National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly

?Sign Up Here For Weekly E-mail

 1 Archives  | 

 The Word From Rome

May 2, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 36

global perspective


“The relationship is still young. Israel is still discovering the Vatican. I’m sure the Vatican is still grappling with the notion of a Jewish state in the Holy Land. … But this will be a long-standing relationship, and it will not be stopped.”

Yosef Neville Lamdan
Israel’s outgoing ambassador to 
the Holy See
Farewell interview with Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See; Meeting the focolarini; The origins of cappucino; apostle of mass communications beatified


On the eve of his return to Jerusalem, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the Holy See granted NCR an exclusive, wide-ranging April 30 interview, looking back over his three years in what he called “the most challenging mission in my 37 years as a career diplomat.” 

The interview, which stretched over more than two hours, took place at his residence in Rome’s Parioli neighborhood. The apartment was virtually empty, as Ambassador Yosef Neville Lamdan made way for his successor, Oded Ben-Hur. We sat on the veranda on a beautiful Rome spring afternoon, savoring the last bottle of wine of Lamdan’s three-year Italian stay.

Obviously Lamdan was speaking from an Israeli point of view, and there are certain points where his interpretations may be open to challenge. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating panorama.

Lamdan divulged two matters never before revealed. 

First, during a 39-day standoff between Palestinian gunmen and the Israeli army over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002, the Israelis and the Vatican had agreed on a dramatic initiative for retired Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a frequent papal trouble-shooter. The aim was to get innocents inside the church out of harm’s way. The initiative was blocked, Lamdan said, by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who Lamdan believes wanted to drag out the conflict in order to pressure Israel to free up his movements around his headquarters in Ramallah.

Second, Lamdan revealed that when Israeli President Moshe Katsav met with Pope John Paul II on Dec. 12, 2002, the pope gave the president a private vow that he wanted 2003 to mark a “turning point” in the Israeli/Vatican relationship. It was a commitment that surprised even the pope’s own lieutenants, he said. Since that exchange, Lamdan said, there have been clear signs of new Vatican engagement.

In a fascinating bit of analysis, Lamdan also said he believes that under the pressure of recent world events, including 9/11 and the Iraq war, the Catholic Church’s primary inter-religious relationship is increasingly no longer Judaism but Islam. It is a situation, he said, that could pose dangers both for Israel and for the broader Catholic/Jewish dialogue.

Lamdan’s arrival as ambassador to the Holy See was sandwiched between two watershed events. He came to Rome in September 2000, just five months after John Paul’s March 21-26, 2000, visit to the Holy Land, which produced hopes of dramatic new breakthroughs – and just 10 days before the beginning of the Second Intifadah, which put those hopes in a deep freeze.

Israel and the Holy See enjoy a “very special relationship,” Lamdan said, in part because it’s a focal point for the broader relationship between Catholicism and Judaism. 

“The Israeli ambassador is regarded by the Vatican as the most senior representative of the Jewish people resident in Rome,” Lamdan said. Inevitably, the ambassador is a conduit for inter-faith dialogue. This February, the embassy played a behind-the-scenes role in engineering an unprecedented dialogue between the Vatican and the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem.  This was a breakthrough, since previous Catholic/Jewish exchanges had been dominated on the Jewish side by Americans.

The embassy, Lamdan said, was able to reassure the rabbis that there was no “hidden agenda,” and especially that the dialogue was not a Trojan horse designed to promote proselytism.

The Vatican drive for dialogue, Lamdan said, comes from John Paul II himself. When he presented his credentials in September 2000, Lamdan said, John Paul told him that his 1986 visit to Rome’s synagogue, the first by a pope, represented the first “station” along a new path. The second station, the pope said, was the Jubilee Year visit to the Holy Land. It was time, the pope said, to build a third station.

Despite the pope’s commitment, however, Lamdan said he detects a sea change in the Vatican’s inter-religious priorities in the direction of Islam.

“I do think that in some corporate way some type of decision, possibly a strategic one, has been taken by the Vatican in the last two years to try to redefine the relationship with Islam,” Lamdan said.

As one example, Lamdan pointed to the now-famous rhetorical question posed by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, about the prospect of war in Iraq: “Is it really worth irritating a billion Muslims?”

The Vatican, Lamdan said, has three core concerns with Islam. The first is the fate of Christians in the Arab world; the second is Afro-Asian competition for new adherents; and the third is the rising Islamic presence in Europe.

This new engagement with Islam does not have to come at the expense of the dialogue with Judaism, Lamdan said, but he warned of two dangers.

The first is “politicization,” by which he meant a tendency for the Catholic Church to take “pro-Islamic” political positions. He pointed to two recent joint statements between the Vatican and Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, widely considered the Vatican of the Islamic world. Both called for an end to “occupation” in the Holy Land, which Lamdan referred to as a “code word” for criticizing Israeli policy.

The second danger is that the Catholic dialogue with Judaism will be overshadowed. He said he does not see this happening under John Paul II. What might happen under a future pontificate, however, is anyone’s guess.

Lamdan said his most tense moments as ambassador came during the standoff over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. 

Israeli forces, who had entered the West Bank as part of an operation to root out Palestinian militants, encircled the church April 2, 2002, as Palestinian gunmen fled inside. Several dozen other people, including a number of Franciscans, were thus trapped in the church. The Israelis described the situation as an "occupation" by terrorists, the Palestinians as a "siege" by the Israeli army.

Lamdan described the next 39 days as a time of “huge concern” and “almost hourly contact” with the Vatican’s top diplomats, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran and his deputy Celestino Migliore (now an archbishop and permanent observer of the Holy See at the United Nations).

“This is one of the most holy places in the Christian world, and our fear was that it would suffer some kind of disaster,” Lamdan said.

Diplomatic efforts, Lamdan said, were muddied by a cacophony of voices on the Catholic side, many singing different tunes. Chief among them, Lamdan said, were the Franciscans, among whom he said the Israelis eventually identified five different factions. They were:

• Arab Franciscans inside the church;

• Non-Arab Franciscans inside the church;

• The Franciscan custodians of the Holy Sites, with offices in Jerusalem;

• Franciscans in Assisi, who led a worldwide letter-writing campaign to pressure the Israelis;

• The headquarters of the Franciscan order in Rome.

The Arabs and non-Arabs inside the basilica, Lamdan said, had different views about the situation, with the Arabs generally more sympathetic to the 39 Palestinian gunmen, including 13 figures Israel defined as “senior terrorists.”

At times, Lamdan said, the Franciscans inside the basilica floated plans for resolving the standoff that were “totally naïve.” Lamdan did not want to be more specific, but NCR reported at the time that one such scheme called for Bethlehem Christians to enter the basilica for Mass. The gunmen would lay down their arms, and everyone would walk out together, with the gunmen simply dispersing. Both the Vatican and the Israelis rejected the idea, in part for fear that the Christians would either become hostages or be caught in a cross-fire.

Lamdan also bluntly called the role played by the Franciscan custodians, especially spokesperson Fr. David Jaeger, “thoroughly unhelpful.” Jaeger led an ultimately failed attempt before Israel’s high court to force the Israeli army to restore electricity, water, food and telephone communication to the basilica.

Another player was the Latin Rite Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michele Sabbah, whose role Lamdan also called “unhelpful.” At one stage, Sabbah said the Palestinians were “guests” of the church, denying they were holding anyone against their will.

Lamdan then revealed that the President of Israel, Moshe Katsav, had proposed a diplomatic mission for Etchegaray, who had been dispatched by John Paul II to try to mediate a resolution. The aim was to separate the civilians from the gunmen. The Vatican was prepared to accept the plan, Lamdan said, but it was “turned down flat” by Yasser Arafat.

The drama played out at the same time that the Israelis were confining Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah, and Lamdan believes Arafat hoped to use the situation in the church to gain freedom of movement. This “delayed resolution,” Lamdan said.

Eventually, European governments agreed to take 13 of the gunmen Israel identified as the most dangerous, and 26 more were allowed to return to the Gaza Strip. 

In the final analysis, Lamdan said, the crisis in Bethlehem “illustrates the limits of Vatican diplomacy,” because as a matter of fact they had “no influence whatsoever.” Moral authority, he argued, had no sway over gunmen with “no respect for religious sensitivities.”

Lamdan said the Vatican’s diplomats had a “realistic, accurate evaluation,” but there were discordant voices within the Holy See. L’Osservatore Romano, for example, the official Vatican newspaper, regularly referred to the standoff as an Israeli “siege,” even accusing the Israelis of trying to “exterminate” the Palestinian people. The paper falsely reported, Lamdan charged, that the Israelis had killed a Catholic priest and injured a group of Brigittine nuns. The paper ran photos showing Israeli soldiers “in the worst possible light,” Lamdan said. At one point, Jewish leaders accused L’Osservatore of anti-Semitism.

I asked Lamdan if he ever complained. “Our experience is that L’Osservatore Romano is not open to dealing with foreign diplomats,” he said dryly.

Lamdan revealed that at one stage the embassy had supplied material to the Vatican to rebut a particular charge L’Osservatore Romano intended to publish. Under orders from the State Secretariat, the article was pulled at the last minute.

The same phenomenon of contrasting voices, Lamdan said, was visible in the Vatican’s statements on the Iraq war, a fact that he said had generated “a certain amount of uneasiness” in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps.

As for the future of the Vatican/Israeli relationship, Lamdan said he hopes it overcomes the chill of the Second Intifadah. Once the violence began, Lamdan said, the Vatican said bilateral relations had to be put on hold. The result, he said, is that the relationship has been “robbed of content.”

The freeze extended even to seemingly minor matters such as cultural exchanges. For example, Lamdan had wanted to bring to the Vatican an art exhibit from Jerusalem on the Holy Land as the cradle of Christianity. The Secretariat of State, however, bluntly refused, explaining that staging such an exhibit could be seen as “showing partiality.”

The turning point, Lamdan said, came with the Jan. 12, 2002, visit of Israeli President Moshe Katsav to John Paul II. In their private exchange, Lamdan said, Katsav told the pope that the 10th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel was approaching in 2004, and if things didn’t improve, there was a danger the commitment on both sides would “wither away.” Speaking in English, the pope responded that he wanted to make 2003 a “turning point” in the relationship.

When Katsav exited the pope’s studio and repeated the “turning point” phrase to those waiting outside, Lamdan said, Sodano was visibly surprised. Sodano later returned to the pope to find out what exactly John Paul had said. Through channels, Lamdan said, word came down that the pope had indeed meant it – 2003 was to be a turning point.

Since that time, Lamdan said, there are telling signs of forward movement. In March, for example, the Vatican hosted a concert to mark the third anniversary of the pope’s trip to Israel. The previous two years they had refused to do so. Also, the Vatican consented to a recent academic conference at the Lateran University that was co-sponsored by an Israeli think tank. Lamdan himself was invited to be part of a panel at the Pontifical Committee for Historical Science, something that had not happened over three years on the job.

“John Paul has been a revolutionary pope vis-à-vis the Jews, and a very positive pope with regard to the State of Israel,” Lamdan said.

Lamdan said that he “treasures” the ties between his country and the Holy See.

“The relationship is still young,” he said. “Israel is still discovering the Vatican. I’m sure the Vatican is still grappling with the notion of a Jewish state in the Holy Land. … But this will be a long-standing relationship, and it will not be stopped.”

* * *

I had the pleasure of meeting Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare movement, at an April 28-30 congress held at the movement’s conference center in Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence in the hills outside Rome. 

Lubich, 83, launched the Focolare (“hearth”) phenomenon in 1943 after the bombing of her hometown of Trent in Italy. Its goal is to promote unity and universal brotherhood, which has led the focolarini (as members are called) to be active in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogues. One of the reasons they are prized by John Paul is that they have never soft-pedaled their Catholic identity, and are known for tenacious loyalty to the pope and the Church.

Focolare is present in 182 nations, and claims two million members and sympathizers. There are three levels of affiliation. Consecrated members take vows of celibacy, live in Focolare communities, and turn over their earnings to the community. Married members turn over what they can afford. Affiliates have a looser connection. All told, there are 18 branches to the Focolare cluster of groups and associations. Several Vatican offices have focolarini on staff. 

The topic of this congress was Mary and the rosary. In Church documents, Focolare’s formal name is the Opera di Maria, or the “Work of Mary,” so the movement has a special Marian interest. Lubich gave a much-anticipated talk explaining the role of Mary within the spirituality of Focolare. Mary is the “personification of scripture,” Lubich said, and Focolare is in a sense a “continuing presence” of Mary on earth.

In comments to the press afterwards, Lubich revealed that she had once asked John Paul II over lunch if he was comfortable with a woman being president of a major international Catholic movement (the Focolare constitution actually requires that the president be a woman). Magari! was the pope’s Italian response, roughly the equivalent of “Are you kidding?” He was content with the arrangement, Lubich said, because he believes in what Catholic theologian Hans von Balthasar described as a balance between the “Petrine” and “Marian” principles in the church, between the hierarchical and the charismatic. 

I asked Lubich about the frequent complaint that Marian devotion, and especially the rosary, is “anti-ecumenical.” She responded that “we have to explain” these things to our non-Catholic conversation partners. 

“It requires good judgment, and we have to be prudent,” she said. “In the Focolare movement we have 350 different Christian groups with us, and it’s a wonderful show of unity. We are called to respectfully explain what Catholics believe, but never to impose it,” she said.

American focolarini plan to replicate the Castel Gandolfo Marian congress on a smaller scale in several spots. The National Shrine in Washington, D.C., will host one such congress on Sept. 14, with the participation of Cardinals Theodore McCarrick and William Keeler. Chicago will have a similar event Sept. 6 with Cardinal Francis George.

Support for the focolarini was reflected in the fact that 28 bishops were in attendance at one point or another at Castel Gandolfo, including the former secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, now the archbishop of Genoa. Indeed, the facility itself is a sign of papal favor, since the Focolare center in Castel Gandolfo is the former papal audience hall, handed over to the movement as a personal gift of John Paul.

Perhaps the most interesting prelate spotted in Castel Gandolfo was Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, whose on-again, off-again marriage to Maria Sung of the Unification Church was the biggest soap opera of the 2001 Roman summer. When Milingo made his dramatic return to the Catholic Church (whose opening act was knocking at the door of the pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo), the focolarini took him in. Milingo passed several months in a Focolare center in Argentina, and now has a focolarino assigned as an assistant and gatekeeper. 

I had hoped to interview Milingo, but word came back that he had turned down all requests from journalists. Watching him at the congress, however, he seemed in good spirits and enjoying his connection with the focolarini from around the world.

* * *

On Sunday, April 27, the pope beatified six Italians, including five founders of religious orders – one man and four women. The lone non-founder is in some ways the most interesting. He is Marco d’Aviano, a 17th century Capuchin priest famed for rallying Christian armies to defeat the Ottoman Turks, the world’s last great Islamic empire, in the siege of Vienna in 1683.

His beatification has been welcomed by Europeans alarmed by Muslim immigration and by the rising fundamentalist tide in Islamic states.

“This will make Christianity wake up, posing de facto the basis for a second crusade, this one in defense against Islamic assault, after the first that defeated communism,” said Italian parliamentarian Edouard Ballaman. He led a delegation from the far-right Italian political party Northern League that attended the ceremony. 

Italian director Renzo Martinelli, who is making a film based on the life of Marco d’Aviano, asserted that “without him Italian women would today be wearing the burqa.”

One must add that d’Aviano was hardly a bloodthirsty fanatic. When Belgrade fell to the Christian armies, for example, he demanded that the lives of some 800 Ottoman troops be spared. Some years before, in 1684, he saved the Jews of Padova from an auto-da-fé. Rumors were circulating that Jews in Buda had attacked Christians, and the people of Padova sought d’Aviano’s blessing for reprisals against the Jews there. D’Aviano refused.

Nevertheless, the decision to beatify a preacher of anti-Islamic crusades puzzled some observers, since John Paul has perhaps the best track record on outreach to Islam in papal history.

To the extent that John Paul wanted to make a political point, it was perhaps less to celebrate victory over Muslims than to stress the Christian unity of Europe. The European Union is currently preparing a constitutional document, and the Vatican has insisted that it must include an explicit reference to the Christian roots of the continent. It’s a position that a number of European states, led by France, have opposed on the grounds of multi-cultural sensitivity. This is exactly the sort of approach the pope believes is premised on historical amnesia.

D’Aviano, the pope said in his April 27 remarks, reminds the European continent “that its unity will be more stable if it is based on its common Christian roots.”

Missionary of Africa Fr. Justo Lacunza, president of the Pontifical Council for Arab and Islamic Studies, told me April 30 that to date he’s not aware of any negative reaction to the beatification in the Islamic world. At the same time, he said, one has to wonder if it was a good idea to “add fuel to the fire” at such a delicate moment in Christian/Muslim relations.

One footnote: D’Aviano left at least one other trace in history. Legend has it that after the Turks abandoned Vienna, they left behind stacks of their famously bitter coffee. To lighten the taste, the Viennese decided to blend in some milk. They named the resulting drink for the religious order of d’Aviano, their liberator. Hence it became a cappucino.

* * *

Among Italians the star of the April 27 beatifications was 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, and the Paulines here run a multi-media empire, including one of the largest circulation newsmagazines in the country, Famiglia Cristiana.

On April 24 I attended a round table on Alberione at one of the many Pauline centers in Rome.

Archbishop John Foley, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, was a featured speaker. Foley was introduced by a Pauline nun, who gently reminded him that Alberione just topped an on-line poll to find a patron saint for the Internet. He edged out fellow northern Italian St. John Bosco. 

Foley made the point that if the world is “our parish,” then Catholics “cannot close ourselves in a ghetto.” Evangelizing with TV, radio, the Internet, and other technologies is essential.

The other premier speaker was Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University and a member of Cardinal Camillo Ruini’s inner circle. 

Fisichella applauded Alberione’s efforts to translate the gospel into accessible language, saying it anticipated John XXIII’s intuition in calling the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He called Alberione’s lifework a “colossal undertaking, tenaciously lived.”

Fisichella also had a challenge for the Pauline family, some of whose publications have at times been controversial. In February 1997, Pope John Paul II asked Bishop Antonio Buoncristiani to take charge of the Paulines to bring their editorial policies more in line with Church teaching, after Famiglia Cristiana had advised parents not to force their views onto an adult son if he chose to be gay. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal official, had previously written to Famiglia Cristiana in 1991 advising them to be more careful in what they wrote on moral issues. More recently, Pauline publications have been strong supporters of the anti-war movement, which some in Ruini’s circle regard as uncritical about elements hostile to the Church.

Fisichella said that Alberione realized that “true evangelization could be carried out only in fidelity to the pope” and with a spirit that is “fully Christian.”

“To undertake other paths that solely on the surface can seem more attractive is equivalent to running the serious risk of becoming an amorphous reality, without history or tradition, and for this reason destined for failure,” Fisichella warned.

Fr. Maurilio Gausco gave a very funny, but also illuminating, analysis of Alberione’s life and formative influences.  I was struck by his observation that Alberione entered the seminary in 1896, when the Catholic world buzzed with energy generated by the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII. After a string of 19th century popes who solved the problem of modernity by basically ignoring it, Leo aimed to “win back the world for the Church,” calling for a vast “Christian reconstruction of society.” Alberione was shaped in this optimistic, forward-looking ethos. Eventually the currents unleashed by Leo XIII and Alberione crested at Vatican II.

* * *

Last week I carried an interview with an Italian writer and political scientist named Ernesto Galli della Loggia. An Italian reader wrote to complain that his views would be of little interest to “progressive Catholics.” 

I am happy for the e-mail, because it gives me the chance to make a point that perhaps bears repeating. I do not write this column for progressive Catholics, any more than I write it for conservatives, traditionalists, moderates, or any other faction. I write for people who are interested in Vatican affairs. 

In the case of Galli della Loggia, he is an important presence on the Roman scene, and his views illustrate the kinds of input Vatican officials receive. It is of course up to readers to decide whether they agree with those views or not.

* * *

Fr. Bruce Harbert, the executive secretary of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, was kind enough to alert me that Cardinal Francis Arinze, who heads the Vatican’s liturgy office, will visit ICEL headquarters in Washington on May 16. There will be a series of brief presentations about current projects. Lunch will follow, then an afternoon conference sponsored by the U.S. bishops conference to mark the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II decree on liturgy. As for the much-anticipated new statutes for ICEL, a draft has gone to the member bishops’ conferences in a form that Harbert believes will win assent. The ICEL bishops should be able to give final approval in July.

* * *

On Saturday and Sunday, May 3 and 4, I will be in Madrid, Spain, on the papal trip. It is the 99th foreign journey of John Paul’s pontificate outside Italy, and the first since the Iraq war. Interestingly, it takes him to the backyard of one of the war’s major supporters, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Aznar. Watch the “breaking news” section of the NCR web site for a story Monday morning.

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

Top of Page   | Home 
Copyright © 2003 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280