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ROME NOTES: What Is Happening in Fatima?; Death in Burundi

Building Project Raises Eyebrows

By Delia Gallagher

ROME, JAN. 1, 2004 (Zenit) - Controversy has broken out over the construction of a new building near the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal.

Several Web sites devoted to news about Fatima have expressed outrage at the possibility that the new building might be used for interreligious purposes.

"Fatima to Become Inter-faith Shrine" headlined the Nov. 1 online dispatch of English-language Portugal News.

In the report, the rector of the shrine, Monsignor Luciano Gomes Paulo Guerra, says, "The future of Fatima, or the adoration of God and his mother at this holy shrine, must pass through the creation of a shrine where different religions can mingle."

The head of the Leiria-Fatima Diocese, Bishop Serafim de Sousa Ferreira e Silva, faxed me a three-page statement written in Portuguese (I had it unofficially translated) by the rector of the shrine, dated Dec. 28.

The letter resumes the news published by Portugal News, including Monsignor Guerra's statement that the shrine would become a place "where different religions can mingle."

According to the letter, the rector has been inundated by correspondence due to this "sensationalist news."

The rector clarifies: "God willing, a religious space, will begin to be constructed very shortly, and though it is the presumption of some journalists that it will resemble a stadium, it will in fact be a church, with seating for 9,000; it will be exclusively destined to be a place of Catholic worship, located not next to the current basilica, but between the Cruz Alta and a national road and, when opportune, ... can receive pilgrims of other convictions who wish to fraternally partake in our way of prayer."

Regarding the controversy surrounding the building, the rector mentions specifically Father Nicholas Gruner, a Canadian priest who runs The Fatima Crusader, a quarterly newsletter.

"It is our conviction," says Monsignor Guerra, "that the article in Portugal News has been guided by some members of the group led by Father Gruner, a priest who finds himself in an irregular canonical situation, who persists in his crusade in favor of the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, according to the secret of Fatima (although it has been said and re-said that this consecration has already occurred) and who distributed pamphlets during our October conference against the realization and intentions of the conference."

Father Gruner was suspended "a divinis" by the Vatican in 1996 -- meaning he is relieved of his priestly functions, primarily administering the sacraments. He continues to take a critical stance toward John Paul II's vision of ecumenism, as evidenced by a 2000 document called, "We Resist You to Your Face" -- the You referring to the Pope.

The conference to which Father Guerra refers was held Oct. 10-12 and sponsored by the Sanctuary of Fatima, entitled, "The Present of Man -- The Future of God: The Place of Sanctuaries in Relation to the Sacred."

Conferees included Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue; Cardinal José da Cruz Policarpo, patriarch of Lisbon; Bishop Silva; Father Jacques Dupuis, professor of theology at Rome's Gregorian University; and Monsignor Guerra.

On the third day of the conference the floor was opened to representatives of Hindu, Buddhist, Judaic and Islamic religions. Orthodox and Anglican representatives also spoke.

During the conference no mention was made of the construction of a new shrine.

When I recently spoke to Archbishop Fitzgerald in Rome, he said he was surprised that the news of the building had caused such consternation.

"As far as I know, there are no plans that the building is designed specifically for inter-faith purposes," the archbishop said. "We recognize that Fatima is a place of pilgrimage for many religions." But he added that the shrine nonetheless retains its Catholic identity.

"It was the Pope himself who said in Assisi in October 1986 that we are all pilgrims together," continued Archbishop Fitzgerald. "As I said at the conference in Fatima, we must learn to journey together, for if we drift apart we do ourselves harm, but if we walk together we can help one another to reach the goal that God has set for us."

Monsignor Guerra's statement concurs with Archbishop Fitzgerald's sentiments, as most of it is taken up with an explanation of the importance of interreligious dialogue.

The rector of the shrine contends that the Fatima apparitions were exhortations to ecumenical dialogue. His statement says that the Virgin Mary knew that her choice of the site in Portugal would one day be understood as a deliberate association with the daughter of the Islamic prophet Mohammed (whose name was Fatima).

Monsignor Guerra further suggests that in the Fatima apparitions there are "at least two implicit calls to the exercise of the spirit of dialogue with persons of other convictions."

In the first and third apparitions, he said, the Angel of Peace lies prostrate on the ground in prayer. In the third apparition, Communion under the species of bread is given to the oldest seer, while the two younger, Francisco and Jacinta, receive Communion for the first time under the species of the wine.

Since the practice of receiving Communion under both species has fallen out of wide use in the Latin-rite Catholic Church, but not in the Orthodox Churches, "the message of the Angel of Peace contains an exhortation to ecumenical dialogue with those Churches separated from Rome for a thousand years," writes Monsignor Guerra.

The angel's prostration in prayer "has connotations for any religious confession," and recalls that "all human beings are God's creatures and loved by him, and that with such prayer we can maintain serious contact with other religions, such as agnostics and even atheists."

What started out as a debate over a building seems to mask a larger question of the ecumenical work of the Catholic Church as a whole, and Fatima in particular.

Father Gruner is quoted as saying, "The Fatima message is specifically directed at the Catholic Church." Monsignor Guerra would probably concur.

The question remains, however, just what the Church is called to do with that message.

* * *

Killed in the Line of Duty

The news of the assassination of Irish Archbishop Michael Courtney, papal nuncio in Burundi, saddened many in Rome and throughout Europe, including Strasbourg, France, where he worked for nearly five years.

He died in Burundi on Monday when he was shot three times while traveling in a car near the capital, Bujumbura. He was 58.

Archbishop Courtney was no stranger to the violence that plagues this central African nation of 6 million. Rebel forces fired at the Sabena airliner he was traveling in when he arrived at the Burundi airport as papal nuncio in 2000. Two people on the flight were hit.

In November 2001, he celebrated the funeral Mass of World Health Organization representative Kassi Manlan, who was killed by rebel gunfire.

A few months later, in 2002, Bishop Joseph Nduhirubusa of Ruyigi was kidnapped by a group of Hutu rebels. They handed him over six days later to the papal nuncio.

The Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples published its annual martyrology list on Tuesday, updated with the death of Archbishop Courtney -- the first time a papal representative has been killed on mission.

The report lists 29 deaths in 2003, of people working in Catholic missions around the world.

Africa and Latin America top the list of continents where missionaries have been killed: 17 in Africa and 10 in Central and South America. Uganda and Colombia report the highest number, 6 each. Congo had 5 deaths. Other countries include Pakistan, India, South Africa, Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cameroon, Kenya and Guinea.

Archbishop Courtney had served in several of these countries as well as the former Yugoslavia and Egypt before his posting to Burundi.

He is remembered particularly for his work in Strasbourg, since it was thanks to his efforts that the Holy See gained its status as permanent observer to the Council of Europe.

Monsignor Paul Gallagher, the current papal representative in Strasbourg, told me by phone: "Monsignor Courtney is still much remembered in Strasbourg."

The offices of the Holy See in Strasbourg have been inundated with calls and condolences from representatives of the Council of Europe.

"He is remembered for his professionalism and his priestly life. He was very enthusiastic about European matters and was held in great esteem," said Monsignor Gallagher.

"The permanent-observer status of the Holy See at the Council of Europe was obtained during his time there and is largely thanks to him," he added.

Other Vatican officials at the offices in Strasbourg who had worked with Michael Courtney remembered him as a priest who enjoyed the office work involved in a papal mission, but who placed great importance on his Sundays saying Mass in parishes of Strasbourg as well.

"I never heard him worry about the violence in Burundi," said Monsignor Gallagher, "although I know from other sources that this sort of violence towards international organizations is not uncommon, given the climate in Burundi."

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