National Catholic Reporter ®

August 30, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.1

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Taking up, once again, the fundamental drama of Christians vs. Islam; viewing the pope from Poland

The difference between the 19th century and now, of course, is that everyone is much more heavily armed and hence has a capacity to wreak greater havoc.

An increasing number of analysts now regard the Cold War, for all its apocalyptic menace, as little more than a breather in the fundamental global drama that has been underway for more than a thousand years, i.e., the clash between the Christian West and Islam. For the historically minded, today’s headlines do have a “back to the future” quality in this regard. Just as in the middle of the 19th century, Russia is today fighting Islamic separatists in Chechnya, and the great Western imperial power (now the U.S. rather than Great Britain) is chasing ghosts in Afghanistan.

     The difference between the 19th century and now, of course, is that everyone is much more heavily armed and hence has a capacity to wreak greater havoc. Sept. 11 is the leading case in point.

     Two recent events indicate that the Roman Catholic hierarchy is divided as to how to respond.

     On the way back to Rome from covering the pope’s trip to Poland, my wife and I stopped off in Austria, a country close to my heart where I have a number of friends. It was an opportunity to catch up on the latest church news, especially the antics of Bishop Kurt Krenn of Sankt Pölten, a friend of the country’s far-right enfant terrible Jörg Haider and a “love-to-hate” figure for Catholic progressives everywhere. Journalists like Krenn because he says what he thinks, and what he thinks always makes news.

     Krenn is back in the headlines because he recently proclaimed that Vienna is today facing a “third siege” by Turks. He compared today’s immigration from Muslim nations, which is especially visible in certain quarters of the Austrian capital, to the famous attacks on Vienna by Islamic invaders in 1529 and 1683, suggesting that Vienna is once again standing between Europe and Islamic domination.

     That first siege, in 1529, was led by the legendary warrior Suleiman the Magnificent, and its failure blocked what otherwise might have been an Islamic march across Europe. The second ended when the Polish cavalry under King John Sobieski III broke through Turkish lines and saved the city on Sept. 12, 1683. Both results are celebrated in some European circles as great Christian victories over Islam, and the second lent steam to the Catholic Counter-Reformation in central Europe.

     “Islam is an aggressive, also political religion,” Krenn stated in a late August interview with an Austrian newspaper. He asserted that “Islamic religion teachers say to their children, ‘Look, one day everything here will belong to you,’ and they also say that the Christians will become extinct because they do not have children.”

     The Islamic Community of Austria issued a statement asserting that Krenn was trying to “evoke age-old distortions in order to frighten people.” 

     Krenn, however, is not alone. Two years ago, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna proposed that the Italian government give preference to Latin American, Filipino and Eritrean immigrants over Muslims, on the grounds that they come from traditionally Catholic cultures.

     “There is no such thing as a right to invasion,” Biffi said.

     Biffi conceded that Muslims in Europe have not yet attempted to impose Islamic law, but observed “they are usually prudent enough to wait until they are in a position of power” before making such an effort. He warned that Europe is becoming a “culture of nothing,” which takes pride in skepticism. “The ‘culture of nothing’ will not be able to resist the ideological assault of Islam,” he said.

     Krenn and Biffi illustrate one Catholic response to the Islamic question. Bishop Paolo Magnani of Treviso in the northeastern Italian region of the Veneto is currently offering another.

     The story began on August 22, when roughly 20 Moroccan families that had been squatting in public buildings in a part of Treviso known as Borgo Venezia were expelled. The adults have jobs and the requisite permits to be in Italy, but a housing shortage combined with low wages made it impossible, the Moroccans say, to find decent accommodations.

     In response to the expulsion, the Moroccans decided to take shelter at the duomo, meaning the cathedral in Treviso. They set up mattresses and blankets under the colonnade as a means of drawing attention to their situation. (They are on the grounds of the cathedral but have not actually gone inside, much less “occupied” the church, as some sensational media accounts had it).

     Magnani has openly welcomed his unexpected guests. After he celebrated Mass on Sunday, Aug. 25, he came outside and gave caramels to the children while the parents smiled and applauded. He then met with the adults, promising to help them find housing, saying he hoped to have an answer within a matter of days. In the meantime, he told them they are welcome at the duomo.

     Not all the people of Treviso have been so accommodating. On Saturday, a small group of skinheads taunted the Moroccans and threw bottles at them. At the Sunday Mass the next day, attendance was down considerably, and the faithful who did show up were not all rallying around their bishop. “What if we had occupied a mosque?” one of them asked rhetorically on his way out.

     Most vocally, the mayor of Treviso, Giancarlo Gentillini, has struck a very different tone from the bishop. A member of the formerly separatist Northern League party, Gentillini has thrown down a gauntlet.

     “This is a people that was chased around by gazelles and lions where they come from,” he said. “Our civilization is superior to that of the desert, and in Treviso we don’t want the casbah. The immigrants water down our civilization, they ruin the Piave race,” Gentillini said, using a term for northern Italians. When Magnani phoned him to try to work something out, Gentillini refused to take the call.

     When asked for his response to the problem of immigration, Gentillini was succinct: “Police vans.”

     Magnani promptly shot back that if anyone was watering down the local race it’s Gentillini, since the people of the region have always been “welcoming, responsible, and good-hearted.” As of this writing, it seems as if he’s made a deal among the mayors of small communities around Treviso where many of the Moroccans work to find them housing.

     Granted, there is no logical contradiction between Krenn or Biffi, and Magnani. One can be concerned for the maintenance of Christian culture and at the same time welcoming of people in need. Yet it’s not so much a question of logic, as of perspective and emphasis. Do we see Muslims primarily as a threat, or as fellow members of one community? It’s clear that these bishops have different instincts in this regard. One strains to imagine a smiling Krenn porting caramels to Moroccan children in the cathedral at Sankt Pölten.

     In this tension, I have little doubt where John Paul II himself comes down. It is no accident that he chose his 1983 visit to Vienna, precisely on the 300th anniversary of the siege whose memory Krenn invoked, to repeat the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Nostra Aetate that the Catholic Church “looks upon Muslims with great respect, who worship the one God, creator of heaven and earth.”

     John Paul has met with Muslims more than 50 times. I was present in Damascus on May 5, 2001, when he became the first pope in history to enter a mosque. It was the Grand Mosque of Omayyaid, and the pope, like all visitors, showed respect by taking off his shoes before he went it. (Personal secretary Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz removed the reddish-tan papal loafers and placed slippers on his feet). The pope then shuffled across the carpeted floor in the company of 86-year-old Shiekh Ahmad Kuftaro, the grand mufti of Syria. The two made a charming pair, both leaning on canes and on each other, struggling to make themselves understood. It was an icon of brotherhood, of two aged and wise religious leaders wishing peace, worth hundreds of learned theological tomes.

     Thus along the continuum between Krenn and Magnani, I’m certain John Paul is closer to the latter. Yet Krenn has been neither reprimanded nor removed, and indeed, he has won several rather nasty skirmishes with Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn (though not over Islam) with at least perceived papal backing. Whether this is wise governance, allowing Krenn to function as a “release valve” for the sentiments of the far Catholic right, or incoherence is a judgment for others to make. I would hazard the guess, however, that it will be difficult for many Muslims to understand what the Catholic Church stands for as long as both Krenn and Magnani seem to speak on its behalf.

* * *

     As a footnote, I recently learned that the grandfather of Islamic resistance in Chechnya was actually an Italian Jesuit by the name of Elisha Mansour, who had been sent to Anatolia in the late 18th century to convert the Greeks to Roman Catholicism. Instead, moved by his encounters with the Turks he converted to Islam, and, natural leader that he was, he quickly raised the banner of jihad against the Russian invaders in the Caucuses. His army was defeated at the battle of Tatar-Toub in 1791 and he was taken prisoner, and died some years later in exile in a monastery in Solovetski in northern Russia. It is said that a team of Catholic monks worked night and day to bring him back to the fold, but without success. Extraordinary people, those Jesuits.

* * *

     My wife and I remained in Poland for three days after John Paul returned to Rome August 19, seeing more of this beautiful country that has been witness to so much of the best and worst of European history, and which has exercised such a profound influence on the pope.

     We visited Wadowice, the pope’s hometown some 40 miles outside Krakow, where we scarfed down the obligatory papal cream cake. This is a local pastry whose sales went through the roof when the pope said on a previous trip home that he remembered them fondly. (For the record, it tastes something like a Polish Twinkee). The house where Karol Wojtyla passed his boyhood has been turned into a museum that does not look much like it did when he lived there, but it does contain a few of his personal effects. Most have to do with the outdoors — his skis, a canteen, hiking shoes, a knapsack. My wife was impressed to see that he was a fan of Earl Grey tea. I popped into the Wadowice parish where Wojtyla was baptized in 1920, and noted that its ceiling contains a series of frescoes related to each of John Paul’s early encyclicals.

     We also visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, an experience that lies beyond the realm of speech. 

     Another day we poked around the Wawel Cathedral high atop Krakow, the cradle of both the Polish church and nation. Spending some time there teaches much about the Polish soul, about the fiercely proud and devotional brand of Catholicism that incubates here, the way that Poles are borne back ceaselessly into their past through their poetry and their art. The use of space in the cathedral is especially fascinating, the way that the central nave has been minimized in order to accommodate a stunning series of chapels and niches, most dedicated to key figures in Polish history. It is not the community of the present, but the communion of saints in the Polish past, that greets the visitor to Wawel.

     Finally, we spent a fascinating morning being shown around the Jewish district of Krakow by one of the city’s few remaining Jews, Jozef. We met Jozef at Krakow’s only functioning synagogue, where we were sold our tickets by an elderly Jewish man who is alive today because his name appeared on Schindler’s list. 

     Before the Second World War, Krakow was home to 65,000 Jews, the vast majority of whom died at the nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Those who remained have seen their children mostly choose to emigrate to Western Europe and the United States, driven both by Poland’s economic struggles and its lingering anti-Semitism. Today there are only 176 Jews in Krakow, and Jozef, in his 60s, is the third youngest.

     I asked Jozef what he remembered of Karol Wojtyla before he became John Paul II. “He extended a blessing hand to us,” he said of the former archbishop of Krakow. Jozef confided that some of the city’s Jews had hoped that the pope might visit the synagogue while he was in town, but it could not fit into his schedule.

     After this experience, I went back and re-read the pope’s speeches during his trip to Israel in the Jubilee Year. Especially seen against the backdrop of his personal history, his outreach to Judaism, however incomplete it may be, has been remarkable.

* * * 

     Last week I noted that much of the American press chose not to report the pope’s message in Poland, to wit, that the world cannot know mercy without acknowledging its dependence on divine mercy, as expressed in the writings of St. Faustina Kowalska, an early 20th century Polish nun.

     I have to say that in all fairness, the Polish press didn’t do much better. 

     I had a chance after the trip was over to sit down with Jan Pieklo, a Polish Catholic journalist, who walked me through the coverage in his country’s press. Two points loomed most large: the absence of a clear endorsement from the pope for European Union membership, and his strong call for efforts to combat unemployment, which is nearing 20 percent in some parts of the country. 

     In other words, Polish journalists were approximately as interested in Faustina as their foreign colleagues.

     Pieklo then offered me a taxonomy of the Polish Catholic scene, arguing there are three Catholic Churches in Poland:

  • A far-right wing, nationalistic and xenophobic, centered around the powerful Radio Maria, a religious radio network that broadcasts throughout the country. Some of its clerics make common cause with a political party called Self-Defense, led by populist Andrzej Lepper.

  • The “silent majority,” Catholics who are more or less content with the church as they have traditionally experienced it, heavily devotional and pietistic. These Catholics are satisfied followers of Cardinal Józef Glemp of Warsaw, the conservative primate in Warsaw.

  • A small liberal movement, interested in dialogue with the Western theological mainstream and open to a cautious détente with social democracy. This wing has as its points of reference the former prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the monthly magazine Wiez in Warsaw, and the Znak circle of Catholic intelligentsia. This wing of the church, Pieklo said, lost credibility under Mazowiecki’s government, when it could not succeed in translating its program into effective action.
     For those seeking to understand John Paul II, it’s interesting to note that he was largely identified within Poland as an adherent of the third circle, i.e., the progressive wing of the Polish Church. Indeed, on this trip the public figures seemingly most satisfied with the pope’s performance were the country’s restyled communist leaders, President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Leszek Miller. Noting that the pope had criticized economic liberalism, supported state intervention in support of the poor and marginalized, and at least obliquely backed Poland’s desire to join the EU, Miller said: “It was all very social-democratic.”

     Seen from Western Europe or North America, and focused exclusively on “pelvic issues” such as birth control, abortion and homosexuality, John Paul II looks like a “conservative.” Seen from his own point of departure, however, the man can seem a maverick.

* * *

     Finally, I noted last week that “The Word from Rome” has turned one year old. Many readers sent along notes of congratulations and encouragement, and I simply have not found the time to respond personally to everyone. I want to say, however, that I am gratified and encouraged by the response.

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

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