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 The Word From Rome

March 19, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 30

John Allen


"Up in the structure of the church we have people who are full of anxiety, who are afraid. I would say, if we are the people of God: Why? We will have problems, of course - always. But this drawing in on ourselves is not the answer. We have to talk; we have to listen."

Cardinal Franz König of Vienna,
speaking during a 1999 interview with NCR. König passed away March 13

Cardinal Pell and Vox Clara; Forty years of Inter mirifica; Cardinal Franz König; Life issues and medical ethics; Conversations on ecumenism


Although we will probably never know if John Paul really said, “It is as it was,” there’s surely no mystery that he liked “The Passion of the Christ.” The latest indication came March 15, when the pope received Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus Christ in the controversial Mel Gibson film that so far has grossed more than $213 million.

It was the second time John Paul met Caviezel; the first encounter came during the filming of the movie.

The day after his tete-a-tete with the pope, Caviezel sat down with a small group of reporters over snacks in a Rome apartment. Perhaps not wishing to relive the “it is as it was” fracas, he declined to share what the pope had said to him, calling it “all private.” Beyond that, however, nothing was off-limits.

Highlights from the conversation:

• Caviezel, 35, is a staunch Catholic who places strong emphasis on loyalty to the church and to the pope. He said that when someone now asks if he’s Catholic, he responds, “I’m Roman Catholic.” As distinct from what? “From being American Catholic,” he said.

• He is also strikingly pious. During filming, Caviezel carried relics of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Padre Pio, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Genesius (the patron saint of actors) and Anne Catherine Emmerich (the 19th century German mystic whose visions supplemented Gibson’s version of the passion). He also carried a piece of wood believed to be from the True Cross. Caviezel had a special compartment sown into his loincloth for the relics. He also prayed the rosary, went to confession, and attended daily Mass. “I always wanted to have the Eucharist in my body, because then I felt more like I was playing Christ,” he said.

• Caviezel is a devotee of the Marian apparitions in Medjugorje. He said that he met visionary Ivan Dragicevic in Ireland, and during one of his prayer sessions he felt something go through him. “After that I knew for sure this is for real,” he said.

• Caviezel defended Gibson’s attitude towards Rome, the subject of much curiosity given the Australian superstar’s traditionalist leanings. “Mel Gibson is very, very Roman Catholic,” Caviezel said. “This man grew up in a Tridentine family, and was treated horribly by people who were Catholic. When you live in Alabama and you’re black, and you get treated horribly by others and judged unfairly because of the color of your skin, how open are you? Even though you’re trying, how open are you?”

• He rejected charges of anti-Semitism. “They talk to me about being anti-Semitic. I say, I am Semitic. It’s my lineage, I’m from the house of David and Abraham,” Caviezel said.

• He likewise dismissed complaints that the film is excessively violent. “What do you expect to see in a real crucifixion?” Caviezel asked. “You’ve heard of these horrible deaths, of soldiers in wars, and of our saints. Why do you expect Our Lord would have suffered any less? He died for the sins of the world.”

Caviezel believes that much of the criticism of the movie amounts to anti-Catholic, or anti-Christian, bias, consistent with Jesus’ prediction that his followers would be persecuted. “When you are Catholic, you’ve got a big dot on your back and you’re asking, ‘shoot me.’ You’re going to experience martyrdom, whether it’s physical, mental anguish, or attacks on your character,” Caviezel said. “If I’m persecuted, then I’m doing a good job.”

Overall, Caviezel came across as an earnest Catholic, tilting to what would conventionally be considered the conservative side of some issues, convinced that he is following God’s path. He won’t be deviated for the sake of political correctness. This holds true even in conversation with the legendary Protestant minister Billy Graham, whom Caviezel said once told him they should emphasize what they have in common.

Caviezel’s response? “Let’s not go down that road.”

“The problem is this: we water down our faiths to accommodate each other,” Caviezel said. “That’s what we do now, in order to get along. But when we water down the faith, we accommodate each other, but we also accommodate sin.”

“We’re not supposed to say ‘militancy’ these days,” Caviezel said. “But we’re either church militant or church mediocrity.”

* * *

More from Caviezel.

He said he never spoke with Mel Gibson about the pope or the institutional Catholic church. Nevertheless, he issued a ringing defense of Gibson’s Catholicism.

Whatever is leading Mel Gibson is something very holy,” Caviezel said. “I don’t know any Roman Catholic who would take on the world like he has. But whatever you’ve heard, if you don’t like it, pray for his complete conversion.

“I can’t believe he had the strength to do what he has done. I know he loves Our Lady very, very, very much. I know he believes in the Seat of Peter, absolutely. The rest takes care of itself through prayer.”

Caviezel acknowledged the intense violence of “The Passion,” saying he felt it physically. During the scourging scene, he said, he actually got hit twice, for real, by mistake. The second time, a blow with a cat-o’-nine-tails left a 14-inch scar on his back. The impact caused him to yank his hands out of their metal chains. The pain was so intense, he said, that it knocked his air out, so that he could not even scream.

“This is why you don’t see Our Lord yelling his head off during these beatings,” Caviezel said.

After that experience, he said, he no longer could play the scene properly, because every time one of the centurions geared up to deliver a blow he would flinch. Eventually, Gibson had to take the whips out of the handles, adding them in later digitally.

Nevertheless, Caviezel insisted that the violence was essential.

“People saw it as gratuitous. They called it ‘Kill Bill II.’ But what they see as gratuitous, we see as a great sacrifice, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” Caviezel said.

He expanded on the physical ardor of making the film, including spending some 10 hours every day applying, maintaining, and removing his makeup, usually beginning at 2:00 am. He said that during the film he separated his shoulder while carrying the cross. His neck and back ached, and he suffered from hypothermia almost every day while hanging on the cross in freezing cold weather, whipped along by 30 knot winds. He had to take painful saunas at night to recover.

In the end, however, he said it was worth it.

“Had I not gone through that treacherous situation, I would never have gotten the performance,” he said.

One revelation is that prior to making “The Passion,” Caviezel visited Mother Angelica, the Franciscan nun who founded the Eternal Word Television Network, headquartered in Alabama.

“She looked me in the eye a month before her stroke and said, ‘You’re supposed to be a saint,’ Caviezel said. “I said, ‘Well, we’re all called to be saints, Mother.’ She said, ‘Yeah, I know, but you are.’”

Caviezel said that he sees Christ’s message as a balance between grace and truth, while in American Catholicism the accent is often on grace alone.

If you have just grace, which we have a lot in the Catholic church in the United States, that means we have a ‘happy Jesus,’” he said. “You see him without any nails in his hand, no more suffering. Sleep with Suzy on Friday, Catherine on Saturday, go to church on Sunday, and the blood washes it all. You wouldn’t do this to your best friend, so why would you do it to your Lord and Savior?”

Despite the obvious sincerity of his Catholicism, Caviezel said he resents the way the press fastens on it.

“I am proud to be Catholic,” he said. “But I’m also an actor. They write, ‘devout Catholic Jim Caviezel.’ Fine, but that’s not how they speak about other artists. They don’t say, ‘devout Scientologist Tom Cruise,’ or ‘devout Jewish man who speaks about his Jewish faith Adam Sandler.’ They’re not consistent. For me, they say ‘religious zealot.’ ”

Caviezel interpreted such reactions through the prism of the passion.

“Mel told me, ‘There’s going to be persecution.’ I said, ‘Look man, we’re not called to the easy life. You either pick up your cross and carry it, or you’ll be crushed by the weight of it.’”

* * *

Signs continue to accumulate that the “liturgy wars” in the Catholic Church are nearing an end, even if no one has declared the close of major combat operations à la President George Bush in Iraq.

In the 1990s, no issue in English-speaking Catholicism was more contentious. Sliced one way, these tussles -- whether to use the word “man,” where to put the tabernacle -- were a struggle between inculturation and diversity, versus unity based on the Roman model. Sliced another way, they pitted decentralization against a strong Roman hand. It also put “inclusive language” against critics who felt feminism had cut too many inroads into the church.

Whatever the case, these liturgical debates commanded enormous amounts of time and psychological energy. Today, however, the situation is closer to a mop-up operation. The advocates of a more traditional, “sacral” approach have won, while those who want a more flexible and idiomatic style of speech and worship have largely retreated to fight another day.

The latest indication came in an exclusive March 11 NCR interview with Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia. Pell chairs the Vox Clara Committee, created in July 2001 to advise the Vatican on liturgical translation in English. Pell told NCR his committee may not have a raison d’être after a translation of the Roman Missal, the collection of prayers for the Mass, is completed. The core of that project, the Order of Mass, could be finished by early 2005, with the rest coming not much later.

Even if Vox Clara continues in another form, the fact that Pell can contemplate a future without it suggests that its original purpose has largely been accomplished.

A body of 11 bishops from around the English-speaking world, Vox Clara was erected in response to the need to speed up a translation of the Mass consistent with the conservative translation principles promulgated in the May 2001 document Liturgiam Authenticam. Besides Pell, who has a history of concern with the fidelity of English translations to the original Latin, the committee includes two Americans with a similar pedigree: Cardinals Francis George of Chicago and Justin Rigali of Philadelphia.

In part, Vox Clara’s mission amounted to monitoring the progress of a Vatican-directed overhaul of the the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).

Long a bete-noir among critics of post-Vatican II liturgical reforms, ICEL now has new statutes and personnel, and is producing texts more to the liking of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and Vox Clara. The turn-around at ICEL means that, in effect, Vox Clara may have worked itself out of business.

What does the future hold?

One lurking danger for the victors in the liturgy wars is, ironically, much the same faced by American forces in Iraq. With the combined force of the Vatican and heavy-hitters such as Pell, those favoring a more distinctively Catholic argot could deploy a “shock and awe” campaign that was destined to prevail in any test of ecclesiastical strength. The problem is that they have not yet convinced the people in the trenches of the justness of their cause. Many English-speaking liturgists are resigned to the new dispensation, but in their hearts they cling to the approach embodied in the “old” ICEL.

Hence, there is a risk of low-key resistance, even sabotage, as church officials get things rolling in parishes and dioceses. Forcing through new translation principles and turning ICEL upside down, as painful as it may have been, was the easy part. Now the hard work begins -- winning the hearts and minds of pastors and liturgists, not to mention worshipping communities.

Pell and I also spoke about whether or not the new Order of Mass is being produced with undue haste, how Vox Clara organizes its work, and the controversial question of changing the “people’s parts” in the Mass. The full text of the interview can be found in the Special Documents section at Pell Interview.

* * *

Last week the Pontifical Council for Social Communications held its annual plenary assembly. The event had special significance because it marked the 40th anniversary of the Vatican II document on social communications, Inter mirifica.

To mark the occasion, I sat down March 18 with Archbishop John Foley, the American who serves as president of the council.

Foley was a student priest in Rome when the document was approved. He recalled being approached by Michael Novak, then covering Vatican II as a journalist, who asked him to sign a petition opposing Inter mirifica on the grounds that it did not go far enough. (Foley wryly observed that this was during Novak’s “liberal phase”). Foley refused, citing three points:

• The document called for a dicastery in the Roman curia for social communications;

• It called for a pastoral instruction (which led to Communio et progressio);

• It called for World Communications Day.

For those reasons, Foley argued, Inter mirifica put social communications on the map in the church, even though it had the largest number of contrary votes of any conciliar document.

Without questioning the strides made since Vatican II, as an American I had to ask Foley how he explained the disastrous showing in the press of the Catholic church throughout the sex abuse crisis.

“I’ve always been an advocate of the greatest possible openness in the church,” Foley said. “If there were those who were not open about certain situations, unfortunately that was part of the problem.”

At the same time, Foley said, part of the church’s hesitancy to provide disclosure was a desire to avoid “calumny,” that is, pointing fingers at priests if their guilt wasn’t clear.

I asked a practical question: Why is it that bishops who screwed up, like Bernard Law, became media icons, while bishops who had better track records, like Harry Flynn or Michael Sheehan, did not get the same treatment?

“I don’t know,” Foley said. “I mentioned them when I did interviews with people, and I mentioned it to some network people.”

I pressed: was this the fault of the press, or did the church drop the ball?

“I don’t know,” Foley repeated. He said this is an accounting that needs to be done.

Finally, Foley said deregulation of the media in the United States has been a serious blow to the public image of religion.

“We experienced a type of golden age in the 1950s and 1960s with Archbishop Sheen and others,” he said. “Religion was seen as an essential part of human life with intellectual consistency and coherence.”

Today, Foley said, since broadcasters are no longer obliged to carry religious programming as part of a community service requirement, the airwaves are “dominated by fundamentalists who have the money to buy the time or to buy the stations.”

In that sense, Foley said, deregulation has been a “tragic development.”

One footnote. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications had been working on a new document about cinema. In light of hopes that the pope may publish something in connection with the 40th anniversary, however, Foley said the project for a document on cinema has been put on hold.

* * *

A giant of 20th century Catholicism passed away on Saturday, March 13, in the person of Cardinal Franz König of Vienna, Austria. It’s difficult to name a turning point in recent Catholic history in which he was not a central player: The ecumenical movement, the church’s Ostpolitik and the Cold War, the Second Vatican Council, the election of John Paul II, prickly debates within Catholicism over centralization and religious pluralism.

I’ve written an obituary of König for the March 26 print edition of National Catholic Reporter, just one entry in the vast literature that will mark his death. Here I’d like to offer a more personal remembrance.

I first met König in 1999, when I was, in effect, “trying out” for the role of NCR’s Vatican correspondent. The paper sent me over to Europe for a month and a half, first to do a couple of cover stories, then to follow the European Synod. My first cover story of the trip was an exclusive interview with König. I remember getting to his Vienna apartment an hour early just to be sure I had the right address, and then killing time in a park across the street.

As I rode up the elevator, my heart beat a mile a minute. This is the man who engineered the “opening to the East” that became Vatican foreign policy under John XXIII and Paul VI, the man who proposed Karol Wojtyla of Cracow as pope in the second conclave of 1978. Along with Cardinals Leon Suenens of Belgium, Bernard Alfrink of the Netherlands, Julius Döpfner and Joseph Frings of Germany, Maximos IV the Melkite patriarch, and Gianbattista Montini and Giacomo Lercaro of Italy, König was an architect of Vatican II.

allen and königWhat the hell was I doing in his apartment?

As I stepped inside, I rather timidly apologized to König for disturbing him.

“Nonsense,” he said. “You are an important journalist, and you write for an important paper. I’m honored that you came all this way to see me.”

A man who’s dined with princes and presidents couldn’t possibly have been honored by the visit of an obscure American scrivener. But his generosity put me at ease, and we had a delightful two-hour conversation.

Here’s a quote from that interview that sums up the spirit of the man:

“Up in the structure of the church we have people who are full of anxiety, who are afraid,” he said. “I would say, if we are the people of God: Why? We will have problems, of course — always. But this drawing in on ourselves is not the answer. We have to talk; we have to listen.”

A couple years later, when I was researching my book Conclave, I asked König if I could visit him again for an extended interview. He was, after all, the only living cardinal who had voted in three conclaves: 1963, and the two of 1978. He agreed, and this time I brought my wife, Shannon. She too was nervous about meeting a legend; once again, König worked his charm and she was put at ease.

Without violating any confidences, I can say there would have been no book Conclave without König, and I am eternally in his debt.

I realize that König’s stance on some church debates — his defense of Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, for example, or his public criticism of what he saw as the “defensiveness” of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — are not universally shared. But there was something deeper about König, a profound humanity, a gentle kindness and other-centeredness, that reflects what we Christians can be at our best. I say again: those who can see only dysfunction in clerical culture should spend some time with such men.

Franz Cardinal König leaves a hole in the church and in my world. Requiescat in pace.

* * *

A fascinating conference is unfolding this week at the Augstinianum, just across the street from St. Peter’s Square. The formal title is “Life Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas.”  Especially given the high-profile Terry Schiavo case in the United States, not to mention the equally neuralgic BWV case in Australia, it is a subject of obvious topical interest.

The event was introduced on March 16 with a news conference in the Vatican Press Office.

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice-president of the Pontifical Academy of Life, asserted that people in a persistent vegetative state can recover after months, in some cases even after years. When people lose the use of reason, Sgreccia said, the temptation is to see them as no longer human, but this cannot be tolerated.

“We do not have separate human, animal and vegetable souls,” Sgreccia argued. “There is only one soul that animates the entire being.”

In a point with keen legal significance, Sgreccia insisted that food and water cannot be considered “therapy.” They are instead a form of “care” that is always obligatory until biological death.

Professor Gianluigi Gigli, from the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, argued that permitting the withdrawal of food and water carries enormous risks, such as creating a market for patients’ organs. He also said that a softening of traditional ethical strictures could end up as a “Trojan horse” for euthanasia.

That these issues are far from settled in Catholic moral reflection was clear from the morning session of the meeting on March 18.

Fr. Norman Ford from the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Health Ethics in Melbourne, Australia, sparked debate by arguing in favor of withdrawal of care under some circumstances.

Failure to give due regard to the clinical reality of permanently unconscious patients shows a lack of respect for them,” Ford said. “The patient should not be subjected to the ontological indignity of being sustained by medically assisted nutrition and hydration for years of unconscious life.”

Fr. Gerald Gleeson of the Catholic Institute of Sydney, Australia, agreed that food and water can be removed if it becomes “futile, burdensome, not beneficial to patient, and is prolonging death.”

These arguments were challenged by other participants.

A French physician who works with persistently unresponsive patients challenged Ford, asking how he knows that these patients don’t feel pain. In any event, she asked, why starve people to death over two weeks? If the aim is to end their life, why not be honest and simply put them to death by lethal injection?  In other words, why not admit that what you’re really talking about is euthanasia?

Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher, a well-known Australian ethicist, issued a similar challenge to Ford: If continuing to live is unworthy of human dignity with patients incapable of recovery, he asked, why spoon feed an incapacitated person? Why bother covering them up to avoid colds?

A panel of Australian ethicists argued that the debate is between two notions of human dignity, one existential, focusing on a person’s capacities and “quality of life,” another connatural, focusing on the inherent dignity of all human life. The panel also contended the very term “vegetative” is unworthy of human dignity, arguing that it should be replaced with “persistently unresponsive.”

Ironically, the conference Web site is

* * *

On March 11, the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier del Caravita, an English-speaking community in Rome founded by three Jesuits and a Viatorian, launched a series of discussions on ecumenical relations and the search for Christian unity titled Conversazione a Caravita.

The first two guests were Professor Geoffrey Wainwright of Duke University and Australian Bishop Michael Putney, co-chairs of the International Methodist-Catholic Dialogue. (Both are well-regarded; a Vatican official once told me they are the “Platonic ideals” of dialogue chairs.)

Wainwright said concern for Christian unity is “in Methodist genes.” Even if it’s on a distant horizon, it’s there. Significantly, he suggested that Methodists could acknowledge a role for a papal office as a guarantor of unity.

My wife Shannon, upon learning that Wainwright teaches at Duke, rolled out the one Tobacco Road-related phrase I picked up when I lived in Chapel Hill as a child: “Duke is puke and Wake is fake, but the school I hate is NC State.” Wainwright laughingly replied that “we’ll see who’s fake in a couple of weeks,” referring, I suppose, to post-season basketball. Since Duke lost in the ACC finals, I wonder if he would want to revise and extend his riposte.

Putney said he had been converted to ecumenism by Vatican II. He argued that you only discover who you are when you engage the other.  Then you realize what you really believe. It clarifies and articulates your faith, which becomes purer and better.  Hence, Putney said, dialogue is a spiritual discipline.

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

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