Friday, May 11, 2007

Lar Bem-Vindo, Dom Claudio

While the Pope is, of course, the star of his five-day jaunt in Brazil, the first transcontinental papal visit of Benedict XVI's pontificate is a homecoming for one of his highest-profile recruits, a key pointman of the pontificate on things Latin American.

Last Halloween, Benedict appointed Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the archbishop of São Paulo, as prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. A lifelong pastor, the 72 year-old Francisan was viewed by some as a rather atypical choice for the Vatican post that oversees matters pertaining to the world's priests and deacons. Then again, while his gentle style, diverse background (he's half-German and speaks it), three decades of episcopal experience and lack of ideological color put him near the top of many papabile lists in 2005, it was said at the time that the one key quality he lacked was an in-depth familiarity with the ways of the Roman Curia.

Five months into his experience of Curial immersion, the cardinal recently sat down with Robert Mickens in Rome. The result is this week's lead feature in The Tablet.
"Yes, this is different," the cardinal told me a couple of weeks ago, as we sat in one of the ornate antechambers leading to the office he now occupies. "Very different; diversissimo!" His use of the Italian superlative, in his twangy Brasileiro accent, made the point loud and clear: this has been a major transition. In one swift stroke of the papal pen he moved from being chief pastor of the world's third-largest diocese to becoming "chief bureaucrat" of a Roman Curia office that occupies one floor in a quiet, mausoleum-like palace overlooking St Peter's Square.

Dom Cláudio left behind a burgeoning and bustling local Church that has six auxiliary bishops and more than five million "parishioners". He now oversees a handful of staff members in a government-like ministry that is designed principally to give the Pope advice and to facilitate canonical paperwork regarding the world's more than 400,000 priests. While insisting that there is a "pastoral dimension" to his work at the Congregation for the Clergy, the cardinal could not deny that the Pope sets the agenda. "He is the pastor and we help him; we are at his service," the cardinal said of his office.

Returning to his former archdiocese this week with Pope Benedict must be a poignant reminder of the change his life has undergone. Although he could not have predicted it last autumn when he accepted the Vatican position, he certainly found out a month later when he arrived in Rome to begin the new job.

Just two days before Cardinal Hummes left São Paulo, he told journalists that clerical celibacy was not a dogma and its usefulness could therefore be put up for discussion. The comments were somewhat surprising given that he had never before championed this issue. Some speculated that it was a sign - and the Pope's desire - that he would use his new position in the Roman Curia to help stimulate open discussion on this and other topics that have long been taboo in the Vatican.

But as his plane landed in Rome on 4 December, the Holy See press office had a statement ready - allegedly written by the cardinal himself - that completely reversed his pre-flight comments. Dom Cláudio nuanced the retraction in an exchange with reporters after leaving the plane, but several weeks later an article appeared in L'Osservatore Romano - again attributed to him - that presented historical and theological arguments in defence of the discipline of clerical celibacy.

When I asked him if this meant that the Pope had given a definitive "no" to the possibility of ordaining married men of proven virtue (viri probati) - an issue that many bishops, especially in Latin America, began discussing in earnest immediately after Vatican II - Dom Cláudio smiled wryly. "This is not on the table," he said. Full stop.

Despite Vatican efforts to kill the question, there are still many Catholics in Latin America (including some silent bishops) who believe that a married clergy is the only way realistically to cut the region's alarmingly high laity-to-clergy ratio. But it is unlikely that anyone will now be courageous or stubborn enough to insist on this when the fifth General Conference of CELAM (episcopal conferences of Latin America) gets under way this Sunday. Pope Benedict XVI is to inaugurate the three-week meeting at the Marian shrine of Aparecida about 100 miles north-east of São Paulo and, if he follows the custom of his predecessors, the bishops can expect him to deliver a 15- to 20-page speech telling them what issues require urgent attention and the best way to respond to them.

There's only one way to stop people from drifting away from the Catholic community, according to Cardinal Hummes: "The Church in Latin America must become more missionary in its own territory." But this is exactly what all three CELAM conferences since Vatican II - Medellín in 1968, Puebla in 1979 and Santo Domingo in 1992 - said in one way or another. In fact, it was Pope Paul VI, not John Paul II, who first used the term "new evangelisation" at the 1968 meeting in Colombia. At any rate, the slogans have done nothing to stop the haemorrhaging of the Catholic Church in this part of world. Nor have they boosted vocations to the religious life.

"The Church must respond today to the issues of today and not try to repeat what was done in the past," the cardinal told me. He said that now, more than before, lay people would have to bear most of the responsibility for bringing people back to the Catholic community. "We have to prepare them, invite them to visit families, above all families of the poor in the periphery, those who feel abandoned," he said. "These [marginalised] people need to feel the physical presence of the Church, the solidarity of and warmth of their Church," he added....

"History moves forward and we must move with history, otherwise we will keep sliding into the past," said Cardinal Hummes. "The Church's presence among the poor continues today and very strongly, albeit a bit less ideological and less political," he said, noting that even "basic Christian communities" have undergone de-politicisation. "Today we are more attentive to the Church's social teaching than to left-wing political ideology," Dom Cláudio claimed, though he was quick to point out that he had "never been involved in politics".

As for his predecessors, he said: "All that they did, these great bishops of that time, resounds in the Church today and continues. But I always say that we do not and cannot repeat the past."
Also, in response to an earlier piece which spoke of a chill in Catholic-Jewish relations, the papal preacher Fr Raniero Cantalamessa offers a reflection on the importance -- and not so dire state -- thereof.
I should like to recall some of the statements that I made in a sermon delivered in St Peter's Basilica in the presence of Pope John Paul II and the whole Roman Curia. That homily was indeed published in the official Vatican press (L'Osservatore Romano, 12 April 1998) and has been available since then on my website (On Jewish-Christian relations, "Christ has broken down the dividing wall").

In it I said that, in the context of the Good Friday liturgy, a literary genre known as the Improperia, or the Reproaches, began to develop from as early as the time of Melito of Sardis in the latter half of the second century. Traces of this attitude could be found in art, folklore, and in the liturgy, all of which helped to spread negative, anti-Jewish stereotypes. As John Paul II once observed, all of this made Christians of our century less vigilant when the Nazi fury was unleashed against the Jews. It eased the way, albeit indirectly, for the coming of the Shoah, the Holocaust.

Anti-Semitism, however, was not born out of fidelity to the Christian Scriptures, but out of infidelity to them. Jesus, the apostles, Stephen and Paul all spoke out against the Jewish leaders, and at times harshly, but in what spirit did they do this? Jesus wept when he foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and Paul was prepared to be "accursed and cut off from Christ" for the sake of his own people, his kindred according to the flesh (Romans 9:1-3). Moses and the Prophets had done it before, at times with even harsher words, without of course being accused of anti-Semitism.

What happened in the transition from the primitive Judaeo-Christian Church to the Church of the Gentiles? The Gentiles picked up from Jesus and the apostles the arguments levelled against Judaism, but none of their love for the Jews. The polemic was passed on, but the love was not. When, later on, the Fathers of the Church spoke of the accomplished destruction of Jerusalem, they did not shed tears as Jesus had done. On the contrary. Right up to the outbreak of the Shoah, we Christians were still whining about the Jews harbouring hatred for Christians and opposing the spread of the Gospel, but we failed to notice the plank in our heart. It is not enough to speak of the sin of some of the "children of the Church" in this regard; we must acknowledge the sin of the "Fathers of the Church" too, that is of popes, bishops and people in authority in general!

In that same Good Friday sermon, I shared my own change of heart towards Israel. When I speak of the wrongs committed against the Jewish people, I said, I have in mind not only the faults of others who belonged to generations before me, but my own as well. I will always remember the beginnings of my own conversion in this regard. I was on a plane, returning from my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I was reading the Bible, and my eye fell on a phrase in the Letter to the Ephesians: "No one ever hates his own body" (Ephesians 5:29). I realised that this applies also to the relationship of Jesus with his own people. And all my prejudice, if not hostility, towards the Jewish people that I had unconsciously absorbed in my theological training, appeared to me to be an offence against Jesus himself.

This Good Friday sermon was very positively received in some Jewish media and that year, 1998, a tree was planted in my honour in the land of Israel. So could I have perhaps changed my mind since then? I don't think so. The purpose of my observations in my written comment was not so much to fix the guilt for Christ's condemnation as to highlight the motive behind it. If it had been Pilate alone who decided that Christ should die, as sometimes affirmed, it would mean that the motive for his death would have been merely political, and not religious; and this, I believe, does not correspond with the historical truth.

None of the great authorities on the historical Jesus and on the death of Christ (for example Raymond Brown's The Death of the Messiah and James Dunn's Christianity in the Making) goes as far as to deny that the Jewish leaders (the Sadducees more so than the Pharisees, as I myself have noted elsewhere) had any part in Christ's condemnation. Paul, who wrote a long time before the subsequent anti-pharisaic polemics, puts forward basically the same version of the death of Christ as do the synoptic gospels (see 1 Thessalonians 2:15), and he, much better than we can today, would have known the realities of the situation having himself, as a Pharisee, shared in and defended the condemnation of the Nazarene.

AP/Dario Lopez-Mills