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December 23, 2005
Vol. 5, No. 17

John L. Allen Jr.


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The Word From Rome

John L. Allen Jr.

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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

A new nuncio for the USA; Church universities and the EU; New Ambassadors to the Holy See ; Prayer for Christian Unity; Neocatechumenal Way told to regularize liturgical practices


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I suppose the reason why, despite everything, people still listen to Roman rumors is that every now and then they're right on the money. Such was the case Dec. 17, when Pope Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop Pietro Sambi as the new nuncio, or ambassador, to the United States, thereby confirming speculation that literally stretched back years.

Sambi currently serves as the nuncio to Israel and Cyprus, and apostolic delegate to Palestine and Jerusalem.

Despite the lack of drama, the choice is being closely scrutinized. Few papal appointments have as much potential to shape the future of a church in a given country. Not only does the nuncio represent the Holy Father, but he prepares the nomination of bishops, which means he helps shape a generation of leaders.

Sambi therefore becomes a VIP in American Catholicism.

He replaces Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, 76, a Colombian who held the post since 1998. By most indications, it will be a significant change, in personality if not in substance; where Montalvo was withdrawn, Sambi is outgoing and gregarious, a big bear of a man who's well-liked almost anywhere he's gone -- no mean feat in the Holy Land, where, sources say, he is admired by both Palestinians and Israelis.

Sambi is not, according to those who know him, a typical diplomat -- aloof, calculating his utterances and maintaining his distance. One church official who has worked with Sambi said "he is thoroughly a priest," noting that he returns to his home town of Sogliano al Rubicone, Italy, at least once a year to help out the parish priest. In Jerusalem, Sambi enjoys meeting with pilgrim groups to talk about the spiritual significance of the Holy Land.

One would expect, therefore, that Sambi will cut a larger figure on the American stage than his immediate predecessor, though not necessarily in the media; after his appointment, one of Sambi's first moves was to declare that he would not make any comment to the press.

Sambi has a well-rounded diplomatic background. Prior to the Holy Land, he served for seven years as pro-nuncio to Indonesia, giving him experience of both Asia and a majority Muslim nation. He's also been stationed in Burundi, Cameroon, Cuba, Algeria, Nicaragua, Belgium and India.

Sources said that Sambi's command of English is good, rendering him capable of traveling in the States and entering into American culture.

For most American Catholics, one question above all is paramount: What kind of bishops will Sambi pick?

I put that question to a senior Vatican official, and the crisp answer was: "He'll follow instructions." In other words, Sambi will not come with an agenda of his own, but will take his cues from the pope and the Congregation of Bishops.

Yet those directions will inevitably leave room for discretion, meaning that the kind of person to whom Sambi naturally gravitates will still have some impact.

"He's very much a man of the center," an Israeli source said. "He's quite open-minded." The Israeli described Sambi as a mensch, meaning someone with fundamental decency.

The church official who has worked closely with Sambi said that he's drawn to "level-headed, non-ideological" people.

"He'll be looking for competent priests who are effective pastorally," the official said.

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After the election of Benedict XVI, some observers fretted that a strong emphasis on Catholic identity might lead the church into disengagement from the broader world. So far, however, there's little indication of such a retreat, and several signals cutting in the opposite direction.

One comes in the Holy See's adherence to the "Bologna Process," an effort to build a common European higher education area by 2010. At the moment, there's no guarantee that a degree earned in one European nation will be recognized in another; for Americans, it would be as if graduate schools in Michigan didn't recognize an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin. This can be a special problem for graduates from pontifical universities needing secular recognition of their coursework or degrees.

There are 187 church-affiliated institutions and faculties in Europe.

The effort is called the "Bologna Process" because the meeting of European education ministers in 1999 that got the ball rolling took place in Bologna.

Jesuit Fr. Franco Imoda of the Gregorian University, who is spearheading efforts among pontifical universities to comply with the standards of the Bologna process, described the effort in terms of three "poles":

  • Credit system: Credits are to be awarded on the basis of how much effort a student puts in, not just time in a classroom. The idea is that an average year at the undergraduate level should consist of 60 credits, representing 1,500 hours of work. Each degree will be accompanied by a standardized "diploma supplement," explaining the basis for credits awarded in transparent fashion.
  • Qualification framework: The sequence of degrees envisioned is 3+2+3, meaning a three-year bachelor's degree, followed by a two-year master's and three-year doctorate. In general, pontifical universities already have this structure, though a preliminary two years in philosophy are required for seminarians before their three-year bachelor's in theology. The Holy See, Imoda said, has made clear that this requirement must remain.
  • Quality assurance: The process envisions a three-tier system of assessment, beginning with an internal review by each institution, then an external review by a national agency, and finally an "agency of agencies" at the European level to accredit the national assessment agencies. To bring the Holy See into compliance, a quasi-autonomous evaluation agency will be erected under the aegis of the Congregation for Catholic Education. It must have a degree of independence from the congregation, however, because the Bologna process insists that assessment not be performed by political appointees.
This summer, Archbishop Michael Miller, Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, put out a letter expressing the Holy See's support for the aims of the Bologna process.

For the Vatican, the basic argument for joining the process is practical. Right now, a graduate of an ecclesiastical faculty in Lithuania hired to teach religion in France might face doubts about whether the degree meets French standards. Under the Bologna system, such roadblocks will be significantly reduced.

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Miller told NCR that another argument for the Holy See's participation is that it amounts to a "sign of good will and cooperation" towards other European states.

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A more cautious, identity-based reading, however, might worry that sooner or later, the Bologna process will draw Catholic institutions into the orbit of the European secular academy, not to mention the sprawling European bureaucracy, creating pressure to assimilate to secular standards.

Miller said this has not been an issue.

"There's been no hint," Miller said, that European bureaucrats are interested in regulating theology courses.

In fact, some church officials see the Bologna process not so much in terms of European influence on the church, but the church's influence on Europe. It's a chance, they say, to make the case for Christian humanism in a European intellectual milieu too often dominated by materialism and utilitarianism.

As Imoda put it, it's an opportunity to conceive of the university as more than creating a "common market of knowledge," but as fostering reflection on values and questions of meaning.

In May 2005, Archbishop Józef Miroslaw Zycinski of Lublin, Poland, chair of the Holy See's delegation to the Bologna process, outlined the logic for this position in an address to a follow-up conference in Bergen, Norway.

"There is a truth about human life which cannot be expressed in terms of logical algorithms," Zycinski said.

"Newton and Einstein, Planck and Gödel made great contributions to our knowledge of the world," Zycinski said. "This knowledge, however, would be incomplete and very much the poorer were it not for the philosophical contributions of Plato and Thomas Aquinas, the theological works of St. Augustine and John Henry Newman, the mystical experiences of John of the Cross and Thomas Merton's reflections on spirituality. If one were to eliminate these latter elements from human culture, then we would be left with a profoundly warped and one-dimensional culture."

Miller noted that the Holy See is sponsoring a seminar for the Bologna Follow-Up Group on March 30-April 1 in the Vatican on the theme of "Cultural Heritage and Academic Values at European Universities."

"It's a chance to talk about the particular heritage of Catholic education," Miller said. "This probably would not be happening if we weren't members."

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This week witnessed the debut of two new ambassadors to the Holy See, representing the Vatican's two most important European relationships: France and England.

Bernard Kessedjian, the new French ambassador, presented his credentials to Benedict XVI on Monday. Kessedjian, who has held various postings in the French diplomatic service, replaces the legendary Pierre Morel, who had held the post since 2002. Over that time, Morel earned a reputation as one of the best-informed and well-connected members of the ambassadorial corps.

The new English ambassador, meanwhile, is 35-year-old Francis Campbell, who presented his credentials to Benedict XVI today.

This week I had the chance to pay courtesy calls on both men. In some ways, they're a study in contrasts; Kessedjian is an amiable, pipe-smoking veteran diplomat, Campbell a hard-charging policy wonk. Both, however, are substantive figures with wide experience. Kessedjian, to select one item from his résumé, was a junior charge d'affaires in the French embassy in Nicaragua in 1969, and watched the Sandinista revolution unfold from a front-row seat. Campbell, meanwhile, was a senior policy advisor to the Blair administration on Europe. Both also have prior experience of the Holy See. Kessedjian worked with Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, on human rights issues; Campbell was a principal organizer of Blair's 2003 trip to the Vatican, and maintained regular contacts with the papal nuncio in London.

In their exchanges with the pope this week, both touched on central issues of concern to the Holy See.

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Kessedjian underscored an area where France and the Holy See have both sometimes clashed with the United States: multilateralism in foreign policy, and a stronger role for the United Nations.

Both France and the Vatican, Kessedjian said, desire "a fully multilateral international system resting on universally accepted rules and the central character of the United Nations."

"France pleads, as you know, for a better comprehension of global challenges by the international community, and for the installation of the first steps towards world governance," Kessedjian said.

Benedict, meanwhile, reviewed flashpoints in French-Vatican relations.

  • Church/State Relations: Benedict noted that 2005 marks the 100th anniversary of the law establishing separation of church and state, the foundation for the French tradition of laďcité, or the "lay state." Quoting John Paul II, Benedict said he hoped the church will play "an increasingly active role in the life of society, respecting the competencies of each participant."
  • Social Unrest: Benedict alluded to the recent French riots, saying that violence "cannot but be condemned," yet adding that the government must "take account the requests of young people." France has welcomed immigrants before, Benedict noted, and the challenge is ensuring that immigrants feel part of a common culture.
  • Defending Marriage and the Family: Concern for human dignity leads the church to defend traditional concepts of marriage and family, "with which no other form of social organization can be compared."
  • Bioethics: The pope warned that modern science tends to treat human beings increasingly as "a simple object of research." Ethical questions, he said, must be considered from the point of view of human dignity.
  • Development: Benedict lauded France for its commitment to developing nations, citing a recent "Africa-France" summit held in Mali.
The pope's mention of bioethics especially caught the attention of French diplomats, signaling that he's well-briefed. A new bioethics law is set to go into effect in France in the next few days, one which bans experimentation on embryos in principle, but which allows experimentation for a period of five years if an important scientific gain is at stake. The law has garnered relatively little attention, and hence the pope's reference means he's obviously paying attention.

These points may well provide something of a preview for the pope's much-anticipated address to the diplomatic corps in early January, widely seen as his annual "State of the Union" address.

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In his remarks, Campbell stressed several areas of conversation between England and the Holy See: inter-religious dialogue, European expansion, development and human rights.

His language on EU expansion could be read as a gentle challenge to Benedict on the admission of Turkey, a prospect about which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed doubts in terms of muddying Europe's Christian identity.

Campbell pressed the case to the pope.

"By extending the EU's frontiers, the UK believes that we are not just aiding states to be more stable, democratic, tolerant and respectful of human rights, but also individuals to raise their horizons and achieve their potentials," Campbell told the pope.

On background, an official in the Secretariat of State said he was relieved that Campbell did not specifically mention Turkey. Some Vatican diplomats are sympathetic to the argument that inclusion in the EU could further anchor Turkey in the West, providing a model of an Islamic state that respects the rule of law, human rights, and pluralism. They say it's not yet clear whether Ratzinger's private position as a cardinal will become the public stance of the Holy See, and they worry that too much debate right away could box the pope artificially into a position before he's had a chance to hear arguments and to reflect.

Benedict XVI is expected to travel to Turkey in the fall of 2006 to visit the Patriarch of Constantinople, providing a logical opportunity for the pope to revisit the question of Turkey's European future.

For Campbell, meanwhile, his willingness to press the Vatican in his maiden speech, in however subtle a fashion, represents an important signal that the first Catholic ambassador to the Holy See from the UK since the English Reformation will defend English interests, and not simply acquiesce to the pope.

As a footnote, it's worth observing that while Turkey is not an EU member, it is a signatory to the Bologna process described above. In a sense, therefore, its integration into Europe is already unfolding.

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Msgr. Eleuterio F. Fortino, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, spoke Dec. 17 at the Centro Pro Unione, the prestigious ecumenical center in Rome operated by the Graymoor Friars, on the subject of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Each year from Jan. 18-25, Christian churches around the world observe a period of prayer for unity, often involving liturgies of the word or other worship services among Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox.

Fortino observed that in the post-Reformation period, prayer between Catholics and other Christians was generally banned. In a 1928 encyclical of Pius XI, Mortalium animos, taking part in non-Catholic assemblies was banned as a kind of religious relativism, obscuring the church's teaching that "the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it."

The first concession came only in 1949, when the then-Holy Office (today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), in an instruction on the ecumenical movement, allowed for the common recitation of the Our Father "or other prayer approved by the Catholic church" to open or close ecumenical meetings.

The first Catholic voice to propose a period for prayer for unity, Fortino noted, was Pope Leo XIII, who in 1895 called for a novena in the days just before Pentecost. As Fortino explained it, this was a prayer of and by Catholics, appealing for the return of the "dissident brothers." Leo offered indulgences for the novena.

Fortino said that vestiges of Leo's initiative survive in parts of the world where the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is still held around Pentecost.

The next stage, Fortino said, came with Fr. Paul Wattson, an American Episcopalian who became a Catholic and founded the Graymoor Friars in 1908, with a special interest in ecumenism. In the same year, Wattson proposed an octave, or eight-day period, of prayer for unity January 18-25. At that time, the Feast of the Chair of Peter was observed on Jan. 18, and the Conversion of Paul on Jan. 25. Wattson saw this as the perfect arc, departing from a solid rooting in Catholic authority and ending in missionary outreach to all peoples.

Further, Wattson suggested, the eight-day period of prayer for unity even had an aesthetic warrant, since the 8th is the scale of harmony in music.

At the time, however, it was still an intra-Catholic exercise, and the prayer had in mind the "submission of non-Catholics to the Holy See" through a sort of "corporate return."

Pope Benedict XV extended Wattson's octave of prayer for unity to the entire church, though as an optional observance. Later, Wattson brought a petition to Rome signed by 200 bishops from different countries and more than 5,000 priests, religious and laity, asking to make the octave of prayer for unity mandatory, like the rosary in March. The Vatican delayed, and in 1934 the then-Congregation for Rites responded that mandatory observance would have to await further diffusion of the prayer in the Catholic world.

One year before his death in 1940, Wattson envisioned a different format for his octave, one in which Orthodox, Protestants, Anglicans and Catholics might all be able to pray in a general manner for unity.

It was Abbé Paul Couturier, a French priest from Lyons and a dedicated ecumenist, Fortino said, who translated that insight into a program. In 1935, Couturier published an article calling for prayer that "the visible unity of the Reign of God may happen, as Christ wants it and through the means that he wants." Couturier decided to call the period of prayer a "week" rather than an "octave," on the grounds that "octave" has too Catholic a ring, even if the period of time remained eight days.

"Before, this was a Catholic prayer for the return of other Christians," Fortino said. "Now it became a prayer for unity in the various communities, independent but convergent."

Couturier saw this movement as an "invisible monastery" imploring unity.

The next stage, Fortino said, came when the Second Vatican Council, in its decree on ecumenism titled Unitatis redintegratio, provided a theological basis for prayer in common. The eighth paragraph of the document states that "it is licit, and even desirable, that Catholics associate themselves in prayer with the separated brethren."

In 1965, Pope Paul VI himself led a joint prayer service with the ecumenical observers at Vatican II, using a "liturgy of the word" designed for the occasion by Cardinal Augustin Bea. Observers had an active role in reading scripture and other elements of the liturgy. Fortino called the event "a luminous example of what Vatican II had called for."

Obviously, much water had flowed under the bridge in the 37 years since Mortalium animos.

Today, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is observed in more than 120 nations, and by virtually every major Christian denomination, quite often in joint liturgies of the word with other Christians.

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Fortino briefly touched on the vexed subject of communicatio in sacris, or joint worship between Catholics and other Christians, especially inter-communion. Fortino noted that the subject has been "discussed amply" in the post-conciliar period, and most recently, that it was the subject of a proposition from the October Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist.

Fortino pointed out that Unitatis redintegratio calls for two principles to be borne in mind: 1) the unity of the church which ought to be expressed, and 2) sharing in the means of grace. The Catholic church generally bans inter-communion with Protestants on the basis of the first principle, which is that unity around the Eucharistic table presupposes unity in faith, including the same understanding of ministry and apostolic succession. That principle, Fortino said, has to be held in tension with the desirability of joining one another in experiences of grace.

Fortino noted that Unitatis redintegratio said that the church "generally" forbids communicatio in sacris, suggesting that the word "generally" had the effect of "opening a space for theological reflection."

"This is an open problem, a serious one, which calls upon theologians and the conscience of believers," Fortino said.

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A new letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship demands that the Neocatechumenal Way, a program for catechetical formation launched in 1960s Spain by Kiko Arguello and Carmen Hernandez, adjust its liturgical practice to the general norms of the church.

The letter, whose contents were reported Thursday, Dec. 22, by Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, is seen as a step towards full recognition of the movement by the Vatican.

As anyone who has attended a Neocatechumenate Mass knows, there are several idiosyncratic features. Typically Mass is celebrated Saturday night, not Sunday, and just for the Neocatechumenate community rather than the entire parish. The "Sign of Peace" comes before the presentation of gifts, sometimes parts of the Eucharistic prayers are omitted, often lay people deliver remarks that resemble a homily, and communion is usually administered while seated.

The new Vatican letter demands that at least once a month, members of the Neocatechumenate celebrate Mass on Sunday during the normal parish liturgy; that all the prescribed prayers be followed; that a priest or deacon deliver the homily; and that communion be administered while standing or genuflecting, all in accord with general liturgical norms.

Some minor concessions are offered. Laypeople may still deliver reflections at the Mass (called "resonances"), as long as it's not confused with the homily. The congregation also gives the Neocatechumenate two years to bring its practice on communion in line with the norms.

I've always wanted first-hand experience of the Neocatechumenate, so last October, during the Synod of Bishops, I decided to attend a catechetical session offered at the parish of Santi Vitale e Compagni Martiri in Fovea, on Via Nazionale.

The night I attended, the catechesis was offered by two lay Neocatechumenate members: Maria Grazia, 46, a mother of five who works outside the house, and Paolo, 44, father of six, who works for the church in Rome.

Maria Grazia told Arguello's story. As a young man he was an aspiring painter from a bourgeoisie Spanish family headed by his father, a lawyer. In the 1960s, she said, Arguello passed through an existential crisis, renouncing his Catholic faith and even thinking about suicide. The breakthrough, she said, came when Arguello had an "inspiration" that led him to want to know Jesus, not as an abstraction, but a living person.

In pursuit of that aim, she said, Arguello moved to one of the poor neighborhoods on the edges of Madrid, with nothing but a Bible and a guitar. He didn't really know what to do, she said, but soon the poor and outcasts began to come to him, and he would open the Scriptures and talk to them.

Hernandez, Maria Grazia said, came from a different background. She always had a strong sense of faith, and had wanted to go on a mission to India. She had studied liturgy and theology, but when she met Arguello, she believed she saw the Holy Spirit in his little community.

"Liturgy for them was a response of joy to the listened Word," Maria Grazia said.

Paolo then spoke about his own background as the second-oldest son in a high-achieving family. The way he decided to distinguish himself, he joked, was by being "the worst" at everything. He became rebellious, had problems with the police, and utterly rejected the church, which seemed "far too strict."

"I say this because some of you may be asking, why are you talking to us? You're not theologians. But we have concrete experience of real life," he said.

He asked the roughly 30 people who had turned out to come for 15 sessions, after which anyone who wished could continue with additional formation.

The evening concluded with a stirring sing-along with Paolo on guitar, followed by a closing prayer.

Listening to the presentation, three things struck me.

First, the Neocatechumenate is very much a "lay" phenomenon. There were two priests present, the pastor of Santi Vitale and a 33-year-old associate pastor from a parish in the Roman suburbs, but both were on the margins.

Second, the approach has parallels with techniques of the so-called "sects," meaning evangelical and Pentecostal groups. The "pitch" is personal, focused on the power of the gospel to redeem personal situations -- drug use, family problems, feelings of aimlessness and despair. There's a strong emphasis on small groups, along with upbeat "charismatic" styles of song and prayer.

Third, one could see the potential for divergent reactions. Most of the 30-some people in the room seemed to be parishioners, and some were skeptical. One middle-aged parishioner said, "You seem to be asking us to give you credit based on nothing but your word." Others, however, seemed excited. If the group puts down roots, one challenge will be to make sure that the passion it awakens among some does not generate resentment among others.

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NOTE: Due to the Christmas holiday, "The Word from Rome" will not be published next week. The column will resume Friday, January 6.

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

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