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 The Word From Rome

May 21, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 39

global perspective


Traditional religions are not merely "tribal" or "animist" but encompass "a rich body of beliefs, traditions and moral codes," including respect for marriage, human life and the family. "These are not attractive?"

Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze
on the need to develop better contacts with traditional religions

Happy 84th, John Paul; Lineamenta on Eucharist for bishops synod released; Priests for Life in Rome; Arinze addresses interreligious dialogue; Iraqi prisoner abuse reactions


John Paul turned 84 this week, and although there were no official festivities – the Holy See observes the anniversary of the pope’s election, not his birthday, because from their point of view it’s the office that matters, not the man – the eyes of the world nevertheless turned to Rome. They fell upon a John Paul who, despite his age and illness, seemed relatively spry.

In a raucous session with Polish visitors in the afternoon, the pope interrupted the singing to ask why people weren’t dancing as well.

Despite his recent rejuvenation, everyone recognizes that the pope is significantly impaired relative to the dynamic 58-year-old elected in October 1978. What “significantly” means, however, is notoriously hard to establish.

This week, I attempted to quantify the pope’s decline by comparing his official schedule from 25 years ago, as released by the Vatican Press Office, with his program today. I examined several categories of papal activity, considering both his time in Rome and on the road.

Bottom line: the John Paul of today is roughly 40 percent less active in Rome than he was at the beginning of his pontificate, and 75 percent less active during his trips abroad.

These percentages are suggestive rather than scientifically precise, but they provide some rough handle on the change.

For purposes of comparison, I selected the pope’s birthday week in 1979, May 14-22, a time span that did not include any trips outside Italy. Other records were consulted to ensure that this week was representative of his usual activities in 1979, the first full year of his papacy. I then compared that week in 1979 to the week leading up to his birthday this year, May 10-16, 2004.

Four categories of activity were considered: audiences, speeches (including homilies), masses/liturgies, and the total word counts of prepared remarks.

Over the selected seven days in 1979, John Paul held 25 audiences, delivered 12 speeches, celebrated four Masses or other liturgies, and pronounced a total of 16,572 words in his prepared remarks. Over the comparable span of time in 2004, the pope held 17 audiences, delivered 12 speeches, celebrated one Mass and pronounced a total of 8,163 words. 

This means John Paul held 32 percent fewer audiences after 25 years, gave the same number of speeches, celebrated 75 percent fewer liturgies and pronounced 50 percent fewer words. Taking an average of the four categories provides an overall decline of roughly 40 percent.

Other areas of routine papal activity, such as the number of letters issued or bishops appointed, were not considered, since it is impossible in those cases to determine the extent to which the pope is personally involved.

The decline when John Paul is outside Rome is far more pronounced, at least as measured by the number of speeches. (On trips, the number of speeches generally correlates with the number of meetings).

To take one representative example, in 1979 John Paul went on a 9 day, 1 hour, and 30 minute visit to Ireland and the United States, and he delivered 76 speeches. In 2002, he took a 9 day, 23 hour, and 20 minute trip to Canada, Guatemala and Mexico, and delivered just 11 speeches, an 85 percent drop over a comparable span of time.

Two weeks from now, June 5-6, John Paul will visit Switzerland for 1 day and 11 hours, and is expected to give four talks. In 1982, he visited Switzerland for just 15 hours and gave 10 speeches, meaning his performance this time around will represent a 60 percent drop.

For one further example, from May 30-June 2, 1980, John Paul visited France for 3 days, 6 hours, and 45 minutes, and delivered 30 speeches. In 2003, he visited Croatia from June 5-9, meaning 3 days, 22 hours, and 45 minutes, and gave just 6 speeches, an 80 percent drop.

Averaging the three trips reveals an overall drop of 75 percent.

The difference inside and outside Rome can be explained by the fact that physical motion is increasingly difficult for the pope given his Parkinson’s disease, his botched 1994 hip replacement surgery, and the arthritis in his knees. His need for rest on the road is thus greater.

Critics will point to this decline as evidence that John Paul is no longer fit to govern a Catholic church facing challenges on multiple fronts, including a sexual abuse crisis in the clerical ranks, the rise of militant Islam, and inroads by Protestant evangelical sects.

On the other hand, some observers will be surprised at the relatively punishing schedule the 84-year-old pontiff still manages to keep up in Rome.

Moreover, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls recently told me that after 25 years, it’s not necessary for John Paul II to engage in the same level of activity in order to ensure that the church runs according to his design. Key aides, Navarro said, have by now internalized his vision.

Still other defenders of the pope argue that he is offering the world a model of bearing suffering with dignity, a value that they believe outweighs any decline in his efficiency.

* * *

Vatican-watchers got fresh material this week with the release of John Paul II’s third book since becoming pope, Alzatevi, Andiamo! (in English, Get Up, Let Us Go!).

Alzatevi, Andiamo! is for the most part a spiritual reflection on the episcopacy, written as a kind of fervorino for the world’s 4,500 Catholic bishops. John Paul calls bishops to be close to their people, to dialogue with the worlds of science and culture, and to understand that leadership in the church is a matter of service and sacrifice.

Yet read through the lens of church politics, there are revealing components.

John Paul has presided over a lengthy, complex pontificate, and naturally there are differing assessments. Many regard John Paul as among the great popes, but even his most ardent fans also have their criticisms. One stereotypical “liberal” critique would be that John Paul turned back the clock on the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), artificially arresting its spirit of reform. A “conservative” view would be that John Paul is a terrific evangelizer but a mediocre governor. He too often has turned a blind eye to the rot in the church, leaving dissenters in place, failing to crack down on morally compromised clergy, and generally letting things drift.

It’s clear that John Paul has no patience for the first view. As a Polish bishop, he attended all four sessions of the council, and has made implementing its directives the leitmotif of his career. In Alzatevi, Andiamo!, he compares himself to St. Charles Borromeo, who did the same thing in Milan after the Council of Trent.

“I have to say that, in these years of my pontificate, the actualization of the council has constantly been at the top of my thoughts,” John Paul writes.

Regarding the conservative critique, however, we find the pope a bit more introspective.

“Admonition certainly belongs to the role of the pastor,” he writes on page 41 of the Italian edition. “I think that, under this aspect, perhaps I’ve done too little. There is always a problem of equilibrium between authority and service. Maybe I have to criticize myself for not having tried hard enough to command. To some extent, this derives from my temperament.

“In a way, however, this could also be traced to the will of Christ, who asked his apostles not so much to command as to serve. Naturally, the bishop has authority, but much depends on the way in which it is exercised. If the bishop puts excessive emphasis on it, the people will think all he knows how to do is command. On the other hand, if he puts himself in an attitude of service, the faithful naturally will feel compelled to listen to him and to submit voluntarily to his authority.

“Thus a certain equilibrium is necessary. If the bishop says: ‘Here I’m the one who commands,’ or, ‘I am only here to serve,’ something is missing. He must serve while governing, and govern while serving.”

Hence John Paul does not concede the argument, but leaves open the door for reflection on how his successor should strike the balance between authority and service. That could embolden the conservative push for a pope who will travel less, stay at his desk more, and take the reins of power inside the church in his own hands.

* * *

In the book, John Paul also takes sides on a few points that may be matters of debate in and around the next conclave.

First, he comes down firmly in favor of new groups that have flowered in the Catholic church since Vatican II. He singles out the Neocatechumenate, Opus Dei, Focolare, Communion and Liberation, and L’Arche. (Careful readers will notice one surprising omission: the Community of Sant’Egidio, generally seen as a bit more “progressive” than those mentioned above. Sant’Egidio prides itself on a special relationship with John Paul, but they are not mentioned here.)

John Paul pays tribute to Opus Dei’s founder: “In October 2002 I had the joy of inscribing in the album of saints Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of Opus Dei, zealous priest, apostle of the laity for new times.”

Some bishops around the world have complained that these groups can be divisive, splitting parishes or even dioceses. The pope, however, calls on the bishops to welcome new forms of lay activity, in which he says he places “great hopes.”

Second, John Paul seems open to further developments in collegiality, or the sharing of responsibility at various levels of authority. Speaking of modern travel and communications, the pope writes:

“This puts us in a position, we bishops of the Catholic church, to search for ways to reinforce episcopal collegiality, including through an active collaboration in the episcopal conferences, and an exchange of experiences in the grand family of the church in all the world. If the bishops meet among themselves and share their joys and anxieties, this will certainly help conserve that ‘spirituality of communion’ about which I wrote in the apostolic letter Novo millennio ineunte (n. 43-45).”

Third, the pope offers a spirited defense of priestly celibacy.

“The priest, free from personal concern for a family, can dedicate himself with all his heart to his pastoral ministry,” he writes. “Certainly it is a demanding tradition, but it is singularly rich in spiritual fruits.”

Fourth, the pope calls for an unapologetic program of evangelization, above all in Asia.

“I place a very great hope in the dynamic church of the Philippines and of Korea,” he writes. “Asia: Behold our common task for the Third Millennium!”

Finally, the pope urges bishops to set a moral example for their clergy and people, in words that Americans will certainly hear against the backdrop of the recent sexual abuse crisis:

“It can be said that a diocese reflects the lifestyle of its bishop, whose virtues – chastity, the practice of poverty, a spirit of prayer, simplicity, the sensitivity of his conscience — in a certain sense are written into the hearts of the priests.”

* * *

Following on John Paul’s recent encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the next Synod of Bishops, scheduled for Oct. 2-29, 2005, will be devoted to the Eucharist. The synod process begins with a lineamenta, or preliminary document, to which responses are invited from bishops’ conferences, Eastern rite churches, offices in the Roman Curia and religious orders. On the basis of those responses, an instrumentum laboris, or working paper, will be drafted for the meeting.

Normally the lineamenta is released with official notice. This time, however, copies of the 76-page document are simply circulating without fanfare. By now they have reached bishops’ conferences; responses are due by Dec. 31, 2004.

The title is “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church,” phrasing that reflects Sacrosanctum Concilium, the document on liturgy from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Overall, the aim seems to be to foster a “deep” theology of the Eucharist, emphasizing its sacrificial and metaphysical dimensions, against what is seen as a reductionistic interpretation in the West following Vatican II.

The document argues that the Eucharist must occupy a central place in the life and worship of the Catholic church. It insists that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, not just a fraternal meal, and underlines the traditional Catholic belief in the “real presence” of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine.

One striking element is the pervasive use of Eastern concepts and vocabulary. The idea seems to be to appropriate a largely Eastern vision as a response to secular prejudices in the West.

As part of its effort at recovery of the sacred, the controlling image of the Eucharist in the lineamenta is drawn from the Book of Revelation — the Eucharist as a participation in the heavenly liturgy of the angels.

Among theologians in Rome who specialize in the Eucharist and who have seen the lineamenta, the document’s effort to reflect the experience, legislation and teaching of the early Church is drawing positive reviews.

Experts offered the following critical observations:

• Emphasis on the Book of Revelation’s vision may be too exclusive, coming at the expense of other Biblical models. Luke’s Emmaus account, for example, shows the disciples discovering the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread at table. It places the accent on catechesis and the scriptures, rather than formal worship.

• The document urges teaching the “whole Mass,” but devotes relatively little attention to the Liturgy of the Word. The role of the scriptures in the Eucharistic celebration, some experts said, will need to be further developed in the instrumentum laboris.

• There is little attention in the lineamenta to the social implications of the Eucharist. Paul, for example, saw the Eucharistic tradition as a way of judging the community’s behavior.

• Ecumenical progress in recent decades, including the efforts of other Christian denominations to recover liturgical elements (such as the Eucharistic prayer) that had been eclipsed by the Reformation, is largely absent.

• Nowhere does the lineamenta deal with the priest shortages that plague certain regions of the world, and what they might mean in terms of the church’s capacity to provide the Eucharist to the people.

All of this will certainly be the subject of conversation between now and the issuance of the instrumentum laboris sometime in 2005.

A footnote. The English edition of the lineamenta is generally well translated, but there are a couple of typos that are genuine howlers. On page 30, for example, we read about “the transubstantiation of the bread and wife into the Body and Blood of the Lord.” On page 50, with reference to the disciples who remained with Jesus, the text says: “and they strayed with him.”

* * *

Fr. Frank Pavone, a New York priest who heads the pro-life group “Priests for Life,” was in Rome May 19 to speak on “Abortion and the Social Responsibility of Christians.” The event was held at the Centro Russia Ecumenica, near the Vatican on the Borgo Pio.

Pavone, who served in the Pontifical Council for the Family from 1997 to 1999, made an impassioned argument. At one stage he read harrowing accounts of the partial-birth abortion procedure drawn from recent court testimony. He also read aloud what he described as commercial “order forms” for body parts from aborted fetuses.

He insisted that the abortion issue is “fundamentally different” than other political questions.

“In this case, it’s not a matter of a principle that can be implemented in different policies,” he said. “The policy is the principle. It comes down to this: must we protect life, or may we kill?”

Pavone supported efforts from some bishops to discourage, or even bar, pro-choice politicians from the Eucharist. He warned that pro-choice advocates may attempt to divide the church by “painting the bishops as the bad guys.” In fact, Pavone argued, pro-choice politicians have chosen to separate themselves from communion.

During Q&A, I gave Pavone a hypothetical situation I’ve recently given to several American bishops, including Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati.  Suppose there’s a Catholic politician who clearly and publicly upholds the teaching of the church on the inherent immorality of abortion. He or she may give money to help pregnant women, may be involved personally in counseling women on alternatives. This politician unambiguously holds that an ideal society would not permit abortion. Yet, on the basis of a prudential political judgment, this politician believes that in the present historical moment, a law abolishing abortion would not reduce the incidence of abortion, but would drive it underground and produce negative consequences. Hence, the politician concludes that the cultural ground must first be prepared, and in the meantime he or she will vote against measures to outlaw or restrict abortion — not out of any sympathy for abortion, but out of a prudential judgment that such measures will only make the situation worse.

Is that, I asked, a coherent Catholic position?

Pavone said no.  First, he said, there is factual evidence to indicate that this politician’s analysis of the likely impact of anti-abortion legislation is wrong. But setting that aside, he said, a politician could take the view that because there isn’t support now for an outright ban, the best strategy is to move gradually. A politician may not, however, say that the law does not have an obligation to protect the unborn.

The debate will go on; both Mahony and Pilarczyk said that the view I described could be defended.

In fact, the diversity in Catholic thinking came home immediately on Wednesday night. While I was waiting for a dinner appointment after Pavone’s talk, I bumped into a Vatican official who works on “culture of life” issues. I gave him the same hypothetical I had posed to Pavone. He said he thought the view I described could be squared with church teaching, and gave the example of Russia.

“Abortion there for decades was a form of birth control,” he said. “You can’t just abolish it overnight. The people aren’t ready for it. First you have to change the culture, then you can make laws.”

In that context, he said, it would be reasonable for a Catholic politician to vote against legal restrictions on abortion, on the grounds that it would simply make things worse, while at the same time working in the cultural sphere to convince people that abortion is wrong. What the church must insist upon is the moral absolute, he said, but how to translate that into law will differ with circumstances.

* * *

On May 19, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue closed its plenary assembly with a public event marking the 40th anniversary of its creation under Pope Paul VI. Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, who served as president of the council for 20 of its 40 years, gave the major address.

Arinze is today the Vatican’s top official on liturgy.

The speech was a typical Arinze performance, with much laughter and charm, yet a firm defense of traditional Catholic doctrine.

Arinze offered an overview of the development of the council. He then spoke about the need to develop better contacts with traditional religions, which he said are not merely “tribal” or “animist,” but encompass “a rich body of beliefs, traditions and moral codes,” including respect for marriage, human life and the family.

“These are not attractive?” he asked.

Arinze then identified four theological principles for understanding the Catholic church’s approach to other religions:

• Humanity needs salvation
• Jesus Christ brings this salvation
• The Holy Spirit is ever active in bringing people to Christ’s grace
• Jesus Christ founded a church to continue his mission of salvation

Thus, Arinze said, interreligious dialogue is part of the mission of evangelization that Christ entrusted to the church.

How to balance dialogue with evangelization is the subject of vigorous debate, including in the Vatican. Arinze jokingly told the story of a church insider who once said to him: “You’ve got dialogues with Buddhists, Hindus, and so on. Can you please have more dialogue between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue on Via della Conciliazione and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in Piazza di Spagna?”

Arinze seemed to say that both ends of the equation are important. The Catholic church wants respectful dialogue with other religions, but at the same time cannot withdraw, or soft-sell, the offer of salvation that is its primary purpose for existence.

I spoke with some of the non-Catholic guests at the plenary assembly, who expressed different views about Arinze’s line.

“If you want to convince people of other faiths that dialogue has its own integrity, you can’t talk like this,” one said. “But we like Arinze a lot, so he gets away with it.”

Sources told NCR that in the closed-door portions of the plenary assembly, some Catholic bishops from predominantly Islamic nations expressed skepticism about whether Muslims truly want dialogue. In the public session, however, Ahmed Mechergui, a Muslim professor from Tunisia who had studied at Rome’s Gregorian University, argued that Islam and Christianity share a similar concept of the human condition, and that this can be the basis of conversation.

Finally, I asked one of the non-Catholics if the delegates from other religions were at all curious as to why Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the Englishman who took over from Arinze as head of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, had not been made a cardinal in last October’s consistory.

“Sure, we discussed it,” this person said. “Some of us said, ‘Not to worry, he’s young, it will come next time around.’ Others said, ‘Maybe this is a Dominus Iesus II, the Vatican’s way of saying that we’re not going to continue as if there’s no problem.’”

Whatever one makes of the logic for Fitzgerald’s omission, this confirms a hunch I’ve always held: If there’s one thing the rest of the world can figure out, it’s the difference between a cardinal and everybody else.

* * *

Ahead of U.S. President George Bush’s June 4 visit to John Paul II, a senior Bush aide was in Rome this week for meetings with Vatican and Italian officials. John Bolton, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, met the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, on May 17.

Bolton’s official agenda was to brief the Holy See on the upcoming June 8-10 G-8 summit, and especially efforts to limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction. As a senior State Department figure, however, his conversations with Vatican officials are wide-ranging.

Just five days ago, Lajolo denounced the prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq as “a more serious blow to the United States than Sept. 11.”

Some Catholic voices in the United States, including Rep. Peter King of New York and William Donohue of the Catholic League complained that Lajolo’s comment was “anti-American.” Bolton, however, was determined to stay above the fray.

“I’m not going to get into characterizing it,” he said during a briefing with the press at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See before his meeting with Lajolo. “I’ll talk to the foreign minister about it.”

On the other hand, Bolton offered a vigorous response to complaints, from Vatican officials or anyone else, about American “unilateralism.”

 “When you see the long history of Saddam Hussein violating, ignoring and scorning United Nations Security Council resolutions, which the United States and the other coalition members vindicated by their action in Iraq last year, there can’t be any question of what the United States is committed to,” he said.

On the abuse, Bolton said the test is how the United States responds to what he called a “breakdown.”

“Nobody has argued that Americans are angels. While we’re on the subject, neither is anyone else. The issue here is how our system responds to violations of its laws and norms. I think we will respond fully, and will have nothing to be ashamed of in that regard.”

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

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