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July 7, 2006
Vol. 5, No. 43

John L. Allen Jr.


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Pope's Spain trip promises drama; Expert background; The Holy Chalice of Valencia; A summit on religion in Moscow; Short takes: Missionary attacked and Jesuits on liturgy


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Editor's Note: Saturday and Sunday, July 8-9, John Allen will be covering Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Spain and will file reports Sunday and Monday, which will appear on

Beginning today, my weekly column has been rechristened as "All Things Catholic." In many ways the change is long overdue, since regular readers know that its focus has gradually broadened from a strict concern with Vaticanology to the broader global Catholic scene, often reflecting wherever I am in a given week. The new title allows me to bring into view everything that seems relevant to understanding where the Catholic church is today, and where it's headed tomorrow. It also reflects the fact that part of the time I'll be based in New York rather than Rome. Rest assured, however, that the Vatican and the Roman scene will remain a core component of my coverage, as this week's column illustrates.

Today's installment marks the 238th column I've written in this format, representing four and a half years of work. The transition gives me the chance to thank everyone for their support, to apologize for unanswered e-mails, and to invite you to read "All Things Catholic" with the same passion as "The Word from Rome," to continue to challenge my blind spots and oversights, to expose potential bias, and to push the conversation forward in unanticipated directions. Your automatic e-mail alerts will continue to arrive each Friday as always.

Buona lettura!

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Tomorrow Benedict XVI travels to Valencia, Spain, for one of the briefest papal trips of recent memory -- just 26 hours from his arrival at 11:30 am Saturday to wheels-up again at 1:30 pm Sunday.

Those 26 hours, however, promise to be packed with drama.

The highlight, at least in terms of press interest, is likely to come at 6:30 p.m. Saturday local time, when Pope Benedict meets José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Socialist Prime Minister and bête noire of European Catholicism. Since taking office in 2004, Zapatero's government has either adopted or discussed legislation in favor of:

  • Same-sex marriage legislation;
  • Fast-track divorces;
  • Curbing religious education in state schools;
  • Supporting embryonic stem-cell research;
  • Easing abortion laws;
  • Reducing or eliminating public funding for the church.

The latest such move came just a month ago, when the government proposed allowing transsexuals to legally change their gender without undergoing surgery.

To add insult to injury, the government has chosen moments to move on this agenda seemingly designed to maximize Catholic irritation. The law on same-sex marriage, for example, was adopted two days before the inaugural Mass of Benedict XVI, an act that even the country's ambassador to the Holy See described as "sticking a finger in the church's eye."

In a country where 94 percent of the population is officially Catholic, that sort of thing gets noticed.

This time around, just days before Benedict's visit for the close of a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, Zapatero's government funded a rival event organized by the Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals, also in Valencia. In a press statement, the organizer said it shows "the church has to accept that it doesn't have a monopoly on family."

Cumulatively, the impact of all this has been to make Spain the front line in the battle against what Benedict XVI has called the "dictatorship of relativism." The stakes are doubly high, from the Vatican's point of view, because not only is Spain a traditional Catholic stronghold in Europe, but it exercises a strong gravitational pull on Latin America, home to almost one-half of the 1.1 billion Catholics in the world.

It was not supposed to be like this.

When Zapatero was elected just three days after the March 11, 2004, terrorist attacks in Madrid, he attracted support even from practicing Catholics. Many thought his government would be akin to former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales -- cautious on social questions, albeit officially committed to progressive positions, and respectful of the church. Prior to the election, almost no one predicted a serious church/state clash. Zapatero campaigned in favor of dialogue, and he was actually closer to the church on what was the election's deciding issue, the war in Iraq.

Once in office, however, Zapatero let loose the dogs of cultural war.

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The result has been what many observers see as the most serious crisis to confront the Spanish church since the civil war in the 1930s. Media commentators will be anticipating something akin to the Ali-Frazier prizefight when Zapatero and Benedict meet, the first encounter between the two men.

Even the setting beckons images of holy war. In the minds of many Spaniards, Valencia is linked to the reconquista, the retaking of Spain from the Muslims. The Valencia cathedral was once a mosque, converted when the Moors were pushed out, and dedicated to the Virgin Mary by El Cid himself.

In fact, expectations of a rhetorical clash between the pope and prime minister are almost certain to be disappointed. Zapatero narrowly won election in 2004, and has every incentive to appear respectful of the pope. Benedict, for his part, is a gracious figure who likes to accent the spiritual and pastoral dimension of his travels, not the political.

Yet beyond such niceties, the reality is that Zapatero and Benedict XVI incarnate radically different cultural options -- one the avatar of "tolerance," the other of "truth." The European outcome of Benedict's struggle against relativism, at least in the short term, may well turn on whether Spaniards are more persuaded by his or by Zapatero's, vision.

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The trip to Valencia comes just days after a tragic accident in which 41 people died when an underground train crashed in the eastern part of the city. The pope sent a telegram of condolence, and the Spanish press has reported that Benedict will stop at the "Jesus" station where the accident occurred in order to pray for the victims and their families.

Archbishop Santiago Garcia Aracil of Merida-Badajoz said that the tragedy has "dressed a city that was prepared for celebration in mourning instead."

The families of those who died have been invited to join the pope at the cathedral at 1:00 pm.

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For context on the Spanish situation, I turned to Dr. Mary Vincent, an expert on Spanish history at the University of Sheffield in England. She's the author of the Cultural Atlas of Spain and Portugal (Checkmark Books).

Are the clashes between Zapatero and the church the continuation of tensions that go back to the Civil War?
They're in continuity with conflicts surrounding the emergence of democracy in Spain in the 1970s. Especially under Cardinal Manuel Joaquín Tarancón y Morón, the church was hugely important in creating a new model of Spanish society. Lay Catholics had been active leading up to the transition, inspired by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The days of the confessional state were over, and that was accepted by Spanish Catholics.

For the left and for many secular commentators, this meant the church would exercise strict political neutrality, and concentrate on saving souls. For Catholics, their understanding was that the church would always have a public role, but the country was no longer a confessional state, and Spanish law would not necessarily be formed by Catholic morals. These are complicated issues, and what it means has never been spelled out.

I would be hesitant to trace the conflict back before that, to the Civil War or the Second Republic (1931-39), because the church changed so fundamentally in the 1960s and 1970s. They realized that the confessional state under Franco did not accomplish what it was supposed to accomplish. It didn't manage to get people back to church, it didn't evangelize the working classes and other disaffected groups that had been lost in the early 20th century. All that became apparent, and it triggered an extraordinary examination of conscience within the Spanish church.

It's probably true that Zapatero, and certainly the people around Zapatero, see these issues as the completion of a truly secular state. The difference, however, is that the old protagonist, a church seeking protection and privilege like it had under Franco, just isn't there anymore. There's a kind of grandeur to seeing all this as completing the Republican project, but changes within the church make such talk a bit hollow.

Given that history, what real influence does the church have?
The church has moral authority when it appears to be speaking in a non-partisan way. If the church is seen as taking a political position, on the other hand, it is easily compromised because of the historical association with the Franco regime.

For example?
When the church speaks on human rights, it is taken seriously. The church has made effective moral pronouncements on the welfare of ethnic minorities, on inter-faith relations, on the treatment of prisoners, and on the situation of the Catalan and Basque communities. When it speaks on questions of human dignity and the worth of the human person, it carries weight.

On the other hand, the debate over teaching religion in public schools is an example where church pronouncements do not meet with the same reception. Many Spaniards see it as an attempt to retain a privileged position within society.

What about the family?
The family still has a very robust role in Spanish culture. Spain has one of the lowest divorce rates in Europe, and it has the largest average household size of any European Union nation. [This despite historically low birth rates]. The family is regarded as a very important unit culturally, socially, and morally. It's not that Spaniards want divorce to be illegal. It's accepted, but the great majority of Spaniards have a stable experience of family life that is culturally valued. Hence the church's position that there's something wrong with divorce strikes a chord. Abortion is a more divisive issue. In general, I think Spaniards broadly see religion as a matter of private conscience, and there is great tolerance of individual moral difficulties.

Have you been surprised by how far and how fast Zapatero has moved on the culture wars?
I was, and I still am. In part, it may just be a question of the political moment. He was not expected to be elected, and it happened under extraordinary circumstances. There was a political need to make a quick difference, to revive socialism in Spain, which had been dormant after a decade in the wilderness. The Partido Popular has become much more a real political force, with a support base and a clear political agenda, something like the old Christian Democrats in Europe. Under Gonzales, there really wasn't an effective opposition. Zapatero needed to distinguish the left from the right quickly.

But there are other ways of doing that.
Part of it may also be personal. Zapatero's grandfather was shot by Franco's forces at the end of the civil war, and Zapatero has pushed the issue of the memory of the civil war and the Franco regime. For example, the last remaining statue of Franco in Madrid was pulled down, and the government has supported efforts to identify the bodies of victims of the early Franco regime who were executed and placed in unmarked graves. All this has surprised many people, who thought these issues had been laid to rest.

There may also be a question of generational change. Gonzales grew up under Franco, and although he was not personally Catholic, he was heavily involved in the Catholic opposition in Seville because it was the only opposition that existed. Thus he knew the Catholic church well. Zapatero doesn't have the same experience. Democracy is functioning well in Spain, and perhaps his generation believes the time has come to make these changes.

As a historian, how do you see the significance of the meeting between Benedict and Zapatero?
The symbolism is that while there are differences between church and state, they can be worked out, that dialogue is always possible. This is the whole democratic discourse in Spain since the 1970s. You have an antagonist, but you don't have an enemy.

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For an additional set of eyes, I turned to Robert Duncan, an American who has lived in Spain for the last17 years. He is the vice-president of the Ibero-American press association, Organización de Periodismo y Comunicación Ibero-Americana, and was for years an ombudsman for the foreign press in Spain, including a stretch with The Wall Street Journal. He also directs the much-trafficked "Spero News" Web site at

When Zapatero took power in 2004, clashes with the church were immediate. In the two years since, have things calmed down?
It depends upon what newspaper you read. My general impression is that the division is still there, but it's not getting the front-page press that it was. …

There have been articles in papers closer to the government that claim relations between the government and the church are improving. Interestingly, stories of this nature seem to be more frequent as the pope's visit draws closer. If you read some of the other press you see that the old divisions are still there, and of late are centered around religious education. http://johnallen.ncrcafe.orgJoin the Conversation
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Has Zapatero paid any political price for positions that run afoul of the church?
If you believe the rumor-mill in journalist circles, there are many Socialists who are shaking their head at some of Zapatero's policies, and he's alienating some of the more center-left party members -- many of whom are practicing Catholics. …

That said, the opposition party, Partido Popular, still would probably lose a general election despite recent polls showing the Socialist lead has been cut. That's because Spain historically is more center-left than right when it comes to politics.

How are the new policies working?
… Take gay marriage. The Socialists claimed this was the equivalent of a basic human right, and that there was a huge demand for it. The fact is, according to the government's own figures, after a year there have only been around 1,275 gay marriages in Spain, or 0.6 percent of all the marriages held in the same period.

As a side-note, Spain is in the process of celebrating its first gay divorce. The couple is citing irreconcilable differences, and it's reported they are battling over the custody of their dogs.

What needs to happen for the pope's visit to be judged a "success"?
I think it would be a major success if somehow the Spanish government follows through on its promises to really help families. It would be nice to see the government push through laws that cut back on housing speculation, making the purchase of a home affordable, offering decent tax breaks for families and day-care alternatives, as well as backing down from its religious education plans.

Those are things that I think even this Socialist government could support, and that wouldn't be all that controversial.

Of course there are other more spiritual things that I'd love to add, such as a grass-roots movement on the part of Catholics to learn more about their faith, and to discover the value of family as the domestic church. That's where real change would happen.

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One intriguing sidebar to the Spain trip is that the Cathedral of Valencia, which Benedict XVI will visit Saturday, houses what is traditionally believed to be the Holy Grail itself, i.e., the cup used by Christ to celebrate the Last Supper.

Believers regard it as a relic equal in importance to the Shroud of Turin, the reputed burial cloth of Christ.

In its current form, the storied "Holy Chalice of Valencia" consists of two parts.

The upper cup, regarded as the original cup of Christ, is made of red agate stone, semi-spherical in shape, sometimes described as the size of half an orange. According to the tradition, the cup was sent to Spain by St. Lawrence, himself a Spaniard, during anti-Christian persecutions under Emperor Valerian in 258 AD.

One scholar has dated the cup to between the second century B.C .and the first century A.D., and says it originated in a workshop of Egypt, Syria or Palestine -- as close as one is likely to come to scientific confirmation of the tradition, though obviously not definitive.

The base, formed by an oval inverted cup, is adorned with gold along the lower edge, and has a stem containing 27 pearls, rubies, and emeralds. It's considered a medieval addition.

Pope John Paul II was a devotee of the Holy Chalice. During his Nov. 8, 1982, visit to Valencia, he kissed the chalice and called it "a witness to Christ's passage on earth." Later, he celebrated Mass with it, believed to be the first time a pope had done so since Sixtus II more than 1,700 years earlier.

Papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls told me on Monday that plans do not call for Benedict XVI to use the Holy Chalice for Mass, but "it's always possible." The pope will visit the cathedral Saturday, where the chalice is revered in the "Chapel of the Holy Grail," just to the right of the main entrance.

The story of the cup's vicissitudes is told in Janice Bennett's 2002 book St. Laurence and the Holy Grail: The Story of the Holy Chalice of Valencia (Ignatius Press).

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The Vatican announced this week that after his return from Spain, the pope will head for Valle d'Aosta in northern Italy for 18 days of vacation, from July 11 to 28. His regular Wednesday general audiences will be cancelled.

In light of what I wrote last week about "Salesian chic," it's worth pointing out that the two-story, wood and stone chalet where Benedict will reside was built in the 1990s by the Salesians to host John Paul II. Last year, the Salesians installed a piano in deference to Benedict's passion for the keyboard.

On July 28, Benedict will go to his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, resuming his General Audiences on Aug. 2. While he's out of Rome, all private and special audiences remain suspended.

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This week, a World Summit of Religious Leaders took place in Moscow under the sponsorship of Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The summit, designed as a lead-in to the July 15 meeting of G-8 nations in St. Petersburg, drew over 200 religious leaders from 49 countries, including Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and other communities.

The aim was to arrive at a common set of values in light of pressing global concerns. In their final statement, participants called for an end to terrorism, an ethical underpinning for modern notions of democracy and human rights, and respect for human life from natural beginning to natural end.

The Vatican was represented by a high-level delegation that reads like an "all-star team" of Catholic ecumenical and inter-religious engagement: Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; Cardinal Paul Poupard, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture as well as the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue; Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, former President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Brussels; Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, emeritus archbishop of Washington; Archbishop Diarmiud Martin of Dublin; and Bishop Vincent Paglia of Terni, Italy. Most are longtime stalwarts of the Community of Sant'Egidio's ecumenical and inter-faith efforts.

The delegation represents the largest number of cardinals ever to visit Russia at once, and was taken as a sign of an ecumenical "thaw" in relations between Russian Orthodoxy and the Catholic church.

Ironically, this "summit of religious leaders" was missing the two most iconic religious figures of our time: the Dali Lama and the pope.

The Dali Lama was not on the guest list for political reasons. Putin's government wants close ties with China, and the Chinese would have objected had Putin given the living symbol of Tibetan nationalism a platform.

As to the absence of Benedict XVI, Orthodox officials offered a positive gloss.

"The visit of the pope of Rome is a historical event, and it would be methodologically wrong to put it on a par with other historical events, including the summit," said Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad.

Another noticeable absence was Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of the Mother of God archdiocese in Moscow (so named so as not to offend Orthodox sensibilities, who insist there can be only one archbishop of Moscow, Alexy II). Orthodox frostiness to Kondrusiewicz is well-known, in part because of his insistence upon "reciprocity" in the Catholic/Orthodox relationship. Bishop Joseph Werth, of the diocese of Trasfiguration in Novosibirsk, took part as president of the Russian bishops' conference.

Local sources say the choice not to include Kondrusiewicz was made by the Vatican.

Frustrated with what they see as a pattern of placating the Orthodox, local Catholic critics charged that the summit was largely a public relations exercise by Alexy designed to put a "human face" on the Putin government, in exchange for preferential treatment for the Orthodox. Critics said it resembled international "meetings for peace" organized by the Soviets in the 1960s and 1970s. They observe that tough cases such as the Chechen war, or Russian policies on religious liberty, were not on the agenda.

Vatican sources argued that whatever its shortcomings, the summit represented an opportunity both to improve Catholic/Orthodox ties, as well as to bring the various religions closer to a compact witness against religiously motivated violence.

In an interview with the Italian Catholic daily L'Avvenire, Kasper downplayed the prospect of a papal trip to Russia.

"At the moment, the trip of the pope to Russia is certainly not the principal object of our conversations," he said. "We have many other things to discuss, many common initiatives we're considering, beginning with the defense of the Christian roots of Europe."

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On the subject of Catholic/Orthodox relations, there's an important Vatican personnel move to report. The officer in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity responsible for Catholic/Orthodox dialogue, Polish Jesuit Fr. Józef Maj, was replaced in early May by a Slovenian Jesuit, Fr. Milan Žust.

Žust is a deep admirer of Eastern traditions, and observers say his appointment may boost relations with the Russian Orthodox since, as a Slovenian, he does not trigger the same historical resentments as a Pole.

Russian sources told NCR that the Orthodox leadership in Moscow backed Žust's appointment.

Žust was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1967. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), a Russian Orthodox theologian, philosopher, mathematician and engineer, sometimes compared by his followers to Leonardo Da Vinci.

Prior to his Vatican appointment, Žust taught at the Gregorian University. He has also served as superior of the Jesuit community at the Centro Aletti in Rome, where he guided visitors through the pope's "Redemptoris Mater" Chapel, the work of Jesuit Fr. Marko Rupnik, also of the center.

From Sept. 1 to Sept. 22, 2005, Žust served as a visiting professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

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Another Catholic missionary has been attacked in Turkey. Fr. Pierre Brunissen, a Frenchman, was stabbed outside the Church of Our Lady of Sorrows in Samsun, on the Black Sea coast.

Brunissen survived, with a gash in his thigh about 10 centimeters long.

The incident comes on the heels of the murder of Italian missionary Fr. Andrea Santoro on Feb. 5 in Trabzon.

Bishop Luigi Padovese, apostolic vicar for Anatolia, said the attack in Samsun was an "isolated incident," and that Brunissen enjoyed good relations with Islamic authorities. Nevertheless, he said, there is a "strong nationalism that seeks to create an ever wider distance between the European and the Turkish worlds."

According to Padovese, the Turkish press reported that Brunissen attempted to pressure his attacker to convert to Christianity, a charge also made in the Santoro case. Accusations of proselytism, Padovese said, have become standard fare in anti-Christian complaints.

"If this was the case, then how come the Christian community in Samsun is so tiny?" Padovese asked the Asia News agency. "If it was true that Fr. Pierre used to hand out money to make people come to church… Mass would have been packed."

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Jesuit liturgical experts from 21 countries have just concluded a third international meeting on the role that liturgy plays in Jesuit life and mission.

Meeting in Fortaleza in northeast Brazil, the "Jungmann Society," as the group is called after Austrian Jesuit liturgist Josef Jungmann, worked on a document addressing Jesuit liturgical formation for the society's General Congregation in 2008.

The group also addressed globalization, inculturation, and the contribution Jesuits can offer the universal church in the renewal of its worship.

Fortaleza is located in one of the poorest regions of Brazil, and in addition to formal sessions and small-group discussions, participants visited several of the original base Christian communities (comunidades de base), joining them for their liturgy and supper.

Founding President Fr. Keith Pecklers of the Gregorian University completed his term at the Fortaleza meeting and will be succeeded by French Jesuit Br. Pierre Faure, former Editor of ETUDES. The next meeting is set for June 2008 at the Benedictine Monastery of Montserrat near Barcelona, Spain.

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

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