National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 31, 2003

A tapestry depicting Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta hangs from the facade of St. Peter's Basilica during her beatification ceremony Oct. 19 at the Vatican.
-- CNS/Reuters
Media frenzy descends on Vatican

Ailing pope, Mother Teresa beatification, new cardinals draw world attention


In a week in which the world’s media descended on Rome with a frenzy not seen since the election of Pope John Paul II 25 years ago, one story dominated the news: Whether the 83-year-old pontiff’s silver jubilee was also his swan song.

The pope’s obvious physical deterioration generated alarm, with some cardinals wondering how incapacitated John Paul could become while still remaining in office, and others for the first time thinking aloud about the conclave that will choose his successor.

On the other hand, John Paul has a history of outliving predictions of his demise, and observers cautioned that it may yet be premature to begin lowering the curtain on his storied pontificate.

John Paul’s October marathon continued with two mega-events: the Oct. 19 beatification of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, which drew some 300,000 pilgrims to St. Peter’s Square; and the Oct. 21 consistory that added 31 new members to the College of Cardinals. One of those cardinals was created in pectore, meaning in secret, a custom normally employed when a cardinal is in a delicate political or cultural situation.

Taken in combination with the Oct. 16 anniversary Mass, the intense media interest arguably meant that Catholic liturgy drew more airtime this week than at virtually any other period in the history of commercial television.

In between, the pope addressed a three-day gathering of cardinals held to discuss the legacy of his 25-year papacy.

The events came amid a round of celebrations tied to the 25th anniversary of John Paul’s election Oct. 16, only the third time the Catholic church has marked a pope’s silver jubilee. The pope met Oct. 20 with pilgrims in Rome to mark the beatification of Mother Teresa, then led the consistory Oct. 21 and the traditional ring Mass Oct. 22.

Although John Paul kept all the appointments, he appeared increasingly weak and fatigued. During the Oct. 19 beatification ceremony, for example, the pope did not manage to read even a single line of his homily. Several times throughout the week, John Paul started off a ceremony with a strong voice that quickly became raspy and weak, and at times he seemed to struggle to breathe.

During the consistory, the pope once again passed on reading his homily, and also did not personally hand the new cardinals their zuchettos and birettas, the “red hats” symbolizing their office.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago told NCR that he had not seen the pope in six or seven months, and was “startled” by the deterioration he found.

Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier of Durban, South Africa, agreed in an interview with CNN and NCR.

“The pope’s health is clearly a concern,” Napier said. “We all have to keep that at the back of our minds, that we might soon face the awesome responsibility of choosing a pope.”

In a reminder, however, that John Paul’s physical appearance does not always convey his interior state, George told NCR that the pope had personally written his homily for the Oct. 21 consistory, even though it was read aloud by Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the sostituto, meaning the Vatican’s interior minister.

“It sounded like John Paul’s style, and so I confirmed that he wrote it himself,” George said. “He wrote it out in Polish in his own hand.”

In the homily, the pope pointedly warned the new cardinals to avoid temptations of careerism, urging them “to die to yourselves to make yourself humble servants who ask nothing of their brothers, fleeing from every temptation of career and personal gain.”

Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, struck an optimistic note about the pope’s health in response to an NCR question Oct. 21.

“His life has been full of surprises, and he may well have a surprise in store for us yet,” Pell said.

Nevertheless, concerns over the pope’s weakened state dominated the week.

Two cardinals, Jose Saraiva Martins of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and Mario Francesco Pompedda of the Apostolic Signatura, argued that even if the pope loses his ability to speak, he could still signal his wishes in writing, and thus could continue as head of the church.

Cardinal Jorge Mejia, the Vatican librarian, countered in an interview with the Argentine daily La Nación that if the pope can’t speak then he can’t celebrate Mass, and that raises questions about his capacity to provide spiritual leadership.

Meanwhile George, in an exclusive Oct. 19 interview with NCR, said that the pope’s deterioration cannot help but invite reflection on a future conclave.

“It’s not exactly disloyal to be talking about this, when the pope himself recently wrote a poem about the next conclave,” George said, referring to a recent volume of papal poetry titled Roman Triptych. “I see it as important that I not just pray about it, but also think about it.”

On Oct. 21, John Paul added 31 new men to the roster of those who will be doing this praying and thinking, bringing the total membership of the College of Cardinals to 197, and the number of voting age cardinals to 135. (On Oct. 25, the number dropped to 134 as Cardinal Achille Silvestrini turned 80.)

Most observers felt that the new crop does not dramatically change the dynamics of the College of Cardinals, nor does it produce any obvious new papabile, or candidate to be the next pope.

The three-day, closed-door meeting of cardinals that preceded the consistory drew mixed reviews. George praised it as “like a retreat,” while Napier said there was too much “input, input, input,” without any time for discussion or reaction.

Six cardinals presented papers summarizing various aspects of John Paul’s pontificate, with the pope addressing the group at the end.

The beatification ceremony on Oct. 19 unfolded against the backdrop of a gorgeous Sunday morning. The two-hour ceremony, which coincided with the Catholic church’s World Mission Sunday, featured Indian music and dance. Thousands of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity filled St. Peter’s Square for the occasion, along with 2,000 Roman poor who were invited to a special lunch in the Paul VI audience hall afterward.

John Paul referred to Mother Teresa as a “little courageous woman, whom I always felt near me.”

For Jim Towey, head of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for the Bush administration and a former volunteer for Mother Teresa, the beatification had special significance.

“She was the most Mary-like person since Mary,” Towey told NCR in an Oct. 18 interview. “She was a ‘yes’ in every sense of the word.”

Towey provided free legal assistance to Mother Teresa, including helping her protect the use of her name in the United States against such commercial exploitation as the “nun bun” -- a cinnamon bun that allegedly bore her likeness, which was marketed under the phrase “the immaculate confection.”

Towey, who spent many hours with Mother Teresa, said she was not a “plastic saint.”

“She loved to laugh, she missed her friends, and she could get mad,” he said.

Towey was part of a 14-member official United States delegation to the anniversary celebration and the beatification, appointed by President George Bush. The group was headed by Columba Bush, wife of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and included Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard University; Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine; and Peggy Noonan, a conservative author and columnist.

Noonan presented a film dedicated to Mother Teresa at a Vatican showing the evening of Oct. 19. She said the beatification honored two saints -- Mother Teresa, and “the gentleman saint who was giving the Mass, John Paul the Great.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003

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