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 The Word From Rome

October 24, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 9

global perspective


"For many of us, John Paul is like a father. Just like with your parents, you don't notice their aging until one day it hits you - 'my God, they're old.'"

An American bishop
in Rome during the pope's anniversary celebrations

The unofficial opening of the campaign season; What the church's decision-makers are thinking and feeling these days


October's unprecedented marathon of papal mega-events, featuring the Oct. 16 25th anniversary Mass, the Oct. 19 beatification of Mother Teresa, and the Oct. 21 consistory for the creation of 31 new cardinals, ended in Rome this week with a clearly fatigued and struggling John Paul II.

Media interest was intense. Taken collectively, there was probably more airtime devoted to Roman Catholic liturgy this week than at any other moment in the history of commercial television.

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What viewers saw was a determined but faltering pope. Beginning with the beatification Mass, John Paul did not read a single line of his homily. The pope did not celebrate the Oct. 22 ring mass for the new cardinals, managing to read only certain prayers.

One American bishop put it to me this way: "For many of us, John Paul is like a father. Just like with your parents, you don't notice their aging until one day it hits you -- 'my God, they're old.' That's what many of us are feeling about the pope after this week."

Despite the decline, the pope continues to be capable of great intellectual lucidity. He personally wrote out in longhand in Polish, for example, his homily for the consistory, a pointed message about the need for cardinals to avoid careerism and personal gain. Moreover, the fact that he struggled does not imply a deathwatch. Given his iron will and the unpredictable nature of his illness, it is impossible to anticipate what might happen.

Nevertheless, his frailty has produced a new frankness among cardinals. Where previously many sought to minimize the pope's difficulties, now they are honestly acknowledging that such matters weigh on their minds.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, in an exclusive Oct. 21 interview with NCR, said the pope's poor physical condition cannot help but beckon thoughts of a conclave.

"I never imagined myself going in there before," George said, referring to the Sistine Chapel, where the election of the next pope will be held. "Now I have to think about it."

"It's not exactly disloyal to be talking about this, when the pope himself recently wrote a poem about the next conclave," George said, referring to a recent volume of papal poetry entitled Roman Triptych. "I see it as important that I not just pray about it, but also think about it."

In a real sense, therefore, John Paul's silver jubilee also marked the unofficial opening of the campaign season for his successor.

* * *

I've never experienced a slow news week in Rome. There's always something relevant to understanding the universal church happening here. Even by that standard, however, mid-October has been an unprecedented embarrassment of riches for those of us who cover the Vatican.

In conjunction with John Paul's 25th anniversary, almost every cardinal in the world and lots of other VIPs have been in town. Normally one might labor for days to arrange an interview with a cardinal; this week, however, the challenge has been finding graceful ways to tell their handlers that you simply don't have the time.

With no further scene-setting, therefore, I want to get into what I heard from cardinals and other ecclesiastical figures, which cumulatively shed some light on what the church's decision-makers are thinking and feeling these days.

* * *

On Oct. 15, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles sat down with a group of reporters at the North American College, home to U.S. seminarians studying in Rome.

A reporter asked if John Paul was still in charge of the church.

"He's a man of great inner strength," Mahony responded. "Today he's captured in a body that is weaker. But he is so committed to carrying out his role as Peter among us. … From all I can see, he certainly is very much in control."

As evidence that John Paul's mind remains clear, Mahony said that when he met the pope this week, he told him he brought greetings from the people of Los Angeles. He said John Paul responded by recalling his 1987 trip to Los Angeles, especially his encounter with people from the world of the media in Hollywood.

"I'm not sure I could remember what I was doing in 1987," Mahony joked.

Mahony was then asked to list the major challenges facing the church. He listed: uneven growth, with some regions of the Catholic world experiencing dramatic increases, and others facing empty churches; offering the celebration of the Eucharist to all Catholics in an era of priest shortages; and promoting a spirit of "new evangelization."

I asked if his second item was a polite way of saying that mandatory celibacy should be re-examined.

His answer? "No."

Mahony was asked if he felt the time had come for a Third World pope.

"The Holy Spirit is going to let us know," he replied. "But there's no question that one-half of the church today is from Latin America," suggesting that this might be a good place to look.

I asked how many of the cardinals he knew personally. He said perhaps 50 to 70, meaning a little over half. Mahony said that because he entered the College of Cardinals in 1991, he has by now acquired a bit of seniority.

"At least when the conclave comes, I'll get a room with a bathroom," he joked.

* * *

On Oct. 17, the Vatican held a press conference to discuss John Paul's apostolic constitution concluding the October 2001 Synod of Bishops, Pastores Gregis. The main attraction was not so much the document as one of the presenters: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, widely considered a rising star among the Latin American papabili, or candidates to be the next pope.

Bergoglio, 66, is a Jesuit and a genuine intellectual. He spoke in Spanish rather than Italian at the press conference, a rather curious choice since Argentine friends say his Italian is good.

Bergoglio made the argument that Pastores Gregis is a "metaphysically original" document. He said John Paul calls on bishops to be "servants of hope" as well as "coherent pastors," men whose lives reflect their teaching. Bergoglio said bishops must "walk to the periphery, to the contradictions, to the marginalized."

I asked Bergoglio if he felt John Paul II could still be an effective model of the vision of the bishop's office he had outlined, given his physical condition.

"I expected your question," he replied. "I believe the pope is a witness of what I've said."

On the controversial issue of subsidiarity, meaning the principle of making decisions at the lowest level of authority possible, Bergoglio said it must be understood in the context of the higher principle of communion. While he did not spell this out, he seemed to be suggesting that while there may be some room for decentralization in the church, this cannot occur at the expense of weakening the papacy.

Asked about relations between the Roman Curia and the bishops, Bergoglio was diplomatic.

"When the theology of communion is actual, with a free exchange of opinions and points of view, it's better," he said. The response seemed to imply that this was not always the case, and hence there might be some room to grow in the practical application of the idea of communion.

In Argentina, Bergoglio is noted for his humility and simplicity of lifestyle (he takes public transportation rather than a limousine), as well as his moral courage in the face of the country's economic crisis, and his intellectual leadership. Certainly his performance in Rome this week did nothing to hurt his stock as a possible papal candidate.

* * *

Also Oct. 17, CNN conducted an interview with Angelo Scola, the patriarch of Venice, who became a cardinal Oct. 21, and I was invited to tag along. Given that Venice produced three popes in the 20th century (Pius X, John XXIII and John Paul I), many eyes are on Scola as possible papal material, though he modestly insisted that "it is not my case."

Scola's most fascinating comment came before the cameras rolled, while we were chatting in St. Peter's Square. As we stood there, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna approached and said hello. Schönborn is himself widely mentioned as a papal candidate, and as he walked away, Scola said unexpectedly: "He is the man of the future."

I immediately asked, "In what sense?"

"I think you understood me," Scola replied. "In every sense."

As a footnote, the next day I was with another cardinal chatting in an informal setting, when I happened to recount this exchange with Scola. The cardinal looked at me in great earnest and said: "He's absolutely right."

Scola took the questions from CNN in Italian, though his English is actually fairly good, the result in part of having spent some time at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Asked about the challenges facing the church, Scola said the principal one was identified by Pope Paul VI: the "fracture" between the church and contemporary culture.

"It's very difficult to determine whether this is the fault of the world that has abandoned the church, or the church that does not know how to relate to the world," Scola said.

Using the image of Christ presenting Mary and John to one another as he hung on the cross, Scola argued that Christianity was born in that moment as a new set of relationships, a new kind of family rooted in something deeper than flesh and blood. He said that the church must find a way of making that idea of family real in today's culture.

Asked about church teaching on hot-button sexual issues such as birth control, divorce and celibacy, Scola replied that no one can truly say "I love you" without adding, at least implicitly, "forever." Permanent commitment is implied in the very sense of "love," he said.

As to whether celibacy contributes to the priest shortage, Scola said that you can't deal with this issue from a quantitative perspective, but rather the focus must be on "the quality of the nature of the priest."

* * *

I always find Cardinal Francis George of Chicago a fascinating interview, and he did not disappoint during our Oct. 20 session at the North American College in Rome.

George said that he had not seen the pope in six or seven months, and was "startled" by the deterioration he found.

I asked if there was a danger that the focus on his health was eclipsing the pope's message.

"But in many ways his condition is the message," George said. "Think of the last days of Cardinal [Joespeh] Bernardin, in which the focus was entirely on his health. It was a tremendous witness, the way he chose to share it with the world."

I asked about how the pope's health plays in the American context. Given the recent sexual abuse crisis, and the perception of the need for energetic leadership, is this a bad time to have an elderly pope at the helm?

George didn't think so.

"Rome has given us the means, but the solutions have to come from the bishops and dioceses of the United States," George said. "As long as the moral support is there, the lead agents have to be the bishops who supervise the priests. The action is all local."

George suggested that the Vatican needs to appreciate the American cultural situation.

"Rome is always very good on the facts, but not necessarily good on the context," he said. "This can be a weakness, especially when judging public reaction is part of the equation."

On the subject of a future conclave, while stressing that "God is the primary actor," George said that doesn't take cardinals off the hook for exercising the best personal and political judgment possible.

"We can't be indifferent to our own concerns," George said. "This is an act of discernment."

George said that to prepare for the conclave, he will talk to bishops around the world, both those who come through Chicago and those he meets in Rome, about the challenges in the various local contexts.

Would he be open to a pope from the Third World?

"The pope is the bishop of Rome, so you look first for a Roman or Italian, out of courtesy if nothing else," George said. "Then you look to places where the church's mission is strong, where it has something to tell us. From that point of view, the developing world would make sense."

Asked to list the mega-challenges that will face the next pope, George identified secularization, religiously insurgent Islam, and the campaign for universal justice.

George said that one traditional criterion used to assess potential popes, age, didn't mean much to him.

"It's not a primary concern," he said. "We need somebody who can meet the challenges."

George also said that he was impatient with questions about papal resignation or incapacitation.

"I trust this pope's relationship with God," he said. "If God wants him to resign, he'll know that and he will."

* * *

America's new cardinal, Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, comes out of the Vatican diplomatic service and is legendary for rarely putting a public word out of place. He largely lived up to that image this week, making only brief and usually anodyne statements to the press.

To be a cardinal, Rigali said after a thanksgiving Mass at the Church of Santa Susanna Oct. 21, is "an honor that has a role. The cardinals are called on to collaborate with the pope" as well as, ultimately, to choose a new pope.

Rigali said one key task facing him is "to bring Christianity to the modern world."

"Obviously, circumstances change at every moment in the church," Rigali said. But he vowed to pursue the "counter-cultural" gospel message that means living in a way that is "not necessarily easy to human nature."

After the ring Mass on Oct. 22, Rigali again met with the press, this time by the Bronze Door to the Apostolic Palace, where he once reported for work in the Secretariat of State. He hearkened back to those days when he noted that his titular church, Santa Prisca, once belonged to Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, Paul VI's right-hand man, who was his great patron in the Roman Curia.

Rigali spoke almost wistfully about the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which he attended every day for two years as a priest assistant, then followed from his new Vatican post. He quoted John XXIII's opening address, in which the pope said his aim for the council was that "the sacred deposit of faith be more effectively guarded and taught." Rigali said that has been a leitmotif for him as bishop and, now, as cardinal.

A colleague asked Rigali if Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope's private secretary, will increasingly become his public voice. Like a true son of the Secretariat of State, Rigali responded that this function will be filled by figures such as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the dean of the College of Cardinals, and Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the sostituto -- "someone who has an office," as Rigali put it.

Inside the Vatican, there is a natural tension between the official line of authority, which runs from the pope to the Secretariat of State, and the unofficial interpreters of the pope's mind, the most important being his private secretary. It's obvious where Rigali's sympathies lie. One might say that you can take the cleric out of the Secretariat of State, but you can't take the Secretariat of State out of the cleric.

* * *

Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, met the press in a room at Vatican Radio shortly after the Oct. 21 consistory. He's a favorite of journalists because he is neither a diplomat nor a spin doctor, but a man with strong conservative views who states them clearly. He is always, in other words, "good copy."

On this day, the solemnity of the occasion left Pell a bit more sober and restrained than normal, but he still struck many of his characteristic themes.

Pell noted the challenges of secularization, a slow erosion of church practice, and the spread of "neo-paganism" -- "easy, slack rules on sexuality, treating the question of God as irrelevant, little regard for the family or for clear moral teachings."

Pell suggested that fidelity is the key to success in meeting these challenges.

"Those religious communities who preach the message of Jesus Christ more clearly and strongly, who have real service and who create genuine community are doing better than those with a more liberal or radical approach," Pell said.

Pell was asked if his elevation as a cardinal was a vindication of his conservative views.

"I hope my creation as cardinal will give encouragement and hope to New Testament people within the Catholic church and outside it, other Christians, who are struggling to order their lives in line with what the Christian apostolic tradition recommends," he said.

A reporter asked Pell about his role on liturgical issues as head of the Vox Clara Commission, an advisory body to the Congregation for Divine Worship.

"I hope that future translations will be faithful to the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam," Pell said, referring to a May 2001 document that called for translations to be more faithful to Latin originals. "At the same time, it's important that they be beautiful."

In that regard, Pell said he hopes that the new translation of the Roman Missal, or the book of prayers for the Mass, will be ready "closer to two years from now, rather than three, four or five."

Pell was pressed as to whether his conservative vision could be attractive to young people.

"A lot of people find it quite attractive to be conservative," Pell replied.

"But setting that aside," he said, "it's difficult for a Bible-based Catholic not to be conservative, because our teachings come from the preaching given 2,000 years ago, and they have not changed."

Pell said fidelity to this tradition comes at a cost.

"You have to take up your cross, but it works," he said.

I asked Pell about the current crisis within Anglicanism over the appointment of an openly gay bishop.

Pell replied that it has "significant consequences," but despite that, dialogue and common prayer with Anglicans must go on. He said the turmoil also illustrates the value of a strong papacy, since the pope "is able to act when there isn't a clear consensus."

Asked about a pope from the developing world, he said he would be surprised if within 50-100 years there isn't a pope from Latin America.

* * *

Also on Oct. 21, I was asked to sit in on a CNN interview with Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa. It was perhaps the third or fourth time I've had an extended talk with him. A Franciscan, Napier comes across as a quiet, moderate man with impressive pastoral instincts.

Napier said bluntly that to some extent, the Vatican lacks a "sufficient sensitivity to African churches." He said the pope's trips to Africa have helped in that regard, since every time he comes, Vatican officials are forced to learn something about Africa. Still, Napier said, some understand African realities primarily through "regulations and documents."

He offered the example of Liturgiam Authenticam, which in his view "seemed to ignore that not long before, at the African Synod, inculturation was seen as a positive project." Napier said this is true "not just for Africa, but everywhere."

In Liturgicam Authenticam, he said, "that awareness isn't quite there." He called for "some development along these lines."

Napier made the interesting observation that the way the aging pope has passed on some of his responsibilities to others may be "an education in collegiality," the idea that other officials too could allow lower levels of authority to make decisions on their own.

As for a future pontificate, Napier said he felt it should be a synthesis of Paul VI and John Paul II, focused on evangelization - especially getting those who already believe to live their faith at a much deeper level. The key indicators of how to go about this, he said, were given in the continental synods such as those on Africa and Asia.

What about a Third World pope?

"I think it's possible," he said.

As far as Africa is concerned, however, Napier noted that the African Church is very young, and its leaders do not have some of the diplomatic and international expertise that has traditionally been considered a prerequisite to be pope.

He didn't dismiss the idea of a pope from the Roman Curia, but said it would probably need to be a man with significant pastoral experience.

Napier was asked whether the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa was beckoning the church to reconsider its position on condoms.

"I don't think so, quite honestly," he said. "We don't change our message because there's a particular crisis at the present time."

Napier argued that the real root of the AIDS crisis is irresponsible sexual behavior, which will not be solved by the wider availability of condoms. He noted that Uganda has achieved a massive drop in its rate of new infections, from 39 percent to 6 percent, based on the message that behavior must change.

Napier said pushing condoms to address AIDS would be analogous to a mother telling her little boy not to eat the cookies that are on the kitchen counter, but then telling him to use a stepladder if he plans to swipe them anyway.

"A mother who said that would be ridiculous," Napier said.

On celibacy, Napier said he wasn't sure it would help the priest shortage, since other Christian churches with a married clergy are sometimes "worse off than we are." Moreover, he said, in the developing world it can be hard enough for churches to financially support a celibate minister, let alone a man with a family.

At the same time, however, Napier said that some married deacons are "wonderful guys, terrific resources for the church," and suggested that he would be open to a conversation about ordination of such men.

Napier rejected the idea of women priests.

"It's very difficult to argue for a break in tradition that's 2,000 years old," he said.

What about the idea of another council like Vatican II?

"It's hard to imagine with the number of bishops we have today," he said. "But nothing is impossible if the will is there."

If such a meeting were to take place, he said, it should not be structured like synods and other Vatican gatherings today, which tend to feature "input, input, input," without much reaction or debate.

* * *

A few other sites and sounds from this big week.

One of the most charming customs surrounding a consistory is the afternoon auguri, when the new cardinals are assigned a room in the Vatican and anyone who wishes can pass through to wish them well. It's one of the few occasions when the apostolic palace is thrown open to the general public.

As I was standing in line to greet Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec City, I heard someone call my name. It turned out to be the secretary to Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow, Scotland, who many observers (myself included) had predicted would be in this class of cardinals. Instead the honor went to Keith O'Brien of Edinburgh.

I was presented to Conti, who struck me as a charming man and an interesting thinker. He was most gracious about O'Brien. We had a conversation about Conti's views on human rights, based on some research I had done for my new book on the cultural gap between the Holy See and the Anglo-Saxon world. Even without the cardinal's red hat, I think Conti has much to offer the universal church.

Speaking of O'Brien, I tried to offer my congratulations, but as soon as I said I was a journalist, some guy wearing a bejeweled sash manhandled me away from the cardinal. I explained I wasn't there to ask any questions but simply to express my good wishes, and he backed off. The delay proved to be providential, because it meant I was there when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger approached to express his compliments. The Italian press had reported that it was Ratzinger who pressured the Secretariat of State to take action after O'Brien gave an interview Sept. 29 in which he questioned church teaching on celibacy and contraception, and expressed a tolerant view of homosexual priests. Ratzinger's greeting was warm and friendly, and O'Brien's press person wisely ensured the moment was captured on film.

The day before the consistory, I had lunch at Roberto's, a favorite haunt on the Borgo Pio near the Vatican, with a couple of colleagues. A few minutes after we arrived, a large, bearded figure in brown Capuchin robes arrived, whom I immediately recognized as Archbishop Sean O'Malley of Boston. Earlier this year, I had the good fortune of being the reporter who broke the story of O'Malley's move to Boston.

I awaited a discreet moment and then introduced myself, saying, "You may remember me as the man who announced your appointment to the world."

O'Malley smiled and said, "So you're the one!"

He was gracious, especially when I told him I had attended Capuchin schools, and we turned out to have some mutual friends. I recounted the rather unique story of the high school I attended in Hays, Kansas, which was once a military academy with Capuchin teachers. Our yearbook room actually had musty photos of Capuchins in their Franciscan habits conducting military drills! O'Malley had a deep laugh at the irony.

O'Malley later gave an interview to the Boston-area press in which he said that while the sex abuse crisis in Boston was an illustration of everything that can go wrong in the church, Mother Teresa exemplifies what the church does right.

Finally, on Oct. 22 I had an interview with Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops conference, in his apartment at the North American College. Gregory and I spoke about the American sex abuse norms and potential revisions the Vatican might like to see when the two-year review built into those policies rolls around.

My story based on that interview can be found on the NCR Web site: U.S. bishops anticipate review of 'one strike' policy .

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

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