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December 9, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 15

John L. Allen Jr.


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The Word From Rome

John L. Allen Jr.

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Joan Chittister

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A digest of links to media coverage of clergy abuse.

NCR's Latin America Series

The churches in Asia gather
Papal Coverage: Read NCR's 25 days of non-stop coverage of the death of John Paul II and the elction of Benedict XVI. This includes Sr. Joan Chittister's essays, An American Catholic in Rome

When will this pope make some changes?; Sacred music; On priestly life and ministry; The subsistit in-est debate; Opposing John Paul II's sainthood fast track; Anniversary lunch at the North American College; World Methodist Council in Rome


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This week I bumped into a Latin American cardinal in the streets of Rome, a man I know, and after some preliminary chit-chat, the cardinal popped the question that was clearly on his mind.

"When will this pope make some changes?" he asked.

In my experience of speaking with cardinals from various parts of the world who have passed through Rome in the last eight months, this is almost inevitably among their first questions - when is Benedict going to do something?

Of course, the cardinals are aware that the pope has done many things, including his trips to Bari and Cologne, his audiences and messages, and his forthcoming encyclical on divine love.

What they're really asking, however, is when the much-rumored curial "tsunami" is going to arrive.

If we wind the clock back to the early days of April, when the cardinals were asking themselves who should succeed John Paul II, many felt the next pope would face some curial "housekeeping." There was general agreement that the Holy See's communications operation, for example, is in need of reform; too many people speak for the Holy See, or at least are publicly perceived to do so, and they're sometimes not on the same page. Further, cardinals felt that sometimes the heads of Vatican offices aren't well-versed in their areas of competence, resulting in decisions on the basis of bureaucratic or careerist logic rather than content. Some cardinals also wondered whether the current curial apparatus is too large, resulting in documents, meetings, and other activity simply for the sake of having it.

When Benedict XVI was elected, many anticipated a quick shake-up. A joke that made the rounds went like this: Immediately after Ratzinger's name was announced, the monsignori from the Secretariat of State left their terrace overlooking St. Peter's Square and went back inside. The punch line was that they went inside to polish their résumés.

To date, however, the tsunami has yet to make landfall. Benedict has made only one significant curial appointment, Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco as his own successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Only one official from the "old guard" has been removed, Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino as the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

Compounding the sense of uncertainty, senior Vatican officials say that Benedict is keeping his own counsel about personnel moves. The circle of people who are "in" on decisions is smaller, meaning people are less likely to see big moves taking shape in advance.

So, what should we expect?

People around the pope say expectations of a dramatic "putsch" were always exaggerated. Benedict is a careful figure who is not going to turn the Roman Curia on its head. Decisions will often appear as one-off affairs, leaving much existing structure and personnel intact.

Yet most say that within a period of time, perhaps as much as five years, Benedict's imprint on the curia will be noticeable.

First, the Roman Curia may be smaller. In 1990, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said the following at a conference in Rimini:

"After the Council we created many new structures, many councils at different levels, and we're still creating them … We have to be aware that these structures remain secondary things … I've suggested an examination of conscience that could also profitably be extended to the Roman Curia, in the sense of evaluating whether all the dicasteries that exist today are really necessary."

One might ask whether, for example, a Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees, or for the Family, are truly necessary, especially since other agencies (Secretariat of State and Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, respectively) already work in the same areas.

Second, the trend will be towards personnel well-grounded in their disciplines, who get jobs because of what, rather than who, they know.

By all accounts, the first high-profile chance for Benedict XVI to make his mark will come with the appointment of a successor to Cardinal Angelo Sodano as the Secretary of State. If Benedict taps someone who does not come from the Vatican's diplomatic corps, someone whose background is more theological or canonical than diplomatic or bureaucratic, it would be a powerful signal of which way the wind will blow.

The men who elected Benedict are watching, and waiting. The Latin American cardinal's second question to me, in fact, was precisely, "Who's going to be the next Secretary of State?"

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Speaking of the forthcoming encyclical, some initial news reports suggested that it might appear on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In part, these expectations were fueled by the fact that the translations by the Secretariat of State were finished some weeks ago.

In fact, the encyclical will not be released until January.

"Benedict prefers that some time pass between one document and another so that people can assimilate them," a senior Vatican official said Dec. 6. "In December there are various things - the message for the World Day of Peace, the Christmas homily, and so forth."

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Dec 8 marked the 40th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and this week offered numerous reminders that debates over the interpretation of Vatican II are still very much alive.

A principal crossroads is whether one emphasizes the differences with what went before the council, or the similarities; in other words, is it discontinuity with the pre-Vatican II church one accents, or continuity?

For 40 years, the tendency has been to stress the watershed Vatican II marked in Catholic life, all the ways in which it produced a break with the church prior to the mid-1960s. Today, however, the growing trend is to emphasize continuity with the past, to read Vatican II as largely a confirmation of the church's perennial teaching and discipline.

That trend was clear in several ways this week.

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On Monday, for example, the Congregation for Divine Worship sponsored a study day on sacred music, a follow-up to a similar event held in 2003 when John Paul II issued a document marking the 100th anniversary of Tra le sollecitudini, a document of Pius X on the renewal of sacred music.

Whereas the 2003 gathering featured a variety of perspectives on the question of broader use of Gregorian chant and polyphony, the speakers at this week's event were almost unanimous in favor of efforts to revitalize the traditional musical inheritance of the church.

The most dramatic moment came in an address by Msgr. Valentin Miserachs Grau, president of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, who called the abandonment of Gregorian chant in the post-Vatican II era a "deplorable amputation."

"The obscuring of an entire tradition of prayer formed over two millennia has led to conditions favorable to a heterogeneous and anarchic proliferation of new musical products which, in the majority of cases, have not been able to root themselves in the essential tradition of the church, bringing about not only a general impoverishment, but also damage that would be difficult to repair, assuming the desire to remedy it were present," Miserachs Grau said.

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He spoke to rousing applause.

Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, seemed to leave some room for "inculturated" music, but he clearly sympathized with the critics of much post-Vatican II composition.

"We cannot leave sacred music in the hands of a savage creativity, uncontrolled, banal, secularized," Arinze said. "There's room, beyond Gregorian chant, for new compositions, but they can't be improvised by night."

The lone voice registering an indirect note of dissent was heard from Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino, the number two official at the congregation.

The opening to inculturation at Vatican II should be considered "a great chance and a path of enrichment," which "calls upon the responsibility and the creativity of the local churches," Sorrentino said.

Perhaps not coincidently, this was Sorrentino's swan song as a Vatican official. He's been sent to Assisi as the new bishop.

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On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Congregation for Clergy and the Pontifical Lateran University co-sponsored a symposium on one of the lesser-known documents of Vatican II, Presbyterorum Ordinis, on priestly life and ministry. The event was held at the Lateran.

Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, said that during conciliar debate on the text of Presbyterorum Ordinis, it became clear that two different conceptions of the priesthood were at work: one, a "functional vision of priestly ministry," seeing the priest as the one who proclaims the Word, leads the community in prayer, and so on; the other, a "sacramental/ontological view" of priesthood, seeing the priest as conformed to Christ by the sacrament of holy orders.

In the end, Castrillón Hoyos argued, the two visions are "complementary and inseparable."

This is the reason, Castrillón Hoyos said, for traditional bits of ecclesiastical discipline such as the ban on lay people presenting homilies during Mass.

"A homily by a lay person can be very well-prepared theologically, but that person cannot act with the sacramental identity and the authority of Christ," Castrillón Hoyos said.

This point, Castrillón Hoyos said, also explains the church's teaching as to how "sacred power," the so-called "power of orders," belongs only to ordained priests acting in persona Christi.

"It's not a majority vote of a community that bestows priestly power," Castrillón Hoyos said. "It's a question of sacramental power. A community is by definition incapable of that act."

Castrillón Hoyos warned that the proper sense of priestly identity had sometimes been obscured in the immediate post-Vatican II period.

"For years during the period of liturgical reform, there was a misunderstood sense of creativity and adaptation, and abuses were not lacking. This was a source of suffering for many," he said.

In that regard, Castrillón Hoyos pointed to a Vatican instruction of 1997 drawing a sharp distinction between the ordained priesthood and lay ministry, which, as he observed, was approved in forma specifica by Pope John Paul II, meaning that it carried the force of a papal act.

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Catholic seminaries must teach the theological basics, must stress the traditional image of an ordained priest as "ontologically connected to Christ," and must avoid a "psychologization" that relies too much on psychological rather than spiritual assessments, a senior Vatican official said at the Presbyterorum Ordinis symposium.

"Personally, I am convinced that the quality of priestly formation depends on a clear vision of the identity of the ordained priesthood that today unfortunately is often obscured," said Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Grocholewski also warned that seminaries that do not emphasize a priest's vocation to holiness risk becoming "traitors to the Lord."

Grocholewski proposed six topics for reflection, including:

  • A clear insistence upon the identity and mission of priestly life as "the most secure guide, the most incisive means of discernment for the formation of candidates";
  • Avoiding excessively "pastoral" formation that ignores a demanding approach to theological, spiritual and liturgical matters - for example, in the early years of seminary life candidates should not be placed in parishes on weekends, since it could disrupt their habits of study and prayer;
  • The heart of all formation must be spiritual, otherwise priests risk becoming like "salt that has lost its flavor";
  • The danger of intellectual formation that allows "interesting problems of the day" to distract from the theological basics, or which separates intellectual from spiritual formation with "inevitable damage not just to the spiritual life, but to understanding the mystery of the faith";
  • The risks of an approach to human formation that relies primarily on psychology, rather than "an anthropology reflecting the full truth about the human person, which ends in a spirituality that completes human formation";
  • Rejecting attempts to replace the seminary with other means of formation, which Grocholewski said produces "disastrous results."
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At the symposium, the task of reviewing the church's magisterium on priestly life fell to Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Lima, Peru, one of two Opus Dei members in the College of Cardinals.

"The conclusion is very simple," Cipriani said, "before and after Vatican II. … The theological and spiritual identity of the priesthood is understood in light of the identity of Christ, the head and shepherd of the church."

Cipriani clearly distinguished the universal priesthood of the faithful from the ordained priesthood.

"The identity of an ordained priest is not as an alter Christus, but ipse Christus, Christ himself," Cipriani said. "The Christian faithful share in the priesthood of Christ but in a different way, not in the sacramental sense."

Like Castrillón Hoyos, Cipriani stressed the "sacramental character" of the priesthood beyond a merely "functional" vision.

"Sometimes we face excessive sorts of behaviors from priests, a desire to make themselves protagonists, forgetting they're just instruments of the lone priesthood of Christ," Cipriani said. "If they forget this, they're nothing."

In this context, Cipriani criticized liberation theology.

"Where I live, we've had a special problem," he told the symposium. "Liberation theology established a utopian opposition between prayer and action, between doctrine and life, as if the two things were in conflict," he said. "We have this danger of many priests becoming so involved in the affairs of the world that they forget other things."

Cipriani also offered ringing defenses of magisterial positions on clerical celibacy and women priests, saying that on the latter issue Pope John Paul II had "erased any doubts."

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As a footnote, it was not accidental that an Opus Dei member was invited to address the Presbyterorum Ordinis symposium, since one of the primary laborers on the document at Vatican II was Alvaro del Portillo, who in 1975 would succeed St. Josemaría Escrivá as the head of Opus Dei and in 1991 became a bishop.

A process for Portillo's beatification is currently underway.

Portillo staffed the commission on the "Discipline of the Clergy," which prepared Presbyterorum Ordinis. Portillo also served as the secretary for the Ante-Preparatory Commission on the Laity. His books Faithful and Laity in the Church (1969) and On the Priesthood (1970) are largely the fruit of that experience.

Presbyterorum Ordinis is the first official church document to mention personal prelatures, a new canonical category of which Opus Dei would become the first (and, to date, the only) example in 1982. Paragraph 10 states: "There should be set up international seminaries, special personal dioceses or prelatures (vicariates), and so forth, by means of which, according to their particular statutes and always saving the right of bishops, priests may be trained and incardinated for the good of the whole church."

In an interview for my book Opus Dei, Cardinal Julian Herranz of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, the other Opus Dei cardinal, denied that Portillo exercised special influence on behalf of Opus Dei in Presbyterorum Ordinis.

"He was simply the secretary of the conciliar commission, and I was an aide to the commission," Herranz said. "There were 25 members who were cardinals and bishops selected from all over the world. Then there were also 20 consulters, including [Dominican Fr.] Yves Congar and many others. Portillo had secretarial duties … keeping minutes of the meetings, convoking the meetings, but the decisions and the texts were worked on by the members and the consulters."

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Another indication that the "continuity" reading of Vatican II is gaining ground came in the Monday-Tuesday edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper. It carried a front-page commentary from Jesuit Fr. Karl Becker on perhaps the most-debated bit of verbiage from the council, the famous formula in Lumen Gentium 8 that the church of Christ "subsists in" rather than "is" the Roman Catholic church.

Becker argued that 40 years of contrary interpretation notwithstanding, "subsists in" is simply a stronger way of saying "is."

Becker, a theological conservative now in his late 70s, has served as a consultor to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith since 1977. At a presentation of a book of essays marking Becker's 75th birthday in 2003, I heard Fr. Georg Gänswein, personal secretary to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and now to Pope Benedict XVI, praise Becker in these simple words: "He is not afraid."

For the past 40 years, the shift from "is" to "subsists in" (in Latin, from est to subsistit in) has been considered one of the signal decisions of the council, a move away from a triumphalist identification of Roman Catholicism as the lone embodiment of Christ's church, towards a more humble ecclesiology that recognized that no existing Christian body perfectly represents Christ's will.

Instead, Becker argued, the council's respect for "elements of truth and sanctification" in other Christian bodies should not "attenuate" the identification of the church of Christ with the Catholic church.

"The phrase subsistit in meant not only to reconfirm the sense of est," he wrote, "that is, the identity between the church of Christ and the Catholic church. It also meant to reiterate that the church of Christ, with the fullness of the means instituted by Christ, perdures (continues, remains) forever in the Catholic church."

Becker noted that it was Jesuit Fr. Sebastian Tromp, one of the periti1, or theological experts at the council, who proposed the formula subsistit in, but Becker insists that Tromp "from the beginning defended the total identity of the church of Christ with the Catholic church … it's unthinkable that at the last minute he changed his mind."

Finally, Becker offered an interpretation of what it means to say that other Christian bodies have "ecclesial elements."

"If one says that the United Nations have brought order to a certain country, in reality it's the peace-keeping troops that have acted on the orders of the United Nations, but are not the United Nations, even in part," Becker wrote. "In a similar sense, though not identical, I can say that the church of Christ operates in the Christian communities, since Christ, as the head (and not the body) of the church, through the Spirit, the soul (and not the body) of the church, operates in these communities. Christ and the Spirit operate in them, reinforcing the elements that press towards the unity of Christians in the one church."

While all this may seem a dusty historical dispute, the difference between subsistit in and est has been at the heart of much recent high-stakes controversy, including two emblematic crackdowns of the 1980s and 1990s: Leonardo Boff, the symbol of the liberation theology movement, and Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis, identified with the push for a more positive theological treatment of other religions. Both men invoked subsistit in to argue in favor of a more expansive doctrine of the roles of Christ and the Spirit outside the Catholic church, leading to what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the case of Boff, called "ecclesiological relativism."

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As a footnote to the Becker essay, some of his arguments have their roots in a dissertation written under his direction by a 34-year-old German lay woman named Alexandra von Teuffenbach, born in Padua, Italy, who performed research in the Vatican Archives. She was the first to make extensive use of Tromp's diary.

Her work is the object of a sharply worded rejection in the new Brief History of the Second Vatican Council by Giuseppe Alberigo, the leading progressive interpreter of Vatican II, with the support of Luigi Sartori, the doyen of Italian ecumenical ecclesiologists.

As a theologian friend in the United States pointed out, Teuffenbach's work poses a dilemma for the "continuity" school, which has long warned against using the private opinions of periti as a guide to the meaning of conciliar texts. Here's a case where one such private opinion, that of Tromp, who actually suggested the phrase subsistit in, clearly supports their reading. As noted, Becker is not shy about quoting Tromp's view of what the phrase meant.

It is, as my theologian friend observed, a "nice irony."

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A group of 11 liberal European Catholic theologians this week urged Catholics to speak out against Pope John Paul II's bid for sainthood, issuing a seven-point critique of the late pope titled "A Call for Clarification."

The theologians criticized John Paul's "repression and alienation" of theologians, his insistence upon clerical celibacy, his handling of the sex abuse scandals, his crackdown on liberation theology, his opposition to birth control, his avoidance of "serious debate on the condition of women in the church," and his inability to prevent "murky financial maneuvers" such as the Vatican Bank scandals of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The signatories were:

Giovanni Franzoni, former Benedictine abbot of St. Paul Outside the Walls, today a laicized priest; Jaume Botey, Casimir Martí and Ramon Maria Nogues, all of Barcelona; José María Castillo; Rosa Cursach of Palma de Mallorca; Casiano Floristan of Salamanca; Filippo Gentiloni and José Ramos Regidor, both currently in Rome; Martha Heizer of Innsbruck; and Juan José Tamayo of Madrid.

Many are long-time progressive activists in the Catholic church.

Franzoni, for example, was suspended from the Benedictines in 1974 after arguing publicly for the right of Catholics to vote in favor of an Italian referendum liberalizing the country's divorce law. At the time, the Vatican said Franzoni had been suspended (and later expelled) because of other statements, including his claim that the hierarchy of the Catholic church is "a pillar of the capitalist system."

Castillo is identified with liberation theology, and at one point was the object of a Vatican investigation. John Paul removed Castillo's license to teach as a Catholic theologian in 1988.

Heizer was the co-founder along with fellow Austrian Thomas Plankensteiner of a 1995 protest against the scandals surrounding then-Cardinal of Vienna Hans Herman Gröer of Vienna that eventually burgeoned into the Wir Sind Kirche, or "We Are Church" movement, the most serious liberal Catholic reform group in Europe. She and Plankensteiner appeared on local Innsbruck TV on Good Friday in April 1995, sparking the movement. She has since become a regular at gatherings of liberal Catholics worldwide.

Vatican officials say that beatification of a pope is not tantamount to endorsement of his policies, but rather a finding concerning his personal virtues and holiness.

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In addition to being the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8 is also the anniversary of the foundation of the North American College, the American seminary in Rome, in 1859. Every year the NAC hosts a lunch to mark the event, which is usually a delightful combination of Italian cuisine and American portions.

It concludes with three toasts, in honor of the Holy Father, the United States, and the NAC. This year's highlight was probably the toast by Msgr. Robert Evans, currently assigned to the Apostolic Nunciatura, or papal embassy, in Washington, and the former director of the NAC's Institute for Continuing Theological Education.

Evans jokingly said that in comparison with the United States, probably only ancient Rome "and the Angelicum University" had been viewed by so many people as "the promised land." It drew both applause and hisses from the NAC crowd, since roughly 35 percent of the American seminarians attend the Angelicum, run by the Dominicans, and 65 percent go to the Gregorian, run by the Jesuits.

Earlier in the week I sat down for an interview with Msgr. Kevin McCoy, the rector of the NAC, for a forthcoming piece in the National Catholic Reporter about the current visitation of American seminaries. A team composed of bishops and other seminary experts from the States will visit the NAC in March.

In the light of the recent Vatican document about gay priests, and attention in the visitation's Instrumentum Laboris to homosexuality, McCoy said the question of sexual maturity is more important than ever. He recently met with the 151 seminarians at the NAC to go over the Vatican document, he said, and to urge any who are struggling with sexual issues to bring it up in spiritual direction.

At the same time, McCoy insisted, it would be a mistake to allow the focus on sexuality to obscure other dimensions of "human formation," which he said are far more common stumbling blocks.

"A man who can't, or who refuses, to greet you with a 'good morning' can do more damage in a parish," McCoy said. "If he doesn't display readiness for compassion, if there's no affect, this is not a man who can build community."

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This week, a high-level delegation from the World Methodist Council was in Rome for a series of meetings and events, culminating in an audience Friday with Benedict XVI.

I sat down Friday afternoon with His Eminence Sunday Mbang, a Nigerian and chairperson of the council, which represents some 70 million Methodists worldwide, and with Geoffrey Wainwright of Duke University, co-chair of the Catholic/Methodist dialogue along with Bishop Michael Putney of Townsville, Australia.

Mbang argued that Catholics and Methodists don't have to agree on papal primacy to have greater communion.

"It's not necessary for us to have one leader," he said. "I'm the leader of the World Methodist Council, but I don't expect Catholics to follow me. This should not affect our agreement on the Eucharist or on baptism. The pope is not a matter of salvation," he said.

Mbang was especially optimistic about the possibilities for joint moral witness between Catholics and Methodists on social issues such as homosexuality. In that context, he praised the recent Vatican document on gay priests.

"We Africans thought we were standing alone" in defense of traditional morality, Mbang said. "Now we have a big brother."

"The problem with the West" he said, "is that it reads the Bible through the prism of philosophy, and that's a headache. … The West has lost many things. They have nothing called the family anymore, in the proper sense."

Mbang said he believes the next step in the Catholic/Methodist relationship is for each side to make greater use of the "gifts" of the other. For example, he said, Catholics can learn much about hymns from Methodists, while Methodists are making greater use of Catholic iconography.

On the subject of Islam, Mbang rejected suggestions that Pope John Paul II had been too "soft" in his approach.

"That's what the Spirit told him to do, and he did it," Mbang said. "If you want to criticize it, you should criticize the Spirit."

Wainwright said the example of John Paul II has made the concept of papal primacy more acceptable to Methodists.

"Many were impressed with the way he exercised a kind of itinerant ministry, traveling, preaching, and making converts," he said.

I asked Wainwright, playing off the provocative title of one of his own books alongside a similar recent volume by Mark Knoll and Carolyn Nystrom, "Is the Reformation over?"

"The decree on justification puts us well on the way to settling it," Wainwright responded, referring to the 1999 agreement between the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation declaring that the two groups were in substantial agreement on the core dividing issue of the Reformation, even if both sides understand that agreement in slightly different ways.

Wainwright said that at the next world assembly of Methodists in Seoul, Korea, in July 2006, the Methodists expect to become the third Christian body to adhere to the agreement.

In his remarks to the Methodists on Friday, Benedict XVI praised this possibility.

"It would assist in contributing to the healing and reconciliation we ardently desire," he said, "and would be a significant step towards the stated goal of full visible unity in faith."

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

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