National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  June 18, 2004

Pope meets Bush, Swiss youth

Talk of Iraq with U.S. leader; visit to ailing local church

Rome/Bern, Switzerland

Even by papal standards, John Paul II had a big weekend June 4-6. First came a high-profile meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Rome, then the pope’s first foreign trip in seven months, to Bern, Switzerland, where he tried to invigorate a local church that seems to be on life support.

In both cases, how things went depends in part on whom you ask.

Was the Bush meeting, for instance, a cordial session that produced a meeting of minds on Iraq, as both the White House and the Vatican spokesperson would have it? Or was it, as the Manchester Guardian described the same event, a papal “tongue-lashing” of Bush on foreign policy?

The truth is probably somewhere in between.

The atmospherics between Bush and John Paul II were indeed warm. Bush presented the pope with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the U.S. government, calling him a “hero of our time.”

“I bring greetings from our country where you are respected, admired and greatly loved,” Bush told the pope. “I also bring a message from my government that says to you, sir, that we will work for human liberty and human dignity in order to spread peace and compassion. We appreciate the strong symbol of freedom that you have stood for and we recognize the power of freedom to change societies and to change the world.”

John Paul II in turn expressed “great appreciation” for Bush’s efforts to promote moral values in the United States, including “respect for life and the family.”

Afterward, Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls stressed that John Paul and Bush agreed on the course forward in Iraq, involving a transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis and a more robust role for the United Nations.

Yet John Paul also reminded Bush of the Vatican’s opposition to the Iraq war.

“Your visit to Rome takes place at a moment of great concern for the continuing situation of grave unrest in the Middle East, both in Iraq and in the Holy Land,” the pope told Bush. “You are very familiar with the unequivocal position of the Holy See in this regard.”

John Paul appeared to make reference to the prisoner abuse scandal.

“In the past few weeks other deplorable events have come to light which have troubled the civic and religious conscience of all, and made more difficult a serene and resolute commitment to shared human values,” the pope said. “In the absence of such a commitment neither war nor terrorism will ever be overcome.”

The pope urged Bush to pursue “deeper and fuller understanding between the United States and Europe.”

Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Chief of Staff Andrew Card and U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson also met with the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, along with other Vatican officials.

In Switzerland, John Paul II visited a local church that, at least judging by external standards, looks like a shell of its former self.

Switzerland has a rich Catholic past, centered on its famous monastic foundations such as the Abbeys of St. Gall and Einsiedeln. Despite the impact of the Protestant Reformation, 44 percent of the 7.3 million Swiss are still Catholic. Secularization, however, has taken a heavy toll. Nationwide, weekly attendance rates for religious services hover around 16 percent, with lower numbers in urban areas. Vocations are scarce, and the Swiss Catholic church seems to have little public influence. Just two days ahead of the pope’s visit, for example, the national parliament in Bern approved a bill for civil registration of same-sex unions.

There is an anticlerical streak that translated into widespread indifference and, in a few cases, opposition to the papal visit. On the streets of Bern, a small group of young radicals staged a rally the night before the pope arrived, chanting “To the devil with the pope.” As John Paul was getting ready for Saturday’s youth rally, local college students were wandering the downtown area handing out tracts against Opus Dei, as well as condoms bearing the label “Protect yourself … the pope won’t do it.”

Most people, however, professed disinterest. Indeed, just a few feet away from Bern’s Expo Center, it was hard to detect any signs of the pope’s presence.

There is also wide unrest within the Catholic population. In May, on the occasion of the pope’s 84th birthday, 40 prominent Swiss Catholics signed a public letter calling upon him to resign. A recent opinion poll for the Herbert Haag Foundation found that 90 percent of Swiss Catholics support intercommunion with Protestants, something the pope has opposed. Some 89 percent backed optional celibacy for priests, 76 percent want women priests, and 65 percent want dioceses to elect their own bishops.

In this context, the pope’s primary mission appeared to be to rally the Swiss church’s base of support among the young.

A wildly enthusiastic crowd of 13,000 young people greeted the pope at Bern’s Ice Palace, normally a hockey rink, on Saturday evening. When the pope appeared on stage at 6:12 p.m., the crowd exploded as if the Swiss team had just scored the game-winning goal in the Olympic hockey finals and sustained a deafening roar for a full 10 minutes.

A few moments later, the pope began his speech and appeared to be incapable of carrying on, breathing heavily. When an aide tried to take his papers, however, John Paul slapped him away, triggering another full-throated roar that shook the rafters.

Throughout the trip, John Paul appeared sluggish and tired, but he finished all his speeches and maintained all his public engagements.

“I, too, like you, was once 20 years old,” the pope told the youth gathering, which included not just Swiss but Poles, Croats, Austrians, Spaniards, and a number of other nationalities.

“I liked to play sports, to ski, to act. I studied and I worked. I had desires and worries. In those years that are now far away, in times in which my homeland was wounded first by war and then by a totalitarian regime, I was searching for the sense to give to my life.

“I found it,” he said, “in following the Lord Jesus.”

The crowd hung on the pope’s every phrase. They sang, they danced, they did the wave, and for a few moments the ennui of centuries of history seemed to lift. Swiss Catholicism felt young.

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

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: