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 The Word From Rome

April 18, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 34

global perspective


“Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated.” 

John Paul II 
Pope rekindles Eucharistic ‘amazement’; Asian Catholicism; a memorial for 21st century Christian martyrs; preparing for World Youth Day 2005


Pope John Paul signed the 14th encyclical of his pontificate on Thursday, April 17, entitled Ecclesia de Eucharistia.  The pope describes his aim as rekindling Eucharistic “amazement” among Catholics, as well as to “banish dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice.”

Sampling opinion among theologians and liturgical experts around Rome, it seems Ecclesia de Eucharistia will trigger different reactions depending on the observer – as any such text on a central Catholic concept, one that generates strong passions, is perhaps destined to do.

Many see the encyclical as a moving spiritual meditation, as well as a helpful reassertion of traditional doctrine and discipline. Others regard it as a rather predictable treatment that in some ways owes more to the mid-16th century Council of Trent than to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Critics also say the concluding meditation on Mary reflects the pope’s personal spirituality to a perhaps excessive degree, potentially creating new ecumenical headaches.

There is a nostalgic, almost autobiographical feel to some passages. John Paul recalls celebrating Mass at various points in his life, from his first pastoral assignment at Niegowic, Poland, to “chapels built along mountain paths, on lakesides and seacoasts … on altars built in stadiums and city squares.”

Yet Ecclesia de Eucharistia is more than a trip down memory lane. The pope restates core doctrinal principles, such as the Mass as a representation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine. 

Jesuit Fr. Keith Pecklers, a liturgical expert at Rome’s Gregorian University as well as the Pontifical Liturgical Institute, underlined the pope’s insistence that the Eucharist is both a “cosmic” event pointing to life in the next world, and a summons to social responsibility on this earth.

The pope places his emphasis on the Eucharist in the context of his overall pastoral program for the third millennium set out in his letter Novo Millennio Ineunte.

There is a clear disciplinary undercurrent. John Paul shares the anxiety, long expressed by some conservative analysts, that a confluence of trends following Vatican II – the priest shortage, a new emphasis on the local church, the recovery of the “universal priesthood of the faithful” – have fostered a congregational understanding of the Eucharist. From this point of view, the local community structures the sacrament on the basis of its own needs, and calls forth its own ministers. The congregational model is in tension with the traditional Catholic understanding that the Eucharist was given by Christ to the universal church, and the power to celebrate it is transmitted to priests by bishops who stand in apostolic succession.

“Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated,” the pope writes. 

The present Eucharistic scene, John Paul says, is marked by lights and shadows.

Among the lights, the pope affirms the liturgical reforms following Vatican II, which he says promoted “a more conscious, active and fruitful participation” in the Mass. 

Shadows include:

• 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.”

“How can we not express profound grief at all this?” the pope asks. “The Eucharist is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity and depreciation.”

The Congregation for Divine Worship is preparing a disciplinary document on these abuses, expected to appear in the fall. In that sense, Ecclesia de Eucharistia may offer an early warning of a looming crackdown.

The pope devotes special attention to ecumenical issues. He insists that Catholics not receive communion from Christian denominations lacking holy orders, which means virtually all branches of Protestantism. Catholics may not substitute ecumenical services or the liturgies of other Christian churches for the Sunday Mass. The pope rejects “concelebration” with Protestants.

Yet Ecclesia de Eucharistia is not anti-ecumenical.  The pope endorses the ecumenical movement, and says the Eucharist should awaken hunger for full Christian unity.

John Paul also notes that while concelebration is impossible, the same is not true of administering the Eucharist to individuals under special circumstances. Non-Catholics may receive the Eucharist “who greatly desire to receive these sacraments, freely request them and manifest the faith which the Catholic Church professes.” 

Blessed Sacrament Fr. Anthony McSweeney, theologian and director of Rome’s Center Eucharistia, told me that there are at least two other points where John Paul showed ecumenical sensitivity. 

First, the pope insists there is only one sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and that the Mass does not “add” to it. This addresses a Reformation-era accusation that the Catholic Church claims to “complete” Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary.

Second, the pope appeals to Eastern Christian sensibilities by emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist. Sweeney noted that of the eight ancient Christian writers quoted by John Paul, six are Eastern.

Ecclesia de Eucharistia closes with a chapter on Mary, suggesting that she can lead Catholics into the Eucharistic mystery. The meditation leads John Paul to remarkable imagery: when Mary bore Jesus in her womb, the pope writes, she “became in some way a tabernacle, the first tabernacle in history.”

One theologian said this material represents the encyclical’s most innovative contribution.

“It is an original, beautiful meditation on a theme very little developed in the theological literature,” said Fr. Antonio Miralles, who teaches sacramental theology at Rome’s Opus Dei-sponsored Santa Croce University, and serves as a consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Clergy.

“Chapters three and four, on the apostolicity of the Eucharist and communion, will be closely read by theologians, but they restate in an organic way points already made by the magisterium,” Miralles said.

Pecklers, however, felt the Marian excursus may be problematic ecumenically. “I wonder if non-Catholics will have difficulty grasping the link between Marian devotion and Eucharistic practice,” he said.

McSweeney identified other points of interest:

• John Paul links the Eucharist as sacrifice and as banquet in one vision, arguing that the Eucharist is intrinsically ordered to communion. This is an attempt, McSweeney said, to heal an old split between the notions of sacrifice and communion;

• The pope treats the nature of Christ’s sacrifice as one of life-giving love, rather than satisfaction for sin;

• The pope makes a brief reference to the cosmic character of the Eucharist, suggesting that all creation returns to God in the sacrament. This could be a very “mind-opening” concept, McSweeney said.

* * *

Anyone who does not read the Union of Catholic Asian News wire service ( is missing much about the global Catholic Church. One finds news about Catholicism in Asia that doesn’t appear anywhere else.

An item from April 11 illustrates why Asian Catholicism has become controversial in Rome and elsewhere in recent years.

April 2 marked the Hindu holy day of “Nyepi” (silence) on Bali in Indonesia. Hindus stayed home in silence, with no lights or fire, doing no work and avoiding entertainment.

About 93 percent of Bali’s 2.5 million people are Hindus, while some 25,000 of them are Catholics. There are also Protestant Christians and Muslims. Relations have not always been pacific; in February 2002, the homes of eight Christians were burned. The Oct. 12 car bomb seemed to be linked to Islamic fundamentalism.

In this climate, Catholic Bishop Benyamin Bria of Bali decided that out of solidarity with the Hindu majority, Catholics too would observe the Nyepi discipline this year. He ordered that all bells remain silent and no lights be lit in churches in his Denpasar diocese. 

His order extended to sanctuary lamps, the red glass lamps whose flame burns before the tabernacle in Catholic churches where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.

The decision reflects the mainstream of Asian Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), as worked out by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. The FABC has stressed that to be Asian means valuing the millenia-old religious traditions that are part of Asia’s cultural heritage.

To others, however, extinguishing the sanctuary lamps will seem an ambiguous, even troubling gesture. 

For one thing, canon 940 of the Code of Canon Law stipulates, “A special lamp is to burn continuously before the tabernacle in which the blessed Eucharist is reserved, to indicate and to honor the presence of Christ.” The adverb “continuously” would seem, at least on the surface, to militate against gestures such as Bria’s.

More fundamentally, some Catholics may question the wisdom of extinguishing (albeit temporarily) a symbol of a core Catholic belief, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, for the sake of solidarity with a non-Christian religion. Genuine inter-religious understanding, they would argue, cannot result from playing down one’s own identity.

Such Catholics will recall what Cardinal John Henry Newman once wrote about his awe at “the distant glimmering lamp” signaling the “Presence of our Undying Life, hidden but ever working.”

The Bali story thus offers a perfect illustration of a larger debate in the Catholic Church over religious diversity – how to handle it in practice, and what sense to make of theologically. 

* * *

As fighting recedes in Iraq, attention is turning to the prospects for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. In this context, the relationship between the Vatican and Israel, always important, is destined to become steadily more crucial. This makes the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican a key figure, and as it happens there is a changing of the guard.

We got a preview of the new ambassador, Oded Ben-Hur, on April 11 at a conference on violence in the Middle East at the American University of Rome. If his presentation is any indication, Ben-Hur will be a formidable interlocutor.

Ben-Hur argued that the Palestinian vision of peace is not what Westerners conventionally mean, i.e., open borders, commercial exchanges and diplomatic relations. Yasser Arafat’s vision, he said, is “living side by side with a diminished Israel, with Jerusalem divided in two, an Israel undressed of its unconventional capabilities, an Israel brought low. This is not an Israel I’d like to live in,” Ben-Hur said, “and it would create a dangerous Middle East.”

Ben Hur listed five lessons he said the Second Intifadah has taught Israel:

• If the Israeli approach was based on the idea that peace will bring security, now it’s that security will bring peace;

• The Israelis now know Arafat can’t be trusted;

• If the desire was for living side by side with Palestinians, now the ambition is more modest, symbolized by the building of a wall to separate Palestinian territories from Israel – “we are here and they are there,” Ben-Hur said, “so at least they can’t blow themselves up in our markets;”

• The Israelis now realize there must be new Palestinian leaders who want peace;

• Before the Israelis wanted a full and permanent agreement, now they favor “a phased, interim, step-by-step, long agreement.”

The ambassador’s distaste for Arafat was evident. One example came in a joke, which Ben-Hur said illustrates Arafat’s attitude towards peace negotiations: “First we walk up to the bridge, then we double-cross it.”

Ben-Hur did not say anything about the Vatican. But from these remarks one can discern that Ben-Hur will be a challenge to anyone who wishes to persuade Israel to pursue a different policy.

* * *

A footnote to an item last week about the visit to Rome of John Bolton, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, for meetings with Vatican officials. The trip was organized by the American embassy to the Holy See.

I noted that Bolton met Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope’s vicar for Rome and president of the Italian bishops conference, and not Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state. Since Ruini and Sodano are rival poles of power on the Italian ecclesial scene, local eyebrows arched over Bolton’s schedule. As I wrote last week, some Italians felt Ruini had showed poor manners in taking the meeting, since it could seem like an upstaging of Sodano. I also observed that Ruini, while opposed to the Iraq war, has also been critical of the peace movement for its anti-American tendencies.

What I did not say, but should have, is that the U.S. embassy to the Holy See never requested a meeting with Sodano. From the embassy’s point of view, Bolton is an under-secretary, and hence the appropriate Vatican interlocutor was Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Sodano’s deputy, with whom Bolton met for an hour.

The minor contretemps, in other words, offers an object lesson in Italian church politics, not U.S. diplomacy.

* * *

Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war chancellor of Germany, once said that the politicians of his generation could not allow the country to be torn asunder by partisan divisions, because the conservatives and socialists alike who came to prominence after the war had suffered together in the concentration camps. They experienced an “ecumenism of the gulag.”

The evening of Tuesday, April 15, a remarkable liturgy at Rome’s basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore demonstrated anew this power of common suffering to heal divisions.

The Sant’Egidio Community has for several years marked the Tuesday of Holy Week as a memorial for Christian martyrs of the 20th century, and now the 21st. This year, the remembrance was led by an impressive ecumenical line-up of clergy. Cardinal Francis Stafford, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for Laity, was the presider. He was joined by the Rt. Revd. Richard Garrard, head of Rome’s Anglican Center; Pastor Martin Kruse, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Germany in Rome; Fr. Matteo Psomas, pastor of the Greek Orthodox Church in Rome; and Rev. Pieter Bouman, minister of the English Methodist Church in Rome. Other clergy from various Rome-area churches also took part.

The liturgy’s power was its simplicity. Fr. Marco Gnavi, a familiar figure from Sant’Egidio events who serves as secretary of the ecumenical commission of the Rome archdiocese, read names and brief descriptions of scores of martyrs from Europe, Africa, America and Asia. They came from every branch of the Christian family. Virtually all had died since 2000. After each name, the large crowd sang kyrie, eleison. The repetition brought home what a “cloud of witnesses” the recent past has produced. 

(Italian journalist Antonio Socci recently published a book entitled I Nuovi Perseguitati, or “The New Persecuted,” in which he argued that over 2,000 years some 70 million Christians have been martyred, with 45.5 million, fully 65 percent, in the last century).

Stafford told me afterwards that he hopes the U.S. bishops will organize a similar liturgy at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with one of their meetings. Stafford was struck by the ecumenical heart of the liturgy, reflecting the common experience of the cross. “There was nothing contrived about it,” he said.

While there was no overt political message, the war in Iraq nevertheless hung in the background. In his public remarks, Stafford lauded the martyrs’ “disarmed force of faith,” suggesting that their witness “may seem weak, but it warms hearts and signals victory over the prince of this world.” 

As a footnote, the U.S. martyr on Gnavi’s list was Fr. Michael Mac, killed in December 2001 at a Servants of the Paraclete monastery in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, during an apparent robbery.

* * *

Some 230 Catholics involved in youth ministry from dioceses and Catholic movements around the world gathered in Rome April 10-13 to assess last summer’s World Youth Day in Toronto, and to plan for the next mega-gathering in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. 

Sources say there was agreement that the basic pattern of World Youth Day – three days of catechesis by bishops in different languages, a Saturday evening vigil with the pope followed by a camp-out, then the Sunday morning Mass – works well. There is no need, participants agreed, to alter the formula. 

Criticism of Toronto focused largely on inevitable logistical problems, primarily transportation and food. The only serious complaint had to do with visas. In some cases, visa requests from developing nations, especially in Africa, were held up or denied out of concern that some “pilgrims” would seek to stay behind. (Not an unfounded fear; several dozen people who came on World Youth Day visas still remain in Canada). 

Bishops and delegates from developing nations nevertheless experienced these denials as an insult, and some did not realize it was the Canadian government rather than local church organizers making the decisions. Since the same problem will undoubtedly arise in Germany, organizers must think about how to avoid hurt feelings.

Another issue was posed by the official theme for the Cologne World Youth Day. In English, it is “We have come to worship him,” a reference to the Three Magi from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth. The cathedral in Cologne houses what tradition regards as relics of the Magi, so it’s a logical choice. (By the way, one of Andy Greeley’s mysteries, The Bishop and the Three Kings, is set in the Cologne cathedral, and it offers a wonderful synthesis of its charms).

In most other languages, however, the verb used in the World Youth Day theme is “adore” rather than “worship,” so discussion ensued as to which term works better in English. Some preferred the familiar ring of “adore” (as in, “O come let us adore him”), while others said “worship” is a richer concept that includes prayer, devotion, liturgy, even acts of charity.

Though it was not much voiced out loud, some delegates had another concern about the theme. Given that criticism of World Youth Day, especially from the Protestant world that is so prominent in Germany, has long focused on its alleged “idolatry” of the pope, one wonders if the motto “we have come to worship him” in connection with a papal visit strikes the correct tone. Of course, anyone who understands the mind of John Paul II knows that he has no intention of substituting himself for Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, at the level of symbolism, some felt this choice of words may invite confusion.

At a press conference on Saturday, April 13, German Cardinals Joachim Meisner and Karl Lehmann, along with Stafford as head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, took questions. 

A German reporter asked Stafford why so many young people flock to see the pope. The reporter put the question in the context of Toronto, which he had expected to be a flop because of the sex abuse scandals.

“The young people came with clerics as pilgrims,” Stafford said. “They know their bishops and their priests, they know the type of people they are, and they have immense trust in them. 

“The number of clergy involved [in scandals] is very, very small,” Stafford said. “It’s difficult to overcome the profound trust that young people have in their pastors and bishops.”

I tried to draw Lehmann out on whether World Youth Day offers the German church a chance to clean up its image in Rome, since the relationship has been strained in recent years. He did not bite, restricting himself to insisting that German youth are “very positive” about the event, and that “there is no doubt the World Youth Day will unfold very positively.”

Meisner was asked how many participants he expected, and joked that “I don’t have a prophetic light for numbers.” He went on to say, however, that registered delegates for the week-long event could be 400,00, with the crowd for the final Mass swelling to 800,000 or more. Meisner also said some 600 bishops are expected to participate.

Even though World Youth Day is an explicitly Catholic event, Meisner said that “all young people of good will are invited” – an important point in Germany, where ecumenical relations are at a premium.

* * *

I had breakfast April 9 with Basilian Fr. Tom Rosica, who provided the brains behind World Youth Day in Toronto. He was in town for the April 10-13 meeting, as well as a Palm Sunday festival of youth in St. Peter’s Square. Canadian youth handed over the World Youth Day cross to their German counter-parts.

Rosica’s next challenge is perhaps an even more formidable one. He is to become, as a guy I know in the Vatican put it, “the Mother Angelica of Canada.” He has been named the head of a new national TV network in Canada called Salt and Light Television.

Rosica realizes North America is littered with failed attempts to found Catholic media empires. The U.S. bishops tried to launch their own cable TV channel, and more recently a much-ballyhooed “Catholic Radio Network” flopped. The lone success story is EWTN, the network founded by the feisty Franciscan nun Mother Angelica.

Rosica has traveled to EWTN’s Birmingham, Alabama, headquarters, and says they were gracious. Mother Angelica herself, before her recent illness, gave him precious advice about dealing with bishops: “Don’t ask permission. Just do it, and if you need to, you can ask forgiveness later.”

Rosica wants his network, however, to be less identified with a particular theological position than EWTN, seen in the States as a bastion of the Catholic right. One show on the drawing board is called “Cooking with the Saints,” and will feature a recipe associated with a given saint, plus a lesson about his or her life.

If anybody can pull this off, it will be Rosica, whose linguistic capacity and never-ending network of contacts is matched only by his boundless energy. I hope that Salt and Light TV will be available on satellite systems so we can pick it up in Rome. I have the sense it will be worth watching.

* * *

Readers will recall that on Jan. 24 I wrote about Fr. Diego Lorenzi, the personal secretary of Pope John Paul I, who served at a mission in the Philippines after the untimely death of the pope. I appealed for support of Lorenzi’s “Payatas Project,” intended to inoculate people against tuberculosis who live in and around a giant Manila garbage dump, where fires burn constantly and the air is full of toxins. 

I’m pleased to report that as of April 10, readers of “The Word from Rome” have contributed $4,260. Fr. Lorenzi sends his thanks.

For readers still considering a donation, here again is the information: Don Orione Fathers, 111 Orient Avenue, East Boston, Massachusetts, 02128 (USA). Mark checks for “Payatas project, Manila.” The Orione Fathers are a tax-exempt charitable organization under American law.

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

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