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I started this blog only for the interim period between my leaving the National Catholic Reporter and starting with the Boston Globe. Now that I’m on board full-time with the Globe, please follow me there. You can always know when I have a new piece available by following me on Twitter (@JohnLAllenJr) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr). My “All Things Catholic” column debuts in the Globe this Sunday, Feb. 16, with a short piece in the print edition and a longer version, treating several other stories, available on-line.

Thanks as always for your interest!

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Thoughts on UN report blasting Vatican

By John L. Allen Jr.

A keenly anticipated U.N. report on the Vatican’s handling of the child sex abuse scandals that have rocked Catholicism for more than a decade is out today, Feb. 5, and it’s the verbal equivalent of a public flogging.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child accuses the Vatican of “not acknowledging” the extent of the crimes committed, of imposing policies that allowed abuse to continue, and of fostering “impunity” for abusers.

The panel issues a host of recommendations, including that a new papal commission on the protection of children should not only investigate cases of abuse but “the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy in dealing with them.”

The report also flags a number of problem areas, such as the practice of clergy moving around to dodge accusations.

“The practice of offenders’ mobility, which has allowed many priests to remain in contact with children and to continue to abuse them, still places children in many countries at high risk of sexual abuse,” the report claims.

“Dozens of child sexual offenders are reported to be still in contact with children,” it said.

The report condemns the Vatican for imposing what it calls a “code of silence” on abuse claims, which in practice, the committee says, meant these crimes were rarely reported to the police.

Here’s the report’s bottom line, in item 43: “The Committee is gravely concerned that the Holy See has not acknowledged the extent of the crimes committed, has not taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children, and has adopted policies and practices which have led to the continuation of the abuse by and the impunity of the perpetrators.”

Victims’ groups are hailing the report.

“For the safety of children, we hope every head of state on the planet reads this and acts on it,” said a statement from the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Two quick observations on the report.

One, it follows a Jan. 16 hearing in Geneva in which Italian Archbishop Silvano Tomasi and Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta appeared before the Committee on the Rights of the Child on behalf of the Vatican.

Tomasi vowed that the Catholic church today wants to be “an example of best practice” in the fight against child abuse, while Scicluna insisted that Catholicism now recognizes a “non-negotiable principle” of paramount concern for the well-being of children in its approach to wayward clergy.

In general, the back-and-forth that day suggested that the child protection experts who make up the UN panel felt that the Vatican, however belatedly, is moving in the right direction.

Sara De Jesus Oviedo Fierro of Spain, for instance, said at day’s end that the committee now has “great expectations that new steps will be taken, that dialogue with civil society will happen, [that] this will become a reality. This will attest to this new era, this new dawn for the Holy See.”

The written report doesn’t contain much reference to Tomasi and Scicluna’s testimony, and its tone is unsparingly critical – suggesting either that at least portions of it were actually drafted before the hearing took place, or that, upon reflection, the experts were less persuaded the Vatican has turned a corner than they seemed two weeks ago.

Second, the report seems destined to be read with skepticism in some Catholic circles because it also wades into the culture wars. At different points, the UN panel suggests that the Vatican modify, or even abandon, Catholic teaching on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and contraception.

Item #55 of the UN report, for instance, advises the Vatican to repeal canon 1398 of the Code of Canon Law, a provision that imposes the penalty of automatic excommunication for participation in abortion. At another point, the report suggests that Catholic venues should provide family planning services including birth control.

The Vatican is expected to issue a low-key statement, saying basically that they’ll take the report under advisement. Privately, however, some in Rome may suspect a political agenda behind the report in light of these excursions into the “life issues.”

(Follow John Allen on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr)

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Francis as the “Pope of the Old”

By John L. Allen Jr.

Pope Francis will meet a large group of grandparents in September, a Vatican official announced today, because “they need to feel themselves valued” in what he called the “great responsibility” they have.

Their grandkids will come along too, according to Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.

Speaking to the Italian TV program “Halls of the Vatican,” broadcast by Tgcom24, Fisichella said he proposed the idea of meeting with grandparents to pope shortly before Christmas, and Francis readily accepted.

“We have to pick the date,” Fisichella said, “but it’s a decision the pope has already made, and we’re already in the stage of preparing for the event, which should draw big response from this huge segment of the population that needs to feel itself valued and that has a great responsibility in this particular moment of history.”

Pope Francis on several occasions demonstrated a special concern for the elderly, and for grandparents in particular.

Part of the reason may be biographical. His own paternal grandmother, Rosa, played an important role in raising the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and left a deep impression. In one of his early General Audiences as pope, for instance, Francis quoted a saying from his grandmother about the fleeting nature of earthy wealth: “A burial gown doesn’t have pockets.”

In his September interview with sixteen Jesuit publications, Francis reflected on his grandmother’s legacy.

“My grandmother Rosa loved ​​me so much,” he said. “In my breviary I have the last will of my grandmother Rosa, and I read it often. For me it is like a prayer. She is a saint who has suffered so much, also spiritually, and yet always went forward with courage.”

Francis’ desire to reach out to the elderly has been clear at several key moments.

When he travelled to Brazil for World Youth Day in July, for instance, he said his vision for the event is that the young pilgrims would have a special concern for the elderly, and that part of the mission for World Youth Day should be to bring people “at either end of life” together.

When he invokes his now-familiar image of a “throw-away culture,” meaning a mentality that sees whole categories of people as essentially disposable, Francis routinely mentions the elderly as among the primary victims of this culture.

On Sunday, during a Mass marking the Catholic Church’s “Day of Consecrated Life,” Francis again underscored what he sees as the crucial role of the elderly in transmitting life’s wisdom to future generations.

In some ways, alongside being the “Pope of the Poor,” Francis also profiles as the “Pope of the Old,” and September’s celebration with grandparents should put an exclamation point on that aspect of his agenda.

John L. Allen Jr. is associate editor of the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr

 

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On the Neocatechumenal Way and “making a mess”

By John L. Allen Jr.

Back in July, Pope Francis famously said he wants Catholics to go out and make a mess.

“I want a mess in the dioceses!” the pope said, almost shouting, in a talk to a group of young people in Brazil for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day festival. “I want people to go out! I want the Church to go out to the street!”

Over the years, few outfits have had a better track record of making messes than the Neocatechumenal Way, a lay movement founded in Spain in 1964 by Kiko Argüello and Carmen Hernández. The controversial group seems to win friends and ruffle feathers in roughly equal measure.

Created to offer post-baptismal formation for Catholics who want to deepen their faith, admirers see the Neocatechumenate as “New Evangelization” in action – high-octane, aggressively missionary, and phenomenally successful.

Organized into parish-based communities of 20 to 50 people, the Neocatechumenate today claims a worldwide following in excess of one million in 124 nations. The movement also has about 2,000 priests, operates around 100 seminaries, and sponsors thousands of “families in mission” who spread the faith to the four corners of the world.

The group tends to be especially effective with young people and families. During the 2008 World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, Cardinal George Pell said that of the 110,000 international participants, 40,000 were from the Neocatechumenate.

To critics, however, the Neocatechumenate is emblematic of what can go wrong when fervor shades off into fanaticism.

Over the years, the group has been accused of excessive control over members’ lives, playing fast and loose with both Church teaching and the liturgical rules, fostering a cult of personality around Argüello and Hernandez, and dividing parishes by insisting that members attend their own Saturday evening services rather than the usual Sunday Mass.

Those accusations haven’t just come from the usual line-up of embittered ex-members and liberal activists in the Church. They’ve been leveled by a number of bishops, from Bishop Mervyn Alexander of Clifton in the U.K., who in 1994 called the Neocatechumenate a form of “spiritual enslavement,” to Archbishop Luigi Bommarito of Catania in Italy, who in 2001 said the movement “strips the flesh from people’s consciences by asking questions that no confessor would ask.”

The Neocatechumenate has been kicked out or seen its activities restricted in a surprising number of places, including Japan, the Philippines, Nepal, as well as a number of individual dioceses in both Europe and North America.

That background lent special significance to the encounter on Saturday between Pope Francis and roughly 10,000 screaming “Neocats” in a Vatican audience hall.

On the one hand, as a bishop from Latin America, Francis certainly knows the retail-level success the Neocatechumenate has enjoyed. It’s among the few enterprises that’s had much luck stemming the erosion of Catholic populations in Latin America to the Evangelicals and Pentecostals.

On the other hand, Francis is also a Jesuit, and relations between the “new movements” and religious orders over the years, to put it politely, haven’t always been the best. Moreover, the Neocatchumenate also has a reputation for being on the conservative side of most Catholic issues, at a time when Francis seems to be steering the Church into the center.

As veteran Vatican writer Luigi Accattoli put it in the Feb. 2 issue of Corriere della Sera, in his first session with followers of the movement Francis both “praised them more than other popes” and also “criticized them with greater severity” than other popes.

Francis repeatedly thanked the group for its “ardor” and its “witness.” He also complimented them for their commitment to families. Seeing lots of kids in the hall, Francis at one point asked parents to hold up their babies. Suddenly the Vatican’s Aula Nervi, as Accattoli described it, turned into a “galaxy of infants.”

Francis also applauded the Neocatechumenate’s missionary drive.

“The Church is grateful to you for your generosity,” he said.

Backing up his own point, Francis personally handed out crucifixes to 414 Neocatechumenate families who were leaving for missionary posts in places such as China, Mongolia, India, and points beyond.

At the same time, the pope also said he wanted to lay out three “simple recommendations” to the group, and anyone who knows its history will readily grasp what he had in mind.

First, the pope said, it’s more important for the group to be in communion with the local church and its bishop than to uphold all the particulars of its own spiritual path.

“Communion is essential,” Francis said. “Sometimes it can be better to renounce living in every detail what your own path demands, in order to guarantee unity among the brothers who form the one ecclesial community, of which you must always feel yourself a part,” he said.

Translation: If local pastors or the bishop asks you to join everybody else for Mass on Sunday, do it. If the Vatican tells you to play by the liturgical rulebook, do that too.

Second, Francis urged the Neocatechumenate to respect the local cultures in which the group wants to put down roots.

Learning foreign languages is helpful, the pope said, but “much more important will be your commitment to learning the cultures that you meet, recognizing that the need for the Gospel is everywhere, but also [recognizing] the work of the Holy Spirit in the life and the history of every people.”

Translation: Don’t ride into places such as Japan, or Nepal, and insist that in addition to becoming Catholic, everybody also has to become Spanish or Italian.

Third, the pope asked the Neocatechumenate to foster internal freedom and to respect those who decide to leave the group.

“Everyone’s freedom must not be coerced,” he said, “and the eventual choice of anyone who decides to seek other forms of Christian life … outside the [Neocatechumenate] must be respected.”

Translation:  Lighten up internally, and when somebody leaves, don’t swing into action like a K Street lobbying firm specializing in character assassination.

I’ve provided informal translations here for people who may not have being following the vicissitudes of the Neocatechumenate closely, not because the pope’s language was in any way unclear. Trust me – the 10,000 people in that hall knew exactly what he meant.

It remains to be seen whether the pontiff’s admonitions will have an impact in the experience people have of the Neocatechumenate. Perhaps by positioning himself as friend rather than foe, however, Francis at least may have ensured himself a serious hearing.

John L. Allen Jr. is associate editor of the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr 

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Pope tackles sex abuse, “new movements”

In Pope Francis’ ongoing reform campaign, the last day of January and the first day of February brought fresh drama on two key fronts: the Church’s sex abuse scandals, and the role of the “new movements” in Catholicism.

On Friday, Jan. 31, Francis held an audience for prelates and officials from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal watchdog agency, taking part in a plenary meeting.

Among other things, Francis confirmed that a new papal commission to lead the fight against sex abuse announced last December will be located within the doctrinal agency. That’s considered important, because it’s been the doctrinal office that’s had responsibility for handling abuse cases since 2001.

In the internal politics of the Vatican, it’s been seen as upholding a strong reform position.

The challenges the new commission may face were confirmed the same day, in a session with reporters held by the new secretary general of the Italian bishops’ conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, who among other things insisted that bishops should not be obligated to report abuse allegations against priests to the police.

“A bishop is not a public official or a public minister,” Galantino said. Instead, he said, a bishop must be a “father” to the both the victim and the accused priest.

Recently, two senior Vatican officials assured a United Nations panel in Geneva that it is now the policy of the Church to cooperate with all civil and criminal investigation s of abuse charges.

The Vatican has not imposed a universal requirement on bishops to relay abuse complaints to the police, but has said bishops are obligated to follow the law in societies with mandatory reporting requirements.

On Saturday Francis held another audience, this time with members of the Neocatechumenal Way, one of the “new movements” that grew up in the late 20th century.

Founded in Spain and known for its zealously missionary ethos, the Neocatechumenate has long admired by some and seen with suspicion by others. Among other things, critics charge that it can be a divisive force in parishes by forming a separate subculture, that it exercises excessive control over members, and demonizes ex-members who chose to leave.

Over the years, some bishops have denied permission to the Neocatechumenate to operate in their dioceses, including prelates in the U.K., Japan, the Philippines and Nepal.

While applauding the Neocatechumenate for its “generosity” and service to the Church, Francis also said he wanted to lay out three “simple recommendations.”

First, the pope said it’s more important for the group to be in communion with the local church than to uphold all the particulars of its own spiritual path.

“Communion is essential,” Francis said.

“Sometimes it can be better to renounce living in every detail what your own path demands, in order to guarantee unity among the brothers who form the one ecclesial community, of which you must always feel yourself a part,” he said.

Second, Francis urged the Neocatechumenate to respect the local cultures in which the group wants to put down roots.

Learning foreign languages is helpful, the pope said, but “much more important will be your commitment to learning the cultures that you meet, recognizing that the need for the Gospel is everywhere, but also [recognizing] the work of the Holy Spirit in the life and the history of every people.”

Third, the pope asked the Neocatechumenate to foster internal freedom and to respect those who decide to leave the group.

“Everyone’s freedom must not be coerced,” he said, “and the eventual choice of anyone who decides to seek other forms of Christian life … outside the [Neocatechumenate] must be respected.”

All told, the pope’s encounters with both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and with the Neocatechumenate illustrate the direction in which Francis is trying to take the church, while the context illustrates some of the challenges he’s likely to face in getting there.

(John Allen is an associate editor with the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr)

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