The Word From Rome
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May 31, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 33

John L. Allen Jr.


Pope Benedict's first trip outside Rome: Talking with an Orthodox priest in Bari; St. Nicholas' bones; Benedict at the eucharistic congress; A political subtext; Panels on women, lay movements and social action


As I walked back to my hotel in Bari, Italy, after Pope Benedict's May 29 Mass, which marked his first trip outside Rome, I decided to stop off at a bar to buy a couple of sandwiches for the train ride home. I noticed a man wearing a black cassock and a kalimafi, the black cylindrical hat characteristic of Orthodox clergy, sitting at an outside table eating an ice cream bar. I approached and introduced myself.

"Are you an Orthodox priest?" I asked, in Italian.

"Yes," he responded.

The answer made sense, because several dignitaries from the Orthodox world, including Metropolitan Kiril of Smolensk, the number two official in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, had been present at the 24th National Italian Eucharistic Congress in Bari, which concluded with the papal Mass. They heard Pope Benedict XVI launch a stirring appeal for Christian unity, especially between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox.

"How did you feel about participating in a Catholic liturgy?" I asked, knowing that this is a delicate matter, since there's a traditionalist wing in Orthodoxy that regards Rome as heretical.

"About the same as I do every day," he replied, grinning, "though it was a bit strange to be using the Latin rite."

The priest, it turns out, was Fr. Antonio Magnocavallo, pastor since 1975 of the local Byzantine Rite parish, called St. John Chrysostom in Bari. The members of his small flock are fully Orthodox, Magnocavallo insists, since they embrace the rites and spiritual traditions of the ancient Eastern church, but they are also fully Catholic, in communion with the Holy See. The Byzantine rite is one of the 21 Eastern churches that form part of the universal Catholic Church.

If you ask Magnocavallo if he's Orthodox, his answer is "yes"; if you ask if he's Catholic, it's also "yes."

Meeting people such as Magnocavallo is why I always make a point of going on papal trips. These are the unscripted, unanticipated encounters that provide a deeper sense of the story.

St. John Chrysostom in Bari is located in a neighborhood called "Trieste Village," where the majority of residents follow the Byzantine Rite. The neighborhood, coincidentally, is right next to the waterfront area of the Mariaisabella plain where Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass on Sunday. Parishioners from St. John Chrysostom who attended the papal Mass, or who simply listened to it by opening their windows, would have recognized one familiar feature - the gospel was chanted in Greek, as well as in Latin.

In southern Italy there are some 250,000 Eastern rite Catholics, organized into 32 parishes and two eparchies. Ravenna, also on the Adriatic coast, was the seat of the governors of Byzantine Italy from the mid-500s to 651, and that Eastern heritage has always been part of the cultural milieu in the southern part of the peninsula. Successive waves of immigration from Albania also swelled the membership of the Byzantine rite.

Magnocavallo, who was born in Calabria, believes that he and his fellow Byzantine rite Catholics represent a foretaste of the "full and visible" unity between Eastern and Western Christianity that was the core message of Pope Benedict XVI on May 29.

"Sustained by the Eucharist, we must feel compelled to apply every force to that full unity for which Christ ardently hoped," Pope Benedict said.

Bari is also the custodian of the bones of St. Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century bishop venerated throughout the East, making Bari an important Orthodox pilgrimage destination.

"Precisely here, in Bari -- happy Bari -- the city that is custodian of the bones of St. Nicholas, a land of encounter and dialogue with our brother Christians from the East, I would like to reconfirm my desire to take up as a fundamental duty working with all my energy for the reconstruction of full and visible unity among all the followers of Christ," the pope said.

In a particularly vivid use of imagery, Benedict called on Christians not to allow "the termite of resentment to work in our soul."

"I'm aware that for unity, the manifestation of good will is not enough," the pope continued. "Concrete gestures are necessary that can enter hearts and stir consciences, calling everyone to that interior conversion that is the presupposition of every progress on the path of ecumenism."

Benedict XVI did not enter into details about what sort of "concrete gestures" he had in mind. In the past, however, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he stated that the lone condition for unity between Eastern and Western Christianity should be that the Orthodox accept papal primacy as it existed in the first millennium.

I quoted that line to Magnocavallo.

"Ah," he said, "but that's the problem. What did primacy mean in the first millennium? Getting people to agree on that is going to be difficult."

During the week-long eucharistic congress that led up to the May 29 papal visit, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's top ecumenical official, led an ecumenical vespers service. Kasper used the occasion to announce a "well-founded hope" that the international theological dialogue between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy will resume in the fall, which had broken down in disagreements over "proselytism" and other issues.

Kasper also issued a bold proposal. Noting that Bari in 1098 hosted a synod of Greek and Latin bishops, he asked why we couldn't hope that in 2098 (or before), Bari could host a "synod of reconciliation" between Orthodox and Catholic prelates.

In Italian, Magnocavallo means "great horse," and I pointed out to him that many Orthodox believe the kind of church he represents -- following Orthodox traditions, but loyal to Rome -- is precisely what his name implies, a "Trojan horse" intended to split Orthodoxy apart. These so-called "uniate" churches, 21 in all, have been major sticking points in dialogue between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, especially the Russian Orthodox church.

He doesn't see things that way.

"The real issue between Rome and Moscow, as between Rome and Athens, has always been the preeminence of the pope," he said. "Solve that and all the other problems will go away."

Magnocavallo said he thought the Orthodox would react "very well" to the pope's words on Sunday.

"I believe Benedict will go to Moscow," he predicted. "They are working now to organize the trip."

Magnocavallo, who maintains close contacts with the Greek Orthodox world, said he perceives the Greeks as "a bit more closed" than the Russians in terms of relations with Rome, but said that relationship too is improving.

I asked when he thought a papal trip to Russia might happen.

"Boh," he responded, invoking a classic Italian expression for, "Who knows?"

"It's a very long historical process," he said. "We need patience."

"In the meantime," he said, "it's a beautiful day, the sea is clear blue, we're in a beautiful city, and the ice cream is sweet and cold. Perhaps we can be content with that for now?"

As ecumenical perspectives go, on a hot Sunday afternoon in Bari, it seemed convincing.

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The story of how St. Nicholas' bones got to Bari illustrates the recrimination and bad blood that for a millennium have been part of the fractious relationship between Eastern and Western Christianity.

A fourth-century bishop in the city of Myra in Asia Minor, St. Nicholas is widely revered in both East and West. Orthodox pilgrims, especially members of the Russian Orthodox Church, regularly come to Bari to pay their respects to his remains -- which are believed to produce a miraculous fluid, the "manna of St. Nicholas," said to be a sweet-smelling resin with healing properties. In the West, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, which is how in a convoluted series of historical twists he provides part of the basis for the legend of Santa Claus. In the East, St. Nicholas, in addition to being one of the co-patrons of Russia, is a patron saint for sailors.

By consensus, the remains of St. Nicholas arrived in Bari in the 11th century. The circumstances are disputed.

According to local tradition, the bones were "rescued" from Myra in Asia Minor by 62 Italian sailors, saving them from the clutches of invading Saracens. One of the small, winding streets in the old town that leads into the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari is named "62 Sailors Street," recording this act of liberation.

An annual festival commemorates the arrival of St. Nicholas' bones, called the "translation," to Bari, which is conventionally dated to May 9, 1087. Thousands of people come for the festivities, which begin on the morning of May 7. Local clergy board a boat with an icon of St. Nicholas to spend the day at sea. The public square and other areas are festooned with large, lacy screens. When the icon returns, a procession of people in 11th century costumes follows it from the port of San Giorgio to the square in front of the Basilica of St. Nicholas.

After a special Mass on May 9, the rector of the basilica crawls into an opening at the front of the tomb and brings out the manna. A great exclamation rises as the vessel is elevated. The vessel is carried up into the church, where the faithful line up to venerate the manna. Outside, the celebration continues into the night.

Some Orthodox observers, however, aren't of a mind to celebrate. They charge that the relics were "stolen" from Asia Minor by Italian mercenaries who hoped to cash in on the saint's fame. Such behavior was not uncommon in the Middle Ages, when the possession of the relics of a famous saint could cause cities to prosper, acting as a magnet for pilgrims.

One Orthodox source, for example, writes that the relics of St. Nicholas were "carried off under the noses of the lawful Greek custodians and their Mohammedan masters." Another, who instead of the "translation" of the remains refers to their "abduction," charges that the Italian sailors took advantage of the confusion caused by the arrival of the Saracens to rob the bones from the saint's tomb, over the objections of the Greek monks who were their custodians.

This cycle of charge and counter-charge has, unfortunately, remained part of Catholic-Orthodox relations up to the present; anyone who has followed the "yes you are, no we're not" dynamic of recent exchanges over whether Catholics are engaged in "proselytism" in Russia knows this all too well.

For the most part, however, St. Nicholas seems to function today more as an agent of Catholic-Orthodox unity than division. During the annual festival in Bari in May, Orthodox clergy routinely join their Catholic counterparts in the processions, the veneration of the icon, and the exposition of the manna. The relics, and especially the miraculous manna that devotees believe they produce, still draw thousands of Orthodox pilgrims to Italy each year.

In that sense, perhaps St. Nicholas could be invoked as the patron saint of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, a figure whose own story illustrates that old wounds do not have to be decisive for the future.

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The theme of the eucharistic congress staged in Bari May 21-29 was "Without Sunday We Can't Live," a phrase first employed by 49 African martyrs in 304. The Roman Emperor Diocletian had prohibited Christians under the threat of death from meeting on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist, as well as from building places of worship for that purpose. In Abitene, in modern-day Tunisia, these 49 Christians were arrested while celebrating the Sunday Eucharist, and taken to Carthage for interrogation.

The Roman proconsul asked the Christians why they had violated the emperor's edict, and their response was Sine dominico non possumus, meaning, "Without Sunday, we can't live." Eventually they were put to death.

Pope Benedict XVI used the occasion to urge Christians to recover the deep sense of Sunday as a spiritual experience.

"From a spiritual point of view, the world in which we find ourselves, characterized by unbridled consumerism, religious indifference, a secularism closed to transcendence, can seem like a desert no less harsh than that "great and frightening" desert mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy," the pope said, referring to the Old Testament reading for Sunday.

"We need this bread [of the Eucharist] to confront the burdens and the exhaustion of our journey," Benedict said. "Sunday, the day of the Lord, is the propitious occasion for drawing strength from Him, who is the Lord of life. The obligation of Sunday Mass is this not simply a duty imposed from outside. To participate in the Sunday celebration and to eat from the Eucharistic bread is what every Christian needs."

In an interesting paragraph in the written text of Benedict's homily, but which he did not read aloud, the pope observed that St. Augustine had initially struggled with the symbolism of the Eucharist. When a man eats food, Augustine argued, it's the man who's the stronger party; he assimilates the food to himself. Isn't this inappropriate imagery, Augustine wondered, when applied to the relationship between a Christian and Christ?

Later, Benedict said, Augustine came to understand that the opposite was the case in the Eucharist.

"The center is Christ," Benedict said, describing Augustine's realization, "who draws us to himself, causing us to step out from ourselves and become one with him."

"In this way," the pope said," he also makes us one with our brothers and sisters."

A footnote to those reflections.

Benedict's reflections here are of special interest since his own theological background is more Augustinian than Thomistic. Of Aquinas, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once wrote, "His crystal-clear logic seemed to me to be too closed in on itself, too impersonal and ready-made." In fact, when Pope John Paul II appointed Ratzinger as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it caused a mild stir in some curial circles, as Ratzinger was the first non-Thomist to head that office in centuries. By tradition, a Dominican is usually among the superiors in the congregation, precisely to ensure that Thomism is well represented.

Pope Benedict's May 29 homily suggests that Augustine is still at the heart of his own theological reflection.

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Since this was Benedict XVI's first trip outside of Rome, many observers were anxious to make comparisons with his predecessor, John Paul II, for whom travel was such a defining feature of his pontificate.

It's difficult to draw sweeping conclusions from one three-hour appearance, but for what it's worth, the Bari trip suggests that "Papa Ratzinger" may be a more focused, simpler traveler, and that at least early on, his crowds are unlikely to rival those of Wojtyla.

At one level, the trip illustrated the continuity between the two popes. Aside from Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, John Paul's private secretary, all the familiar cast of characters were here: Archbishop James Harvey, the American who serves as prefect of the papal household; Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, the physician who served John Paul and now Benedict; Angelo Gugel, who was John Paul's butler, and is also now working for Benedict; and Arturo Mari, the ubiquitous papal photographer from L'Osservatore Romano. To apply a sporting analogy, it's as if there's a new quarterback, but otherwise the team is pretty much the same.

Yet the feel of the trip was different. For one thing, Benedict kept things as brief as possible in Bari. His helicopter took off at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday from the heliport in the Vatican, and landed at 9:30 a.m. He celebrated the Mass, led the Angelus prayer, and was back in the air by 12:30 pm, arriving in the Vatican around 2:30 pm. That means he was actually in the air longer than he was on the ground.

Had this been John Paul II, it's difficult to imagine that he would not have come down Saturday evening to join the youth vigil on the Mariaisabella plain. Some 50,000 young people camped out overnight awaiting the Sunday Mass, grooving to the sounds of contemporary Christian pop and watching a spectacular lights show. U2's Bono once defined John Paul II as "the first funky pope," and it would have been a scene much to his liking; Benedict, whose musical tastes run to Brahms and Mozart more than MTV, did not feel compelled to be present.

John Paul would also likely have visited the Basilica of St. Nicholas, using the occasion to accent its identity as a center of joint Catholic and Orthodox spiritual interest, and to further underscore the ecumenical thrust of the journey.

In terms of attendance at the May 29 papal Mass, the result risked being something of an embarrassment for the Italian church. One year ago, when plans still called for John Paul II to attend, the Italian government classified the eucharistic congress as a "grand event" under Italian law, making it eligible for substantial public funding (in this case, some $5 million).

Normally, a "grand event" means a crowd of at least 400,000 people. Following the Mass, organizers said that 200,000 had participated; the local police put the number at 100,000. In any event, the turnout was short of projections.

That result, however, may not be entirely attributable to differences in papal charisma. May 29 was a scorching hot day in southern Italy, and organizers may have scared off some potential participants by emphasizing their fears of logistical complications.

In any event, even with Pope John Paul II, his trips inside Italy tended to be smaller, less theatrical affairs. The real test of Pope Benedict's style will come on the Cologne trip. In addition to attending the vigil and then presiding over the concluding Mass of World Youth Day, Benedict has also said he intends to visit the Jewish Synagogue in Cologne. Vatican officials have also said that a stop in Munich, the Bavarian capital where Ratzinger was archbishop from 1976 to 1981, is not out of the question.

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One bit of important political subtext to the eucharistic congress was a looming Italian national referendum on artificial reproduction, which shapes up as one of the first skirmishes in the war Pope Benedict has promised on the "dictatorship of relativism."

After years in which Italy had no law at all on in-vitro fertilization, giving it a reputation as the "Wild West" of fertility treatments (in one case, a 65-year-old woman managed to be impregnated and give birth), Italy's conservative government in February 2004 adopted a strongly restrictive statute. It bars sperm and egg donation, effectively denying gay couples and single mothers access to in-vitro techniques; limits the number of embryos created by these techniques to three; declares embryos holders of human rights; and bans all embryo research.

Different parts of the June 12-13 referendum seek to overturn each of these provisions.

The Italian church has strongly urged Catholics to abstain from the vote, arguing that moral questions involving human life should not be settled at the ballot box. Further, because the law still allows the creation and eventual destruction of some embryos, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops' conference, has argued that abstention is a way of registering disapproval of both the law and the proposed revisions.

If fewer than 50 percent of Italians turn out, the referendum will be invalidated.

During the eucharistic congress, prelates such as Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice repeatedly argued for abstaining from the vote. Outside, members of the National Alliance political party, part of the governing conservative coalition, distributed flyers arguing for abstention, stating "the church asks it, our conscience asks it, as do the many human lives that want to be born and instead risk being transformed into guinea-pigs in the laboratory."

In a play on the pope's name, the flyer read, "Blessed is he who abstains." In Italian, Benedetto is both a proper name and the word for "blessed."

Benedict XVI did not address the issue himself in Bari. The next day, however, he met with the members of the Italian bishops' conference, and weighed in on the debate.

"You are currently engaged," he said, "in illuminating and motivating the choices of Catholics and of all citizens regarding the referenda on assisted procreation that by now are imminent. The clarity and concreteness of your commitment is a sign of the solicitude you have as pastors for every human being, who can never again be reduced to a means to an end, as both the teaching of Christ and human reason tell us."

At that point, the bishops interrupted the pope with applause.

"In your commitment, I'm close to you with both word and prayer, with confidence in the light and in grace. Here we're not working for Catholic interests, but always for the human person as a creature of God."

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In the week of events leading up to Benedict's May 29 Mass, some 14 cardinals, scores of bishops, and virtually very figure of interest in Italian Catholicism made presentations of various sorts at the eucharistic congress in Bari.

For example, Sr. Elena Bosetti, a member of the Sisters of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who hosts a popular program on Italian television commenting on the Bible, offered a woman's view.

"The role of women in the church is to keep alive the dimension of love in its inner life," Bosetti said, "like Mary Magdalene, who ran to share the news with the others about the resurrection rather than stopping to keep the joy to herself."

One interesting session came on Thursday, May 27, on the role of laity in the church, featuring representatives of several major lay groups and movements - Catholic Action, the Neocatechumenate, Communion and Liberation, and Sant'Egidio, to name a few. In Italy, at least, relations among these groups have not always been harmonious, and it was interesting to see their spokespersons insist that they're entered a new, more "mature" phase, in which the movements recognize that it's the collective good of the church that is most important, not their own ends.

Archbishop Paolo Rabitti of Ferrara offered an overview of the relationship between the movements and traditional parish structures.

"When the sociological scheme of a compact neighborhood with the parish at its center began to break down, spontaneously various realities were born apart from the parish, and they created a more robust, vital ecclesiastical life within themselves," Rabitti said. "This was a positive thing. But it meant that those left in the parish were the 'less fervent.' The parish, which theologically is the common family of all, became a kind of public bus that picks up only those who don't have their own car."

"Today," Rabitti said, "the Italian bishops are asking all the movements and lay realities to see themselves, and to really be, members of a parish. The parish needs the transfusion of new blood from these groups.'"

Ironically, while some of these new movements pride themselves on a very "faithful, orthodox" style of Catholicism, Rabitti suggested they have been more deeply shaped by broader cultural currents than they may realize.

"The ideological pluralism operative in society has sometimes destroyed the organic unity of the laity, and has driven some spheres within the lay world to pursue options so diverse that sometimes they become contradictory," he said. "This has impoverished cooperation within the church."

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A panel on Christianity and social action also offered some interesting moments.

Fr. Oreste Benzi, founder of the "Pope John XXIII Association" that works with poor and exploited persons, recounted a story of meeting a young prostitute named Sofia on the streets of a town near Bari. They two began talking, and Sofia said she was no longer Christian.

Benzi asked her why.

"Because my clients are Christians," she said. "They don't do anything to help me, and their money goes to my 'protector,'" she said.

Benzi made the point that preaching would be of little use unless the behavior of Christians seems to match their words.

Ernesto Olivero, founder of Sermig, or "youth missionary service," based in Turin, argued that given the way things are going in the world, the Christian engagement in favor of peace and justice is more urgent than ever.

"In a time of preemptive war, we have to construct a preemptive peace," Olivero said. "The church has to get down off its horse and help the poor."

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

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