Praying for news at the Vatican

November 23, 2007

You’ve probably seen on TV how reporters swarm around leaders coming out of closed-door meetings and the politicians step up to deliver their soundbites for the cameras. The Vatican held a big closed-door meeting on Friday and a wave of cardinals — the “princes of the Church” who rank among the most prominent leaders of Roman Catholicism — emerged at their lunch break to find a pack of journalists eager to pounce on them with questions. I’m in Rome for a few days and was out there waiting for them in a parking lot between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Pope Paul VI Hall where they were meeting. The scene was quite different from those “normal” media scrums.

Cardinals leave closed-door meeting with Pope Benedict, 23 Nov. 2007The session was a rare meeting of cardinals from around the world who are here at the Vatican for a ceremony on Saturday when 23 men “get their red hats,” i.e. join the College of Cardinals whose members under 80 years old elect the next pope. They were discussing the Catholic Church’s sensitive relations with other Christians — Orthodox they want to get closer to, Anglicans who are drifting further away, Protestants who are increasingly divided and Pentecostals who are encroaching on their flocks. These sessions presided over by Pope Benedict are supposed to remain confidential. So the men who emerged from the meeting looked and acted like anything but a bunch of politicians hoping to make it on to the evening news.

Some strode past the waiting journalists flashing half a smile and a quarter of a wave. Others found polite variations of the old “no comment”, like one who offered the (weak) joke: “If anything important had happened, you reporters would know it already.” Another walked straight up to a reporter from his home town, said he knew there was no way he could leave without talking to him, and then confessed with a smile: “But actually, I have nothing to say.”

A gust of wind makes a cardinal hold his hat.Time passed and more silent cardinals glided by. There were dozens and dozens of them, all identically dressed in black robes with bright red buttons, sashes and skullcaps. One tall one sported a dashing cape. A shy one was nearly hidden under a kind of wide- brimmed hat that nobody outside Vatican City has worn in at least a century or three. We heard bits of talk in Polish and another language we couldn’t identify. When a gust of wind blew the skullcap off one cardinal, he cried “Halleluja!” and went scampering after it. I dutifully noted this down, not knowing if I’d get any other quotes for the day’s story.

Journalists scoured the crowd hoping to spot a familiar chatterbox. One slipped into a waiting car before any of us could reach him. The news spread quickly about the one who got away. Others just didn’t seem to be there. If the reporter was a devout Catholic, this was the time to start praying for news.

Finally, Cardinal Walter Kasper appeared and the pack converged around him. Kaspar is head of the Vatican department dealing with other Christians and had just delivered a speech on that issue, so he could speak with authority. As for confidentiality, well, we were only asking him to quote himself. Being the friendly, open man that he is, Kasper was sure to say something.

Cardinal Walter Kasper (centre) answers journalists’ questions.As the cardinal spoke, another ritual of Vatican reporting unfolded. The first journalist to buttonhole him started out in Kasper’s native German and he responded. But as soon as more journalists crowded around, Kasper switched to English, assuming that was the language all would understand. He outlined his speech in English, chuckling when he had to ask for a translation of an Italian term he had used in his speech. Once he got his message out in English, he fielded questions from radio and TV correspondents in French, Italian and then German again.

Speaking Italian is almost a prerequisite for the job as cardinal — this is, after all, the Roman Catholic Church. Most official documents and a lot of unofficial schmoozing among cardinals (such as before a papal election) goes on in the language of Dante. Many of them picked it up during graduate studies in Rome or an earlier stint working in the Vatican bureaucracy. Some of them, including Pope Benedict, can switch effortlessly among four or five tongues.

As for his comments, Kasper added one more piece to the puzzle about how Catholics and Orthodox Christians can work more Pope Benedict and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, 1 Dec. 2006closely in future. The Orthodox agreed in Ravenna last month — for the first time — to recognise that the Church was universal and the Bishop of Rome, i.e. the pope, is the highest-ranking figure in it. According to the hierarchy of the ancient Church, the patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul) is the second-highest. This is causing problems for the Russian Orthodox Church, which accounts for more than half the world’s 220 million Orthodox Christians and has become more active on the Christian world scene since communism collapsed in its homeland. The Patriarchate of Moscow and All Russia cannot see why it should be ranked behind the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which has only a few thousand members in its church in Turkey. The Moscow Patriarchate was centuries away from its founding when the ancient Church ranked the five top patriarchates. If the agreement about the pope being the highest-ranking figure means that the Ecumenical Patriarch is automatically the second-highest, Moscow is likely to say nyet.

This is where Kasper made an interesting comment. There wasn’t enough space in the news story for the whole comment, but here it is in full: “Of course we cannot restore the system of the five patriachates of the ancient Church. We have to take seriously the Russian Orthodox Church. But what Ravenna said was that there is a universal level of the Church. That’s the first time they’ve said this. There are not only regional churches and patriarchates, but the Church on the universal level. And if one church is not in full communion on the universal level, the Church is wounded … Then Ravenna says that also, on the universal level, there is need (for) a protos , a primate, and according to the old taxis of the ancient Moscow Patriarch AlexiyChurch, this can only be the Bishop of Rome. There is no other candidate. They recognise this. We did not say what the perogatives are, what we can and can’t do. That will be the issue of the dialogue. This is a very important step we have reached, but the way is still long.”

Hmmm. No mention of any number two slot here. Are they hoping to solve the Moscow-Istanbul rivalry by declaring that the standard by which any “victory” would be measured no longer applies in the modern world? I hestitate to write “watch this space” because progress on this will probably take years — if it comes at all. However, something’s moving there and a deal, if ever reached, could make Church history. I’ll tell you all about it if I don’t retire in the meantime.

Kasper’s comments on the Anglicans, Pentecostals and Protestants in general are in the main story.

After all this, let me ask if reporting about the Vatican confuses you. An institution like the Roman Catholic Church has so many traditions and quirks that it can take ages to get a good grasp of its complex ways. The Vatican is not undeciferible. Send in your questions and our Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella and I will do our best to answer.


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Thank you for this. Well writen and very interesting.

Posted by Tomer | Report as abusive

Thanks for this post. It is the first I heard about the Barth. and Ben. reaching this agreement. It won’t just be Moscow who will have issues with this. Alexandria, Antioch, Bucharest and all the other Orthodox primates will have to think about what this means, as will their flocks.

Posted by matt | Report as abusive

Not so fast, Matt! You’re getting ahead of the story. The post did NOT say “Barth and Ben” had reached any such agreement. That would be news and I wouldn’t be publishing it just on the blog. What the post did was draw attention to the fact that Kasper said the ancient hierarchy system could not be restored. I hadn’t heard it put this way before. We know that Moscow doesn’t like the ancient hierarchy, since it would leave out the Russian Orthodox Church. The “Hmmm” transition means the question now is whether any such idea is making the rounds. You make a good point that other primates would also have something to say about any tinkering with or sidelining of the ancient hierarchy. So anything along these lines would require lots — which means years, if not decades — of discussion before it came about (if at all…).

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive