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Rome Diary

by Desmond O'Grady

Truths, half-truths and down-right distortions are the order of the day in this period of flux, reports veteran Vatican watcher Desmond O'Grady.



Some in Rome seem to be responding to a desire to get rid of Poles, others to exalt them.

The first group is spreading the rumor that John Paul II died on Friday and not on Saturday as announced. It is claimed that the Poles covered up the death of the Pope in order to reinforce the cult of Saint Faustina.

Faustina was a Polish mystic who greatly impressed young Karol Wojtyla. As he walked seven kilometers in wooden clogs to his job in the Solvay chemical factory during world war II, he would often stop off to pray in a convent where Faustina had lived some years before. When he became Cardinal, he successfully challenged the Holy Office investigation into Faustina and, after election as Pope, beatified and canonised her. This has led to a reinforcement of the devotion to the Divine Mercy which Faustina established. It is somewhat similar to the devotion to the Sacred Heart. One aspect is a novena which concluded last Sunday. If the Pope died on Saturday, the Mass for the conclusion of the novena would coincide with the Mass for him on his death. This was what occurred but, the rumor claims, it was all stage managed - allegedly a proof that the unscrupulous Poles around the Pope will stop at nothing.

The lie has been given to the rumor, however, by Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, who said that the Pope was still conscious when he visited him on Saturday morning.

The rumor is an example of the distortions which are having a field day during the period between two popes.

Another is from the pro-Polish camp. It is that the Roman curia dithered in compromise with Central Eastern Europe Communist regimes until John Paul arrived and swept them away.

This is at best a half-truth. When, early in the 1960s, the Vatican began its Ostpolitik it was desperately trying to bring some oxygen to the Churches in Central Eastern Europe. As Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, who developed the policy under John XXIII and Paul VI, said it was not so much a modus vivendi as a means of not dying. The first agreement was with Hungary to ensure minimal rights for the Catholics who were not strong there.

By mistake, some stooge bishops were approved under the policy but it allowed recognition of certain rights of Catholics. Moreover the Helsinki agreements, encouraged by the Ostpolitik, enabled groups in defence of human and religious rights to be established.

In Poland the bishops suspected that the Vatican might reach an agreement with the regime over its head. It reflected the fact that the Church in Poland had a unique position of strength and, in a sense, did not need the Vatican.

But when Karol Wojtyla became Pope, in a situation very different from that when Vatican Ostpolitik began, he reconfirmed Casaroli. Reportedly the Polish Primate Cardinal Wyszynski advised Wojtyla that the devil you know is better than the devil you do not know. In fact, John Paul's breakthrough tactics and Casaroli's finesse complemented one another. The Vatican of John Paul II continued the agreements reached under the Ostpolitik.

The half lie is an example of the conscious or unconscious distortion.

Probably in the wake of John Paul's death, and a flood of sympathy for him, exaggeration is inevitable. But many in Rome talk as if he created a new Papacy and almost a new Church.

Certainly he made many changes but there is also a continuity which in the present climate is being overlooked. The Vatican Council renovated the Church and John Paul took this to new levels in certain fields but not in others. Likewise the rise in the prestige of the Papacy became possible once it shed the millstone of the papal states. It reached a new level after World War II when allied troops began paying visits to Pius XII.

There is more continuity than is acknowledged in the complex figure of John Paul II but also an exceptional personalisation of the papacy, aided by television. Some cardinals in Rome are saying that, as it is unlikely that anyone else can match John Paul's talent in this field, the next pope must adopt a more collaborative approach rather than being a one man band.

They point out that John XXXIII had a method rather than a program: the method was to bring all together and listen to them. They believe that the cardinals in conclave must agree first on the need for this method in running the church and only then discuss candidates. As all but three of the cardinal-electors were appointed by John Paul II, this would entail them choosing a method different from his. As the cardinals assemble in a Rome already debating John Paul's legacy, it seems feasible.

Desmond O'Grady is an Australian author and journalist resident in Rome. His latest book is a biography of Raffaello Carboni of Eureka Stockade: Stages of the Revolution (HardieGrant 2004).






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