This morning, what one Roman priest has defined as the “spiritual marathon” surrounding John Paul II’s beatification began. The opening act, so to speak, came with the removal of the late pope’s casket from its tomb, in preparation for its eventual placement in the chapel of St. Sebastian in the heart of St. Peter’s Basilica.
All Things Catholic
On any list of storylines the Vatican would not have wanted to see in the run-up to Easter, not to mention the looming beatification of John Paul II on May 1, the case of Belgian Bishop Roger Vangheluwe would have to finish pretty much at the top. Just when you think the sexual abuse crisis can’t become any more appalling, or surreal, along comes Vangheluwe to prove that it can.
Tensions surrounding Catholic identity are very much in the air these days, and when they erupt they’re always a prescription for heartburn. People who regard themselves as authentically Catholic rarely enjoy being told they’re not, or that they’re only selectively so. Likewise, people who believe the faith they treasure is being misrepresented, or distorted, or eviscerated from within, typically get their Irish up.
Dublin, Ireland -- Although the sexual abuse crisis has been devastating for the Catholic church everywhere it’s erupted, the meltdown in Ireland is fairly unique in scope and scale. Catholicism was effectively the state church, running the country’s schools, hospitals and orphanages. As a result, when the church served people well, it had a massively positive social impact -- and when the church failed and abused people, the damage was correspondingly immense.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: There’s a pariah state someplace known for brutalizing its people and destabilizing its region. As cracks start to appear, the West turns up the heat in favor of regime change. Fairly quickly, talk of negotiations, sanctions, and international pressure gives way to armed force.
When I was in grad school, a professor once had my class on ancient Rome read a letter from a young nobleman to his parents, in which he breathlessly described the connections he was making in high society and his ambitions for a senatorial career. The catch was that the letter was dated 476 A.D., the same year which historians now regard as marking the fall of Rome, when the last Western emperor was deposed by a Germanic chieftain.
Somewhere deep in their souls, most Catholics long to feel proud of their church and its leaders. At times, however, that sense of pride can seem all but buried under an avalanche of heartache and bad news.
Not long ago, I was invited to address a Catholic organization in the United States that’s experiencing tensions with other sectors of the church. (I know, I know, who isn’t?) A couple of bishops also took part in the meeting. After my usual shtick about avoiding the trap of tribalism, someone asked if I saw any concrete signs of hope.
I was on the brink of answering when one of the bishops -- a guy known for being fairly middle of the road -- volunteered to tackle the question. He said if what we’re talking about is overcoming divisions, there’s a great resource to draw upon: Focolare, a Catholic movement whose spirituality is premised on unity.
I and maybe two or three other people in the room who had actually encountered Focolare over the years were enthusiastic, while everyone else just looked confused.
The story illustrates three points about Focolare (an Italian word meaning “hearth”), a movement founded by Italian lay woman Chiara Lubich in 1943, which today has 140,000 core members and some two million affiliates in 182 nations:
- In a time of bitter divisions, Focolare is one of the few outfits with a track record of bringing people together.
Popular culture is full of misconceptions about Rome, but here are two of the most persistent: That the Vatican is exclusively defined by its worst days, and that Catholic life in Rome is exclusively defined by the Vatican.
As for the Vatican, the working assumption is that unless CNN or the Google news ticker has an item, nothing’s really happening. In truth, most mainstream news outlets are interested in the Vatican only if there’s a meltdown -- if a Holocaust-denying bishop has been rehabilitated, for instance, or if a new document suggesting the pope dropped the ball on the sex abuse crisis has come to light.
Such developments do merit attention, but they hardly tell the whole story. If you want to understand what the institution is all about, you have to cast a wider net.
If ever an object lesson were needed in the complexities of running the universal Catholic Church, a recent interview with Bishop Bernard Fellay, the Swiss head of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, offers it in living color. It may be an especially apposite read for liberals, both inside and outside the church, who sometimes struggle to grasp that there’s actually Catholic life to the right of the pope.
Granted, although its bishops are no longer excommunicated, the Society of St. Pius X -- which broke with Rome in 1988, when the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained bishops in defiance of the pope -- has no formal standing in the church. Granted, too, we journalists probably pay more attention to the traditionalists than their real-world following might justify, largely because they often say and do inflammatory things that make great copy.