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 The Word From Rome

November 7, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 11



The great problem facing us is that we're not succeeding in expressing the faith in the language of the person of today.

Cardinal José Saraiva Martins,
prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints

Putin at the Vatican and expectations of the Russian Orthodox church; Cardinal José Saraiva Martins on Ex Corde Ecclesiae and other topics; A Capuchin revival; A meditative side of Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe


It’s a sign of how much things have changed over John Paul’s 25-year reign that a Russian leader could visit the Vatican this week and rate little more than a footnote in the world’s press.

Gone are the headiness of Dec. 1, 1989, when the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa formed a stirring climax to Europe’s bloodless revolution. Endless commentary surrounded every detail, including the fact that Raisa wore red rather than the customary black, and pronounced Russian icons superior to Michelangelo’s famous frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

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By way of contrast, the Nov. 5 late afternoon visit of Vladimir Putin, his second to John Paul, was mostly business as usual.

Two points seem clear about Putin’s attitude. First, he is committed to good relations with the West, and sees rapprochement with the Vatican as part of that effort. Second, he is unwilling to move forward without the blessing of his own major religious constituency, the Russian Orthodox church, which does not appear to be in the mood for détente.

Thus while Putin has made commitments to religious freedom, the fledgling Catholic community in Russia still faces harassment on visas for clergy (celibate priests cannot gain permanent residency or citizenship through marriage), authorization to construct churches, and carrying out its ministries. In a typical incident in April 2002, after an Orthodox archbishop objected to building a Catholic church in Pskov, city authorities placed a “temporary ban.” After five months, the ban was lifted when Catholics agreed to scale down their plans.

The Orthodox, scarred by decades of life in a police state and deeply fearful of the West, accuse the Catholic church of “proselytizing” in Russia, and of encouraging the expansion of the Greek Catholic church in Ukraine. Patriarch Alexy II has taken the position that until these disputes are resolved, no progress is possible. Among other things, that means John Paul’s long-desired trip to Moscow appears off the table.

In a telling sign, Putin downplayed the idea of a papal trip.

“My personal position is that it’s important to make every effort in favor of unity among the various Christian confessions,” Putin told Corriere della Sera. “Christianity is at the base of European culture and European identity. Thus I consider my objective not so much making it possible for the pope to come to Russia, so much as favoring Christian unity with every opportune step.”

Putin and John Paul spent 35 minutes alone, then were joined for five minutes by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano. Sodano showed Putin the famed Madonna of Kazan, a Russian Orthodox icon that for complex historical reasons is currently in the pope’s private chapel. Putin, in a traditional Orthodox act of devotion, kissed the icon.

John Paul, speaking in Russian, praised Putin’s ecumenical concern.

“I want to thank President Putin for everything he’s doing to bring the Orthodox and Catholic churches together, and for peace in the world,” he said.

* * *

I was in the press pool for Putin’s visit, which meant that I was in the Cortile San Damaso when he arrived on Nov. 5. One sign of Putin’s respect for John Paul is that the legendarily late president actually showed up five minutes early. (We’re talking about a man who once kept Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi waiting two hours, and even left the Queen of England cooling her heels for 45 minutes).

That respect, however, was not enough to win the pope the prize that has long eluded him: an invitation to visit Moscow.

For that kind of breakthrough in Catholic/Orthodox affairs, many observers believe a change in the top in the Russian Orthodox Church will be required. Like Catholics, the Russian Orthodox have been gripped in a wave of speculation lately about such a change, since the 73-year-old Patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II, is rumored to have serious heart problems. (Though some observers say Alexy has pulled through and could remain in power for some time).

Just as in the Catholic church, personnel moves within Russian Orthodoxy these days are being read through the prism of campaign politics. When one of the main contenders to be the next patriarch, Metropolitan Methodius, was recently named to a diocese in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, many observers took it as Alexy’s “veto” on his candidacy.

For the record, Alexy said the appointment instead reflects Methodius’ “merits as an administrator.”

Methodius's main rival is believed to be Metropolitan Kirill, the 57-year-old traditionalist archbishop for Smolensk and Kaliningrad who, with a weekly television show, is the closest thing the Orthodox church has to a TV evangelist.  He’s also Russian Orthodoxy’s foreign minister.

Just as in the Catholic church, Orthodox officialdom tries to discourage such talk. The new patriarch “will be elected when it is time for the church to do so, and there is no reason to start guessing who it will be,” Alexy himself said in a recent newspaper interview.

I spoke Nov. 1 with Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, an expert on Orthodoxy at Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute, about the Russian succession.

“It’s obvious that a new patriarch will bring changes, but it’s unlikely to be the kind of change we need,” Taft said.

“We need a completely new generation, not Soviet leftovers … people who are not tainted by anything, and who can hold more moderate views of how relations with the West and with Rome should be structured.”

Taft said he is hopeful that the younger generation of clergy is taking a different view.

“There’s a certain realization that the hard line is counter-productive,” Taft said. “The Catholic church, in the world of religion, is like the United States in the world of politics — the lone superpower. You kick it around at your peril.”

Taft said that below the level of metropolitans who make up the most senior level of leadership in the Russian Orthodox church, there are a number of archbishops who are “excellent,” in the sense of being well-educated theologically and open to contacts with the West. He cited Philaret in Minsk and Lev in Novgorod as examples.

* * *

Portuguese Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, is regarded as one of the most affable men in the Roman Curia. I arrived at his office for an appointment Nov. 5, and began by consoling him on the performance of his beloved Lazio soccer squad the night before (one of Rome’s two professional clubs, Lazio had lost to England’s Chelsea 4-0 in European play).

He took it well: “I’m a Lazio fan, but I’m also a man of justice, and to tell you the truth, they deserved to lose.”

Last year Saraiva Martins turned 70, and the Urbaniana University Press recently honored him with a book of essays by a slew of curial heavyweights. Our exclusive interview was wide-ranging, looking back over his career as a Claretian priest, theologian, rector of the Urbaniana University, then secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education from 1988 to 1998 and prefect of the Congregation for Saints from 1998 to the present.

I asked what his missionary background had taught him.

“To love the church in all its diversity and also its unity,” Saraiva Martins said. “Diversity is intrinsic to the human person, and the various local churches have to maintain their specific natures. This is where we find the problem of inculturation. The churches have to express themselves with the concepts, the language, appropriate to their own cultures, not ours.”

Inculturation, Saraiva Martins stressed, is not just a task for mission churches.

“There’s a work of inculturation to be done right here in Rome! Also in London, in Paris, in Lisbon, and so on … also the United States,” he said. “The great problem facing us is that we’re not succeeding in expressing the faith in the language of the person of today.”

“We’re in a new world, a new culture,” Saraiva Martins said. “This is obligatory for us here too [in the Curia].”

In the Congregation for Education, Saraiva Martins worked on the controversial document Ex Corde Ecclesiae (which, as a means of protecting Catholic identity, stipulated that theologians must be “licensed” by bishops). I asked if he felt Ex Corde had succeeded.

“Perhaps not totally, but it’s done a lot of good,” Saraiva Martins said.

He said that before Ex Corde there was no magisterial document on Catholic universities, and the result was a “wild world” in which “everybody did his own thing.”

“For the most part, Catholic universities took the document very seriously and applied it to the extent they felt it was possible in their circumstances, in light of the various kinds of civil legislation under which they work,” Saraiva Martins said.

Saraiva Martins said he closely followed debates within the U.S. bishops’ conference during the 1990s over norms to implement Ex Corde.

“We tried to illuminate the bishops a little bit. I don’t want to say that we imposed, but we did exercise a little bit of pressure, in a good sense,” he said. “Today the Catholic universities are much more aware of the duty and the nature of a Catholic university.”

Since Saraiva Martins is in charge of saints, we discussed the beatification of Mother Teresa, whom he knew personally. Prior to the beatification, there had been discussion about skipping directly to canonization. The proposal was based in part on the argument that the old distinction between beatification as the act of a local church, and canonization as an act of the universal church, no longer holds. After all, we live in a world in which CNN carried Mother Teresa’s beatification live, making it by definition a global event.

Saraiva Martins wasn’t convinced.

“Has the distinction lost its significance? I don’t believe so. After all, the cases of Mother Teresa or Padre Pio are obviously exceptional. They can’t be used to judge the norm,” Saraiva Martins said.

“On the other hand, this is obviously not a dogma of the faith. It could change,” he said.

Saraiva Martins said it would have been a mistake to bend the rules.

“If we had made an exception, we would have created a precedent. This would have invited an avalanche of requests for similar exceptions,” Saraiva Martins said.  “Sure, I could say Mother Teresa is an exceptional case. But that wouldn’t stop the general of an order from saying, ‘But my founder was just as holy as Mother Teresa. Why can’t we have an exception for her?’ The point is that creating a precedent is always dangerous. It’s better to stick with the existing legislation.”

Finally, I asked Saraiva Martins about collegiality, a subject about which he has written a great deal.

“We’ve come a long way,” Saraiva Martins said. “The understanding of collegiality, thanks to the council, has been received by both the local church and the universal church. We still have to search for new ways in which this concept can be translated into practice, no doubt. For me, the most important thing is that the understanding of episcopal collegiality has entered the bloodstream of the church, because it wasn’t always so in our history.”

Saraiva Martins stressed that the pope himself has invited reflection on ways of restructuring the exercise of papal primacy.

“I’m convinced that the Orthodox churches aren’t so much opposed to papal primacy as they are to certain ways the primacy has been conceived historically, in maximalist fashion, like a civil power or an absolute monarchy. That’s not the evangelical sense. Hence it’s not so much defining primacy or collegiality, but perfecting the ways in which they function together.”

The full text of my interview with Saraiva Martins can be found in the Special Documents section of

* * *

I went to the headquarters of the Friars Minor Capuchin on Nov. 3 to interview their minister general, Fr. John Corriveau, for a piece I wanted to write for NCR on how the Capuchins are suddenly hip. In the last three years, the order has turned around three decades of contraction and started to grow again, seen their favorite son Padre Pio raised to the honor of sainthood, and watched as Archbishop Sean O’Malley strode into Boston sporting his brown Capuchin habit.

I acknowledge a bit of bias here, since I was educated by the Capuchins in both grade school and high school, but I find their new vogue delightful.

The church is tuning into the Capuchins at a very interesting moment, since Corriveau explained that the order is in the middle of a reformation. They’re revamped their internal life to foster the ideal of fraternity, and to build an alternative economy based on transparency and participation. The Capuchins are preparing to wrestle with the even thornier question of authority and power in a plenary assembly next year.

Perhaps the newsiest component of our interview concerned San Giovanni Rotondo, the Padre Pio shrine in southern Italy that has become the largest pilgrimage center in Europe. Some seven million people visit annually.

Rumors of financial shenanigans have long dogged the operation. Two years ago, about $4 million set aside for the new church disappeared in the hands of a corrupt contractor, according to press reports. That was apparently part of the reason John Paul II appointed Archbishop Umberto D’Ambrosio of the nearby see of Manfredonia as overseer of the shrine, causing a minor uproar from the locals, ever protective of their Capuchins.

Corriveau understands that even the appearance of financial sleight-of-hand is inconsistent with the Capuchins’ commitment to transparency. For that reason, he’s informed the brothers that next year the shrine will be subject to an independent, external audit, in order to be able to establish exactly how much money flows through and where it finishes.

The relevant section of our interview follows.

What do you say to suggestions that San Giovanni Rotondo is, in effect, a cash cow?
Magari! (An Italian expression meaning roughly, “If only it were so!”) I’ve got 4,000 men in the Third World. My God, and if we could tap into it, it would be marvelous. But the money in San Giovanni Rotondo is for building a church. We’re building a huge basilica there, and so the people are very generous.”

How much money are we talking about?
“The alarmist figures that people keep bandying around are absolutely incredible. At one stage somebody said there’s something like 50 million Euros passing through San Giovanni every year. Well, I’m a North American, and I think very quickly in economic terms. With 50 million Euros in one year, I could build a new basilica every year. You get it? That basilica doesn’t cost 50 million Euros.  I could build a new international college in San Lorenzo every year. I could support all of our missions. Fifty million Euros is absolutely incredible. It’s not that type of money passing through. The numbers are grossly exaggerated.”

Do you know how much?
“I will, because in order to ensure transparency, we’ve already informed the sanctuary that beginning next year we’re going to have external audits. We’re introducing the principle of audit, so it will be absolutely clear, and so that we can give complete statements to the authority of the church, which is also important. We’re part of the church.”

What will be the role of the new pontifical delegate?
“We’re grateful to the Holy Father for this appointment. It’s the local bishop, and we have good relations with him. His precise authority in the shrine hasn’t been spelled out. We’re waiting for the further specification from the Holy See. But my understanding is that this gesture on the part of the Holy Father was to indicate the practical importance of San Giovanni Rotondo. It’s an important sanctuary, and therefore the Holy Father put a personal delegate in there. It’s first of all a pastoral act. Even without special faculties, just as the local bishop, he must oversee that sanctuary. All the pastoral aspects of that sanctuary fall under his concern. Thus it’s a reminder to the Capuchins to work closely with their bishop. The administration of that sanctuary pertains to the friars, and that hasn’t changed.

“I’m a creature of the church. What the church tells me to do, I’m going to do. We will obey the church. That’s my message also to my brothers. They must obey the church, end of story. Nothing more and nothing less.”

* * *

On Oct. 30, new Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, president of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, delivered a lecture at Regina Apostolorum, the Rome university of the Legionaries of Christ. (As a young man, Barragán spent some time in minor seminary for the Legionaries in Mexico). The talk was supported by a power-point presentation.

Perhaps the most interesting moment came at the beginning, when a technical snafu delayed the launch of Barragán’s computer array, and he had to improvise for a few moments. He did so on the subject of AIDS.

Calling the AIDS epidemic a “very serious problem that increases incessantly,” he pointed out that there are 42 million AIDS patients in the world today, and for every person who is sick, three more are infected, bringing the total of those suffering from the disease to roughly 170 million.

Barragán said that one out of every four AIDS patients in the world is under the care of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church cares for 26.7 percent of AIDS patients, he said, while state-run facilities 34 percent, and the rest are treated in facilities run by NGOs or other religious denominations.

Barragán said one tragic dimension of the crisis is that some governments have, in effect, washed their hands of AIDS. In the Baltic state of Lithuania, Barragán said, AIDS has the surreal status of being “illegal.” The government provides no care, medical treatment or drugs. Hence the church tries to pick up the slack.

* * *

Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe has built his career as a prodigious organizer. He staged the celebration of John Paul’s 50th anniversary as a priest in 1996, put together the mind-bogglingly complex Jubilee Year in 2000, and today runs the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. (Formerly known as “Propaganda Fidei,” the office is a Vatican-in-miniature for the church’s mission territories, which are largely in the Third World, but include even far-flung Alaska).

As is often the case with successful people, Sepe’s chief strength is also cited as his main weakness. He’s so good at making the trains run on time, some critics say, that the bigger picture eludes him. Sepe is more a CEO than a pastor, this theory runs, and his ruthless efficiency would be just at home in the corporate or political worlds as in the Catholic church.

In a new book, Sepe indirectly rebuts this view, showing a more priestly and meditative side of himself. The Gospel of the Jubilee: The Church on the Paths of the Third Millennium collects weekly reflections he penned on the Sunday readings during the Jubilee Year.

The Jubilee that Sepe orchestrated was among the mega-events of John Paul’s papacy. Though the Vatican never issued an official tally of what all the activity cost, the total was certainly in the tens, and potentially the hundreds, of millions of dollars. The opening ceremonies alone in December 1999 alone cost an estimated $3 million, funded in that case by state-run and private television networks in Italy. The week-long World Youth Day in August 2000, according to church officials, cost at least $23 million.

I sat down with Sepe in his imposing office in the Piazza di Spagna for an exclusive interview Nov. 3 to look back at the Jubilee Year.

Does it still have consequences for the church?

“The motive [for the Jubilee] was that the church undertake an examination of conscience after 2,000 years, leading to a new outlook that would render the church more incarnate in the world of today. This outlook in turn generated a more mature Christianity, a more mature faith, more self-conscious, more aware. This is the great legacy.”

Where, concretely, does he see the evidence of this legacy?

“There’s a stronger awareness of the need for the Word of God. Many small groups, called ‘communities of listening,’ were created,” Sepe said. “There was also a great rediscovery of the sacraments, especially Eucharist and confession. Many pastors said that they had to put confessionals back into their churches because the people asked for the sacrament. … Many priests probably dedicate themselves a little more to hearing confessions, in part because of the Jubilee, and the faithful live with greater responsibility and coherence.”

Was the Jubilee worth the millions it cost?

“Look, I’ve always said that the consequences of the Jubilee are simply not measurable,” Sepe said. “Beyond the numbers, the persons who came to Rome or who in the various parts of the world participated in the Jubilee, there’s the interior grace that resulted. There were so many episodes of people who felt called to live anew their Christian faith, who underwent a kind of conversion, but this can’t be measured. It just can’t be done.”

I asked if Sepe could identify other specific fruits.

 “In many mission countries, small medical centers were created during the Jubilee Year,” Sepe said. “In other cases, schools for illiterate children were opened, or perhaps centers against the spread of AIDS. They continue in operation today, because obviously they respond to real needs. For me, all this is a continuation of the soul of the Jubilee.”

How will church historians look back on the Jubilee?

“Certainly it left its mark on an epoch, in part because the global tension surrounding the passage from one millennium to the next was quite strong,” Sepe said. “Remember the ‘Y2K’ problem and all the rest. There was so much fear. The Jubilee offered a dimension of holiness, and I’m certain it changed something. To what extent this influence will endure, I don’t know. But it won’t be possible to talk about this moment in history without reference to the Jubilee.”

Will we have another Jubilee in 2025?

“The tradition is to have one every 25 years, so there should be one in 2025. Let’s hope.”

The full text of my interview with Sepe can be found in the Special Documents section of

 * * *

Cardinal Josip Bozanic of Croatia is, at 54, the third-youngest cardinal in the Catholic church, and generally draws positive reviews. He is cut from the Karol Wojtyla cloth — from the moderate, internationalist wing of an Eastern European church, impeccably orthodox and pastorally dynamic, with an open mind. He serves as vice-president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE).

On Nov. 6, Bozanic spoke at a Rome panel on the role of universities in the new Europe.

His talk was thoughtful, if occasionally short on specifics. Bozanic argued that the Christian roots of Europe are “not a cumbersome archeological sediment, but constitute its very bloodstream.” The church, he said, must offer “a vision that’s solid in its principles, but dynamic and capable of producing orientations of true wisdom in changing historical circumstances.”

Bozanic said that Eastern Europeans know what happens when relativism and skepticism triumph. Society becomes susceptible to “oppressive and inhuman totalitarianism,” because it no longer has a cultural counter-proposal to offer.

On the evidence of this event, however, Bozanic still has some room to grow as a statesman and orator before he enters the lists of papabili, or candidates to be the next pope. When it came time for Q&A on Thursday, people asked about the role of youth, about the limits of dialogue, about the need to create centers of social action, and the nature and limits of the lay state.

In response, Bozanic said the following:

“I only want to say this. We have to emphasize not just the question of Europe, but the connection between Europe and the other continents. When we talk about Europe, we must always have this more open vision towards the other continents. Europe has importance for the world.”

A good note to strike, certainly, but some observers were frustrated that he didn’t tackle the tougher questions.

* * *

Perhaps the nicest man in the Vatican press corps is Gerard O’Connell, who writes for the UCAN news agency in Asia as well as the Universe in London. Gerry is so humble, in fact, that someone not paying careful attention might miss the fact that he is one of the keenest observers of Vatican affairs in the world.

Thanks to his new book God’s Invisible Hand, that point will be much more difficult to overlook.

The book collects a series of interviews with Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. O’Connell is a marvelous interviewer, drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of church affairs, as well as genuine curiosity and sympathy for his subject.

Arinze is among the leading papabili, and there is no better way to know his mind and heart than by reading O’Connell’s book.

God’s Invisible Hand can be ordered on-line at

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

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