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On the 93rd anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, the attention of those who chronicle the doings and sayings of the Holy See was concentrated on a rather mundane event of dubious significance: the establishment of a new Vatican bureaucracy.
The Pontifical Council for Promotion of the New Evangelization had a ribbon-cutting of sorts on Oct. 12 with the release of “Ubicumque et semper” (“Always and everywhere”). The document is a motu proprio, which means that it carries with it the personal authority of the Pope. It sets forth the mission of the new office, whose overarching purpose is the resuscitation of Catholicism in the former territories of Christendom.
Critics were quick to point out that the document was issued in Latin and Italian, rather than in a tongue more accessible to those whose spiritual reclamation is ostensibly at the root of the enterprise. Archbishop Rino Fisichella, something of a Curial careerist and the head of the new dicastery, responded that his office will have staff competent in all the modern Western languages.
The need which the new office is designated to address is genuine and its importance beyond dispute: demonstrating the contemporary relevance of the Catholic Faith in Western secular culture. But the need is a longstanding one of immense proportions. That a newly-established Vatican office represents a timely and adequate response may be doubted.
The Pope’s document accurately depicts what has been called the “ecclesiastical winter” in Europe. A survey by the Pew Forum, as cited in National Catholic Reporter, reveals that in what is regarded the most Catholic country, Poland, only 36 percent say that religion is “very important” to them.
In Italy, where nominally more than 95 percent of the population is identified as Catholic, only 27 percent say religion is very important. The figures for Germany — 21 percent — and France — 11 percent — complete a rather dismal picture for those who hope to see the Church resume its place of prominence in the life of Europe.
A reconquista of Christendom should be undertaken before these numbers fall lower and the faith becomes little more than a memory in those lands that are home to the magnificent cathedrals that now stand more as tourist attractions than places of worship.
But even granting that the new office represents a small step in the right direction, doubters may be forgiven for wondering whether Archbishop Fisichella is the right man for the job? He has held many positions in various bureaucracies. He appears to be what might be called “a safe bet” that is, he will do what he is told by his superiors.
He did find himself pushed into the center of a controversy in March 2009 when he signed an article critical of Brazilian Archbishop Jose Cardos Sobrinho that appeared in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Sobrinho was then the target of the secular media for his excommunication of a mother who had allowed her 9-year-old daughter to undergo an abortion.
The girl had been raped repeatedly by her stepfather from the age of 6 years old. Sobrinho became the secular media’s poster boy for the Catholic Church’s supposedly cruel insensitivity to the plight of women and, in this case, a little girl who had been monstrously violated and traumatized.
The case was a high-profile one in Brazil and the story traveled well, one might say, and was picked up around the world. Fisichella was then head of the Pontifical Academy for Life and weighed in on the matter in that capacity. While not disputing the canonical correctness of Sorbrinho’s action, Fisichella called it “hasty” and said it made the Church appear “devoid of mercy”.
Aside from this one step, or misstep, into the limelight, Fisichella has been a man of unremarkable accomplishments. He did work for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at one point and is thought to have contributed in some measure to Ratio et Fides — the document whose aim was to demonstrate that the tenets of the Faith are reconcilable with modern notions of what is reasonable. This would seem to be his chief qualification to head the new office.
The Pope’s outline of the aims of the new dicastery are not very detailed. When specifics are mentioned, they are not encouraging. The Pope, for instance, says that the collaboration of Bishops’ Conferences should be sought, as well as that of religious orders. Neither of these entities has been notable for its effectiveness in evangelization. The Bishops’ Conferences often constitute a rival magisterium, and the religious orders are dying from heterodoxy and corruption.
Of course, one wishes the Pope success in all his attempts to restore the faith to its former provinces. The end is laudable, but the means may be questionable. And we might be permitted to ask why the one sure means for evangelization is not being tried: the Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
We have the promise of Our Lady of Fatima that if the Pope and the bishops perform the Consecration, She will in turn convert Russia and grant the world a period of peace. To confirm Her promise, She performed a spectacular public miracle: The Sun Danced. More than 70,000 people, believers and non-believers, bore witness to it.
So, we might be forgiven for suggesting that Our Lady’s way ought to be preferred to anything that might be devised by a new Vatican bureaucracy. How long will Rome prefer its own prudence to that of Heaven? The time is short. The Holy Father knows this, as he prayed that Our Lady of Fatima’s triumph will occur before 2017, the 100th anniversary of Fatima. Let us pray, too, and ask Our Lady to give Pope Benedict and the bishops the grace and the courage to commence the true, new evangelization.