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 The Word From Rome

January 2, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 19



Save us from the great evils that rend humanity in these first years of the third millennium. Save us from the wars and armed conflicts which lay waste whole areas of the world, from the scourge of terrorism and from the many forms of violence which assail the weak and vulnerable. Save us from discouragement as we face the paths to peace, difficult paths indeed, yet possible and therefore necessary - paths which are always and everywhere urgent, especially in the land where you (Jesus) were born, the Prince of Peace.

Pope John Paul II
Urbi et Orbi message, Christmas Day 2003

Top Vatican Stories of 2003


This final column of 2003 prompts a look back over a remarkably news-rich 12 months. Herewith the “Word from Rome” list of the Top Vatican Stories of the Year, as measured by coverage generated as well as significance for both church and world.

10. The Vatican and Russia
During his 25-year pontificate Pope John Paul II has had no greater ecumenical priority than Russian Orthodoxy, and one could argue he’s also had no greater source of frustration. 2003 was another maddeningly up-and-down year, with every sign of progress matched by a relapse into hard feelings.

The fate of Catholic/Russian Orthodox relations is of consequence not just because of John Paul’s sentimental Slavic attachment, but because it could play an important role in drawing the 250-million strong block of Eastern Orthodox peoples, concentrated in Russia and the Balkans, more firmly into the Western orbit.

The year began on Jan. 13 with a highly unusual papal dressing-down of the Russian government for the way it had been harassing Catholic priests regarding visas, and generally making life difficult for the country’s small Catholic community. An official of the Moscow Patriarchate testily shot back that Russia’s Catholics are “fully free to pray and engage in public activities. This freedom is enough, because the Catholic churches barely have enough believers to fill them, as the idea of a large-scale Catholic mission to Russia has failed.”

 Yet four days later, Catholic Bishop Vincent Paglia of Terni, Italy, a key figure in the Community of Sant’Egidio, was in Moscow handing over relics of St. Valentine to Russian Orthodox officials, with smiles and good cheer all the way around. Moreover, the Russian government soon granted a permanent residence permit to Bishop Clemens Pickel after refusing visas to Bishop Jerzy Mazur and several Catholic priests.

Throughout the early months of 2003, there was speculation that a much-desired papal trip to Russia might materialize in conjunction with a possible August visit to Mongolia. The occasion would be the return of the Madonna of Kazan, a famed Russian Orthodox icon that for complicated historical reasons is currently in the papal apartments. After preliminary plans for a Kazan stopover were leaked, however, the Orthodox scotched the idea, saying that disputes over Catholic “proselytism” in Russia and Ukraine would have to be solved first.

In the end, the whole project for a visit to Mongolia collapsed.

Catholic/Orthodox recrimination was further intensified May 17, when the Vatican elevated two apostolic administrations in Kazakhstan to dioceses. The move was taken by the Moscow patriarchate, which claims Kazakhstan as its “canonical territory,” as another indication of Catholic expansionism.

Yet also in September, Metropolitan Kyrill of Smolensk and Kalilinigrad, the number two figure in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, sounded almost ebullient about Catholic/Orthodox relations at a Sant’Egidio gathering.

“This is a season in which dialogue, beyond the incomprehensions of the past, is possible,” he said. “People say that the Orthodox are closed to dialogue, but if that were true, I wouldn’t be here.”

On Nov. 5, 2003, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited John Paul II. He downplayed the idea of a papal trip.

 “Christianity is at the base of European culture and European identity,” Putin said. “Thus I consider my objective not so much making it possible for the pope to come to Russia, as favoring Christian unity with every opportune step.”

In the end, John Paul II may be fated to play the role of Moses on Catholic/Russian Orthodox relations: he has led the two communities through the wilderness, but it may be up to someone else to enter the promised land.

9. Saints and Near-Saints
By far the biggest saint story of 2003 concerned a woman who isn’t technically a saint yet, though everyone agrees it won’t be long: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, beatified by John Paul II in a massive Oct. 19 ceremony in St. Peter’s Square. The tiny Albanian nun who founded the Missionaries of Charity and became a hero in overwhelmingly Hindu India was perhaps the only late 20th century Catholic figure who could rival John Paul II himself in terms of star power.

The year brought John Paul II to a staggering total of 1,320 persons beatified and 476 saints canonized, not only more than previous popes, but more than all previous popes combined. (Previous popes together, from the institution of a formal canonization process under Clement VIII in the 16th century, named 302 saints).

Other notable canonizations and beatifications in 2003 included:

• Fr. Giacomo Alberione, founder of the Pauline family of religious communities (not to be confused with the Paulist Fathers in the United States). Alberione is known as an apostle of mass communications. He entered the seminary in 1896, when the Catholic world buzzed with energy under Pope Leo XIII, who aimed to “win back the world for the church,” calling for a vast “Christian reconstruction of society.” Alberione shared this optimistic, forward-looking ethos. Eventually the currents unleashed by Leo XIII and Alberione crested at Vatican II.

• Marco d’Aviano, a 17th century Capuchin priest famed for rallying Christian armies to defeat the Ottoman Turks in the siege of Vienna in 1683. He celebrated Mass for the troops, leading them in repeated cries of “Jesus! Mary!” During the fighting, he brandished a crucifix at the Turks, shouting, “Behold the Cross of the Lord: Flee, enemy bands!” To defenders, Marco d’Aviano was a holy man reluctantly drawn into war, as well as a wonder-worker and mystic. Detractors, however, asked why the pope chose to elevate a symbol of Christian-Muslim conflict.

• Daniel Comboni, an Italian priest and bishop who traveled to Africa in the 1850s. He founded his own institute, and although he died in 1881 of a fever at age 50, its mission continued. Today the Combonis have 4,000 priests, brothers, sisters and lay missionaries in 40 countries in Africa, South America and Asia. They formed hundreds of schools and operate five hospitals. Comboni has become a symbol of Christian commitment to Africa.

• One of the more curious beatifications of 2003 came in Croatia, where John Paul honored Sr. Marija Petkovic. Famed for her heroism after arrest by the Slovakian Communists, Petkovic is a rare candidate for sainthood whose miracle is something other than a healing. Instead, she reportedly came to the aid of an inanimate object – more specifically, a submarine. In 1988, a Peruvian submarine named Pacocha crashed into a Japanese fishing vessel. When the sub began to sink, a young officer named Roger Cotrina Alvarado prayed to Petkovic, whose life story had been read to him by his mother. Cotrina Alvarado was able to close an inside door despite strong water pressure. The maneuver was judged “humanly impossible” by two commissions, one military and the other Vatican. Nineteen officers were saved; six crew members died. Cotrina Alvarado, by the way, attended the June 6 beatification ceremony in Dubrovnik, and presented the pope with a miniature of a boat.

8. Fallout from the Sex Abuse Crisis
Aftershocks from the sex abuse earthquake of 2002 continued throughout the year. In some ways, 2003 may be remembered as a year in which the Vatican, at least temporarily, set aside “business as usual” to address the most burning crisis in certain parts of the Catholic world since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

On February 7, John Paul II approved a set of revisions to canon law to speed up trials of accused priests and to make it easier to remove guilty priests from the clerical state. The changes allow deacons and lay people to serve on criminal tribunals, even as judges. The changes also give the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the power to dismiss someone from the priesthood without a trial. The revisions had been requested by American canon lawyers.

On March 26, in a personal message to three Boston-area men who visited Rome and who said they were victims of sexual abuse by priests, John Paul II vowed that he “realizes the seriousness of the problem” and “will see that this doesn’t happen again.”

An unusual April 4-5 scientific symposium on pedophilia at the Vatican featured eight experts – four Germans, three Canadians and an American. All were non-Catholic. The idea, according to participants, was to expose Vatican officials to “state-of-the-art information” about sexual abuse of minors. The lone American expert was Dr. Martin P. Kafka of the Harvard Medical School.

On July 1, John Paul II appointed Bishop Sean O’Malley as the new archbishop of Boston. Vatican sources cited O’Malley’s experience in dealing with the sexual abuse crisis in Palm Beach and also in Fall River, Mass., his positive public image in the Boston area, and his Capuchin Franciscan spirituality in explaining the appointment.

Long-time observers said all these moves reflected an unusual sense of urgency inside the Vatican and a willingness to “think outside the box.” Whether that lasts remains to be seen.

In August, a 1962 Vatican document titled Crimen Sollicitationis surfaced in the American press and was briefly hailed as a “smoking gun” proving a Vatican-ordered conspiracy to subvert criminal justice. It became clear, however, that the secrecy it enjoined under penalty of excommunication concerned canonical procedures, not civil or criminal matters. Observers warned that the hostile response to Crimen Sollicitationis illustrated the public relations meltdown in the United States: people are prepared to believe the worst about the Catholic Church.

On Oct. 16, the 25th anniversary of his papacy, John Paul issued a document on the episcopacy resulting from the 2001 Synod of Bishops. In it, he referred to the scandals.

“In cases of grave lapses, and even more of crimes which do damage to the very witness of the Gospel, especially when they involve the church’s ministers, the bishop must be firm and decisive, just and impartial,” the pope wrote. Bishops must act in a timely manner “for the reparation of scandal and the restoration of justice, and for all that is required for the protection and assistance of victims.”

The same day, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that while a substantial majority of American Catholics are satisfied with the pope’s overall performance, 74 percent felt he did not do enough to respond to the sex abuse crisis.

7. Liturgical and Eucharistic Controversy
John Paul II issued the 14th encyclical of his pontificate in 2003, dedicated to the Eucharist. Released April 17, the aim of Ecclesia de Eucharistia was rekindling Eucharistic “amazement” among Catholics, as well as to “banish dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice.”

Some saw the encyclical as a moving, almost biographical spiritual meditation, as well as a helpful reassertion of traditional doctrine and discipline. Others said it is a rather predictable treatment that in some ways owes more to the mid-16th century Council of Trent than to Vatican II.

John Paul announced that the encyclical would be followed by a disciplinary document from the Holy See to correct “abuses” in liturgical practice. He hinted at what they might be by listing certain “shadows” in the church:

• Abandoning Eucharistic adoration;
• A reductive understanding of the Eucharist, celebrated as a fraternal meal rather than a sacrifice;
• The necessity of the ministerial priesthood is sometimes obscured;
• Ecumenical practices “contrary to the discipline by which the church expresses her faith.”

Throughout 2003, a drafting committee comprised of staff from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith worked on the disciplinary document, now set for release in early 2004. An early draft leaked to the press over the summer stirred controversy because it would have discouraged altar girls, along with clapping and liturgical dance. Vatican sources say, however, that this language has been removed. The 30-some page document, now being translated into several languages, focuses almost exclusively on the Eucharist, and sources say it adds nothing to existing liturgical law. It will repeat controversial strictures on lay Eucharistic ministers and inter-communion with Protestants.

An episode in Germany in 2003 illustrates how painful these matters can be.

In late May, Berlin was the site of a massive national gathering of German Catholics and Protestants. Two liberal Catholic groups — “We are Church” and “The Church from Below Initiative” — decided to challenge the church’s Eucharistic discipline by hosting joint inter-communion services. Both took place in East Berlin’s Gethsemane Lutheran Church and drew between 2,000 and 2,500 participants.

A 69-year-old Catholic priest and theologian, Fr. Gotthold Hasenhuettl, officiated at the May 29 service and distributed communion to both Catholics and Protestants. On May 31, a 41-year-old Bavarian Catholic priest named Fr. Bernhard Kroll delivered a homily at the other celebration, presided over by a Protestant pastor. Both Hasenhuettl and Kroll were later reprimanded. Hasenhuettl has appealed a suspension, while Kroll is on a kind of hiatus.

6. Anglican/Roman Catholic Relations
Ecumenical experts say the Anglican/Catholic dialogue, institutionalized in the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, would easily win the prize for the most gentlemanly and professional relationship in divided Christianity.

Despite those good vibes, the dialogue hit a serious crisis in 2003.

The year opened with a story that seemed to hint at progress, as well as the pope’s personal generosity. On Feb. 23, Prime Minister Tony Blair of England, along with his wife Cherie, attended Mass in John Paul’s private apartment. Reports afterwards were muddled, but it now seems clear that Blair did indeed receive communion from John Paul. While this was a sign of respect for Blair, it also suggests an ecumenical sensitivity from John Paul towards Anglicanism.

Another positive sign came Oct. 4-5, with the visit of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. It marked the 12th occasion since Dec. 2, 1960, when Geoffrey Fisher paid his respects to Pope John XXIII, that an archbishop of Canterbury has visited the pope. This was the first time the archbishop did so at the beginning of his term, almost as if the new archbishop was being “confirmed” in his ministry by the Bishop of Rome.

The visit, however, also unfolded under the shadow of the crisis within Anglicanism set off by three developments concerning homosexuality:

• The diocese of New Westminster in Canada issued a formal rite for the blessing of same sex unions;
• The diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church of the United States confirmed the election and Robinson was consecrated;
• Jeffrey John, who acknowledges a homosexual orientation but says he is celibate, was elected bishop of the diocese of Reading in England. John later withdrew.

These developments, especially Robinson’s consecration, threatened to generate a schism within Anglicanism. They also posed serious consequences for the relationship with Catholicism. A February meeting in Seattle of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, a new body created to work out a common statement of faith, was put on hold.

While most observers believe the crisis will not produce significant defections to the Catholic Church, the potential for such traffic will be one of the stories to watch in 2004.

At the same time, experts say the crisis could unexpectedly bring Anglicans and Catholics closer together. Williams has offered, and the Vatican has accepted, the formation of an ad-hoc subcommittee to consider the ecclesiological implications of the Anglican crisis. In effect, Roman Catholics have been offered a voice in Anglican reflections about identity and structures. Depending on how things go, the current crisis could thus end up being remembered as a moment in which Anglicans and Catholics began to address “internal” problems in common.

5. Papal Succession
Perennial interest in the papal sweepstakes was given a special focus in October, when John Paul created 31 new cardinals. Many observers had expected a consistory in February 2004, hence the decision to hold it earlier struck some as a possible sign of papal apprehension that his time was running out. (That’s almost certainly fantasy, but it gave the event extra sex appeal).

In the end, the consensus is that no slam-dunk new papabile, or candidate to be pope, entered the College of Cardinals on Oct. 21. There are two figures who might grow into that role with time: Cardinals Angelo Scola of Venice, 62, and Marc Ouellet of Quebec City, 59. Nor did the new appointments radically alter the politics of the college, since there was a fairly even distribution of doctrinal conservatives, doctrinal moderates, and men whose primary interest is social and political matters rather than doctrinal questions.

2003 saw the stock of some papal candidates rise, as measured by media exposure, profile in ecclesiastical circles, and buzz within the College of Cardinals. Among those who seemed to enter the ranks of papabili in 2003 were:

• Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, 67
• Ivan Dias of India, 67
• Geraldo Majella Agnelo of Brazil, 70
• Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa of Chile, 70
• Ennio Antonelli of Italy, 66

Bergoglio, Agnelo and Ossa are all intelligent, moderate-to-conservative, pastoral Latin American candidates, men who would give a face to the Church in the Third World, but who have enough political savvy to be able to hold their own in Rome. Agnelo and Ossa have both worked in the Roman Curia, and in May Ossa was elected president of CELAM, the Latin American bishops’ conference. Dias is a genuine cosmopolitan, a veteran of the Vatican diplomatic corps and someone who could help the church respond to the doctrinal and sociological challenges posed by Asian diversity. Antonelli is a smiling, pastoral man and Vatican outsider who reminds some of Cardinal Albino Luciani, the “smiling pope” of 33 days in 1978.

One perennial candidate who star dimmed in 2003 was Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, 74, a Colombian who heads the Congregation for the Clergy. Castrillón has long been considered a leading Latin American candidate, but the odds are against anyone being elected directly out of the Roman Curia. (The last time it happened was 1939, and that was because the world was on the brink of war and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli’s diplomatic skills were seen as crucial). Moreover, Castrillón’s imperious and snarling responses to the sexual abuse scandals of 2002 led some observers to doubt his capacity to deal with the press or to lead the institution in moments of crisis.

4. Marriage and Homosexuality
2003 was a year in which the Holy See increasingly marked the defense of monogamous, heterosexual marriage as the front line of the culture wars. As noted above, this was at the heart of the crisis in Anglican/Catholic relations.

The issue came up time and again throughout 2003.

On Jan. 16, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Public Life.” It called on Catholics involved in public life to uphold church teaching on moral questions, and made allusion to the question of same-sex marriage.

“In no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such,” the document held.

On July 31, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document specifically on the question of gay marriage titled, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons.”

Aside from reiterating the church’s long-standing moral critique of homosexuality, the document broke new ground in two ways.

First, it ruled out the possibility that a Catholic politician could promote any form of civil registration for same-sex unions. Prior to this document, some Catholic ethicists had argued that a Catholic public official could support measures “recognizing” same-sex partnerships, as long as the unique legal status of heterosexual marriage was preserved. 

Second, the document called on all Catholics, not just politicians, to refuse to cooperate with these measures where they exist.

 “One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection,” it stated.

Internal Catholic debate over homosexuality also coursed through 2003, as the Vatican wrestled with the question of whether to issue a document regarding the admission of homosexuals to seminaries. Momentum towards such a document built during the sex abuse scandals of 2002, but appeared to be stalled after the Vatican pedophilia symposium in April. The experts at that gathering told Vatican officials that there did not appear to be a causal relationship between a homosexual orientation and a propensity to abusive behavior.

3. The Struggle for Europe
As the soon-to-be-expanded European Union lurched towards a new constitutional document in 2003, John Paul II and top Vatican officials, along with other Christian leaders, repeatedly insisted that the preamble to that text should make specific reference to the continent’s Christian roots.

Those pleas fell largely on deaf ears.

In fact, an early draft of the document said that Europe had been nourished by “Hellenic and Roman civilizations,” then “marked by the spiritual impulse that runs through it and whose traces are present in its patrimony,” then finally “by the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment.”  Hence Greece, Rome and the Enlightenment were acknowledged, but not Christianity, as sources of European culture. This was taken as a deliberate affront, a revival of old anti-clerical prejudices.

The final draft, revised to soften this blow, referred to “the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe.” Hence Christianity was not inserted, but the other cultural currents were taken out. Pressure to insert a specific reference to Christianity mounted by an ad-hoc coalition of Europe’s most Catholic nations, including Italy, Poland and Ireland, was not enough to outweigh France and other determined secularists.

A inter-governmental conference in Rome in the Fall failed to reach agreement on the text (over issues having to do with voting rights, not the preamble), so as of this writing its ultimate fate is unclear.

Throughout the year, the pope repeatedly warned Europeans not to forget their roots. In a typical Sunday Angelus address in July, he said:

“A certain loss of memory is accompanied by a certain fear to face the future. … Paradoxically, the cradle of human rights risks the disappearance of its foundation eroded by relativism and utilitarianism.”

John Paul’s four trips in 2003 – Spain, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovakia – all took him to Europe, and all were dominated by this call to historical memory. Especially on his forays into Eastern Europe, the pope pleaded with Christian communities that had suffered in the 20th century to preserve their faith to carry that experience with them in the construction of the new Europe.

 “It is my hope,” the pope said to Croatians on June 6 in Dubrovnik, “that the patrimony of human and Christian values, accumulated down the centuries, will continue … to be the most precious treasure of the people of this country.”

On June 28, John Paul released an apostolic letter on Europe, titled Ecclesia in Europa. It marked his official conclusion from the 1999 Synod of Bishops, dedicated to Europe, and he returned anew to the theme of Europe’s Christian identity.

“Europe needs to make a qualitative leap in becoming conscious of its spiritual heritage,” John Paul wrote.

Characteristically, the pope suggested that the salvation of European Catholicism will come not from structural reform, such as a relaxation of priestly celibacy or greater collegiality, but from a new burst of evangelical zeal. Europe’s problem isn’t structures, the pope seemed to imply, but nerve.

“The impetus can only come from hearing anew the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” the pope wrote. “It is the responsibility of all Christians to commit themselves to satisfying this hunger and thirst for life.”

2. The Pope’s Health/25th Anniversary
Throughout John Paul’s 25th year in the papacy, the world’s media focused tightly – some would say almost morbidly – on his declining health. While the attention was probably excessive, and at times it swamped more substantive coverage of the Vatican, it nevertheless offered a kind of backhanded tribute to John Paul’s continuing relevance.

During the 83-year-old pope’s trips, details of his exertions were replayed and dissected in excruciating detail. In Spain, for example, the press corps was fascinated by the hydraulic lift used to hoist the pope on and off the papal plane.

After the first day in Slovakia in September, when John Paul slumped and unexpectedly failed to finish his opening speech, networks dispatched key personnel to Bratislava and Rome, fearing the worst. Newspapers that had decided to skip the expense of the trip suddenly ordered correspondents into position. The sight of emergency medical equipment at the cathedral in Trnava and on the papal plane had journalists scrambling to spell, and define, terms such as “defibrillator.”

How obsessive was the health focus?

At one stage in Slovakia, a CNN correspondent prepared a package for domestic broadcast in the United States that lasted one minute and forty seconds, with twenty seconds on the pope’s message about Europe and the rest on his ailments. When it reached Atlanta, the twenty seconds on Europe was cut out.

Periodically, rumors floated through Rome about various health crises. Oct. 12, for example, word circulated briefly that John Paul was about to undergo dialysis, based on a spectacular newspaper report. Networks put doctors on standby, and nervous TV crews went on red alert. Within a couple of hours, however, it became clear that the rumor was unfounded.

During the mid-October celebrations of the pope’s 25th anniversary, John Paul seemed weak and fatigued, leading some to speculate that the end might be in sight. Yet by December, the real story seemed to be his rejuvenation. Once again, rumors of the pope’s demise proved greatly exaggerated.

 Bottom line: there is no sign of imminent crisis. Given the realities of age, Parkinson’s disease, and the crushing demands of his job, John Paul II is always vulnerable to a sudden collapse. At the same time, no one should be shocked if we are still talking about the pope’s health several years from now.

Perhaps the real health story of 2003 was John Paul’s longevity: he marked his 25th anniversary on the Throne of Peter, and became the fourth-longest serving pope in history (tradition puts St. Peter in first place, whose dates are uncertain). If he keeps going, John Paul will overtake Leo XIII in mid-March 2004 to move into third place, behind only St. Peter and Pius IX, who reigned 31 years, seven months and 17 days (John Paul would surpass his mark in 2010).

So, is the media attention to papal health sound and fury signifying nothing?

Certainly the press over-interprets minor ups and downs, and tends to go off the deep end pursuing every health-related rumor, however farcical (example: John Paul’s alleged papaya-based wonder drug).  Nevertheless, since there is no realistic scenario for papal succession other than the death of the incumbent, and since there is no provision in canon law for papal incapacitation, reporters are not wrong to treat health news as potentially very consequential. Moreover, we can perhaps be forgiven for pursuing the odd rumor, since the pope does not release the results of annual physical exams, offering solid data to report. (The Vatican takes the position, which will seem either quaint or obscurantist depending on your point of view, that even a pope is entitled to his privacy).

In the end, perhaps the Holy See has to accept the bitter with the sweet. If it wants the world to take the papacy seriously, perhaps the price to be paid is an occasionally ghoulish curiosity about the pope’s health.

1.      The Vatican and the War in Iraq
During 2003, John Paul II became the leading voice of moral opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. While Catholics supportive of the effort to topple Saddam Hussein point out, correctly, that the pope never specifically condemned the war, John Paul nevertheless left no doubt that he felt it was both morally unjustified and strategically unwise.

Perhaps John Paul’s strongest language came in a March 16 Angelus address, when he departed from his prepared text to add personal comments about his experience of the Second World War.

“I belong to that generation that lived through World War II and, thanks be to God, survived it,” the pope added. “I have the duty to say to all young people, to those who are younger than I, who have not had this experience: ‘No more war’ as Paul VI said during his first visit to the United Nations.”

Where the pope was nuanced and indirect, other Vatican channels were far more pointed. L’Osservatore Romano and Vatican Radio brimmed with critical commentary. At one stage, L’Osservatore all but called Bush’s policy in Iraq stupid, saying that it lacked “the intelligence necessary at certain levels.”

Officials such as then-Archbishop, now Cardinal, Renato Martino and Cardinal Angelo Sodano were equally harsh. Sodano, for example, wondered aloud about the Americans, “Didn’t the lesson of Vietnam teach you anything?”

In the build-up to war, John Paul dispatched emissaries to both Hussein and Bush to try to avert the conflict. He also received a string of diplomatic heavyweights, including Kofi Annan, Tony Blair, Jose Maria Aznar and Tarik Aziz. Marchers in peace demonstrations across Europe and around the world brandished pictures of the pope and massive banner headlines from L’Osservatore such as “The Madness of War.”

While John Paul’s advocacy did not prevent the war, it may have preserved a kind of separate peace. The fear beforehand was that an American strike in Iraq would trigger a broader Christian-Muslim conflagration, Samuel Huntington’s much-ballyhooed clash of civilizations. In fact, such clash did not occur. In all the traditional Christian-Muslim hotspots, from Sudan to Mindanao to Lebanon, observers reported no significant anti-Christian backlash due to events in Iraq. They said that average Muslims distinguished between American policy and Western Christianity, to a great extent because the pope had been such a vocal critic of the war.

By late 2003, there were signs that some Vatican officials were uncomfortable with the harsh rhetoric that had marked the Holy See’s opposition to the war. The pope’s peace message for January 1, 2004, for example, prepared by Martino, was toned down because certain passages were held to be “anti-American.”

At the same time, the clash over Iraq seemed to reveal a fundamental and enduring diplomatic conflict between the Holy See and the United States. The four areas of dispute are: the legitimacy of “preventive war,” the binding force of international law, the scope and powers of the United Nations, and the American role on the world stage.

John Paul’s parting words in 2003 brought him back to the theme of peace. During midnight Mass, the pope lamented that “too much blood is still being shed on the earth,” and that “too many conflicts disturb the peaceful co-existence of nations.”

He returned to this concern in his Urbi et Orbi greeting Christmas day.

“Save us from the great evils that rend humanity in these first years of the third millennium,” he told the thousands of faithful gathered in the sunshine of St. Peter's Square.

“Save us from the wars and armed conflicts which lay waste whole areas of the world, from the scourge of terrorism and from the many forms of violence which assail the weak and vulnerable. Save us from discouragement as we face the paths to peace, difficult paths indeed, yet possible and therefore necessary – paths which are always and everywhere urgent, especially in the land where you (Jesus) were born, the Prince of Peace.”

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

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