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 The Word From Rome

December 26, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 18



"We know that the problems of Africa do not originate solely in Africa, therefore their solutions cannot be found only in Africa. If Africa is poor, it is not unconnected with the unjust trade relationship between our continent and the richer countries. Also the conflicts in our nations also have international dimensions. Think about the arms trade. … Who is supplying them? For what purpose?"

Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria

Religious support Geneva Accord; A talk with Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria; Journalists at the Vatican; Expressing frustration over translations


As with virtually any attempt at making peace in the Middle East, the recent Geneva Accord, produced by non-governmental delegations of Israelis and Palestinians on their own initiative, has triggered wildly diverse reactions. Some see it as a model role for civil society, while others think it’s a pie-in-the-sky distraction from the diplomatic heavy lifting that only states can accomplish.

The 50-page accord was signed in late November, and is intended as a model for a final-status agreement. It envisions Israeli withdrawal from 97.5 percent of the land occupied in 1967. The remaining 2.5 percent is made up of 14 zones in East Jerusalem to be annexed to Israel. Jerusalem would be recognized by both nations as their capital, with portions of the city divided up between the two sides. Palestinians would get the Temple Mount, Israel the Wailing Wall and the Jewish quarter.

Pro-Israeli voices have labeled the accord a “suicide note” because it calls for a pullback from Jewish settlements and because it would allow an ambiguous number of Palestinians to settle in Israel, while pro-Palestinian militants denounce the accord’s silence on a presumed “right of return” of every Palestinian exile.

In itself all this is sound and fury signifying nothing, since the “Geneva Accord” carries no official standing. Its only chance of gaining traction is if someone with clout, such as the Americans, were to get behind it.

It was with this in mind that an international group of religious leaders gathered in Rome under the umbrella of the World Conference of Religions for Peace issued a plea to support the Geneva Accord.

The accord is “a rejuvenation of a process of peacemaking and peacefulness,” said Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan.

Hassan said the Geneva Accord caps a series of other turning points, which include the Wye River Memorandum of October 1998, the Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum of September 1999, the Camp David Summit of 2000, and the Taba Negotiations of January 2001.

He praised the involvement of non-state actors.

“I believe in a coalition of the sane,” Hassan said. “I believe in a citizen’s assembly, a cosmopolitan network, cooperating to build a multi-layer civil society.”

Others were equally positive.

“What the accord proposes is something different, an approach to solving the unsolvable issue of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict,” said Richard Blum, an American businessman who is co-chair of the Religions for Peace initiative.

“It seems to me that it will be very difficult for both the Israeli government and the Palestinian authority to ignore the Geneva Accord,” Blum said. “Thirty to forty percent of the people in Israel and Palestine think it’s a good start, are in favor of it. To totally reject it is, to me, a bit silly. Both sides need to go through it line by line, proposal by proposal.”

In this regard, the religious leaders appear to have the informal backing of the Vatican. While the Holy See has not taken any official position on the Geneva Accord, a senior Vatican diplomat told NCR Dec. 22 that the “judgement of the Holy See is, I believe, fundamentally positive. Any initiative that has the potential to promote peace is welcome.”

The plan must be seen, however, “within the context of the Roadmap, which remains the principal process” for Middle East peace, this Vatican official said.

“Perhaps [the accord’s] most important contribution is as a reminder to the Israeli government that an agreement is possible,” the official said. “That might explain their rather strong reaction.”

* * *

That last comment reflects the occasionally strained relationship between the Holy See and Israel.

At times, some Israelis perceive the Vatican as uncritically tilting towards the Palestinians in Middle Eastern diplomacy, glossing over or minimizing the reality of Islamic-inspired terrorism. Officials in the Secretariat of State and elsewhere in the Holy See, meanwhile, are sometimes tempted to believe that Israel’s hard-line policies are the principal obstacle to peace.

In part, too, the strain reflects the fact that 10 years after the Holy See and the State of Israel signed their historic “Fundamental Agreement,” the two sides have still not reached an economic accord to regularize the financial situation of the church in Israel. In the absence of such an agreement, some Christian bodies have run up astronomical tax debts into the millions of dollars. (At present, church groups enjoy no tax exemption under Israeli law).

Despite these frustrations, this week has offered two reminders of how dramatic the progress has been in recent decades in the Vatican-Israeli relationship, as well as the broader Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

The prestigious Italian magazine 30 Giorni carried a piece by Yossi Beilin, a former deputy foreign minister of Israel and one of the men responsible for negotiating the 1993 Fundamental Agreement. It’s difficult to overestimate how important a step this was, after 2,000 years of suspicion and conflict, and especially the horrors of the 20th century.

In a moving account, Beilin explains how growing up in Tel Aviv he had little contact with Christians. In Jerusalem he saw priests and nuns wearing odd clothes, and felt alien to their world. On a trip to Japan, however, Beilin was asked by an elderly restaurant owner in Hiroshima where he came from. When he responded “Israel,” the old Japanese man’s eyes lit up, and he said: “Jesus Christ?” In that moment, Beilin said, he realized how linked he and his country were to Christianity.

Beilin was committed to making a deal. On the Vatican side, key players were Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, at the time under-secretary of state, and Archbishop Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, then the nuncio in Israel. Beilin credits two other figures with unsticking the talks. The first was Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger, who knew the details inside and out and played an invaluable “backdoor” role. The second was then-archbishop, now Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who in a secret meeting with Beilin at the offices of the Holy See’s observer to the United Nations in New York brokered key compromises.

This led to the signing of the Fundamental Accord in the Vatican on Dec. 29, 1993, and in Jerusalem Dec. 30.

“Even if this was technically a political agreement between two states, we all knew that it was also an accord of historic reconciliation between the Catholic church and the Jewish people,” Beilin wrote. “Among the participants, there were those who shed a tear.”

A further reminder of progress came in the Dec. 23 issue of Corriere della Sera, with a fascinating piece about the now-forgotten figure of  “Little Simon of Trent.”

In 1475, the northern Italian city of Trent, where less than a century later the great Council of Trent would launch the Catholic Counter-reformation, was home to a thriving Jewish community. In March of that year, the two-year-old son of a German tanner disappeared. On March 23, Holy Thursday, the leading exponent of Trent’s Jewish community, a scholar named Samuel of Nuremberg, found the child murdered in a neighborhood with a number of Jewish families. He made the mistake of reporting the crime to the authorities, whereupon he and a number of other prominent Jews were accused of killing Simon as part of an occult Jewish ritual.

The dark legend of ritual child murder was a staple of medieval anti-Jewish propaganda.

The accused Jews were seized, tortured, and eventually burned to death. The two who confessed under torture were given the grace of having their heads cut off instead. In response, the rest of the Jewish community pronounced an interdict on Trent (in Hebrew, cherem), prohibiting Jews from living there, and fled into exile.

Meanwhile “little Simon” became the object of a popular Christian cult, with 10 miracles attributed to him within the span of a month, and hundreds more as time went on. His embalmed body went on display. Devotion spread rapidly, with “little Simon” often depicted as a sort of child Jesus.

In 1588, Pope Sixtus V authorized celebration of a memorial Mass for “little Simon,” and Trent began holding annual processions in his honor on March 23. Books and pamphlets were produced as late as 1955 recounting the horrible “crime” of the Jews and celebrating little Simon as a martyr to Jewish perfidy. Corriere della Sera reproduced a couple of the less than edifying illustrations of bloodthirsty Jews that used to accompany these booklets. It wasn’t until Sept. 28, 1965, that the archbishop of Trent officially declared the cult suppressed.

When one stops to think that such legends were circulating with official church toleration 40 years ago, the amount of distance covered in that time appears remarkable indeed.

* * *

Last week’s brouhaha over comments about the capture of Saddam Hussein by Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, seems to have subsided. Martino told a Vatican press conference that he felt “compassion” for Hussein, saying it was wrong to present video images of him to the world in such a “ruined” state, having his teeth checked “like a cow.”

Despite the uproar among those who felt expressions of sympathy for a dictator without a word for his victims was perverse, Martino’s comments did not play to exclusively negative reviews. Similar sentiments were widely expressed in the Arab world.

I asked Prince Hassan of Jordan for his reaction to Martino’s comments. Hassan, who is fluent in English, is known as a moderate Arab voice.

“I personally agree that the images were not at all helpful,” Hassan said.

“There had to be some positive identification that he had been caught, but I would have thought that to afford him the chance to shave and clean up would have been the more dignified way to go about it. I just wonder whether this kind of negative propaganda, as perceived by the general Arab public, will not have the reverse effect of increasing sympathy for him rather than decreasing it.”

I relayed these comments to a senior Western diplomat, whose response was that “it should not be the role of the Vatican to pander to Arab public opinion.”

Hassan told me he believed the capture of Hussein by American forces was a positive thing.

“There was a sigh of relief, and it was the beginning of the end of a chapter of concern,” he said.

Hassan argued, however, that any trial of Hussein should be conducted by the Iraqis, perhaps with assistance from the international community.

“If the United States gets involved in the financing and management, politically there will be accusations of interference in Iraqi sovereignty,” Hassan said.

“What is really to be tested in terms of the future of the Middle East is whether Iraqi institutions, Arab institutions, not least of all the judiciary, are going to be given a chance to exercise their responsibility.”

* * *

At the Religions for Peace conference I also had the chance to renew my acquaintance with Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria.

Onaiyekan is widely regarded as among the “best and brightest” in the African church, as illustrated by the fact that he is president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, vice-president of the Symposium of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM), and co-chair of the African Council of Religious Leaders.

During the press conference, Onaiyekan called for international attention to African realities.

“We know that the problems of Africa do not originate solely in Africa, therefore their solutions cannot be found only in Africa,” he said.

“If Africa is poor, it is not unconnected with the unjust trade relationship between our continent and the richer countries. Also the conflicts in our nations also have international dimensions. Think about the arms trade. Small children in Liberia, boys of 8 or 9, are carrying around Kalashnikovs and AK-47s and so on. You wonder how they got all those guns. Who is supplying them? For what purpose?”

“Governance is the same. Sometimes we have the feeling that while the international community talks about the need for democratization in Africa, the actions of the rich countries are clearly selective. There are some undemocratic regimes they are very happy to maintain. One could say even sometimes that serious efforts at good governance have been subverted by foreign interests, who prefer to deal with the bad government than with a good one.”

Onaiyekan and I also discussed the message of the African bishops for World Aids Day, Dec. 1, “Our Prayer is always Full of Hope.” It was the first time the more than 600 Roman Catholic bishops of Africa have spoken collectively on the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The document committed the African church to treating HIV/AID sufferers in a “warm, non-judgemental and compassionate manner … and ensuring them a ‘place at the table of the Lord.’” This language builds on existing policy, given that 25 percent of AIDS patients worldwide are already under the care of the Catholic church.

I remarked to Onaiyekan that the document managed to deal with HIV/AIDS in depth without ever raising the issue of condoms. He said this was deliberate. The bishops wanted to concentrate, he said, on people already infected with HIV, rather than getting bogged down in debates over whether condoms should be part of strategies for prevention.

“These people are dying,” Onaiyekan said. “For us the issue is, what do you do for them?”

Onaiyekan said the Catholic church can and should cooperate in delivering care with the United Nations, as well as with NGOs that have a different view about condoms. He noted that with regard to the well-publicized “ABC” model in Uganda — “abstinence,” “be faithful,” and “condoms” — the first two principles are fully shared by the Catholic church, and should be the basis for joint efforts.

Finally, I asked Onaiyekan about the split within the Anglican Communion over the consecration of a gay bishop in the United States. Anglican Archbishop Peter Jasper Akinola of Nigeria has spearheaded opposition within the Anglican Communion, and in late November, the Anglican House of Bishops in Nigeria voted to sever ties with the Episcopalian Church.

“We are in total agreement,” Onaiyekan said. “This is not an issue for us in Africa.”

Onaiyekan said he resents the way some Westerners predict that as Africa develops economically, its traditional morality will give way, along with its high level of vocations, as in heavily secularized Europe and North America.

“How do you know this will happen?” Onaiyekan demanded. “Who told you?”

* * *

On Sunday, Dec. 21, the Catholic Union of the Italian Press sponsored a Christmas Mass for journalists at the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Lucina, celebrated by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. (One irony is that Re, although charming and urbane, is one of the least accessible prelates in the Roman Curia for the press).

Connecting the Christmas celebration to journalism, Re said that the “greatest news of human history of all time is that God became man.” In that sense, he said, the “first journalists” were the angels who delivered “tidings of great joy” to the shepherds that a savior had been born.

Re said the Christmas message is not just “big news” but “good news.”

Re urged journalists to learn from the Christmas message to be “communicators of truth.” There are many forces and interests in the world that seek to manipulate the media, he said, and in this context journalists have “a duty to the truth.”

For journalists who are religious believers, he said, the faith can never be extrinsic to one’s professional activity. Faith must be incarnate, shaping “every activity, every experience, every movement” of one’s life.

* * *

After the Mass, there was a panel discussion about the Sala Stampa, or press office, of the Vatican, featuring veteran Vatican writer Giancarlo Zizola and Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesperson.

Zizola observed that the first impulse towards creating a press office dates to the 1920s, when certain Vatican prelates wanted a channel for getting information to friendly journalists as an end-run around the fascist regime.

Zizola made clear how decisive was the role of the future Paul VI, Gianbattista Montini, while he was still a young monsignore in the Secretariat of State. Montini, whose father was a journalist, sustained the independence and anti-fascist stance of many Catholic journalists.

Back then, of course, what counted as “cooperation” isn’t necessarily what we mean today. For example, the Vatican launched a service for relaying the texts of papal speeches to journalists under Pius XI, but reserved the right to do a little “touch up” if the pope wandered off-script.

Zizola cited a diary entry of former Secretary of State Cardinal Domenico Tardini from August 28, 1935. The day before, Pius XI had addressed a group of nurses, intemperately calling the Italian invasion of Ethiopia a “war of conquest” and an “unjust war.” The remarks made Vatican officials nervous about reaction from Mussolini. Hence Tardini asked the editor of L’Osservatore Romano to come over to his house, and together they performed a “surgical operation,” toning down the text before it went out to the public. Tardini presented the revised address to the pope the next day, and Pius grudgingly went along with the changes, although insisting Ethiopia remained an “unjust war.”

As time went on, the Holy See slowly (and often grudgingly) opened itself more to journalists, often with Montini’s insistence. It was because of Montini, for example, that journalists were allowed to gather in the offices of L’Osservatore Romano for information on the conclave that elected Pius XII, and he gave journalists a space in the bleachers at the consistory of 1946.

Still, things were tough. Zizola quotes veteran Italian Vatican writer Benny Lai to the effect that journalists had to become “ecclesiastical censors” for their own papers in order to survive.

It was only in 1966 that Paul VI created an actual press office. In a stunning move, the pope named a layman, Federico Alessandrini, head of that office in 1970.

As far as John Paul II is concerned, Zizola argued that the pope has been open to the press, as opposed to a model of church that would close itself off, “almost indifferent to the fate of the world.”

The problem, Zizola said, is that John Paul is “much applauded, but less followed.”

* * *

Navarro said that he did not like to formulate the question of relations between the Vatican and the press in terms of “using” the media, which he said creates an “instrumental” relationship.

Instead, he said, the question is this: “Is the Holy See willing to participate fully in the dynamic of the mass media or not?” As far as John Paul is concerned, Navarro said, the answer is “yes.”

Navarro said his aim is for the Sala Stampa to do more than respond when a crisis arises.

“We must resolve problems as soon as possible, and then go on with our priorities,” he said. “The problem is thus not how to respond to questions. The problem is, what can I say before they ask the questions?”

Finally, Navarro said it’s important to distinguish between catechism and theology, and religious information. The two are different, he said, in end and method. The job of the Sala Stampa, he suggested, is primarily to deliver information.

* * *

One difference between an American and an Italian view of the press was on display at the panel.

During the Q&A session, Phil Pullella of the Reuters news agency, a veteran Rome correspondent, asked whether Navarro felt Catholic journalists should be Catholics first and then journalists, or vice-versa. Pullella offered three examples of where this tension arises, one of which concerned Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as archbishop of Boston in December 2002. That story, Pullella noted, was on the front page of every paper in the world that had been following the sex abuse crisis — except for L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, where it ended up on page 18.

Interestingly, it was a left-wing journalist and ex-priest, Gianni Gennari, who came to the defense of L’Avvenire.

“I imagine Law is a little bit part of the family there,” Gennari said. “If my sister does something awful, I’m not going to write it across the front door of my house. The editor probably decided that the whole world will be talking about this, we don’t need to be taking shots too.”

That, in a nutshell, captures a key difference in Anglo-Saxon and Italian mentalities. The Anglo-Saxon approach favors objectivity, while Italians emphasize loyalty to friends.

* * *

On Dec. 11, the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at the Benedictine-run College of Sant’Anselmo held a conference on the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document on liturgy. Among the guests was Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, who perhaps got more than he had bargained for.

The most intense liturgical controversy in the last decade has been over translation of texts. The Vatican has asserted greater control over the process, insisting on more traditional translations that hew closer to the Latin, and jettisoning personnel and structures responsible for translation since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Some observers see the translation issue as one of the clearest examples of how the Roman Curia has attempted to “roll back” the decentralizing thrust of Vatican II.

At the Sant’Anselmo gathering, Arinze got a rare chance to hear first-hand some of the frustration this campaign has generated. Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, perhaps the foremost expert on Eastern-rite liturgies in the Catholic church, described the scene in his annual Christmas letter to friends:

“Most noteworthy was not my talk but the one that followed mine, by the old Catalan priest Fr. Ignacio Calabuig OSM, who spoke with great emotion about the ‘greats’ of the liturgical movement he had known. Towards the end he turned to Arinze, who was seated there, and, in a trembling voice, departed from his written text, saying (in Italian of course) something like this (I am paraphrasing what I recall, not translating literally):

“‘I feel I must tell the prefect that the devastating impression the congregation seems to be spreading throughout the church, that men of great culture in their own lands are not capable of translating liturgical texts into their own mother tongue, is causing great discontent and concern in the church.’

“At this point the entire audience, some 600 strong in the basilica, spontaneously exploded into prolonged, enthusiastic applause that thundered on for about three minutes. It was an historic moment, the message was crystal clear, and even His Eminence himself felt finally constrained to join — albeit timidly — in the applause that went on and on and just would not stop.

“I hope the reporters were there to record that one for posterity! This is my 39th year in Rome and I never saw anything like it before. I could not have been more delighted, and have told the story to anyone willing to listen.”

Thus ends Taft’s account.

* * *

On Dec. 20, the Vatican announced the appointment of Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning American economist and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton, to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. In that capacity, he will help guide Vatican policy on global economic issues.

Stiglitz is a personal favorite of Monsignor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the academy’s chancellor.

In his most recent book, The Roaring Nineties, Stiglitz argues that the Clinton team made a mistake by accepting that government should stay out of economic policy, leaving the finance sector to dictate the rules of the game. Stiglitz is thus likely to bolster what has already been the strong line of John Paul II, that public authorities must intervene in economic affairs to ensure that the benefits of globalization work for the common good.

For readers interested in Stiglitz, here is an index of his columns:

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

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