Monday, April 7, 2008

John Allen Jr. interviews "The Pope's Top Man in America"

The latest edition of John Allen Jr's column "All Things Catholic" features an interview with "the pope's top man in America": Italian archbishop and veteran papal diplomat Archbishop Pietro Sambi:

Sambi showed me the nunciature's chapel, where Benedict will say Mass on the morning of April 16 before heading to the White House for a closed-door session with President George W. Bush. April 16 happens to be Benedict's 81st birthday, and as Sambi put it, the small nunciature staff "will be his family that day." . . .
The interview covers a range of familiar topics, howbeit (as John Allen's interviews usually are) much more in depth. Archbishop Sambi states the official purpose of the papal visit -- first, "to go back to the roots of the church in the United States" (to celebrate the BiCentennial); second, "to confirm his brothers and sisters in the faith" as successor of St. Peter. The third goal, according to Sambi, has to do with improving America's moral presence in the world:
[Archbishop Sambi]: ... Of course, great military, economic and political strength is very important. But you must also have solid and consistent values -- human, moral and spiritual values.

America has had many of these values, such as freedom, democracy, respect for human beings and fundamental human rights. Today, the United States exports many things around the world. What it could export more, however, are the great values that a superpower should have.

[John Allen:] You deliberately said the United States "had" these values. Are you suggesting that the country doesn't have them now?

[Archbishop Sambi]: I don't say that the United States doesn't have them anymore. Americans insist on these values even today. But you know, it's been almost 40 years now that I've been moving around the world. I've noticed everywhere I go that the youth of the world sing American songs, they dance American dances, they eat American food. They use American English as the language of the computer. They cultivate an American mentality.

If you look carefully at all this, you see that what America is exporting throughout the world, especially to the youth of this world, is not always the most noble and constructive qualities America has to offer.

Last year, Catholic columnist Robert Reilly was horrified to learn that that the United States' Voice of America radio was broadcasting Britney Spears in lieu of discussions of issues and editorials reflecting U.S. policies -- Sambi may be sympathetic to his complaint.

Nonetheless, Sambi insists that the visit has been structured in such a way as to preserve the Holy Father's detachment from American politics and the presidential campaign ("The visit should be seen and interpreted in the spirit with which the pope himself comes to the United States, and not be instrumentalized"). As to what Benedict will actually say...

In broad terms, what do you expect the pope's message will be?

There have been many failed prophets who have tried to anticipate what the pope will say here and there. I can tell you only that what the pope will say, the pope himself knows, and nobody else.

You have not seen the texts of his speeches?

No. And if I have not seen them, others have surely not seen them!

Like Benedict, Sambi is impressed with the "religiousity" of the American people -- "You have a higher share of people going to Mass here, for example, than in any country of Europe," he states. (Sambi take note -- fidelity may be a factor -- as Catholic blogger and catechist Rich Leonardi pointed out recently, Mass attendance in the Denver Archdiocese (home to Charles J. Chaput, a pillar of orthodoxy) is higher than that of the national average; conversely, Rochester, whose shepherd, Bishop Matthew Clark, serves the same weak tea as the mainline Protestant denominations. There, Mass attendance is in a free-fall, dropping almost 20 percent since 2000).

Sambi goes on to discuss a number of other familiar topics --

  • the situation facing the Catholic Church in the United States (Catholics need "a clear identity, a sense of belonging, and a sense of excellence" to survive as a minority)
  • the question of whether Benedict will 'read the riot act' to Catholic educators (he agrees with Allen, that "speculation about the pope reprimanding educators has been stoked by people with axes to grind")
  • the war in Iraq ("[The U.S. Bishops] were not in favor of the war, but once it happened, they supported a "responsible transition" out of Iraq. We shouldn't leave the local population in an even worse situation")

By far the bulk of the interview is devoted to a painful subject -- one that the National Catholic Reporter has covered in depth:

The sex abuse crisis has been a deep trauma for the Catholic church in America. What do you expect from the Holy Father on that subject?

I expect him to say that we have to move forward from this situation, which has so humiliated the church in the United States. To move forward, we have to go back to the basic ministry of the church, which is to be representatives of Jesus Christ. Jesus asked, "Do you love me?" When the disciples said "Yes," his reply was: "Feed my sheep, take care of my lambs." Our attitude towards the faithful must be one of service -- love of God and service to our brothers and sisters. We must have the same respect for the faithful that Jesus had, who sacrificed his life for each of them.

As to the prospect of a meeting between Benedict and survivors of priestly sexual abuse, Sambi says "It's within the field of possibility, but I cannot confirm anything."

Sambi's parting words:

At the end of the day, how will the Catholic church in the United States be different because of this trip?

I would say that the church in the United States should make more and more evident a spirit of service to the faithful in the name of Jesus Christ. My experience is that where you have a parish priest who is truly dedicated to the service of his parish, the sex scandals have not produced great damages. In dioceses where the bishop is a really good pastor, at the service of the Gospel and of the faithful, the sex scandal has not had a very bad impact. The way to move forward is through a deeper spirituality in serving God and serving others. This trip will be a strong push in that direction.