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All Things Catholic | John L. Allen Jr.

‘FOBs’ driving the train under Pope Francis

Also: Christian fear in Gaza, controversy in Korea, and Allen Down Under

Pope Francis celebrated the Angelus noon prayer earlier this month.

AP/file

Pope Francis celebrated the Angelus noon prayer earlier this month.

During the Clinton administration, American politics developed a new bit of argot: “FOB,” meaning “friend of Bill,” an intimate of the president who enjoyed access to the corridors of power and perhaps helped shape his agenda.

Today Catholicism has its own emerging “FOB” class, in this case standing for “friend of Bergoglio.” The reference is to those with personal ties to Jorge Mario Bergoglio, better known to the world as Pope Francis, who could be positioned to influence his papacy.

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The degree to which those friends have the pope’s ear makes the Vatican’s official chain of command less revealing these days about who’s driving the train in the Catholic Church than, say, the pontiff’s Facebook account. (That is, it would be if Francis were actually on Facebook.)

The latest FOB to pop up is Giovanni Traettino, leader of the Protestant “Evangelical Church of Reconciliation.” The Vatican announced this week that Francis will travel July 28 to the southern Italian city of Caserta to see Traettino, who became friends with Bergoglio a decade ago while serving in Argentina.

In Caserta, Francis will join Evangelicals and Catholics for prayer at Traettino’s church. Though not unprecedented, it will mark one of just a handful of occasions when a pope has ventured into a Protestant church to pray.

The trip is part of a recent pattern of outreach from Francis to the Evangelical and Pentecostal worlds, in each case driven by people he knows.

In January, Francis sent a video message to a conference led by American Pentecostal Kenneth Copeland in which the pope offered a “spiritual hug.” That prompted a group of Evangelicals and Pentecostals to visit Rome, an event capped off when the pontiff and televangelist James Robison high-fived over the need for Christians to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

“God has begun the miracle of unity,” Francis said in his video, quoting Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni that “God never begins a miracle he does not finish well.”

As it turns out, the video was a byproduct of a FOB. An Anglican Evangelical and charismatic named Bishop Tony Palmer, who had become friends with Bergoglio in Argentina, visited him in Rome earlier in January, and told him about Copeland’s gathering, prompting Francis to volunteer to send greetings.

As for Traettino, he got to know Bergoglio through an Argentine movement called “Renewed Communion of Evangelicals and Catholics in the Spirit.” In 2006, Bergoglio took part in a prayer service sponsored by the movement that drew 7,000 people to Luna Park in Buenos Aires, a venue ordinarily used for boxing matches.

At one stage, Bergoglio knelt and allowed himself to be prayed over by some 20 Protestant clergy. That act led disgruntled traditionalist Catholics to declare the see of Buenos Aires “vacant” on the grounds that it was occupied by a heretic, but the future pope was undaunted.

Francis’ tendency to set policy through friendships is clear across a range of issues.

On Catholic/Jewish relations, no one has more influence than Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of a Jewish seminary in Buenos Aires with whom Bergoglio c-authored a 2010 book and produced a 30-episode TV talk show. Similarly, with Islam, Francis relies on his friend Omar Abboud, former director of an Islamic center in Buenos Aires.

Friendship is also the heart of Francis’ media relations strategy, such as it is. The sit-down interviews he’s given haven’t been arranged through official channels, but have come either with friends or through friends.

Jorge Himitian, another Argentine Evangelical FOB, told the Globe’s Inés San Martín on Thursday that Bergoglio and his circle see friendship as the key to ecumenical progress.

“We’ve learned that the institutional road . . . always becomes a dead end because it runs into doctrinal and practical differences,” Himitian said.

“The dialogue we have is based on friendship and spirituality,” he said. “We hope that the rest will eventually fall into place.”

To be sure, this reliance on friendship has its down side.

For one thing, people who could help the pope on many issues find themselves at a significant disadvantage if they’re not already inside his circle. Deference to friends may also mean that Francis feels obliged to act on their suggestions, even if they’re half-baked, and it runs the risk that friends may oversell their access or misrepresent the pope’s intentions.

Twice, for instance, the pontiff has sat down with a 90-year-old Italian journalist, Eugenio Scalfari, whom Francis considers a chum, and twice the Vatican has had to distance Francis from the fallout. The latest case came July 13, when Scalfari hinted that Francis was about to jettison priestly celibacy and a Vatican spokesman had to walk it back.

For good or ill, however, relationships matter to this pope. The primary reason he opted to live in the Santa Marta hotel rather than the papal apartment, for instance, is because he craves the company of other people.

For those seeking progress on issues such as ecumenism and relations with Jews and Muslims, therefore, the good news is that Francis is not driven merely by abstract conviction. He’s fueled by friendship, which with this pope is akin to saying he’s “all in.”

Christian alarm in Gaza

Speaking of friends of Bergoglio, if there’s one right now at the top of his mind, it’s likely an Argentine priest named Fr. Jorge Hernandez who serves as the pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church, the lone Catholic parish on the Gaza Strip.

In the early hours of Friday, Israel launched a ground campaign in Gaza after 10 days of bombardments failed to stop militants’ rocket attacks, stepping up an offensive that already has taken a heavy toll. Health officials on Friday said that 238 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed, along with one Israeli civilian.

Friday morning, Francis made phone calls to both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres to express his concern. The pontiff hosted both leaders for a prayer for peace in the Vatican gardens in June — a prayer, needless to say, which so far has gone unanswered.

There are just 3,000 Christians out of a total population in Gaza of 1.6 million. Just 206 of them are Catholic; the majority are Greek Orthodox.

Right now, those Christians face the same perils as everyone living in Gaza. Recently, missiles fell close to the Catholic parish, where several members of the Daughters of Charity, an order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa, along with 28 disabled children and nine elderly women in their care had sought refuge.

In a short message released Friday by Vatican Radio, Hernandez said children are beginning to get sick because of stress created by the continuous terrifying noise. He said that since Thursday morning, Catholics have been praying before the Blessed Sacrament and that a special Mass will be celebrated Friday “to implore forgiveness, justice and peace for all.”

Hernandez is a member of an Argentina-based missionary order called the Institute of the Incarnate Word. His parish in Gaza runs two schools with about 1,000 students, 90 percent of whom are Muslims.

Christian alarm in Gaza isn’t driven just by the current round of fighting, but broader concerns about what the future might hold. Although relations with the Muslim majority are generally good, there have been scattered episodes of violence amid a rising tide of Islamic radicalism across the region.

In 2007, the only Christian bookstore operating in the Gaza Strip was firebombed and its owner, Rami Ayyad, kidnapped and murdered. The store had been bombed two other times, in February 2006 and April 2007. A Catholic school and convent were also ransacked in 2007, and in 2008 a YMCA library was bombed.

Francis already has shown himself capable of surprising diplomatic initiatives, such as his global day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria last September and his impromptu invitation to Abbas and Peres during his trip to the Holy Land in May.

If the situation continues to deteriorate, Gaza may be the next global hot spot where he chooses to intervene — not merely because of the stakes, both for the world and for the tiny Christian flock, but also because there’s a FOB in the firing line.

Controversy in Korea over papal trip

On the subject of the pope’s friends getting him into hot water, there’s a growing controversy with regard to Francis’ upcoming Aug. 14-18 trip to South Korea. It relates to his planned stop on Aug. 16 at a center for around 4,000 disabled people called Kkottongnae, which is the country’s largest social welfare institution.

The center was founded in the mid-1970s by a Korean priest named Fr. John Oh, who would also go on to launch religious congregations for both men and women called the Kkottongnae Brothers and Kkottongnae Sisters respectively. It’s grown into a worldwide brand, among other things operating centers for the poor and the elderly in the United States in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, New Jersey and Atlanta.

While serving as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio came to know Oh and the Kkottongnae movement and invited them to set up shop in Argentina, though he didn’t have time to follow through before his election to the papacy.

His decision to spend a Saturday afternoon with Oh and company, therefore, may be in part about paying off an old debt.

Recent days have seen mounting protests in Korea against the stop, driven mostly by the very sort of Catholics one would expect to celebrate — those committed to serving the poor and marginalized. They cite two basic beefs.

First, they say, Kkottongnae “institutionalizes” the disabled, cutting them off from social contact and regimenting their lives in way that’s not consistent with either loving care or contemporary best practices.

“Without overstating it, no symbolic gestures of embracing or kisses by Pope Francis will dispel the underlying truth,” said Fr. Father Noel O’Neill, an Irish Columban missionary in South Korea.

“This kind of massive institutionalization of disabled people has long been discredited in much of the world,” O’Neill said. “Such a model of services is unacceptable.”

Second, critics charge Kkottongnae with being a money-making machine linked over the years with various bribery and embezzlement scandals. They question how Francis could reconcile offering his seal of approval with his calls for greater integrity in church finances.

According to press reports, Kkottongnae has long enjoyed the favor of the political and economic elite. It’s had substantial contributions from what are known in Korea as Chaebols — family-run transnational conglomerations such as Hyundai, Samsung, and Kia. It also receives monthly contributions from approximately 100,000 supporters.

A Catholic order in Korea called the Little Jesus Society recently staged a rally to denounce Kkottongnae as a “criminal organization,” charging Oh with corruption.

They pointed to several criminal trials Oh has faced for alleged financial shenanigans, although he’s never been convicted. The South Korean Supreme Court acquitted him in 2007 on charges of embezzling $3.3 million. At the moment, residents in the neighborhood of Kkottongnae are asking prosecutors to look into Oh’s recent purchases of land, estimated at over 3,200 acres, wondering if he’s siphoned off government subsidies.

“Kkottongnae’s practices are almost the same as the mafia,” said Fr. Joseph Park Sung-gu. “The papal visit should be focused on the poorest and most helpless, not a wealthy environment.”

For the record, some of these critics also run centers for the disabled and poor, and they resent the fact that so much public funding goes to Kkottongnae rather than them. Korea’s bishops have expressed full faith in Oh and Kkottongnae.

To date, neither the Vatican nor the Korean bishops have given any indication that Francis plans to alter his schedule. Protestors have delivered letters to the Vatican embassy in Seoul, but so far say they haven’t received any response.

Inés San Martín and I will be on hand in Korea to cover the pope’s trip for the Boston Globe. I’ll also be aboard the papal plane, to capture whatever Francis has to say in-flight.

Allen Down Under

I’ll be in Melbourne, Australia, this week on Thursday and Friday at a Religious Education Conference, which will be held at the Catholic Leadership Centre in East Melbourne. I’m hoping to see “All Things Catholic” readers who may be in the neighborhood.

More information can be found here: http://www.ceomelb.catholic.edu.au/conferences/

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.
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