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 The Word From Rome

June 13, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 42

global perspective


"It is my hope that the patrimony of human and Christian values, accumulated down the centuries, will continue, with the help of God and of your Patron Saint Blaise, to be the most precious treasure of the people of this country.”

Pope John Paul II
June 6 address in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Croatia as East-West bridge; Reconciling Catholicism and Orthodoxy in Croatia; Threats against the pope; Visiting Dominican Fr. Timothy Radcliffe; 100th papal trip gala


One of the challenges on papal trips is keeping the forest in view and not just the trees. Depending upon what scoop is churning at any given moment, one’s sense of the “big story” can oscillate from hour to hour. Becoming absorbed in the sideshows and missing the main event is a constant temptation.

John Paul’s June 5-9 trip to Croatia, the 100th of his pontificate, makes the point.

By the middle of the day on Friday, June 6, the news out of Croatia didn’t seem to concern Croatia at all, but Mongolia. A string of Vatican officials, pressed by reporters, cast doubt on the much-anticipated but unconfirmed papal trip in August. (More on that later).

Then on Saturday, June 7, the winds shifted, and the focus became rumored “threats” against the pope from Islamic extremists. (Again, more later).

In general, this sort of “breaking news” assumes a half-dozen shapes and sizes before the truth sorts itself out. The trick, therefore, is to keep one’s eyes on the prize: What’s the real story, beyond whatever is occupying copy and airtime in any given moment?

In Croatia, there was a real story to tell, although it struggled to break through. The deep logic for the trip was that it gave the pope a chance to move the ball, so to speak, on his top priorities for both Western and Eastern Europe.

First the West.

The pope has long feared that the secularized culture of Western Europe suffers from amnesia, forgetting that Christianity shaped its history and value system. Cut off from its roots, John Paul worries, Europe could drift into nihilism, or become fertile ground for the spread of aggressively missionary religious alternatives such as Islam.

John Paul believes the Catholic nations of the former Socialist bloc can inject a religious booster shot into the Western bloodstream. That’s why he is anxious for Croatia, Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia to join the European Union, and it’s why last December the Vatican expressed disappointment that Croatia didn’t apply early enough for the first round of new entries. As things stand, Croatia will likely join in 2007.

Croatia’s tenacious brand of Catholicism has been shaped in part by geography. A nation of 4.4 million that’s 87 percent Catholic, Croatia finds itself at the extremities of Western Christianity. To the east is Serbia and Orthodoxy; to the south, Bosnia and Islam. Hence Croatia is an outpost of Western Christianity of symbolic and strategic importance.

“It is my hope,” the pope said June 6 in Dubrovnik, “that the patrimony of human and Christian values, accumulated down the centuries, will continue, with the help of God and of your Patron Saint Blaise, to be the most precious treasure of the people of this country.”

The beatification of 20th century nun Sr. Marija Petkovic on June 6, the first Croatian woman to be beatified, was a reminder to Croats that their Catholic heritage is not just a dusty medieval relic, but something realizable in the here and now.

The Croatia trip came just a week after a drafting commission released the proposed text of the preamble for the new European Union constitution. Despite strong Vatican pressure, the preamble makes no reference to Christianity, an omission that has angered Church officials.

The draft says that Europe was nourished by “Hellenic and Roman civilizations,” then “marked by the spiritual impulse that runs through it and whose traces are present in its patrimony,” then finally “by the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment.”  Hence Greece, Rome and the Enlightenment are mentioned, but not specifically Christianity, as the sources of European culture.

An inter-governmental commission must examine the draft, then the parliament of the European Union will vote.

I asked Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls in Dubrovnik June 7 if he felt the Vatican could still prevail in the battle to place a reference to Christianity in the text, and he responded: “The answer is an unconditional yes.”

Navarro said some heads of state are coming around to the Vatican position, recognizing that omitting Christianity from the list of forces that have shaped European civilization is “ridiculous from a historical point of view.”

Hence the Western logic for the pope’s Croatia trip was to urge the Croats to maintain their heritage, and to use it to propel all of Europe into a greater appreciation of Christianity’s spiritual and moral contributions.

Now for the East.

A dominant leitmotif of this phase of John Paul’s pontificate is the effort to reconcile Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and nowhere have the two traditions been at one another’s throat with greater ferocity than in the Balkans. During the fighting from 1991 to 1995, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs butchered one another with a savagery that left the world aghast.

Bitter memories remain in Croatia, where the conflict is remembered as a “War of Liberation” against Serbian aggression, even if the nationalist party of former President Franjo Tudjman is out of power.

“People are hurt,” said Tatiana, 19, a Croatian who spoke to a reporter during the pope’s June 7 Mass in Osijek. She declined to give her last name. “They lost children, cousins, whole families … for them it is very hard to forget.”

Another Croat, Krunoslav Thanner-Ognjenovic, who grew up in Osijek, put it this way: “We’re not angry with the Serbs, but we’re bitter because they destroyed our country.”

 In this context, John Paul brought a message of pardon.

“After the trying times of the war, which has left the peoples of this region with deep wounds not yet completely healed, a commitment to reconciliation, solidarity and social justice calls for courage on the part of individuals inspired by faith,” the pope said in Osijek.

He returned to the theme on the last day of the trip.

“I remember your suffering caused by war, which is still visible on your face and in your lives,” the pope said in Zadar June 9. “I am close to those bearing the tragic consequences of the war.”

Animosities bred by the war remain the central challenge to improved ecumenical relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church, traditionally among the most ferociously conservative in the Orthodox world.

John Paul offered an olive branch during his June 7 Mass in Osijek.

“I greet our brothers and sisters who share with us faith in Jesus, the Son of God and the one savior of the world,” the pope said. “In particular I greet Metropolitan Jovan and the other bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church. I ask them to convey to His Beatitude Patriarch Pavle my fraternal greetings in the love of Christ.”

Pavle is head of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

In the end, the jury is out on how much difference the Croatia trip could make on either the Western or Eastern front.

As Croatia makes its way into the European Union, it will face the same pressures of secularization as the rest of Western Europe. Already the church suffers from what the Croatian bishops called in 2001 “the worrying fact of a steadily declining number of candidates for the priesthood,” and fertility rates are among the lowest in Europe. It’s not clear the pope offered a stimulus powerful enough to reverse these trends.

In the same way, resentments against the Orthodox Serbs generated by the Balkans war don’t seem destined to heal anytime soon. Inside the walled old city of Dubrovnik, for example, a map shows sites damaged during the siege of1991. It reads: “City map of the damages caused by the aggression by the Yugoslav army, Serbs and Montenegrians, 1991-92.” With those kinds of historical ghosts on the prowl, it’s hard to believe that many Croats will embrace a policy of “forgive and forget.”

Still, those looking for positive signs can draw comfort from the fact that at the June 7 Mass in Osijek, just a few kilometers from Vukovar where destruction from the war was near total, representatives of both Islam and the Serbian Orthodox Church were on hand. John Paul thanked them for their presence.

Some of the warmest applause of the trip came in response.

* * *

A further question related to the war, though one that never surfaced during the trip, is Croatia’s relationship with the international war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

The government has pledged cooperation, but Croatia has dragged its feet on handing over military officials, most famously Gen. Janko Bobetko. That chapter closed with Bobetko’s death April 29, but several other former Croatian military leaders sought by the tribunal remain at large.

Some Croatian priests and bishops have opposed the tribunal. Bishop Ante Ivas of the southern town of Sibenik, for example, has criticized the government for “humiliating and dishonoring” the country’s “defenders” by threatening to turn them over.

The Vatican has tried to press the Croat bishops to soften this opposition. It’s not clear whether the pope raised the issue again during a June 8 closed-door luncheon with the bishops.

Prime Minister Ivica Racan told reporters after his June 8 meeting with the pope that the two men did not discuss war crimes. “A meeting like this was too short,” Racan said.

* * *

Any papal trip in June runs the risk of hot weather, but in Croatia, which gets the most days of sun of any country in southern Europe, the heat was especially brutal. During the pope’s June 7 Mass in Osijek, temperatures soared to 100 degrees, and news reports indicate two people in the crowd of some 200,000 died. Standing in the press gallery, I saw a couple of priests wilt and be carried off on stretchers.

During the Osijek Mass, an eagle-eyed colleague of mine, producer Hada Messia of CNN, spotted Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, the pope’s physician, standing near the press gallery snapping pictures of Croats wearing native costumes. We approached, and I asked Buzzonetti how the pope was coping with the heat.

“He’s coping with it just like you and me,” Buzzonetti said. “It’s uncomfortable, but you go on.”

I asked if the layers of liturgical vestments the pope wears during public ceremonies make things more difficult. Buzzonetti responded that these are not old-fashioned vestments, which were heavy and bulky. They are made out of lightweight materials that “don’t create too many problems,” he said.

In the end, perhaps the best indication that John Paul was not excessively fatigued is that his personal physician felt he had time to be taking pictures of the locals while his patient was on stage.

* * *

John Paul II’s anticipated August trip to Mongolia may not materialize, according to senior Vatican officials, though the reasons given vary slightly.

“It all depends on his health,” said Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, in comments on the first day of the pope’s Croatia trip.

“You can’t ask such a great sacrifice without a valid reason,” Sodano said, seeming to suggest that Mongolia by itself would not justify a 10-hour plane ride.

Navarro-Valls, on the other hand, emphasized the potential complications created by the SARS crisis as the chief factor placing the trip in jeopardy. He said a decision could some as early as this week.

As of June 2, there were nine reported cases of SARS in Mongolia. Government officials say, however, that no new cases have been recorded in recent days.

During the Mass in Dubrovnik, I asked Msgr. Renato Boccardo, the chief organizer of papal travel, about Mongolia. He downplayed both the health issue, saying this was an obvious consideration for every trip, and the SARS question, noting that the World Health Organization has taken Mongolia off the list of countries at risk. Boccardo added that if the trip doesn’t happen in August, it would have to be put off until next year, since by September harsh winter weather is already on the horizon.

For some months, Vatican officials had worked to try to arrange a stop-off in Russia in conjunction with the Mongolia trip, to return a famous Russian Orthodox icon to Kazan. Given that the Russian Orthodox Church is hostile to the visit, however, such a stopover seems impossible.

I contacted Msgr. Wenceslao Padilla, the apostolic administrator in Mongolia, to ask what his latest information was about the trip. His response:

“As far as I know, the papal visit is still on and is tentatively scheduled at the end of August till beginning of September. It will be a very short visit, just a matter of less than two days altogether in Mongolia.

“It doesn’t matter if the visit will be delayed as long as he comes!  It might even be better if he comes later (but not so late) so we can prepare better. The working committees that I put up are already working on their respective programs/activities. It's like working in the dark but we can't take the risk of unpreparedness if he really comes!”

* * *

On the subject of the threats against the pope.

On Friday evening, the national Croatian news agency HINA reported that it and a Catholic news agency had received e-mails threatening to kill the pope “in the name of Allah.” The e-mails, signed “the Islamic Front of el-Mujahadeen” and addressed to “the infidels,” appeared to have originated in Bosnia, said Interior Ministry spokeswoman Zinka Bardic. She said police agencies were investigating, but that there was no danger to the pontiff because of heavy security.

Later, Navarro-Valls said that the Vatican had received indications of a threat two and a half weeks before the trip, and had passed them on to the local authorities. He told me that the report had come from a foreign, non-Italian intelligence service.

Navarro said that while the pope receives similar threats from time to time, most turn out to be false alarms, and his program has never been changed in response to one of them. In this case, Navarro said, the threat did not seem credible, in part because it warned of an action “between Zagreb and Bajna Luka,” and the pope’s route never took him to Zagreb.

In fact, Navarro told me, the object of the threat was probably to try to discourage the pope from going to Bajna Luka on June 22.

On the way back to the press bus after the Osijek Mass, I literally bumped into Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo. I asked if the “threats” had him worried about the pope’s June 22 stop in Bosnia.

“They’re nothing,” he said. “It’s like a game. They’re not interfering with our preparations in any way.”

I asked if that meant the “Islamic Front of el-Mujahadeen” didn’t exist, or was a tiny group. He said no, they exist and they’re not small, but “it would be impossible for them to organize something because everything is under control.”

* * *

One of the most important journalistic pay-offs of papal travel is that you can sometimes find Vatican officials out of their natural habitat, hence without the normal filters that protect them from your questions.

Such was the case June 6 on the catamaran that ferried John Paul, his entourage and the press corps to the island of Krk. On board, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, came back for an impromptu press conference. He then got a glass of beer and sat down, and started taking questions once again, this time in the spirit of a graduate seminar on foreign policy. It was a fascinating round-the-world tour of the views of the Vatican’s most senior diplomat.

To begin, Sodano said that Palestinians expelled from their property in what is today Israel following conflicts in 1948 and 1967 have the right to return, or at least to be compensated for their loss.

“If you expel me from my home, then in justice you need to let me come back, or at least give me something,” he said.

Sodano suggested that Europeans have a special sensitivity to the question, since at various points of the 20th century Poles, Germans, and Italians have been driven from areas traditionally considered theirs.

Sodano also suggested that in order to bring peace to the Middle East, Israel will have to sacrifice at least some of its settlements in the occupied territories. He said that a “Gruyere state” for the Palestinians is unacceptable, referring to a kind of cheese full of holes – a metaphor for the settlements.

Both comments reflect standing Vatican positions, but were delivered in unusually frank terms.

I asked if U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had pressed the Vatican for a concrete commitment on Jerusalem in his meetings last Monday at the Vatican, Sodano responded, “We’re the ones who should be asking for a commitment from him.”

Sodano reiterated the Vatican’s long-standing position in favor of international jurisdiction for the holy sites in Jerusalem.

I then wanted to know if Sodano believes the U.S. commitment to the so-called “road map” for peace in the Middle East is genuine.

“In international diplomacy, you have to take people at their word,” Sodano said. “They tell us they are committed, so we accept that they are committed. I believe there is hope.”

In a freewheeling reflection on Christianity and Islam, Sodano acknowledged that the Arab world is a “little unknown to us -- 260 million people, 22 states, and the Arab League,” but said there are encouraging examples of a “tolerant, dialogue-ready Islam” in various places around the globe.

He cited the example of Senegal, where he said that on the occasion of John Paul’s February 1992 trip, the president, a Muslim, praised the pope “in extravagant terms that heads of state in the West would not be able to use.”

Sodano also pointed to Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where at one stage four ministers of the federal government, including the defense minister, were Christians. He acknowledged, however, that Christian/Muslim relations have deteriorated in recent months.

“This tolerant, dialogue-ready Islam still has to arrive in the Arab world,” Sodano said.

* * *

One final curiosity from Croatia. The person beatified by John Paul II on June 6, Sr. Marija Petkovic, is one of the few candidates for sainthood whose miracle is something other than the healing of a sick person. In fact, Petkovic came to the aid of an inanimate object – a submarine.

On Aug. 26, 1988, the Peruvian navy submarine Pacocha crashed into a Japanese fishing vessel near the Peruvian port of Callao. When the submarine began to sink, a young officer named Roger Cotrina Alvarado prayed to Petkovic, whose life story had been read to him by his mother.

At that moment, Cotrina Alvarado was able to close an inside door with his arms, despite the pressure of the water. The maneuver was considered “humanly impossible” by two commissions, one military and the other Vatican. Nineteen other officers were saved; six crew members died.

* * *

On Sunday, June 8, my cell phone went off as I was on the press bus to cover the pope’s meeting with Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan. It was radio station WBUR in Boston, reacting to a Boston Globe story that morning that said the appointment of Cardinal Bernard Law’s successor was imminent, expected perhaps as soon as Tuesday June 10, and that it was likely to be Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh. Did I know anything about it?

I didn’t, so I called my wife in Rome and asked her to get the Globe story on-line and read it to me. Armed with that information, I pulled aside Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls during the meeting, which was held at the archdiocesan seminary in Rijeka where the pope was staying, and asked for comment. He said he didn’t know anything about the Globe piece.

Upon returning to Rome on Monday, June 9, I reached a senior Vatican official who was able to clarify the situation. NCR posted a story based on this information in the “breaking news” section of our web site Monday afternoon.

The bottom line is that there would be no announcement in the next few days, but we might have something in two weeks, and that as of now no decision on Law’s replacement has been made. The story can be found here:

As a footnote, I went to the Vatican press office on Tuesday, June 10, a little before noon, since American bishops’ appointments are usually released on Tuesdays. I had told my Boston colleagues there would be no story, but a couple of them wanted to set up phone interviews just in case. All this reflects the intense, and understandable, interest in Boston about the succession.

* * *

My wife and I went up to the Dominican headquarters at Santa Sabina, on Rome’s Aventine hill, on June 11 to see Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, the former master general of the order. Radcliffe was in town at the end of a round-the-world speaking tour. He is a faithful reader of “The Word from Rome,” and suggested we come by for lunch.

Among his other stops, Radcliffe had been in Boston, and that led us to talk about the sexual abuse crisis. I voiced worry about polarization in the American Church. I said that perhaps this is a generational concern, because whereas the 50 and 60-year-old cohort that came of age in the 1960s is instinctively hostile to authority, my generation tends instead to be hostile to ideology. Any system that seems too comprehensive and self-contained, whether it comes from left or right, is likely to rub us the wrong way. 

 Radcliffe, as he always does, had a more elegant way of putting the point. He said that the Enlightenment imposed upon the Catholic Church an artificial division between tradition and progress, with tradition identified as “right” and progress as “left.” But in the authentically Catholic understanding, any genuine progress is always a return to tradition. Hence whenever we allow ourselves to get bogged down in a debate between right and left, we are already lost.

Interestingly, Radcliffe said, a better way of phrasing the debate within the Church may come from China, where divisions are less between left and right than between openness and closure – between those who want to open to the world, and those who want to stay closed.

I’m not sure how to foster a climate of conversation in the Church that could bridge our ideological paralysis. I suspect, however, that the problem would solve itself if we had more people such as Timothy Radcliffe to point the way.

* * *

For those “Word from Rome” readers who are truly Vatican wonks, here’s a brain teaser. What do the following cardinals have in common: Giovanni Battista Re, Eduardo Martinez Somalo, Giuseppe Caprio, and Edward Cassidy?

Astute Vaticanologists will recognize that all four men once held the office of sostituto, or deputy Secretary of State for internal church affairs. That explains what they were doing at a June 12 papal audience in honor of John Paul II’s 100th foreign voyage, an occasion to which the journalists who traveled on the papal plane were also invited. The sostituto is one of the key figures in making the logistics of papal travel work.

When John Paul II entered the Sala Clementina for the audience, a brass band made up of Legionaries of Christ seminarians burst into the famed Mexican ballad Cielito Lindo, a way of recalling that his very first trip was to Mexico in 1979. Mexican TV journalist Valentina Alazraki Crastich presented the pope with the chalice he used to celebrate Mass on that visit as a momento.

John Paul gave a speech looking back over his trips, recalling them primarily as pilgrimages in which he travels to the “sanctuary” formed by the people of a given place, a sanctuary in which he can contemplate the face of Christ. He also said these trips have a ecclesiological motive, to make Catholics around the world experience in a concrete way the papacy as what the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium called a “lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and of communion.”

Afterwards, we were invited to the Old Synod Hall for a reception by Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano. All the people who make the trips happen, from the Swiss Guard to Alitalia airlines, were present, and it was nice to see them getting some well-deserved credit.

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

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