Sunday, March 30, 2008

Don Pietro's Build-A-Church Workshop

One of the notable backstories in the lead-up to next month's papal visit has been a significant clash of expectations... brought to you not by "the media," but jockeying emphases coming from within the church's own apparatus.

From the moment of its public announcement, the Holy See sought to present the 15-20 April Ratzipalooza as an invitation to renewal: "a new youthfulness, a new springtime, a new Pentecost" -- essentially, a relaunch of the American Catholic project after the most destabilizing moment in its history.

The US church "can make all things new in Christ, our hope!" went the emphatic first-day line. Somewhere along the way, however, more was suddenly made of the newness of Nationals Park, the energizing gifts of the Spirit forced to take a back seat (if not the trunk) to the sending-forth of tickets, teddy-bears, logos and the like.

They say that "if you want to do something right, do it yourself." And so, to restore B16's line to its rightful prominence, the lone voice keeping the Ratzi-as-revival message in the mix -- the papal nuncio to Washington Archbishop Pietro Sambi -- took his recent news-blitz to a new level with a long debut in the pages of today's New York Times... handling the questions with his usual sincerity and candor... but still getting the message out... and all without a single tchotchke in evidence.

Money quotes:
"The image of Benedict XVI is not only not well known, but it is badly known," said Sambi, who as apostolic nuncio is the Vatican's top diplomat in the United States.

"He is known as an intransigent man, almost an inhuman man," the archbishop said of Benedict in an interview at the Vatican Embassy in Washington. "It will be enough to listen to him to change completely the idea of this tough, this inhuman person."...

"He is not a man of blah, blah, blah," Archbishop Sambi said. "He's a thinker, and before speaking, he thinks. And he prays a lot."...

The timing, said Sambi, is intended to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the dioceses of New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Bardstown, Kentucky, the seat of the first inland diocese. It is also 200 years since the nation's first Catholic diocese, Baltimore, was elevated to an archdiocese.

Although the pope is arriving in the midst of a presidential election, Sambi said, "I can assure you that the pope will not at all interfere with the electoral process. He will not meet with any of the candidates."

But it is likely that Benedict will touch on issues germane to the election: poverty, the war in Iraq, abortion and euthanasia, gay marriage, environmental degradation and immigrants.

Some of those issues will probably arise in his address to the United Nations. Abortion is an expected topic when he meets with young Roman Catholics, some severely disabled, at St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers.

Benedict has spoken before on how Catholic teaching applies to all of these issues.

Sambi said, "The pope will speak about the doctrine of the Church, which was established 2,000 years ago, much before there was any Democratic or Republican party of the United States."...

This is the first papal visit since Catholics in the United States suffered an abuse scandal that revealed thousands of victims, devastated families and parishes, demoralized priests, cost the church more than $2 billion so far and left five dioceses bankrupt....

Sambi said he was confident that Benedict will speak of the scandal during the visit.

The subject could come up at a meeting and prayer service with American bishops in Washington. It was initially billed as private, but is now open to the media. The archbishop said, "If it would have been closed-door, can you imagine the fantasy of the journalists to invent what they don't know? Better to be open."...

Sambi demurred when asked whether the pope's speeches will be vetted, and if so by whom, saying, "All this is an internal matter."

He shared a letter he wrote last month to monasteries throughout the country, asking nuns, monks, priests and brothers to each adopt an event on the papal itinerary and pray for its success.

They should pray, he wrote, that the pope's visit produce "a new youthfulness, a new springtime" for the church in the United States.
Sound familiar? Anyone?

A veteran of papal diplomacy, B16's dispatching of the "Super-Nuncio" to the global superpower was, in keeping with a half-century Vatican tradition, one of the new Pope's first personal stamps on his top foreign service team. Before arriving on Massachusetts Avenue in March 2006, Sambi headed the Vatican missions in Burundi, Indonesia, and his beloved Holy Land, where he arranged John Paul II's historic weeklong pilgrimage in 2000.

The son and brother of elementary-school teachers, his lesson in practice has been a simple one: that for all the current fixations on new technologies, seeing points into print and proactive press-strategies, what the "pros" have sometimes tended to lose along the way is the awareness that the church's most crucial message-asset can never be found in a budget, a sound-byte, flashy tools nor any number of institutional imperatives, but only in the same place it's always been -- the low-tech, inexpensive yet inestimable allure that can only come from the believing, believable human voice. 

In that light, and perhaps intentionally -- that is, in the one (Bavarian-born) mind that counts -- Benedict's man on Massachusetts just so happens to be the Stateside church's lead communicator these days. That comes thanks to an effectiveness not born of specialized training, ecclesial status, self-promotion or lengthy experience -- sooner or later, these all fail -- but simply because, on every beat under the sun, whenever The Message can be seen as truly defining its messenger (to a degree even Deepak Chopra finds himself drawn to), a light goes up... and don't be fooled: now more than ever, everyone -- "the media" included -- is looking for the light in our midst.

The means of letting it shine might be different for each one of us, but the task -- the vocation -- is always the same: to be a "living gospel." As they say in TV, "if it ain't live, it didn't happen"... and whenever it is live and the lights are on, the rest effortlessly falls into place. Always. 

As for the trip's "script," the product is already effectively "in the can"... and not just for Benedict, whose English might be in for a quick buff around the edges before he heads on his first visit as Pope to an Anglophone environment. Among others, a top native hierarch scheduled to toast the pontiff over a private meal had to submit his intended text for approval.

The Spirit might make us free and give us life... but this Pentecost'll be going light on the tongues. 

PHOTO: Interfaith Forum of Metropolitan Washington