Lar Bem-Vindo, Dom Claudio
May 12, 2007
While the Pope is, of course, the star of his five-day jaunt in Brazil, the first transcontinental papal visit of Benedict XVI's pontificate is a homecoming for one of his highest-profile recruits, a key pointman of the pontificate on things Latin American.
(whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com, May 11, 2007) Last Halloween, Benedict appointed Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the archbishop of São Paulo, as prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy. A lifelong pastor, the 72 year-old Francisan was viewed by some as a rather atypical choice for the Vatican post that oversees matters pertaining to the world's priests and deacons. Then again, while his gentle style, diverse background (he's half-German and speaks it), three decades of episcopal experience and lack of ideological color put him near the top of many papabile lists in 2005, it was said at the time that the one key quality he lacked was an in-depth familiarity with the ways of the Roman Curia.
Five months into his experience of Curial immersion, the cardinal recently sat down with Robert Mickens in Rome. The result is this week's lead feature in The Tablet.
"Yes, this is different," the cardinal told me a couple of weeks ago, as we sat in one of the ornate antechambers leading to the office he now occupies. "Very different; diversissimo!" His use of the Italian superlative, in his twangy Brasileiro accent, made the point loud and clear: this has been a major transition. In one swift stroke of the papal pen he moved from being chief pastor of the world's third-largest diocese to becoming "chief bureaucrat" of a Roman Curia office that occupies one floor in a quiet, mausoleum-like palace overlooking St Peter's Square.
Dom Cláudio left behind a burgeoning and bustling local Church that has six auxiliary bishops and more than five million "parishioners". He now oversees a handful of staff members in a government-like ministry that is designed principally to give the Pope advice and to facilitate canonical paperwork regarding the world's more than 400,000 priests. While insisting that there is a "pastoral dimension" to his work at the Congregation for the Clergy, the cardinal could not deny that the Pope sets the agenda. "He is the pastor and we help him; we are at his service," the cardinal said of his office.
Returning to his former archdiocese this week with Pope Benedict must be a poignant reminder of the change his life has undergone. Although he could not have predicted it last autumn when he accepted the Vatican position, he certainly found out a month later when he arrived in Rome to begin the new job.
Just two days before Cardinal Hummes left São Paulo, he told journalists that clerical celibacy was not a dogma and its usefulness could therefore be put up for discussion. The comments were somewhat surprising given that he had never before championed this issue. Some speculated that it was a sign - and the Pope's desire - that he would use his new position in the Roman Curia to help stimulate open discussion on this and other topics that have long been taboo in the Vatican.
But as his plane landed in Rome on 4 December, the Holy See press office had a statement ready - allegedly written by the cardinal himself - that completely reversed his pre-flight comments. Dom Cláudio nuanced the retraction in an exchange with reporters after leaving the plane, but several weeks later an article appeared in L'Osservatore Romano - again attributed to him - that presented historical and theological arguments in defence of the discipline of clerical celibacy.
When I asked him if this meant that the Pope had given a definitive "no" to the possibility of ordaining married men of proven virtue (viri probati) - an issue that many bishops, especially in Latin America, began discussing in earnest immediately after Vatican II - Dom Cláudio smiled wryly. "This is not on the table," he said. Full stop.
Despite Vatican efforts to kill the question, there are still many Catholics in Latin America (including some silent bishops) who believe that a married clergy is the only way realistically to cut the region's alarmingly high laity-to-clergy ratio. But it is unlikely that anyone will now be courageous or stubborn enough to insist on this when the fifth General Conference of CELAM (episcopal conferences of Latin America) gets under way this Sunday. Pope Benedict XVI is to inaugurate the three-week meeting at the Marian shrine of Aparecida about 100 miles north-east of São Paulo and, if he follows the custom of his predecessors, the bishops can expect him to deliver a 15- to 20-page speech telling them what issues require urgent attention and the best way to respond to them.
There's only one way to stop people from drifting away from the Catholic community, according to Cardinal Hummes: "The Church in Latin America must become more missionary in its own territory." But this is exactly what all three CELAM conferences since Vatican II - Medellín in 1968, Puebla in 1979 and Santo Domingo in 1992 - said in one way or another. In fact, it was Pope Paul VI, not John Paul II, who first used the term "new evangelisation" at the 1968 meeting in Colombia. At any rate, the slogans have done nothing to stop the haemorrhaging of the Catholic Church in this part of world. Nor have they boosted vocations to the religious life.
"The Church must respond today to the issues of today and not try to repeat what was done in the past," the cardinal told me. He said that now, more than before, lay people would have to bear most of the responsibility for bringing people back to the Catholic community. "We have to prepare them, invite them to visit families, above all families of the poor in the periphery, those who feel abandoned," he said. "These [marginalised] people need to feel the physical presence of the Church, the solidarity of and warmth of their Church," he added....
"History moves forward and we must move with history, otherwise we will keep sliding into the past," said Cardinal Hummes. "The Church's presence among the poor continues today and very strongly, albeit a bit less ideological and less political," he said, noting that even "basic Christian communities" have undergone de-politicisation. "Today we are more attentive to the Church's social teaching than to left-wing political ideology," Dom Cláudio claimed, though he was quick to point out that he had "never been involved in politics".
As for his predecessors, he said: "All that they did, these great bishops of that time, resounds in the Church today and continues. But I always say that we do not and cannot repeat the past."