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 The Word From Rome

July 30, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 49

global perspective


"Kenya, for example, spends $.76 per person on the fight against AIDS, but $12.92 on debt repayment. The two are connected. If you're forced to spend that kind of money in repaying your debts, how on earth can you afford the proper medical attention for your people?"

Duncan MacLaren,
secretary general of Caritas, a Vatican-based confederation of Catholic charitable groups

Women religious in a globalized world; Reporting on Opus Dei; Responding to Africa's needs; The Holy See's new health foundation; Padre Pio gets credit for the liberation of three Italian hostages in Iraq


NOTE: On Saturday, July 31, the Vatican will publish a long-awaited meditation on feminism titled "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Collaboration between Men and Women in the Church and in the World." My story on the document will be available on the NCR web site ( Saturday morning.

* * *

Women's religious communities are challenged today to promote healing in a violent world, according to the newly elected head of the main umbrella group for women's orders, and to collaborate with movements inside and outside the Catholic church working for peace and justice.

"As we live in a time of extreme violence, a time when lights, hopes and reconciliation are desperately needed, our challenge is to live a spirituality of reconciliation," said Salvatorian Sr. Therezinha Joana Rasera, a Brazilian and president of the International Union of Superiors General.

Known by its Italian acronym UISG, the body represents more than 780 women's congregations with a total membership of over one million.

"As women, disciples of Jesus Christ, being bearers of hope and reconciliation, [we] believe strongly that this is God's dream for the world," Rasera told NCR July 26. Rasera met with NCR at the Rome headquarters of the Sisters of the Divine Savior, who operate the highly regarded 89-bed Salvator Mundi Clinic.

Rasera was elected to a three-year term as president of UISG on May 19, succeeding English Sacred Heart Sr. Rita Burley. I asked her to describe the challenges facing UISG over the next couple of years.

"It is our common desire and principle of life to love without any exclusion in our search of the truth," she said.

"In a globalized world, which is challenging us to occupy new spaces, our priority is to collaborate with other similar associations for justice, for resolution of conflict, as well as an end to war and all forms of violence and oppression. We wish to announce a new horizon, which promotes dialogue, sensibility and solidarity with the poor, understanding among peoples, cultures, religions and the right relationships between women and men, in church and society," Rasera said.

One example of collaboration, Rasera said, will come Nov. 23-27, 2004, in a Congress for the Consecrated Life jointly hosted by the UISG and its male counterpart, the Union of Superiors General (USG). Some 800 leaders of religious communities from all over the Catholic world will meet in Rome, including 40 invited female theologians and 40 male theologians, as well as 50 younger members of communities.

"In this event we wish to discern, from a global point of view, what the Spirit of God is inspiring us for and where it is leading us, and, consequently, how we should respond to the challenges of our times," Rasera said.

Rasera said the aim of the congress is not to "produce" something, but to reflect together on the new challenges facing religious life and to see where that reflection might lead. More information on the congress can be found at:

* * *

Rasera is something of a Renaissance woman. She graduated in Latin Languages and Literature from the University of Philosophy, Sciences and Literature in Palmas, in the Brazilian province of Paraná. She also has a graduate degree in psychology from the Catholic Pontifical University in Paraná, and was working as a psychologist when in February 2002 she was elected the superior general of her congregation.

Earlier in her career, Rasera worked for 15 years in various stages of initial formation. She was also provincial councilor and then provincial superior for the Sisters of the Divine Savior.

The Salvatorian family is composed of 1,250 sisters, 1,169 fathers and brothers, and 1,200 men and women known as "Lay Salvatorians." The order was founded in the 19th century by Fr. Francis Mary of the Cross Jordan and Therese von Wüllenweber, later known as Mother Mary of the Apostles.

The sisters describe their mission thus: "Women in every era of human history are innately sensitive to nurturing life. We Salvatorian sisters dedicate our womanly energy and talent so that others may have life. We want to make human life meaningful and just for everyone, especially for the voiceless, powerless and poor. We hope to stir faith-life where it is weak, to promote the sacredness of life where it is forgotten."

It's not difficult to spot this spirit in Rasera. When I asked her if there's something special she wants the world to understand about women's religious life, she responded:

"We religious women feel that we are also church. As consecrated women, we contribute to the promotion and defense of life, that all may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). In this moment of history, we think that because of the charismatic strength of our founders, we are called to be a prophetic presence of hope for the good of human life and dignity. Therefore, we are called and invited to effectively work for the elimination of violence and injustice through a wide missionary presence which we have in many parts of the world, especially in extreme situations where life is threatened.

"We are aware," Rasera said, "that creative fidelity is requesting from us a permanent attitude of attention to listen, obey and walk the path along which the Spirit guides us, in order to be 'Good News' for today's world."

* * *

The last couple of weeks I have had occasion to mention Opus Dei, an organization of priests and laity born in Spain in 1928, and the only Catholic group with the status of "personal prelature," meaning that its internal life is subject to its own leadership rather than local bishops. Opus Dei came up in connection to my recent trip to Peru, and again with respect to the current sexual abuse crisis in Austria, where the apostolic investigator is an Opus Dei bishop.

These references have brought varied reactions. Some readers found the coverage uncritical, such as reader Christine Roussel, who called the columns "egregious examples of unquestioning parroting of Opus Dei's whole cloth." Roussel writes:

In July 16th's issue, we were treated to a tour of Peru which focused on two Opus Dei figures. There was the persecuted but smiling Cardinal Cipriani who was given one-half of the Word From Rome to extol his own virtues and expound his view of not one but two plots of other bishops against him, complete with clumsily clerically forged documents, but omitting the fact that this cardinal was a close collaborator of the former violent dictator of Peru, Fujimori. Allen also allowed Cipriani to grandstand his role in a 1997 hostage crisis ("'it was heroic'") and to defame Father Gustavo Guitterrez. The last one-third of the column was on a heroic lay woman and community organizer in a small poor village who just happened to be - Opus Dei.

In the July 23rd Word From Rome we read praise of Pope John Paul II's naming of Bishop Klaus Kung of the Diocese of Feldkirch, a member of Opus Dei, as apostolic visitor of the diocese and seminary of St. Polten and its very conservative bishop, Kurt Krenn. Bishop Kung is praised for his diligence in beginning his investigation immediately and we are told that the choice of an Opus Dei bishop to investigate a conservative bishop means that the report conclusions will not be seen as the product of ideology. Again, Allen is being disingenuous at best and hopelessly naďve at worst. Krenn has very close ties to Opus Dei and the report is likely to have an ideological bias -- that of Opus Dei which has been busy for the past several years trying to destroy the legacy of progressive Austrian Catholicism left by the late, beloved Cardinal Franz Koenig.

Reader Esther Baker, on the other hand, detected an attack on Opus Dei:
Your liberal bias was never more clear than in the disgusting way you tried to hold Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani, and by extension Opus Dei, up to ridicule in your column from Peru. Why didn't you ask the cardinal about any of the good he's done over many years, rather than dwelling on sterile controversies? Instead of insisting that Opus Dei is divisive, why didn't you talk about the way it has changed thousands and thousands of lives for the better? Then you seem shocked that a Peruvian woman connected to Opus Dei might actually be doing something positive with her life … Real Catholics can see through your left-wing agenda.

I'm not suggesting that one letter cancels the other, or that the two together prove that I'm in the center and therefore correct. I offer them rather as evidence of the strong feelings Opus Dei tends to generate.

Perhaps it will help put things in context if I explain that I am writing a book on Opus Dei for Doubleday, the publisher of my last two books Conclave and All the Pope's Men. Part of the impetus for the project comes from the success of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, and the enormous curiosity about Opus Dei it has helped create.

My aim is to produce a book that is journalistically serious, reliable, and balanced. The book will strive to explain Opus Dei's structure and spirituality, and to separate fact from fiction with regard to issues such as recruiting, spiritual practices, secrecy and finances. It will be an outsider's work, since I am not a member of Opus Dei and have no special connection to it. Research for the book is why in recent weeks I've traveled at my own expense in Spain and Peru, as well as the United States, visiting Opus Dei sites and talking to both friends and foes.

I have been to Madrid to meet with Alberto Moncado, for example, an ex-member of Opus Dei and perhaps the leading Spanish-language critic of the organization. I have been to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to meet with the leaders of the "Opus Dei Awareness Network," or ODAN, another critical voice. While I was in Peru, I met with Jesuits who feel Opus Dei has sabotaged their social justice advocacy. I've also met conservative Catholics who criticize Opus Dei on other grounds. All this by way of saying I am not just taking the guided tour, and the book will reflect all points of view.

At the same time, I am not out to write an anti-Opus Dei book either. My hope is to produce a work that can shed light rather than heat on what is a notoriously fractious topic.

In the meantime, Opus Dei will no doubt continue to surface from time to time in the regular weekly reporting in "The Word from Rome." Readers will continue to judge, and rightly so, on a case-by-case basis whether I handle these matters fairly. All I can say is that I am trying to be balanced, and I welcome anyone's feedback to help keep me honest.

* * *

Few international organizations have devoted as much attention to Africa in recent years as the Roman Catholic church. John Paul II has made 13 journeys across Africa, visiting 40 nations up and down the continent. Part of this, to be fair, is interest in a region where Catholicism is growing dramatically. In 1914 there were 7 million Catholics in Africa, while in 2000 the number had soared to120 million. It's projected to arrive at 228 million in 2025, when there will be roughly the same number of Catholics in Africa as in Europe. No wonder church leaders are paying attention.

The church's interest, however, is also born of a humanitarian conviction that Africa must not be allowed to slide off the edge of history. This is a real risk, given the collapse of superpower rivalries in the region as well as the post-9/11 tendency to focus on the Middle East.

In that light, John Paul II has repeatedly raised his voice, pleading that the West take steps to end violence and to bring relief to Africa's economic and social crises. During a 1995 trip to Kenya, for example, John Paul promised Africans that he is with them:

What is happening in your countries is a terrible tragedy to which an end must be put. Remember that you are not alone because the pope is with you. I assure you that I shall continue to do all I can to see that you receive the aid you are in great need of and that you can return to your homes.
In recent days, John Paul dispatched Archbishop Josef Cordes, a German who heads the papal charitable agency Cor Unum, to Sudan. His mission is to focus a spotlight on the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region, located on Sudan's Western border with Chad. Some one million people have been driven into settlements inside Darfur by the government-allied Arab Janjaweed militias, while around 110,000 people have fled to Chad.

Cordes' intervention, it should be noted, is not a matter of Christians coming to the aid of their own. The black Africans under assault in Darfur are, like their Arab attackers, predominantly Muslim.

Cordes said in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, on July 27, that "the war in Sudan has been overlooked and ignored in public opinion for too long." He visited refugee camps and reported that thousands "have been forced to flee and live in conditions unworthy of man."

I spoke to one veteran Africa-watcher in Rome this week, who said that when future histories of Africa are written, no one will be able to lodge a "Hitler's Pope"- style accusation of silence against John Paul II. If there is a critical question to be asked, in fact, she said it is what impact his numerous interventions have had. John Paul began urging justice for Africa 25 years ago, and it's difficult to see that things have improved in the meantime. Perhaps the hard question looming, she suggested, is if there are steps aside from statements or ad hoc ambassadors that might motivate Western interests to actually do something.

She made this point without prejudice to the frequently voiced insight that the development of Africa is a project for the Africans themselves. At the same time, no amount of pull-oneself-up-by-the-bootstraps gumption will offset systemic injustices shaped in the developed world, such as trade practices that disadvantage African produce in order to subsidize European farmers. Hence the $64,000 question: Can the Catholic church do something to shake things up?

Would it be possible, she asked, to raise the same critical questions that American Catholics are currently debating about communion and Catholic politicians, but with respect to Catholic businessmen whose firms engage in ethically suspect practices in Africa? (Mining in war zones, for example, or refusing to make AIDS medications available at reasonable costs?) Could one imagine the pope relocating to Africa for six months, inviting the world's media and political leaders to join him for a rolling seminar on the continent's future? These are the merest wisps of ideas, intended only as examples of what "thinking outside the box" might look like.

No one doubts, in other words, that the pope's heart is in the right place. The issue, to borrow an American expression, is whether there's something else he could do to make his words count.

* * *

The Holy See intends to launch its own health care foundation called Good Samaritan, which will aim to ensure that worthy projects in developing countries don't miss available resources because they don't know how to navigate application and oversight procedures. Another aim will be to guarantee that funds actually reach suffering people, rather than being siphoned off by corruption.

Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, a Mexican who heads the Pontifical Council for the Health Pastoral Care, announced the initiative during a July 27 video conference sponsored by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, which featured Ambassador Randall Tobias, the Global AIDS Coordinator in the U.S. State Department.

The Good Samaritan Foundation is designed to coordinate applications from Catholic organizations to both the United Nations Global Fund for AIDS and the Bush administration's $15 billion AIDS plan, ensuring a coordinated approach. One advantage of the foundation, according to a Vatican official, would be to avoid situations where smaller Catholic groups in developing countries are forced to work through local bureaucrats, multiplying possibilities for corruption.

The number of Catholic groups involved in HIV/AIDS work is considerable, Lozano Barragán said, given that 26.7 percent of the centers in the world that care for HIV/AIDS patients are sponsored by the Catholic church.

The Good Samaritan Foundation would be housed in the Council for the Health Pastoral Care, which will need to hire experts to staff the operation. The plan is currently awaiting approval from the Secretariat of State.

During the July 27 videoconference, some Vatican participants pressed Tobias to see the fight against HIV/AIDS in the broader context of poverty.

"The fight against HIV/AIDS cannot be separated from the fight against poverty as such within the developing world," said Duncan MacLaren, secretary general of Caritas, a Vatican-based confederation of Catholic charitable groups.

"Kenya, for example, spends $.76 per person on the fight against AIDS, but $12.92 on debt repayment. The two are connected. If you're forced to spend that kind of money in repaying your debts, how on earth can you afford the proper medical attention for your people?" MacLaren asked.

Tobias said the U.S. government gets the point.

"It doesn't do any good to put somebody on anti-retroviral treatment if they are in fact starving to death," he said. At the same time, he said, Bush's anti-AIDS push "is not designed to be all things to all people."

* * *

A brief update on the apostolic investigation currently underway in the diocese of Sankt Pölten in Austria, focusing on the discovery of some 40,000 images of child pornography on a seminarian's computer, along with other photos showing priests and seminarians engaged in what appeared to be homosexual activity.

The bishop at the center of the controversy, Kurt Krenn, remains defiant. This week he told the Austrian newspaper Neues Volksblatt, "It is portrayed as if we have a giant saga to come to grips with, and that's not the case. What has been found is a student who had done something." Asked if he would still be bishop of Sankt Pölten a year from now, Krenn was non-committal. "I cannot say," he answered. "In the meantime I could be called up [to Heaven], or called down."

The bishop appointed by the Vatican to conduct the apostolic investigation, Klaus Küng of Feldkirch, was in Rome this week for consultation with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. While the content of their conversation is not known, the meeting itself suggests the high level of interest in the Holy See in the Krenn saga.

In his Neues Volksblatt interview, Krenn called Küng "a great man" who will find the truth.

While many Austrian Catholics regard Krenn's resignation as the lone exit strategy, sources in Rome say the handwriting is not yet on the wall. One option under consideration, sources say, is the appointment of a coadjutor bishop, who would have authority in certain specified areas such as seminary formation. Krenn, these sources say, is notorious for accepting seminarians that other dioceses have rejected, and a coadjutor would presumably exercise greater discretion.

* * *

Padre Pio, the Capuchin mystic and miracle-worker canonized in 2002, is still top of the charts in Italian popular devotion. One rather striking new case in point is the credit Padre Pio is receiving for the liberation of three Italian hostages in Iraq.

In April, as is well known, four Italians working as security guards for a U.S.-based company were taken hostage. One, 36-year-old Fabrizio Quattrocchi, became a national hero when he was shown on videotape shortly before being executed, shouting, "Now I'll show you how an Italian dies." His remains were later recovered and returned to Italy.

The other three hostages -- Umberto Cupertino, Maurizio Agliana, and Salvatore Stefio -- were freed by U.S. Special Forces on June 8.

On June 23, all three men, accompanied by their families, made a pilgrimage to San Giovanni Rotondo, the chief national shrine to Padre Pio, in order to give thanks to the Capuchin saint, who was famed for such marks of holiness as the stigmata, the "odor of sanctity," and bi-location. The three told reporters they had prayed to Padre Pio during their captivity and promised to make this pilgrimage if they survived.

"I'm very devoted to Padre Pio and I prayed often during our imprisonment," Cupertino said. "They too," pointing to Agliana and Stefio, "were united with me in prayer because they know Padre Pio."

In another twist, Cupertino's 10-year-old cousin Carmelina, after going with her parents to San Giovanni Rotondo on May 31, apparently returned home and wrote "freed" on a calendar hanging above the family telephone on the date of June 8 - exactly the day the Italians were liberated. She says the date came to her in a dream.

On top of all this comes a new report from the rather ponderously named "Atheists' Association for the Lay Identity of the State," which studied a major Roman cemetery in 2002 and found that images of Padre Pio trumped those of the Virgin Mary by more than 2-to-1.

In Italy, in other words, the pope may be the successor of the prince of the apostles, but Padre Pio is king.

* * *

Robert Royal is one of those American Catholic intellectuals sometimes dubbed a "theo-con," signifying a cross between strong religious commitment and neo-conservative politics. Royal is vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, and author of 1492 and All That: The Political Manipulations of History.

Royal spoke in Rome July 16 on differences between American and European attitudes on religion in the public square.

Addressing the American presidential contest, Royal said it's striking that John Kerry's Catholicity has generated little concern among Protestants, yet has whipped up debate among Catholics. It has exposed, he argued, a fault line within the Catholic Church and its hierarchy, between those who want to shake up the "status quo" of tolerating dissent among Catholic public figures, and those who want to maintain it. In the former camp Royal placed bishops such as Raymond Burke of St. Louis, Missouri, John Myers of Newark, New Jersey, and Charles Chaput of Denver and Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colorado, all of whom have in varying ways raised the prospect of pro-choice Catholic politicians (or voters) not receiving communion.

Royal called on the bishops to be more aggressive in taking political stances where Catholic morality seems to require it.

"I would like to see a case where the U.S. bishops are sued for interference in a federal election," he said. "Sometimes they get legal advice that's a little gun-shy, but I think this might clarify some issues."

On Europe, Royal worried aloud about the "troubling" incapacity of many Europeans to permit religion a space in public discussion. He noted that in one recent Scandanavian case, a Protestant minister has been charged with hate crimes for preaching from the pulpit that homosexuality is not Biblically justified. If such trends continue, Royal said, before long religious believers in Europe will automatically "be suspect as citizens of a modern democracy."

Royal also said that it's unclear whether modern America, where secular hedonism shapes the moral culture and Calvinism shapes religious psychology, can really support authentic Catholic living.

"I think you need to create a Catholic ghetto," Royal said.

"I grew up in this kind of environment, where we thought of ourselves as somewhat apart from American culture," he said. "We can't beat the culture at its own game … [but] we can spread a sacred canopy over portions of the population."

* * *

As I noted last week, my new book All the Pope's Men is out from Doubleday. Those interested may find it at:

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

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