National Catholic Reporter ®

August 2, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 49

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An image that will last forever; hierarchy galore;
Examining the words; a perilous Mass perch
 If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few demythologizers in hospital wards.

 Following a visit to a children's hospital ward in Guatemala

I write this column from Guatemala, en route to Mexico, as John Paul’s remarkable 11-day, three-nation road show winds to an end. If the pope looks weaker toward the end of this odyssey, you should see what I look like.

     An image that will stay with me forever came July 29 in Antigua, Guatemala, during a visit to a hospital named for Brother Pedro de San José de Betancurt, who was canonized the next morning in a Mass that drew some 500,000 people from all over Central America. The night before, I and colleagues from La Nacion (an Argentinian daily), UCAN (an Asian Catholic news service), and Time magazine had set off in search of insight into the popular cult surrounding Betancurt, a 16th century Franciscan tertiary who is a national hero in Guatemala.

     We had hired a small taxi for this visit to Antigua, where Pedro had passed much of his life. At one point we pulled up in front of what looked like a small Franciscan church named for “Hermano Pedro.” We poked our heads in what we assumed was the parish office, asking if we could visit. We waited a few moments until an Italian Franciscan priest, Fr. Giuseppe Contran, appeared, assuming that we wanted to see what was actually a hospital run by his community. Since it would have been bad form to say no, we accepted, with thoughts of dinner and filing deadlines dancing in our heads.

     Nothing in my life prepared me for what I was about to see.

     As we walked down a hallway, I heard a deep groaning that sounded like a wounded animal. I assumed it was coming from outside, maybe an abandoned dog howling with hunger. Then we turned a corner, and walked into a ward full of children kept in beds with high bars on all four sides. They looked like cages you might see at a dog pound, with the same images of abandon and desperation. (The idea was obviously to prevent the children from falling or crawling away). The children were all twisted and deformed, some slightly, some in ways that can only be described as grotesque. A few were shaking violently, others moaning with a pain that was both cruel and constant. Fr. Cotan stroked the forehead of one child, calming him down and bringing a fleeting smile to his face.

     I gasped for breath, my heart in my throat. I had never seen anything like it.

     We then walked through ward after ward of similar cases. Most of the patients were children, though some were adults with similar maladies. It was a heartbreaking, shattering experience.

     Cotan explained that these children often arrive at the hospital because they’ve been abandoned. In other cases, families bring them to the Franciscans because they simply have no idea how to deal with them. Sometimes the children are born with their conditions because of inadequate pre-natal care. Other times, Cotan said, the mothers say the children were born normally, but became deformed within the first couple of years under the impact of hunger and malnutrition.

     These children, in other words, are casualties of poverty.

     Afterwards we visited the cathedral in Antigua where Pedro’s tomb is located, which was overflowing this muggy July evening with long lines of people waiting to implore the saint-to-be’s intervention. I stood next to a mother with a small child with a speech impediment. The mother repeatedly touched the tomb, then the child’s tongue, then back again, begging Pedro for help.

     At one stage, I might have been slightly skeptical, even bemused, by such popular piety. After what I had witnessed earlier that night, however, I found myself joining this young mother’s prayer. If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are few demythologizers in hospital wards.

     The next morning we ran into a group of 30, mostly children, from the hospital at the canonization Mass in Guatemala City. Through a translator, I spoke to Miguel Angel Coik, 17, a Guatemalan Indian confined to a wheelchair since the age of five due to severe deformities. Smiling, he said Hermano Pedro was a “good man” who “helped everybody.” Miguel told me he is praying to Pedro for a cure.

     May his prayer be speedily answered.

     In the meantime, I will also pray that the architects of the globalized economic system towards which the world is hurtling will work to build a system in which such prayers are no longer so often, and so cruelly, necessary.

* * *

     John Paul’s 24 hours in Guatemala came on the heels of a full week in Toronto, Canada, for the eighth World Youth Day festival of his pontificate. Like so many things we now take for granted, these international gatherings of Catholic youth are an invention of this pontificate.

     One can evaluate this World Youth Day on multiple levels.

     For the pope himself, it was a clear success. His physical and psychological condition got a major boost. From the moment he arrived, when he chose to descend the 27 steps from his Alitalia flight by himself, to his beaming face and booming voice at the three major public events, this was a stronger, even younger, pope than we have seen in recent months. Karol Wojtyla was never a church bureaucrat, but a pastor who relished contact with young people. John Paul draws life from his contact with the young, and that happened again in Toronto.

     For the Catholic Church in North America, the Toronto World Youth Day was also a major win. Given the six months of unrelentingly negative publicity that preceded the event related to the sex abuse scandals, a chance to put the words “youth” and “Catholic Church” together in a positive context represented obvious progress. In fact, the print and broadcast coverage of the event was remarkably enthusiastic, focusing on the rapturous reception received by the pope and the dedication of the young pilgrims who braved crowds and bad weather. Two potential clouds on the horizon – lower than expected attendance at 200,000 during the week, and a series of parallel events organized by a reform-minded group called “Challenge the Church” – drew relatively little interest.

     John Paul II himself, in fact, was the only force capable of putting the sex abuse issue back into the news coverage, when he addressed the scandals during his homily July 29. The pope said the harm done to youth by some priests and religious “fills us with a sense of sadness and shame,” but immediately added that we must not forget the “vast majority” of priests “who desire only to serve and do good.” When the pope boomed out that “but,” signaling a shift from contrition to defense of innocent priests, the crowd began to roar. I said in a later interview, in fact, that I’d never heard such cheering in response to a conjunction.

     Personally, I was a bit surprised that the pope decided to step on his own story. He obviously felt, however, that he could not leave without acknowledging the scandals. I had the impression that he wanted above all to speak a word of support for all those priests who have done nothing wrong but now find themselves under a cloud.

     Finally, one can ask what difference World Youth Day will make in the long run. It’s an impossible question to answer now. If you ask the young people, most will say the event was life changing – that it deepened their faith, gave them a better sense of the universal church, and forged new friendships. Moreover, I’ve spoken to professionals in youth ministry who say that the Denver World Youth Day in 1993 revolutionized the pastoral outreach to youth in the United States, putting youth ministry on the map. Cardinal James Francis Stafford also once told me that the Denver event changed some minds in the Vatican about the Catholic Church in North America, suggesting that dissent isn’t the whole story, that underneath lies a deep faithfulness.

     I had breakfast during the week with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, with whom I share a few friends since he’s a Capuchin and I went to Capuchin schools growing up in Kansas. I asked Chaput if the youth ministry infrastructure created by the 1993 event helped when he had to face the Colombine shootings. He said he hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but surely there was some relation. 

     Yet for every story suggesting lasting impact, there’s a counter example that implies the jury may still be out. For example, World Youth Day in Rome 2000 drew two million people to the final Mass at Tor Vergata. Yet just a few months later, when the Rome archdiocese tried to recruit a few hundred young people to keep churches in the urban core open at night to let the homeless come in out of the cold, the project failed. This suggests that the link between “Wojtyla’s Woodstock” and lives truly lived in service is not always so clear.

     In the end, however, I can’t help feeling that any event capable of bringing together 800,000 people with a minimum of mayhem and a wide sense of good karma can’t be bad.

* * *

     Speaking as a journalist, one of the best things about World Youth Day is the way it brings together some 400 bishops, including 30 cardinals, making them available to the press in a way that never happens anywhere else. Just by hanging out at Toronto’s Colony Hotel, I managed to conduct interviews that otherwise would have taken months to arrange. I spoke with Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, for example, head of the new archdiocese of the Mother of God in Moscow, who told me that the present deep freeze in Catholic/Orthodox relations seems fated to continue in the short term. There has been no word on the readmission of Bishop Jerzy Mazur, who has been refused reentry into the country by the Russian authorities, and no hint of a wider rapprochement.

     One of the prelates I managed to corner was Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who was gracious enough to give me some time Sunday night. We spoke mostly about the impact of papal travel for an upcoming NCR story, but George also gave me some insight into his thinking about the future of the church. He suggested that just as the relationship with Communism was the core challenge facing Catholicism in 1978, and the election of John Paul II was the key that unlocked the problem, he believes the relationship with Islam is the front-burner issue today. 

     I also spoke with Archbishop George Pell of Australia, who recently faced accusations of having tried to cover up a sex abuse charge against one of his priests with a cash payment. As the story developed, most people believe the charges against Pell have been exaggerated. I asked Pell if he felt that in an odd way the perception of having been ambushed has helped him in Sydney, where his first few months in office have been marked by controversy, and he said it has indeed. “There’s no doubt my base of support is bigger today,” he said.

* * * 

     During the first major event in Canada, a welcoming festival for young people at Toronto’s Exhibition Place, John Paul made what can only be called an off-the-cuff slip of the tongue. “The last World Youth Day was in Cracow,” he said in English. In fact, the last event was in Rome. World Youth Day was never held in Cracow.

     Eventually, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls told us this was a simple mistake, easy enough to understand given that the pope was speaking in what is his fifth or sixth language. But that didn’t stop some analysts from seizing upon it as evidence that the long-rumored mental decline of the pope was finally in evidence. Knowing it would be spun that way, Navarro made a point of telling reporters in his press briefing the next day that in his lunch with 14 young people, the pope had recalled, in the correct order, the places and dates of all the previous World Youth Days.

     I had dinner with a few Italian colleagues that evening, and it was fun to listen to them spin out theories about what the pope had actually meant. One argued that John Paul was announcing that the final World Youth Day would be in Cracow. Another felt that he was referring to his upcoming trip to Cracow in August, inviting youth to join him. My own contribution was that perhaps he meant the last days of his youth had been in Cracow.

     Probably it was just a mistake with no deeper meaning. Clearly the pope showed over the course of his trip that he’s not out to lunch. But I found myself thinking what an odd sensation it must be for John Paul to realize that every syllable that comes out of his mouth will be hung upon, analyzed and dissected for clues as to hidden meaning and mental decline. That too, I suppose, is part of being pope in the age of CNN.

* * *

     Speaking of CNN, one of the more amusing moments during World Youth Day came during Sunday’s final Mass. I had the unusual experience of doing color commentary for the network’s coverage of the event. I was called upon to explain things like what the entrance procession is all about, and what a homily is supposed to accomplish. I found myself reflecting at one point: Who would have thought that all those hours in CCD when I was a kid would one day have cash value on network television?

     I was on a TV platform high above Downsview Park, and close by was papal biographer George Weigel, who was doing the play-by-play for NBC/MSNBC. Weigel, a smart and sophisticated analyst, is commonly located on the conservative end of the spectrum; most people would put me somewhere to his left.

     I’ve known Weigel off and on since I reviewed his massive biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, and he took the trouble to jot down some responses. When his publicity tour brought him to Kansas City, where I was living at the time, my wife and I took him to one of the city’s famous barbecue joints. I have never seen someone plow through a plate of ribs and several glasses of bourbon without breaking conversational stride the way Weigel did that night, and I’ve been party to more than my fair share of rib dinners. He has commanded my respect ever since.

     The papal Mass in Toronto began during a driving rainstorm, and the winds began to shake our platform violently. At one stage a security person came up and advised us to evacuate, so people began grabbing gear and running down the stairs. Both Weigel and I, however, had live shots to do, and we and our hosts and crew stayed put.

     As the tumult reached its peak, Weigel turned to me and deadpanned: “You realize that if we die together, it would be the best possible representation of the catholicity of the church!”

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

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