... through an increasingly unilateral approach, and by using overwhelming
force against overmatched foes, Riotta said the U.S. has squandered its
|This week my newspaper, the National
Catholic Reporter, has what amounts to virtually an American exclusive
in my report on an international summit of religious leaders, some 400
from more than 50 countries, sponsored by the Sant’Egidio community that
took place in Palermo Sept.1 —3.
I never thought I’d hear myself saying this,
but I wish it wasn’t so.
It’s not that I’m not proud we have the story.
The fact that NCR was willing to invest resources in listening to
what a group of religious leaders from around the world have to say demonstrates
anew why the paper is important, and rather unique. But in this case I
wish the rest of the American press had followed suit, because there were
voices in Palermo that merit a wide audience.
This was the sixteenth inter-religious summit
sponsored by Sant’Egidio, one of the “new movements” in the Catholic church
since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and perhaps the only one whose
center of gravity could be described as leftist. Because of its efforts
at international conflict resolution, such as the 1992 Mozambique peace
accords, Sant’Egidio has been dubbed the “U.N. of Trastevere” (Trastevere
being the Roman neighborhood where the group’s headquarters are located).
The community is also involved in campaigns to abolish the death penalty,
to promote human rights, and to combat racism. Every year, for example,
they sponsor a procession to mark the memory of the roundup of Roman Jews
for deportation to Auschwitz on Oct. 16, 1943.
The community is also committed to ecumenism
and inter-religious dialogue. After John Paul’s pan-religious summit in
Assisi in 1986, Sant’Egidio picked up the challenge of keeping “the spirit
of Assisi” alive by hosting an annual summit of religious leaders in different
spots. This year they chose Palermo, the most Mediterranean and even African
of all European cities, with a strong Arab influence.
The meeting, entitled “Religion and Cultures:
Between Conflict and Dialogue,” brought together 12 cardinals and 30 bishops
and abbots, 18 representatives of Orthodoxy, 18 Protestants, 9 representatives
of Judaism, 28 Muslims, 13 adherents of Asian religions (from India, Japan,
Singapore and Sri Lanka), plus 57 representatives of international organizations
and 19 diplomats.
How representative are these folks?
Almost by definition, the Christians, Muslims,
Jews, Hindus, etc. who move in the Sant’Egidio orbit come from the moderate
wings of their traditions. Hard-liners tend either to reject dialogue on
principle, or simply to lack interest. Hence when the Muslims at a Sant’Egidio
gathering say that the Koran abhors violence, or the Hindus say that their
tradition of tolerance leaves no room for nationalistic prejudice, it’s
a fair question to ask to what extent they reflect currents on their own
It’s also fair to point out that while Sant’Egidio
makes a huge, and largely successful, effort to be non-partisan, its history
and sociology is still leftist. Its allies in the world of non-governmental
organizations and human rights groups especially tend to tilt in that direction.
Hence the points of view expressed may sometimes be a bit more ideologically
driven than wider public opinion.
Yet the bottom line is that the summits remain
a unique platform for conversations across boundaries of geography, culture,
ethnicity, and religion. Because Sant’Egidio imposes no agenda of its own
(other than the pre-determined agreement that true religion is opposed
to violence), the exchanges are generally open, honest, and reflective
of the issues that are really on people’s minds.
For Americans, this year’s gathering was especially
timely, because it was an opportunity to hear how people from other parts
of the world are responding to American foreign policy choices since Sept.
I devoted my piece in NCR to this theme,
so here I will simply say the evaluation was largely negative. Traditional
critics of the United States were angry, our allies disappointed and frustrated.
pro-American Italian journalist Gianni Riotta, for example, rallied to
the defense of the United States when Catholic Archbishop Ramzi Garmo of
Tehran asked provocatively why Sept. 11 got so much attention in the world
press, as if “American blood is worth more than blood in other countries.”
Yet even Riotta said he believes the U.S. “lost a great opportunity” after
the Twin Towers came down.
“In that moment the United States had the sympathy
of the entire world,” Riotta said. “The powerful were victims, they had
been revealed in their humanity.” Yet through an increasingly unilateral
approach, and by using overwhelming force against overmatched foes, Riotta
said the U.S. has squandered its moral capital. Today, Riotta said, the
U.S. is once again seen “in the Arab world, in Latin America, and in much
of Europe” as the great victimizer.
This rising anti-American tide, speakers pointed
out, is remarkably potent.
At this year’s Venice film festival, one of
the largest and most popular in Europe, there was tremendous enthusiasm
for “11’09’01,” a new film composed of eleven segments by eleven different
international filmmakers responding to the events of Sept. 11. The most-discussed
sequence appears to suggest that the U.S. had the terrorist attacks coming
because of the CIA’s role in the 1973 coup in Chile (which, by a quirk
of fate, also took place on Sept. 11). In France, meanwhile, a best-selling
new book suggests that commercial airplanes were not used against the Twin
Towers at all, that it was a CIA plot.
The point is not that these are good, even
cogent, ideas. The point is that it’s nevertheless important to ask why
certain sectors of world opinion are prepared to entertain them.
Also revealing in Palermo was the way a cross-section
of Vatican officials expressed opposition, directly or indirectly, to a
U.S. war against Iraq. Cardinals Roger Etchegaray (French), Ignatius Moussa
I Daoud (Syrian), and Walter Kasper (German), along with Archbishop Diarmuid
Martin (Irish), all voiced opposition.
This clear anti-war consensus contrasts with
the Vatican’s immediate post-Sept. 11 stance, which was more tolerant of
the use of force.
Kasper, in fact, was one of the Vatican’s hawks
in the early stages of the U.S.-led war on terror. “When a government shelters
terrorists, the civilized world has a right to come to a conflict with
this government,” Kasper told reporters in early October. Yet in Palermo,
he rejected attacking Iraq, saying there are neither “the motives nor the
proof” to justify a war.
Such turn-arounds will likely disappoint American
diplomats, who were proud of the support they got from the Vatican on Afghanistan.
The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, virtually enrolled
John Paul II in President Bush’s coalition in a talk at the Palermo conference
“I met with pope on Sept. 13, who told me,
‘I’ve concluded those were acts not just against the United States but
all mankind,’” Nicholson said. “This was the predicate for the moral support
from the Holy See in our efforts against terrorism.”
The statements from Vatican officials at Palermo
suggest this support will be much more difficult to obtain the next time
around. That impression was strengthened by similar comments from Catholic
prelates from other parts of the world.
“We must assign criminals to international
courts without subjecting entire populations to bombardments,” said Cardinal
Etsou-Nvabi-Bamungwabi of Kinshasa in Congo.
“Let’s hope that world public opinion will
put more pressure on those hawks in America who want to have this war with
Iraq for reasons that we don’t yet understand,” said Archbishop John Onaiyekan
Onaiyekan, with whom I spoke in Palermo as
we waited to fly back to Rome, told me: “You Americans perhaps don’t appreciate
that many of us can’t see the logic for saying that Sadam Hussein can’t
have weapons of mass destruction, but you can. You don’t have the moral
credentials to tell someone else not to have them.”
Once again, the point is not that these views
are necessarily correct. It is rather that in this season of 9/11 remembrances,
in which there is a strong temptation for Americans to collapse in on our
sorrow and sense of vulnerability, it is more important than ever to be
The religions of the world owe Sant’Egidio
a dept of gratitude for keeping the conversation going. I only wish we
Anglophones would be more involved; for that reason, Sant’Egidio might
be well-advised to heed veteran Italian journalist Giancarlo Zizola’s advice
to stage the summit next year in New York.
* * *
My wife and I arrived in Palermo the day before
the Sant’Egidio summit opened, because I had another story I wanted to
investigate. I had been interested in Fr. Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, Palermo’s
anti-mafia priest who was assassinated in 1993, and who is now a candidate
for sainthood, since I saw last year’s two-part mini-series on Italian
television based on his life.
I was captivated by the way Italian state television
network RAI presented this funny, spitfire pastor, who convinced youth
in his neighborhood of Brancaccio that there are ways forward in life other
than the mob, and who helped shape a civil society that challenged its
political hold. The TV series, called “Brancaccio,” presented Puglisi as
the Oscar Romero of Sicily, a man whose life made a difference and whose
death changed history. I wanted to know if the real man measured up to
the TV character.
The more I learn, the more I realize that Pino
Puglisi was a more impressive, more inspirational figure than any four
hours of television could possibly capture.
On Sunday, Sept. 1, I went to an early Mass
at Puglisi’s old parish in Brancaccio. (My cab driver looked twice and
asked if I was sure I really wanted to go to such a disreputable spot,
but I insisted). San Gaetano’s is a tiny little neighborhood parish, and
I arrived just after Mass had started. Clearly the twenty or so people
were all from the neighborhood, so everything stopped for a moment when
I walked in. Equally obviously, however, they’re used to people being drawn
by don Puglisi, and they welcomed me.
I noted a large plaque on the wall:
To the perpetual memory of the pastor, P. Giuseppe
Puglisi. Priest of the Lord, missionary of the gospel, former of consciences
in truth. Promoter of social solidarity and ecclesial service in charity.
Killed for his faithfulness to Christ and to humanity on Sept. 15, 1993.
Later I had the good fortune of meeting Francesco
Deliziosi, a Catholic layman in Palermo who had Puglisi as a religion teacher
in high school, as a spiritual director for 15 years, and who served as
a volunteer in Puglisi’s San Gaetano parish from 1990 until the pastor
was gunned down. Deliziosi then began a research project on Puglisi’s life,
which became the basis for the historical materials in the diocesan phase
of the canonization process. (That phase is closed, and they are now awaiting
action from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints).
At the conference, Deliziosi recounted the
story of Puglisi’s experience during the 1960s in the tiny town of Godrana,
in the hills 40 kilometers outside Palermo. When Puglisi arrived as pastor,
there had been 15 recent murders in this village of scarcely more than
100 people, all related to a feud between two rival clans that had engulfed
everyone. Puglisi started going door-to-door, reading the gospel with people
and talking about forgiveness. He encouraged small groups to meet together
to pray and read the Bible, at first once a month, then every 15 days.
Eventually one of the women who had been hosting
a group said to Puglisi that she did not feel she could carry on until
she had forgiven the mother of her son’s assassin. After much time, effort
and prayer, Puglisi arranged a reconciliation between the two women, which
endured despite strong disapproval from many in the village. By itself
this outcome did not cancel the feud, but it was a start.
“Peace,” Puglisi said, “is like bread — it
must be shared or it loses its flavor.”
In 1992, a year before his own death, two famous
anti-mafia judges were assassinated in Sicily, Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni
Falcone. (Borsellino’s sister, Rita, spoke at the Sant’Egidio conference,
and by consensus hers was one of the most powerful talks over the three
days. Today the Palermo airport bears the names of these two heroes).
Deliziosi said that Puglisi happened to be
with some school children from his parish when he learned of Borsellino’s
death. He was deeply upset, Deliziosi said, but after a moment he turned
to the children and said: “We must be able to forgive the authors of this
tragedy and to invite them to conversion.”
The kids were incredulous. Puglisis then asked
them, “If Judge Borsellino had been in your family, would you forgive his
killers?” The youth, raised on the centuries-old Sicilian tradition of
the vendetta, said no.
“Then we have a long road yet to follow,” he
said. “It is the road of Christian forgiveness, seeking justice and not
It’s little wonder that Puglisi’s face is on
walls all over Palermo, that his sayings adorn classrooms, that meeting
rooms and conference centers and small streets are named after him. (On
Monday night a colleague and I went to the parish of Santa Lucia in the
center of Palermo to catch a panel discussion on Christianity and Islam,
and found ourselves in a small upstairs room with a small sign identifying
it as the “Pino Puglisi Hall”). It’s no wonder that people in Sicily regard
him as a martyr, and that he soon may formally be a saint.
Deliziosi shared one other small detail. Sept.
15, the day Puglisi was killed, is now the official opening of activities
each year for the Palermo archdiocese. It’s another small way of holding
onto the memory of a priest who never forgot his people.
* * *
Italian journalist Benny Lai once wrote a famous
book about legendary Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Siri called The Pope
Never Elected. (I think the official English translation was called
Unelected Pope, but that’s not quite the same thing). The title reflected
the fact that lots of people — including, it is said, Siri himself — felt
Siri would one day be pope, and he got close twice in 1978, but never crossed
Another man whom many have long regarded as
a strong papal contender was once again in his element at the Sant’Egidio
gathering: French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who is probably the community’s
best friend (though it has several) in the College of Cardinals. But later
this month (Sept. 25, to be exact) Etchegaray will turn 80, and become
ineligible to take part in the next conclave. Though it’s possible his
brother cardinals might elect him anyway, it’s unlikely, and hence Etchegaray
is probably also moving into the ranks of never-elected popes.
Etchegaray is not, however, slowing down. Earlier
this year he undertook a delicate diplomatic mission on behalf of John
Paul II, attempting to negotiate an end to the standoff over the Basilica
of the Nativity in Bethlehem. At the Sant’Egidio summit, Etchegaray was
in grand form, using his charm and wit to defuse tensions, drawing on his
deep and genuine commitment to dialogue to foster understanding. I dare
say it’s hard for anyone to meet Roger Etchegaray and not come away with
a good impression of the Catholic Church.
One the wonderful things about Etchegaray is
his humility. On the way to Palermo from Rome, he flew coach, taking the
same Alitalia flight as my wife and I. We killed time together at the gate,
until an elderly nun approached who was struggling with her bags. The 79-year-old
Etchegaray noticed and popped up before I knew what was going on, and lent
a hand. He was wearing clerical blacks, and the nun simply murmured grazie,
padre, obviously not noticing the pectoral cross and ring marking someone
higher up the ecclesiastical food chain. His Eminence did not correct her.
In my recent book Conclave, written
over a year ago, I have Etchegaray on my list of top twenty papabili.
Today that seems much less likely. But one can nevertheless hope that Ethchegaray’s
service to the church, in whatever capacity, continues for many years to
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