National Catholic Reporter ®

February 15, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 25

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Cardinal Stafford, the ideas man; a World Youth Day
with a social edge; speaking of compromise in the Middle East

 “The key to success of World Youth Day is what we put in place for the immediate follow-up”...

... “All of the good will in the world does not count six months afterward.”


Cardinal James Francis Stafford is a man of ideas. He is, I would say, almost constitutionally incapable of superficiality, even when the situation would seem to call for it.

     A case in point came Friday, Feb. 8, at a news conference hosted by the Canadian Embassy to the Holy See to promote this summer’s World Youth Day in Toronto, set for July 18-28. Stafford, an American, was present in his capacity as head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

     The nature of the event invited Stafford to boosterism: praise for Toronto, the pope’s love for youth, and World Youth Day as a symbol of peace.

     These notes were indeed struck. But Stafford went further, laying down a series of intellectual challenges he hopes young people, who will be the Catholic leaders of the new century, will take up in Toronto. He named five:

  • War and peace
  • Bioethics
  • Growing hostility between men and women
  • Globalization
  • How a Catholic citizen understands liberty
     Item three was a new one for most in the press corps. Marco Politi, the vaticanista for Rome’s daily La Repubblica, asked Stafford to say more.

     I was sitting in the front row, and I believe I saw Stafford wince. I suspect he was worried that he might hijack the news conference. Nevertheless, Politi’s question was on the table and Stafford did not back away.

     “Since the 1970s, a number of studies on the relationship between men and women in Western society suggest that despite a surface accord, there is a deeper uneasiness and lack of trust,” he said. “There is a lack of trust in marriage, for example, an unwillingness to make a lifelong commitment.

     “Some studies indicate that the increase in the obviousness of the gay culture is rooted in this distancing between men and women, as well as an unwillingness to face up to male/female differences and to rejoice in them,” Stafford said.

     “There is an uneasiness in Western society about the understanding we have of a woman’s role as mother and wife, and our rejection of that role. 

     “What do we do about that at World Youth Day?” Stafford asked. “All these issues will be before us. It’s the question of what it means to be human. In part, it means to be created as man and woman.”

     Frankly, I don’t have the command of psychology and gender relations to know what to make of this. Quick research suggests that some studies pointing to male/female hostility put the blame on feminism, hinting, perhaps, at ideological axes being ground. But it’s a complex subject needing serious thought.

     I admire Stafford for putting the issue on the table, even at the risk of being misunderstood. I do not believe he was being provocative for the sake of getting himself in the papers. I think he was trying to reflect on experience, and inviting future leaders of the church to join him. It’s an invitation that should be welcomed.

     Stafford, who was the archbishop of Denver during the World Youth Day held there in 1993, was asked about the impact of that event, where crowds vastly exceeded expectations. He said John Paul told him afterwards that Denver had been a “revolution” for him.

     “Prior to Denver, the Holy Father and the curia were looking to the East for the revival of the church,” Stafford said. “After Denver, they began also looking to the West. Lux ex occidente, not just oriente.”

     Stafford said Denver also changed the way North Americans, especially the press, look at the pope. The “contentiousness,” he said, was reduced.

     I suspect he’s right. Prior to 1993, the dominant storyline on American Catholicism had been “conservative pope and his unruly flock.”

     Afterward, the genuine affection most Catholics, above all young people, feel for the pope was indisputable. Today the media tagline is more likely to be, “They like the singer but not the song.”

* * *

     The day after the press conference, a colleague and I interviewed Basilian Fr. Thomas Rosica, a Canadian and chief organizer for World Youth Day. A Biblical scholar trained at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, Rosica is an impressive man. He switches from English to French to Italian to Spanish to German with ease, managing to keep people happy and work on track in all those languages. 

     We met Rosica inside the Vatican. As we stood chatting by a back entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica, a senior member of the Vigilanza, the Vatican police force, whom Rosica had obviously befriended, approached us. Placing his hand on his head where a bishop’s zuchetto goes, the officer pointed at Rosica and said: “After Toronto, wait and see.” The obvious suggestion was that Rosica is heading up the career ladder.

     Rosica joked that after Toronto he’ll be heading straight for the infirmary. As the cop walked away, Rosica said to us: “Isn’t it funny how people around here are always thinking in terms of careers?”

     I quipped: “That doesn’t make him wrong.”

     Having covered the last World Youth Day in Rome, I’m aware of the criticism that dogs the event — that it’s a Catholic Woodstock, several days of pope-as-pop-star that lacks a pastoral payoff. I recounted for Rosica what happened in Rome during the winter of 2000, when a local Catholic charity appealed to young people to help keep churches open at night so that the homeless could stay warm. The project failed. An official wrote a letter that found its way into the papers, asking why millions of young people would show up to cheer the pope the previous summer, but not even a few dozen were willing to live their faith when called by the local church.

     Rosica didn’t shrink from the challenge.

     “The key to success of World Youth Day is what we put in place for the immediate follow-up,” he said. “All of the good will in the world does not count six months afterward.”

     “We have built into this World Youth Day, which has never been done before, a very serious social justice component,” Rosica said. “In the afternoons on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, we will be offering about 500 service projects in the city of Toronto.”

     “The critics will say it’s nothing more than a photo opportunity. Let them say that,” Rosica said. 

     I pressed him about claims made last time around that tens of thousands of young people made confessions in the Circo Massimo. Has that translated into increased sacramental practice back home?

     “We don’t hire statisticians or ad agencies to follow up on these things,” Rosica said. “This work is about the parable of the sower. It’s our job to sow the seeds lavishly.”

     I suspect that in Rosica the Canadians have found a pretty good sower.

     Rosica said he’s expecting between 450,000-500,000 people at Toronto, with some 50,000 from the United States. (A U.S. bishops’ conference official told me that’s a realistic number. There’s a sense, he said, that if the Olympics finish without incident, the numbers may end up even higher).

* * *

     Last week I reported on an encounter in Rome between Palestinians and Israelis called “Meeting the Other.” As part of the event, I had the chance to sit down over breakfast with a genuinely impressive man: Hanna Siniora of Jerusalem, who chairs the Christian-Muslim dialogue in Palestine.

     Chances are you have never heard of Hanna Siniora, a Latin Rite Catholic. That’s too bad, and it illustrates the way media coverage of the Middle East ignores leaders who don’t fire guns or throw rocks.

     Siniora and some 60 other laymen, Christian and Muslim, launched their dialogue in 1989 as a way of handling problems before they get out of hand. For example, during an Easter procession one year a handful of Muslim youth in Jerusalem jeered at Christians, stoking animosity. Muslim partners in the dialogue immediately visited the parents of the hooligans, and the activity was nipped in the bud.

     A similar sort of early intervention helped curtail a budding drugs trade in East Jerusalem that had threatened to evolve into street battles between rival Muslim and Christian youth gangs.

     Siniora said that before the dialogue, problems tended to be swept under the rug “because we wanted to always show that there was complete solidarity and understanding between Christian and Muslim Palestinians.”

     As is well known, the most serious threat to that solidarity in recent months has been a controversy surrounding construction of a mosque near the Basilica of the Anunciation in Nazareth. The hardline Islamic Movement has demanded the erection of a large mosque that critics say would obscure the basilica, while equally inflexible Christian leaders such as Patriarch Michel Sabbah are opposed to any construction. The Israeli government has created a commission to study the matter, though some Palestinians believe the Israelis will drag out the dispute in a classic “divide and conquer” maneuver.

     When the controversy first erupted, Siniora’s dialogue offered a compromise: the construction of a small mosque, or perhaps an Islamic school or library, on the proposed site, with a larger facility nearby. 

     “Jerusalem is dotted with mosques and churches side by side,” Siniora said. “So we feel that if Jerusalem, which is the holiest of holy cities, can be like this, so can Nazareth.”

     Given the way the issue has been swept up in global geo-politics, with fundamentalist Islamic groups on one side and an array of Christian factions on the other (including the Vatican), the compromise proposal has had trouble finding traction. Yet Siniora said he is convinced that if it were put to a vote, the majority of both Muslims and Christians in Palestine would support it.

     “Always when you take too strong a position and don’t know how to compromise, you allow conflict to grow,” Siniora told me. 

     As Israeli writer David Grossman said in Rome, men such as Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon are almost incapable of making peace because they are “prisoners of their own biographies.” When a serious search for new leaders begins, I hope people such as Hanna Siniora get a serious look.

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

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