When Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople meet this month in Jerusalem, the buzz probably will be about two milestones from the past: 1054, when Eastern and Western Christianity split, and 1964, when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras embraced in the Holy Land to begin healing the division.
That historic meeting 50 years ago helped launch the modern ecumenical movement for Christian unity.
For anyone who understands the realities facing Christianity in the Middle East today, however, the most relevant date actually lies in the future — 2054, to be exact.
When the 1,000th anniversary of the East-West rupture rolls around 40 years from now, the question is whether there will still be an ecumenical patriarchate in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul in Turkey, to mark it.
There’s every possibility that in the meantime, the historic “first among equals” in the Orthodox world will become another chapter of the slow-motion extinction of Christianity across the land of its birth.
Turkey may be officially secular, but sociologically it’s an Islamic society with a population of 75 million that’s 97 percent Muslim. Although it was a center of early Christianity, today there are just 150,000 Christians left, mostly Greek and Armenian Orthodox. They endure various forms of harassment, including difficulties in obtaining permits to build or repair churches, surveillance by security agencies, unfair judicial treatment, and discrimination in housing and employment.
The Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary is an emblematic case. Founded in 1844 as the principal school of theology for the ecumenical patriarchate, it was considered one of the premier centers of learning in the Orthodox world. It was forced to shut down in 1971 after Turkey barred private universities.
National law also requires the patriarch of Constantinople to be a Turkish citizen. Given the dwindling Christian community and the inability to provide theological formation, many believe it will be increasingly difficult to find suitable clergy to satisfy the requirement, and that eventually the office could lapse for lack of a qualified candidate.
Toward the end of 2009, the normally reserved and diplomatic Bartholomew appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and shocked Turkey’s political establishment by saying out loud that Turkey’s Christians are second-class citizens and that he felt “crucified” by a state that wants to see his church die out.
That’s not just rhetoric, as physical attacks on Christians in Turkey have become increasingly common and brazen over the last decade.
In January 2006, a Protestant church leader named Kamil Kiroglu, a Muslim convert, was beaten unconscious by five young men. A month later, a well-known Italian Catholic priest, the Rev. Andrea Santoro, was gunned down by a 16-year-old Muslim in Trabzon. Three other Catholic priests were attacked shortly afterward in other locations.
In January 2007, a prominent Christian journalist of Armenian descent named Hrant Dink was assassinated in Istanbul. In April 2007, three Protestant Christian missionaries — two Turks and one German — were tortured, stabbed, and strangled in the Central Anatolian city of Malatya.
In June 2010, Luigi Padovese, the Catholic apostolic vicar for Anatolia and president of the country’s Catholic bishops’ conference, was killed by his driver and longtime aide, Murat Altun. Witnesses reported that Altun shouted “Allahu Akbar, I have killed the greatest Satan!”
These travails mirror the broader realities for Christianity across the Middle East. All told, Christians have gone from roughly 20 percent of the region’s population in the early 20th century to no more than 5 percent today.
Those who remain often face lethal threats. A coalition of more than 200 Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant leaders in America recently urged greater action by the US government to protect Middle Eastern Christians, an initiative spearheaded by Representative Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, and Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat.
Therein lies the test for Pope Francis on his first outing to the region.
The question is not really whether he can contribute to ecumenical momentum, as his predecessors on both sides of the Catholic-Orthodox divide made that process irreversible, and his own humbler conception of the papacy is already accelerating the healing.
The real question is instead whether he can translate his popularity and moral authority into an effective mobilization in defense of persecuted Christians, not as a matter of confessional self-interest but as an urgent human rights concern.
Two year ago, a leading columnist for the Turkish daily Zaman complained that the Vatican wasn’t doing anything to demand that the investigation of Padovese’s death be “handled in a serious manner.” He wrote that if the Vatican would do so, it would offer “a huge contribution to the promotion of human rights and freedom of religion.”
Will a similar critique of Vatican silence be possible on Francis’s watch? Or will the world’s most popular spiritual leader spend some of his political capital on behalf of fellow believers, most of whom are impoverished and vulnerable, for whom he may be the last firebreak before annihilation?
Without trying to guess the answer, that’s at least the right question to ask when Pope Francis meets the patriarch during his May 24 to 26 outing to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.
Beatifying Pope Paul VI
Having already made saints of two of his predecessors, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, Francis is set to move ahead with the sainthood cause of yet another former pontiff. On Saturday the Vatican announced that a miracle has been approved for Pope Paul VI, who reigned from 1963 to 1978, and that the Italian pope would be beatified, the final step before sainthood, on Oct. 19.
The miracle comes from the United States, and reportedly involves the healing of an unborn child whom doctors had diagnosed with a severe risk of brain damage. They recommended abortion. The mother instead prayed for Paul’s help, clutching a fragment of the pontiff’s garments given to her by a friend, and the child was eventually born safely after a caesarean section.
The beatification ceremony will take place on the closing day of a Synod of Bishops set for October in Rome, devoted to discussion of issues involving the family.
Four points about the beatification of Paul VI are worth drawing out.
First, Giovanni Battista Montini, the given name of Paul VI, may be the modern pope whom Francis most closely resembles. Both were men of governance: Montini, a veteran of Vatican service, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a former Jesuit superior and then archbishop of Buenos Aires. Like Francis, Montini tried to reconcile the church’s progressive and traditionalist wings. Just like today, under Paul VI, it was the hard-liners on either end of the spectrum who were out of favor and the moderates who seemed to get the plumb jobs.
In another parallel with Francis, Paul VI launched an ambitious program of Vatican reform, designed to make the Vatican more international, more efficient, and more collegial, meaning more disposed to consult rather than to impose, and more driven by a spirit of service to local churches around the world. It’s a somewhat ambivalent precedent, because most observers would say Paul’s reform was only partially successful, and it remains to be seen whether Francis can finish the job.
Second, the beatification of Paul VI is another confirmation by Francis of his commitment to Vatican II (1962-65), the reforming assembly of bishops that set Catholicism on a path of openness to the wider world. John XXIII was the father of the council and John Paul II its great apostle; Paul VI was the pope who brought it in for a safe landing and kept the church together in its turbulent aftermath.
Third, this beatification ought to lay to rest any lingering doubt as to whether Francis truly is a “pro-life” pope. Not only was Paul VI the pontiff who gave the world the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, reiterating the church’s ban on birth control, but the miracle clearing his path to the altar involves the healing of an unborn child and a mother who refused an abortion.
Fourth, staging the ceremony in conjunction with the Synod of Bishops is another indication of how important that institution is to Francis as an expression of collegiality, meaning the determination to make sure the voices of local bishops and other actors in the church are heard in Rome. Paul VI founded the synod in 1965 and presided over its first five meetings, and in some ways it’s the feature on the contemporary Vatican landscape most associated with his reign.
Most observers would say that over the years, the synod has been a mixed bag, sometimes functioning more as an expensive talk shop with conclusions determined in advance than a genuine instrument of consultation. Nonetheless, the idea of the synod clearly is key to Francis, who has repeatedly said that he wants to see a more “synodal” church.
(A Greek term, “synod” means, roughly, a journey “on the same path,” and refers to cooperation among layers of authority. In Eastern churches, a synod of bishops generally makes decisions in tandem with the presiding patriarch.)
Francis has significantly overhauled the process for the Synod of Bishops this time around, and so part of the drama of 2014 will be to see whether the reality under Francis more closely resembles the vision laid out almost 50 years ago by Paul VI.
A new Vatican scam
The discipline of Vaticanology is not exactly noted for its real-world applications, but it would at least have inoculated anyone who’s up to date against a scam going around Rome that apparently took advantage of at least a dozen young Italians desperate for work.
Italy has a youth unemployment rate estimated at 42 percent, the highest since 1977. Young Italians and their families are eager to pursue any opening, especially something that seems secure, and the Vatican strikes many as the brass ring. I can testify that anytime an Italian realizes you’ve got some sort of tie to the Vatican, however tenuous, requests to make an introduction for their child, or their cousin or nephew, usually aren’t far behind.
In that context, a group of con artists apparently passed itself off recently as a consulting firm working for the Vatican, offering young people the chance to interview for Vatican employment, for a fee, and then extending them a work contract for another payment. Naturally, the jobs never materialized, but the scammers moved on before the victim realized what had happened.
The ruse has a certain surface plausibility, given that the Vatican under Pope Francis has hired a slew of outside consultants — Promontory, Ernst & Young, McKinsey & Company, and so on — for various tasks. Perhaps for that reason, the Government of the Vatican City State released a statement Thursday asking people to “distrust anyone making these sorts of promises.”
“It’s distressing to see anyone trying to profit from the good faith of many young people and their families, especially in this time of crisis,” the statement said, inviting anyone who fell victim to the scam to file a complaint with the Italian police and to copy the Vatican authorities.
Here’s how Vaticanology could have helped: Anyone following the news would have known that the secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, imposed a hiring freeze on all Vatican departments in the name of the pope back in late February, and it’s never been lifted. As a result, the offers of employment had to be fake.
Vatican diplomats shed caution
The Vatican boasts the world’s oldest diplomatic corps, and its members take their tradecraft extremely seriously. They pride themselves on being the soul of discretion, never burning bridges, never shutting down lines of communication, and always having the big picture in view.
The result is that Vatican diplomats rarely engage in public crossfire, so when they do, you know something extraordinary is going on.
That’s relevant in light of the dust-up following an appearance Monday and Tuesday by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, before the UN’s Committee against Torture. As happened earlier this year in a date with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Vatican’s record on the child sexual abuse scandals once again was put under a microscope.
Even before the hearing, Tomasi had come out swinging in an interview with the Globe in which he complained that some people seem deliberately “deaf and blind” to the progress the Catholic Church has made in the fight against child sexual abuse.
Now, Tomasi and the Vatican are pushing back again, following an exchange during the hearing in which one of the UN experts, Felice Gaer of the American Jewish Committee, who also serves on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, pressed Tomasi on whether rape and sexual abuse should be considered forms of torture.
It’s a debated point among experts on international law. Some contend that “torture” applies only to acts committed by, or with the explicit consent of, governments and public officials, while others support a more expansive interpretation to include acts by private individuals.
In brief, Tomasi replied that “I’m not a lawyer,” adding that it’s important the definition of torture adopted by the UN panel be consistent with the terms of the 1984 Convention against Torture. Media outlets quoted Gaer after the session as saying that she considered the reply an admission by the Vatican that rape and sexual abuse fall under the terms of the treaty.
On Friday, the Vatican’s Geneva office released a press statement vigorously disputing that notion, insisting that Tomasi was not offering a legal opinion. It also dispatched a letter to the head of the Committee against Torture warning that if the record isn’t set straight, the perception will be that members of the panel are “biased and driven by personal motivations.”
The Vatican-friendly Solidarity Center for Law and Justice, based in Atlanta, also filed a brief Thursday asking that Gaer be excluded from drafting the committee’s final report. It charges that Gaer wants to push the expansive line on the “rape is torture” debate, making her biased toward depicting the Vatican in the worst possible light.
If Gaer participates in the review, the brief warns, states such as the Holy See “will have little choice” but to see these UN checkups as “politically and policy-motivated ‘star chamber’ inquisitions designed to elicit public statements . . . that one or more committee members can spin to the media in the hope of shaping a predetermined outcome.”
The Committee against Torture is expected to release its final conclusions this month, and given the fallout from the hearing, it looks like the Vatican isn’t inclined to be bound by its usual caution if it takes another shot on the chin.
It remains to be seen whether there will be long-term consequences to these run-ins with the UN system, such as whether the Vatican will become less likely to ratify future conventions out of fear that hearings by monitoring bodies will become a regular occasion for people to roll out their beefs with the church.
As a footnote, the Vatican provided comprehensive figures to the Committee against Torture for the number of priests it has disciplined over the past decade on abuse charges. In all, the Vatican said 848 priests have been expelled from the priesthood, while 2,572 more were hit with lesser sanctions.
Those numbers include only cases handled by the Vatican, not church courts at lower levels around the world, so the full number of disciplined clergy is presumably much larger.
For a term of comparison, the Vatican’s official statistical yearbook reported 412,236 priests worldwide in 2013.
A blueprint for papal travel
In between higher profile outings to the Middle East in May and South Korea in August, Pope Francis will take a one-day trip to the southern Italian diocese of Cassano all’Jonio on June 21.
It’s being humorously billed as the “I’m Sorry” visit, because Francis recently made the popular bishop of the diocese, 65-year-old Nunzio Galantino, secretary of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference, which means he’s now splitting his time. The pope has said he wants to apologize to the locals while he’s around.
Cassano all’Jonio is in Calabria, a chronically underdeveloped region on the toe of the Italian peninsula that’s also a stronghold of the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate. A confidential US Treasury report in 2008 described Calabria as a failed state. Its bishops tend to be social justice-oriented pastors close to the people, and Galantino is a classic example of the type.
Of all those who have hosted Francis since his election, Galantino may be the prelate who’s mostly clearly intuited the kind of trip this pontiff wants to make.
In public remarks after the June 21 outing was announced, Galantino said both the diocese and local officials in Calabria should avoid exploiting the trip as an excuse for “unjustified expenses.” Instead, he called for preparations to be marked by a spirit of “sobriety” and “attention to one’s neighbor,” especially the most needy.
Galantino advised against “spruce-up” projects involving “useless or superfluous” outlays of money, especially if it’s for flourishes that will vanish as soon as the pope leaves town. Instead, he said, if money’s going to be spent, it ought to be used to build infrastructure in poor areas, even if not’s a neighborhood the pope is planning to visit.
Such development, Galantino said, would capture the real sense of the pope’s visit.
Playing off Francis’s joking vow to apologize, Galantino said the trip ought to prompt locals to ask forgiveness “for the poor left alone in our streets, for the nonbelievers to whom we continue to propose our religion without asking if it means something to them too, to our youth for whom we’ve abdicated being credible role models, to our young adults when we’ve done nothing to sustain their dreams, and to our territory reduced solely to a place to exploit.”
In effect, Galantino seems determined to lay out both a tone and a program ideally suited to the way Francis prefers to travel. Future hosts of papal visits, take note.
Related: More from John L. Allen Jr.