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A shadow over the papal trip


Ironically enough, a moment during the May 22-26 papal visit to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria has much to say about the current state of affairs in the American Catholic church.

Midway through the journey, Cardinal Walter Kasper, an impressive and charismatic German who runs the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, entered the press center in Sofia, Bulgaria, for an interview with German TV. (Kasper was part of the papal entourage.) Afterward other journalists grabbed a few moments of his time.

Europeans asked Kasper about relations between the divided Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, the pope’s role as an agent of political integration, and John Paul’s frail health.

The Americans, on the other hand, had another agenda: the sex scandal. How aware was the pope of the furor surrounding Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee? What was the Vatican hoping for from the June meeting of the U.S. bishops? What mistakes should the Americans avoid?

Kasper told us only that he was praying for the American church and its bishops, and that he was sure they would find the right solutions.

We were doing our job, as we had been over the previous 24 hours as we sought comment on the American situation from Vatican officials as well as from our Bulgarian Orthodox hosts. (One American reporter asked an Orthodox monk if the scandal was divine chastisement for the heresies of Western Christianity. The monk was gracious enough to say no.)

The sexual abuse crisis is the central religion story in the United States, and our editors would have been furious had we not played out the angle. Moreover, the reporting is necessary. Without it, the behaviors American Catholics find so repugnant -- the sexual abuse itself, and the negligent response from some bishops -- might continue indefinitely.

Yet I felt embarrassed and angry that the long arm of the scandal had cast a shadow even here.

On May 24, I traveled to the Holy Monastery of St. John Rila, considered the spiritual heart of Bulgaria and one of the cradles of Slavic Christianity. It is an extraordinarily beautiful, evocative place, and it prompted the pope’s best speech of the trip. It was a lengthy meditation on Eastern monasticism.

The division of the church between East and West reaches back more than 1,000 years, yet it is as current as today’s headlines. If one wants to explain why much of Eastern Europe still smolders with resentment over the NATO bombing in Serbia, for example, the religious divide is part of that picture.

John Paul is pouring his last, best parcels of energy into promoting reunion. It is thus far a campaign with little to show, but for Christians who see division as a contradiction of the spirit of Jesus, it is profoundly important. A small knot of people who gathered outside the palace of Orthodox Patriarch Maxim crying “Unity! Unity!” when the pope arrived, underlined the point.

There were other storylines. In Azerbaijan, the pope for the first time visited a majority Shi’ite Muslim nation, one with a history of religious tolerance. It was a chance to show another face of Islam to the world. The visit was also an invitation to evaluate the state of the former Soviet empire a decade after the empire’s disintegration.

Little of that, however, penetrated the U.S. media. One colleague at an American TV network filed a package of two minutes and nine seconds, and was upbraided for taking up too much time.

I wonder if the U.S. bishops realize how much their collective negligence has made it impossible for the pope to communicate his agenda to the U.S. public.

Are we in the media partly to blame? Yes. We sometimes fall victim to a quasi-obsessive focus on sex and scandal. But the bishops could have cut the story short with more responsible handling of these cases, and with more decisive action when the scandals first broke. Instead we lurch from one revelation to another, lacking leadership to move us forward.

Hence the American press is reduced to asking Cardinal Walter Kasper, in Bulgaria of all places, questions that should have no place here. I pray that after the American bishops meet in Dallas in June, I won’t find myself asking the same questions in July when I follow the pope to Canada for World Youth Day.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2002