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 The Word From Rome

June 27, 2003
Vol. 2, No. 44

John L. Allen Jr.


"Caritas must continue to rid itself of the scandal of the near-invisibility of women in its decision-making structures and allow lay people to take responsibility as the community of the baptized."

Duncan MacLaren,
secretary general of Caritas Internationalis

Feeling Bosnia's pain; Caritas turns justice focus inward; The church in China; Questions for Sr. Gramick; Letters from readers


Which of the following best describes Petricevac, a spot on the outskirts of Banja Luka, capital of the Serb-dominated region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Pope John Paul II made his 101st foreign trip on Sunday, June 22?

A. Site of an infamous massacre of Serbs by Croats in February 1942
B. Site of the torching of a Catholic convent by Serbs in May 1995
C. Both of the above

In an illustration of why the history of the Balkans is so tortured, where as Bosnian novelist Ivo Andric once wrote there is “pain in every drop of water and every blade of grass,” the correct answer is, inevitably, C.

The pope went to Banja Luka to beatify Ivan Merz, a 20th century Croatian layman born there. He could have beatified Merz during his June 5-9 trip to Croatia, but the pope went to Bosnia because he wanted to deliver a message of reconciliation.

His carefully calibrated language walked up to the brink of being an apology.

“From this city, marked in the course of history by so much suffering and bloodshed, I ask Almighty God to have mercy on the sins committed against humanity, human dignity and freedom also by children of the Catholic Church, and to foster in all the desire for mutual forgiveness,” he said.

It will be a tough sell.

Bosnian Catholics, who are ethnically Croatian, have been kicked around by just about every historical force imaginable. In the 13th century, they found themselves struggling against a local heresy, a form of ascetic dualism practiced by the so-called “Bosnian Christians,” that threatened to extinguish Orthodox Christianity. Only the arrival of the Franciscans in 1291 turned the tide. In 1463, following the Turkish conquest, Catholics became second-class citizens, forced to pay absurd levels of taxes and subjected to sometimes intense persecution. Things got so bad that for almost four centuries, Bosnia didn’t have a bishop or diocesan clergy; only the plucky, and stubborn, Franciscan friars stayed behind.

Under Austrian domination in the 19th century, the Bosnian hierarchy was restored but often at the expense of the local church, especially the Franciscans, seen as excessively nationalistic. Tensions with the Serbs exploded in mutual savagery during World War II. The socialist government of Marshall Josip Tito kept the church under tight wraps until his death in 1980, and then came the implosion of Yugoslavia and the Balkans War.

All this has left Bosnian Catholics with a unique sense of being orphans of history.

This is especially acute in Banja Luka, where Catholicism was virtually wiped out by the latest war. There were 125,000 Catholics in the Banja Luka diocese in 1991, while today there are 51,500. Only 3 percent of the refugees have returned. Thirty-nine churches were destroyed and 22 damaged; nine chapels were destroyed and 14 damaged; two convents were devastated and one severely damaged, as were 33 cemeteries. (The convent at Petricevac was one of the places that went up in flames, leaving 80-year-old Friar Alojzije Atlija dead). A background paper said that the war had produced “a total exodus of the Catholic population from this region,” that the few who remain are “predominantly elderly,” and that the church in Bosnia now risks “total extinction.”

In such a climate, it’s hardly surprising that many in the Catholic community seem underwhelmed by a policy of forgive-and-forget.

“The Catholic Church in the wider region of Banja Luka, by the will of the powerful of this world, now finds itself almost completely eradicated,” said Banja Luka Bishop Franjo Komarica in his welcome to the pope. His words drew rousing applause from the crowd of 35,000.

Nor were their Serb neighbors noticeably more conciliatory.

To understand Serb psychology, start with the site of the papal Mass on June 22. Petricevac is burned into the minds of Bosnian Serbs as the launching point of a 1942 massacre in which at least 1,600 Serbs were killed by Croatian Ustashe fascists. Joining the assault was a Franciscan priest named Tomislav Filipovic, later known popularly as “Friar Satan.”

(Filipovic was expelled from the Franciscans in May 1942 for his participation in this massacre. More on his case below).

A Serbian history titled Magnum Crimen (“The Great Crime”) describes the scene:

A brother of the Petricevac Monastery, Tomislav Filipovic, entered the classroom during class with 12 Ustashe, imitating Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles. He ordered teacher Dobrila Martinovic to bring a Serb child to the front of the class.

Suspecting nothing, the teacher called Radojka Glamocanin, a pretty and neat child, the daughter of Djuro Glamocanin, a respected citizen of Drakulic then imprisoned in Germany. The brother gently received the child, lifted her to the lectern and then slowly began to slit her throat in front of the other children, the teacher and the Ustashe. Panic broke out; the horrified children screamed and jumped. The brother calmly and in Jesuit-like, dignified fashion addressed the Ustashe: "Ustashe, by this in the name of God I baptize these degenerates and you should follow my example. I am the first to accept all sin onto my soul; I will confess you and absolve you of all sin."

The priest then ordered the teacher to take all the Serb children into the schoolyard. He issued the same order to teacher Mara Tunjic in another classroom. In the schoolyard, on the trodden snow, he placed the 12 Ustashe in a circle and then ordered the children to run next to them. As each child passed, an Ustashe would gouge out an eye and push it into the child's slit belly; he would cut off an ear from a second, the nose from a third, a finger from a fourth, the cheeks from a fifth... And so on until all the children collapsed. Then the Ustashe finished them off in the snow.

Did it actually happen like this? The details sound like wartime propaganda, and Filipovic denied killing anyone in a sworn statement in April 1942. In a sense, however, the historical reality almost doesn’t matter, because the locals remember it so. A colleague who works for Serbian TV in Belgrade told me during the June 22 papal Mass that virtually every Serb in Banja Luka would be able to recite this story by heart.

Given such memories, it’s hardly surprising that the papal visit drew mixed reviews.

Serb Orthodox pamphlets circulated before John Paul’s arrival said “Pope go home,” and some posters touting the pope’s visit had four-S graffiti sprawled across them, representing a Serb nationalist slogan: “Only Unity will Save the Serbs.” Others bore the slogan “Petricevac 1942-2003,” a reference to the massacre.

Informally, polls showed that 60 percent of Bosnian Serbs were opposed to the papal visit.

Despite all this, there were a few tender signs of hope.

The three co-presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina — a Serb, a Croat and a Muslim — told John Paul that they intend to “build the country on the basis of the words you have given us.” The presidents also announced that to mark the pope’s visit, the government would restore to the country’s religious communities, including Jews, Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, goods that had been confiscated during the communist regime.

The president of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina expressed sentiments of understanding during an interreligious session.

“A future of peace is possible in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” he said. “Our people can live in peaceful co-existence with one another.”

* * *

While media reports emphasize that Filipovic was a Franciscan priest, what they sometimes fail to mention is that as a result of the February 1942 killings he was dismissed from the order and the priesthood. By the time he later became the commander of the Jasenovac death camp, he had been expelled from all offices within the Catholic Church.

I called Fr. Antonio Franjic, an American of Croatian ancestry who is vicar general of the Franciscans, who faxed me the relevant documents in the Filipovic case.

On May 12, 1942, the minister provincial of the Bosnian Franciscans reported to Franciscan headquarters in Rome that Filipovic had been expelled from the order. Fr. Angelus Kaic writes that on Feb. 6, Filipovic went to Banja Luka against his superior’s direct order and joined an Ustashe action in the villages of Drakulic, Motive and Sargovac that surrounded the Petricevac convent. Kaic’s letter (penned in Latin) says that 1,600 Serbs died in the attacks; later Serb sources peg the number at 2,700, including 500 children.

“With his presence, Fr. Filopovic, even if it is uncertain whether he killed someone or not, has caused a serious scandal … and has provoked a great damage to our province, above all because the members of this province, in the midst of the events that are happening, have behaved in the most upright way possible,” Kaic wrote.

On June 30, 1942, Fr. Policarpo Schmoll, procurator general of the Franciscans, wrote to the Vatican asking that Filopovic’s expulsion be confirmed. Schmoll’s letter added some details. The number of Ustashe involved was 80, Schmoll reported, and Filipovic “is retained by all in that region as the author of the slaughter.” Schmoll said the investigation had been delayed by distance and winter weather, but now the Franciscan minister of Croatia as well as Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac of Zagreb had examined the materials and agreed that Filipovic must go.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Religious confirmed the expulsion on July 10, 1942, just 11 days after receiving the formal request.

In a sworn statement dated April 1, 1942, Filipovic says he went to Petricevac on Feb. 6, where a group of parishioners arrived with rumors that Serb farmers were planning to attack the convent. Hence, he said, he joined a group of Ustashe that rounded up Serbs for interrogations. He denied killing anyone, or instigating slaughter. He said the killing was the result of indignation over executions of Ustashe in Croatia. He said that as a military chaplain, “I had the duty to follow in battle the unit of fighters entrusted to me.”

* * *

Before the Banja Luka trip, much was made of the fact that there would be no meeting between John Paul and Patriarch Pavle, 87, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church. That sort of history-changing handshake is usually the culmination of a long process of smaller steps. There are signs of warming relations, including:

1.       In February 2002, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, formerly of Milan, visited Belgrade and was received by Patriarch Pavle.

2.       Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christianity Unity, made a May 10-15, 2002, trip to Belgrade, meeting Pavle May 11.

3.       A group of print journalists from Belgrade spent June 26-July 1, 2002, in Rome at the invitation of the Vatican, reporting on the workings of the Roman Curia.

4.       A delegation from the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Serbian Orthodox Church, visited the Vatican in February 2003. The weeklong trip included a Feb. 6 audience with John Paul.

5.       Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s top diplomat, visited Belgrade Feb. 17-21, 2003. He met with Patriarch Pavle, who also came to the papal embassy for an informal dinner.

6.       In April 2003, the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church met for the first time with the Catholic Bishops Conference of Serbia and Montenegro in Belgrade.

7.       In early June, 2003, Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University, visited the Faculty of Theology of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Belgrade. Academic and theological cooperation was established between the institutions.

I ran into Fisichella on June 24 at a ceremony in the Vatican’s Synod Hall, and asked him about his trip to Serbia. He said it went well, and that he believes a meeting between John Paul and Pavle could come next year.

Finally, why is the pope, who heads a church with a billion members, interested in courting Pavle, whose flock is 6.5 million? Aside from John Paul’s interest in ecumenism, there is a Realpolitik logic: the Serbian Orthodox are one of the closest sister churches in the Orthodox world to the Russians, and if the ice breaks in Belgrade, Moscow may not be far behind.

* * *

On June 24, Pope John Paul blessed a new bust of Paul VI in the Vatican audience hall that bears Paul’s name. Sculptor Floriano Bodini executed the statue in marble.  The occasion was the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul’s election.

The event was interesting on its own terms, but it was also useful because it allowed journalists to mingle with curial personnel. I bumped into a senior Vatican official who works on issues of canon law, and I asked him about the deal in Phoenix between Bishop Thomas O’Brien, now resigned, and Maricopa County, in which O’Brien renounced certain powers over sex abuse cases in order to avoid criminal prosecution. There is debate, I observed, as to whether this agreement will be binding on O’Brien’s successor.

“Absolutely not,” this Vatican official said. “It’s a basic principle of law that when one of the parties to an agreement is gone, the agreement is dead.”

But, I said, some canonists fear the civil authorities may not see it that way, since there were three parties to this agreement — O’Brien, the county, and the diocese of Phoenix.

“Anyone can have fears,” the Vatican official said, “but the law is the law.”

* * *

On July 6, Caritas International, a confederation of 154 Catholic charitable agencies whose headquarters is in the Vatican, will open its General Assembly at Rome’s Urban University. The event happens every four years, and is an occasion for drafting a general work plan. On July 7, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras will deliver the keynote address.

Duncan MacLaren, a Scotsman who serves as secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, gave me a sneak peek at his general report. It’s an impressive account of efforts to respond to a wounded world, whether the crisis is HIV/AIDS or Iraq.

One of the most striking aspects is the way Caritas turns its focus on justice inwards. Concerned that women are under-represented at decision-making levels, the general assembly is expected to revise the organization’s statutes to call for equal representation of women, where possible, on the executive committee.  It will be, in effect, a constitutional commitment to equality.

“Caritas must continue to rid itself of the scandal of the near-invisibility of women in its decision-making structures and allow lay people to take responsibility as the community of the baptized,” MacLaren wrote.

* * *

As I reported last week, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christianity Unity, preached at the Ponte Sant’Angelo Methodist Church in Rome June 22, in conjunction with the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley.

Kasper’s positive assessment of Wesley’s life and legacy is analogous to the reevaluation of Martin Luther that Cardinal Jan Willebrands articulated at the Lutheran World Federation’s Fifth Assembly.

“Who ... would still deny that Martin Luther was a deeply religious person who with honesty and dedication sought for the message of the Gospel? … Indeed, is it not true that the Second Vatican Council has even implemented requests that were first expressed by Martin Luther, among others, and as a result of which many aspects of Christian faith and life now find better expression than they did before?” Willebrands asked then.

In his June 22 remarks, Kasper notes that Wesley had mixed attitudes towards the Catholic Church, but that Catholics today see Wesley through the lens of 40 years of ecumenical experience.

“A recent study of John Wesley notes that he left a lasting imprint on Methodism in much the same way as Ignatius of Loyola did on future Jesuits,” Kasper said. “In like manner … we can look to see and find in him the evangelical zeal, the pursuit of holiness, the concern for the poor, the virtues and goodness which we have come to know and respect in you.”

Kasper, in an addition to his prepared text, stressed the personal importance of the event to the pope.

“It is also my pleasure and privilege this morning to bring you greetings and the blessing of Pope John Paul II,” he said.  “As you know, the longing to recover full communion among all Christians is a desire he carries deeply in his heart.”

* * *

Aid to the Church in Need, a charitable agency that delivers help to persecuted and suffering Christians, presented its annual report on religious freedom June 26. The highlight was an update on China, presented by Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, a veteran China-watcher and director of Asia News magazine.

Cervellera reported on three recent documents published by the Chinese government, which assert sweeping new controls over the life of the Catholic Church, including matters of doctrine. They risk schism with Rome, which has been the object of Chinese policy since 1957 –an indigenous Catholic Church with no connection to the Vatican.

The Chinese Catholic Church is divided between an official church approved by the government, and a subterranean church loyal to Rome. Together the two have some 130 bishops, Cervellera said, and of that number, more than 100 are over 80 years old. Hence the government is trying to put itself in a position to dictate the selection of the new generation of bishops.

This pressure, Cervellera said, is a manifestation of the government’s failure to bring the Catholic Church to heel. By now, Cevellera said, some 80 percent of the bishops in the official church are secretly in communion with the pope.

The annual report quotes from studies that peg the number of Protestants in government-sanctioned churches at 15 million, and Catholics in the official church at 10 million. The number of Christians in underground churches could be double that number and is growing rapidly. This explains why the government feels threatened, the report says, since there are now more Chinese Christians than Chinese Communists (formal inscriptions in the party are 50 million).

* * *

How many e-mails did Pope John Paul receive for his May 18th birthday? Between 22,000 and 23,000, according to Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, who oversees the Vatican Web site. He was speaking at a June 24 press conference on the launch of a new site for the Vatican museums.

Celli said the e-mails created a logistical challenge — not responding to them, which is the Secretariat of State’s problem — but printing them out.

Printing? But isn’t the point of e-mail to avoid paper?

Maybe, but in the world of the Vatican, that’s not how things work. All those e-mails had to be printed and placed in boxes to be shipped up to the Secretariat of State, where they could be distributed among the language desks for consideration and, eventually, a response.

Despite the headache of putting enough paper in printers to spew out 23,000 e-mails, Celli said looking over the correspondence was a “special experience.”

“There was a human warmth, a spontaneity, that leaves you amazed,” he said.

* * *

Sr. Jeannine Gramick whose pastoral ministry to homosexuals in partnership with Fr. Robert Nugent was the object of a 1999 Vatican censure, was in Rome this week.

The purpose was to publicize the Italian edition of her book (co-written with Nugent), Building Bridges: Gay & Lesbian Reality & the Catholic Church (Twenty-Third Publications/Bayard). The Italian title is Anime Gay: Gli omosessuali e la chiesa cattolica, published by Editori Riuniti.

I hoped to have a quiet chat, but a documentary crew was following Gramick, and they wanted me to ask some tough questions to add spice to their film. Hence we spent an hour and a half on a hot Roman afternoon walking up and down the streets of Prati, trying to look natural while a camera trailed us.

I asked Gramick about the split in the Anglican Communion over the ordination of a gay bishop, and if she worried about pushing the Catholic church, at least in the United States, towards a similar rupture. She replied that unity based on injustice is false.

I then asked if Gramick had read Philip Jenkins’ book The Next Christendom, in which he argues that the demographic shift in Christianity towards Africa, Latin America and Asia will push the church in a conservative direction. What if the global church is not prepared to adopt Gramick’s view of homosexuality?

Gramick said this is a dilemma for her — do you want democracy in the church if you lose the vote? But deep down, she doesn’t believe this is how things will shake out. She is convinced that her positive stance towards gays and lesbians will carry the day.

I pressed Gramick on her rejection of a silencing from her former religious community. Other reformers – Cardinal Yves Congar, Jesuit Fr. John Courtney Murray, Dominican Fr. Marie-Dominique Chenu – faced orders they believed were unjust, but submitted out of loyalty to the church. Gramick said they had a different concept of authority, and she does not believe in blind obedience.

One can disagree with Gramick’s theology or her tactics, but one cannot help but admire her tenacity. I’ll look forward to seeing the documentary.

* * *

One of the many blessings of “The Word from Rome” is that it has a well informed, attentive readership. Two responses from last week illustrate the point.

Fr. David Fleming, superior of the Marianist order in Rome, wrote in response to comments from Ernesto Galli della Loggia on the Christian identity of Europe. Galli della Loggia, a noted political commentator, had asked if the church could demand that Europe call itself Christian if Christianity is not willing to call itself European.

“No doubt Christianity has deeply influenced Europe for 2,000 years (along with a strong influence from Islam), and no doubt the Christian churches have taken on a predominantly European culture,” Fleming writes. “But I would argue, echoing Karl Rahner and many others, that one of the major challenges for the future is to move from being a Eurocentric church to a world church.  I see this happening in the most vital movements in church life today, which (I would argue) are not in Europe. Christopher Dawson said 80 years ago that ‘the church is Europe and Europe is the church,’ but this way of thinking is a thing of the past, not the future.”

Richard Gaillardetz, a professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Toledo and an acute theological observer, picked up on my description of the Vatican’s concern with the authority of the bishop in the American sex abuse crisis.

“It is certainly true that Catholicism teaches that the authority and power of the episcopate comes from their having succeeded to the role of the college of apostles whose own authority came from Christ,” Gaillardetz writes. “It is equally ‘a core Roman Catholic theological concept’ that all Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit in Christian initiation.”

“This is, in large measure, what I believe is at stake here in the U.S.  … Though the theological articulation of it is often imprecise, there is an intuitive assertion of the baptismal empowerment of all believers. This undergirds Voice of the Faithful, and it was at the heart of the ‘oversight’ given to the National Review Board. This oversight cannot be confused with the ministry of sacramental episkope, but it is an expression of the rights and responsibilities of the whole faithful for the welfare of the church.”

* * *

Two events worth tracking this weekend. On Saturday, June 28, the concluding document from the 1999 European Synod will be released. John Paul II will formally sign Ecclesia in Europa in a Vatican ceremony. On Sunday, June 29, the pope will confer the pallium upon new metropolitan archbishops appointed in the last year. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee will be the only American to receive this traditional symbol of the archbishop’s office.

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

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