- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 6 (UPI) — This week's cover of the Italian magazine l'Espresso reproduces the figure of Adam after the fall taken from Michelangelo's fresco in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican and carries the headline: "God's anger."

Inside, the magazine runs a lengthy report on what Vatican watchers are calling one of the most puzzling stories about Pope John Paul II — the reaction of Italian writers and intellectuals to his statement that God had, in effect, given up on human kind.

Speaking at a pre-Christmas papal audience, John Paul recalled a moving lamentation by the Prophet Jeremiah (14:17-21) who pleads with God not to abandon his people, and to save them from the calamities of famine and war.

Today, the pope went on, we face famine and war in many parts of the world, but in addition, "there is, in fact, a greater tragedy, that of the silence of God, who no longer reveals himself, and seems to be enclosed in his heaven, as though disgusted by human actions."

The result, John Paul said, was an "existential loneliness" that was the source of "so much dissatisfaction that we perceive even today… so much insecurity, and so many inconsiderate reactions." The pope ends on a reassuring note that "we may be certain the Lord does not abandon us for ever, but returns" once the people "recognize their sin and cry out with humility and repentance."

The pope's short homily at his weekly audience usually receives little media attention, but in a quiet pre-Christmas week some reporters on the Vatican beat picked it up, and his reference to God's "disgust" and resulting divine alienation provoked a strong reaction among some leading Rome opinion makers, both practicing Catholics, and "secularists."

Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the left-leaning paper La Repubblica and a secularist, called the pope's homily an event of "immense religious, cultural … ethical importance." In a long article in his paper, Scalfari wrote, "The Vicar of Christ, this vicar who has occupied the world scene for more than 20 years, felt the duty to announce that God, disgusted with men, has withdrawn into his heaven, closing himself up in silence."

Scalfari's reading of the pope's discourse raised questions about the role of the church itself. Said Scalfari: "God's abandonment deprives the Church itself of its mediating mission, which is the only mission that motivates it and justifies its historical presence."

But writer Luca Diotalievi, a significant voice for the Catholics who teaches sociology of religion at Rome University, says an angry, even vindictive God belongs in Biblical times, to the time of Jeremiah, before the birth of Jesus. Disgust "absolutely cannot be attributed to the God who now has spoken definitively and who continues to speak in Jesus."

Now, Diotalievi was quoted by l'Espresso as saying today's God is "a God of mercy and pardon, not a god of disgust."

Having died on the cross to uproot evil, God "leaves us responsible for facing the evil that now takes place and how to confront it," Diotalievi says. "It is up to us, as far as is possible, to unravel the intricate skein of evil."

The underlying question was why John Paul chose such a somber theme for a pre-Christmas homily in the first place? Over a thousand people from several countries attended the audience. In a period of crisis and anxiety they had come hoping to hear words of comfort. Instead they got grim warnings of God's alienation.

The pope's remarks caused considerable surprise in Vatican circles, according to Italian press reports. The pope usually prepares his own discourses for his weekly audiences, consulting experts when he needs to, and then delivering the text in a shaky voice in Italian. A Vatican source said even the senior prelates at the audience are often hearing the pope's words for the first time.

But Scalfari said the discourse reflected a "desperation" in the pope's mood. Afflicted with Parkinson's disease, the 82-year-old pontiff is progressively "more alone and more apocalyptic," Scalfari said.

According to the Vatican source, the pope's theme was probably influenced by his sadness over world events and the frustration at his own limitations to influence them. He is particularly concerned about the endless violence in the Middle East, and the failure of the international community to find a solution. This perception of helplessness is behind the Holy See's current private campaign for full membership of the U.N., where it now has only observer status.

Although Vatican officials say John Paul's health is stable, his schedule has been progressively cut back to conserve his energy, and lengthy ceremonies in St. Peter's Basilica have been shortened and simplified. Plans for future long-distance travel have also been put on hold — another disappointment for a pontiff who has made travel his hallmark.

Even for this venerable, weakening man, God must sometimes seem very remote indeed.

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