Tuesday, February 26, 2008

All the (Vice-)Pope's Men

It seems that everyone and their, well, everyone has a reaction of some sort to the significant numerical decrease of US Catholics brought to light by yesterday's Pew survey on the nation's religious landscape...

...and, per usual, Pope Benedict's closest aide is no exception.

For the record: no, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone SDB wasn't asked about the study as he met earlier today with the new Cuban President Raul Castro. However, in an interview given last May during the plenary of the Latin American bishops in Brazil, the omnipresent "Vice-Pope" used Vatican Radio's airwaves to warn of an "exodus of our Catholic Christians"... and offered his theory behind the crisis:
"The problem -- and I always say this to bishops and priests -- is a problem of bishops and priests being able to welcome and listen to people."

Cardinal Bertone pointed to the example of current and previous pastors of the Church.

He encouraged "being close to people, being welcoming -- as the great saints who were bishops have taught us, and as Pope John Paul II spoke about in his autobiography when he said: 'I have tried and I try to be welcoming, to be near people.'

"And how Pope Benedict XVI teaches us in his ability to listen, his closeness to people -- the people he meets, even just for a moment, during audiences, feel transfigured because they have the perception of being treated as a friend, as if you were meeting with old friends."

"This is a very beautiful thing. It is a teaching," Cardinal Bertone said. "It is also a simple but effective way to stop this exodus of our Catholic Christians."
...in his latest ride aboard the blunt-talk express, at a press conference yesterday in Havana, Bertone reiterated the Holy See's judgment that the long-standing US embargo of Cuba was "ethically unacceptable":
"[The blockade] is an oppression for the Cuban people and it is not a means to help the Cuban people win their dignity and independence. It's a violation of the independence of the people."

The cardinal revealed that he asked the U.S. government to facilitate the reunification of Cuban families, of which many members have emmigrated to the United States.

Cardinal Bertone said this gesture would be a "humanitarian" one. "We will make every effort possible in that direction," he added.

Cubans residing in the United States are by law only allowed to visit their families every three years.
* * *
Just as the Vatican #2 boarded his return flight to Rome earlier tonight, his answer to "old home week" was preparing its own descent on the Eternal City.

The Jesuit GC might be wrapping up (see below), but right now the most-prominent religious community in the Vatican spotlight is none other than Bertone's own Salesians of Don Bosco.

Sure, they've long been one of the global church's largest communities (now with 14,000 priests and brothers and over 40,000 when the sisters and lay associates are added in), but the order -- which marks its 150th anniversary next year -- has come to renewed prominence thanks, of course, to its best-known member, the first religious of any stripe to serve as the Holy See's "prime minister" since the early 1800s.

The Salesians can count five of their own among the college of cardinals -- a number surpassed only by the Franciscans (with eight) and, of course, the Jesuits (with ten). But his current post has given the Secretary of State a singular platform to project the charism into which he was professed in 1950 onto the global stage.

Keen to remain a "friend of the young" in the spirit of St John Bosco himself, B16's top lieutenant often seems more comfortable with youth and in his occasional turns as a soccer commentator than in the summits and diplomatic encounters that comprise the public side of his "day job."

When the cardinal announced that Pope John Paul II had appeared to him in a 2006 dream, he underscored that they spoke "about the young." And last year in Nashville, he even nudged the Knights of Columbus to recruit more young members.

"I have seen among the Knights a very good representation of young people," Bertone said at a press conference during the 125th Supreme Convention. At the same time, however, he noted that the group's "average age [was] a little bit high" for his tastes.

In that light, the Salesians have gathered in Torino for a pilgrimage in advance of their 26th General Chapter, which begins in Rome next Monday. At the gathering's Sunday opening, held at the site of Don Bosco's first Mass, the community's Rector-Major Fr Pascual Chavez exhorted the 233 delegates to "Be signs and bearers of the love of God for the young."

To amplify the celebrations -- which coincided with the 150th anniversary of the founder's first trip to Rome -- B16 visited a Roman parish run by the order on Sunday, and an article written by Chavez was given prime space in the pages of L'Osservatore Romano. (Last year, the Salesian rector was elected president of the Union of Superiors General, the congress of his counterparts.)

The Pope will, of course, receive the chapter for a full-dress Vatican welcome before its mid-April close. In the meantime, though, don't be surprised if Bertone ends up keeping his confreres frequent company over the course of their stay... and, if recent history's any indicator, with a hand-truck of mitres maybe at the ready.

Come Sunday, the "Vice-Pope" flies again, this time to Armenia and Azerbaijan. Among his scheduled commitments during the weeklong jaunt are an ecumenical dialogue with Karekin II, the Catholicos (patriarch) of the Armenian Orthodox, and a meeting with the top Islamic cleric of the Caucasus region, Sheik ul-Islam Allashukur Pashazade.

The journey will be Bertone's first to countries where Catholics comprise a small minority of the population.

PHOTO: AP/Javier Galeano