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VATICAN LETTER Apr-1-2005 (920 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

As pope falls silent, other Vatican officials give their views

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As Pope John Paul II's voice has fallen silent, the words of other leading Vatican officials are echoing more loudly.

Attentive listeners during Holy Week found that the cardinal stand-ins for the ailing pope were not just relaying papal messages. They were pronouncing their own strong views on social and ecclesial issues.

The cardinals and other prelates who took center stage in the pope's absence are all expected to be significant voices when the next conclave occurs. As members of the Roman Curia, they shared a common perspective, but their points of emphasis were quite different.

For many, the most shocking words came from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who as dean of the College of Cardinals will have a leading role in the next conclave.

In a meditation for a Good Friday Way of the Cross ceremony, Cardinal Ratzinger denounced Catholics' failings in some of the sharpest language used by a Vatican official in recent times.

"How much filth there is in the church," he said, and what little faith behind the "empty words." He described the church as a boat about to sink, taking on water on every side, and as a field in which there are "more weeds than wheat."

Christianity seems to have grown weary of the faith and abandoned Christ, while a "new and worse paganism" that tries to eliminate God is on the rise, he said.

Cardinal Ratzinger's comments had an impact inside the Vatican, and not all of the reaction was favorable. One unnamed Vatican official, quoted by the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero, said the cardinal's words could be seen as a signal to the next pope to "grab a broom and prepare for a general housecleaning."

At a Holy Saturday vigil, Cardinal Ratzinger was back to give a sermon that highlighted the demands of the faith. Going to Mass every week is a necessary obligation for the faithful, he said, and the liturgy proposes a specific spiritual path, not generalities and "vague utopias."

The cardinal, who heads the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, also defended the magisterium: Following Christ, he said, implies not only compassion for the suffering and the poor, but also "having faith in the church and in its interpretations ... of the divine word for our current circumstances."

On the evening of Holy Thursday, another outspoken Vatican official, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, took his turn in the pulpit. From the theme of the Eucharist and the Last Supper, he moved quickly to denouncing the "ideology of evil" and "culture of pleasure" in the world, as well as legislative proposals that would damage the institutions of marriage and the family.

Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, head of the Pontifical Council for the Family, warned of an "extreme dehumanization" spreading through society. In an apparent reference to abortion, he said this mentality allows "a crime to pass for a right."

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation for Bishops, celebrated the chrism Mass on Holy Thursday morning. Known in the Roman Curia more as a problem-solver than a provocateur, he delivered a comforting sermon about the beauty of the priestly vocation and the service priests offer the whole church.

Christ, the only savior, is more necessary than ever for the world, which makes priests more necessary for the world, he said.

On the afternoon of Good Friday, the sermon fell to Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the official papal preacher who often dips into popular culture for his ideas. Some think he could also be an important voice in a conclave if he is chosen to give one of two meditations prior to the assembly of cardinals.

Father Cantalamessa also had some critical comments about what he called expressions of pent-up resentment against Christianity. Books like "The Da Vinci Code" are becoming a literary fashion, he said, and shows like "Jerry Springer: The Opera" demonstrate that "intolerance of religion" has replaced religious intolerance.

But he said Christians need to remember the bigger issues and the bigger picture and not succumb to the "mood of gloomy pessimism common in our society." God personifies hope and goodness, and Christians need to bear witness to that in the world, he said.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the papal vicar of Rome, struck a similar note when he stood in for the pope at a Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican. In his sermon, he said understanding the crucifixion means that we do not "abandon ourselves to pessimism and lose trust in life."

A few days later Cardinal Ruini, who is seen by some as a potential candidate in a future conclave, published a book called "New Signs of the Times" and gave a wide-ranging interview touching on the global religious revival, relations with Muslims, bioethical and political issues and religious freedom.

Journalists were attentive to all these voices because they will undoubtedly be heard in the next conclave. Catholics who attended the liturgies in Rome may have had something else on their minds.

When Cardinal Ratzinger and other prelates processed into St. Peter's on Holy Saturday, for example, the traditional explosion of flash bulbs from the pews failed to occur. The pope wasn't there.

And when Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, presided over the Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square, the only big applause came at the very end -- when Pope John Paul appeared at his apartment window above the square. He had no voice, but he was still the pope.


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