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 The Word From Rome

June 20, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 43

global perspective


“I would say that right now rather extreme solutions are prevailing, on both sides. We need more tolerance, more respect for the various positions, more understanding, more fraternity, and a truly ecclesial spirit in searching to resolve the problems.”

Bishop Piero Marini,
the pope's Master of Ceremonies speaking about debates over liturgical issues

The papal liturgist; The Phoenix bishop; Methodists in Rome; Catholics in Israel; The 8th of May Movement calls it quits


When Jonathan Kwitny titled his 1997 biography of John Paul II Man of the Century, it wasn’t necessarily to propose the pope as the greatest man of the last 100 years. Kwitny’s point was instead that no one’s life better summed up the drama of the 20th century than Karol Wojtyla -- from his childhood under the Nazis to his adult confrontations with the Soviets.

By a similar logic, one might call Bishop Piero Marini the “liturgist of the century.”

Marini, 61, has lived in first person the great liturgical tensions that led to, and followed, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He served as personal secretary to Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, head of a special Vatican commission that oversaw liturgical reform. Bugnini became a lightning rod for what some regarded as unacceptably radical changes, and his fall from power in July 1975 was the beginning of a backlash that eventually crested with a Vatican-led overhaul of liturgical agencies and practices in the late 1990s.

Marini worked in the Vatican on liturgical issues until 1987, when John Paul II named him Master of Ceremonies. He thus has responsibility for putting liturgical principles into practice on the largest stage in the Catholic church, both in Rome and wherever John Paul goes around the globe. (Marini has made 70 trips with the pope). More people have watched Masses planned by Marini than by any other liturgist in the world, which gives him enormous power to shape the public idea of what Catholic worship is all about.

At times, this puts Marini in tension with some Vatican colleagues who don’t share his reform-minded approach. Purists likewise sometimes complain that Marini’s liturgies look too much like Broadway production numbers.

It’s clear, however, that Marini has John Paul’s confidence. He has been dubbed the pope’s “guardian angel” by the Italian press because he is forever at his side, handing him the pages of a talk, helping him into position.  Marini shares this intimacy with two other men: John Paul’s private secretary Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the head of the papal household, Milwaukee native Bishop James Harvey. As a sign of their special fraternity, the three men were ordained bishops together by the pope in a special ceremony on March 19, 1998.

Marini sat down in his first-floor office in the Apostolic Palace, with its sweeping view of St. Peter’s Square, for an exclusive interview on Friday, June 20. He told me he’s conscious of how much responsibility his office bears for setting the liturgical tone.

“The liturgy of the pope has always been imitated,” he said. “In the early centuries pilgrims came from the north and took notes from what was happening in Rome, and these collections are the so-called Ordinis Romanae. So the papal liturgy has always been a point of reference for the entire church.”

I asked Marini how he understands the liturgical reform called for by Vatican II.

“I would say that they are the principles in Sacrosanctum Concilium: The return to Sacred Scripture and to the tradition of the Fathers,” Marini said.

“The reform was a return to the authentic tradition of the church, which is the liturgy of the Fathers. This meant taking away all the duplications that found their way into the liturgy, the encrustations that were superimposed over the centuries. This was a work of cleaning, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

What was true of Catholic worship in general was true of papal ritual: it was simplified, stripped down, and returned to its roots.

“It’s enough to see that already in 1964, Paul VI substituted the great procession with the flabelli [ceremonial fans made of ostrich feathers] and the entire pontifical court, with the noble simplicity that we have today,” he said.

Aside from ressourcement, or return to the sources, another guiding idea of the post-conciliar reform is inculturation, allowing the liturgy to take on features of local cultures.

The pre-conciliar Mass, Marini explained, had a limited cultural horizon.

“It was the liturgical expression of the countries of the Mediterranean Basin,” he said. “With the separation of the Protestants, also in France, what remained was Spain, Italy, Austria … the church had been reduced to something relatively small. But with the New World, Latin America and the various missions in Africa and Asia, it was necessary to open this liturgy that had been closed to the new peoples. That happened with the Second Vatican Council and with the trips of the pope.”

Marini said inculturation normally means integrating three elements: music, language, and physical movement.

I pointed out that this is not always uncontroversial. During John Paul’s visit to Mexico last summer, for example, one liturgy featured a limpia, or purification, ceremony. The Indian blessing is believed to cure spiritual and physical ailments by driving off evil spirits. Indian women bearing smoking pots of incense brushed herbs on the pontiff, Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera and other prelates. Some theologians I spoke with afterwards felt this had gone too far, that it in effect amounted to an endorsement of pagan worship.

“We discussed it a great deal here in this office with the responsible parties from the local church,” Marini said. “I spoke with the bishop. At the beginning, I have to say I was against using this rite, which not even they seemed to understand very well. Obviously our penitential act is one thing, their expression is another. But we continued talking, and in the end this was not during the Eucharistic celebration, and the bishop wanted the rite at any cost.

“It was important as a sign of respect for the indigenous, but it’s also a matter of liturgical history. Often rites that were not originally Christian have been ‘Christianized.’ If the indigenous have this rite, it can with time take on a Christian meaning concerning the purification of sins. Just as we use holy water, which for us recalls the waters of baptism, forgiveness of sins and the resurrection, so for them this element of smoke can have a sense of liberation and forgiveness. This is the reason for which we at the end agreed to insert this element.”

Marini doesn’t always, by the way, say yes.

During John Paul’s recent trip to Croatia, locals wanted him to hang behind the altar a crucifix from Vukovar, ground zero of the ferocious 1991-95 Balkans War, which had been damaged in shelling.  Marini decided to place the cross instead at the foot of the altar, along with some stones the pope was to bless for building new churches. As such, the cross became a symbol of rebirth, rather than a too-dominant reminder of suffering that could easily be interpreted in a vindictive, nationalistic key.

I asked Marini for his impression of the larger liturgical debates that have divided the church in recent years, over translation and inclusive language, over Roman centralization versus local adaptation.

“I would say that right now rather extreme solutions are prevailing, on both sides,” Marini said. “We need more tolerance, more respect for the various positions, more understanding, more fraternity, and a truly ecclesial spirit in searching to resolve the problems.”

Though he did not say so explicitly, Marini left little doubt that he believes the extremes are present at all levels, including within officialdom.

In the end, Marini said, the aim is balance.

“To find the right equilibrium is very difficult, between the personal and the communitarian, between the silence of personal prayer and those prayers said together, between singing in unison and individual prayer, between words and gestures, ultimately between what is human and what is divine.

“But when it’s done properly, the liturgy puts you into contact with reality, the reality of the community and the reality of God. That’s something truly beautiful.”

* * *

I got lots of phone calls this week from American reporters seeking Vatican reaction to the resignations of Phoenix Bishop Thomas O’Brien, and of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating as head of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board.

O’Brien stepped down following arrest in a hit-and-run incident, just days after signing an agreement to avoid criminal prosecution for failure to report complaints of sexual abuse against Phoenix priests. As part of that deal, O’Brien delegated authority on sex abuse cases to his moderator of the curia and to an independent advocate.

Generally speaking, there wasn’t much for Vatican officials to say about O’Brien’s resignation, except to express sadness for him, for the victim of the hit-and-run and his family, and for Phoenix.

On the deal O’Brien struck, however, there has been concern. Some Vatican observers believe O’Brien went too far in renouncing the bishop’s authority. Some wondered if the agreement – phrased as a deal among Maricopa County, O’Brien and the Diocese of Phoenix – could bind O’Brien’s successor.

On Keating, it is no secret that some in the Vatican never looked upon his appointment with favor, believing that someone with a reputation for unpredictable public commentary was not suited for such a highly sensitive role. The concern goes beyond Keating, however, to the National Review Board itself. If its role is to advise and assist the bishops, no problem. If, however, its purpose becomes to “supervise” the bishops, fears arise again about losing authority.

In the present climate, such concerns cannot help but strike many Americans as part of the problem – an attempt to preserve clerical power rather than resolving the crisis. There may be justice to this critique; it is not for me, thank God, to judge.

But there are two other considerations to note if one wants to understand where the Vatican is coming from.

First, the belief that power flows from Christ to the apostles and their successors in the apostolic college, meaning the bishops, is a core Roman Catholic theological concept. As early as end of the first century, Ignatius of Antioch urged the local church to be subject to the bishop. In the third century, Cyprian of Carthage wrote, “The bishop is in the church, and the church is in the bishop.” For 2,000 years, the bishop’s office has been a guarantor of Catholic identity, often in hostile situations; it has, in effect, stood the test of time. Those who believe the episcopacy is a matter of divine intention become nervous when they believe it is threatened.

Second, many in the Vatican believe that the heart of the American crisis lies in bishops failing to do their jobs. It is conventional wisdom in Rome that the American bishops did not need a new charter and norms to combat sexual abuse, that the Code of Canon Law gave them every tool they needed if they had been serious about confronting this behavior. The problem was not law, but will. Some bishops preferred to take the advice of therapists and formation teams and personnel boards rather than taking the situation into their own hands. Yet supervision of priests is a core episcopal responsibility; a bishop, according to the traditional theology, is supposed to be both a brother and a father to his priests.

Hence seen through Vatican eyes, the solution is not for America’s bishops to “pass the buck,” whether to independent advocates or national boards, but to step up and do the job that bishops have been ordained to do for 2,000 years. Ceding authority looks from this perspective not like a healthy dose of democracy, but malfeasance.

In the end, this reasoning may or may not be persuasive, may or may not correspond to the exigencies of the American situation. But for those who wish to press for different solutions, it is important to speak the same language.

* * *

When Pope John Paul’s recent encyclical Ecclesia De Eucharistia reaffirmed the ban on inter-communion with Protestants, many commentators voiced frustration that after 40 years of ecumenical effort, Western Christians are still divided on such a fundamental matter.

Whatever merit such complaints have, they forget how much progress has been made since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) to reverse prejudices forged over centuries.

A symbol of that progress comes this Sunday, June 22, when Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will preach at Rome’s Ponte Sant’Angelo Methodist Church. The occasion is the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist tradition, and observers say it will mark the first time a Vatican official has spoken in such a setting about Wesley’s life and legacy.

 “It will make clear to the people in the pews that things have changed,” said the Rev. Pieter Bouman, pastor of Rome’s English-speaking Methodist community.

 “A cardinal coming here would not have been possible 40 years ago,” Bouman told NCR in a June 13 interview in his pastor’s apartment above the church, just across the Tiber River from the Vatican.

“Officially, a number of things are still impossible. But through symbolic language and gestures like this visit, things become possible.”

Bouman said the June 22 liturgy will be a normal Methodist service, though with a special effort to sing hymns penned by Wesley himself. Kasper will preach the sermon, Bouman said, and he also intends to ask Kasper to deliver the final benediction. Though Bouman said there is no entrance procession in his service, he and Kasper will begin the service by walking in together wearing liturgical vestments.

Since in the English-speaking world Catholics and Methodists use the same lectionary, the scripture readings for the June 22 service will be the same proclaimed that day in the Catholic Mass, Bouman said.

After the service, Kasper is scheduled to join the 180-member community for a reception. The affair has been in the works for roughly eight months, Bouman said.

Also in attendance June 22 will be a representative of the World Methodist Council in Geneva, as well as representatives from the Italian-speaking Methodist community and Rev. Gianni Genre from the Waldensian Church.

Bouman pointed out that Catholics and Methodists have been in official dialogue since the mid-1960s.

“One of the things that makes the dialogue easier is that Methodism did not separate historically from the Roman Catholic church, but it arrived via Anglicanism,” he said.

Bouman said he believes joint worship can produce momentum for official theological dialogue.

“Theology is written after we celebrate together,” Bouman said. “It’s been this way from the beginning. The gospels were written after the early church had already been celebrating the Eucharist for 40-50 years, and they reflect the vocabulary of those sacramental acts. In the same way, the more we worship together, the more it stimulates theology to catch up.”

Even though the June 22 liturgy can’t include sharing the Eucharist, it is nevertheless a valid way of celebrating the “imperfect communion” Catholicism and Methodism already share, Bouman said.

The June 22 liturgy begins at 10:30 am at the Ponte Sant’Angelo Methodist Church, Via del Banco di Santo Spirito, 3.

* * *

The Ponte Sant’Angelo Methodist Church has a fascinating history.

It was established in 1878 by Alessandro Gavazzi, an Italian ex-priest who deserted the Catholic church in protest over the policies of Pope Pius IX and moved to England. A fervent Italian nationalist, Gavazzi signed on as a Protestant chaplain to the forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi. When Garibaldi’s Republicans wrested Rome away from the papacy in 1870, thus achieving the unification of Italy, Gavazzi bought a building on a street corner across from Castel Sant’Angelo as a beachhead for bringing Protestantism to the Romans.

The building had been a residence for the priests attached to the Church of St. Celsus next door (a neighborhood Catholic parish where Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, was baptized). It had a small chapel, which Gavazzi expanded into a church.

A Sunday Methodist service was held there in Italian for some 70 years. In 1955, however, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization moved to Rome from Washington, bringing American and British Protestants to Rome. The language switched to English, and thus it has remained.

The terrace of the pastor’s apartment commands a spectacular view of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Apostolic Palace, including the window from which the pope delivers his weekly Sunday Angelus address. Bouman joked that he’s the only Protestant pastor in the world who can lead Sunday morning worship, then head up to his rooftop for a pipe, a glass of whiskey and a papal blessing.

* * *

Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger, spokesperson for the Franciscan Custodians of the Holy Sites in the Middle East and a member of the Holy See’s negotiating team with Israel, returned to Rome June 13 from the latest round of talks in Jerusalem. The current push is to try to resolve outstanding issues from the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between Israel and the Holy See, coming up on its tenth anniversary in December.

Jaeger says some very basic issues remain unresolved, including the tax status of the Catholic church, its property rights, and funding for its schools.

In an exclusive June 18 interview, Jaeger told me that these questions, although highly technical, amount to the “fulcrum of the relationship with the Catholic church throughout the world,” because they concern “the ability of the church to survive in Israel.”

On taxation, the Catholic church is seeking exemption from Israeli property and income taxes similar to that enjoyed by religious bodies in the United States. The church argues these exemptions were guaranteed by U.N. Resolution 181, the document recognizing a Jewish state that was cited by Israel’s declaration of independence, and which in turn reflected earlier treaties under the Ottoman Empire. In defiance of these commitments, Jaeger says, Israeli municipalities have launched “sporadic raiding parties” over the years, sending property tax bills and then issuing penalties with compound interest for non-payment that in the aggregate amount to “many millions of dollars.”

Jaeger said this dispute surprises Americans.

“Our numerous Catholic donors in America would expect the tax treatment of the Catholic church in Israel to be no less favorable than that given to Jewish and Catholic organizations in the United States,” Jaeger said.

On property rights, the church is seeking the “full enjoyment” of properties that has been lost for various reasons. Most emblematic would be the Cenacle, or “upper room,” in which tradition holds that Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper. Restitution of the Cenacle “would make the climate a lot more favorable for the rest of the negotiations,” Jaeger said.

The church also wants the legal capacity to seek relief in Israeli courts for property disputes.

On its schools, the church wants state funding analogous to support given to schools for Israelis, which teach Judaism, and those for Arabs, which teach Islam.

Jaeger, part of the Holy See’s eight-member delegation, said Israeli negotiators are acting in good faith and there is excellent personal rapport. Yet little progress is being made, he said, largely because the Israeli team does not have the authority to make deals, and there is a lack of engagement on the policy-making level.

Jaeger said he hopes the looming anniversary of the Fundamental Agreement will “concentrate minds.” 

When the Holy See and Israel came to terms on the fundamental agreement in 1993, it amounted to a swap: the Vatican recognized the legitimacy of Israel, and Israel vowed to regularize the Catholic church’s legal status.  In effect, this put the Holy See in the position of “going first,” signing the agreement and trusting that the fine print would sort itself out.

Now is the time, Jaeger said, to ensure that this “courageous decision” was not in vain.

The Israeli embassy to the Holy See declined to comment on this story.

* * *

Europe’s struggle over its Christian identity continues.

A first draft of the preamble to the new European constitution, released in late May, was greeted by the Vatican as a slap in the face. It said that Europe was nourished by “Hellenic and Roman civilizations,” then “by the spiritual impulse that runs through it,” then “by the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment.” 

A revised draft released June 13 refers merely to “the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe.” Hence Christianity was not inserted, but the other cultural currents were taken out.

The Vatican is working to have a reference to Christianity inserted. An October inter-governmental conference will have the final say.

A Rome roundtable discussed the issue June 17, featuring Archbishop Attilio Nicora, president of the Apostolic Patrimony of the Holy See (the Vatican’s finance office), and Ernesto Galli della Loggia, a lay political scientist and editorialist for Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera.

I always find Galli della Loggia interesting, and he did not disappoint.

While he agreed that the omission of Christianity from the preamble “has all the characteristics of a historical falsification … similar to other great historical falsehoods in the 20th century,” he did not exempt the church from blame. He provocatively asked if the church can demand that Europe call itself Christian, if Christianity is not willing to call itself European. Given the guilt complex that has plagued Western institutions in the wake of de-colonization and globalization, Gallia della Loggia suggested, the church has downplayed its identification with Europe, afraid to admit that it is fundamentally a creature of Western civilization and a carrier of its values.

“To emphasize the church’s ties with Europe today is not politically correct,” Galli della Loggia asserted. “But this is a ruinous path, because it leads to a situation in which 100 lords of Europe can simply decide to let Christianity go.”

Nicora noted that the Catholic church, along with Protestants and Orthodox, had made three other proposals beyond the preamble. The first was for recognition of the right of churches to govern their own affairs, which was not included in the draft, although Nicora said it is present implicitly. The others were for a formal dialogue between European institutions and religious bodies, and a guarantee that national church/state legislation would not be overturned by European law. In both cases, the churches prevailed.

On the preamble, Nicora said he sees two factors behind the failure to recognize Europe’s Christian roots. The first is the hope that Turkey will join the EU, leading to worry about alienating the Turks by calling Europe “Christian.” But this line of reasoning would make the European Unioin nothing but a “giant free trade zone,” Nicora said, with no common values.

The second factor, he said, is an “ideological agenda” hostile to Christianity.

* * *

A sign of the times came June 14 in Holland, where the 8th of May Movement officially closed shop.

At its peak, the 8th of May Movement was perhaps the most formidable Catholic reform group in the world. It numbered 14,000 members and articulated the progressive post-Vatican II mood in the Dutch church. The 1967 Dutch New Catechism had been a run-away bestseller, condemned in Rome for its liberal approach to matters such as the Virgin Birth and demons. Dutch Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx rethought doctrines such as the resurrection and the ordained priesthood.

In 1980, John Paul II called a special synod to try to bring Holland under control. Yet in 1985, when the pope visited the country, he sparked protests by declining to meet with reform leaders. The 8th of May Movement was named for the date of the pope’s visit.

Now 18 years later, most of that energy seems to have dissipated. A June 17 statement explained the closure.

“Over the years we have diminished,” the statement reads. “People get older. We have less income. And in the last years we have found it very difficult to find new members for our board or for commissions. It is very hard. But the decision is taken. The end of this year is the end of our movement.”

On Dutch TV, the movement’s president, Henk Baars, explained that one factor in the choice to go out of business is the fact that religious orders in Holland, once among the movement’s greatest supporters, are getting older and have fewer financial resources to contribute.

Catholic progressives, accustomed to thinking of Holland as a pacesetter, will no doubt find this news depressing. If there is a silver lining for the left, it might be that, according to local observers, the progressive approach remains strong in Dutch theology faculties and among lay parish workers trained by those faculties – a cohort that will become steadily more important as the priest shortage worsens.

* * *

On Sunday, June 22, John Paul II will make a one-day trip to Banja Luka in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I’ll be on the papal plane covering the event. Watch the “breaking news” section of the NCR web site for my report on Monday.

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

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