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Vatican backpedals on reform while ‘good pope’ is on display

NCR Staff

Echoes of the Second Vatican Council filled Rome in early June as debate continued over the legacy of that 1960s reform council, especially its thrust towards more participatory governance of the Catholic Church.

In connection with the first public display of the body of John XXIII since his death in 1963, church officials heaped praise on the late pope and the council he convoked. They seemed less inclined, however, to alter structures that some critics say are impeding the council’s agenda.

On June 3, crowds filled St. Peter’s Square and, later, St. Peter’s Basilica to see the body of John XXIII, displayed in a glass coffin strewn with rose petals. His face and hands were coated with yellowish wax, giving the body an ethereal look. The pope was sporting his camauro, the slightly whimsical fur cap associated with medieval popes that John XXIII had brought back into use.

The body had been exhumed from a crypt below the basilica floor in January in preparation for a move upstairs to the altar of St. Jerome. The new location is intended to facilitate the flow of visitors.

When the pope’s casket was opened in January the body was found intact, owing to chemical preservation methods used in 1963.

While some found the display a bit macabre, many visitors were clearly moved, with some weeping and some praying intently. An estimated 30,000 people came to the square for a Sunday morning Mass celebrated by John Paul II. That afternoon, throngs crowded the basilica for a fleeting glance at the body while ushers continually cried out avanti, Italian for “move on.”

Unlike many events on a large scale that happen at St. Peter’s, this was not a “manufactured” crowd. No group or religious community had worked to ensure a turnout. It was instead a spontaneous assembly of devotees of “Good Pope John,” mainly Italians, many of whom made last-minute decisions to come, since the Vatican had done little to promote the event.

It was clear that John Paul II wanted to pay tribute to his predecessor, remarking that his most precious gift to the church had been “himself” and “his testimony of sanctity.”

At the same time, however, a not-too-subtle effort at spin control was underway, as both the pope and his handlers used the occasion to assert a basic continuity between Pope John’s council and the policies of this pontificate. John Paul II linked Vatican II with both the Great Jubilee Year of 2000 and also the extraordinary consistory, or meeting, of cardinals held May 21-24 in Rome.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) is known for having opened the Catholic church to the modern world, as well for attempted reforms in the church in the direction of more local decision-making. Some analysts believe this latter impulse has been largely arrested under the centralizing papacy of John Paul II.

The theme of continuity, however, was repeated on the cover of the next morning’s L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, under the headline, “Blessed John XXIII, Vatican Council II, Pope John Paul II, The Grand Jubilee, the Third Millennium: The Singular Pentecost of 2001.” The suggestion seemed to be that one could draw a straight line from Vatican II through the Jubilee and John Paul.

Yet at the very consistory mentioned by the pope, some cardinals complained that Vatican II’s aim of decentralizing power and involving bishops in governance has been stifled. Many called for reforms in the synod, the organ created after the council to give the bishops a voice at the universal level.

At a June 1 news conference, Cardinal Jan Schotte, the Vatican official who runs the synod, largely dismissed those calls for reform.

It is “easy to say we need to re-do the synod,” Schotte said. “But I ask: In which part do you make it more efficient?” In response to proposals that he lighten up on time limits for speakers, Schotte said “certain prima donnas” would dominate the floor. As to whether more time for unscripted exchanges in small groups would be helpful, Schotte said that when extra days are allowed for this purpose bishops don’t use them.

Schotte bristled at suggestions that he relax secrecy. He insisted the press is already given plenty of material in daily briefings and bulletins in five different languages. “Journalists do not have an absolute right to information,” he said.

A reporter proposed that a live closed-circuit television feed from the synod hall be made available to the press, on the argument that the discussions concern all the members of the church. Schotte snapped that “even in board meetings at Coca-Cola” this doesn’t happen, prompting one veteran Italian journalist at the news conference to shout, “the church is not Coca-Cola.”

Schotte said that some bishops have told him they would not talk if everything they want to say to the pope will be reported.

Schotte added that “collegiality,” a term that in Catholic parlance refers to shared authority among the pope and the bishops, is “difficult to define,” and that “in the strict sense” only an ecumenical council can be “collegial.” Other organs, such as synods, are “only expressions of collegiality.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001