Dorothy Cummings McLean

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Rowdy Vatican press room: Synod panelists yell at reporters, reporters yell at each other

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Editor’s note: Our Scotland-based reporter, Dorothy Cummings McLean, has been sent to Italy to join our Rome correspondent, Diane Montagna, in covering the Synod for the Bishops of the Pan-Amazon Region. A lifelong diarist, Dorothy has volunteered to give readers a glimpse into life off-camera as she carries out what she calls “a dream assignment.” Read all of her Amazon Synod diary posts HERE.

Thursday, October 24, 2019: Spanish is the language of the oppressor, apparently

Wednesday was my spiritual development day, and although I enjoyed speaking to a priest and visiting the relics of my patron saint in Trastevere, I felt underwhelmed by the view from the Janiculum Hill, which I have seen many times already. I missed the race to write two articles before running to the press office and the drama of the question period. But I was grateful to have a day off from the Splashamama scandal, for, as I expected, Monday’s celebrations were followed by Tuesday’s accusations of racism and hatred.

Tuesday’s presser, however, was relatively low-key, and as the conversations centered on the environment and the creation of a new Latin American ecclesiastical network, the one eye-opener was Karel Martinus Choennie, bishop of Paramaribo in Suriname, initially defining China and Japan as parts of the West. The bishop also blamed the deforestation of the Amazon on Europeans eating too much meat, which I found hilarious until I looked up how much beef is shipped to the E.U. from Brazil: 140,243 tonnes in 2018. That’s some hamburger.

Afterward, I had coffee with a German friend and pumped him for information about how Catholicism is currently inculturated in Germany. In his diocese, the situation is grim. His village parish sees its priest only one Sunday a month. Laypeople, men and women, fill in on the other three Sundays with Liturgies of the Word, and they give homilies even when the priest is there to give Mass. Naturally, they dress in vestments.

My pal usually avoids these Liturgies of the Word by actually fulfilling his obligation to go to Sunday Mass by travelling outside his village. (His bishop, strangely, wants any Sunday liturgy at all in every village instead of reminding his flock that they need to go to Mass.) My friend was dismissive of the basic training the laity receive to replace their priest, and he noted that they are not paid. 

This is not to say that those German priests in ministry today ― 13,000? 11,000? ― have it easy. I know one who was given ten (10) parishes upon receiving ordination.

“Maybe I will like these changes the German bishops want,” my friend said coyly.

“Of course you will,” I said. “You’re a German Catholic.”

Not all German Catholics are a-okay with the insanity, of course, but my pal went to a German theology school notorious for its lack of doctrinal orthodoxy.

This morning, Thursday, I spent preparing for an interview with Polonia Christiana, a magazine of great fame among Polish traditionalists. They have rented a splendid sunlit apartment on the Borgo Pio and turned the biggest room into a television studio. I am not a natural linguist, unfortunately, so my Polish broke down when my interviewer, the charming and erudite Krystian Kratiuk, asked me about grzeczny ekologiczne ― ecological sins. I was prepared to dance a polonaise on żonaci kapłany (married priests) and diakonat kobiet (the women’s diaconate) and even niemiecki pieniądze (German money) and niemiecka teologia (German theology), but I have a much more cautious take on the stewardship of the Earth. There’s a compostable toothbrush on my rented bathroom sink, and I’m contemplating writing a book called Crunchy Trads.

Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed my bilingual conversation with Mr. Kratiuk, both on and off camera, and then went to the Sala Stampa to work. I was so hungry, though, I actually risked the Sala Stampa candy machine. One of the minor difficulties of working from the Vatican is that I can’t just run around the corner to a supermarket for a cheap sandwich. No, I have to eat in a civilized manner like an Italian, paying like a tourist, or go hungry. Thus, I rarely write my articles in the Sala Stampa.

There’s a lot of space there, though. To the left of the conference room, the Aula Giovanni Paolo II, there’s a long room set up for journalists. It has private booths for the big agencies and papers who, no doubt, pay for them and tables down the middle for everyone else. As I was preparing for today’s presser, one of the privileged, big agency veterans sauntered into the room, crying, “Good afternoon, all you defenders of the Faith!”

The presser was a bit ugly, and for the first time, I left it angry.

The presenters were Sister Mariluce dos Santos Mesquita, an indigenous woman from Brazil; Fr. Eleazar López Hernández, an indigenous priest from Mexico; Delio Siticonatzi Camaiteri, an indigenous professor from Peru; Archbishop Alberto Taveira Corrêa of Belém do Pará in Brazil; and Cardinal Beniamino Stella, the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, who lives in Vatican City.

The presentations began well. Sister Mariluce talked about her experience of the synod and the importance of fighting deforestation. Then Fr. López addressed the media in a language few, if any, of us understood and regretted the fact that he had to speak the language of “the conquerors” — i.e., Spanish. As I listened to a translation of this, I pondered how much easier my job would be if he had had to speak English instead.

Fr. López then proceeded to get my back up by mourning 500 years of Spanish-speaking Mexican culture and dismissing as colonizers those missionaries who poured out their lives to baptize and improve the living standards of the Americas. Apparently, the missionaries who have been there for the past 50 years are much, much better ― which does not explain why Pentecostals are now so successful at converting local Catholics.

Needless to say, López did not think throwing “the images” into the Tiber River was a good idea. He did not acknowledge that the Catholics who did this did so out of love for God and His First Commandment. I suppose when your ruling idea is that you have been oppressed for 500 years, the idea that you might ever need to apologize to your European hosts for outraging their religious sensibilities might come not only as a shock, but as an obscenity. 

Professor Siticonatzi gave a longer preamble in his native language, which, again, few, if any, of his hearers understood, and said he represented 48 indigenous language groups from Peru. He gave a good presentation in which he mentioned the “hope” the synod had given him and the need to protect the Amazon and the whole world. Archbishop Taveria and Cardinal Stella likewise managed to reflect on the synod without spitting on 500 years of Christianity in the Americas.

But the feeling of slightly dull goodwill disappeared while the panel answered a question from La Croix about the proposal for an Amazonian Rite. One circumstance the panel might have considered is that Catholics around the world have already seen examples of what this rite might look like, thanks to Pachamama’s progress around Vatican City and sojourn in Santa Maria in Traspontina. They are, therefore, just a little antsy. Another circumstance is that we are nervous about the upcoming, illicit German synod, in which certain German bishops will do their best to tailor Catholicism to suit modern German tendencies. Universality is on the chopping block, and we know it.

Cardinal Stella replied that it is “natural” that the Amazonian peoples want their own languages, symbols, and — wait for it — local rituals incorporated in the liturgy. Fr. López doubled down on the local rituals and raised a few eyebrows by revealing that the synod had given rise to a formula: “the Gospel of Jesus has been received by the gospel of the people: the Amazonian people.” 

“But as Christians, we have the responsibility of knowing what is essential of the Christian project and what is secondary and what is cultural,” he said.

While he spoke, Professor Siticonatzi clearly became agitated by the raised eyebrows he noticed in the crowd, and although Sister Mariluce spoke cheerfully afterward about her local liturgical traditions of “sharing” and “fraternity,” her Ashaninca colleague openly challenged the media for looking uneasy, doubtful, and worried.

“Don’t harden your hearts,” he demanded, raising his voice, and thus gave me my second story from the presser. Thank you very much, Professor. Haranguing the media always makes good copy, one reason why paparazzi try to make their subjects angry.

There was also a question about Mary, and López suggested that Mary had Christianized all of Latin America because “in the ancestral relationship that the people had with God there was included the feminine part.” So there is my third story from today’s presser, coming soon to a webpage near you.

After a few more questions, Edward Pentin of the National Catholic Register dropped two more bombs: 1. the invitation of leftist politicians to the synod by the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) and 2. an allegation that the deputy director of the Sala Stampa and panel moderator, Cristiane Murray, is a co-founder of REPAM. (She denied this.) Pentin also brought up the Ford Foundation funding again.

My colleague Diane has written about the responses here; suffice it for me to say that the panel did not rejoice in these questions, and neither did all the journalists. One started shouting at Pentin afterward. It wasn’t pretty.

I did not get to ask my own questions, which were “What, in your estimation, has the Gospel of Christ added to life in the Americas?” and “Could the Vatican comment on the use of a computer in the Secretariat of State to alter Dr. Taylor Marshall’s Wikipedia entry?” There was a large, oppressor-speaking scrum around Fr. López afterward, or I would have asked him the first question personally — in the language of yet another oppressor, unfortunately, as I was in an insufficiently tranquil state of mind to speak Italian.

I was, in a nutshell, angry because we were being asked to believe that after 500 years of Christian worship in Mexico and Latin America, native symbols and rituals now must be formally added to it. But I was also furious on behalf of generations of missionaries who thought saving the souls of Meso-America was more important than a long and more comfortable life in Europe, Canada, or the USA. I was also furious on behalf of generations of poor European and North American Catholics who gave what money they could to the missions because they thought saving the souls of Meso-America was more important than their creature comforts.

Did the missionaries make mistakes? Very likely. Were some of them criminal sex fiends? Undoubtedly. Such men and women lurked in our cities, too. But that doesn’t negate the fact that the vast majority of Christian missionaries made massive sacrifices out of love for God and His peoples of the Global South. And their sacrifices were partly their parents’ and siblings’ sacrifices, too.

I went back to my apartment and contacted my indispensable Spanish-speaking colleague, Martin Barillas. I wrote for several hours and then took a break to buy a pizza from around the corner. I felt like a cliché as I ate it in front of a TV show, surrounded by litter. Tomorrow, I will wash my laundry in the bidet again, as I am too frightened of the incomprehensible Italian washing machine.

I miss my husband.

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Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian journalist, essayist, and novelist. She earned an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and an M.Div./S.T.B. from Toronto’s Regis College. She was a columnist for the Toronto Catholic Register for nine years and regularly contributes to Catholic World Report. Her first book, Seraphic Singles,  was published by Novalis (2010) in Canada, Liguori in the USA, and Homo Dei in Poland. Her second, Ceremony of Innocence, was published by Ignatius Press (2013). Dorothy lives near Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband.