DIRECT ACTION in Rome
Just before we started the event I asked my 30 year old woman translator if she was scared. “No,” she said. “Even though we don’t know what is going to happen, I am looking forward to it. It is important that we do this and what happens will happen.” Courage! Always a sign of the spirit.
The action at Cardinal Law’s basilica was memorable for many reasons: the crowd that gathered (it was announced beforehand in the paper), their questions; their passion in taking on the policemen especially around the right to hang the theses on a gate; the beauty of the morning with sun shining from an all-blue sky; the length of time we stayed there—about 80 minutes (much larger gathering than Wittenberg); the Vatican plainclothes police with dark sun glasses staring at me the whole time; and above all the strategy and courage of the young people who created the excellent poster which looked like a medieval Manuscript in a large type that yet was practical and easy to read; their flexibility in adapting to the policemen’s tactics, for example they smartly engaged the moment and the Vatican plain clothed police when the crowd had dispersed. I was away from this engagement but saw dramatic interaction from where I was. I so look forward to seeing their film. I especially wonder if Stephano the filmer got the attack by the Vatican thugs of the second film maker on film?
How right Barbara was about 1) Vatican police dictating orders to Roman police and 2) the thugs that are policing the Vatican these days. Just as I learned after my Wittenberg action how much darker the Vatican was than I had anticipated, so with this Italian, Roman, action, I learned how much darker still were the forces and veritable police state ruling not only Vatican City but, in many respects, Rome itself. Penny Lernoux’ words are chilling: “Ratzinger is only a front man for the German-Polish mafia,” she said. Or Barbara’s words: “The Vatican is run by a gang of mafia thugs.”
Our protest was non-violent and remained that way in the face of violence on the part of the Vatican police. Are Italians forbidden to preach or to listen to a preacher in a public square? Was the Basilica event an historic moment? One of empowerment for Italians vis a vis the church? Consider that Italy never underwent the Protestant Reformation (but only the counter-Reformation of the Council of Trent).
Our videographers and photographers were taking pictures of the police videographers and photographers and vice versa. It was like a scene from old East Germany. The Stasi. That was the feeling emanating from the Vatican police.
Before we began, one of our people went into the church to scout things out. Many policemen were inside. He went up to one and said, “I heard there was going to be a demonstration here today,” (or something close to that) and the policeman got very agitated and said: “No there won’t be. We will see to that.” So that was our first clue that our demonstration would be outdoors and even outside the fence. But as it happened, even that distance was not enough to satisfy the Vatican police (who apparently have very broad jurisdiction in Rome itself). During the course of my presentation and the q and a period of about 80 minutes, the sheet containing the theses were taken down (I took them back at one point from the policeman who took them down), put up again, taken down, held up by some of the participants standing by, etc. etc. Up-down, Up down, Up-down.
A man who asked some very sophisticated questions about my presentation (he had the air of a lawyer about him and was of mature age), ended up in a shouting match with the policeman who was literally receiving phone calls from higher ups on his ear phone telling him what to do. From the pained look on his face I had the distinct impression that he wished he was elsewhere—like rescuing a cat stranded in a tree or even a spouse form domestic abuse or handing out traffic violations—just anywhere other than in a church courtyard on a Sunday morning being dictated to by plainclothes police with their phones in their ear and hearing a presenter calling for a religious reformation (or revolution?). The shouting match between the police and this “lawyer” person was about 1) who owned the property we stood on and 2) Who owned the fence demarcating this property from the church steps and on which we hung the theses. The “lawyer” said in an angry voice to the policeman, “my taxes paid for this sidewalk and fence so keep your hands off the preacher’s theses.” There was considerable back and forth.
Meanwhile, “radio radicale” was there the entire time with a microphone in my and the translator’s face and with a number of questions posed as soon as I finished my presentation. My presentation followed my 4 points I laid out in my “New Reformation” book—how our day paralleled Luther’s day in four respects: 1) invention of printing press/invention of electronic media 2) politics as rise of nationalism/politics as globalization and sparks of democracy 3) rise of humanist scholarship of which Luther was a part/rise of scientific and theological scholarship of our time and 4) corruption in the highest places of the church/corruption in the highest places of the church including Cardinal Law overseeing this particular cathedral, he who passed one priest from parish to parish who abused 150 boys and who now sits on a commission in the Vatican appointing bishops around the world! A woman professor told me she took a 3 hours train ride to be present for the event. She taught anthropology and religion and invited me to come to her university to lecture—they would pay for my trip to Italy she said.
Before we began, one man came up to me who was about 44 years old and said: “I no longer call myself a Catholic but simply a Christian.”
All the while the young members of our team were alert and smiling and doing their assigned tasks whether taking video, guarding the theses, mixing with the group, translating, photographing the cops, hanging around me for protection. (They had arranged all that beforehand among themselves with no coaching from me.) They did it with smiles on their faces. They gathered with the plainclothes Vatican cops when the event had finished and argued vociferously about their demands to see their papers and my documents as well. “We have done no crime so you have no right to demand our papers,” they declared. But maybe they had committed a crime. The crime of inviting people on church soil to think.
Their final act was to keep the thug Vatican cops demanding my papers engaged while one of their group quietly slipped away, came rapidly up to me and said “walk away fast” to the taxi stand at the side of the church. Drama. A day of drama. Working with the young people was marvelous. They were alert, flexible, prepared, strong, smiling, committed, competent, brave. Intergenerational wisdom indeed! Intergenerational courage also.
A number of people requested copies of the theses to read and study. We told them that they would be posted in the Italian version on the Fazi web page. Among phrases I heard from thoughtful Italians in conversation during my visit: “The church is dead.” “We are a culture today with no new ideas. Old people are running things in a very old way.” “Unemployment among the young is at 24%. Many are being supported by their grandparents and parents even after college graduation sincere there are no jobs to be had.” “A growing tension between the young and old.” “Old money is running everything. “ People are scared with the bad economy. The women’s movement is very weak. “We are a conservative country. Even liberal minded people have trouble imagining women priests.” You can get a college degree for just $2000 per year but there are no jobs after school. “The one thing Italy gives the world consistently is…Beauty. That is our only gift to the world.”
I ask myself: Why are the Italians seemingly so keen on my work at this time? One reason is the timing. There is a lot of anger among Catholics and it is clear that first a Polish papacy and then a German papacy have not always sat well with Italians. Another is that there is no love lost for Ratzinger himself. In my time there and even near St Peter’s I did not see one poster for sale of Pope Ratzinger. Another is that Aquinas with his non-dualistic philosophy is SO Italian in spirit in so many ways and the Augustinian mind-sets of the two recent popes is not at all of the Aquinas mind-set. Furthermore, we need to remind ourselves that the Protestant Reformation did not penetrate Italy; it affected it by way of the counter-reformation but that did not question the powers of the papacy. My 95 theses do put deeper questions. Is calling for a Reformation in the church today rousing a sleeping giant in Italy? The Italian capacity for real spirituality in the creation spiritual tradition is vast. Is the Roman Catholic church, together with the media, not perfectly set up for non-violent resistance? For church-step sit ins? For filling the jails? For exposing the darkness of the Vatican and its ways at this time in history?
All in all, it was a most amazing trip—perhaps the most amazing gig in my life. The people I met from the publishing house, Vito and our public dialog at the amazing conference of writers, his passion and radical critical mind, the many serious and passionate and intellectually-solid interviews on radio, in magazines and newspapers, and the amazing TV program. The filming and event at Law’s Basilica. Much to remember and to build on.
The abuse at the hands of church has been going on for so many centuries—buttressed by an ideology of suffering and penance and sin, that I had no idea what Romans have suffered at in the hands of the Roman Catholic church. This is one reason a number of commentators called “original blessing” a “Copernican revolution” for a religion based on punitive images of God and a consciousness of sin. A difficult thing to do, to change it. I recall a Native American woman who was also a Catholic returning from a ceremony at the Vatican to beatify Blessed Tekawitha: “There are evil spirits in that place, (i.e. the Vatican)” she recalled.
I think most Catholics today—Italy, Ireland, United States, Latin America and parts in between—are in a complete state of disgust. This morning’s Boston Globe quotes some Catholics in Ireland. One says: “When we were growing up, you believed in the church more so than you believed in God….Now the whole thing is transformed. You believe in God but you don’t believe in the church.” And a priest, Fr. Tony Cullen, says: “I’d like to see the clerical church die, and the proper church emerge, the church of the people.” What to do? How create new structures? Stay and fight? Abandon it altogether? Fight from the outside? All of the above? One thing is certain: The clerical church is dying.