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September 9, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 2

John L. Allen Jr.


Reactions to Hurrican Katrina; The Romans, the Orthodox and primacy; The pope and Turkey; Testimony of a cab driver; 40th anniversary of Dei Verbum; Oscar Romero's cause


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Americans who lived overseas at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York remember vividly the massive wave of sympathy for the United States that followed those events. The most common headline in European papers the next morning, including Corriere della Sera, the flagship paper in Italy, was, "We are all Americans now."

International reaction to Hurricane Katrina, at least from this vantage point, somehow feels different.

In the early hours after the storm there was similar concern, especially since Katrina triggered memories of the recent Asian tsunami. As events unfolded, however, many observers were quickly dumbfounded by how ill-prepared American authorities seemed to be; this is not how the richest and most powerful country in the world is supposed to function.

Then, as images of chaos played out on television screens, the inescapable fact that many of the hardest-hit victims are poor, minorities, and the elderly began to reinforce some of the worst stereotypes many overseas observers already harbor of America.

Critics have long charged that the United States is a cut-throat culture with little sense of community, one in which the poor and minorities are largely left to fend for themselves. Here, it seemed, was dramatic proof of the point, as large pockets of already vulnerable people appeared to be literally abandoned.

Le Monde, the largest paper in France, said that the hurricane had "highlighted the country's social inequalities."

"Despite the economic and military strength it is prepared to deploy overseas, the United States has shown itself incapable of dealing with a catastrophe of this dimension at home," Le Monde said.

La Repubblica, a leading Italian daily, offered similar comments.

"The catastrophe placed before the eyes of the United States and the world the reality of extreme inequality, and extreme degradation," one of the paper's editorialists wrote. "It has also shown the extreme fragility of the leading country of the Western world, and of the values it wants to export and of which it pretends to be the main source, but which are absent in its own country a century and a half after the war of secession."

"America lives in every sense with Africa in its back yard," the editorialist wrote. "This situation doesn't seem to be a priority for America's ruling class; but this neglect is greatly worrying to America's real friends."

How fair those judgments are is, of course, a matter of legitimate debate, but they seemed to articulate fairly widely held perceptions.

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Two Americans in Rome, one a Vatican official and the other a superior of a religious community, said they believe the response to Katrina has damaged America's reputation internationally.

Cardinal Francis Stafford, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court that deals with matters of conscience, told NCR Sept. 6 that the response during the early days of the crisis, which saw tens of thousands of people in New Orleans left without food, water or shelter, was "reprehensible."

"It is a shame on our country," he said.

Sr. Clare Pratt, superior general of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, told me that in her Rome community, with sisters from nine nationalities, there has been "overwhelming criticism" of the way officials responded to the crisis.

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Pratt said the racial dimension is a strong factor in discussions.

"You turn on the television, and you see busloads being packed up at the Hyatt, while poor blacks are left behind. Who makes these decisions, and why? It's hard to explain," Pratt said.

Pratt stressed, however, "these racial and class concerns don't outweigh people's tremendous sympathy for all concerned."

Stafford likewise said that "one picks up" a strong sense internationally of repugnance at the fact that African-Americans, poor people, and the elderly were among the most devastated.

"In every paper I have read, and in my own conversations, I find a nearly unanimous sense that the government has failed to protect its own citizens, especially the most vulnerable," Stafford said.

Stafford told NCR that the failures were especially difficult to grasp in light of a 1998 study that predicted precisely this sort of crisis if the New Orleans levees were not reinforced. He also pointed out that other nations with major urban areas below sea level, such as Holland, manage to avoid these outcomes through regular reinforcement of defensive measures.

To President George Bush's credit, Stafford said, he has acknowledged that the response was unacceptable.

Stafford linked the failures in the wake of the hurricane to a more general neglect of urban areas in the United States.

"When I visit major cities in the United States, I've been struck by the deterioration that has taken place in urban neighborhoods," Stafford said.

"I'm not talking about high-profile areas such as Baltimore's Inner Harbor, but the neighborhoods adjacent to them," he said. "I began to see this in the early 1980s, but it has become progressively worse. The reality is that the overwhelming numbers of people who live in these areas are poor and minorities."

In that sense, Stafford said, the effects of Hurricane Katrina may illustrate in especially dramatic form a more general pattern of disregard.

At the same time, Stafford said, one should not forget that children and the elderly of all backgrounds were also among those most affected.

Pratt said people with whom she's spoken often link the hurricane in the States and its aftermath to two other issues: the war in Iraq and ecology.

"Roughly one-third of the National Guard of Louisiana and Alabama is on duty in Iraq, and some ask whether the money and personnel there could have been better used to protect vulnerable people in the United States," Pratt said.

Pratt then pointed to the ecological dimension of the crisis.

"Some people are asking if this will be a wake-up call about climate change and so on," Pratt said. "It's not just a matter of global warming, but our handling of rivers and waterways and so on."

At the same time, she said, the crisis has also generated innumerable stories of generosity. As one example, she pointed to the way that Sacred Heart schools across the United States have mobilized to absorb students from the community's New Orleans school, taking them in at least until January, the earliest that the New Orleans school is expected to be operational.

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Some readers of "The Word from Rome" will know American Fr. Christopher Nalty, an official of the Congregation for Clergy. His family lives in New Orleans, and, as it happens, Nalty arrived home just days before Hurricane Katrina to spend some time with his father, who is ill. Fortunately, the family evacuated before the storm to property they own in Brewton, Alabama.

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"We were some of the lucky ones with someplace to go," Nalty said.

Nalty has been keeping friends informed via e-mail; despite some controversy over the term, he does not hesitate to describe the people of New Orleans as "refugees," unable to return to their homes for long periods of time, and unsure what they'll find when they get there.

In the meantime, Nalty is working with the Willwoods Community, an affordable housing operation sponsored by the New Orleans archdiocese that owns 11 buildings and some 1,700 apartments for low-income people. Their first aim is to restore a property in one of the least affected areas so that it can temporarily house workers, who will then fan out and try to make the other structures habitable as quickly as possible.

"I'm not really good at asking for help, but here it is,"
Nalty writes in a Sept. 7 e-mail.
"Lots of people are donating to different relief efforts or the Red Cross, and that's great. I'm just asking for help for something with which I'm involved. I'm not asking help for something that would be a luxury, but what is a necessity: housing so that refugees can return home."

The Willwoods Web site is down due to power outages, but people wishing to help can visit the site of the New Orleans TV station, WLAE, which has a special button for Willwoods:

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In 1992, the war room of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign had a simple rule for cutting through the complexity of a national political race: "It's the economy, stupid!"

The current state of relations between Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches of the East, although perhaps even more complex than American presidential politics, might similarly be reduced to an analogous catchphrase: "It's the primacy, stupid!"

Despite centuries of theological, liturgical and political controversies between East and West, most Orthodox and Catholic observers believe that today those differences could be understood as healthy diversity, rather than motives for schism. At bottom, there is only one real remaining obstacle to unity, but it's a whopper: the role and power of the pope, summed up in the word "primacy."

Virtually every time Orthodox and Catholics come together, there are reminders of the point. This week in Assisi was no exception.

The occasion was a symposium sponsored by the Pontifical University Antonianum, run by the Franciscans, and Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, on the theme of "The Eucharist in Eastern and Western tradition." The Eastern scholars were mostly Greek Orthodox, representing a church which, along with Russian Orthodoxy, has long been regarded as the most resistant to ecumenical overtures from Rome.

The meeting is especially significant in light of the fact that Benedict XVI has announced that ecumenism, above all with the Orthodox churches, is among the top priorities of his pontificate.

Among the conveners were the Catholic Archbishop of Corfu, Yannis Spiteris; the Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo (in Syria), Paul Yazigi; the Catholic apostolic vicar in Anatolia (Turkey), Bishop Luigi Padovese; and Msgr. Eleuterio Fortino, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

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Most of the Orthodox I talked to in Assisi seemed to agree that the original vision of the ecumenical movement after the Second Vatican Council -- "full, visible, structural unity" between the divided branches of Christianity -- was probably a bit unrealistic, and is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of Aleppo told me that he doesn't believe structural unity with Catholicism is in the cards.

"It's not a political problem for us, whether Rome or Constantinople is the most powerful throne," he said. "It's a theological problem. We can accept the pope as a sort of first patriarch, but it's the mode of exercising that primacy that's the problem. The College of Bishops must be above the pope."

"We can better find the truth when we act together, in a Holy Synod," Yazigi said. "We cannot accept a system where the pope is more powerful than the bishops."

Yazigi said that doesn't mean that Orthodox and Catholics can't work together.

"We are united in many things," he said. "Even the ecclesiological differences are small, but they are very important."

Orthodox theologian Petros Vassiliadis likewise told me structural unity between Catholics and Orthodox is difficult to imagine.

"We can recognize two great traditions, East and West, but not under one structure," he said. "The Orthodox world will never accept a substantive primacy of the pope."

Part of the reason, Vassiliadis said, is the strong Orthodox emphasis on the autonomy of the local church and bishop.

"In the Orthodox world, even the patriarch can't celebrate Mass outside his own diocese without the permission of the local bishop, and sometimes it is refused," he said. "The bishop enjoys a quasi-absolute position."

Another factor, he said, is political.

"There is a small percentage of fanatics in the Orthodox church who see Rome as the enemy, but they have a strong hold on the bishops, who don't want to rile them," Vassiliadis said.

Given those realities, both Yazigi and Vassiliadis said that the goals of the ecumenical movement should be redefined, away from structural unity, toward mutual understanding and joint action on issues of social and cultural interest.

"I think we can enrich one another's theology, we can get to know one another better, and I think we can work together on things we both care about - the fight for the soul of Europe, for example," Vassiliadis said. "To expect more than that is probably asking too much."

One step forward, Vassiliadis said, would be for the Orthodox to do for Catholics what Catholics have already done for Orthodox -- recognize them as "sister churches."

"Catholics recognize the validity of our ministries and sacraments, but it's not as clear from the Orthodox side," he said. "I think it would be very helpful to clarify this."

As an example of Vassiliadis' point, some Orthodox communities baptize Catholic converts to Orthodoxy, on the grounds that their original baptism was not valid. (From the Catholic point of view, this amounts to "re-baptism"). This practice varies widely from church to church, and sometimes within churches. The Russian Orthodox Church generally does not (re-)baptize Lutherans or Catholics, for example, while some clergy within the Church of Greece do.

Interestingly, the Catholic vicar in Anatolia, Turkey, Padovese, was more optimistic about structural unity.

"I think it's achievable," Padovese told me. "After all, we're living in an era of pluralism."

"This is not going to happen fast," Padovese said. "But I believe it is going to happen."

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Since Padovese is a senior Catholic official in Turkey, I asked him about the prospects for a papal visit in November.

"We're waiting for Pope Benedict at the end of November for the Feast of St. Andrew," Padovese said. "I believe he will come."

Padovese confirmed something that has long been rumored, which is that the hold-up in terms of making the visit official comes from the Turkish civil government, not the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, which is eager for the visit. It's the opposite of the situation in Russia, where Putin's government has said it has no problem with a papal visit, but it's blocked by the Russian Orthodox.

Why is the Turkish government skittish?

"In part, it has to do with the internal politics of Turkey," Padovese said. "The trip will not be accepted by all. Not everybody wants a dialogue with the Western world, or with the Christian church. There are radical circles within Islam that the government has to worry about," he said.

Padovese said security is undoubtedly also a concern.

I asked if Joseph Ratzinger's reservations about Turkey's admission to the European Union, expressed before he was elected pope, were also a factor.

"If he comes, it would give him the chance to make his views a little more precise," Padovese said. "It was presented in the Turkish press like a complete refusal [of Turkey's candidacy], but it's more open than that."

Padovese speculated that the government may be waiting to formally announce the invitation to the pope until after Oct. 3, when negotiating sessions on membership with the EU begin. If it seems clear from the outset that the negotiations are going well, it would be easier to manage any domestic opposition to the pope's arrival; further, inviting the pope at that time would be an ideal way for Turkey to demonstrate its openness to the West, as well as its capacity to handle security and logistics for the travel of major world leaders.

Padovese also said that a papal trip would be a "major boost" to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, by tradition the primus inter pares, or first among equals, in the Orthodox world.

"In Turkey, the Patriarch is not always seen in a good light," Padovese said. "There's a strong nationalist current in Turkey that doesn't like the patriarchate. This trip would strengthen its image," because Bartholomew would be seen as the pope's host and in some ways his equal.

Padovese said he believes there will be something different about the trip to Turkey, assuming Benedict does come, as opposed to other papal voyages.

"This would not be the trip of a head of state," he said. "It will be more directed at the people, showing them a church open to dialogue."

Given how that might challenge certain negative stereotypes of Christians in the Islamic world, Padovese added: "That's probably another reason that not everyone wants it to happen."

A senior Vatican official told NCR Sept. 7 that while nothing is official, he believes the trip will take place in late November.

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Though I always find conversation with Orthodox Christians fascinating, the best story from this trip to Assisi came from a Catholic, and not a prelate or theologian or, for that matter, anyone at the symposium.

Instead, it comes from cab driver Bruno Fortini, a distant relative of Arnaldo Fortini, a famous historian and author from Assisi who has written widely on the life of St. Francis. This year, Bruno Fortini marks his 47th year driving a cab in the Umbrian town best know as Francis' birthplace.

Fortini told me that on his very first day on the job, back in 1958, his first client was a bishop who had come to Assisi for a pastoral congress being held in a local prison. Fortini picked him up at the train station and set off for the prison, not exactly sure how to get there by car, since it wasn't among the common tourist sites he had learned to identify in taxi driver's school.

"My son, how long have you been doing this work?" the bishop playfully asked, as Fortini began driving in circles.

"Excellency, this is my first day, and you're my first client," he said. "I come from a poor family, and I'd never driven a car before I took the training for this job. Plus, the car we trained in was much smaller. Please forgive me."

The bishop smiled, saying, "Don't worry. They can't start without me."

As he continued picking his way through the narrow Assisi streets, Fortini found that the cab was simply too big to make it anywhere near the prison. He had to stop several blocks away and accompany the bishop on foot, uphill. Since this prelate was a fairly rotund man, he arrived sweating and huffing, but nonetheless in good spirits.

After he paid the fare, the bishop started to enter the building, then doubled back.

"Since you're just starting this work, I think you need a blessing," he told Fortini, laying his hand on the cab driver's head.

"That hand felt like a ham hock, it was so thick," Fortini laughingly recalled.

The bishop removed a small metal cross from his pocket and gave it to Fortini, waving as he made his way into the prison for the meeting. Fortini still has that cross on the dashboard of his cab today.

This exchange took place in May 1958. In October of the same year, that bishop (who, unbeknownst to Fortini at the time, was actually Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the patriarch of Venice) was elected as Pope John XXIII.

"Good Pope John" was beatified in 2000, and Fortini is convinced that his blessing still has juice.

"I haven't had an accident in 48 years of driving a cab," he said. "You can't tell me that's just good luck."

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Next week the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is sponsoring a major Biblical conference intended to highlight the 40th anniversary of the Vatican II document on scripture, Dei Verbum.

On Thursday, the congress was introduced during a Vatican press conference by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni, president of the Catholic Biblical Federation, along with a couple of other organizers. More than 100 bishops from around the world are expected to attend, with keynote addresses by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the emeritus archbishop of Milan, and a noted Scripture scholar; Kasper; and Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria.

Given the lead role of Kasper's office, the congress will have a strong ecumenical slant, with representatives of the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Athens, and many other Orthodox churches, as well as leaders of the Anglican Communion, Lutheran World Federation, World Baptist Alliance, and other denominational and ecumenical bodies.

Scripture, Kasper stressed, is a key to ecumenical progress.

"There can be no doubt that the Word of God is in first place" in any proper understanding of the church, he said.

Paglia quoted a recent study by an Italian Biblical association that found 80 percent of practicing Catholics (those who go to Mass at least once a week) in Italy, France, and Spain are exposed to the Bible only during Mass, and only 3 percent of practicing Catholics read the Bible every day. This unfamiliarity leads to surprising ignorance; 40 percent of active Catholics believe that Paul wrote one of the four gospels, for example, and 26 believe that Peter did so.

Paglia also said that every Catholic should have the right to a copy of the Bible in his or her own language, which creates a corresponding duty for the church to get it to them. There's still work to be done; while the Bible has been translated, either in whole or in part, into 2,300 languages, that still leaves roughly 1,000 languages, mostly in the global south, without any translation at all.

In his summary of the 40 years since Dei Verbum, Kasper spoke favorably of the trend towards "inter-confessional translations of the Bible in the various languages," usually meaning joint projects involving Catholic and Protestant Scripture scholars, theologians, and linguists. He said he wants the congress to examine "the state of ecumenical collaboration" in the Biblical field.

During the Q&A session, I pointed out to Kasper that a May 2001 document of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Liturgiam Authenticam, expressed concern about just such inter-confessional efforts.

"Great caution is to be taken," that document said, "to avoid a wording or style that the Catholic faithful would confuse with the manner of speech of non-Catholic ecclesial communities or of other religions, so that such a factor will not cause them confusion or discomfort."

How are we to reconcile, I asked, Kasper's positive stance on inter-confessional translations with the caution urged by the Congregation for Worship, now under the leadership of Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze?

"I've written to Cardinal Arinze to suggest that we meet to discuss this," Kasper replied. "There are some differences that exist. We haven't yet had a chance to have the meeting. Perhaps after the congress we can talk about it."

In any case, Kasper said, Dei Verbum itself pointed toward this sort of ecumenical effort.

"It spoke of [inter-confessional] collaboration on Biblical and liturgical texts," he said. "We should be able to work together to find a solution."

Another journalist asked Kasper for his assessment of Catholic/Orthodox relations, especially in light of the recent transfer of the headquarters of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine from L'viv to Kiev.

"So far we haven't had any grave, strong reactions," he said. "We're in communication with the Russian Orthodox church. We're on a good road."

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Paglia, a longtime intimate of the Sant'Egidio movement, is also the postulator for the cause for beatification of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. After Thursday's press conference wound up, I pulled him aside to ask for a status report.

"I'll tell you everything within a month," he said. "Give me a month, and you'll know it all."

"Anyway, I can tell you this much," he said. "The Holy Father looks on it very favorably" (literally, di buon occhio, "with a good eye").

So, I pressed, does that mean the beatification is for sure?

"Hey, I'm not the Holy Office," Paglia joked. "I can't give that kind of answer."

But, you're optimistic?

"Yes," he said, "I'm optimistic."

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

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