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 The Word From Rome

May 30, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 40

global perspective


Give us security. We will take care of the rest.”

Karel Zelenka
of Caritas, quoting an Iraqi he met in Baghdad.

Dialogue with Islam; humanitarian disaster in Iraq; A ‘Latin Mass’ Revival; Insight into Vatican diplomacy; More on the beatification of Queen Isabella 


Two recent books unintentionally make an important point about the Western grasp of Islam.

The first, “Terror and Liberalism” by Paul Berman, argues that islamism, the fundamentalist current that fuels terrorism, is an Arabic-language version of the irrational anti-modern impulse that produced Nazism and Stalinism. On this theory, there’s little intrinsic to Islam that generates violence.

The second, “Islam Unveiled” by Robert Spencer, argues for the opposite conclusion. Almost everything about Islam, he believes, militates against pluralism and peace. Spencer’s chapters are rhetorical questions: “Is Islam compatible with liberal democracy?” “Does the West really have nothing to fear from Islam?” The implied answer is “no.”

What point do these books make about how the West understands Islam? Basically, that we don’t.

Both Berman and Spencer are keen analysts, but both seem concerned with intra-Western debates about pluralism, using Islam as a foil. One probably doesn’t learn much about real Islam from either.

Where are the voices to which we should listen?

Part of the answer may have come in a May 19-23 seminar sponsored by SEDOS, a Rome-based consortium of Catholic missionary orders. The event was entitled “Call to a New Vision of Others and of Ourselves Through Interreligious Dialogue: Focused on Islam.” It brought together Muslims with Catholic experts on Islam.

SEDOS, for the record, tilts slightly to the left, and hence exalts tolerance and diversity. The treatment of Islam at times could seem a bit rose-colored.

That said, the week offered invaluable perspectives.

Three young Muslims studying Christian theology in Rome addressed the group: Lejla Demiri and Betul Avci from Turkey, plus Adnane Mokrani from Tunisia. Avci said that Rome has been her first experience of Christians who take their faith seriously. The encounter, she said, has deepened her commitment as a practicing Muslim.

Since images of young Muslims in Western media today are largely of suicide bombers, listening to Demiri, Avci and Mokrani was salutary. They suggest a generation rooted in faith, but anxious for dialogue.

One point of reference throughout the week was Jesuit Fr. Tom Michel, who worked in the Vatican on Islam for 13 years and who now runs the Jesuit office for inter-religious dialogue. He teaches courses on Christian theology for Islamic faculties in Turkey. He has spent time in almost every Muslim-majority nation and has passed long hours in discussions with Muslim scholars, religious leaders, politicians, students and countless ordinary Muslim believers. His judgment, therefore, merits attention.

His message: “Dialogue is not just possible, it’s wonderful.”

Michel introduced a Turkish friend, Cemal Usak, who chairs the Intercultural Dialogue Platform. Usak came across as an apostle of tolerance. When he finished, Michel said, “Some of you may be thinking that this is an exceptional Muslim.”

In fact, Michel argued, Usak is representative of most Muslims. Michel described speaking to 4,000 young Turkish Muslims during a celebration of the birth of Mohammed, which fell this year on Easter Monday. The youth were enthusiastic to hear about Christianity, and positive about a future of peace.

“I am convinced that the vast majority of Muslims would agree that these committed, open-minded, modern believers … are the hope of the future, rather than the terrorists whom they clearly and openly condemn,” Michel wrote afterwards.

David Shaheed, an America Muslim from Indianapolis, and Jo-Ellen Karsten of the Focolare movement in Chicago spoke about a rather remarkable dialogue in the United States between Focolare and the American Muslim Society.


Shaheed said that when he and fellow Muslims first visited the Focolare center outside Rome at Castel Gandolfo, some were worried about how they were going to handle their five daily prayers. When they arrived, however, the focolarini had already set up a prayer room and organized the schedule so they could break for prayer seamlessly.

“They weren’t trying to convert us,” Shaheed said. “They were trying to help us become better Muslims.”

Two women from Algeria, Missionary Sr. of Africa Lucy Provost and Muslim lawyer Amina Kebir, spoke about their experiences of dialogue in a country where Christians and Muslims both have deep historical roots.  Provost, who grew up in Algeria before the civil war, said the very first person she ever saw praying was the Muslim mother of a farmhand. “She taught us to have respect for anyone who prays,” Provost said.

A couple notes of realism were struck by Msgr. Khaled Akasheh, a Jordanian and a Latin Rite priest who is Michel’s Vatican successor. On Monday, he pressed Dominican Fr. Claude Geffré, who had argued that other religions play a positive role in God’s plan. When the teachings of other religions contradict Christian revelation, Akasheh insisted, the Church cannot simply accept them as valid alternatives. (Akasheh was not hostile to Geffré’s aim. He agreed the church needs “a new theology for new times.”)

Akasheh recounted a visit from imams of the American Muslim Society to the Vatican. Some were ex-Catholics. Akasheh noted this fact to Imam Warith Deen Mohammed. What would be the response, Akasheh provocatively asked, if Muslims wanted to convert to the Catholic Church? (He knew full well that many Muslims consider conversion a form of apostasy, and this is one of the most serious problems with religious freedom in Islamic societies).

Mohammed pondered, then responded: “The heart wouldn’t accept it, but the head has to accept it.”

“It was the most convincing response I’ve received from a Muslim in nine years of work in the Vatican,” Akasheh said.

 The overall message of the week seemed to be this: Do not take your impressions of Islam from media images of mayhem and fanaticism. There are Muslims all around the world committed to dialogue. If there is to be a better future, they and their Christian counter-parts will be its architects.

One footnote: I have often said to my colleagues in the press that they ought to draw more on religious orders, especially missionaries. They can be found in every nook and cranny of the planet, living with real people. The SEDOS seminars underlined the value of seeking this expertise.

* * *

One of the most fascinating, and most heartbreaking, jobs in the Vatican belongs to a Czech-born layman and U.S. citizen named Karel Zelenka. He works for Caritas, the Vatican’s charitable arm, and it’s his job to coordinate response when major disasters happen. He just returned from five days in Iraq, and as we sat in his office reflecting on the experience, he was fielding phone calls urging his presence in Algeria to organize relief from the earthquake.

His job is to be on the frontlines wherever people suffer.

Zelenka brought back a message for the West, and especially for Americans, from Iraq. It boils down to this: Baghdad is out of control, and something has to be done.

“It’s a humanitarian disaster,” Zelenka said. “It’s chaos. People are afraid to go into the street. They rarely leave home, and when they do, they can’t wait to get back. A society can’t function like this.”

Most Iraqi Christians, Zelenka said, seem glad the Americans toppled the Hussein regime, but they are fearful of what may come next. In recent days the Shi’ite community has exerted a kind of civil authority based on Islamic law, demanding that women wear scarves and ordering liquor stores to close. These are small steps, but they herald a possible fundamentalist Islamic state that would represent the Christian community’s worst fears.

In this context, Zelenka said, Christians may increasingly opt to leave. He said many Christians he met had contacted relatives in Canada or the United States to make preparations in case things get out of hand.

Outside Baghdad, he said, conditions are better. In Mosul, for example, life is back to normal – shops are open, restaurants are crowded, and the air conditioning works in the hotels. But Baghdad, with its 6 million people, represents 25 percent of the country, and as long as it’s stuck in the Wild West, Iraq can’t rebuild.

Of course, Iraq has other problems. There’s a lack of food, especially infant formula. There are few jobs and little income. There’s a need for fresh water and sanitation. The 14 Caritas centers in the country, with roughly 100 employees, are struggling to respond.

Yet until security is restored, Zelenka said, little can be done. In that sense, he said, Americans would be well advised to worry less about grandiose rebuilding schemes and concentrate on getting police, ideally Arabic speakers from other Islamic countries, into the streets.

“Give us security,” Zelenka quoted one Iraqi as having told him. “We will take care of the rest.”

* * *

Sometimes events in the Catholic Church are most noteworthy for what doesn’t happen.

Take the Mass celebrated May 24 at the basilica of St. Mary Major according to the 1962 missal. That’s the traditional rite that was in use before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). It’s known in popular parlance as the “Latin Mass,” although this is misleading, because there’s nothing preventing the current rite from being celebrated in Latin. The May 24 event was billed as the first time since 1970 the old Mass had been offered in a major Roman basilica.

For weeks, the Mass had been the object of feverish speculation. Some conservatives believed it would mark a reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X, the breakaway faction of Latin Mass devotees led by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Liberals in the liturgical world, meanwhile, heated the Internet with rumors that the Mass was the beginning of the end of the reforms that followed Vatican II.

In the end, there was no big bang – no universal permission to celebrate the old Mass, no suppression of the new Mass, no return of the Lefebvrite prodigal sons.

Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, a Colombian who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, said the Mass. In his homily, Castrillon affirmed both the old and the new rites.

“The so-called rite of St. Pius V cannot be considered extinct, and the authority of the Holy Father has expressed his benevolent welcome towards the faithful who, although recognizing the legitimacy of the rite renewed according to the indications of Vatican II, remain attached to the preceding rite,” Castrillon said.

A statement of good wishes from the pope was read out at the beginning of the Mass, drawing scattered applause.

“This is very, very significant,” said Marygold Turner of Kent in England. She was at the May 24 liturgy wearing the traditional veil that Catholic women were obliged to use in church prior to Vatican II.

“This is the rapprochement the pope has asked for, and at last his words are going to be heard,” Turner told NCR. “The pope wants it, and Our Lady wants it.”

Turner’s group of approximately 25 persons had been given permission to hold a Mass according to the pre-conciliar rite in St. Peter’s Basilica the day before, Friday, May 23. It was celebrated by Fr. Andrew Southwell, a priest of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, an order set up by Pope John Paul for Catholic priests attached to the old rite.

Also in attendance at St. Mary Major’s on May 24 were several figures from Italian social and political life, including Mario Borghezio, a member of the far-right Northern League Party.

Borghezio said the Mass was a gesture “against every modernism and every relativism,” and a defense of “the values of tradition, threatened by the modern world and by the aggression of globalization.”

Signs of traditional devotion were clear. When it came time for communion, a statement was read indicating that in keeping with the old rules, the Eucharist would be distributed kneeling and only on the tongue. Near the door was a box of black veils for women to put on as they entered.

In addition to the crowd of 2,000, some 150 priests and seminarians took part in the Mass. The only other head of an office of the Roman Curia in attendance was Archbishop Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts.  

* * *

One sidebar to the Mass was the presence of Boston’s emeritus archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned Dec. 13 under fire for his handling of sex abuse allegations against Boston priests.

I saw Law enter and positioned myself to say hello. Given that I had spotted Law at the Cecilia Metella restaurant last December, marking the first confirmation of his presence in Rome, I was prepared for a less than enthusiastic response. In fact, Law was quite gracious. He told me he was in Rome for meetings of two Vatican congregations to which he belongs, and had decided to come to the Mass.

All told, there were six cardinals present. One was another American, William Baum. The others besides Law and Castrillon were Chilean Jorge Medina Estevez, Austrian Alfons Maria Stickler and Madagascar’s Armand Gaétan Razafindratandra.

Law and the other non-celebrants wore crimson liturgical vestments and the beretta, a traditional four-cornered cardinal’s hat.

After the Mass, Law brushed reporters aside, saying only, “I thought it was a very moving Mass.” Asked if he could comment on his post-resignation situation, he said, “I really haven’t been doing that.” 

* * *

Two of the Vatican’s key spokespersons during the Iraq war, deputy Secretary of State Jean-Louis Tauran and president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace Renato Martino, were among the featured speakers at a conference, “The Church and the International Order,” May 23 and May 24 at the Gregorian University.

Both men emphasized that the unity of the human family is the key principle underlying the Vatican’s approach to international policy.

The international community, as Martino put it, is a “natural and necessary community” that requires political institutions capable of governing a common life. While these institutions should be guided by subsidiarity, meaning respect for lower levels of authority, this is nevertheless a vision that goes well beyond theories that see the nation-state as the highest level of sovereignty.

Martino also argued for the abolition of war.

“Liberty and the respect of law have never been achieved through the use of force and war,” Martino said.

Tauran, the pope’s top diplomat, began his talk by citing a French phrase to characterize the current world order, the gist of which is “too much power, too little sense.”

Tauran defined the aim of Vatican diplomacy as “giving voice to the conscience of persons and of peoples.”

Like Martino, Tauran argued that a proper world order would rule out violence. His text read, “Experience has demonstrated that violence generates violence.” As he spoke, he added the present tense “and demonstrates,” suggesting a link with current events. It was one of several subtle adjustments where Tauran seemed to edge closer to explicit criticism of the Iraq conflict, and thus of American policy.

“During the Iraq crisis, the Holy See said it did not share the principle of ‘preventive war’ – an ad hoc concept – and solicited respect for the United Nations Charter, in particular chapter VII, which stabilizes criteria of behavior in case of threats or aggressions against peace,” Tauran said.

His speech amounted to a plea for the respect of international law.

“Only a rigorous application of the law, on the part of all in every circumstance, can prevent the weak becoming victims of ill will, force and manipulation by the strong. Thus the Holy See exerts itself so that the force of law will prevail over the law of force.”

The conference, which was co-sponsored by the International Jacques Maritain Institute, also featured an ecumenical panel, with Lutheran, Anglican and Orthodox representatives. George Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, argued that Christians should promote a “theology of ecology” that would explore means for people to live in peace.

“The church’s power is in community,” Carey argued. “We’re not involved in the state, but we are in the society. We’re there with suffering people. Let’s not forget that the majority of Anglicans, the majority of Roman Catholics, are poor, and we’re in solidarity with them.”

Carey will be spending six weeks in Rome next year as a guest lecturer at the Gregorian, and I told him I’d like to sit down over a couple good meals for a wide-ranging interview about Anglican-Catholic relations. He agreed, which should make for fascinating conversation.

One footnote: Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin of the Russian Orthodox Church was scheduled to join this ecumenical panel. On Friday before the conference began, however, he sent a terse fax to Fr. Franco Imoda, rector of the Gregorian, saying he could not come. No explanation was supplied, but most observers believe the withdrawal was related to the May 17 announcement of the elevation of two Roman Catholic apostolic administrations in Kazakhstan to dioceses. The move was taken by the Moscow patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, which claims Kazakhstan as its “canonical territory,” as another indication of Catholic plans for proselytism.

 * * *

I had the pleasure of attending a reception on the terrace of a Rome hotel on Monday, May 26, hosted by Georgetown University’s President John DeGioia for alumni and friends of the university.

I was especially struck by the presence of Cardinal Francis Arinze, since the Nigerian prelate’s last experience of Georgetown was a bit rocky. Arinze had been invited to speak at Georgetown’s May 17 commencement ceremony on the subject of Christian-Muslim dialogue. In the course of his remarks, Arinze spoke about threats to the family in modern culture, triggering protest.

“In many parts of the world, the family is under siege,” Arinze said. “It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce.”

According to news reports, Theresa Sanders, a professor of theology, left the stage when Arinze mentioned homosexuality, prompting other students to walk out. A letter of protest over Arinze’s remarks signed by 70 faculty members was later drafted.

I jokingly said to Arinze at the reception that he was brave to show up at another Georgetown event. He smiled graciously and said, in effect, that the affair was no big deal. “Had I known what effect it was going to have, I would have used another word,” he said.

Though I didn’t press him, my guess is that Arinze did not mean to attack homosexual persons. In Vatican parlance, when one mentions homosexuality in connection with the family, the reference is usually to issues such as same-sex unions and the definition of marriage.  One can debate whether they amount to “mockery” of the family, but this is not hate speech. (See more about the story in the June 6 issue of NCR.)

Other ecclesiastical VIPs at the Georgetown reception included Archbishop Giuseppe Pittau, a Jesuit and secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education; Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; and Archbishop John Foley, an American and president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

 * * *

I reported last week that at a May 16 round table at Santa Croce University on church history, Bishop Cipriano Calderón, a Spaniard who directs the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, asked a question about the beatification of Queen Isabella of Spain.

Intrigued, I rang up Calderón and asked to talk more. I met him in his Vatican office on May 23.

Calderón, it turns out, is a devotee of “Isabella the Catholic,” a title awarded her by Pope Innocent VIII. He said he had spoken with the pope about her cause just a few days before our interview. John Paul was interested but non-committal.

Officially speaking, the process has been on hold since 1991. During Isabella’s reign both Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain, and some question whether a beatification might open old historical wounds.

Calderón said such concerns should not prevail. The decision to canonize heads of state, he argued, does not amount to an endorsement of their political program, any more than canonizing doctors ratifies their diagnoses.

Calderón sees Isabella as a patron saint of evangelization.

“When Colombus discovered the New World, her first concern was not money or land, but evangelization,” Calderón said. “She wanted the gospel of Christ to be known in America.”

In that sense, Calderón argued, the beatification would be an impulse for “new evangelization.” Specifically, it would encourage Latin America to make the transition from “a continent evangelized five centuries ago, to an evangelizing continent.” Today, Calderón said, Latin American Catholicism is “very alive, very strong,” and it can help to reawaken the faith in Europe.

Next year marks the 500th anniversary of Isabella’s death. While Calderón says 2004 is too soon for the beatification, he hopes the remembrance will jar the process loose.


* * *

In recent weeks “The Word from Rome” has hosted an exchange between Neville Lamdan, the outgoing Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, and Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger, a negotiator for the Holy See and spokesperson for the Franciscans in the Holy Land. Subjects have included the April 2002 standoff at the Shrine of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the overall Israel/Vatican relationship.

A final comment from Lamdan on Jaeger’s May 16 response to his May 2 interview.

“Having read David Jaeger’s reaction to your recent interview with me, it seems to me that, like Shakespeare’s lady, Jaeger protests too much!

“Particularly unwarranted is his apparent claim to omniscience regarding the role which the President of Israel proposed to Cardinal Etchegaray during the Palestinian terrorist takeover of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

“Equally out of place is his attempt to reinterpret His Holiness the Pope’s clearly positive intent in his conversation with the President of Israel on 12 December 2002, when he expressed the hope of making the year of 2003 a ‘turning point’ in Vatican-Israeli relations.”

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