victims. He will see that this doesn’t happen again.”
Bergeron said Green then
told them that the pope had also directed him to bring back messages from
the three men that very night.
Joseph Bergeron went
first. “The Holy Father needs to make sure that this never, ever, ever
happens to another child,” he told Green.
McDade followed. “The
Holy Father needs to heal the church, not just the survivors but the church
itself. He needs to realize how the church in the United States is hurting.”
Gary Bergeron concluded.
“The Holy Father needs to put a face with the problem, meaning he needs
to meet with us,” he said. “If not me, meet with my father. If not him,
then some victim he can associate with the problem. Only then will he understand
the depth of the wound.”
Bergeron said Green seemed
“adamant” that they were unlikely to get a meeting with the pope. Yet Bergeron
told him they planned to be back in Rome on July 29, his father’s birthday,
and would come knocking on the door again.
“Maintain your courage,”
Bergeron says Green told them.
* * *
Anyone who knows the
Catholic world must realize that the present anti-war chorus from church
leaders is a better index of the force of John Paul II’s personality than
of any genuine consensus on the Iraq conflict. Under the papal banner are
grouped Catholics with very diverse ideas about the causes of this war,
its rights and wrongs, and what its implications are for global geo-politics.
Example: Italy’s left-leaning
Catholic Action movement is marching under the slogan “no to the war, yes
peace”; the right-wing Communion and Liberation movement says “no to the
war, yes to America.” They’re against the same thing, but have contrasting
ideas about what they’re for.
These divisions were
transparent in two public events in Rome on Monday evening, March 24. All
one had to do was to move across town, from the Basilica of the Holy Apostles
to the Cathedral of St. John Lateran, to move in two different Catholic
Holy Apostles was the
site of a Mass commemorating the 23rd anniversary of the murder
of El Salvador’s fabled Archbishop Oscar Romero, long a hero to progressive
Catholics. The war lent this celebration an even more explicitly political
The altar was draped
abundantly in the rainbow-colored banners with the word pace that
have become the symbol of the anti-war movement. (Conservative Cardinal
Giacomo Biffi of Bologna, through a press spokesperson, has observed that
the banner bears a striking similarity to the flag of an Italian pro-gay
movement called Arcigay. One assumes that, from Biffi, this is a note of
The rainbow peace banner,
along with a sky-blue United Nations flag, was carried at the head of the
offertory precession during the Mass to bring up the gifts. Hard to imagine
a more overt polemic against U.S. “unilateralism.” The first prayer at
the Mass was a meditation which, among other points, stated that the Church
“repudiates” the war. Several prayers of the faithful later invoked anti-war
themes, drawing strong murmurs of approval from the packed house of perhaps
Bishop Tommaso Valentinetti,
president of the Italian branch of Pax Christi, a Catholic peace-and-justice
group, celebrated the Mass. I noted at least one priest from the Roman
Curia among the concelebrants.
Also joining the long
line of concelebrants was Fr. Vitaliano Della Sala, an activist priest
beloved in young radical circles and a bete-noire for conservatives. He
was suspended a divinis in 2000 and removed in 2002 as pastor
of his tiny country parish for what his bishop described as chronic disobedience.
In the back of
the basilica was a table collecting signatures for Amnesty International
petitions demanding that President Bush and Prime Minister Blair observe
international human rights agreements in their conduct of the war. I checked:
there was no similar petition addressed to President Hussein.
In his homily, Valentinetti
referred glowingly to a “prophecy born in the heart of the church,” a kind
of “weak strength,” that “raises its voice to proclaim the madness of this
war, the folly of using violence to solve problems between nations.” Valentinetti
prayed that Catholics will be “truly and fully inserted in the temple of
the church” rather than in “the lies spoken in the places where they decide
for the works of death.”
I left the Mass at Holy
Apostles to make my way cross-town for the evening’s other event, a lecture
on “Work, Solidarity, Liberty: A Global Society in a Humanistic Key?” by
Cardinal Diogini Tettamanzi of Milan. The event was part of a series called
“Dialogues in the Cathedral” sponsored by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s
vicar for the Rome diocese and John Paul’s personal choice as president
of the Italian bishops’ conference.
Ruini is probably the
figure in the Italian bishops’ conference who enjoys the closest relationship
with Italy’s current center-right government, led by Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi, who has generally supported the American position on Iraq.
Constrained by overwhelming public opinion against the war, Berlusconi
was forced to promise that Italy would not cooperate in the assault, but
he did manage to secure a parliamentary vote for overflight rights and
to allow U.S. forces to use their bases in Italy for logistical support.
Ruini has high expectations
that Berlusconi will deliver on greater state aid for Catholic schools,
a new bioethics law shaped by church teaching, and will hold the line on
calls for recognition of de facto couples. More generally, Ruini
and his circle breathe the same air, ideologically and culturally, as the
conservatives in the Berlusconi government. There is a basic continuity
in values and vision, therefore, between the vicariate of Rome and the
current parliamentary majority.
That symphony was clear
Monday night at the Lateran. There were no peace banners, and no young
anti-war activists swaying and chanting. The VIP seating section in the
basilica was dotted with politicians from the center-right “House of Liberty”
majority, along with a number of prelates, such as the former Archbishop
of Genoa, Cardinal Giovanni Canestri.
Waiting for the event
to begin, I bumped into Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University
and a trusted Vatican advisor. Fisichella was one of the primary contributors
to the 1998 papal encyclical Fides et Ratio. Fisichella, an auxiliary
bishop of the Rome diocese, is also considered the “chaplain” of the Italian
Fisichella, whose English
is exceptionally good, is a long-time friend of the United States. He was
the main celebrant at last December’s Immaculate Conception Mass at the
North American College, the feast that also marks the foundation of the
American seminary in Rome during the pontificate of Pius IX.
Fisichella told me that
“this direction we are moving in, of isolating the United States, is terrible.”
He said that in Italy there are forces “manipulating” the anti-war humor
of the moment to grind ancient ideological axes against the United States
and against the West. It was clear that while Fisichella basically shares
the pope’s views on the war, he also has deep concerns about political
exploitation of the church’s anti-war position.
Hence two basilicas,
The crowd at Holy Apostles
was against the Iraq war as part of a broader and deeper critique of social
injustice, violence, U.S. foreign policy and the entire world order being
shaped by globalization. The more conservative crowd at the Lateran was
also against the war, but on the basis of a limited strategic calculation,
and with nagging concerns about whether the church has pitched its tent
on the wrong ideological ground.
Ruini struck a similar
note in an address earlier in the day to the Italian bishops’ conference.
He called for “constant discernment … in order that the commitment to peace
not be confused with markedly different objectives and interests, or polluted
by arguments that are really based upon conflict.”
To those with ears to
hear, it’s clear what kind of “pollution” Ruini had in mind — a secular
leftist peace movement that shades off into opposition to the Atlantic
Ruini later made an explicit
plea for solidarity with the United States.
“The reasons for solidarity
that bind together the nations of the West retain their profound validity
even after the fading of the threat of the ‘cold war,’ as their roots are
planted in a heritage of values that they still have in common, even amid
undeniable differences,” he said. “This solidarity finds new motivation
in the great changes that are dawning on the world’s horizon and which
will require constructive and harmonious responses from the West.”
All this suggests that
when it comes to analysis of the underlying causes of this conflict, and
what it means in terms of global alliances and policy, there is nothing
like Catholic unanimity, and there are some very difficult debates to come.
There are signs that
the Vatican, especially in the Secretariat of State where the diplomatic
heavy lifting is done, is becoming sensitive to the risk that its peace
message could be construed as an ideological choice against the U.S.-led
It was striking, for
example, that in the first public statement after hostilities began, Vatican
spokesperson Joaquin Navaro-Valls was painstakingly balanced.
“On the one hand, the
Holy See laments that the Iraqi government has not received the resolutions
of the United Nations and the appeal of the pope, that asked for disarmament
of the country,” the statement said. “On the other hand, the Holy See deplores
that the route of negotiations was interrupted, according to international
law, for a pacific solution of the Iraqi drama.”
Along the same lines,
Romano’s March 24-25 issue carried a front-page denunciation of the
display of dead and captured Americans by the Iraqis, calling it “an ostentation
that offends human dignity.”
To date, there are few
signs that any of these considerations are influencing the pope’s own public
commentary. Quite the contrary; on March 25, in a message to military chaplains
meeting in Rome, John Paul actually appeared to endorse the sprawling peace
movement whose composition is of obvious concern to aides such as Ruini.
“It should be clear to
all that war as an instrument of resolution of differences among states
has been repudiated, first by the charter of the United Nations, then by
the conscience of the great majority of humanity, save for legitimate defense
from an aggressor,” the pope said. “The vast contemporary movement in favor
of peace … translates this conviction of people of every continent and
* * *
When the war began, the
United States asked governments worldwide to sever ties with the regime
of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, to expel Iraqi diplomats and/or to freeze
Iraqi assets until new authorities are in power in Baghdad. It has been
widely reported that the Vatican “refused” this request, but sources on
both sides tell NCR this is not so.
The story took on legs
when Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture,
gave an interview on the subject to Corriere della Sera, Italy’s
“I’m not aware of a request
and it’s not in my competence to deal with it, but certainly the Holy See
will not withdraw its own nuncios and will not break any diplomatic
relations,” Poupard said. “(The Vatican) will always take the opportunity
to maintain every possible channel of communication, above all at times
of conflict. It is not wise to leave the talking to missiles.”
It’s true that the Vatican
has not withdrawn accreditation for Ambassador Al-Anbari Abdul Amir, Iraq’s
representative to the Holy See. However, both American embassy sources
and Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navaro-Valls have told NCR that
the Americans did not make any specific request to the Vatican to expel
diplomats or cut ties. Hence it is inaccurate to suggest that the Vatican
has “refused” or “spurned” a step that the U.S. government asked that it
take, because there has been no such request.
On Wednesday, March 26,
another Roman newspaper reported that the Vatican was planning to offer
exile to four Iraqi diplomats that have been kicked out of Italy. For the
record, Navarro told me this is “rubbish,” that no request has reached
the Holy See, and that the Vatican has no plans to take in the expelled
“It would be very strange,”
Navarro said to NCR March 26.
* * *
Not every church leader,
by the way, is against the Iraq war. On Thursday, March 20, I met Bishop
Mar Bawai Soro of the Western California diocese of the Assyrian Church
of the East, an ancient Christian church descended from the Nestorians.
It numbers some 400,000 faithful worldwide, including perhaps 60,000 still
in Iraq, its historical center.
Soro has been based in
the United States for some years, but he remains in close contact with
church members in Iraq. He takes a positive view of what the U.S.-led coalition
is attempting to achieve.
“You don’t know what
it’s like to live under tyranny,” said Soro. “Why has Iraq been brought
so low? This is a rich society, a sophisticated society,” Soro said. “This
government has laid waste to the country.”
Speaking the day the
conflict opened, Soro predicted that coalition forces would be welcomed
by many Iraqis. He also said he was “surprised” by the anti-war line from
the Vatican, which he felt to some extent does not reflect the reality
of life in Iraq.
Since the war began,
I have also been calling every day Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman, head
of the Latin rite Catholic Church in Baghdad. With American troops bearing
down on the city, Sleiman’s small flock is obviously worried about what
the immediate future holds.
Sleiman said March 24
that his people are “anguished and frightened.” As of Tuesday, March 25,
Sleiman said his central Baghdad neighborhood still had water and phone
services, though he had just lost electricity. Despite the fact that U.S.
troops are bearing down on the city, Sleiman said the government is trying
to project a sense of normality. On Monday, residents were encouraged to
go back to work for at least two hours, a request further complicated by
a terrible sand storm.
Sleiman said that the
first casualty of the coalition bombing campaign in Baghdad was a young
Chaldean Catholic, whose parish has since celebrated his funeral.
Sleiman said it was “premature”
to comment on what his small church is hoping for on the other side of
this war. “There are different views,” he said. “They don’t know what to
Hussein’s lay government
has up to now enforced a certain peaceful co-existence among religious
and ethnic groups, Sleiman said. One fear for Iraqi Christians is what
might come if this layer of insulation from Islamic fundamentalism is removed.
I spoke to a senior Vatican
diplomat on Thursday, March 27, who expressed the same concern. “The problem
is not just the war, but what comes next,” he said. “What happens to the
Chaldeans if a Sci’ia government takes power in southern Iraq? It’s very
I spoke to Sleiman on
Thursday, March 27, and he said to date this fear has not materialized,
that there has been no anti-Christian backlash in Baghdad. In part, he
said, this may be because the police and other Iraqi forces of order remain
visible and very much in control. Among other things, this would suggest
that images of a regime on the verge of collapse may be somewhat exaggerated.
As we spoke, an explosion
could be heard in the background. Sleiman said that the bombing of a market
the day before obviously had people even more worried. Some were angry,
he said, though it wasn’t always clear just who was the real target of
(A footnote: It is a
surreal experience to call Baghdad in these days of war and suffering,
and while waiting for Sleiman to come to the phone, to hear the upbeat
Ragtime theme from The Sting, which is the music you get while on
Catholics in Baghdad
held a special Way of the Cross liturgy last Friday, Sleiman said, in which
the bishops consecrated the country under the special protection of the
Virgin Mary. His Baghdad parish is continuing to offer its daily 4:30 pm
Mass, Sleiman said, but few come because of the fear of going outside.
“We all pray for a swift
end to the war,” Sleiman said.
* * *
As a matter of policy
I don’t like to write about rumors unless I’m in a position to settle them.
Thus I have avoided referring to the buzz in Rome surrounding whether or
not Prime Minister Tony Blair of England received Communion at a private
papal Mass on Feb. 23. I don’t know what really happened, and hence it
seemed pointless to simply fuel the speculation.
Several readers have
contacted me, however, wanting to know about the incident, so here goes.
Blair is an Anglican;
his wife, Cherie, is Catholic. Their children are Catholic, the family
attends Catholic Mass, and by most accounts Blair himself is seriously
considering conversion to Catholicism after his term as prime minister.
Yet none of that means
he is entitled, as a routine matter, to receive the Catholic Eucharist.
In 1996, then-Cardinal Basil Hume wrote to Blair to clarify the point after
it was revealed that he had been receiving Communion while attending a
Catholic parish in London, St. Joan of Arc in Highbury, with his wife and
children. Blair subsequently stopped receiving Communion.
Since then there have
been a few occasions in which Blair has taken Communion at a Catholic Mass,
usually in situations, such as his occasional vacations in Tuscany, when
there is no Anglican church nearby.
on inter-communion is contained in the Directory for the Application
of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, issued by the Pontifical Council
for Promoting Christian Unity in 1993. The norm for a non-Catholic to receive
is: “The person [must] be unable to have recourse to a minister of his
or her own Church or ecclesial Community, ask for the sacrament of his
or her own initiative, manifest Catholic faith in this sacrament and be
Under these criteria,
one can see why it would be unremarkable if Blair did indeed receive Communion
in the Feb. 23 papal Mass. While there are three Anglican churches in Rome
at which he could have attended Sunday services, none of them are within
Vatican City, and in any event it’s hardly the same thing as a papal liturgy,
which is by definition an extraordinary circumstance. Clearly Blair’s desire
for the sacrament and his manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament are
not in doubt.
So, did it happen?
The story first broke
in the Church Times, an Anglican publication. That report, which
is the basis for most of the public speculation, was attributed (though
not by name) to a particular liturgist in Rome. I know the man in question,
and he denies having said any such thing. Moreover, he was not at the Mass
and has no privileged insight into what happened.
The Mass is being treated by
both the Vatican and 10 Downing Street as a strictly private affair, hence
they’re not talking. A Vatican spokesperson told me that it would be “incorrect”
for the Holy See to either confirm or deny an incident pertaining to the
prime minister’s private life. A spokesperson for Blair was similarly circumspect.
“We said from the outset that this was a private meeting and that remains
the case. But I can also say to you that the prime minister has no intention
of converting to Catholicism. We have nothing else to say.”
Aside from the Blair
family, there were a few seminarians at the Mass. A colleague who has spoken
with some of the seminarians reports that one saw Blair move up the Communion
line with his arms crossed, signaling that he wanted a blessing rather
than communion, but the priest administering Communion (not the pope personally)
gave it to Blair anyway. As a non-Anglo-Saxon, the priest may simply not
have been familiar with the gesture.
Other seminarians with
whom I have spoken, however, say they saw no such thing. Another colleague
of mine, a veteran Rome hand, says he talked to someone who was “fully
briefed” about the Mass, and who is adamant that Blair did not get communion.
Bottom line: I don’t
know what happened, and short of a personal statement from Blair, I doubt
the uncertainty can be resolved.
From one point of view,
all this may seem idle curiosity. Yet consider this note from a friend
of mine in a well-known English monastery: “The Abbot has asked me to find
out what I can [about the Blair rumor], since he believes that it may have
repercussions on a forthcoming pilgrimage. It’s a situation where many
non-Catholics may wish to receive Communion and, if the Blair story is
true, may also be in a position to receive a dispensation.”
Vatican officials would
no doubt say that the abbot’s question is answered in the EcumenicalDirectory.
Yet the point is that what VIPs do, and how rules are adjusted for them,
inevitably sets a model for the rest of the world. As long as we don’t
know what happened at that papal Mass, the speculation will continue.
* * *
Two other quick notes.
Pacifist Jim Douglass arrives in Baghdad
An update on Catholic
pacifist Jim Douglass, profiled in the last “Word from Rome.” His nine-member
“Christian Peacemaker Team” was able to make it into Baghdad from Amman,
Jordan, arriving at the Al-Daar Hotel on Tuesday, March 25. The group drove
15 hours across the Iraqi desert, passing through a U.S. checkpoint where
Iraqi soldiers appeared to be surrendering to the Americans, with the burnt-out
remains of vehicles clearly in sight. The group later had to pass through
an Iraqi military checkpoint before reaching their destination. They issued
a statement before their departure: “Our Christian faith calls us to Baghdad.
We want to be with the Iraqi people under our bombs because we know God
loves them and weeps for them. Bombs cannot liberate them from violence.
We believe in Jesus’ way of liberation through the nonviolent cross of
God’s love. The cross calls us to give life rather than take it. If our
soldiers are willing to risk their lives to wage violence, then we as Christians
should be willing to risk our lives to wage peace and reconciliation.”
One of the most lovely
of Roman customs is the visiting of the “station churches” during Lent.
Each morning at 7:00 am, Americans and other English-speakers in Rome gather
for Mass at a different Roman church. The custom goes back to the Middle
Ages, when the pope would himself visit the various churches. While the
pope no longer follows the circuit, it remains a terrific way to experience
the churches of Rome while connecting with fellow Americans — an especially
meaningful experience in these days of war. Readers in Rome should note
that the station church for Saturday, March 29, happens to be Santa Susanna,
which is the American parish in Rome. If you intend to make only one of
the station church liturgies, this would be a good choice. Among other
things, there will be coffee and cornetti after the Mass.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
© The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E.
Kansas City, MO 64111
All rights reserved.