Signs of the Times

Cardinal Restoring Nation’s First Catholic Cathedral

By the time the Basilica of the Assumption, the nation’s oldest Catholic cathedral, turns 200 in 2006, Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore wants it restored to its original magnificenceand more. The most notable feature of the basilica is what architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe referred to as the lumière mystérieuse, or mysterious light, created by 24 massive skylights that encircle the outer dome. The skylights, which were painted over under wartime blackout rules in 1943, are to be restored as part of the $25 million restoration project. Latrobe, chief architect of the original U.S. Capitol in Washington, is considered one of the greatest architects of the 19th century. The Capitol and the Baltimore cathedral, begun in 1806 and dedicated in 1821, are considered his masterpieces. Thomas Jefferson, who collaborated on both the Capitol and the cathedral, persuaded Latrobe to use the skylights on the cathedral.

Hard to Find Defining Moment in This Papacy

On a flower-decked stage at the Lateran University in Rome, an all-star cast of Vatican officials opened what promises to be this year’s most important ecclesiastical production: the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s election.


The anniversary does not come around until mid-October, but by early May the speeches were already flowing and the analyses taking shape. The gathering at Lateran University was the first of many conferences, seminars, round tables and book presentations that will commemorate the event.

The pope, who has never made much of personal anniversaries, is planning to upstage himself by beatifying Mother Teresa on Oct. 19, which falls between the dates marking his election in 1978, Oct. 16, and his inauguration Mass, Oct. 22. But others envision a big anniversary party. Vatican sources said the world’s cardinals are being invited to Rome for the festivities, and thousands are expected to make the trip from the pope’s native Poland, too. Italy, which considers Pope John Paul an adopted son, has announced it is celebrating the happy marriage between the Polish pope and Italian culture in a series of programs to take place in 25 cities around the world.

The Lateran University conference kicked it all off, and the place was lit up with red beaniesmore than a dozen cardinals and current and former heads of Vatican offices took the rostrum and tried to give Pope John Paul’s papacy a focused appraisal.

One initial conclusion: People can expect to hear the words interpretive key to this pontificate often in coming months. Everyone is trying to find one, but with this pope it is not a simple task.

For one cardinal, the key is the pope’s missionary drive. For a Polish bishop, it is his links to St. Stanislaus, the Polish martyr. One scholar cited the pope’s special and early interest in married love as a central element of this papal ministry. Others pointed to his Marian devotion or his penchant for saint-making or his teaching ministry, as reflected in his 14 encyclicals.

Those who would interpret the last 25 years through the lens of anti-Communism would misread the pope, said Bishop Rino Fisichella, rector at the Lateran University and host of the conference. He noted that the pope has said his whole approach to the human person was not born on the terrain of polemics with Marxism.

A journalist said communication was the key to this pontificate. A theologian said it was the concept of self-transcendence, along with the relationship between truth and freedom.

It seems difficult to find a single defining angle or perspective to this papacy. This is a pope, after all, who has visited synagogues and mosques, preached Christ as the only savior, redrawn firm lines against dissent in the church and excommunicated self-styled traditionalists. He has asked forgiveness for church mistakes through the centuries, yet insisted that the church has a right and duty to press its moral teachings in modern politics.

A survey of the last 25 years reveals many important moments and many historic gestures in different directions. As one academic put it, the perfect label for this pontificate is Can’t be labeled.

Vittorio Messori, an Italian writer and frequent commentator on Vatican affairs, offered an insight into how this pope broke the Italian monopoly on the papacy. He said that when Pope John Paul was elected, there was apprehension among many who believe that Italians hold a special type of papal charisma that makes them uniquely suited to sit on the throne of St. Peter. In Messori’s view, this gift is not the art of compromise, but the ability to embrace both sides of a question in order to bring salvation to all. This is the opposite of the either/or mentality that seems to prevail in some other cultures.

But as it turns out, he argued, Pope John Paul has been the classic example of this Italian approach, reaching out with openness to all while tenaciously preserving and promoting the essential aspects of the faith. This pope has known how to combine mercy and firmness, dialogue and dogma, modernity and tradition, ecumenism and identity, Messori said.

If the three-day Lateran conference proved nothing else, it is that this papacy has produced a generation of church experts skilled in explicating the thoughts and writings of Pope John Paul II.

Vatican, W.C.C. Continue Work on Joint Studies

Representatives of the Vatican and the World Council of Churches met in southern Italy to continue work on three joint studies, including one on the nature and purpose of ecumenical dialogue. The W.C.C.-Roman Catholic Joint Working Group held its annual meeting on May 5-11 in Bari, Italy. A statement issued on May 13 said a significant portion of the meeting was devoted to the examination of three draft texts to be presented to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and to the W.C.C. general assembly, which will meet in 2006. The texts focus on: the ecclesiological implications of baptism, that is, the connection between being baptized and being baptized into a church community; the nature and purpose of ecumenical dialogue; and Roman Catholic participation in national and regional councils of churches, a practice that is growing.

Patriarch Says Objections to Pope’s Actions Are Justified

The Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople said he could understand why the Russian Orthodox Church has taken such a chilly stance toward the Vatican. The expansion of the Catholic Church in the former Soviet Union has the appearance of the Catholic Church taking advantage of the Russian church’s weakness after decades of Communist rule, said Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox churches.

The church of Rome has intensified its presence in places under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Moscow, and this has been interpreted as an unfriendly act, Patriarch Bartholomew said during an interview on May 8 with the Italian newspaper Il Foglio. The Russian Orthodox Church is going through a period of reorganization after 70 years of Communist persecution, he said. And the fact that Patriarch Alexei II of Moscow sees the Catholic Church moving into areas he considers his own justifies the coolness of their relationship, he said.

Continued Vatican support for the Eastern Catholic churches in the region is another huge problem, the ecumenical patriarch said. The patriarch said that by granting full communion to individuals and communities that retain the Byzantine liturgy and customs, rather than adopting the Latin liturgy and practices, the Vatican has demonstrated that it considers submission to the pope to be the most essential element of faith. In other words, the Catholic Church puts the spirit of these faithful in second place and gives more importance to their absorption into its own flock, he said.

Patriarch Bartholomew said relations between Orthodox and Vatican officials are warm and friendly, but on a theological and ecclesiological level there are still serious disagreements, and little progress has been made in the last decade to overcome them. The path is full of difficulties, he said, especially because the churches of the East and West have been separated for almost 950 years. The best sign of hope, the patriarch said, is the attitude of the simple faithful who sincerely desire unity and pray for it.

News Briefs

Security concerns and lack of funding have hindered the reconstruction of Afghanistan, said Lyn Gilliland-Garber, Catholic Relief Services’ regional representative for South Asia.

A small outbreak of SARS in Mongolia could complicate prospects for Pope John Paul II’s planned visit there this summer, Vatican officials said. The pope hopes to make the trip to Mongolia in late August.

Members of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda kidnapped 41 boys from a minor seminary on May 11 after a gunfight with members of the Ugandan military.

A recent Gallup telephone poll of 1,007 American adults found that 84 percent believe in sin, while 14 percent do not.

The 100th foreign trip of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate will take him across the Adriatic Sea to Croatia to beatify a 20th-century nun and celebrate liturgical services in four towns on June 5-9.

As Ugandan troops withdrew from northeast Congo, members of ethnic Lendu militias went on a rampage, killing an unknown number of people, including the Rev. Raphael Ngona, who was one of the first to bring to the world’s attention the massacre in early April of some 300 Hema people near the town of Drodro.

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12 years 1 month ago
I read the paragraph in Signs of the Times on May 26 telling of the tragic death of the Rev. Raphael Ngona by the Lendu militias. He tried to alert the world in April to what was happening in Bunia, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rival factions are engaged in a bloody civil war in Bunia. They are backed by the neighboring states of Uganda and Rwanda. Since then, two more priests have been killed, along with 48 people who took refuge at their parish.

The fighting in the Ituri region is between the Lendu and the Hema factions. But many of the civilians whose bodies have been mutilated were not members of either group. They were peaceful Mbuti people. The Mbuti people, also known as pygmies, are the forgotten people in the conflict. They are quiet victims of this struggle for power.

This struggle comes at a time when the pygmies have been uprooted as they watch their land plundered by the Congolese state, neighboring countries and multinational corporations. Land is often set aside for tourism, where they are not allowed to live, gather honey and medicinal plants, hunt or practice sacred ceremonies. The indigenous people are not consulted as they watch their land’s natural resources exploited for timber, diamonds and gold.

America came the day after I attended the N.G.O. Forum on Indigenous Peoples held at the United Nations in New York. I ate lunch with Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of the Mbuti people with the organization Support Action for the Protection of the Rights of Minorities in Central Africa—D.R.C. He recommends that the United Nations become more actively involved in the protection of the civilian populations in the Congo in general and the vulnerable Bambuti communities in particular.

Efforts are underway to establish a multinational force. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is appealing to member countries to send soldiers to help restore order. Two U.N. peacekeepers were killed in May. An estimated 50,000 people have fled into dangerous uninhabitable areas south of Bunia.

My deep interest comes from 10 years in North Kivu as a missioner. We in the United States cannot be indifferent to what is happening there.


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