National Catholic Reporter ®

September 6, 2002 
Vol. 2, No.2

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Sant’Egidio gathers voices unheard in U.S. war debate; the legacy of Fr. Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi

... through an increasingly unilateral approach, and by using overwhelming force against overmatched foes, Riotta said the U.S. has squandered its moral capital.

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 street.

     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. 11. 

     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 Sept. 3. 

     “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 of Nigeria. 

     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 in dialogue. 

     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 revenge.”

     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 The 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 the threshold.

     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 come.

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

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