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August 26, 2005
Vol. 4, No. 45

John L. Allen Jr.


Italy's biggest public event; What Comunione e Liberazione is; CL in the USA; Spreading the movement; Cardinal Simonis of Holland; A report from Kenya; Women and Islam


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You know it's the end of summer in Italy when stories start hitting the papers from Rimini, a seaside resort on the Adriatic coast where, since 1980, the Comunione e Liberazione movement (CL), one of the "new movements" in the Catholic church, holds its massive annual "meeting," using the English word for the event. It usually draws some 700,000 people, including the cream of Italian political and social life.

Although the focus in Rimini tends to be on intra-Italian debates, this year's edition is of general interest for at least two reasons.

It's the first gathering since the death of the legendary Italian priest Fr. Luigi Giussani, who founded the movement in 1954, though it didn't take the name of Comunione e Liberazione until 1969. Hence it's an opportunity to see how the movement, one of the largest and most influential in Roman Catholicism, is doing under new management.

It's difficult to say how many people are actually cielini, as members are known, since there is no membership card or official list. Comunione e Liberazione official Davide Rondoni told me that perhaps 50,000 Italians attend the weekly "School of Community" meetings and the annual spiritual exercises, while tens of thousands more come to events once in a while, or show up at the Rimini "meeting," or are otherwise in CL's orbit. The movement is also present in 62 countries.

CL has spawned several related groups: Memores Domini, a group of lay men and woman consecrated to virginity; the Priestly Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo, for diocesan priests formed in the spirit of Giussani; the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Assumption; and the Fraternity of St. Joseph, a group of lay people who dedicate themselves to virginity and poverty, but who remain in their normal secular occupations and do not live in common.

Second, this is also the first major CL event in the pontificate of Benedict XVI, who is arguably closer to the cielini than to any other movement in the Catholic church.

Friends say Joseph Ratzinger came to know Comunione e Liberazione through the circle of thinkers associated with the post-Vatican II theological journal Communio, which became the conservative alternative to the progressive Concilium, and which published many of Ratzinger's theological essays. There has long been a sociological and intellectual overlap between the people associated with Communio and CL. (The American editor of Communio, for example, David Schindler, also attends meetings of a "School of Community" in Washington).

Moreover, it's no accident that Giussani, who left running the group in 1966, came back in 1969 to guide it through what he saw as troubled European waters after the leftist student uprisings of 1968. For Ratzinger too, then a young theology professor at Tübingen, 1968 marked a parting of the ways with powerful currents in modernity, and in Giussani he saw a kindred soul.

However it came about, Ratzinger's esteem for Giussani and CL is much deeper than is generally understood. When the organization recently produced a DVD to mark its 50th anniversary, Ratzinger volunteered to appear on camera to offer a tribute. When Giussani died in 2005, Ratzinger arranged at his own initiative to be named by Pope John Paul II as the pope's official delegate, delivering a glowing homily at the Feb. 24 funeral Mass in Milan. At that time, Ratzinger told a priest associated with CL that Giussani had "changed my life."

The German pope's affection for the cielini is not solely, however, a matter of shared theological or political convictions. As it turns out, it also involves strudel.

Well before his election as pope, Ratzinger had asked a few female members of Memores Domini to work in his private household. Among other things, this meant cooking for him.

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It was the custom in the household to prepare a strudel, that quintessential German pastry, on the cardinal's birthday, which falls on April 16. This year, however, since his birthday took place just two days before the opening of the conclave to elect a successor to John Paul II, no one thought Ratzinger would have either the time or the interest for desserts. In fact, however, around 10 p.m. on April 16, the cardinal phoned the Memores Domini community in Rome to ask where his strudel was. Flustered, a member named Carmella said it was on its way, and then scrambled to find the ingredients to bake it -- no small feat given the chaos of Rome in those days. Eventually, Ratzinger got his strudel, and took it with him into the conclave.

Just a couple of days after his election, the new pope phoned the Memores Domini residence again, this time to say that he would like them to form a small community in the papal apartments to see to his household needs. One sign that Carmella's strudel hit the spot is that she's part of the group.

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While such anecdotes, relayed to me in Rimini by Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, who heads up the U.S. branch of CL, can suggest a kind of playful innocence, in the history of Italian Catholicism the cielini have loomed as anything but innocent.

To most Italian Catholics, Comunione e Liberazione represents a right-wing alternative to the "mainstream" lay movement in the country, Azione Cattolica. Though tensions date back to the early 1960s, the definitive rupture came in 1986, when Azione Cattolica made its so-called "religious choice," which meant in effect distancing itself from the Christian Democratic Party with which the church had been identified since 1948. The idea was that the church should be in dialogue with all social forces, including the left.

CL, on the other hand, argued for a more active "presence" of Catholics in political life, which in practice translated into a closer identification with the Christian Democrats and with the right.

The debate turned so bitter that some spoke of "mutual excommunications." Aggravating the situation was that both movements are concentrated in Milan, where Catholic Action was seen as close to the more progressive position of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, while many cielini were seen as a "loyal opposition."

Under John Paul II, the cielini were dubbed variously "the pope's Rambos," "the Stalinists of God," and "Wojtyla's monks" because of their fierce loyalty to the papacy, a devotion that some observers see as uncritical. Certainly Giussani could sound this way; of Pope John Paul II, for example, he once said, "We serve this man; with our very existence, we serve Christ in this great man. This pope is the event which God has brought about; his human figure is the concrete phenomenon which we must observe, hear, follow, and whose mentality we must make our own."

Journalist Gordon Urquhart, in his 1995 book The Pope's Armada, identified Comunione e Liberazione as one of the "mysterious and powerful new sects in the Catholic church."

Rondoni, however, said that historically it's difficult to locate Giussani on the political right, since he was the son of an anarchist who grew up in "humanitarian socialist" circles in Lombardy that have shaped a great deal of Catholic life in Italy.

Rondini also said that the popular identification with CL and politics has more to do with the obsessive attention to politics in the Italian press, rather than the real concerns of CL members.

"Very few of our people are involved in politics," he said. Rondini himself, for example, is a poet.

Nevertheless, Rondoni conceded that the tensions under Martini were real.

"Martini didn't understand certain things about CL," Rondoni said. "The gamble of the movement was that following its own path has an ecclesial value in itself, while Martini focused more on the Word and the parish as the primary, if not the sole, point of reference for ecclesiastical life."

Still, Rondoni said, while Giussani recognized that he and Martini were to some extent on different planets, Martini always made space for CL and allowed it to flourish.

Today, those rivalries are to some extent forgotten. Last September, members of CL were invited to a Catholic Action gathering at Loreto, a public way of burying the hatchet. Yet the old scars have not completely healed; the politicians and commentators who are the stars at Rimini clearly tilt to the political right (former Spanish Prime Minister Josè Maria Aznar, for example, was a major draw this week), even though the full range of discussions is broader than the VIP lineup might suggest.

I spent the better part of the week in Rimini, trying to capture the flavor of the "Meeting."

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When Comunione e Liberazione went looking for someone to fill the job of its public face in America, it struck gold in Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, currently the top man for CL in the States.

Born in Puerto Rico and fluent in both Spanish and English, Albacete, a roly-poly, beaming 64-year-old who doesn't apologize for sneaking out of meetings for a Marlboro, is the kind of guy who explains the church's teaching on matrimony by belting out mariachi love songs (and apologizing that they would sound better if accompanied by tequila). He's an accomplished theologian and a former astrophysicist, but speaks in down-to-earth language that makes him a darling in the media.

I sat down with Albacete in Rimini to talk about Giussani, CL, and its prospects in the United States.

Albacete said he first met Giussani in 1993, through the efforts of a young Italian priest and cielino named Angelo Scola, today the Cardinal of Venice. Albacete got to know Scola through the newly founded John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Washington, D.C., where Scola occasionally taught some courses, and was impressed.

Albacete did his graduate work in physics and worked for a scientific lab in Silver Springs, Maryland, for 10 years, and was engaged to be married when he felt God calling him to another path in the late 1960s. He was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1973.

The product of a vivacious, yet thoroughly orthodox, Catholic upbringing in Puerto Rico, Albacete said he had a hard time finding that combination in his new brother priests.

"I met lots of priests who were alive, free, spontaneous, understanding, wanting to share people's lives in all their aspects, but they had problems with the teachings of the church," Albacete said.

"On the other hand, I found priests who accepted the teachings of the church, but in a subservient way," he said. "They were rigid, boring, and afraid."

In Scola, however, Albacete said he found what he had been seeking.

"He was not rebelling against the church," Albacete said. "Yet he was the freest and most spontaneous priest I ever met. I kept asking him, 'Where you do get that?' "

Albacete said he expected Scola to give him a theological answer, perhaps focused on Hans Urs von Balthasar, with whom Scola produced a book-length interview, or Henri de Lubac.

Instead, Albacete said, Scola responded: "I learned it from Giussani."

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Albacete said he kept asking Scola questions, until finally Scola suggested he meet with Giussani personally. Scola arranged a lunch for the two men in Milan in 1993, which stretched over three hours.

Albacete said he went into the encounter with some trepidation, because he had always thought of being part of a movement as "limiting one's horizons."

In fact, he was not ready to sign on the dotted line. Albacete said that at the end of the lunch, Giussani had tears in his eyes. When Albacete asked why, he responded: "I've been praying every day to the Madonna to send me someone from the United States who could be a point of reference for us. If the early Christians had not gone to Rome, Christianity would not have spread. Today, you are Rome."

Albacete's response was not what Giussani probably expected.

"You tell the Madonna that I can find my own jobs," Albacete recalled himself saying, with a laugh.

Nevertheless, he told Giussani that he would be happy to help out as he could, and gradually he developed contacts with CL people, becoming steadily more attracted.

"When I was in the lab, many people whom I deeply respected asked me how I could be a Catholic," Albacete said. "I was searching for an answer to the link between faith and reason, between nature and the supernatural."

In a sense, he said, Vatican II supplied the kernel of his answer in Gaudium et Spes 22, with its famous formula that "the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine." The genius of Giussani, Albacete said, is that "he turned it into a life."

"If being is love, then existence itself has the structure of love," Albacete said, trying to synthesize Giussani's insight. "Unity and the self, community and freedom, are not incompatible, but go together. The experience of belonging is not a limit, but it sets me free."

Albacete said that despite his attraction to this idea, he still had reservations about CL, based on what he was coming to understand about their Italian profile.

"I wanted to know what their problem was with Martini, whom I love," Albacete said. "Or what about Paul VI, without whom I wouldn't be here?"

Albacete said he was also leery of CL's reputation as a "far-right" outfit, whose primary concern was secular politics. He said he pressed Giussani and his right-hand man, and now his successor, Fr. Julián Carrón, on these points.

"I didn't see this in Giussani and the group around him," Albacete said. "So far as I could see, they did everything they could to avoid it."

When people ask him these questions today, Albacete said, his usual response is, "Why don't you try it out and see for yourself?"

"If you see us imposing a far left or far right point of view, or if you find another movement that takes greater care of your human freedom, leave immediately, and then call me so I can follow you," he said.

There's no sense denying that when it comes to politics, the cielini do generally skew to the right. I spoke to two young Americans in Rimini, Greg Bacich, 24, who grew up in California, and Carlo Canetta, 21, from Connecticut. Both are now going to college in New York, an overwhelmingly "blue state," and both said unhesitatingly that they voted for George Bush in the 2004 election.

Yet both acknowledged that politics is not a special passion, and that the main attraction of CL and Giussani for them is that it helps unify their lives, figuring out what faith has to do with their friendships and their university coursework. In itself, they insisted, this is neither a "conservative" nor a "liberal" instinct.

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Though Comunione e Liberazione is a massive phenomenon in Italy, it has had difficulty exporting itself. While it counts 60 "Schools of Community" in the States, Albacete estimates the total American following at just a few hundred.

Part of the difficulty may come from ambivalence on the part of some bishops, Albacete said.

"Most American bishops don't know anything about it," he said, "though some may have heard from their Italian friends concerns about politics, or concerns about the impact of the movements on parishes and dioceses," he said.

Albacete noted that unlike members of some movements, cielini go to their regular diocesan parishes and do not set up special structures. The only thing they add, he said, is a weekly catechetical meeting.

Albacete said that after a "School of Community" meets in a diocese two or three times, enough to know that it's likely to last, he and the local leaders request a meeting with the bishop to explain what they're doing and to ask for his blessing. Albacete said some have refused to meet them, on the grounds that "we don't need the movements in this diocese."

For the most part, however, Albacete said that as long as CL creates no problems, bishops are happy to have it.

"A bishop is like an air traffic controller at O'Hare Airport," he laughed. "As long as the planes don't crash, he just wants to keep the traffic moving."

In the end, Albacete said, he's not really worried about whether CL spreads in the States.

"When people ask me about our contribution to American Catholicism, I say that I don't know and I don't care," he said. "I have more urgent things to worry about, the concrete problems of everyday life. That's where the Incarnation occurs -- either it's in real life, or it's all just words."

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Aside from the pope, there are a few other bishops close enough to CL that they have a Memores Domini community in their private household: Scola in Venice, Archbishop Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, Bishop Luigi Negri of San Marino-Montefeltro.

In Rimini, I discovered another prelate with deep ties to the cielini: Cardinal Adrianus Simonis of Holland. I bumped into him at a session given by Albacete and an Italian CL priest on matrimony.

Simonis told me that the 2005 "meeting" is the 13th consecutive one he's attended in Rimini, and that after it wraps up on Saturday he's on his way to northern Italy to offer a retreat for CL members. Like Albacete, he said he was struck by Giussani's emphasis on the Incarnation, the way faith has to take root in politics, in culture, and in the arts.

Simonis ticked off other aspects of the CL he found attractive: their "practice of the faith," their "intelligence," and their success in attracting the young.

On that last point, Rimini offered powerful proof of Simonis' point. It's hard to imagine anywhere else, aside from World Youth Day, where tens of thousands of teenagers and young adults would pack a massive auditorium to listen to Caffarra lecture them for an hour and a half on four "deceptions" in modern culture about human freedom, greeting him with a pop star's welcome, interrupting him repeatedly with applause, and offering a standing ovation at the end.

"They are not free who do what they want but not what they should, nor those who do what they should but not what they want," Caffarra said. "Freedom is to do what we want by doing what we should."

The talk was an extension of the theme of the 2005 "meeting," which is a line from Don Quixote: "Freedom is the greatest good that the Heavens have given to humanity."

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Despite the above, it would be a mistake to think that the goings-on in Rimini are principally about theological reflection or hierarchical pow-wows. In fact, the focus is deliberately ad extra, looking to the outside world.

Sr. Maria de Los Angeles Vasquez, a Mexican missionary in Kenya, spoke about her struggles against the practice of female genital mutilation in the tribe with which she has worked since 1985 in the Rift Valley, the Kipsigis, a word that in their language means "to be reborn."

Vasquez described the procedure.

"At midnight on the day established by the tribal elder the rite begins, with an old knife or a piece of a spear, always the same for everyone, whether HIV-infected or not," she said. "The girls must not cry or even close their eyes, they have to show that they're not in pain, which would signify that they're not ready to become women."

"But the experience is not over when the procedure is finished. The girls have to spend a month in reclusion, all together, with a mask of goat's skin on their face, until the wound is healed. They can't wash themselves, they can't be seen or recognized by the others."

Vasquez said the experience makes a strong point.

"They have to learn that to be a woman means to serve the men, to respect them and not to speak in front of them," she said. "To help make the point, force is used -- strong words, humiliation, beatings. … No one is supposed to talk about what happens, with the threat of the death penalty or divine punishment."

At the end of the reclusion, she said, the Kipsigis women go to the river, wash themselves, remove the mask, and they're ready for marriage.

When she discovered all this, she said, she was horrified. At the same time, she said, she realized she couldn't just overturn a centuries-long tradition. So she spoke with the women to find out what might help. What she realized, Vasquez said, is that the Kipsigis needed a ritual that would mark the transition to adulthood, but in less violent fashion.

In the end, Vasquez said, she explained to the Kipsigis mothers that the Christian sacrament of Confirmation performed more or less the same function. On December 6, 1995, the first group of 25 young girls took a two week-long retreat to prepare for Confirmation, and then received the sacrament. Since then, the ritual has been repeated every January.

Vasquez showed a picture of 20 young girls wearing red dresses and white veils in the local church, waiting for the bishop to arrive. She said that by and large the Kipsigis men have accepted the change.

Vasquez's story offers a fascinating example of what theologians call "inculturation" -- expressing the gospel through the language and circumstances of the local church, in this case in a way that seems to have made a powerful difference.

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There were also interesting discussions on Islam at Rimini, one of which was devoted to the theme of "Women and Islam."

A Moroccan Muslim woman, Souad Sbai, spoke of Islamic fundamentalism as "that cancer," whose first victims are often women. She said that some have accused her of exaggerating, but "we don't even come close to describing the reality."

Sbai is the head of the "Association of Moroccan Women in Italy."

Sbai told the story of one woman who left an Islamic nation for Italy with her children, looking for a better life, and who eventually settled in Trent. Her husband, however, kidnapped the children and took them back. In the meantime, the husband arranged for his wife to be denounced by an Islamic court for abandoning the children.

Sbai said she and a lawyer accompanied the woman home, in an attempt to retrieve the children. In the end, the woman was allowed to see them for just five minutes. Since that time, she has not seen her children for seven years.

Sbai warned that fundamentalism "has taken root in our youth," many of whom, she said, have no economic opportunities or normal outlets for relaxation such as soccer fields when they come to Europe, and are subject to "brain-washing" in local mosques.

The day before, Magdi Allam, born in Cairo in 1952 and whose family subsequently immigrated to Italy, and who is today the vice-director of the country's most influential newspaper, Corriere della Sera, bluntly addressed the problem of radicalism in European Islamic communities.

"Italy, Europe and the West made a big mistake by opening the doors to too many integralists and extremists, who were running from their countries of origin because of their connection to terrorism and extremism," Allam told an August 23 session.

"We allowed them to take control of mosques in European countries," Allam said. "In effect, the West nourished its own enemy because of a naïve approach."

Allam suggested that to win the war against terrorism, it's not enough merely to launch strikes against terrorist centers.

"We must put together a coalition of values among those who believe that all life is sacred, to fight a kind of ideological nihilism that sees life's value as merely relative," he said. "Only in this way can we remove the roots that nourish the terrorists' wars."

Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, an Egyptian scholar who in his youth sympathized with the radical Muslim Brotherhood, warned Westerners against generalized stereotypes of Muslims as all radicals or fundamentalists. Worldwide, he said, only about five percent of Muslims actually attend mosques on a regular basis.

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Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, had some interesting comments at Rimini about the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. I published a news story on them, which can be found here:

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One note.

As has been widely reported, the head of the Society of St. Pius X, the breakaway group of followers of the late Swiss Archbishop Marcel-François Lefebvre who rejected many of the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), will meet with Pope Benedict XVI on Monday, Aug. 29. I'll have full coverage of the encounter next week.

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

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