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 The Word From Rome

August 20, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 52

global perspective


"The pope, in his weakness, is living more than ever the role assigned to him of being the Vicar of Christ on earth, participating in the suffering of our Redeemer."

French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger

Trip to Lourdes marks a changed papcy; Issues of church governance examined; What Cardinal Danneels really said; John Paul and Chirac; Update on Ratizinger and Turkey; The International Criminal Court


All papal trips are equal, but some are more equal than others. That is, all John Paul's travels may be motivated by the same pastoral and apostolic impulses, but some have a special historical significance. The pope at the Wailing Wall, for example, or on the Acropolis in Athens, were electric moments. On the other hand, if someone were to ask me now about the trip to Azerbaijan, I'd be a bit stumped, and I was there.

I suspect that John Paul's Aug. 14-15 visit to Lourdes, the 104th foreign trip of his papacy, belongs on the A-list. What we saw in Lourdes, I believe, was the apotheosis of his transformation from "supreme pastor of the Catholic church," to quote the formula in the Code of Canon Law, into a living symbol of human suffering, in effect, an icon of Christ on the cross.

Lourdes is Christianity's premier healing shrine, a place where sick people come to find camaraderie and hope. Here "the sick are royalty." The streets have red strips signifying paths restricted to the sick, and roving bands of young volunteers shoo others out of the way with gusto. Volunteers port the sick around in a special wheeled cart that looks something like a rickshaw. It's nothing to walk into a restaurant where half the patrons are in wheelchairs. This is a place where pilgrims arrive in conveyances such as the "Jumbulance," a "jumbo ambulance" with 16 seats down one side and eight beds down the other for people too seriously ill to fly. The Jumbulance carries nebulizers, oxygen concentrators and electric feeding pumps, along with a medical staff.

"In Lourdes, it's the sick people who are real," said Redemptorist Fr. Terry Creech, who hears confessions in Lourdes four months out of every year. "It's the rest of us who are unreal."

As I walked through the crowd of 200,000 people gathered for John Paul's Sunday morning Mass on Aug. 15, I saw tens of thousands of people using canes and walkers and in wheelchairs. When the ailing, elderly John Paul II appeared, declaring himself a "sick man among the sick," many in the crowd recognized one of their own.

"My mother had Parkinson's disease for 30 years, and I was with her," said Irish pilgrim Lyla Shakespeare. "When I looked at the pope today, all I could see was my mother." But, she added, "I also saw Christ."

The pope's weakness was clear throughout the two-day trip.

When he arrived at the Grotto of Massabielle on Saturday, to pray in the spot where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to a 14-year-old French peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, he was helped to his knees. Within moments, the pope slumped, prompting his private secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dzwisz, to come to his aid. John Paul finished the brief devotion, but at his next public appearance French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray read the pope's speech.

(Believe it or not, I spent the better part of an hour with colleagues from broadcast and wire services debating whether or not this event could be described as a "collapse.")

During his homily at a Mass for some 200,000 pilgrims Sunday morning, John Paul struggled again. He could be heard muttering "Jesus and Mary" under his breath in Polish, and once mumbled "help me" to no one in particular. Later John Paul seemed confused during the Eucharistic prayers, and had to be reminded to elevate the host at the consecration. At another point, the pope muttered, "I have to finish," almost as if to will himself forward.

In a sense we've seen all this before, as John Paul's physical decline has been playing out on the public stage for years. Three things, however, were special about Lourdes.

First, papal handlers are no longer bothering to deny or minimize the extent of the pope's physical difficulties. After John Paul's Saturday slump, for example, spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls shrugged it off: "It's normal. We have to get used to it."

Second, the trip seemed to ratify a theological reading of John Paul's suffering as iconic of Christ's. French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger put it this way: "The pope, in his weakness, is living more than ever the role assigned to him of being the Vicar of Christ on earth, participating in the suffering of our Redeemer. Many times we have the idea that the head of the church is like a super-manager of a great international company, a man of action who makes decisions and is judged on the basis of his effectiveness. But for believers the most effective action, the mystery of salvation, happens when Christ is on the cross and can't do or decide anything other than to accept the will of the Father."

Third, the trip put into full public view the unique bond John Paul now has with the sick and suffering of the world. For example, French-Canadian layman Jean Vanier was at the pope's side on Saturday afternoon and evening, helping to lead a rosary procession. Vanier is the founder of the L'Arche community that works with severely disabled people, and at the end of the procession, John Paul embraced him and gave Vanier the rosary he had been praying, as if to say: "I'm part of your community now." That spirit was ubiquitous during the two-day trip.

For all the ink that's been spilled about John Paul the politician or John Paul the globetrotter, in the long run it may be this period of his papacy, John Paul the invalid, that leaves the deepest impression. We may find that 50 years from now, it's not his role in the collapse of Communism that we remember, but these years of decline and public suffering. John Paul has not allowed himself to be shunted off to a home, the normal fate of elderly and infirm people. He has refused to spare us the embarrassment of his saliva and his slurred, unsteady speech. He makes us watch him slump, and wince, and become confused, and thereby forces us to confront the reality of decline and death - our own and that of our loved ones.

Whatever one makes of the particular policy choices that have marked his pontificate, one simply can't watch the pope these days and not think about the final things, about the meaning and purpose of life. That, indeed, is a legacy.

* * *

When I go on TV or radio after the pope has appeared in poor form, as in Lourdes, the question I always get is whether or not he will resign. It's a non-starter, since John Paul has already made it abundantly clear that he will not.

Moreover, within the College of Cardinals, which is presumably the body to which it would fall to tell the pope the time has come, there is precious little interest in a papal resignation. For one thing, cardinals are much more likely than the rest of the world to take seriously the notion that the Petrine office is ad personam, meaning that it's not just a job you do, but it's who you are. As Paul VI once said, "you can't resign paternity." For another, most cardinals genuinely believe that what John Paul II is doing right now, playing the iconic role I described above, is invaluable, and they have no desire to abort his witness artificially.

At the same time, these men are sensitive to issues of church governance -- the kinds of bishops being appointed, the position the church takes on matters of global importance, the way in which doctrinal and liturgical questions are settled. They realize the church has entered a moment in which the pope cannot be expected to provide anything other than very general orientation on these questions, and that current structures are inadequate to avoid incoherence and the bureaucratic tendency towards expansion of mid-level authority.

The cardinals have also been through enough health scares to realize that it's quite possible the pope could continue in this condition for months, even years.

Hence once the summer doldrums in Rome are over and life begins anew in September, various ideas may be floated to respond to this new situation. Possibilities include:

o Creating an ad-hoc commission of cardinals, mostly heads of archdioceses as opposed to curial officials, who could coordinate big-picture policy questions that face the Vatican, always submitting their decisions to the pope. The disadvantages are that such a structure is not anticipated in canon law, and that convening such a group on a regular basis would take these men away from their dioceses.

o Reconvening the inter-dicasterial meetings, which bring together the heads of all the Vatican departments. These meetings were instituted by Pope Paul VI precisely to lend greater overall coordination, but were discontinued as John Paul's stamina began to wane. Some participants also found the meetings unproductive, because there was a puzzling mix of big-picture questions and mundane details (at the last such meeting, both the question of an Eastern rite patriarchate in Ukriane and the problem of Vatican employees clocking in late to work were on the agenda). One proposal would be to hold these meetings under the chairmanship of someone other than the pope (perhaps Ratzinger as dean of the college of cardinals), and to focus just on major policy questions.

o Pushing the pope to appoint a new Secretary of State, given that Cardinal Angelo Sodano will be 77 in November. Sodano is seen as being focused on Italian politics and international diplomacy, rather than having a global vision for the church that might lend greater consistency across departmental lines. One scenario is that a group of cardinals, representing different experiences and points of view, might request an audience with the pope to propose that a new Secretary of State is needed. He would function almost as a vice-pope, taking a stronger hand in reviewing and coordinating the work of the various Vatican agencies.

At one level, the problem with all of these ideas is theological and juridical. Canon 331 of the Code of Canon Law states that the pope enjoys "supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church." How much of this power he can delegate, and to whom, creates ecclesiological riddles.

At another level, however, the problem is psychological. John Paul is not a man to be told what he can't do. His life experience tells him that miracles happen, that God's designs are often greater than what his Nazi factory supervisors or his Polish Communist overlords believed. Hence the question is, how will he now respond to the argument that in order to play his new symbolic/iconic role, something has to change?

* * *

I got lots of calls on Monday and Tuesday after I got back from Lourdes, looking for a read on the pope's health. (One German TV crew was so anxious that they actually camped out Tuesday night at Castelgandolfo in case the pope didnıt show up on Wednesday for the general audience.)

Here's what I said.

Certainly, the episodes we saw in Lourdes were serious. The pope had a gaunt, ashen expression, he occasionally seemed disoriented and confused, and his struggles to speak were agonizing. One understands why Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium told a local newspaper that the pope's health is "seriously weakened."

On the other hand, we have seen the pope like this before. Last October, for example, during the celebrations of his 25th anniversary, he looked terrible. Several cardinals told me they anticipated being back in Rome soon, since they could not imagine that John Paul could continue much longer. Yet he appeared to perk up over the Christmas holidays, and had a relatively strong spring. He also appeared relaxed and in good form during his recent vacation in Val d'Aosta, in the mountains in northern Italy. Given the relative solidity of John Paul's underlying health - his diet, his circulation, his sleep patterns - one should not over-interpret momentary ups and downs.

There is no sense of imminent crisis within John Paul's inner circle. Plans are full steam ahead for his Sept. 5 trip to Loreto, another Marian shrine, for a Catholic Action assembly. There is also increasing talk that the pope might accept the invitation of Patriarch Bartholomew to visit Turkey this fall, possibly Nov. 30 for the Feast of St. Andrew. Meanwhile, the American bishops begin arriving again in early September on their ad limina visits, and so far there is no indication that the pope will not receive them as usual.

Furthermore, John Paul appeared in good form during his general audience in Castelgandolfo on Wednesday, August 18. His voice was clear and strong, and he even playfully thumped several young monks on the head who came up for the traditional baciamano, or kiss of the papal hand, after the audience.

* * *

Part of the panic over the health business was generated by the Danneels interview, which some took as an announcement that the pope's death was imminent. It started out as an interview with Belgian radio, which then was picked up by Flemish newspapers, and from there it hit the international wires. At every stage more of the original nuance got lost, which made it clear that Danneels had no privileged information about the pope's condition and had no intention of announcing a death watch.

Here's what Danneels said:

"'I've taken part in many moving and emotional celebrations by the pope, but this celebration was particularly moving and gripping," he said to the VRT-radio news service in Lourdes.

"When the pope says: 'I complete here my pilgrimage,' you can interpret this in a double way. First of all his adieu to Lourdes, but maybe also a farewell to life. Perhaps, the pope is saying goodbye. That doesn't necessarily mean that his end is coming tomorrow or next month, but that he is feeling that his end [the end of his life] is coming nearer."

* * *

One angle to the visit that fell by the wayside was John Paul's meeting with French President Jacques Chirac. The two men had a fair bit to talk about. France and the Holy See were in lockstep in opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, but in the months since their relationship has been soured by two high-profile disputes.

First, John Paul II repeatedly pushed the European Union to make an explicit reference to God and to the Christian roots of Europe in its new constitution. Chirac led the opposition, which produced a sharp rebuke the day before John Paul's visit to Lourdes by Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyons. Speaking to Le Monde, Barbarin said that Chirac's predecessor, Francois Mitterand, "would never have made this mistake," and that the socialist Mitterand did not have the same "complex" with respect to the church.

(A footnote about European politics: It's interesting that whenever a leftist is even moderately friendly to the church, he or she is applauded by the hierarchy, while support from conservatives is often taken for granted. Indeed, it's sometimes easier for leftists to agree with the church, since no one will accuse them of integralism or nostalgia for the ancien regime -- sort of the inverse of the "only Nixon could go to China" phenomenon.)

Second, the Vatican took a dim view of the new French law banning headscarves and other expressions of religious identity from public schools, seeing it as yet another means of marginalizing and privatizing religious belief. Spanish Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, expressed the view of the Holy See in March: "Everybody must be allowed to freely profess their own faith, according to their own conscience, their own traditions," he said.

In their public remarks, John Paul and Chirac went out of their way to accent the positive.

"The Catholic church," John Paul said, "desires to offer society a specific contribution towards the building of a world in which the great ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity can form the basis of social life."

By invoking France's legendary trinity of secular values, John Paul in effect identified himself with the positive legacy of the French Revolution -- a striking move, since a string of Roman pontiffs in the 18th and 19th centuries excoriated the revolution and its intellectual and cultural aftermath.

In return, Chirac called John Paul "pilgrim of pilgrims."

The French president took one subtle political dig at the Bush administration, asserting that France and the Holy See are united in a struggle "for peace, for relations between States to be governed by law, challenging the policy of fait accompli."

For the most part, however, Chirac was upbeat. Speaking of John Paul, he said: "Your solicitude and your example will rekindle the fervor of all those men and women who, often suffering and ailing, come to pray at Lourdes."

It's not clear whether the behind-closed-doors session was more frank. Judging by the body language in the airport afterwards, however, it seemed that the two men had a positive exchange; Chirac emerged beaming.

* * *

As anticipated, the focus on John Paul's health in Lourdes nearly obliterated media consideration of anything else, including the content of his six speeches. In fairness, however, it should be said that these were not the most scintillating texts I've ever seen on a papal trip.

The one exception came in John Paul's homily at the Sunday morning Mass. The pope closed with a particularly interesting reflection on women, which is worth quoting in full:

"This grotto also issues a special call to women," the pope said. "Appearing here, Mary entrusted her message to a young girl, as if to emphasize the special mission of women in our own time, tempted as it is by materialism and secularism: to be in today's society a witness of those essential values which are seen only with the eyes of the heart. To you, women, falls the task of being sentinels of the Invisible!"

John Paul added a strong pro-life message.

"I appeal urgently to all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to do everything in your power to ensure that life, each and every life, will be respected from conception to its natural end. Life is a sacred gift, and no one can presume to be its master."

The Vatican has been especially pointed in its criticism of abortion policies in France, which, among other things, is the principal manufacturer and exporter of the RU-486 "abortion pill." Last year, France approved a law permitting "do-it-yourself" pharmaceutical abortions at home and authorizing the health ministry to cover 70 percent of the cost.

* * *

An update on last week's story about Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, opposing Turkey's candidacy for membership in the European Union.

Western diplomats who have contacted the Vatican for clarification tell NCR that the Secretariat of State is saying that the Holy See's position has not changed. That is, as long as Turkey satisfies the Copenhagen criteria on human rights and religious liberty, the Vatican has no objection to its joining the EU. Hence Ratzinger was expressing, to use the classic Vatican formula, a "personal opinion."

One diplomat told me that he believes it's now incumbent on the Vatican to find some suitably public forum to express its official position, since much confusion has been created by the Ratzinger comments. After all, diplomats and vaticanisti may know that when it comes to international diplomacy it's the Secretariat of State, not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that speaks with authority, but that's a distinction lost on the outside world. Most people simply assume that if Ratzinger speaks, he speaks for the Vatican. Hence, this diplomat believes, it's up to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Secretary of State, to find a way to correct that impression.

* * *

While John Paul was in Lourdes, a spokesperson for the Shiite leader Moktada al-Sadr, Awas al-Khafayl, floated the hypothesis of Vatican mediation to help end the stalemate at Najaf. The Vatican's Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, signaled the Holy See's willingness to extend its "good offices."

By mid-week, however, it seemed that the idea of Vatican mediation was a trial balloon that was unlikely to actually happen, especially as news broke that al-Sadr was dropping hints of laying down his arms.

American sources told NCR Aug. 18 that they see talk about mediation as a "delaying tactic" and a way of scoring public relations points. Moreover, those sources said, the proper channel for any request for mediation would be through the interim Iraqi government, not the United States.

The same day, a senior Vatican official told NCR that no official request from either the interim Iraqi government or anyone else had arrived. "We're still trying to understand what exactly it is thatıs been proposed," the official said.

Sodano told Italian television that the Vatican would be available to intervene if asked.

"All the work of the pope and of the Holy See is one of mediation, even if not always in the technical sense anticipated by international law, for which mediation can only be requested by a state," Sodano said. "But there is another kind of mediation that takes the form of seeking to help the parties talk to each other. Weıre always available for this. Certainly the pope wonıt remain indifferent."

Meanwhile, at least one Iranian official threw cold water on the idea of a papal intervention. "Why is it that despite the great power Muslims wield around the world, some intellectuals have asked the pope to undertake a mediation effort to restore peace and stability in Islamic countries?" asked former Iranian interior minister Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur in an Aug. 18 news conference.

"This is despite the fact that the Muslim population of the world is more than one billion and they have prominent figures and sources of religious emulation who are either on a par with the pope or are superior to him. What they have called for is nothing but an international plot. Why have they raised the issue at this level despite the fact that the Iraqi nation is quite capable of resolving the issue by bringing to power a government of the people?"

* * *

When the International Criminal Court was established in Rome in July 1998, the Holy See was among the 120 nations that voted in favor. (The final vote was 120-7, with 21 abstentions. Among those voting against the measure were the United States, Israel, China and India.)

In his message for the World Day of Peace in 1999, John Paul II praised the court.

"A positive sign of the growing willingness of states to recognize their responsibility to protect victims of such crimes and to commit themselves to preventing them is ...the specifically approved statute of an International Criminal Court, the task of which will be to identify guilt and to punish those responsible for crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes of war and aggression. This new institution, if built upon a sound legal foundation, could gradually contribute to ensuring on a world scale the effective protection of human rights," the pope said.

In 2002, the Holy See offered a "symbolic" contribution to the Trust Fund set up by the Secretary-General of the United Nations to fund the court. Several Catholic commentators have used the strong support of the Holy See to criticize the United States for its opposition.

There are recent signals, however, that the Holy See's endorsement of the ICC is not without nuance. One indication came in a 2003 article in the Notre Dame Law Review by John M. Czaenetzky and Ronald J. Rychlak, who represent the Holy See as delegates to the Assembly of State Parties to the ICC.

Czaenetzky and Rychlak argue that the ICC represents a legalistic view of justice, without sufficient political oversight, which, despite noble intentions, may make the court "either irrelevant or dangerous."

The underlying assumption of the Rome statute, according to the authors, is that justice for human rights abuses must always and everywhere mean criminal prosecutions. They argue that under such a system, settlements reached in South Africa, where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered immunity for the sake of a complete historical record, and Chile, where partial amnesty was seen as the only means to avoid civil war, would have been impossible.

"It is the practical reason of the legitimate representatives of the polity applied to the question of the common good on a case-by-case basis," Czaenetzky and Rychlak argue, "not mechanistic legalism, that will provide the path to justice."

In practical terms, Czaenetzky and Rychlak propose that the U.N. Security Council, for all its flaws, comes closest to this legitimacy on an international basis, and hence it should be the Security Council that decides to launch a prosecution. That decision, they believe, should not be made by an independent prosecutor.

I asked a senior Vatican official close to the negotiations over the ICC for his assessment of the Czaenetzky and Rychlak article.

"My personal sense is that the Holy See, like other sovereigns, is still studying carefully and objectively the statute and those who initially will be administering it," he said. "What [Czaenetzky and Rychlak] say -- along with what is said by other reputable scholars -- should have an impact on what sovereigns and ICC officials think and do in the future regarding the court."

Hence, it would seem that the discussion, as far as the Holy See is concerned, is not quite closed.

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

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