‘Catching up’ with the pope’s preacher

I couldn’t help notice that Father Raniero Cantalamessa has been in the news the past few days.

tjndc5-5f09fmxx0khlhhtfba3_layoutCantalamessa, a Capuchin friar, is the “preacher to papal household” or the guy who preaches to the pope.

On Good Friday, he sort of compared recent criticisms of the pope to anti-Semitism, a link that has drawn international attention and some criticism.

I interviewed Cantalamessa back in 2007 when he was passing through New York and found him to be a kindly and good-natured fellow, almost unnaturally modest for a guy who, you know, preaches to the pope.

When I asked him if he gets nervous or feels pressure to deliver four-star homilies, he said nah: “”No, no, not really. It is a grace. It is a blessing. I am not promoting a message of mine. It is the message of Jesus.”

On Friday, toward the end of a long homily dealing with several themes, especially violence, Cantalamessa mentioned a letter he received from a Jewish friend. He quoted from the letter:

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“I am following with indignation the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the Pope and all the faithful by the whole world. The use of stereotypes, the passing from personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the more shameful aspects of anti-Semitism. Therefore I desire to express to you personally, to the Pope and to the whole Church my solidarity as Jew of dialogue and of all those that in the Jewish world (and there are many) share these sentiments of brotherhood. Our Passover and yours are undoubtedly different, but we both live with Messianic hope that surely will reunite us in the love of our common Father. I wish you and all Catholics a Good Easter.”

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On his blog, Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican described the moment like this: “As the word “antisemitismo” at the end of that sentence echoed out over the vast hall, over the silent throng, the battle over this Pope and this pontificate seemed to me to take on a new and deeper dimension.”

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, U.S. director of interreligious relations for the American Jewish Committee — who recently met with Catholic and other Jewish leaders at the Vatican — told the AP: “It’s an unfortunate use of language to make this comparison, since the collective violence against the Jews resulted in the death of 6 million, while the collective violence spoken of here has not led to murder and destruction, but perhaps character assault.”

Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said that the papal preacher’s parallel could “lead to misunderstandings and is not an official position of the Catholic church.”

Now Cantalamess is expressing regret if his remarks offended Jews, the victims of sexual abuse or anyone else: “If, against any intention of mine, I offended the sensibility of Jews and the victims of pedophilia, I sincerely regret it and ask forgiveness, reaffirming my solidarity with both.”

What does this episode mean? That emotions are easily stirred when it comes to criticism of the pope, even in the context of a sex-abuse crisis that has gone on for quite a while.

Critics of the church are quite angry. Defenders of the pope are increasingly angry. More angry words seem likely.

John Allen wrote the other day about how hard it is (impossible even?) to cover what’s been happening in such a way that will satisfy anyone. At a time when partisanship of all kinds seems particularly fierce, critics and defenders of the Catholic Church and/or Pope Benedict seem to be digging in for lasting conflict.

Allen writes:

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What’s striking about much of the reaction I’ve received, however, is that it’s not focused on the content of what I’ve said but rather my alleged motives for saying it.

For one camp out there, my first point amounts to a “hatchet job” on the pope, making me complicit in a campaign led by The New York Times and other media outlets in trying to bring him down or to wound the church. For another crowd, point two is tantamount to a whitewash in favor of the pope. As one e-mailer put it to me succinctly, “Don’t you ever get tired of being an apologist for the Vatican?”

All of which makes me wonder: On an issue about which people feel so passionately, and one which so easily feeds all sorts of broader agenda about the church, the papacy, the media, and so on, is there actually a constituency for balance? Is there room for middle ground?

John Allen looks at Ratzinger/Benedict’s response to abuse

The growing numbers of news reports about Catholic Church sex-abuse scandals in Germany and Ireland will draw every possible reaction from observers.

Some will say that it’s about time that the media are focusing on decades of abuse.

Others will say that the abuse cases in question date back to the 60s, 70s and sometimes 80, and that it is irresponsible for the media to cover these things as if they happened yesterday.

The fact that Pope Benedict XVI has been tied indirectly to one notorious case will ensure that emotions on all sides are hotter than ever.

JohnLAllenI have to recommend that people who want to get a handle on things read John Allen’s outstanding analysis in NCR. He focuses on Cardinal Ratzinger’s response to sex-abuse allegations and how he, as the pope, has evolved.

I see it as a detailed, comprehensive, pretty balanced and ultimately educational look at a big story. Of course, others will see it quite differently.

In fact, if you read it, go on and read the dozens of comments afterward. They cover the gamut.

He’s getting killed by critics of the church, like this one:

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I realize, John, that for your access to your sources at the Vatican, you cannot be too blunt. But talk about who has been drinking the Kool-Aid, you must be on a sugar-high! This is the Pope we are talking about who is able to demote and/or remove anyone in the hierarchy!!!! Not ONE bishop from the United States has been removed by this Pope; not ONE!!!!!!

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And he’s taking it from defenders of the church, like this one:

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Benedict is one of the greatest Popes in the History of the Church! There is so much more to all of this then know, we should becareful with what we say! He is the Pope, God had chosen him to lead his people in a World full of hate for the Church and our Lord.

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Many readers are arguing that John bends over backwards to present the pope in the best possible light.

The comments make for good reading. But read John first.

One year and counting for Archbishop Tim

One year ago today, the rumor became fact: Tim Dolan was the next Archbishop of New York.

He had been talked about as a leading contender for the job for at least several years. His name came up in every conversation I had with a priest or church “insider” about who might replace Cardinal Egan.

I always heard the same thing: He was funny, engaging, insightful and “just what New York needs.” I had met Dolan briefly a few years before — but even a quick chat was enough for me to know it was all true.

tjndc5-5otbe1et0us110m2skcb_layoutFrom the day the Vatican made it official, Dolan lived up to his rep. And he received about as much Good Press as any public person in New York could possibly expect.

The media gushed over him for a solid two or three months. Breathless stuff. We had a larger-than-life guy.

Dolan told reporters that he would spend his first year getting a sense of things and listening to people. True enough, he’s gone from parish to parish and talked with many priests and lay Catholics — often in his now-famous spot phone calls.

I’ve heard a few grumblings — not many — that it’s time for Dolan to act.

He faces many of the same issues that Egan and Cardinal O’Connor before him faced. There aren’t enough priests. Many pastors are up there in age. Northern parishes are growing and many city parishes are not. Many Catholics schools are struggling. The archdiocese is becoming increasingly Hispanic, even as many Hispanic Catholics attend separate Spanish-language Masses or worship at largely Hispanic parishes. There are certainly a large number of illegal immigrants going to Mass in New York — who the church stands up for, even if many white Catholics will not.

Then there’s the economy. Demands on the church are greater. Resources are fewer.

As Dolan said in Poughkeepsie the other day: “Number one, more people come to us because you usually come to people you know, and most people know and feel comfortable with their church. If they’re short on rent, their kid’s tuition or grocery money, guess where they are going to go? Their parish.”

Dolan will mark his first anniversary in New York (he was actually installed on April 15) by spreading some more good cheer.

He told ABC News: “The number of people who have come to me, from the mayor’s office on down, and said, ‘Archbishop, we kind of like having you around. We’re worried about you. You better work on your weight.” They’re right, and I really, really have to watch the intake because I love to eat. I love being with people.”

Last night, Dolan held court at a “Theology on Tap” program at a NYC bar.

Whispers in the Loggia’s Rocco Palmo was there and typed a blow-by-blow account that you can read today.

There were about 900 people, Palmo wrote, and it took Dolan 20 minutes just to get across the room.

The boss had plenty of jokes, like “assure me I’m not picking up the tab tonight.”

He talked primarily about the “Petrine ministry” — the papacy.

He said “all we believe is Jesus Christ — alone — is the center and source of unity and authority in his church… he designated Peter as his vicar.”And “we believe Jesus gave Peter the privilege of being his earthly representative…”

And this: “Jesus is the head of his church… but — in case you haven’t noticed — Jesus just so happens to be invisible, alright?”

That’s Dolan.

My guess is that Dolan will soon begin making his mark in the Archdiocese of New York. It will be keenly interesting to see what he really thinks about what needs to be done.

If you want to know more about him, I came across an Oct. 19 release date for a new book from John Allen, Catholic journalist extraordinaire. It is to be called “American Pope: A Biography of New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan.”

American pope, huh? He’ll have a lot to live up to…


Vatican to Maryknoll: Pick a priest, please

Back in May, the Ossining-based Maryknoll religious order chose a religious brother, not a priest, Brother Wayne Fitzpatrick, to serve as regional superior for the U.S.

But John Allen reports that the Vatican has rejected the choice, asking Maryknoll to choose a priest instead.

Allen writes: “In general, church-watchers say that policy is intended to defend the theology of apostolic succession, in which decision-making power in the church is believed to flow through the sacrament of holy orders. Although religious brothers take vows and are generally seen as equals within their communities, under the church’s canon law they are considered laity.”

Father Ed Dougherty, the superior general of Maryknoll, tells Allen: “I wasn’t surprised, to tell you the truth. There’s still a hierarchical sense in which having a brother over a priest is a problem. There’s a fear of a slippery slope, of the camel getting its nose under the tent” toward an erosion of priestly authority.

“I had hoped maybe we’d moved beyond that,” Dougherty said.

A new regional superior will soon be chosen.

Is ‘witness’ different than ‘proselytism?’

I posted something recently about the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference issuing a statement to clarify the Catholic Church’s relationship to the Jewish people — primarily to note the ongoing Catholic responsibility to witness to the truth of the faith.

The bishops issued the statement because of concerns that a paper issued by Catholic and Jewish leaders in 2002 had left the impression that the Catholic Church, by recognizing the ongoing Jewish covenant with God, had resigned its role to witness to the Jewish people.

Yesterday, the Bishops Conference released a fascinating statement about a June 25 meeting in NYC between Catholic and Orthodox Jewish leaders, part of an ongoing dialogue.

The statement, a press release actually, was very blunt about Orthodox Jewish unhappiness with the bishops’ clarifying statement.

Granted, this stuff may be too “inside baseball” for many. But some (including me) are fascinated by interreligious dialogue and the very nuanced challenges that often arise.

Here is a key hunk of the Bishops Conference statement:

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At the June 25 meeting, David Berger, Ph.D., head of the Jewish Studies Department at Yeshiva College, New York City, cited “grave” concerns of some in the Jewish community about the Note, which was prepared by the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Orthodox Jews can tolerate any Christian view on the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ as savior of all, but they cannot agree to participate in an interfaith dialogue that is a cover for proselytism, Berger said.

The Note affirmed that interreligious dialogue involves “a mutually enriching sharing of gifts,” but also asserted that giving witness to the following of Christ is implicit in every faithful encounter with persons of other religious convictions.

Berger and the other Jewish participants asked if the “implicit witnessing to Christ” means, in effect, a subtle attempt to convert Jews to Christianity, which would render interreligious dialogue with Catholics illegitimate and “dangerous” from an Orthodox Jewish standpoint. “We take apostasy very seriously,” he said, referring to the abandonment of Judaism for another religion.

Father James Massa, Executive Director for the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the USCCB, assured participants that interreligious dialogue for the Catholic bishops is never about proselytism or any coercive methods that would lead a person to abandon his or her religious convictions.

“The important term in this discussion is ‘witness,’” Father Massa said. “As Catholics involved in a dialogue of truth, we cannot help but give witness to Christ, who, for us, is synonymous with truth. Without acknowledging our indebtedness to God’s revelation in Christ, we cannot sit at the table and speak as Christians about how we arrive at notions of justice, compassion and building up the common good—the very values our interreligious dialogues seek to foster.”

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I haven’t seen any statements from either of the two Orthodox Jewish groups that participated.

This could be a good time to read John Allen’s recent column, “Hard Truths About Jews and Catholics,” which raises a lot of interesting issues about the state of Catholic-Jewish relations (and how to move on from here).

Have a great 4th (whether that means today, tomorrow or both).

The pope in Africa

Lohud.com has dozens of great pictures of the pope’s first day in Africa HERE.

Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict XVI’s brief comments about condoms got the bulk of media attention on the pontiff’s first day in Africa.

We all know that AIDS is devastating Africa — and that the Catholic Church’s stand against contraception remains a hotly debated issue around the world.

The answer to AIDS, he said in Cameroon yesterday, is a “spiritual and human awakening” and “friendship for those who suffer.”

The pope emphasized the church’s missionary role in Africa, calling for the church to be diligent about priestly formation, liturgy and promotion of marriage. He called for better formation of children — especially in light of common superstitious practices.

He addressed pretty directly a long-running concern about African priests being too ready to break their commitment to celibacy: “The authenticity of their witness requires that there be no dichotomy between what they teach and the way they live each day.”

John Allen’s coverage focused on the pope’s call for Christians in Africa to fight against governmental corruption.

“In the face of suffering or violence, poverty or hunger, corruption or abuse of power, a Christian can never remain silent,” the pope said.

Benedict also had several interesting comments during a chat with journalists on his flight.

On AIDS: “It is my belief believe that the most effective presence on the front in the battle against HIV/AIDS is in fact the Catholic Church and her institutions. … The problem of HIV/AIDS cannot be overcome with mere slogans. If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanisation of sexuality, in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another; and secondly, true friendship, above all with the suffering, a readiness – even through personal sacrifice – to stand by those who suffer.”

On the growth of Christian sects in Africa: “We, unlike some of them, do not announce a Gospel of prosperity, but Christian realism. We do not announce miracles, as some do, but the sobriety of Christian life. We are convinced that all this sobriety and realism which announce a God Who became man (therefore a profoundly human God a God Who also suffers with us) give meaning to our own suffering. In this way, announcement has a broader horizon and a greater future. We also know that these sects are not very stable. … The announcement of prosperity, of miraculous healing, etc., may do good in the short term, but we soon see that life is difficult, that a human God, a God Who suffers with us, is more convincing, truer, and offers greater help for life.”

On how the worldwide economic crisis affects the poor: “A fundamental element of the crisis is precisely a lack of ethics in financial structures; it has been understood that ethics are not something ‘outside’ the economy but ‘inside’ it, and the economy does not work if it does not contain the ethical component.”

What now for the Legion of Christ?

Catholic analyst John Allen writes today about the fall-out from his explosive interview with Archbishop Edwin O’Brien about the Legionaries of Christ. O’Brien talked about asking the Legion to reveal all its activities in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and to stop offering spiritual counseling to minors.

Allen writes:

Since my interview with O’Brien appeared, I’ve had a high volume of responses, much of it from people who long ago made up their minds about the Legionaries. There were, however, a number of other reactions that weren’t quite so according-to-script. One prominent American Catholic commentator, for example, who has a number of friends in the Legion of Christ, called to say that he hopes the O’Brien interview will “jar loose” what he sees as a taboo within the group concerning discussion of charges of sexual abuse leveled against the late founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado.

For the record, those charges were widely publicized in the 1990s, and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith opened an investigation in 1998. In 2006, the Vatican released a communiqué stating that on the basis of that inquest, it had decided to invite Maciel “to a reserved life of prayer and penance, renouncing every public ministry.” Many observers took the decision as tantamount to a finding of guilt.

060519_maciel_hmed_530ahmedium.jpgAs I wrote a few days ago, the Legion — a fast-growing and generally conservative Catholic order of priests — has a strong presence here in the Burbs. It owns large estates in Mount Pleasant and New Castle, but the order’s development plans have run into lots of community opposition.

Allen writes extensively about how the Legion has dealt with/is dealing with the allegations against its founder (that’s him with JPII). Allen summarizes things well here:

The identity and spirituality of a religious order is deeply tied to the personality of its founder, and there aren’t many ready examples of orders which have flourished despite compelling evidence of moral corruption on the part of the founder. To acknowledge merit to the charges against Maciel, at least in the eyes of some, would therefore be tantamount to jeopardizing the viability of the communities he founded. It could also, of course, jeopardize the vocations of Legionaries intensely devoted to the figure of Maciel.

Archbishop O’Brien takes aim at Legionaries of Christ

Baltimore’s Archbishop Edwin O’Brien has taken a direct and hard shot at the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative and sometimes controversial Roman Catholic religious order.

tjndc5-5b5dj9hpmec7lvuzezi_layout.jpgO’Brien has directed the Legionaries (and its lay movement, Regnum Christi) to disclose all its activities within the Archdiocese of Baltimore and — this is serious — to end one-on-one spiritual direction with anyone under 18.

Furthermore, O’Brien (that’s him) granted an interview about the move to John Allen, the respected and influential journalist for National Catholic Reporter, guaranteeing that his remarks will be widely seen.

Asked by Allen about the Legionaries’ spiritual counseling to teens, O’Brien says:

But what goes on in the one-on-one counseling … there seems to be a tendency to say, ‘We represent God. You can tell us anything, and you better believe that what we tell you is from God too. If your parents disagree, we know better. We’re in the God business, and they’re really not.’ This is a caricature, but it’s there.

They sponsor father/son weekends. The father drives 14 hours, brings the kid up to New Hampshire and drops the kid off at 11:00 at night. Where’s the farther going to stay? Well, there’s a place about 40 miles away you can stay, so the father’s sleeping in the car overnight. Next day they’re ready for the hike, but no, the fathers don’t go, it’s just the counselors and the kids. That’s the tendency.

Who’s in charge of this? Who’s responsible? Each time you meet with an official, [they say], ‘Oh, no, that didn’t happen, did it? You should have let us know right away. That’s not right.’ But it happens over and over again.

This is serious stuff.

O’Brien, of course, is a native New Yorker and widely known figure in these parts. He only became archbishop last year after Cardinal William Keeler’s retirement.

The Legionaries — who have a strong presence in Westchester — are a fast-growing order of priests that has many supporters and many detractors. Their greatest supporter was none other than Pope John Paul II, who never missed a chance to promote them.

Then John Paul died — and Pope Benedict XVI censured Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Legion’s founder, who had been accused many years before of sex abuse by former seminarians.

Orthodox Catholics often point to the Legion’s success drawing vocations as proof that Orthodoxy connects with young men. But others question the Legion’s methods. In 2004, Archbishop Harry Flynn of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese shut down the Legion’s operations.

Now O’Brien is really piling on. He criticizes the Legion as an outside critic might, in terms not generally heard from an archbishop:

I’ve always suspected the flaws in the organization are endemic to it. There’s no remedying them, because it’s so deeply ingrained. There’s a sense of secrecy right from the seminary. The seminarians move two-by-two wherever they go. If one criticizes anything about the institution, the other one has to report it. … All this flows into Regnum Christi as well. Nothing happens in Regnum Christi without the Legionaries.

And then there is this exchange between Allen and O’Brien about the allegations agains the order’s founder:

Do you believe that any reform in the Legionaries has to involve coming to terms with the charges against Fr. Maciel?

It’s got to be faced. They really have to face it. First of all, they have to come to grips with it themselves, within their own community of Legionaries. They have to squarely face it. They need to be able to say, ‘The evidence seems to be that this man engaged in some activities that were less than honorable, and maybe even sinful.’ Of course, I don’t know what the evidence is, but …

One presumes that the CDF would not have reached the judgment it did without compelling evidence.

Absolutely. Without facing that, I think it casts a pall over any other objectivity, any other integrity, they claim to put forth as their qualifications to deal with lay people and with the Catholic church in general.

The Legion owns large estates in Mount Pleasant and New Castle, but has long been at odds with both towns over development plans. The Legion has plans to build a liberal arts college on part of its Mount Pleasant land.

Vatican promises an unchanging relationship with the Jewish people

The vastly improved relations between Catholics and Jews since Vatican II will not be affected by the controversial “conversion of Jews” prayer in the Latin Good Friday liturgy.

This is the message of a statement released today from the Vatican. It comes, of course, only weeks before Pope Benedict will meet with Jewish leaders in Washington and visit Park East Synagogue in New York City. (The photo is of Rabbi Arthur Schneier at the synagogue.)

A revised version of the prayer took out language referring to the “blindness” of the Jews, but still prays that Jews will recognize Jesus and that “all Israel may be saved.”

The Vatican statement includes this:

The Holy See wishes to reassure that the new formulation of the prayer, which modifies certain expressions of the 1962 Missal, in no way intends to indicate a change in the Catholic Church’s regard for the Jews, which has evolved from the basis of the Second Vatican Council.

tjndc5-5jfldxodr9g1i5vqgomy_layout.jpgVatican watcher John Allen notes:

(As a bit of insider baseball, it’s interesting to note that the Vatican clearly wanted this statement to be perceived as coming from the very highest level, representing the personal will of the pope – hence it was issued by the Secretariat of State, not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, even though it arguably addresses a matter of Catholic teaching. It’s a small but telling sign of the ascendancy of Italian Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State, who has successfully consolidated a remarkable degree of power and visibility in his office.)

The American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi David Rosen tells Catholic News Service:

I think it contains a very important implicit statement — which I would have been happier to see made explicit — that if one accepts (the Vatican II document) ‘Nostra Aetate,’ then they must demonstrate esteem for Judaism, which precludes proselytism.

But the ADL’s Abe Foxman just issued this statement:

On this issue the Vatican has taken two steps forward and three steps backward. It is reassuring that the Catholic Church remains committed to the ideals of Nostra Aetate and to an approach toward relations with the Jewish people based on cordiality and mutual respect.

Yet it is troubling that the statement still does not specifically say that the Catholic Church is opposed to proselytizing Jews. While they say it does not change Nostra Aetate, the statement does not go far enough to allay concerns about how the message of this prayer will be understood by the people in the pews. The Latin prayer is still out there, and stands by itself, and unless this statement will be read along with the prayer, it will not repair or mitigate the impact of the words of the prayer itself, with its call for Jews to recognize Jesus as the savior of all men and its hope that ‘all Israel will be saved.’

The impact of those words is undeniable, and we wish the Vatican had explicitly rejected calls to conversion or to proselytizing Jews.

It’s crunch time for pope watchers

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is holding a discussion about the big papal visit on April 1 in Washington. It will feature two of the most prominent pope watchers going: George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and John Allen of National Catholic Reporter.

images2.jpegTheir subject: “The pope comes to America: What the visit means for the Catholic Church and the country.”

Luckily, for a preview, you can check my article this Sunday about Benedict’s first three years as pontiff. Both Allen (that’s him) and Weigel will be quoted.