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John L. Allen Jr. | All Things Catholic

Will tragedy derail Pope Francis on Christian unity?

Also: Religious cleansing in Iraq, pope in America, and a curious silence in Australia

An aerial view of St. Peter's Square and Via della Conciliazione.

Italian National Police via Getty Images

An aerial view of St. Peter's Square and Via della Conciliazione.

History sometimes turns on tragedies, leaving people to ponder what might have been. A new Catholic focus for that question is a random motorcycle accident last Sunday in England, and whether it may change the arc of Pope Francis’ papacy on ecumenism, meaning the push for unity among Christians.

Christians, of course, are fond of preaching peace and brotherhood, but anyone looking at the notoriously splintered Christian landscape can see they often don’t practice that gospel. Thoughtful leaders on all sides have long tried to mend differences, with little effect, and there has been mounting hope that Pope Francis will be the one to finally move the ball, in part because of his long history of friendship with other Christians.

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Francis is set to travel on Monday to the southern Italian city of Caserta to see a few of his old Protestant friends, and to pray with them. The get-together unfolds under the shadow of the loss of someone who was supposed to be there, Bishop Tony Palmer of the Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, who got to know the future pope while ministering in Argentina.

Born in England and raised in South Africa, Palmer was riding his motorcycle July 20 on a highway near Bath in the United Kingdom when he crashed head-on into a car driving in the wrong lane. A 10-hour emergency surgery failed to revive him. In his early 50s at the time, Palmer leaves behind his wife and two teenage children.

Palmer had emerged as a new ecumenical star in January when he visited Pope Francis in Rome and recorded a video message from the pope on his iPhone for a conference of Pentecostals in Texas hosted by American televangelist Kenneth Copeland. It was an impromptu appeal for unity and friendship, with Francis passing along a “spiritual hug.”

Francis, of course, knows plenty of people all over the world, and one shouldn’t oversell how close his connection with Palmer actually was. Although Palmer described the pontiff as one of his three “spiritual fathers,” a Vatican spokesman last week balked at characterizing them as “friends,” preferring the formula “close acquaintances.”

Yet Palmer clearly had entrée. He told Copeland’s assembly that he believed God intended to use their connection to accomplish something big, saying he and Francis had made a covenant to work together for the “visible unity of Christians.”

Palmer will be tough to replace as a papal contact, because he occupied a rather unique spot on the ecumenical landscape.

In terms of his spirituality, Palmer was the kind of Christian devoted to signs and wonders known as the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues. As a denomination in their own right such folks are known as Pentecostals, but when they make their home within an established church they’re called Charismatics.

Palmer saw his mission as bringing Christians together, using the Charismatic movement as a bridge. His passion was reflected in his deliberately provocative accusation that many Christians suffer from “spiritual racism,” meaning the conviction that their church is superior to others’.

Palmer believed sectarian divisions are anything but inevitable, that if you stop acting as if denominational boundaries have to keep Christians apart, then they won’t..

“You can be Catholic, and Charismatic, and Evangelical, and Pentecostal, all at the same time,” Palmer said as he presented the pope’s message in January, insisting that “Jesus was all of those things.”

“How much of Jesus do you want?” Palmer joked. “Do you only want one denomination of Jesus? Jump in, get it all!”

One certainly can’t accuse Palmer of not walking his own talk. He was an Anglican priest and bishop who once worked for Copeland’s Pentecostal ministry, and who raised his kids as charismatic Catholics to reflect his wife’s Italian heritage.

As a theological matter, Palmer believed that an 1999 agreement between the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, marked the end of the Reformation and so Christians are now living in a “post-Protestant era.”

In other words, he wasn’t waiting around for unity. He lived as if it were already here.

Palmer was well positioned to help advance the pope’s ecumenical interests, not merely because he moved across denominational lines but also because he represented a bridge to the English-speaking world. Francis is uncomfortable in English and doesn’t know the cultural lay of the land well, especially outside Catholic circles, which made Palmer an ideal conduit.

Without Palmer, for instance, it’s hard to imagine Bergoglio hooking up with Copeland, whose thick Texas twang and Bible-thumping style otherwise hardly seem a natural fit.

It’s reasonable to suspect Palmer would have tried to encourage Francis to deliver even more substantive ecumenical gestures, and given how much this pope takes his cues from his friends, it’s also reasonable to believe Francis would have been receptive.

It remains to be seen what will happen now that Palmer is out of the picture. Sometimes tragedy shuts down possibilities, while other times it opens people’s eyes to what must finally be done.

Religious cleansing in Iraq

During early 2014, there was no more compelling symbol of the threats faced by Christians in a growing number of global hot spots than Meriam Ibrahim, a 26-year-old Christian woman who had been sentenced to death in Sudan for apostasy from Islam and forced to give birth to her second child behind bars.

Her case became a cause célèbre both among Christian activists and women’s rights groups, and, facing mounting international pressure, Sudan released Ibrahim from prison in late June. She was allowed to leave the country last week after interventions by the American and Italian governments.

On Thursday, Pope Francis welcomed Ibrahim to the Vatican, with a spokesman saying that Francis expressed thanks for her “courageous witness to perseverance in the faith.” She was joined at the pope’s residence by her husband and children, 18-month-old Martin and 2-month-old Maya.

Francis obviously is aware that photos of him with Ibrahim are making the rounds at a time when scores of other Christians face a similar menace, without being able to count on anything like the same international mobilization.

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, said the pope wanted to offer a “gesture of support to all those who suffer for their faith, and live in difficult or restrictive situations.”

Nowhere is that gesture more relevant than in a region of northern Iraq centered on Mosul, where the militant Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS, has purged the city of its 1,600-year Christian presence after imposing a July 19 deadline for Christians to convert to Islam, pay a submission tax, leave the area, or die.

A decade ago, there were an estimated 35,000 Christians in Mosul. That number dropped to a few thousand after the US-led invasion, and just before the recent ultimatum it stood at a few hundred. Now the city is reportedly “Christian-free.”

Christians have emerged from Mosul with reports of churches being attacked and defaced, Christian homes being marked in red for either destruction or confiscation, and individual Christians being brutalized with impunity.

Christian leaders in Iraq have voiced frustration with what they see as the lack of a meaningful international response.

“We have to ask the world: Why are you silent? Why do you not speak out?” said Catholic auxiliary bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad last week.

“Do human rights exist, or not? And if they exist, where are they?” Warduni said. “There are many, many cases that should arouse the conscience of the whole world: Where is Europe? Where is America?”

Others are pleading with their fellow believers to act.

“We need the solidarity of Christians worldwide, not to be afraid to talk about this tragedy,” said Archbishop Amel Nona of Mosul.

On Wednesday, Patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church sent a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asking him to pressure the international community to step up assistance to Iraq’s Christians and other minorities targeted by militants.

Truth to be told, it may be too late to do much for the Christians of Mosul. The world needs to ponder how to respond to such religious cleansing in the future, however, because this is unlikely to be the last such outrage.

Pope in America

Last week there were reports about Pope Francis coming to America, based on something Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said during a national gathering of Native American Catholics in Fargo, N.D. In a nutshell, Chaput said that Francis will visit Philadelphia in late September 2015 for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families.

If this sounded slightly familiar, it should. There have been previous cycles of the same reports over the last 18 months, and probably will be again.

Here’s the deal. The World Meeting of Families is a Vatican event that’s been staged in various cities around the world every three years since 1994. In February 2013, before Francis was elected, the Vatican announced that the next edition would be held in Philadelphia. Although popes don’t always attend, it was taken for granted that the pontiff would go to the first one in the United States.

Not long after his election, Francis met with Chaput and expressed a desire to come, and they’ve been in contact about it off and on since. For Chaput, it’s obviously important to know the pope’s intentions, because the logistical challenges change dramatically depending on whether or not the pope is coming.

Francis has also told the Vatican official in charge of family issues, Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, that he intends to make the trip.

However, the Vatican never confirms a papal trip this far ahead. The usual protocol is that officials confirm the pope’s plans two or three months in advance, and then release a program perhaps a month later.

As a result, what’s happened over the past year is that every so often a reporter will approach either Chaput or Paglia about the trip, and they’ll say Francis is planning to do it. Or, as in the North Dakota example, Chaput or Paglia will appear in public and make an unsolicited reference to the pope coming. In either case someone will write it up, the Vatican will then issue statements of caution, and the whole thing fades away until the next cycle.

Bottom line: Pope Francis is coming to Philadelphia in September 2015, and it’s likely he’ll make a couple other stops — New York to address the United Nations, and Washington to address Congress. Over the next few months there will probably be other times in which all this is reported as breaking news, but the only real “break” for which we’re waiting now is official confirmation.

Curious silence in Australia

I spent much of last week in Melbourne, where I spoke at a conference for Catholic educators sponsored by the archdiocese. It was a terrific experience, in part because Aussies never fail to live up to their reputation for being relaxed, informal, and at ease with plain talk.

I came to the country, however, with an assumption that turned out to be wildly false, and I’m still struggling to pin down why.

The assumption was that I would find a strong buzz about the rise to power in Rome of Cardinal George Pell, a former archbishop of both Melbourne and Sydney who is now Pope Francis’ financial czar. The consensus among Vatican-watchers today is not only that Pell wields more real power than the Cardinal Secretary of State, normally the 800-pound gorilla of the place, but that he may be the most influential Vatican prelate in several generations.

It’s not that I expected universal jubilation. I knew Pell had been a polarizing figure here, in part for his reputation as an archconservative, in part for his identification with the child sexual abuse scandals that have marred the church in Australian, as in so many countries, for the better part of a decade.

I did, however, expect reaction. I assumed his critics would be protesting and friends celebrating, while others might be struggling to reconcile their impressions of Pell as a defender of the status quo against the role he’s playing now as a maverick reformer taking on the Vatican’s Italian old guard.

What I found instead, basically, was silence.

Having spoken with a cross-section of Aussie Catholics, my perception is that most people here don’t know much about Pell’s new job or how much real power it entails, and thus it’s never occurred to them to have a reaction one way or the other.

“For most of us, it’s out of sight and out of mind,” said Andrew Rabel, a veteran Catholic journalist in Australia who contributes to Inside the Vatican magazine.

The truth of that was confirmed repeatedly. I was chatting Wednesday afternoon with a couple of theologians at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, and at random we stopped a recent graduate to ask what she knew about Pell.

“He had a rough go in the media, didn’t he?” she said, referring to the abuse scandals. When pressed if she knew what Pell was up to today, the answer was “no idea.”

How is it that an Australian could rise to such heights with such little chatter Down Under? I was given three basic explanations.

Archbishop Dennis Hart of Melbourne, a seminary classmate of Pell, said that Australian Catholics always have had a strong sense of being a long way away from Rome, and by inclination don’t obsess over what goes on in the Vatican.

Second, Australian media coverage of Pell, especially at the end of his run, focused heavily on the sex abuse scandals. As a result, there’s a tendency in some quarters to assume his exit was a face-saving way of removing a leader in trouble, not a promotion.

Third, Rabel cites a feature of Australian culture called “tall poppy syndrome,” which he defines as a “perceived tendency to discredit or disparage those who have achieved notable wealth or prominence in public life.”

Probably all those factors play a role. Perhaps there’s also no natural constituency in Australia that would be inclined to see Pell’s rise as a big deal. For the Catholic establishment here, he was always seen as Rome’s man and so this is just him going home to roost; for his liberal and secular critics, they’re simply glad he’s not around; and at least part of Pell’s conservative base may be ambivalent about Francis and therefore not be inclined to take his reform efforts seriously.

Whatever the explanation, my message to my Australian friends was this: You can love George Pell or hate him, but it’s a mistake to ignore him. He matters — perhaps more than ever.

As a footnote, there’s a decision looming that could thrust Pell back onto the radar screen in Australia. Pope Francis is expected to name Pell’s successor in Sydney sometime soon, with the leading candidates generally assumed to be Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane and Bishop Anthony Fisher of Parramatta.

In the abstract, Coleridge might seem a natural pick. His academic background is in the Bible, something Francis admires, and he served for four years in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Francis has demonstrated a fondness for putting former Vatican diplomats in key jobs, appreciating their cosmopolitan outlook as well as their instinctive moderation.

Fisher is an erudite Dominican whose specialty is bioethics, and in Catholic circles here he’s seen as a protégé of Pell. If Fisher gets Sydney, many people will detect the hand of George Pell — in which case they probably won’t need visiting American journalists to remind them of his relevance.

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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