On a major TV network morning news show today, the top headlines ran in this order: 1) President Obama’s address to the nation on Syria; 2) the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks; and 3) a major Vatican official talks about priestly celibacy, perhaps opening the way for married priests. The choice and tenor of the headlines was fascinating in and of itself – a presidential speech that really said nothing was top billing, and a Catholic story that simply reiterated what the Church has always taught served to sandwich the September 11 anniversary. Peggy Noonan has a good commentary on the president’s speech here. I’ll come back to September 11 later. So, for now, what’s the deal with the Vatican official’s comments on priestly celibacy?
The Vatican official was Archbishop Peitro Parolin, recently nominated by Pope Francis to be the Vatican Secretary of State, and the comments were made in an interview with a newspaper in Venezuela, where Archbishop Parolin has been serving as Apostolic Nuncio. The topic of priestly celibacy was brought up by the interviewer, and Archbishop Parolin reiterated the constant teaching of the Church, that priestly celibacy is not an unchangeable dogma but an ecclesiastical discipline, which means that it can be discussed. He also pointed to the long history of priestly celibacy in the Church – that it cannot simply be relegated to the past – and that it is the voice of God that guides Church teaching and discipline, not the personal opinions of individuals within the Church, even himself or the Holy Father. It’s really nothing new. And no changes are expected.
But it was fascinating – although not surprising – how the mainstream media reported Archbishop Parolin’s statements. For one, it’s not really major news, in the sense of new statements. Further, the secular media as always puts its own spin on the story. On one major online news service, it appeared that the article was linking to an original source so you could see what Archbishop Parolin said – but it actually made a link to a blog written by a journalist who was also reporting on the interview. None of the mainstream news articles linked to the original interview with the Venezuelan newspaper to see what Archbishop Parolin actually said. So I went and found the original interview myself, used my limited knowledge of Spanish to read what I could, and used Google translate to assist my own translation. You can do the same – here is a link to the original interview, in Spanish. Comparing the original interview to the quotes that appeared in the online articles in the mainstream media, I found that the words put into Archbishop Parolin’s mouth in English were sometimes never said in the original interview in Spanish. The general gist of the conversation is accurate, but sometimes entire phrased were inserted in English. Bottom line – go to the original source. And for us as Catholics, nothing Archbishop Parolin said is earth-shattering.
Finally, on this anniversary of September 11, 2001, I reread an article written by a high school friend of mine for the journal First Things. Fr. Vincent Druding was a year ahead of me at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis. He was beginning a new job in Manhattan on this day 13 years ago, when he emerged from a subway station to see the World Trade Center towers collapse. He volunteered many days at Ground Zero, and that experience was instrumental in his answering God’s call to the priesthood. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of New York in 2009. His essay is lengthy, but worth a read – you can do so here. But the most moving part comes at the end of the essay, as he recounts his experience on the first Sunday following September 11, and how the power of the Eucharist sustained him.
Sunday was my fifth day working at Ground Zero. I was exhausted. After making my rounds at the supply area, I walked up North End Avenue to the support center at Stuyvesant High School. I had heard earlier in the day that St. Patrick’s Cathedral was going to hold a 5:30 Mass, and I felt the need to attend it. As I entered the building, I saw a man dressed in a white habit walking slowly but deliberately down the hall. The tip of his Roman collar peaked out of the robe. He looked and spoke like James Earl Jones and his face was very serious. It occurred to me later that he was probably a Franciscan and had likely just come from attending to the dead at Ground Zero.
All around us, the Scientologists and volunteers buzzed back and forth, and police officers and workers passed by. I asked the priest whether there would be an evening Mass around the site, and he told me that the only one had been held at 9:00 that morning. I told him that I was hoping to attend the memorial Mass at St. Patrick’s, which I instantly realized had started six minutes earlier. He then said very deliberately, “I can offer you the Holy Eucharist. Would you like that?” And then, with five days of chaos in my head and fatigue consuming my body, a nameless priest in a white robe, almost invisible in the white hallway were it not for his dark complexion, put his hand on my head, said a blessing, and placed the Body of Christ in my mouth. My eyes remained closed for a long time.
Here, amid the nonstop movement and clutter of bodies and buildings, amid the constant acrid smell of smoke and smog, amid the signs reading “Warning, high levels of asbestos here!”, amid the dozens of workers who seemed always on the verge of breaking down in tears, amid the steady flow of sobbing civilians who toured the place where their loved one lay entombed, amid the constant sounds of machines, crashing metal, and sirens, amid all of the destruction and death—here was a pocket of peace. Here, Christ was present, not only among us, but now, again, inside me. And then this angel in the whirlwind sent me on my way and resumed his slow but deliberate walk through the horror, looking to dispense solace to any and all who would accept it, passing through the tumult, almost as though he were from another world.