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Prayer, Protest

NCR Staff

Pope John Paul II has never been the type to dream small dreams, and in some ways the Great Jubilee Year of 2000, which he officially closed on Jan. 6, 2001, was the most audacious dream of all. To mark this 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus, the pope, in an agenda laid out in 1994’s Tertio Millennio Adveniente, aimed to do no less than reinvigorate Christian “faith and witness” by “purifying” the memory of the church and ushering in a new age of unity.

After 379 days of intense Jubilee activity, opinions seem divided as to how far the year carried the Catholic church and the world toward those lofty goals. Some believe a spiritual renewal was launched that will bear fruit in years to come, while others say a bundle of controversial Vatican moves all but eviscerated the pope’s vision.

If the year did not achieve the pope’s goals, it was not for lack of trying. John Paul and his lieutenants -- principally French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who headed the Jubilee effort, and Italian Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, his aide credited with most of the logistical work -- crafted the most intense Holy Year calendar since Boniface VIII called the first Jubilee in 1300.

There were 34 major events, starting with the opening of the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 24, 1999, and ending with its closing Jan. 6, 2001. In between were dozens of Jubilee-related gatherings big and small, ranging from the dignified (Jubilee of the World’s Parliamentarians in early November) to the whimsical (Jubilee of Pizza Chefs in October).

Some 24 million pilgrims, according to Vatican officials, came to Rome specifically for the Jubilee Year, and 1.5 million attended general audiences with the pope. The number of visitors was 7 million more than the previous year, officials said.

Holy Week and Easter services were the best-attended events, with 340,000 participants. Nearly as many, 300,000, joined in a Jubilee for Workers on May 1. Other big draws included the Jubilee for Families on Oct. 15, with 200,000 participants, and a World Missionary Congress and a Jubilee for Agricultural Workers, both held last fall, at 100,000 each.

The calendar’s logic, according to officials, started with Vatican departments organizing an event in their area of expertise. Hence the Pontifical Council for the Laity hosted a Jubilee for the Apostolate of the Laity in November, which included a gathering with the pope in St. Peter’s Square as well as an international conference spanning several days. The Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care hosted a Jubilee for the Sick and Health Care Workers in February that likewise included a conference.

Beyond these larger events, were scores of Jubilee festivities for smaller groups, including fire fighters, motorcycle riders, fashion designers, and employees of the Italian state TV network.

Though officials say every effort was made to accommodate groups that requested events, the choices were at times controversial. The Vatican quietly allowed followers of the schismatic, pro-Latin Mass St. Pius X society, for example, to stage a prayer service in St. Peter’s Basilica Aug. 8, but refused permission for a group of conscientious objectors to be received alongside soldiers and policemen in mid-November.

World Youth Day high point

In terms of both numbers and energy, the high-water mark came in mid-August with World Youth Day, which brought some 2 million young pilgrims to Rome for a week of prayer and play quickly dubbed a “Catholic Woodstock.”

The year’s impact in Rome was frequently overwhelming. The daily throngs of pilgrims in color-coded hats and scarves; the weekly TV spectacles; the overloaded buses, restaurants, and museums; the stream of references to the Jubilee in the political and cultural life of Italy; all induced what many Romans ended up calling “Jubilee fatigue.” In early January, one local paper published an insert with the headline: “It’s finally over!” No further explanation was needed to capture the sense of exhaustion and relief that many in the city felt.

The pope delivered more of the bravura symbolic gestures that have become his trademark. They included a spring pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he left behind a note of regret for the suffering of Jews in Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, and a March 12 Liturgy of Pardon in St. Peter’s Square, where he apologized for abuses of the faith by the faithful. In early September, the pope beatified Pope John XXIII, whose decision to convene the Second Vatican Council (1964-65) in a spirit of aggiornamento has made him an icon of a Catholicism with a loving, world-embracing spirit.

John Paul’s desire was that the Jubilee be experienced in local churches, too, and there were moments when such a spirit seemed to stir. When the pope made his historic apology, for example, several church local leaders followed suit, including, in prominent fashion, Cardinals Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Bernard Law of Boston. Yet most observers said the Jubilee was only sporadically noticeable at the local level; the show, most people concede, was decidedly in Rome.

The Vatican’s Jubilee office told NCR in late December that there was no estimate of cost for the Holy Year, saying it was a “fluid situation” with bills yet to be paid. When everything is added up, the total will certainly be in the tens, perhaps in the hundreds, of millions of dollars. Opening ceremonies in December 1999 cost an estimated $3 million, funded in that case by state-run and private television networks in Italy. World Youth Day, according to church officials, cost the Vatican $23 million, apart from expenses by other agencies and the city of Rome. As a measure of what such an event actually costs, organizers of the next World Youth Day in Toronto say they will have to raise as much as $100 million to put it on.

John Paul himself clearly regards the expenses, whatever they end up being, as justified. In his Angelus remarks for New Year’s Eve, the pope said it has been, “Certainly a singular year, because it was the year of the Great Jubilee, in which we have found in so many men and women signs of good will, as indeed an authentic desire for reconciliation with God and with their brothers.”

As NCR went to press, the pope was set to issue a document expressing his personal reflections on the year.

Normal Vatican work

Yet there was more to the Jubilee, and to the way it was received by people around the world, than one finds on the official calendar. As the Holy Year unfolded, the normal work of the Vatican continued apace, and some observers believe the two did not always sit well together.

The Vatican offered a pugnacious response, for example, to the July Gay Pride celebration in Rome, which included the pope referring to the presence of tens of thousands of homosexuals as an “insult” to the “Christian values” of Rome. The Vatican went ahead with a bitterly contested Sept. 3 beatification of Pope Pius IX, despite vigorous protest from Jews, many Italians, and Catholics worldwide. Pius is controversial not only for pushing through the 1870 declaration of papal infallibility at Vatican I, but also for his belligerent relationship with Italy’s Jewish community and his opposition to the values of secular democracies.

On Sept. 5, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope’s powerful doctrinal enforcer, released Dominus Iesus, insisting that God is revealed in a satisfactory way only through Christianity. Though less prominent in the media, other Vatican documents reasserted in equally strident tones opposition to divorce, premarital cohabitation, birth control and same-sex marriage. New rules for celebration of the Mass released in July struck some as a return to more traditional, clerical liturgies.

Italian cardinals and Vatican officials joined voices in the fall in calling for a clampdown on Muslim immigration, seeming to some to undercut the pope’s words about tolerance and welcome. John Paul earned a distinction he surely did not desire on Dec. 16, when he became the first pope in the modern era to be the object of a riot. The violence erupted near St. Peter’s, triggered by his welcome of Austrian ultra-rightist Jörg Haider.

The year’s final act, the closing of the Holy Door in St. Peter’s, added another note of controversy. A group of 24 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Christians from the United States, mostly Catholics, staged four days of protest at the Vatican leading up to a ceremony. (See related article.) As NCR went to press, the group was planning to attempt a demonstration inside St. Peter’s Square after the Jan. 6 papal Mass in order to oppose what they called the “suffering” imposed on homosexuals by church teaching.

“The closing of the door is a great symbol for us,” said Anglican Rev. Mel White, the group’s organizer, “because the church has closed doors on us for centuries.”

Thus, in retrospect, this “Holy Year” was marked as often by strife as by sanctity.

Despite those flashpoints, some observers say the year came fairly close to realizing the pope’s big dreams. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver told NCR via e-mail that he believes the Jubilee was “enormously successful,” but cautioned that “we shouldn’t waste much time trying to measure it statistically.”

His point of reference, he said, is Denver’s own World Youth Day gathering, held in 1993. The positive effects of that event, according to Chaput, are being felt seven years later, even some that were not evident at the time.

“Immediate results, even when they’re good, are the least important fruit,” Chaput said. “How can anyone statistically measure the success of the cross or Pentecost or World Youth Day or the Jubilee in the short run? In eight or 10 years -- that’s when the real seeds will start to show.”

Others were less optimistic.

‘Lost opportunity’

According to Fr. John Gurrieri, former chief liturgist for the U.S. bishops’ conference, the Jubilee was a “lost opportunity.” The pope’s visionary aim for a year of spiritual uplift was undercut, Gurrieri said, by the Vatican’s conservative policies.

“The church has given in to a very small, vocal, extreme, and wealthy right wing that borders on ecclesiastical fascism, to the detriment of faithful lay Catholics and priests of my generation who have faithfully and correctly implemented the reforms of Vatican II. Now we have been marginalized and demonized for obeying the church!” Gurrieri said.

“That’s my sad estimation of the Jubilee year,” he said.

One practical success mentioned by several observers was increased public attention to the debt crisis in the Third World. When President Clinton signed a $435 million debt relief bill into law on Nov. 6, for example, he credited John Paul II’s request for forgiveness of debts in the Jubilee spirit with helping to make progress possible.

Fr. Robert Sirico, who directs the pro-free market Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich., echoed that reading.

“As a result of numerous homilies, apostolic letters and speeches, the Holy Father has caused this to become a central moral issue internationally,” Sirico told NCR. “International agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which once had free reign to impose central plans on reluctant nations, must now tread more lightly, and they must deal with prominent moral objections.”

Yet some observers felt that whatever spiritual capital the pope gained by defending the poor was squandered on other moves seen as insensitive and antagonistic, such as the Vatican document Dominus Iesus.

“It is of political and spiritual significance that the Holy Year was chosen to reiterate a doctrine, that the Roman church is really the only true one, which many thought and hoped had gone into disuse,” said James Walston, a professor of political science at the American University in Rome.

Rosemary Radford Ruether, feminist theologian and NCR columnist, also cited Dominus Iesus as a blot on the year’s balance sheet.

It “was a major setback to ecumenical relations,” Radford said. “It deeply chills my work in Buddhist-Christian, Jewish-Christian and Muslim Christian dialogue.”

On a local level, some observers said the Jubilee gave new life to parishes and dioceses. Fr. John Jay Hughes, a St. Louis priest and church historian, was impressed with the success of a carefully prepared Reconciliation Weekend in St. Louis inaugurating the Holy Year in November 1999.

“In a diocese of 530,000 Catholics, over 30,000 came to confession -- some of them for the first time in decades,” Hughes said.

Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley of Yale agreed that in some settings the year had a positive impact.

“Many parishes have used Jubilee themes -- and the materials made available through the U.S. bishops’ conference -- for some marvelous ongoing parish formation, adult and child education, action for justice, deepening of people’s spiritual lives,” Farley told NCR.

Other American observers, however, found less to praise.

“I have to say that in the parish I have been involved in, the Jubilee has meant about zero,” said Capuchin Fr. Ed Foley of Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. “The only time it came up is when they were pushing free spaces on a bus to go to Soldier’s Field for the big outdoor Mass with the cardinal. Though mentioned from time to time, I think the Jubilee basically had no impact on the ordinary Roman Catholic,” he said.

The poor still struggle

Fr. John Prior, an English missionary with 27 years of experience in Indonesia, said the Jubilee’s impact on the Third World was minimal.

“The Indonesia church is divided between 51 percent who are super-rich, live in the cities of Java and mainly belong to the Chinese-Indonesian minority,” he said. “For many of them, the Jubilee has been a ‘pilgrimage’ year, meaning expensive journeys, both domestic and international, with loads of devotion but no obvious social message.

“Meanwhile, the other 49 percent are tribal and generally poor, living at the edges of the cities or in the outer islands. I am not aware that the Jubilee has meant much for them,” Prior told NCR. He said most of these poorer Indonesian Catholics spent the year “struggling, unaware of the Jubilee message.”

Alberto Melloni, an Italian church historian who worked on the official Vatican biography for the beatification of John XXIII, said that on balance he sees a Jubilee year full of contradictions.

John Paul II often spoke through “gestures” of peace and reconciliation, Melloni said, such as his moment of silence at the Wailing Wall, but his “words remained in many situations the words of Ratzinger.”

Melloni said he believes the papal gestures, which hint at a more open and positive approach, represent the future toward which Catholicism is moving. Yet he understands those who see “the church speaking with a very limited language of condemnations” and the Jubilee itself largely “as a machine of money and power.”

Sacred Heart Fr. Paul Collins, an Australian church historian currently under Vatican investigation, saw a potential moment of healing that slipped away.

“This was a wonderful opportunity for Catholics on different sides of the ideological divide to begin to talk to each other again, for excommunications and canonical sanctions to be lifted, for sins to be forgiven,” he said.

“Of course, nothing of the sort happened. That would be asking for imagination and trust. Unfortunately these realities seem to be in short supply in the contemporary Vatican.”

Perhaps the most guarded analysis came from American Catholic writer Russell Shaw.

“The Jubilee defies evaluating,” Shaw said. “The overarching purpose evidently was to refocus attention on Jesus Christ in order to launch a new evangelizing thrust. Will the new evangelization now take place? I have no idea.

“To a great extent, whether it does or doesn’t depends on what now happens, or doesn’t happen, in the local churches. In the U.S., ecclesiastical inertia is very powerful, and I don’t know how or whether it can be overcome. Celebration of the Jubilee appeared to be pretty perfunctory in many places, and there’s an obvious tendency to say, ‘We’ve done the Jubilee -- now let’s get back to business as usual.’ That’s happened before in response to other big events, and it could happen again this time.

“A pity if it does.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, January 12, 2001