Crux of the Crucifix, and Over-80 Cardinals

The Cross Finds New Friends, Sort of

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By Delia Gallagher

ROME, OCT. 30, 2003 ( The front page story of Italian newspapers this week is about the crucifix. A Muslim man from Egypt, Adel Smith, who now lives in the Italian town of Ofena, sued his son’s public school because the crucifix in the classroom “bothered him.” He won.

On Saturday, a district judge of Aquila handed down a sentence siding with Smith. “Public schools must be impartial regarding religious phenomena,” the judge said.

Italy is in an uproar. Political leaders, both conservative and liberal, have condemned the sentence as “absurd” and “without intelligence.” Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi said the decision “is not definitive.” Investigations into the judge, not to mention Smith (who is considered something of a maverick even by Muslims) have begun.

Suddenly, the crucifix has found itself with a bevy of new enthusiasts. Politicians hitherto antagonistic or indifferent to the Catholic Church (and to one another) have jumped to the defense of the ultimate Christian symbol. The Vatican need hardly say a word.

These politicians do not defend the crucifix insofar as it is a religious symbol, but because it has become a cultural symbol, “a symbol of the values that are at the base of our identity,” says President Ciampi.

“It is an outrage to say so for a believer,” writes author Umberto Eco in La Repubblica, “but the cross has become a secular and universal symbol.”

Eco, who favors retaining crucifixes in the classroom, exhorts Adel Smith and all Muslims to “accept the uses and customs of their host country.” He also invites the host country “to make sure that your uses and customs do not become impositions of your faith.”

So it seems those who wish to save the crucifix from a Muslim who takes it to court, are themselves suing it for divorce. To separate faith from the cross will perhaps save it in the classroom but, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, it makes it less like a cross.

The real question raised by this story is: When is a cross not a cross?

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How Old Is Old?

In the wake of the consistory and installation of 30 new cardinals last week, rumors circulated of a letter sent to the Pope to request that cardinals over the age of 80 be allowed to vote in a conclave.

Never mind that the number of cardinal-electors is already bulging — John Paul II has exceeded the norm of maximum 120 electors by 15 — but now consider the possibility of the Sistine Chapel packed with another 60 cardinals adding their vote at election time.

Whether an official request has been made is unconfirmed. But the ringleader of the push for the rights of the over-80s is Italian Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, who himself turned 80 on Saturday.

I spoke to the cardinal at the end of the summer, when he published an interview with Inside the Vatican magazine. His concern then, with his 80th birthday looming, was that the Pope change the rule.

“It was one of the unhappy reforms of Paul VI,” said the cardinal, who worked under that Pope in the Vatican Secretariat of State.

“It would be good for the Church,” said Cardinal Silvestrini. “How can you say to Cardinals Laghi [and] Etchegaray that they can’t go? No one thinks that he would be elected but they would vote and contribute to forming a consensus. Why exclude them?”

In his 1996 apostolic constitution “Universi Dominici Gregis,” John Paul II says the over-80 cardinals should be excluded so as “not to add to the weight of such venerable age the further burden of responsibility for choosing the one who will have to lead Christ’s flock in ways adapted to the needs of the times.”

Cardinal Silvestrini encouraged me to ask around to see if other cardinals supported his idea. In the past two months I have done so, and my unofficial survey says that Cardinal Silvestrini is on his own. Most cardinals seem to think the rule is fine the way it is.

The question of age is not one just for the cardinals, as Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, pointed out to me last week.

When the bishops of England and Wales voiced their concern to him about aging priests during their recent visit to Rome, he told them, “Seventy-five is not old!”

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A Gift for Cardinal Saraiva Martins

Someone who might agree with Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos is Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, who turned 70 in January 2002, and on Monday received a valuable, if belated, birthday gift from his fellow cardinals and the Urbanium University, where he was once rector. “Semel rector semper rector” — once a rector, always a rector — read the dedication.

The gift is a book entitled “Veritas in Caritate,” after the cardinal’s episcopal motto. It is a collection of essays by Vatican cardinals and theologians.

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who along with Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re presented the book on Monday, spoke of Cardinal Saraiva Martins’ “magnetic charm,” to which I too can attest. The cardinal, despite his hectic schedule as the head of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes, seems always ready to sit down and have a long fireside chat with you — and indeed this sometimes happens. I once asked to see him for a quick 20-minute interview and ended up leaving an hour later.

The book is a good read. Cardinal Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, writes on the prickly subject of collegiality. Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, weighs in on priestly formation and, in particular, celibacy.

There is Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, on why saints are good for ecumenism, and Cardinal Etchegaray on the Church and the great challenges of our time. Other writers include Cardinals Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education; Paul Poupard; Alfonso López Trujillo; and Tarcisio Bertone.

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Changing in Midstream

“Semel rector semper rector” may not apply at the Venerable English College where the departure of Monsignor Patrick Kilgarriff was recently announced by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.

It is a surprising move that has left many perplexed. Next June the rector would have completed five years at the college, the standard time to think about stepping down. But the cardinal has decided that Monsignor Kilgarriff will go at the midterm break in February.

Eyebrows were raised, but no official explanation was given. The current vice rector, Father Nick Hudson, will take over as rector, and Father Andrew Hayden, an alumnus, will become vice rector.

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Readers may contact Delia Gallagher at

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