Because so much in the Catholic system depends on the man in charge, popes are generally careful about what they say in public. Off-hand comments uttered within earshot of someone who's not della famiglia, inside the ecclesiastical family, can inadvertently trigger earthquakes.
All Things Catholic
John L. Allen Jr., NCR senior correspondent, writes weekly on the goings-on in Vatican and in the church around the world.
Benedict XVI is set to visit Turkey in November, for those looking to descry omens, here's one that's not terribly encouraging: A potboiler novel currently on bestseller lists in Turkey titled Papa'ya suikast ("Attack on the Pope") predicts that Benedict will be assassinated.
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Christianity is supposed to provide an "optic" for reading the world that is different from purely human logic. If that's true, one would expect Christians to make choices that defy conventional wisdom.
Traditionally, this has been the role of the martyrs. Less dramatically, however, one can also see it in ecumenists who are still committed to the vision of full, structural unity within the divided Christian family. Despite a fairly persuasive case for futility, ecumenists keep plugging away.
They go once more into the breach Sept. 18-25, when the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church meets in Belgrade, Serbia, after a hiatus of six years.
The last session, held at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 2000, ended in near-disaster after disputes over both papal primacy and the status of the Eastern-rite churches in communion with Rome. The original plan had been to treat these issues last, but the Orthodox demanded they be put on the table -- leading, predictably, to acrimony.
I noted last week that L'Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference, recently quoted Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna to the effect that Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was not a Mason.
"There's no foundation for his frequently mentioned membership in the Masons," L'Avvenire cited Schönborn as saying.
The statement was puzzling, since it's a matter of established historical fact that Mozart was initiated into a Masonic lodge in Vienna at the age of 28, and eventually became a Master Mason.
Speaking from Vienna, Schönborn spokesperson Erich Leitenberger told me this week the cardinal was misquoted. Schönborn's comment came in a brief interview shortly before a Mass in Chieti, Italy, Leitenberger said, and was misunderstood.
The Feast of the Assumption was Aug. 15, and to mark the occasion thousands of pilgrims gathered at the Sanctuary of the Holy Rosary of Pompei, one of the world's most famous Marian shrines. Among other things, the pilgrims celebrated the 100th anniversary of the gift of the shrine to the Holy See in 1906 by Blessed Bartolo Longo, its founder and a tireless advocate of the dogma of Mary's Assumption.
Beatifying Longo in 1980, John Paul II called him the "Man of Mary."
If every saint (and near-saint) has an interesting story, some are more interesting than others, and Longo's may be close to the most interesting of all. He holds the singular distinction that he was once a priest -- but not of the Catholic church, or even of the Christian God.
Catholicism has always been ambivalent about "popular religion." Church leaders point with pride to Marian devotions, Corpus Christi processions, and celebrations of saints' feast days, as evidence of the faith's deep roots in popular sensibility. Yet the same leaders often look askance when popular devotion erupts (think Medjugorje, Garabandal, or Bayside), concerned about the border between charisma and chicanery.
Thus it is that church officials have watched busloads of pilgrims arrive at Wadowice, the hometown of Pope John Paul II, drawn to the pope's "miracle water," with a certain weary caution.
The phenomenon began shortly after Pope Benedict XVI's May 27 visit to Wadowice, when Benedict referred to seeing John Paul soon raised to "the glory of the altars." Shortly afterwards, reports began to circulate about water forming at the base of a statue of John Paul in Rynek Square.
Summers in Rome have a sleepy quality. Even by that somnambulant standard, however, this summer has been strikingly devoid of papal activity.
Last Sunday, Benedict XVI supplied a theological rationale, citing St. Bernard, 12th century abbot of the famed Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux. He recalled Bernard's admonition to Pope Eugene III that excessive activity leads to "suffering of the spirit, turbulence of intelligence, and dispersion of grace."
"This warning is valid for every kind of occupation," Benedict said, "even those concerned with the government of the church."
I spoke to Cistercian Fr. Luke Anderson, Prior of St. Mary's Monastery at New Ringgold, Penn., for background.
Speaking of liberation theology, the big news in Latin America in recent days has been the health of Fidel Castro. For Catholics, it will hardly be a surprise that Leonardo Boff and Frei Betto -- both progressive Brazilians, the one a former Franciscan and the other a Dominican -- have rallied to Castro's side.