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 The Word From Rome

October 17, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 8

global perspective


"It's not just that he had a special love and respect for her, but it's to present her as the most prominent example of someone who lived the things he has been teaching for these 25 years of his pontificate."

Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator for Mother Teresa's cause
on why Pope John Paul II chose to beatify Mother Teresa during his 25th anniversary celebrations.

The pope's anniversary week and a talk with Ambassador James Nicholson; Scottish cardinal-designate on celibacy; Romero's sainthood cause; Condom research controversy


Around the Vatican this week, the big story is the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II. It's only the third time in church history that a pope has reached a silver jubilee - the previous two were Pius IX (1846-1878) and Leo XIII (1878-1903). Add to that the point that no pope has ever shouldered the burdens that John Paul II has taken upon himself, and the true dimensions of his sense of duty begin to reveal themselves.

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This is a man who just won't quit.

The flip side of his iron determination, of course, is concern over just how much longer his physical capacity to govern will hold up. The latest health scare came Sunday, Oct. 12, when a rumor swept through Rome that the pope was on dialysis. Cell phones went off across town, as networks put doctors on standby, and nervous TV crews went onto red alert. Within a couple of hours, however, it became clear that the rumor was unfounded.

Despite some very public ups and downs, the pope has so far made it through his punishing October schedule. Meanwhile, Vatican officials seem to be preparing the world for an increasingly limited papacy. Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, a Portuguese prelate who heads the Congregation for Saints, said Oct. 12 that John Paul could continue to run the church even if he loses his ability to speak.

My sense is that most observers in town, including many in the Vatican, find themselves in an oddly schizophrenic state - on the one hand ready for anything to happen, on the other well aware of John Paul's track record for outliving predictions of his demise.

I was recently interviewed by Io Donna, the Saturday magazine of Italy's leading daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, about the massive, and sometimes slightly ghoulish, media interest in the pope's health and the next conclave. The reporter asked if I thought John Paul himself finds it distasteful.

While the pope has never shared his feelings with me, I said I would hazard to guess that he is the last guy who would be scandalized by it all. He understands that you have to take the bitter with the sweet, and if the Catholic church wants the world to take the papacy seriously, the price it must pay is a certain morbid curiosity about the pope's health and what happens after he dies. The six-figure network contracts for rental of Roman rooftops and the scramble for talking heads is simply the way the global media has of indicating that this story is important, that the papacy counts.

I believe John Paul gets that, even if not everyone in the organization he leads always does.

Read more about the anniversary celebrations in Rome by following this link, Vatican opens to world for papal anniversary celebrations, to

* * *

As John Paul's 25th anniversary is marked in Rome, I sat down on Oct. 7 to review the pope's impact on the politics and diplomacy of his time with U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson.

Nicholson said he regarded John Paul II as "possibly the central figure of the 20th century," but because he was fundamentally a pastor and man of peace, not a politician. He said the pope's message concerning the dignity of every human person has a "political currency," but is fundamentally a theological and spiritual conviction.

That, Nicholson said, is the source of the pope's power.

"When this great figure speaks about moral issues and the human condition, it's listened to by people throughout the world," Nicholson said. "It has a weight politically Governments take heed."

At the same time, of course, John Paul does not hold a veto power over geo-politics. He tried to block two U.S.-led wars in Iraq, for example, and in both occasions those wars happened despite the pope's opposition.

Nicholson insisted that this does not mean his boss, President George Bush, isn't interested in what the pope has to say.

"The president has tremendous respect for the Holy Father," Nicholson said. "He speaks of him glowingly."

Some have the impression, I said to Nicholson, that Bush ignored the pope's moral criticism of the war.

"It would be very incorrect to say that," Nicholson replied. "I was there for the 40-minute meeting on March 5, when the president most impressively laid out the case for the U.S. going into Iraq as if he were an expert on the just war theory." The reference was to a meeting with Bush and Cardinal Pio Laghi, the pope's emissary.

"Bush knew the elements of the just war theory, and had examined them against the situation as he saw it in Iraq," Nicholson said. "He knew that the just war theory says that the decision must be made by the appropriate civil authority with the best prudential judgment possible. He analyzed things very carefully, examined his own conscience, and chose to go in. He knows that in the doctrine of the church there's a recognition of evil forces that attempt to destroy innocent people."

Nicholson said Bush "listened with great maturity and interest" to Laghi, then "prayed over" the matter and opted to go ahead. Bush listened to the pope, in other words - but in the end, he followed his conscience.

Nicholson said that as he moves around the world - in the United States, in Latin America, in Europe - he senses that John Paul II is a "widely revered figure," seen as a force for unchanging moral values in a world where everything seems up for grabs.

"At a sub-conscious level, I think people say to themselves, 'You're the man.'"

Even in non-Christian countries, Nicholson said, people ask him about "our pope." That wide respect and admiration, he said, is the basis for global concern about the pope's health.

"When John Paul has a hiccup, it's heard everywhere," Nicholson said.

I asked Nicholson if the pope's declining health made him a less politically consequential figure.

"One would intuitively think it might," he said. "The temptation would be to think that because he is so physically frail, he is also mentally frail. But I certainly don't see him as mentally frail."

For the broader world, however, Nicholson said the pope's declines make his message even more powerful.

"Not only is he giving witness to the virtue of sacrifice by continuing his ministry in spite of obvious pain, but he also gives hope and encouragement to so many others who are elderly and handicapped," Nicholson said.

"He is aging and infirm, but still focused on his life's mission. He's still focused and engaged."

* * *

Normally speaking, the period between the nomination of new cardinals and the consistory in which they formally enter the college is a fairly quiet one, time largely set aside for organizing the delegations of well-wishers that will accompany the new men in red to Rome.

The Scots, however, have managed to inject a bit of drama into this in-between time.

Among the 31 new cardinals named by John Paul II on Sept. 28 is Keith O'Brien of Edinburgh-St. Andrews, something of a surprising choice given his center-left views on some questions. During a chat with reporters following a Sept. 29 Mass of thanksgiving for his nomination, O'Brien reiterated openness on certain issues that have seemingly been closed under this pope, including mandatory clerical celibacy.

"The loss of celibacy would give great liberty to priests to exercise their God-given gift of love and sex rather than feeling they must be celibate all their lives," O'Brien said. "It would not cause me any great worry if it was to go."

O'Brien also said it might be opportune for the church to re-examine its teaching on contraception, and said that he assumed a large number of Catholic priests are homosexual, which he said is not problematic if they remain celibate.

The comments caused a minor furor, and sparked Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow, who had been the other contender to become Scotland's cardinal, to announce that he would release a letter on church teachings regarding marriage. Conti is generally regarded as somewhat more traditional in his thinking on these questions.

On Oct. 7, O'Brien changed his tune during a liturgy in St. Mary's Cathedral in Edinburgh marking the installation of a new member of the cathedral chapter. O'Brien recited a Profession of Faith, which in addition to the Nicene Creed contained the following language:

"Furthermore, I having been called to be Cardinal by Pope John Paul II, state that I firmly hold and maintain all and everything taught by the Holy Catholic Church concerning faith and morals, whether solemnly defined or asserted as part of her ordinary Magisterium, especially those doctrines touching the mystery of the Church as the Body of Christ, the Sacraments, the sacrifice of the Mass and the primacy of the Roman Pontiff," O'Brien said.

"I further state that I accept and intend to defend the law on ecclesiastical celibacy as it is proposed by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church; I accept and propose to defend the ecclesiastical teaching about the immorality of the homosexual act; I accept and promise to promulgate always and everywhere what the Church's Magisterium teaches on contraception. So help me God and these Holy Scriptures which I touch with my hand."

The affair might have ended there, except that on Friday, Oct. 10, anonymous faxes arrived at Scotland's two main newspapers, the Scotsman and the Herald, alleging that O'Brien had been ordered to recite the profession of faith by the Vatican, and had been instructed to make it public. If he did not do so, the fax alleged, he had been told he would not be allowed to become a cardinal.

To check out the story, I called a senior Vatican official who told me on Oct. 11 that the nuncio in London had indeed spoken with O'Brien after the Oct. 1 interview, but for the purpose of clarifying whether O'Brien had been quoted accurately or taken out of context. This Vatican official denied that there had been any "order" for O'Brien to recite a Profession of Faith; this step, the official insisted, was his own decision.

Peter Kearney, spokesman for the Catholic church in Scotland, said more or less the same thing. He said O'Brien had wanted to make clear that "he utterly accepts the teaching of the church on all those issues. In the previous week there was some slightly misinformed coverage where his position was misinterpreted."

The anonymous fax insisted that O'Brien owes Scots an account of what happened.

"Archbishop O'Brien has a duty to explain to the Catholics of Edinburgh and Scotland how it is that his views on such important matters came to change so radically in little less than a week," the fax asserted. "Did he, like St. Paul, encounter Christ on the road to Damascus, or is it just that he is prepared to say and do anything to receive a red hat?"

* * *

On Sunday, Oct. 19, John Paul II will beatify Mother Teresa. She is undoubtedly one of the most beloved and admired Catholic figures of the 20th century, someone who was the object of a vast popular following well before the official beatification process caught up. Her case is a reflection of the way saint-making should be, in a sense, the most democratic process in the Catholic church.

Mother Teresa will be the 1,319th person beatified by John Paul II, and after such a prodigious output, there's a sense in which it's almost more illuminating to ask who John Paul II hasn't beatified by now. Among popular 20th century Catholic icons, no saint-in-waiting figures more prominently than Oscar Romero, the former archbishop of San Salvador, who was shot dead as he celebrated Mass on March 24, 1980. Hence I decided that the best beatification story I could provide would be to find out where Romero's cause stands.

On Oct. 13, I caught the morning train from Rome to Terni, roughly an hour to the north, to find out. The bishop of Terni, Vincenzio Paglia, is also the postulator for Romero's sainthood cause. He wears the pectoral cross that Romero carried until he was assassinated while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980.

Paglia spoke with NCR about the current status of the cause, his vision of Romero, and what the future might hold.

Romero's case may well be one of the most sensitive to arrive at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints during John Paul's 25-year pontificate. Because he challenged the military and political forces that dominated El Salvador in the 1970s to end the bloodshed of a long-running civil war, he was a divisive figure. Some saw him as overly political, some as nave, and some went so far as to charge that he was a "communist." These denunciations came not just from disgruntled parishioners or newspaper editorial pages, but in some cases they arrived in Rome from fellow bishops, including a few from his own country. The wounds are still fresh; some of those who denounced Romero are still around, both in Latin America and Rome.

That fact makes the waters Paglia has to navigate especially perilous.

In 1998, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints retained the diocesan phase to have been properly executed. The documentation is now under study by Dominican Fr. Daniel Ols, a congregation official, who will help render an initial judgment as to whether Romero meets the standard of "heroic virtue" required of saints.

Ols told NCR Oct. 14 that the positio, or book-length study of Romero's life based on the documentation from the diocesan phase and other sources, is not yet finished. When it is, it must go before the cardinals of the congregation for examination before a verdict is submitted to the pope. The normal time lag for this process, Ols said, is at least 10 years. A positio under examination by the cardinals today, in other words, was probably filed in 1992-93.

"Obviously if the Holy Father wants things to accelerate, they speed up," Ols said. "But this is the normal wait."

The time lag tends to be especially lengthy, Ols said, in cases which are "somewhat difficult," such as Romero's. Given that, he said, proponents will need to have "a little patience" while they wait for the congregation to do its work.

Ols must also advise the congregation on another sensitive point, which is whether Romero's death qualifies as a "martyrdom." Traditionally martyrs are men and women who have been killed in odium fidei, meaning out of hatred for their Christian faith. People who are killed for other reasons - greed, or personal malice, or for political reasons - may have died courageously, but strictly speaking they would not be martyrs.

Pope John Paul II has demonstrated a willingness to take an expansive reading of this requirement. He canonized Polish Conventual Franciscan Fr. Maximilian Kolbe as a martyr, for example, even though it's not clear the Nazis executed him out of hatred for his faith.

In Romero's case, some critics say the right-wing paramilitary forces who shot him did so because his preaching and teaching seemed to favor leftist movements, and hence were acting out of political rather than religious motives.

The question is not merely theoretical. If Romero is determined to have died a martyr, then it will not be necessary to document any miracles in order to proclaim him either blessed or a saint. That would significantly reduce the time necessary to complete the process, perhaps making it possible for the beatification to happen in 2005, the 25th anniversary of his death.

Paglia noted that the Pope himself seemed to settle this question in 2000, when he led a special ceremony at Rome's Colosseum commemorating 20th century martyrs. In the original list of martyrs prepared for that occasion, Romero's name did not appear. John Paul, however, penciled him in, adding in his own hand that Romero had been "killed during the celebration of the Holy Mass."

Even if Romero is not adjudicated a martyr, however, Paglia said that would simply elongate the process, not change the outcome. He said he already has a letter from a person in Europe who claims to have been miraculously cured of an illness after praying to Romero.

I asked Paglia if he saw a bias in John Paul's saint-making, since he has recognized so many victims of fascism and communism, but so far Latin American martyrs such as Romero, the six Jesuits plus their housekeeper and her daughter killed at the University of Central America in 1990, or the four American women (Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, and Maura Clark) killed in El Salvador in December 1980 have not been beatified.

"I don't believe there is an imbalance," Paglia said. "It doesn't all depend on Rome, you know," he said, arguing that to some extent responsibility for advancing - or blocking - these causes rests with the local church in Latin America.

Paglia pointed out that for the commemoration of 20th century martyrs in 2000, every region of the Catholic world was asked to submit documentation. Ironically, the lowest level of response came from Latin America.

I pressed Paglia. Surely some of the present pope's interest in memorializing the victims of National Socialism and Communism comes out of his own biography, since he experienced the barbarism of those regimes in the flesh. If a future pope comes from Latin America, perhaps one who experienced the police states of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, would it be reasonable to expect that he might bring a special passion for causes such as Romero's?

"It could be," Paglia said. "It could happen that way."

Yet Paglia insisted that proponents of these causes can't simply wait on the pope.

"It's mistake to think that the pope himself is always the motor behind this. It's also the local church that has to press for it," he said.

The irony, Paglia said, is that while Romero's sanctity is subjected to close scrutiny by ecclesiastical authority, there seems to be no such doubt in many other quarters. He said he continues to get mail from priests, bishops, and laity, including non-Catholics from Latin America and elsewhere, attesting to the impact of Romero's life and the widespread devotion to his memory.

Noting that John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation on the bishop's office entitled Pastores Gregis on Oct. 16, Paglia said he believes Romero was the "concrete application" of its principles - especially where the pope calls bishops to be "operators of justice and peace."

Paglia insisted that ideology and politics were the furthest thing from Romero's mind.

"He didn't know anything about Marxism," Paglia said. "He wasn't a Thomistic rationalist, like the Jesuits. He was a bishop who loved the gospel and his people more than himself."

In that sense, Paglia said, Romero understood himself along the lines of Poland's Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the primate of the nation. "He could not keep silent," Paglia said. "He regarded this as his role."

I asked if it's possible to hope for a beatification in 2005, the 25th anniversary of Romero's death.

"I hope so. Theoretically, it would not be premature," Paglia said. "To judge based on the documents and the canonical norms, the process could already be finished," he said.

Does he believe that John Paul would like to beatify Romero?

"This pope has said many times, and not just to me, that Romero is a martyr," Paglia said. "I'm certain that if it proves possible, it would be a great pleasure for John Paul II to beatify him."

What has to happen?

"We have to de-ideologize the figure of Romero, in order to see him in the light of fullest truth," Paglia said. "This is a pastor who gave his life for his people, not for an ideology or a political program."

In that sense, Paglia said, the politically charged climate that has long surrounded the cases has to dissipate.

"For a long time the atmosphere has been polluted, and when that happens we all breathe badly," Paglia said.

* * *

Speaking of Mother Teresa, I had the chance to tour a new exhibit entitled "Mother Teresa: Life, Spirit and Message," on display in the crypt of Rome's Antonianum church, on Friday, Oct. 10. A few of us in the press walked though the collection with Fr. Brian Kolodiejchuk, the postulator for Mother Teresa's cause.

The exhibit features some of Mother Teresa's reflections on her own life, such as this one: "By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship I am Indian. By faith I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus."

One of the more striking elements of the exhibit is an incredibly life-like statue of Mother Teresa in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Visitors rounding a corner of the exhibit fall silent when they first see the statue, feeling for an instant that they have stumbled upon an elderly nun lost in prayer. Nearby is a phrase that gives evidence of Mother Teresa's Eucharistic piety: "I couldn't survive one day without Jesus in the Eucharist."

The exhibit contains a number of artifacts from Mother Teresa's life, ranging from her white and blue-trimmed sari, a pair of sandals and a handbag, to the gold Nobel Peace Prize she won in 1979. There are the simple plate and cutlery she used during visits to Rome, her handwritten draft of the constitution for the order, and the crucifix she was given when she made her first vows in 1931 and carried all her life.

Organizers say they expect some 200,000 people in St. Peter's Square for the beatification ceremony.

Kolodiejchuk said he believes John Paul II had a logic for choosing to beatify Mother Teresa on the occasion of his 25th anniversary celebrations.

"It's not just that he had a special love and respect for her," Kolodiejchuk said, "but it's to present her as the most prominent example of someone who lived the things he has been teaching for these 25 years of his pontificate."

* * *

In a recent interview with the BBC, Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, asserted that condoms are not always effective in blocking the transmission of the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

"The AIDS virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon," Lopez Trujillo told the BBC's "Panorama" program, whose production "Sex and the Holy City" aired Sunday night.

"The spermatozoon can easily pass through the 'net' formed by the condom," he said. His argument was that the virus that causes AIDS can pass through a condom as well.

The comments caused a furor in various parts of the world, especially in South Africa, where condoms are an integral part of the public health strategy to reduce AIDS infection. Lopez Trujillo suggested that condom packs should come with a warning, like cigarettes, advising consumers that they may not always work.

As with so many Vatican stories, this one could have been surprising only to people who haven't been paying attention. Lopez Trujillo's office has been insisting for years that condoms are not only morally objectionable, but technically unreliable.

Early this year, the Council for the Family issued a Lexicon, with scores of articles on what it called "ambiguous and controversial terms on the family, life, and ethical questions." The entry on "safe sex," prepared by Monsignor Jacques Suadeau, a medical doctor who once worked at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., painstakingly lays out the research supporting the conclusion that latex condoms may not be invulnerable when it comes to blocking the HIV virus. There one will find the technical support for Lopez Trujillo's assertion about the size of HIV relative to the spermatzoon, for example.

Basing himself on research with tiny plastic balls called "microspheres," Suadeau, who today works in the Pontifical Academy for Life, concludes: "If certain microspheres 120 nm in diameter can pass through the membrane of some latex condoms that otherwise passed tests of reliability, it would not be surprising to see a similar passage of HIV through identical membranes, facilitated by their expansion, and this even in the absence of a true 'hole' in the membrane."

I don't know enough science to be able to pass judgment on Suadeau's argument. But what Lopez Trjullio told the BBC was not simply obscurantism or anti-condom prejudice, and one should give his office credit for having laid out its argumentation so carefully in the Lexicon. One hopes that in the wake of the controversy, Suadeau's article will be given careful scrutiny so that proper scientific conclusions can be drawn.

However, Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Brussels, Belgium, widely considered a leading candidate to succeed John Paul II, rebuked Lopez Trujillo.

"It does not befit a cardinal to deal with the virtue of a product. ... I don't know if what he said is reliable," Danneels said, adding that a cardinal should instead raise the ethical, religious and spiritual dimensions of the AIDS issue.

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

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