‘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:

*****

“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.”

*****

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:

*****

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?

Dark days in Rome

It’s becoming hard to ignore the bad headines facing the Catholic Church these days.

We’re talking internationally.

Lots of people have asked me in recent days something along the lines of “What’s going on with the Vatican?”

And I was greeted this morning with this headine from Robert Moynihan’s Inside the Vatican email: “Benedict’s Papacy in Crisis?”

You have a growing scandal in Germany, where more than 170 former Catholic school students have alleged that they were sexually abused. Others claim physical abuse.

BC EU Vatican Church AbuseSome of the accusations involve a boys’ choir that was run for 30 years by the pope’s brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger. He said Tuesday that he did slap students as punishment, but that he was not aware of any sexual abuse during his tenure.

“The problem of sexual abuse that has now come to light was never spoken of,” Ratzinger said.

Then you had a Vatican summit this week about past sexual abuse in Ireland, where the church has been practically brought to its knees by revelations of decades of abuse.

A Vatican statement includes this:

*****

For his part, the Holy Father observed that the sexual abuse of children and young people is not only a heinous crime, but also a grave sin which offends God and wounds the dignity of the human person created in his image. While realizing that the current painful situation will not be resolved quickly, he challenged the Bishops to address the problems of the past with determination and resolve, and to face the present crisis with honesty and courage.

*****

The fine journalist David Gibson explains how the archbishop of Dublin is trying to cope with the mess and becoming something of a hero in the process.

Then you have this bizarre story involving a papal usher and a Vatican chorister who are accused of being part of a gay prostitution ring.

By accused, we mean that the user, officially a “Gentleman of His Holiness,” was taped arranging transactions.

And then, finally, you have new stories about Fr. Marcial Maciel, the late — and now discredited – founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

The Vatican began an investigation of the order last year after it was revealed that Maciel had fathered a child and lived some sort of “double life.” Now a Mexican woman is saying that she had three sons with Maciel (who told her he was someone else) and that Maciel sexually abused two of the boys.

The Legion reacted with a statement, which includes:

*****

In recent years, the Legionaries of Christ have gradually come to know, with surprise and great sorrow, hidden aspects of the life of Fr Maciel. We confirm our commitment to act in truth and charity. We renew our request for forgiveness from the affected people for all of the suffering this has caused and for the ensuing scandal.

*****

The Legion also implied that the Mexican family’s lawyer tried to extort money from the order.

Yikes.

Now what? Based on the past, I would expect Catholic groups to start circling the wagons. Any day, we should start hearing complaints about media coverage focusing on the scandals instead of all the good work that the Catholic Church is doing in Haiti, Chile and elsewhere.

Otherwise, the Vatican is not known for reacting swiftly to crises. We’ll see.

Inside the Vatican’s Moynihan writes:

*****

In Rome, some fear this is just the beginning.

This fear is not idle, as the internet and world press are already full of reports that these crises may cast a shadow over the entire pontificate.

The battle occurring right now is over how history will judge Benedict’s papacy.

*****

(AP Photo/Diether Endlicher,File)

From Rome to Yonkers

Robert Moynihan, founder and editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, normally reports from Rome.

But he’s been visiting the U.S., and wound up recently in Yonkers.

He was intending to stay with someone in Brookly, but because of an illness, found his way to a friary of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a relatively young religious community that serves the poor primarily in NYC and Yonkers.

You’ve probably seen them in their gray robes and long beards.

He writes about attending evening prayer with the friars in their “small, wood-paneled chapel.” He starts like this:

*****

The prayer for Tuesday, September 15, the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (photo of icon in the Friary chapel, left), was prayed by 12 friars, but it was shared by hundreds and thousands of others across this city, and this country. and this world.

Sometimes we forget how powerful prayer can be.

It is healing.

In a time when, in America, the sole topic of conversation is the president’s health care plan, it is astonishing how little mention is made of prayer.

Yet, in the silence of chapels and churches, of convents and monasteries, of college Newman centers and FOCUS gatherings, in homes and hospitals, a common evening prayer rises.

What is this prayer like? What is its purpose? What is its meaning?

This prayer is like a murmur, an appeal, a cry.

Its purpose is to “connect” this world, which presses upon us, and surrounds us, with another world, which is available to us only if we collect ourselves, and turn ourselves toward it — an eternal world.

Its meaning is to communicate the reality and life of that eternal world to the incomplete reality and life of this passing world.

At no time in history have our minds, all of our minds, been so over-run with slogans and images made by others and transmitted to us via technologies which can reach us almost everywhere at every time. These slogans and images distract, intrigue, fascinate, and enfold us.

A retreat to silence is a tactical decision in the battle for our souls.

And this is the spiritual wisdom of the Church.

‘Much more than your typical state visit’

President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI meet this morning. What will it look like?

Early this morning, Inside the Vatican‘s Robert Moynihan shared this image:

*****

In about three hours, US President Barack Obama will arrive in the Vatican to meet Pope Benedict XVI.

The leader of the world’s greatest temporal power will carry a gift for the leader of the world’s greatest spiritual power.

He will drive in his limousine into Vatican City, and into the Cortile San Damaso (photo, left, taken in 1930), the little square at the very heart of the Vatican.

He will get out of his car (parked more or less where the single car in this photo is parked), go into the door at the far end of the square, and, accompanied by American Archbishop James Harvey, the head of the papal household, take the elevator up to the fourth floor.

He will walk down a marble corridor to the Pope’s private library, overlooking St. Peter’s Square (the third window from the right on the top floor in this photo).

The Pope will greet him, and Obama will greet the Pope, and hand him a gift.

What gift will that be?

*****

What are Obama and the pope discussing in one, relatively brief meeting?

According to the AP, they were likely to cover world poverty, the Middle East and “other topics.”

But the visit was expected to be “largely personal and spiritual.”

“There are issues on which they’ll agree, issues on which they’ll disagree and issues on which they’ll agree to continue to work on going forward,” deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough told reporters.

“Given the influence of the Catholic Church globally,” he said, and “the influence of the Catholic Church and church social teaching on the president himself, he recognizes that this is much more than your typical state visit.”

Here’s a shot of the pope meeting with “first ladies” associated with the G8 economic summit (AP Photo/L’Osservatore Romano):