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VATICAN LETTER Jul-13-2007 (930 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

This summer, Vatican tradition brings flurry of decisions, documents

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Before Pope Benedict XVI took off for his summer vacation in the Italian Alps, he engaged in a time-honored Vatican tradition: clearing his desk.

That resulted in a flurry of decisions and documents, some long-awaited and some complete surprises. Their common denominator, apparently, was that no one wanted to deal with them again when they returned to their offices in September.

Topping the list was the pope's July 7 apostolic letter on wider use of the Tridentine Mass. The document had been floating around so long that the Latin term "motu proprio," which refers to the form of the text, actually was making it into mainstream news reports.

The pope began consulting on the Tridentine question in late 2005, and in early 2006 he discussed a draft text with members of the Roman Curia and the world's cardinals.

The document then went into hibernation, and some people are still wondering why. After all, very few changes were made in the course of its preparation, according to Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, a strong supporter of the pope's decree.

In the end, the pope acknowledged some apprehensions about his decision but made it abundantly clear that he wanted wider latitude shown to traditionalist groups who desire Mass in the old rite.

The outcome was not surprising to reporters covering the Vatican. What seemed a little odd was that such a sensitive document was not unveiled at a Vatican press conference.

Before his election, Pope Benedict participated in many such press conferences as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At best, these media events can head off confusion and resolve doubts about a document; at worst, they add unnecessary verbiage and risk veering off into irrelevant controversies.

Perhaps the pope weighed the option and decided that his voice -- in the Tridentine Mass letter and an accompanying explanatory letter -- was enough.

The lack of a press conference was also noticed on three other recent occasions: the release of the pope's letter to Chinese Catholics, a change in papal conclave rules and a doctrinal document insisting that the Catholic Church was the true church of Christ.

The letter to Chinese Catholics was so finely tuned that a press conference was probably never even considered. Again, the Vatican decided not to bury what the pope was saying in a lot of extraneous comment.

The China letter also had been expected for months and went through an ample review process involving Vatican departments and others.

In contrast, the pope's one-page letter changing the conclave rules dropped out of nowhere. Clearly, this was something the pope did not feel needed broad or lengthy consultation.

For journalists in the Vatican's press room, the conclave change was a reminder to always be prepared for anything. It simply appeared in the noon press bulletin, in Latin and with no translation.

Fortunately, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, had been briefed and could answer some questions. The pope's move effectively restored the two-thirds majority for all circumstances of papal election, eliminating a simple majority option.

The latest document to drop out of the Vatican pipeline was a statement reaffirming that the Catholic Church is the one true church, even though "elements" of truth can be found in other Christian communities. It was personally approved by the pope.

Although it agitated the ecumenical waters, the document said nothing new, raising the question of why it was released at this particular moment. The Vatican said it was because of possible confusion in theological and ecumenical circles.

Those who see a grand design in Vatican actions, however, suspected it may have been another olive branch to the breakaway traditionalist followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre -- just three days after the Tridentine Mass decree. In this reading, the Vatican has delivered a double demonstration, liturgical and doctrinal, that answers some of the Lefebvrites' strongest objections about the modern church.

The doctrinal document certainly illustrated Pope Benedict's ongoing concern with the correct implementation of the Second Vatican Council. It was chock full of footnotes citing Vatican II documents and emphasized that the council never intended to question the "fullness of grace and truth" present in the Catholic Church.

In a similar manner, the decree on the Tridentine Mass insisted that the council had never officially abrogated the old liturgy, which can therefore coexist with the new Mass. As the pope said early in his pontificate, Vatican II teachings must be seen as reform and not as "discontinuity and rupture" with the past.

Pope Benedict also made some long-expected appointments in June and July. One of the most important was the naming of French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran as head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, a move that signaled priority interest in interfaith relations.

Five more appointments were announced, too. The timing probably had as much to do with logistics as anything: Summer vacation gives relocating prelates a chance to move their offices and, if needed, their residences.

As for the pope, he's not expected to return to his desk at the Vatican until the end of September. After nearly three weeks of "real" vacation in the mountains, he'll spend most of the summer at his villa in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome, where he keeps up a limited schedule of meetings.

This year, he'll interrupt his time at Castel Gandolfo for two pastoral visits: to Marian shrines in the southern Italian city of Loreto and the Austrian pilgrimage site of Mariazell.


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