“We begin the new century with a post-Christian
West, and a post-Western Christianity.”
Andrew Walls, a Scottish Methodist
addressing Christianity in the Third World
is a trademark of the age of 24-hour news cycles. Events don’t finish these
days before an army of pundits appears on TV, radio and the Internet, offering
expert opinions rooted in perhaps 30 seconds of actual reflection.
Thus it was that I found
myself on the air on Tuesday, Oct. 1, commenting on how to interpret the
pope’s latest shuffle of senior curial officials, just moments after the
changes were announced. In case you missed them, the moves are:
What’s my insta-interpretation?
Cardinal Francis Arinze, 69, Nigerian, takes over
as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of
Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, 65, English, succeeds
Arinze as president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue
and thereby is automatically elevated to the rank of archbishop;
Archbishop Renato Martino, 69, Italian, succeeds
the recently deceased Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân
as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Martino has
been the Holy See’s observer at the United Nations since 1986;
Bishop Attilio Nicora, 65, Italian, becomes head
of the Apostolic Patrimony of the Holy See, the Vatican’s finance office.
It was Nicora who oversaw the 1984 revision of the concordat, or
basic agreement, between Italy and the Vatican. Nicora too automatically
becomes an archbishop;
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, 68, prefect of the
Congregation for Bishops, has been elevated to rank of “cardinal-bishop,”
the highest of the three grades of the cardinal’s office (the other two
being cardinal-deacon and cardinal-priest).
First, I do not read
it as John Paul “designating his successor,” as some have suggested, with
Arinze. Indeed, if the pope were thinking solely in terms of electoral
politics, and assuming he wanted to help Arinze, he probably would have
done better to leave him where he is. Aside from some traditionalist circles,
few people are opposed to polite conversation with other religions. At
Worship, however, Arinze will have to make lots of tough decisions, and
that can create enemies as well as friends.
Similarly, the honor
for Re is, in one sense, further confirmation that John Paul likes and
trusts his former sostituto, the official in the Secretariat of
State responsible for day-to-day church affairs, a job Re held for 11 years.
Yet again it’s important not to over-interpret. The prefect of the Congregation
for Bishops is normally made a cardinal-bishop, as space opens up, so Re’s
ascent is not terribly surprising.
Bottom line: Both Arinze
and Re were already papabili, or serious contenders to be pope,
and they remain so after these appointments.
I think the more interesting
choices, at least in terms of papal politics, are those at the Councils
for Inter-religious Dialogue and for Justice and Peace. Broadly speaking,
both Fitzgerald and Martino are theological moderates and social progressives.
Assuming both become cardinals, which usually goes with the territory,
it would strengthen the small center-left wing in the College of Cardinals,
what I call in my book Conclave the “Reform Party.”
Fitzgerald, a member
of the Missionaries of Africa (“White Fathers”), is a widely respected
expert on Islam. He is known inside the Vatican as a man of wit, integrity,
with an open mind and a deep sense of loyalty. His theological orientation
can be glimpsed from a seminar in April 2001 at the Gregorian University,
where Fitzgerald praised Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, the Jesuit theologian
whose attempts to assign positive theological significance to religious
diversity had been criticized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Fitzgerald said he wished
“to put on the record a debt of gratitude to Fr. Dupuis and his pioneering
“I had the honor of being
present in this hall during a presentation of Fr. Dupuis’ book,” Fitzgerald
said. “Some have spoken of ambiguities, but since theology is a developing
science, it is only natural that various theories will be presented, discussed,
and brought into a synthesis.”
It was a polite, loyal
way of registering dissent.
I don’t know Martino
personally, but I hear he’s a dynamic figure. He is certainly no leftist
by the standards of secular politics, since he was the Vatican’s point
man in the titanic battles of the 1990s over reproductive policies at the
U.N. conferences in Cairo and Bejing. Yet Martino has also been a strong
voice for human rights and socially responsible economic policies, and
as a professional diplomat, he abhors absolutist positions as a matter
As for Nicora, he is
a rather standard conservative on church politics. As bishop of Verona
in 1996, he forbade his priests from cooperation with a petition drive
asking for changes in church policy on women’s ordination, celibacy, and
a host of other issues. Yet one has the impression that he is not especially
interested in theology. I asked an Italian friend who’s quite well known
in church circles for his take on Nicora. “If I needed someone to baptize
my son, he wouldn’t necessarily be the man I would call. But to balance
my bank account, yes, sure.”
Sounds like a reasonable
endorsement for the new head of APSA.
* * *
Early October is my favorite
time of the year in Rome, because the ecclesiastical life of the city returns
to full swing. Every day brings another meeting, another press conference,
another book presentation, another intriguing Catholic personality in town
with whom to have lunch or dinner. It’s a period when Rome’s status as
the crossroads of the Catholic world is on full display.
I’ll cite three quick
examples, each of which would easily be worth an entire column under different
This week an ecumenical
group of librarians, archivists and scholars of mission studies is meeting
under the aegis of the International Association for Mission Studies and
the International Association of Catholic Missiologists. The conference,
entitled “Rescuing the Memory of Our Peoples,” is taking place at the Centro
Internazionale di Animazione Missionaria at the Urban University, run
by the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
The group of 50 some
experts, including Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Anglicans, is in
effect trying to organize a race against the clock to preserve the historical
memory of Christianity, and especially its missions, in the Third World.
Under the pressures of globalization, poverty, war, and neglect, lots of
irreplaceable historical resources – documents, oral traditions, physical
remains – are in danger in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Andrew Walls, a Scottish
Methodist who is among the leading experts on Christianity in the Third
World, summed up the archivist’s spirit: “Never destroy a piece of paper
until you make at least two copies of it.”
Walls gave a fascinating
keynote address in which he reviewed the well-known statistics about the
20th century inversion in Christian demography. At the beginning
of the century, 80 percent of Christians lived in Europe and North America;
today 60 percent live in the Southern Hemisphere. “We begin the new century
with a post-Christian West, and a post-Western Christianity,” he said.
In this context, Walls
argued, building archival resources in Africa, Asia and Latin America is
a matter of survival for Christians everywhere. Given that theological
reflection arises out of the lived faith experience of a community, if
it doesn’t happen in the South, “there won’t be theological studies anywhere
much worth caring about.”
One thing that struck
me was the way conference participants seemed to hold together their high
ideals and the nitty-gritty details their work necessarily involves. I
never thought I’d hear a discussion about the best way to combat paper
rot in front of the bright red flag of Brazil’s Movimento Sem Terra,
or movement of the landless, but there it was.
Further information can
be found at www.missionstudies.org/rescue/.
I spent Oct. 1-2 in Terni,
a small industrial town about an hour north of Rome, which is the diocese
of Bishop Vincenzio Paglia. Before becoming a bishop Paglia was a key figure
in the Sant’Egidio Community in Trastevere, and he remains a great friend
and supporter. (Paglia’s heart has always been with issues of social justice.
As one sign of that commitment, he was named the postulator, or
coordinator, for the sainthood cause of El Salvador’s martyred Archbishop
Oscar Romero. Paglia wears Romero’s pectoral cross).
The occasion in Terni
was a Catholic-Russian Orthodox dialogue, sponsored by Sant’Egidio. The
theme was “Holiness and Charity in the Christianity of East and West: A
Path for the Churches in the Age of Globalization.” Given the strained
Catholic-Orthodox relationship these days, especially since the expulsion
of Bishop Jerzy Mazur from his diocese of St. Joseph at Irkutsk in Siberia,
along with several other priests from different parts of Russia, the dialogue
was remarkable for the very fact of being held.
Catholic and Russian
Orthodox figures took turns giving talks on monks and holy men and women
from the two traditions who illustrate the link between sanctity and concern
for the poor. Example: An Orthodox priest, Dimitrij Rumjancev, spoke on
St. Ioann of Kronstadt, a 19th century Orthodox saint, while
Fr. Tomas Spídlik told the story of Padre Pio.
The head of two of Catholicism’s
largest religious orders, the Franciscans and the Benedictines, were on
hand to speak about Saints Francis and Benedict. Abbot Primate Nokter Wolf
of the Benedictines found himself doing double duty, also chairing an afternoon
session on Monday. Wolf, a Bavarian, speaks nearly flawless Italian that
failed him only once, but it was good for a laugh. At one point Wolf thanked
nostri amici rossi, which literally means “our red friends,” when he
meant to say i nostri amici russi, “our Russian friends.” The unintended
double entendre brought guffaws.
The meeting’s star attraction
was Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, who is more or less
the Russian Orthodox equivalent of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, i.e., the number
two figure in the hierarchy. Kirill’s boss is the Patriarch of Moscow,
Kirill gave a spirited
talk, referring to the need for “bilateral relations” between Orthodox
and Catholics, and the importance of “collaboration before this world of
today.” He then told the story of the oppression of the Russian Orthodox
Church during the Soviet period, which he referred to as a “true and proper
The most striking moment
came when Kirill revealed that his own father, a railroad mechanic, had
been sent to a Soviet prison camp simply because he went to church and
sung in the choir. Kirill said this sort of suffering was widespread, but
added the “miracle” was that the Orthodox Church’s crucifixion actually
became a source of strength, because the example of these new martyrs has
renewed the faith of many millions of Russians.
Kirill’s comments helped
me understand why, from the Russian Orthodox point of view, Catholic “proselytism”
must seem so unfair. Having emerged from a period of suffering, they feel
Catholics are cynically exploiting the weakness that those years of oppression
imposed. (The Vatican denies being involved in proselytism in Russia, arguing
that the small number of converts are coming from among the legions of
unchurched, not practicing Orthodox believers).
At the same time, I couldn’t
help thinking of friends who have a different perspective on Russian Orthodoxy
under the Soviets. I recalled people I know in the Greek Catholic Church
of Ukraine, for example, whose relatives were exiled, imprisoned and killed
for refusing to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose leaders in
some cases collaborated with the Soviets in the suppression of Greek Catholics
to ensure their own survival. That of course is part of the problem – everyone
has suffered, everyone can make a case for being a victim, everyone can
find a reason to lack faith in the good will of the other. Somehow Catholics
and Orthodox must both find a way to break the cycle of blame.
Meanwhile, two signs
of the times.
First, no Vatican official
was present to hear Kirill, a conspicuous and distressing absence. I don’t
know if this was worked out in advance; perhaps Kirill himself felt it
would be politically easier to accept the invitation without a Vatican
delegation present. But this inability to be in the same room, at least
in public, is troubling.
Second, I ran into a
Russian Orthodox priest in Rome just before I left for Terni, and I mentioned
that I was heading off to see Kirill. The priest turned white, and urged
me not to tell Kirill he was in Rome hanging out with Catholics. That fear
of being seen as “consorting with the enemy,” unfortunately, speaks volumes
about the real state of the Catholic-Orthodox relationship.
Faith and Light
I’ve had occasion recently
several times to be with Jean Vanier, the remarkable founder of the L’Arche
community as well as the “Faith and Sharing” and “Faith and Light” movements,
all devoted to building relationships with mentally handicapped persons.
(Vanier co-founded “Faith
and Light” in 1971 with French laywoman Marie Helène Matthieu after
taking a group of mentally handicapped persons on a pilgrimage to Lourdes
and being shocked by the reactions. Many tourists and townspeople suggested
that people this badly deformed or disoriented simply shouldn’t be allowed
out in public).
For 38 years, Vanier
has lived in a community with handicapped persons in Trosly, France, close
to Paris. He is as close to being a living saint as anyone I expect to
meet in my lifetime; I get from him the same sense of being plugged into
genuine holiness that others tell me they got from Mother Teresa. He describes
his mission as “revealing the face of Jesus to people in pain,” and his
life story tells you he means it.
Vanier was in Rome for
a weeklong meeting of “Faith and Light” members from around the world.
The movement brings people with a handicap, plus parents and friends, together
for sharing, celebration and prayer. These communities, of which there
are more than 1,000 around the world, meet once or twice a month. Vanier
then went up to Terni for the Sant’Egidio-sponsored dialogue with the Orthodox,
where I had the good fortune of more time to talk with him.
Last Saturday I went
to the Mondo Migliore conference center in the hills outside Rome
to interview the American “Faith and Light” delegates. These were “ordinary
people” – a high school teacher from Denver named Tim Buckley, a deacon
from Colorado Springs named Mike Ciletti, a Capuchin who runs a soup kitchen
in Detroit named Bob Malloy, a married couple named Pat and Frank Dani
whose daughter has a handicap, and so on. But in truth there was nothing
ordinary about this group. They came across as extraordinarily gentle and
generous, capable of discerning the gifts handicapped persons carry well
below the level of what can be seen or heard. All had obviously been touched
by Vanier’s example.
It didn’t strike me until
afterwards, but this was the first time since January I have talked for
more than an hour with a group of American Catholics without a single reference
to the sex abuse scandals. It’s not that these people lack views. On the
contrary, they struck me as informed, thoughtful Catholics who surely have
reflected much on the crisis in the American church. But their energy is
on a different plane, focused on living the gospel in direct contact with
hurting people, who nevertheless can also be full of great joy.
I’m planning on writing
a profile of Vanier and the “Faith and Light” movement in an upcoming issue
* * *
The International Theological
Commission, the chief body of theological advisors for the Congregation
for the Doctrine of the Faith, is meeting this week. On Sept. 30, I had
the chance to look over the three documents under consideration. (They
are, technically speaking, supposed to be confidential until final publication).
One text concerns the office and role of the deacon, another revelation
and inculturation, and the last the human person and the image of God (a
rubric under which issues of bioethics and environmentalism are treated).
Public interest will
focus on the question of female deacons, which has become widely discussed
in recent years. Though the Vatican has never definitively foreclosed the
possibility, it issued a statement last year cautioning against preparing
women to become deacons because the church “does not foresee such an ordination.”
It had been expected
that the commission’s document might go further in closing the door.
In fact, if the document
survives the week’s deliberations in the form in which I saw it, it stops
short of saying that women cannot be ordained as deacons, but offers two
“indications” for future discernment that lean in that direction.
First, the document says
that deaconesses in the ancient Christian church “cannot purely and simply
be compared to the sacramental diaconate” that exists today, since there
is no clarity about the rite of institution that was used or what functions
they exercised. Second, it asserts that “the unity of the sacrament of
orders” is “strongly imprinted by ecclesiastical tradition, the teaching
of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar magisterium,” despite
clear differences between the episcopacy and priesthood on the one hand
and the diaconate on the other.
Both points would seem
to support a ban on women deacons. The document, however, does not draw
this conclusion. Instead it says that “in light of present historical-theological
research,” there is a need for “discernment about what the Lord has established
for the church.”
* * *
I was invited to a lunch
Oct. 2 with Fr. Robert Sirico, head of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids,
Michigan, which is devoted to the relationship between religion and liberty.
Sirico is a leading Catholic defender of a free market and limited government.
He and the Acton Institute recently collaborated with the Pontifical Council
for Justice and Peace on a compendium of Catholic social doctrine.
The lunch took place
at the apartment of Gaetano Rebecchini, a councilor of the Vatican city-state
and the son of a former mayor of Rome, on the Via della Conciliazione.
(The view of the Vatican is truly spectacular.) Rebecchini is the founder
of the Centro per Orientamento Politico, a kind of think tank with
a conservative flavor, and Sirico was in town to speak at one of its conferences.
I ended up seated across
from Sandro Magister, a talented Italian Vaticanista who leans somewhat
to the right, and this arrangement led to predictable jokes about how with
Magister and I both present, all the Catholic bases were covered. (Actually,
in my experience, journalists tend to regard one’s “nose for news” as a
far more fundamental value than ideology, which Magister and I confirmed
by revealing that we are avid readers of one another’s work).
Though Sirico struck
largely predictable notes, such as the perils of the United Nations and
the need to distinguish Catholic social thought from liberation theology,
I found him open and thoughtful. His analysis of how the crucial inter-religious
conversation of the future will be between progressive Muslims and “faithful”
Christians was especially penetrating.
A suggestion for Martino,
incoming president at Justice and Peace: It would be fascinating to sponsor
a public event in Rome that would bring Sirico into conversation with Catholic
social thinkers from other points of departure – the Catholic Worker movement,
for example, or even a liberation theologian such as Gustavo Guttierez.
Given the polarization that too often poisons conversation in the church,
there’s urgent need for dialogue, and this would be a marvelous model.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111