A Shadow over He Papal Trip. (Viewpoint)

Article excerpt

Ironically enough, a moment during the May 22-26 papal visit to Azerbaijan and Bulgaria has much to say about the current state of affairs in the American Catholic church.

Midway through the journey, Cardinal Walter Kasper, an impressive and charismatic German who runs the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, entered the press center in Sofia, Bulgaria, for an interview with German TV. (Kasper was part of the papal entourage.) Afterward other journalists grabbed a few moments of his time.

Europeans asked Kasper about relations between the divided Eastern and Western branches of Christianity, the pope's role as an agent of political integration, and John Paul's frail health.

The Americans, on the other hand, had another agenda: the sex scandal. How aware was the pope of the furor surrounding Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee? What was the Vatican hoping for from the June meeting of the U.S. bishops? What mistakes should the Americans avoid?

Kasper told us only that he was praying for the American church and its bishops, and that he was sure they would find the right solutions.

We were doing our job, as we had been over the previous 24 hours as we sought comment on the American situation from Vatican officials as well as from our Bulgarian Orthodox hosts. (One American reporter asked an Orthodox monk if the scandal was divine chastisement for the heresies of Western Christianity. The monk was gracious enough to say no.)

The sexual abuse crisis is the central religion story in the United States, and our editors would have been furious had we not played out the angle. Moreover, the reporting is necessary. Without it, the behaviors American Catholics find so repugnant--the sexual abuse itself, and the negligent response from some bishops--might continue indefinitely.

Yet I felt embarrassed and angry that the long arm of the scandal had cast a shadow even here.

On May 24, I traveled to the Holy Monastery of St. John Rila, considered the spiritual heart of Bulgaria and one of the cradles of Slavic Christianity. It is an extraordinarily beautiful, evocative place, and it prompted the pope's best speech of the trip. It was a lengthy meditation on Eastern monasticism. …