National Catholic Reporter ®

January 24, 2003
Vol. 2, No.22

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From papal palace to garbage dump: A hint of what might have been

 “We should give a little more, and ask a little less.”

Fr. Diego Lorenzi
Breaking News: Cardinal predicts Novak’s effort to sell Vatican on Iraq will fail 

Key aides to world leaders typically move on to positions of privilege when their service is done. George Stephanopolous, the boy wonder of the 1992 Clinton campaign, has become a fixture on American television. Between spells in the two Bush administrations, Dick Cheney returned to the petroleum business, serving as chairman and CEO of the Dallas-based Halliburton Corporation. Reportedly he pulled down $2 million a year.

     Fr. Diego Lorenzi, meanwhile, ended up working for nothing at the biggest garbage dump in Asia.

     Lorenzi, an Italian priest of the Don Orione Fathers, was once the Stephanopolous of the Catholic Church, a bright young aide catapulted by an unlikely series of events into the corridors of power. In the summer of 1976, he had just returned to Venice after studies in England when the city’s patriarch, Cardinal Albino Luciani, started looking around for a secretary who knew English. On a hunch Luciani tapped Lorenzi, who quickly became his right-hand man and close friend.

     Two years later, on August 26, 1978, Luciani was elected in a stunningly rapid conclave as Pope John Paul I, and he brought Lorenzi along as his personal secretary. Overnight that made Lorenzi one of the most important men in the Roman Catholic Church. (It is the same position occupied today by Polish Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, an exceptionally powerful figure in the pontificate of John Paul II).

     My wife and I had lunch with Lorenzi in Venice on Saturday, Jan. 18, an encounter arranged through a mutual friend. It was part of a weekend spent in Venice in search of insight into John Paul I, anticipating the 25th anniversary of his death on Sept. 28, 1978. 

     When his pope died after a reign of just 33 days, the 11th shortest in church history, Lorenzi went quietly back into pastoral work. He never sought to profit from his short stint as a top Vatican official, and in fact most of the people he’s served over the years knew nothing of his background. A reserved, humble man, Lorenzi is actually reluctant to be drawn into conversation about that part of his life.

     Following a number of other assignments, in 1996 Lorenzi was asked by his superiors to go to Payatas in the Philippines, a Manila slum, where the Orione fathers staff the Mother of Divine Providence Parish.

     Payatas happens to be home to one of the largest garbage dumps in the world, an area of 7,000 acres with a concentration of 4,500 tons of garbage. Mosquitoes, flies and insects carrying all manner of disease are a constant feature of life. Fires burn all day and night, creating some of the most polluted air in the world. Despite this, homeless persons climb the mounds of garbage around the clock, searching for something they can sell or eat. Those mounds can go as high as seven stories, and they’re unstable. A collapse on July10, 2000, killed more than 200 people, burying 300 homes. Most of the people of Payatas live in shacks without running water, light or other basic services. 

     Lorenzi was sent with the mandate of finding creative ways to address unmet need. He looked around and noticed that some ten percent of the people are disabled, and so he founded a school for disabled children that teaches them a simple skill they can use to earn money. Lorenzi had to beg, borrow and steal, but he made it happen. 

     Ponder the riches-to-rags dimension of having lived in both the Apostolic Palace and in Payatas, and you’ll have a sense of what makes Lorenzi’s such a striking life story.

     Lorenzi is now living at a Don Orione institute in Mestre, a suburb of Venice. The Philippines, however, remain very much in his heart and on his mind. During our lunch, he was flush with enthusiasm for a new Orione project: a Tuberculosis Management Program. It’s a great need in Payatas since the fires create noxious emissions that cause a rate of respiratory disease radically higher than the norm, even for an impoverished nation such as the Philippines. 

     The idea of the project is to promote awareness on how to prevent infection, and then to treat it when it occurs. The lone health clinic in the area cannot afford to buy the medicines required to combat TB, so currently it goes untreated. The Orione fathers hope that within three years the disease will be limited to a handful of persons in Payatas, if not completely eliminated.

     This is not one of those dreams that can only be achieved with vast corporate support. The total cost of providing the training, materials and medicines needed is estimated at US $4,800. He received my pledge for a donation and a promise to ask readers to help. It wouldn’t take many other “The Word from Rome” readers to reach the goal, and we would do a world of good for some very deserving people. 

     Contributions should be addressed to: Don Orione Fathers, 111 Orient Avenue, East Boston, Massachusetts, 02128 (USA). Mark checks for “Payatas project, Manila.” The Orione Fathers, by the way, are a tax-exempt charitable organization under American law.

     Normally those who have held high office, even briefly, develop an appetite for it and find ways to stay near the flame. Lorenzi is one of those rare human beings who moved among the powerful, but never lost his love for the poor. The people of Payatas merit support, and so does he.

* * *

     Much about Fr. Diego Lorenzi’s approach to life can be summed up in eleven words.

     After lunch last Saturday, Lorenzi led my wife and I on a brief walking tour of the area around St. Mark’s Cathedral, so he could explain some of the history that’s not on any standard tour. We happened to walk past a church my wife and I had noticed the day before, which displayed a number of hand-written signs haranguing Catholics about their responsibilities. A typical example began, “In order to be and call yourself Catholic, you must …” and went on to tick off a series of obligations such as regular Mass attendance, frequent confession, and coherence with the moral teachings of the church. Nothing objectionable, of course, but the tone was nevertheless harsh.

     We pointed out the signs to Lorenzi. He sighed, saying he knew the pastor. Then, impromptu and sotto voce, came the oracular eleven words, expressing a whole philosophy of priesthood and ministry: “We should give a little more, and ask a little less.”

     Now there’s a program for the church.

     Former NCR editor Michael Farrell once taught me an Irish ditty that goes like this: “You can tell the man who boozes by the company he chooses.” The point is that a person’s character is revealed by the kind of people with whom he or she elects to associate. 

     In Venice, I had the opportunity to get to know not only Lorenzi, but also Monsignor Renato Volo, who was the chancellor of the Venice archdiocese while Luciani was patriarch. In fact, it was Volo who took Luciani to the boat dock on the day he left Venice for the conclave in Rome, never to return.

     Spending time with both men suggests that Luciani’s taste in associates was pretty good.

     Lorenzi, scarred by sensationalistic treatments of Luciani’s death such as David Yallop’s In God's Name, was reluctant to enter into details about the pope he served. He suggested that closer to the 25th anniversary of his death in September, we will have a longer interview. 

     Volo was more comfortable telling stories, and offered several that illustrate Luciani’s capacity to solve problems by listening, taking people seriously, and searching for whatever solution made sense regardless of issues of ego. He also, Volo said, had a capacity to take delight in simple things. The day Luciani left for the conclave, for example, he put on a simple set of black clergyman’s clothes that had been given to him as a gift by a local community of sisters for his saint name day (the onomastico that is still an important occasion for Italians). 

     I asked Volo what kind of pope he thought Luciani would have been.

     “He would have been as pope what he was as a human being,” Volo replied. “Simple, humble, open to everyone, a servant.” He noted that when Luciani was made a bishop, he selected a one-word motto: Humilitas.

     Volo emphasized that Luciani’s simplicity was not a product of superficiality. Luciani’s supporters are sensitive on this point, since after his death some voices whispered that this simple son of a socialist working class father from the mountains had been in over his head, unequipped for the serious demands of governance of the universal church. 

     Volo doesn’t buy it. “He was profoundly intelligent,” Volo said. “His gift was that he could speak in the same moment to a learned adult and a child, and be understood by both.” 

     In a moment in which it is alla moda to deride clerical culture, Lorenzi and Volo reminded me anew that the clerical system has also helped to form some solid human beings. That Luciani surrounded himself with such men is an intriguing hint about what might have been in his pontificate.

     More to come.

* * *

     A final Lorenzi story. We met at a restaurant with a spectacular view of the Basilica of the Madonna della Salute, a church put up by the Venetians in the 16th century to honor a vow to build a church if the Virgin saved them from the plague. Next door is a building that was once an enormous monastery. Lorenzi explained that Napoleon emptied it out when he swept down from the north, forcing the monks to live in the streets, begging for handouts in order to survive.

     I expressed rather pro forma sympathy for the poor monks, and Lorenzi smiled. 

     “I wouldn’t question the contemplative vocation, of course, but many of these monks simply weren’t doing anything,” he said. “Actually, Napoleon did religious life a favor. He forced us to become closer to the people, to re-learn how to serve them, to reform our lifestyle.”

     Expulsion by an anti-clerical dictator as a boon to religious life. Imagine that idea on the lips of a top aide to the pope, and you’ll get some idea of what this particular papacy might have been like.

* * *

     Readers will sometimes ask why church authorities don’t go after Catholic writers such as Garry Wills, author of Papal Sin, whose statements on issues such as infallibility or birth control go beyond anything relatively tame scholars such as Jacques Dupuis or Reinhard Messner ever did to trigger a censure. 

     In part, such questions mix apples and oranges; Dupuis is a theologian, Messner a liturgist, while Wills is a historian and essayist writing at a popular level. 

     There is another factor, however, which may be even more to the point. Church officials have leverage with men such as Dupuis, a Jesuit priest who taught at the Gregorian University. Both his membership in a religious community and his academic employment are dependent upon approval from officialdom. The church has precious little sway over laymen such as Wills, who teaches at a secular university (Northwestern) and who publishes mostly with secular journals and editorial houses.

     This background helps explain why the recent condemnation of lay Catholic writer Juan José Tamayo’s book Dios y Jesús (Editorial Trotta, 2000) by the Spanish bishops conference, apparently at the suggestion of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is a noteworthy event. Tamayo teaches at the University of Carlos III in Madrid, a public university, and writes for El Pais, a secular newspaper with a broad national readership. Hence he is not amenable to any of the usual pressure points.

     Nonetheless, the Spanish bishops issued a January 7, 2003, condemnation of the book, which attempts a modern representation of traditional teaching on the person of Jesus Christ, citing a “sharp rejection of the tradition of the church.” The doctrinal commission of the Spanish bishops accuses Tamayo of “a renewed version of the antique Arian error: denial of the divinity of Christ, presentation of Jesus as a simple man, and denial of the real and historical character of the resurrection.” The comparison to Arianism is, at least implicitly, an accusation of heresy.

     Thus the bottom line: “The conclusions that Juan José Tamayo reaches are incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

     Spanish press reports suggest that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had prepared an analysis that was the basis for the Spanish bishops’ conclusions, but a Vatican official told NCR that the congregation had merely “signaled” that the bishops should take a look at Tamayo’s book.

     Reaction has largely held to form. 

     Tamayo published a piece in El Pais on Jan. 11 comparing the action against him to previous crackdowns on Arius, Gioachim of Fiore, Meister Eckhart, John Hus, Martin Luther, Antonio Rosmini, Marie-Dominique Chenu, Bernard Häring and Tissa Balasuriya, among others. He has no intention of revising his views or standing down. The University of Carlos III issued a statement indicating that as a public institution, it would not take action against Tamayo on the basis of an ecclesiastical edict. Progressive bishops such as Pedro Casaldáliga (Brazil) and Jacques Gaillot (France) have issued statements of solidarity.

     Given that the bad press and lack of concrete effect was entirely predictable, why did the Vatican and/or the Spanish bishops feel compelled to take action?

     Obviously the fact that Tamayo’s work reaches a broad audience through El Pais is one factor; church authorities can ignore obscure tracts left under windshield wipers, but writing that reaches every literate household in Spain is another matter. 

     Second, concern over Christology, or the church’s teaching about Christ, is clearly a preoccupation in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The fear is that the emphasis on Christ’s humanity, on “Jesus from below,” has become so strong in the secularized Western world that his divinity is being obscured. Thus Christ becomes one prophet, one “savior,” among others, like the Buddha or Krishna or Mohammad. This was the major issue in Dominus Iesus, the controversial September 2000 Vatican document that asserted followers of other religions are in a “gravely deficient situation” with respect to Christians. The chief author of that document, Salesian theologian Angelo Amato, was recently named the new secretary, or number two official, in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

     In that sense, Tamayo had the misfortune of tripping a very live wire.

* * *

     Tough language from the Vatican against the idea of a U.S.-led war in Iraq continues. 

     On Jan. 18, Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit journal that is approved by the Secretariat of State before publication, suggested that oil was the real motive for the conflict and warned that the United States feels a dangerous “messianic vocation” to spread its version of democracy around the world. 

     Then on Jan. 21, the director of Vatican Radio, Jesuit Fr. Pasquale Borgomeo, blasted the “propagandistic attitude” of the U.S. administration, which he said is “increasingly less convincing.” Borgomeo warned that a unilateral attack on Iraq would amount to “imposing the hegemony of a superpower by force and not by law.” He also hypothesized that oil interests and the desire of American TV networks for ratings may be factors in the strong push for war.

     In a Jan. 20 statement, Caritas International, a Vatican-based confederation of 154 Catholic relief, development and social service organizations around the world, also expressed opposition to a war. “Caritas shares the view held by many humanitarian organizations that any use of military force in Iraq would bring incalculable costs to a civilian population that has suffered so much from war, repression, and debilitating economic sanctions,” the statement read.

     U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson is not one to let this kind of talk go unchallenged. On the evening of Jan. 21, Nicholson had an hour-long meeting with Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, to try to explain the American position on a so-called “preventive war.” Nicholson argued that when a rogue state has possession of nuclear weapons and there’s every reason to believe it might use them, a “no first strike” policy is not only naive but perhaps actually immoral. Nicholson also had a meeting on the morning of Jan. 22 with Archbishop Renato Martino, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to make the same pitch. Martino’s criticism of U.S. policy on Iraq has been especially outspoken.

     Recognizing the importance of the press in shaping opinion, Nicholson invited a few reporters to lunch after his meeting with Martino. Present were CNN, Fox News, the Associated Press and NCR, along with a handful of Italian journalists. 

     Nicholson said the strongly anti-American rhetoric from Civiltà Cattolica and Vatican Radio may reflect “the autonomy of certain departments in the Vatican,” and is not consistent with what he’s hearing from Tauran, with whom he said he speaks two-three times a week. Nicholson did acknowledge, however, that to date the Vatican does not find any argument for a war in Iraq convincing.

     In early February, Nicholson will bring to Rome lay American Catholic intellectual Michael Novak, known for his defense of free-market capitalism from the point of view of Catholic social teaching, to try to convince the Vatican of the morality of a preventive war. On Feb. 10 Novak will give a public address. He’s also expected to have private meetings with the Council for Justice and Peace and the Secretariat of State, and perhaps a few other Vatican offices.

     Disagreement over the war represents the first real chill in what has been a warm relationship between the Vatican and the Bush administration. No American presidential candidate ever made such an effort to solicit Catholic support, an effort in which Nicholson played a lead role. Bush visited John Paul II twice during his first year in office, something no president had ever done. On a range of issues, from abortion funding to stem cell research to public funding for faith-based initiatives, there has been a meeting of minds between the White House and the Apostolic Palace.

     It will be interesting to follow how the U.S. administration manages this dispute with Rome. When reminded that the Vatican had opposed the 1991 Gulf War, Nicholson said, “The pope was listened to very carefully, and then the United States did what it felt it had to do.” The implication seemed to be that events might unfold similarly this time.

     Nicholson declined to discuss the potential electoral implications of a break with the pope on a war, saying that Bush is “genuinely committed to doing what’s right and letting the chips fall where they may.”

     Nicholson confirmed that if it’s possible, the pope will be given advance warning of an attack against Iraq.

     On the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Nicholson said the Vatican is obviously preoccupied with the issue. He revealed that last fall he set up a meeting between Tauran and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Bucharest, Romania, to discuss the Vatican’s proposal for an international monitoring force for the Holy Land.

* * *

     Jan. 18-25 was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and there are a number of events going on in Rome related to the theme of ecumenism. On Jan. 20, for example, John Paul II received an ecumenical group from Finland, suggesting that a “new moment” has arrived in ecumenical relations, “in which we can confess a real communion, even if it’s incomplete.” The pope pointed to the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Lutheran World Federation as a sign of progress. On Jan. 25, John Paul planned to go to the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls to personally lead the annual ecumenical prayer service. Representatives of the other Christian bodies in Rome were to take part.

     One of the more remarkable ecumenical points of reference in Rome is the Centro Pro Unione, administered by Graymoor Franciscan Fr. James Puglisi, an American. Puglisi led an ecumenical prayer service at the chapel of the Brigittine Sisters in Piazza Farnese on Tuesday evening, Jan. 21. For anyone wanting to know what’s going on ecumenically in Rome, Puglisi is a primary resource. In fact, after this week is over, he’s heading off to help advance the Roman Catholic/Mennonite dialogue. 

     On Thursday, Jan. 23, the Centro Pro Union hosted a lecture by Rev. Thomas Stransky, former rector of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies, on the non-Catholic observers at Vatican II. Those observers actually met in the Centro in Piazza Navonna during the council, so it was a “if these walls could talk” sort of evening. The lecture was followed by an ecumenical celebration led by Methodist and Waldensian ministers.

     A heads-up: Anyone who will be in Rome on Thursday, March 20, should mark their calendars for a 6:00 p.m. lecture at the Centro by Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft on the agreement on the Eucharist between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East, promulgated Oct. 26, 2001. In a Nov. 16, 2001, article in NCR, I quoted Taft calling this agreement “perhaps the most significant decision to come out of the Holy See in a half-century.” Briefly, in this document the Vatican recognized the theological efficacy of a Eucharistic prayer without the institution narrative, the words pronounced by Jesus at the Last Supper: “Take this, all of you, and eat it,” etc. Traditional Catholic theology had long held that a Eucharistic prayer without these exact words was impossible. The new agreement thus “takes us beyond a theology of magic words,” Taft told me in 2001, and thus breaks with the literalism and rigidity of liturgical policy in other areas.

     Anyone who knows Taft understands that this will be a show you don’t want to miss. 

* * *

     In March 2002, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, ordered German Benedictine Fr. Willigis Jäger to cease all public activities, including lectures, courses and publications. Jäger, 77, is a Zen Buddhist master also known as Ko-un Roshi, and was accused of playing down the Christian concept of God as a person as well as stressing mystical experience above doctrinal truths. Ratzinger has long been concerned that a Western tendency towards religious relativism will be “baptized” by contact with Eastern spirituality.

     An update on Jäger’s situation from Benedictine sources:

     Jäger has been given an exclaustration, meaning a formal release from his Benedictine monastery of Münsterschwarzach, for three years. During this period of time, intended as a period of discernment, Jäger will not be under the jurisdiction of the Benedictines.

     In the meantime, a wealthy female supporter of Jäger has purchased a house for his use in Holzkirchen, near Würzburg, in Germany, and is presently overseeing a renovation worth several million Euros. The hope is that the house will be ready to host a series of courses and conferences by Jäger in the fall of 2003. For now Jäger is giving courses at another old house that was about to be closed, where he is paying the rent.

     Jäger’s previous headquarters, the center of St. Benedikt, which is connected to the Münsterschwarzach monastery, has been restored to the control of the abbot. He has appointed a new director to offer courses and retreats. 

     Sources say that Jäger’s community of devotees is experiencing “internal tensions,” as not everyone is prepared to follow him to his new destination. 

* * *

     Jesuit Fr. Gerald O’Collins, a professor of theology at the Gregorian University, is one of the great gentlemen of the Roman scene. He is also a widely respected scholar, someone with admirers from all points of view. O’Collins was the chief counselor to fellow Jesuit theologian Jacques Dupuis during his troubles with the Vatican, but at the same time his work is read with respect by conservatives such as fellow Australian Archbishop George Pell. I once heard Pell deliver a lecture at an Opus Dei congress criticizing contemporary Christology, and I asked him afterwards to name a Christologist he liked. O’Collins was the name he offered.

     In April, O’Collins, along with Stephen Davis from Claremont McKenna College in the United States, will host a remarkable inter-religious, inter-disciplinary scholarly summit on the theme of redemption. The event, to take place at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York (known as “Dunwoodie”), will bring together 22 internationally renowned scholars from a variety of religious traditions to discuss redemption and, in particular, faith in Christ as universal redeemer for all humanity and the whole created cosmos. 

     The event will take place April 20-23, with a seminar open to the public on April 24. Previous summits have produced books on the resurrection, the Trinity, and the incarnation.

     For further information, contact Fr. Gerard Rafferty, St. Joseph’s Seminary, 201 Seminary Ave., Yonkers, NY 10704-1852; tel. (914) 968 6200; fax 914-376-2019; e-mail

* * *

     Two other quick notes.

  • Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna, one of the most colorful members of the College of Cardinals, has long had a special love for Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. He wrote a book in 1976 arguing that Pinocchio is actually a theological masterpiece rooted in Christianity. (A loving father fashions a toy from wood and calls it “son,” and over time, through suffering, the toy becomes what the father wants it to be). Recently Biffi has returned to the subject, in conjunction with widespread interest in Italy surrounding Roberto Benigni’s film version of the Pinocchio story. As part of this national conversation, former Prime Minister Giovanni Spadolini asserted that Collodi’s Pinocchio is among the fruits of the Risorgimento, the national unity movement in the 19th century inspired by Republican and anti-clerical ideals. In response, Biffi published an essay in the official newspaper of the Italian bishops conference, L’Avvenire, strongly contesting Spadolini’s interpretation. Collodi, Biffi writes, was a youthful enthusiast of the Risorgimento who later repented. His nasty portraits of police and judges in Pinocchio reflect this sentiment, Biffi argued. The story thus warns against constructing a society without reference to God. Whatever one makes of the argument, it’s nice to see a cardinal concerned enough with literature to get this worked up.

  • On Jan. 21, the pope administered his annual blessing of two live lambs. The event is held every year on the feast of St. Agnes, whose name resembles the word for “lamb” in Latin. The wool from these lambs, raised by Trappist monks of the Abbey of The Three Fountains, will eventually be used to make the pallium that the pope gives to newly appointed archbishops on June 29, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. It’s a circular strip of cloth nearly three inches wide, with two 14-inch “tails” hanging front and back, decorated with six black silk crosses, four of which have loops to hold long pins that often are topped with a precious stone. The cloistered Benedictine community at the Basilica of St. Cecilia has been entrusted for more than a century with making the palliums. After the pope blesses the lambs, they are taken to the nuns by two Sediari Pontifici, the corps that used to carry the pope on his sedia gestatoria, and who still perform other ritual functions. The nuns shear, then slaughter the two lambs in Holy Week, using the meat for their Easter Sunday banquet. By the way, a pallium is a territorial vestment, so if an archbishop is transferred from one metropolitan see to another, he gets a second. According to tradition, an archbishop with two palliums is buried with the most recent one around his neck; the other is rolled up and placed under his head. 
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