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Issue Date:  April 29, 2005

From the Editor's Desk

A conclave evening with Tissa

It was only in hindsight that I could recognize the delightful irony in the meeting I had in Rome the night before Pope Benedict XVI was elected. It was the kind of irony that could manifest itself only in Rome during a papal conclave.

The transition from one pope to the next was one reason that Sri Lankan theologian Fr. Tissa Balasuriya was in town. He had spoken at a We Are Church gathering earlier in the week, one of a series of mini lectures the group sponsored over a three-day period.

But this night, he had invited me to meet with a group of young Italians at a free-trade store they managed and maintained mostly on a volunteer basis. Many in this group of seven or eight mostly 30-somethings work in nongovernmental organizations. Several graciously accommodated my lack of Italian and in English explained that the projects in which they were involved included a water storage system in Tissa’s town, as well as a program to “adopt” children whose homes had been destroyed by the December tsunami.

The evening provided a refreshing break from the nonstop focus on the Vatican and what was happening behind closed doors. What these folks were doing owed nothing to institutional intrigue and everything to lively consciences and a deep sense of compassion.

Someone told me that one of the group’s members, Riccardo Troisi, had recently married and that he and his new wife, instead of accepting wedding gifts, had asked their guests to contribute to Tissa’s water project and donated thousands to the cause.

Tissa sat in the meeting, at one point eating a free-trade cookie, like the group’s grandfather. And that’s how they seemed to relate to him.

He is a gentle man, soft-spoken, with huge ideas and even bigger questions. He has a quick smile and a light in his eyes, and at 80 years old, he said, an ambition to “say the things I think I need to say while I still have the time.”

The irony, of course, has to do with Tissa’s past spats with Rome. He was excommunicated in 1997, but reinstated a year later, after detailed negotiations between his religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger oversaw.

This night, Troisi, head of Pax Christi Rome, eventually showed up and fondly needled Tissa, saying the new pope would be Ratzinger. The next day, of course, the joke turned out to have a serious punch line.

~ ~ ~

If you’re wondering how John Allen managed to be before the cameras of CNN for hours on end and still write a daily dispatch for the NCR Web site, you’re not alone. During the period of John Paul II’s funeral, he had to rent an extra cell phone dedicated to taking calls from his wife, Shannon (who by the way is, herself, a font of information about cardinals), and a few colleagues. We wondered how he got any sleep.

Despite the deep contacts he has at the Vatican, conclaves remain really secret events, so even John was surprised when Ratzinger emerged as the pope in less than two full days of balloting. Within hours, he wrote, “Hero of church’s conservative wing becomes Pope Benedict XVI” for the Web site and, two days later, filed for the paper the 3,500-word assessment of the conclave and the prospects for a Ratzinger papacy. Allen, of course, had a jump on the pack, having literally written the book on the new pope. In 2000, before he even arrived in Rome, he had published Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith, a deeply researched and compelling biography. The publisher, Continuum, is rereleasing the book with a new title. Allen also has a contract to quickly produce a new biography of Pope Benedict XVI for Random House. Then, he’s promised, he’ll go on vacation.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2005

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