The Ambassador Exits; Grass-roots Unity

U.S. Envoy Recalls Highlights of His Tenure

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By Catherine Smibert

ROME, JAN. 27, 2005 ( The outgoing U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, who has been nominated for a Cabinet post in the Bush administration, says he is leaving Rome with many fond memories.

«The high of many highlights,» he told me, «was being able to be present when President Bush presented the Medal of Freedom, America’s highest honor, to the Pope in June 2004. The citation acknowledges the Pope’s tireless work to champion the cause of the poor, the weak, the hungry and the outcast. He has defended the unique dignity of every life.»

Nicholson, who took over his ambassador’s post in August 2001, has worked closely with the Vatican on these issues and more.

The ambassador points out that «for 20 years the U.S. and Holy See has collaborated on the central issues of each epoch: end of communism, the resolution of regional conflicts in Latin America and Africa, and the peace process in the Middle East, and today, the threats of terror, hunger and disease.»

As he steps down, he has high hopes for the continuation of his humanitarian conferences. «Much work remains to be done and that includes feeding a hungry world, as the Pope mentioned in his annual greeting to the diplomatic corps this year,» Nicholson said.

He added: «The United States would like to see the Vatican step forward with a positive and supportive statement on the use of biotechnology to save lives in the developing world.

«Trafficking in persons is another issue that we have worked closely on. We would like to see the Vatican get even more involved and leverage its global network of churches and religious workers to fight this scourge.

«We have worked, and will continue to work, on religious freedom around the world. We can work together where there are threats by approaching governments, as well as by bringing those threats to the media to disseminate information and awareness.»

His activity in Rome earned him an honorary doctorate from Rome’s John Cabot University, in 2002, and a President’s Medal from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 2003. During a Vatican ceremony in October 2003, he was named a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Pius IX, the highest papal award given to a layman who is not a head of state.

Nicholson recalled that the hardest moment of his tenure was the crisis in Iraq which, he said, presented widespread misunderstandings about how the Vatican functions on high-level and important political issues.

«The United States government and the American public often did not understand the many and sometimes seemingly contradictory messages and voices coming out of the Vatican on this issue,» Nicholson told me. «I had what turned out to be a difficult task of explaining that there were in fact many voices that did not represent the Holy Father’s view or voice.

«That is, of course, the very essence of diplomatic work — a task of interpretation and analysis on an issue of great sensitivity and public emotion.»

Nevertheless, the ambassador says the work of the United States with the Holy See to battle for human dignity will continue for a «long, long time.»

* * *

Promoting the Week of Prayer

Many recent homilies in Rome pointed to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity — and the work of the Pro Unione Center run by the Franciscans of the Atonement.

The director of the center, Father James Pugliese, gave some insight to the message behind the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer as his group had the task of preparing the meditative texts for the occasion.

«The message, I think, is fundamental,» he told Vatican Radio. «It is that we have to see ourselves in relationship to Christ, who is the only foundation of the Church.» He recalled St. Paul’s words that each one has a task to build on that one foundation.

One way to do that, insists one of Father Pugliese’s fellow Franciscans, Father James Loughran, is through the power of prayer.

Father Loughran is director of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, near New York.

«Now, more than ever,» he told me, «the spiritual aspect of ecumenism is important. Christians may not be able to share all sacraments together but we can pray together. We can pray that somehow, we’ll have the full communion that we strive for in the ecumenical movement.»

As a point of reference, the Franciscan mentioned the texts provided by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission.

Fine-tuning the documents is a necessary step to introducing the concepts at a local level, says the assistant director of the Graymoor Institute, Sister Lorelei Fuchs.

She is the first to point out that although the situation of dialogue certainly varies from country to culture, it’s something that affects us all and an element of life that none of us can ignore.

«The local [level] becomes more important in some ways than the national or international,» she says, «because that’s where the unique, grass-roots understanding and reception of the message for unity comes.»

Sister Fuchs speaks of getting the ecumenical message to the «people in the pews» and has some practical ideas for doing so. «I think a tremendous effort that could be made, is to have a point person, somebody responsible, to lift up what is happening ecumenically in each diocese or synod.»

She also proposes that each parish to have a parish ecumenical representative, a PER, who informs about what is going on at neighboring churches or about new texts for dialogue.

I asked Father Loughran what he thinks are the biggest challenges to full unity.

«Right now,» he said, «there’s the issue of the authority of the Church to speak the truth, and resistance on the part of many Christians out of one sense of insecurity or another — I suppose, out of some doubts of the ecumenical partner’s willingness to listen without attempts at conversion.»

* * *

Poor in Purse, Rich in Spirit

A Rome-based priest who recently returned from a trip to the Philippines reminded the Eternal City not to take its Church-life for granted.

Whereas Rome seems to have a church on every street, the faithful in other nations, especially Third World countries, have far less materially, notes Father Clement Machado of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT, for short).

Yet, the curious thing is that the faith in these poor nations is often stronger, he tells me. The priest talked about what he saw during his mission over the holidays.

«Because the Philippines are a cluster of islands and are at Third World status, they don’t have very many resources or structured churches built, so they have rudimentary ‘Mass stations’ or small chapels.

«They rarely have the infrastructure, the pastoral personnel or the resources to regularly minister to the people,» Father Machado said.

He tells the story of one priest who covered all sorts of areas — «cutting through jungles on foot for hours or, riding a horse, if lucky, over hills and through forests just to say Mass.»

And these areas are not even considered remote — they are the «local» parishes, he says. «In some remote areas, the people haven’t seen priests for two or three years.»

Organizers of the mission that Father Machado went on expressed the importance of having missionaries available for their people.

One organizer, Emma De Gooseman, told me that «it was very beautiful to have this outreach and our people needed it so much. Though we have a lot of faith in the Philippines, we don’t get a lot of catechetical formation or sacramental opportunity.»

It was for this reason that De Gooseman and Bishop Precioso Cantillas of the Maasin Diocese selected Father Machado as he, after his pontifical university studies, could present bo
th sound catechesis and a living faith.

Bishop Cantillas, 51, explains: «As a place recently hit by the disaster of the typhoons and landslides ourselves, certainly material assistance is very much needed. But at the same time, spiritual assistance cannot be emphasized enough.»

Father Machado experienced this firsthand. «Where I was, in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, is an area devastatingly affected by the typhoon that hit the area over the few weeks prior to Christmas,» he recalled.

«The first family I met was comprised of Victorius and his five small children, all under the age of 10. His wife had gotten swept up by the floodwaters of the typhoon, never to be recovered. All the while, this man and his children are calm. Of course they were upset, but it is only their faith that has bought them through this.»

Father Machado says after ministering in many Third World countries that have faced natural disasters, war and poverty, there is much spiritual conviction.

«They’re very fragile when there’s a tremendous crisis,» he says, «it overwhelms their infrastructure. Thus when it comes to the necessary relief, rescue efforts, rehabilitation and reconstruction … the only thing they can rely on is their faith.»

And that’s why Bishop Cantillas is encouraging other missionaries from Rome or elsewhere to offer their services in places hard-hit by devastation.

* * *

Catherine Smibert can be reached at

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