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Poetic justice and ‘Marian indigestion’


As a reporter whose beat is the Catholic church, I spend more than my fair share of time waiting for bishops -- waiting for them to return phone calls, to make decisions, to issue statements. Hence the scene last Saturd ay at Roberto’s, a Roman restaurant at which my wife and I are regulars, offered what I can only consider poetic justice.

We arrived for lunch at noon, as only Americans do here, and had no trouble being seated. By the time we finished our meal, dozens of bishops waiting for a table had lined up in clusters up and down the Borgo Pio, the street that runs in front of the restaurant. They had come to town for the Oct. 6-8 Jubilee of Bishops, which brought 1,600 prelates to Rome. It was the largest such gathering since Vatican II.

With several hours on their hands before the afternoon’s main event -- a rosary with the pope -- many of them had obviously decided to dine out. I admit to lingering, ordering more wine and having dessert, simply to exult in the “last shall be first” flavor of the moment.

As for the Jubilee itself, it could be viewed as a smashing success or as a huge waste of money, depending on one’s point of view. It isn’t inexpensive to bring 1,600 bishops and their respective entourages to Rome. Highlights of the event were ceremonial, centered on the Madonna of Fátima, whose statue was flown in from Portugal. As is well known, John Paul II has an enormous personal devotion to the Virgin of Fátima. The bullet removed from his body after the 1981 assassination attempt is now set in the Madonna’s crown, and a ring once given to the pope by his mentor, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, dangles from her rosary. This past May, the pope authorized release of the long-awaited “third secret” of Fátima, a prophecy about a bishop in white falling under gunfire, which John Paul assumed to be a reference to himself.

On Saturday afternoon, bishops gathered with the pope in St. Peter’s Square to pray the rosary before the Madonna. During the praying of the fifth decade of the rosary, Italian state TV piped in a live satellite feed of Sr. Lucia dos Santos, the last surviving Fátima visionary, leading the nuns in prayer at her Carmelite cloister in Coimba, Portugal.

On Sunday came the “entrustment” of the entire world to the Virgin, performed by the pope in concert with the bishops. Vatican officials were quick to point out this was not a “consecration” of the world to Mary, which was performed by the pope in March 1984 in keeping with one of the Fátima prophecies, and accepted as legitimate by Sr. Lucia. (Some Fátima devotees, however, believe the act was not done correctly, and a “great chastisement” awaits the earth if a proper consecration does not happen soon.)

At the end of Sunday’s ceremony, the Fátima statue was carried in procession around the square while the crowd cheered, waved white bandanas, and sang “Ave Maria.” The statue ended up at Mater Ecclesiae, a tiny monastery on the Vatican grounds, before its journey back to Portugal.

Some thought the Jubilee was a grand occasion. Archbishop Ivan Dias of Bombay, India, speaking at an Oct. 10 news conference, said the event was a wonderful demonstration of unity, both liturgically and doctrinally. Others, however, saw it differently.

A base community of progressive Catholics in Pinerolo, near Turin, Italy, distributed a statement in which members claimed to be suffering from “Marian indigestion.”

“Aren’t these forms of papolatry and Mariolatry true and proper cults?” the community wondered. “Aren’t we looking at a pagan liturgy with a Christian coat of paint?” They suggested that if the historical Mary were to appear in St. Peter’s, she would be the first to be scandalized.

For bishops who wanted to do some work while in Rome, the Legionaries of Christ offered an option. The conservative international organization sponsored a voluntary conference Oct. 9-11 at its Regina Apostolorum campus to prepare for next year’s Synod of Bishops. The synod, set for Oct. 2001, will focus on the bishop’s role in the church.

From what Archbishop Francesco Monterisi, secretary of the Congregation for Bishops, said at an Oct. 10 news conference, two points about that synod seem clear. One is that evangelization will be a key theme. The other is that changes in the synod structure toward greater collegiality and freedom of speech are long shots.

In response to a question about criticisms of the synod advanced by Milan’s Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Monterisi said he has not experienced any lack of liberty or collegiality himself.

Perhaps I’ll have a chance to find out what other bishops think about that when I see them next October outside Roberto’s.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, October 20, 2000