Paris archdiocese restores medieval college as faith forum

Main hall of the College des Bernardins in Paris, 1 Sept 2008/Charles PlatiauOne of the largest medieval buildings in Paris reopens this week as a forum for discussion about faith in the modern world after more than two centuries being used mostly as a fire station and police training centre. The Collège des Bernardins was founded in 1247 by the English Cistercian monk Stephen of Lexington as a residential college for the order’s monks. After the French Revolution, it was taken over by the city.

The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Paris bought the building and spent five years renovating it to house its theology school and host debates, conferences, art exhibitions and evenings of film and music. Its first major event will be a speech on faith and culture by Pope Benedict, who will address an audience of 700 personalities from the world of French culture on the first day of his Sept. 12-15 visit to France.

The college, whose name comes from its original designation as St. Bernard’s College, stands on the Left Bank just off the Boulevard Saint Germain. The five-year restoration highlighted the building’s simple Gothic architecture while adding modern comforts such as heating, air conditioning and WiFi (see video). The college aims “to serve mankind in all its dimensions — its emotions, its intelligence, its liberty, its relations and its faith”.

Hall and classrooms (right) in College des Bernardins in paris, 1 Sept 2008/Charles PlatiauThe city’s archbishop, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, told journalists during a pre-opening media tour that the Catholic Church needed to promote discussion with modern society. “Our Christian faith, our Christian tradition and wisdom are today immersed in a pluri-religious and pluri-cultural society. Despite the generous and multiple forms of religion on offer, many of our contemporaries do not belong to a specific religion, or have no religion or belief at all.” The discussions will bring together Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and non-believers, to discuss issues including culture, economics, international development and Christian-Jewish relations. Another issue will be the effects of scientific progress on society and questions of bioethics, he said. “How will human identity — what it means to be a man or a woman — be respected and promoted? Will it be reduced to the roll of a tool for the well-being of a few?

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois during media tour of College des Bernardins, 1 Sept 2008/Tom Heneghan

“All these questions face us. We don’t all have the same answer. We don’t always have an answer. But we are all confronted with these questions and we cannot avoid them, unless we consider human history to be a fate that mankind cannot change. That is not our conviction.”

Does McCain see real faith factor in Russia-Georgia conflict?

Russian tank rolls through Georgian region of South Ossetia, 10 August 2008/Vasily FedosenkoRecognising when religion plays a part in a military conflict can be a tricky business. Its role can easily be overemphasized, underplayed or misunderstood. Having covered several such conflicts myself, I was curious when I saw Ted Olsen’s post at Christianty Today about how John McCain stresses Georgia’s Christian heritage when talking about its conflict with Russia. When Russian forces rolled into Georgia in support of pro-Moscow separatists there,  McCain’s reaction statement noted that Georgia was “one of the world’s first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion.” In his televised discussion with leading evangelical pastor Rick Warren on Saturday, he said “the king of then Georgia in the third century converted to Christianity. You go to Georgia and you see these old churches that go back to the fourth and fifth century.”

John McCain and Rick Warren, 17 August 2008/Mark AveryHistory is fascinating but McCain’s use of it here begs the question whether there is an actual faith factor in this conflict or just in his presentation of it. Russia, after all, is also a traditionally Christian nation, but he made no mention of that. After the fall of communism there, the Russian Orthodox Church has resumed its traditional role there — as has the Georgian Orthodox Church in the Caucasian republic after state-sponsored atheism lost out there too. There are no obvious doctrinal disputes that divide them.

Church-to-church relations also seem reasonable. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, senior officials of the two churches spoke by telephone last week and “declared their common peacemaking position and readiness to cooperate in this field.” Patriarchs of both churches have called for a ceasefire and condemned the violence among fellow Christians. “Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love confront each other,” Russia’s Primate Alexiy II said. “What is most important (is that) we (are) united with Christian faith and must live peacefully without blood,” Georgian Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II said.

Strong words, raw nerves in Catholic-Muslim relations

Pope Benedict at Easter Vigil, 23 March 2008//Dario Pignatelli The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of inter-faith dialogue.

The most surprising part about Allam’s baptism was not that he converted. He has been living in a traditionally Catholic country for 35 years, is married to a Catholic, is close to the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has long been highly critical of radical Islam and says he was never an especially pious Muslim. The surprise was that the Vatican would make it such a prominent event. There was a second surprise, too — the fact that Allam published such a hard-hitting declaration about his conversion, his view that Islam is intrinsically violent and that the Catholic Church has been too timid about converting Muslims. We quoted from the Corriere della Sera original on Sunday, but now the Catholic news agency Zenit has provided an English translation.

Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliReporting from Rome, the Paris daily Le Figaro had an interesting detail. It wrote on Monday that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and as such the Vatican’s point man for relations with Islam, had not been informed about the Allam baptism before it happened. If this is true, it suggests some behind-the-scenes Vatican politics on how to deal with Muslims. It would seem that Tauran should have been informed on a need-to-know basis — this is, after all, his area of responsibility — but somebody didn’t do it.

Saint Pius XII? Not so fast…

Andrea Tornielli’s book on Pius XII

During World War Two, Pope Pius XII was (1) a saintly man, (2) Hitler’s Pope or (3) neither of the above. This question continues to weigh on Catholic-Jewish relations despite all the progress made since the Second Vatican Council. It would be easy to assume that Catholics answer (1) and Jews (2), but the debate is far more complex than that. There are Catholics who say Pius didn’t do enough to help the Jews and Jews who defend him as doing everything he could under the circumstances.

The issue keeps smouldering because the Catholic Church is considering Pius for possible beatification and sainthood. The U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League has urged the Church to suspend the procedure until the Vatican declassifies all its wartime archives. The Vatican opened its archives up to 1939 — the end of the papacy of Pope Pius XI — in 2005, but it is still processing the files from Pope Pius XII’s papacy (1939-1958). In the meantime, the controversy has produced a steady stream of books on Pius XII and the Holocaust, only some of which are thumbnailed below.

Hitler’s Pope by John CornwellThe Defamation of Pius XII. By Ralph McInernyPope Benedict XVI has now slowed down the procedure by asking for a further review of the Pius XII dossier, which is 3,500 pages long. Andrea Tornielli, Vatican correspondent of the Italian daily Il Giornale, has reported that Benedict has also decided to set up a committee to review the issue and is concerned about the possible reaction if the Vatican beatified Pius XII too soon. Tornielli, whose fourth book about Pius XII was published in May, says Hitler, the War, and the Pope. By Ronald J. Rychlakthe pontiff was The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis. By Rabbi David G. Dalinnot a callous anti-Semite as some critics portray him.

Jewish author published in Vatican daily — more to come?

Any foreign correspondent who ever covered the old Soviet bloc remembers how the official press seemed to print only news-free communiques and bland official photos. Scanning newspapers like Pravda or Scînteia or Neues Deutschland, the skilled reader looked for subtle changes from the norm as hints of possible shifts in official thinking. Once a slight deviation was sighted, readers would watch to see if it was just a flash in the pan or whether it became a normal feature.

L’Osservatore Romano front page, Nov. 10, 2007That style of reading came to mind when L’Osservatore Romano published on Sunday what may be its first article ever by a Jewish writer. With its columns of papal speeches and discretion about internal Church issues, the Vatican daily has an unmistakable stylistic likeness to those old party organs. Not in content or purpose or inspiration, I hasten to add (hold the emails, I’m not saying the comparison goes that far). But as newspapers go, it’s as daunting as those other papers and its regular readers develop the same keen sense of small differences. So what does this change mean? Is the official voice of the Catholic Church opening up to views from other faiths? Will Muslims, Hindus or others follow?

The article was a review of a new book Brutti Ricordi (Ugly Memories), an Italian translation of two essays by Israeli academics Anita Shapira and Ephraim Kleiman on the departure of the Palestinians from Israel in 1948-1949 (review here in Italian). The author, Anna Foa, is a history professor at La Sapienza University in Rome. “The byline is not the only significant element,” writes veteran Vatican watcher Sandro Magister of L’Espresso magazine. It was also interesting, he said, that the book dealt with the dispute in Israel about whether the Palestinians left in 1948 “of their own will or were forcibly banished by the victorious Jews.”

Rapid change as Turkey strives to match Islam and democracy

President Abdullah Gul accompanied by Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit, August 31, 2007It is now clear that Turkey, a country to which Western visitors have often applied adjectives such as “timeless” and “slothful”, is changing profoundly, and with un-Oriental speed.

Anyone who’s been following the news out of Turkey this year has to nod in agreement when reading the lead to Christopher de Bellaigue’s interesting article in the New York Review of Books. It was only last April that the army issued a veiled threat to intervene if the governing AK party — usually called a “party with Islamist roots” — tried to overturn Turkey’s secular system.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan called their bluff and won a snap general election, allowing his AK partner Abdullah Gül to be elected president. The AK-led government now plans to replace the military-era constitution with a new document that will confirm “our democratic, secular and social state and guarantee basic rights and freedoms”, as Gül told parliament early this month.

Catholics, Orthodox tackle deepest differences very slowly

One of the fascinating aspects about reporting on religion is that the timeframes are far longer than most topics news agencies cover. Experts debate the fine points of little-known issues and progress can be slower than a snail’s pace. But it’s sometimes interesting to take a look at where they’re going.

A recent meeting of the International Mixed Commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in Ravenna, Italy ended with a short communique that said: “The theme of the next plenary session, the date and location of which are shortly to be decided, is: “The role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of the Church in the first millennium.” Pope Benedict also mentioned this last week in his audience but didn’t elaborate on it.

Pope Benedict and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul in November 2006Two participants at the talks have now fleshed that out a bit. These talks between the Vatican and the Orthodox churches, which broke from Rome and rejected the primacy or authority of the pope in the Great Schism of 1054, are now slowly getting down to discussing the crux of the problem. If Catholics and Orthodox are to achieve some kind of unity, something Pope Benedict has put high on his agenda, they have to figure out the role the pope would play.

Friedländer’s eloquent Holocaust non-speech in Frankfurt

Imagine you are a Jewish historian of the Holocaust. You are being awarded one of Germany’s most prestigious prizes. The ceremony is solemn, the audience filled with the great and the good. The three Germans speaking before you give lofty speeches praising you and your life’s work for recording and explaining what they must never forget. What kind of speech should you deliver?

saul-friedlaender.jpgSaul Friedländer found just the right tone on Sunday when he accepted the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt. He gave a non-speech. To be more precise, he broke with the tradition of long-winded oration at such ceremonies and simply read Holocaust- related documents from the early 1940s. But these were not just any documents. Friedländer, whose German- speaking Jewish family fled from their hometown of Prague to France in 1939, read letters telling how his parents tried and failed to escape the Nazis, but managed to save him.

One was a letter in 1942 from his mother to a French neighbour who helped hide her son from the Nazis by having him baptised and enrolled in a rural Catholic school . “If we perish, then we will have that one great joy to know our beloved child has been saved.” she wrote. His father wrote her a final letter after he and his wife were arrested following a failed attempt to escape to Switzerland. “I am writing this to you from the train taking us to Germany,” he wrote, “please accept for the last time our never-ending thanks.” He handed it to a Quaker group that waited in train stations to help deported Jews and they mailed it.

Rome is days ahead on 700-year-old Knights Templar story

In the competitive world of agency news, most Reuters correspondents are more than happy to file a breaking story a few minutes ahead of the competition. Our financial reporters sometimes win a beat of a second or less – and get kudos from their editors because even that can make a difference to clients. When it comes to religion, though, the time frame Parchment of replica document in which Pope Clement V absolved the Knights Templar of heresycan stretch out to eternity. Disputes that are centuries, even millennia old still influence things today.

Our veteran Vatican specialist Phil Pullella juggled these two approaches when he filed an exclusive story on a 700-year-old mystery several days before his rivals. Thanks to his excellent contacts there, Phil got the first look at a soon-to-be-published set of reproductions of documents from the trials against the legendary Knights Templar Christian military order from the era of the Crusades.

The lavish leather-cased set, which will cost 5,900 euros ($8,333) apiece, is not due to be presented to the public until October 25. Its faithfully reproduced documents show that the Templars, whose rise and fall have inspired writers for centuries right down to The Da Vinci Code, were absolved of the charges of heresy that led many members to be burned at the stake. Read the full story here.