Now, here’s a welcome shot in the arm for the blogosphere. In his annual message for World Communications Day, Pope Benedict is urging priests to get blogging, and take advantage of new media in a more general sense:
The spread of multimedia communications and its rich “menu of options” might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web, or to see it only as a space to be filled. Yet priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly express themselves with the different “voices” provided by the digital marketplace. Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.
Obviously, there are already quite a few priestly bloggers, writing to a pretty high standard, but it must be nice for them to get approval from the boss. This follows on from Benny’s past statements on the same occasion in the last few years, and, together with his practically ecosocialist new year’s message, demonstrates that even a crusty old traditionalist need not be completely at sea in the modern world. This will also have the bonus effect of winding up the honchos at Eccleston Square, who are already convinced that the Pontiff pays far too little attention to the English hierarchy and far too much to bolshy traditionalists on the internet.
Now to other interesting happenings in the world of religion. In Belgium some feathers have been ruffled in connection with the retirement of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who seems to have been the primate forever. His successor at the see of Mechelen-Brussels is Bishop André-Joseph Léonard of Namur, which is worth noting in that he’s by far the most traditionalist of Belgium’s eight bishops. Yet the Namur diocese apparently provides a full 35 of the current 71 seminarians in Belgium, which may tell you something about where the vitality is at the moment. Meanwhile in Germany, there’s an entertaining little spat developing between B16’s Christian Unity czar Cardinal Walter Kasper and recently elected Lutheran president Bishop Margot Käßmann. But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to go south of the border, down Vienna way.
Yes, it’s the ongoing row about Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s little jaunt to Medjugorje. Say what you like about Schönborn, he’s an absolute gift to the sketchwriter. A sort of holdover from the Holy Roman Empire, he comes from one of those aristocratic Austrian families that specialised for centuries in providing dignitaries to both the Catholic Church (as the man himself says, he’s the eighth bishop in the family) and the House of Habsburg. While it may be reassuring for the Austrian Church in a time of upheaval to have a member of the Schönborn family in the top job, Christoph nonetheless has quite a record of saying daft things – dallying with intelligent design, to take one example. It’s a mystery to me why someone with such a history of shooting from the lip should hold a position in the CDF, unless it’s to keep an eye on him – which shouldn’t, however, be discounted as a possibility.
Now, Medjugorje. You’ll already be aware that institutional Catholicism tends to be quite suspicious of lay visionaries claiming to bear messages from Our Lady. Priests down in Limerick have been derisory of local culchies worshipping tree stumps; and that wee man in west Belfast who’s been running pilgrimages to Medjugorje for years is always giving off about the hostility of the Irish clergy. This is not only priests maintaining a trade unionist line of demarcation against charismatic laity; it also can get doctrinal, in terms of visionaries’ tendency to say mad heretical stuff. Moreover, there are other issues that, as they used to say in JAG, go to credibility.
There was an interesting reflection on this recently from Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, former prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and, as a Portuguese cleric, someone who knows a thing or two about the Fátima phenomenon. An excerpt:
Let’s turn to the “seers”. Some people accuse them of having invented everything, and of having economic interests, and some think that in reality, the demon is appearing to them in the guise of the Madonna in order to bring divisions into the Church, even at the price of some conversions, Do you not think so?
“I don’t know if these apparitions were invented or if they have economic interests; for sure, in cases of this sort, the devil’s paw may be here. But God is so great that he knows how to make even the evil one serve for the good of humanity: in this way, it is possible to explain the benefits which many people maintain they received at Medjugorje.”
Again in reference to the “seers”, none of them, in contrast to the overwhelming majority of other seers recognized officially by the Church, has chosen consecrated life. One of them has even married an American model and lives in the USA in a mega-villa with a swimming pool.
“Consecrated life would have been a beautiful testimony on the part of these people, but I see that there is a great difference from Fatima, where the three little shepherds chose to be even more little and humble than even they already were, in order to live in fullness the great gift of the apparitions.”
On this subject: the “seers” assert that the apparitions of Medjugorje are the natural successors of the apparitions of Fatima.
“I don’t believe that they are. I see too many differences. As I said before, the little shepherds of Fatima made themselves humble and chose silence; at Medjugorje, I don’t know if that is going to happen; Sister Lucia entered the cloister, at Medjugorje, no one has chosen consecrated life; the same Sister Lucia put into writing the secrets entrusted to her by the Madonna, while at Medjugorje they continue to keep them for themselves. No, I see nothing in common between Fatima and Medjugorje.”
Eminence, in some of the apparitions, the Virgin is said to have asked the six “seers” of Medjugorje not to obey the prohibitions of their diocesan Bishop, such as, for example, to not speak publicly any more of the alleged “visions”.
“The Madonna could not, in any case at all, be anti-hierarchical and incite disobedience, even if the Bishop of Mostar were wrong. This is another element on which to reflect.”
The Fátima point is a telling one. Those visionaries were humble peasant children who did not seek to aggrandise themselves. And, after Jacinta and Francisco had died young in the post-WWI flu pandemic, Sister Lúcia not only entered the cloister but withdrew totally from the public gaze for decades. Regardless of whether you believe in the reality of Marian apparitions, this self-effacement enhanced their credibility immensely. And there is a very obvious contrast with the noisy hype of the Medjugorje entrepreneurs.
The point is not lost on the local hierarchy in Bosnia. Although there are powerful vested interests in Medjugorje, which has become a massive Catholic tourist trap clearly modelled after Lourdes, which generates lots of revenue and which continued to receive huge numbers of pilgrims throughout the Bosnian war – nonetheless, this has not convinced the ranking clerics, who retain the scepticism expressed by the then Bishops’ Conference of Yugoslavia back in April 1991, which declared that there was no evidence of anything supernatural at Medjugorje, and gave its support to the hostile Bishop Pavao Žanić of Mostar. The hostility has been continued by Žanić’s successor, Mgr Ratko Perić, who seems to spend most of his time trying to cope with aggravations from Medjugorje, and by the highly respected Cardinal Vinko Puljić of Sarajevo, who has made this position very clear in Rome.
Which brings us back to Schönborn’s ill-fated trip to the shrine. This has been covered in exhaustive detail at the invaluable Te Deum blog, but here’s a brief recap. On 29 December, Schönborn pitches up in Medjugorje and remains there over the new year. Of itself, that’s not so remarkable – plenty of clergy have been there before, but bishops would be expected to keep a low profile, blending into the crowd, when visiting a shrine that hasn’t been certified by the Vatican and remains as controversial as Medjugorje. Schönborn, however, doesn’t really do low profile. In September he’d met one of the entrepreneurs, Marija Pavlović-Lunetti; his visit had been heavily trailed in the Austrian press and the Catholic newswires; Schönborn had made a number of positive statements about the Medjugorje phenomenon; and when he did arrive, he did so with media in tow, made himself very visible around the village, and celebrated Mass in the parish church, where he gave a talk flanked by Franciscan friars. (Given the historical record of the Croat Franciscans in the region, a German-speaking prelate should have thought better of the symbolism that would be involved in that.) For all that Schönborn protested that his was a private visit, it didn’t look very private, and a very public visit from such a high-profile churchman, and a member of the CDF to boot, could hardly be taken as anything but a signal of approval.
Bishop Perić, it would be fair to say, was not amused. Not only was this an undermining of his work in the diocese, it was a blatant breach of Church etiquette when it comes to visiting a brother bishop’s patch. And it seems that his displeasure communicated itself up the line, where it may have coincided with a desire to give the loose-cannon cardinal a rocket. In mid-January, Schönborn travelled to Rome for the annual plenary assembly of the CDF. It was noted by astute Vatican observers that the Pope’s published itinerary for the morning of 15 January included a private audience with Schönborn, and rumours began mounting that Christoph was going to get a rap over the knuckles. (Actually, Benny’s style is more to have a quiet word in the erring cleric’s ear, which is effective enough in its own way. Any serious knuckle-rapping tends to get delegated to Vatican super-apparatchik and de facto vice-pope Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.) This theory gained credibility when it emerged that on the afternoon of 15 January Schönborn had sent a conciliatory fax to Perić, which the Mostar diocese thoughtfully made public.
And now, back in his Vienna fastness, Schönborn has confirmed to a friendly outlet that yes, his discussions with B16 did indeed revolve around Medjugorje. A nice little bit of Church politics, this. What’s more, the tone of Schönborn’s interview isn’t exactly what you’d call chastened, so it’s likely he’s going to be venturing forth into controversial waters quite soon. For the satirically minded observer of Catholic politics, he is the gift that keeps giving. And while we’re on the satirical, I’d like to draw your attention to this article in the Suppository; Father Z does one of his inimitable fisks here.
Finally, let’s take a brief glance at the Anglican side of the fence. It’s a pity that the Church of Ireland Gazette only publishes a small selection of its articles online, but the print version may be worth a look this week. National treasure Senator David Norris is interviewed, giving his thoughts inter alia on Iris Robinson; but, as Will reports, there’s also the continuation of the delightfully off-message Gazette‘s guerrilla war against Bishop Michael Jackson of Clogher. Wacko was in charge of the C of I’s response to the Eames-Bradley Report, which may seem like a boring matter, but around such things does the C of I’s internal politicking revolved. The News Letter has more on the interview-shy bishop.