Pope Sees Pain Abroad, Fears Islam in Europe
LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Latin spoken)
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: Tens of thousands of pilgrims packed St. Peter's Square in Rome this morning to hear Pope Benedict XVI celebrate Easter Mass. Easter this year comes as Pope Benedict prepares for his 80th birthday, the second anniversary of his pontificate and the publication of his first book as pope.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us. First, Sylvia, what did Pope Benedict say in his Easter message?
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Well, he gave a long list of suffering - hunger, incurable diseases, terrorism and kidnappings - in what he called the thousand faces of violence, which he said some people attempt to justify in the name of religion. He covered one of the main themes of his forthcoming book, "The Plundering of Poor Countries by the Rich Regions of the World."
He singled out Darfur as a sadly underestimated humanitarian crisis. And on the Middle East, he spoke of the Christian exodus and that beside some signs of hope in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by a continual slaughter as the civil population flees.
HANSEN: Pope Benedict is going to turn 80 on April 16; three days later, it'll be his second anniversary of his election as pope, and he's begun to put a stamp on the pontificate. Can you just remind us, what are his basic tenets?
POGGIOLI: Well, you know, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he was, in a sense, the architect of the dogma set down by his predecessor, and there's been no shift away from those stands. Benedict has rejected calls to let divorced Catholics who remarry to participate fully in the church. He upholds priestly celibacy and the ban against women's ordination. He has urged the return of Latin prayers and Gregorian chants in the Mass, and has adopted papal garments not used in many centuries. So solemnity, tradition and discipline are in the forefront of this papacy.
HANSEN: Even though the pontiff did mention trouble spots in the world, he seems to be a lot more focused on Europe than his predecessor John Paul II. Why?
POGGIOLI: Well, because Catholicism is in decline in Europe. Benedict speaks - he wants Europe, which he sees as the cradle of Christianity - he wants to re-evangelize the Continent, which he sees drifting toward dangerous secularism. Church attendance in many European countries is in the single digit. Churches are boarded up in Ireland, which used to export priests. Priests are now being imported from Africa. Traditionally Catholic Belgium and Spain have followed the Dutch lead and legalized gay marriage. And all this dismays Benedict.
On the recent 50th anniversary of the European Union, he lashed out at Europe saying it's deserting its Christian roots and risks disappearing from history. And he's certainly worried that Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe today.
HANSEN: Does he have a strategy to get his message across?
POGGIOLI: Well, he seems to be challenging the traditional separation between church and state. He has warned Catholic politicians to follow church directives in legislation; if necessary, declare themselves conscientious objectors and avoid any role in policies which contradict church dogma, for example, abortion, in vitro fertilization and euthanasia.
Nowhere is the debate as shrill as it is here in Italy where the government has proposed a very mild civil unions bill that would recognize some rights to unmarried couples including gay couples. This is just too much for the Vatican, and the Italian Bishops Conference, taking its lead from the pope, has issued strict guidelines for Catholic politicians.
HANSEN: You mentioned low attendance in Europe, churches being boarded up, but do you get the sense that Europeans are actually indifferent to religion?
POGGIOLI: Well, I think, there're mixed signals. Polls show that, for example, the majority of both Italians and Spaniards consider themselves Catholics even if they don't go to church. And then there's this phenomenon of the spread of many lay Catholic movements throughout Europe. They're both conservative and liberal, and they're present at all levels of society. They are groups that are very active in charity work with the poor and immigrants, others that do fieldwork in the Third World. And several analysts say that these lay movements represent a need for reform, and that they are a rejection of the top-down nature of the institution, not of the Catholic faith.
HANSEN: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Sylvia, thank you very much.
POGGIOLI: Thank you, Liane.
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