Saturday, June 09, 2007

Saturday at the Vatican: POTUS Meets "His Holy Father"; Pope Thinks (and Moves) Things Eastern

The president of the United States hadn't even departed the Vatican and his first papal audience of B16's reign when the Holy See announced that its point-man in Iraq for the majority of the US-led war was the Pope's new chief of staff.

The Pope's excuse for the timing: it's St Ephrem's Day.

In the noon Bollettino -- published as the Bushes wended their way toward their motorcade, parked in San Damaso -- Benedict XVI confirmed the long-expected promotion of Archbishop Leonardo Sandri from Sostituto of the Secretariat of State to the top job of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, naming in his place the nuncio to the Phillipines, Archbishop Fernando Filoni who, from his episcopal ordination in 2001 until being dispatched to Manila last year, had served as apostolic nuncio in Jordan and Iraq.

The appointment of the 61 year-old Filoni completes Papa Ratzi's makeover of the top ranks of the first dicastery of the Roman Curia. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB became the Vatican's "prime minister" last September, at the same time Archbishop Dominique Mamberti was entrusted with the post equivalent to that of its foreign minister. As the Sostituto oversees the flow of information and decisions going to and from the Pope and, at least formally, is the superior of the pontiff's official staff in the papal apartment, the appointment is a particularly key one.

Born in Argentina to Italian parents, Sandri, 63, became sostituto in 2000. Underscoring the post's importance in the life and activity of the Roman pontiff, he became known as the "designated hitter" who would deliver the addresses and homilies of John Paul II when the late Pope became unable to speak toward the end of his life. On the evening of 2 April 2005, it fell to Sandri to tell the world, "We all feel like orphans this evening," as he made public the news of John Paul's death.

In a precedent-setting move, the Vatican released statements from Sandri and Filoni on their appointments. The prefect-designate of the Oriental Churches -- who now takes his place at the front of the line for a red hat come consistory time -- voiced his "awareness" of the great treasuries of "liturgical prayer, spiritual tradition, monastic life, the lives of so many saints, and the teachings" possessed by the Eastern rites, pledging to make good on the confidence placed in him by Benedict. Sandri announced that, to help facilitate a smooth transition to Filoni, the pontiff had asked him to stay on in his current post until 1 July.

For his part, the new Sostituto likewise thanked the Pope, saying he approached his new post with no little amount of anxiety, but feeling reassured by the Jesus' words from the Gospel of Luke, "When you have done all you have been commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do'" (17:10).

As the presidential party departed for the US embassy to the Holy See and a meeting with the leaders of the Sant'Egidio movement, SCV 1 -- the Pope's car -- was unusually parked outside. Its purpose, only becoming clear with time, was to take the Pope to the Eastern congregation to personally announce the appointment of the new prefect and mark the dicastery's 90th anniversary.

At the congregation, Benedict noted the confluence of Sandri's appointment with the feast of St Ephrem -- the 4th century doctor of the Syrian church -- but speaking more of the last Pope Benedict, who made Rome's office for the Eastern churches independent from the old Propaganda Fide on 1 May 1917. Quoting B15's motu proprio establishing the congregation as a stand-alone dicastery, B16 reminded his audience that "in the church of Jesus Christ -- which is neither Latin, nor Greek, nor Slav, but Catholic -- no discrimination can exist between its sons and daughters."

(Given the coming motu proprio of B16 on matters concerning the Western church, that insight could provide some usual food for thought for both sides of the contemporary conversation.)

Receiving Bush -- who has shown an inexplicable tendency to repeatedly refer to the Pope as "His Holy Father" -- what the Vatican termed "the worrisome situation in Iraq" and the "critical conditions" of Christian communities in the Middle East was raised. Later, at a press conference with the Italian premier Romano Prodi, the president spoke of Benedict's concern that "the [Iraqi] society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religion... He's worrisome about the Christians inside Iraq being mistreated by the Muslim majority."

As crowds of anti-war demonstrators converged on Rome's city center to protest Bush's visit, the president gave the pontiff a Mosaic walking stick (shown above), made by a formerly homeless Dallas man with the Ten Commandments carved into it. Benedict's gift to the commander-in-chief was even more precious, and message-packed: a rare first edition of the autobiography of John Carroll of Baltimore, the founding bishop of American Catholicism.

In its formal statement on the meeting, the Holy See said that "discussions also turned to the question of Africa and its development, also with reference to Darfur, and there was an exchange of opinions on Latin America.

"Finally contemporary moral and religious issues were examined, among them those concerning human rights and religious freedom, the defense and promotion of life, marriage and the family, the education of the young and sustainable development."

Reuters/Plinio Lepri