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Special Event

Millennium 2000: The Pope

Aired January 1, 2000 - 6:30 a.m. ET


COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: It's where we learned to count to millennium, yet despite all the changes in the world, the Catholic Church and its pope greet the future with faith.


MARK LEWIS, JESUIT HISTORICAL INSTITUTE: The challenge is to adapt to the reality of the lifestyles of the Christians who are living today.


MCEDWARDS: The future for the Catholic Church as it prepares for change.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: The second millennium produced tremendous changes in world institutions, including the Roman Catholic Church. Looking back, we see a series of popes expanded the mission of the church and CNN's Jim Bittermann reports on a thousand years of the papacy.


JIM BITTERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is a spiritual monarchy older than most any other institution in human history that has brought kings to their knees, outlasted governments and always exerted influence far beyond its power. And while men and their ideologies have come and gone over the past millennium, the papacy has survived not just one, but now nearly 2,000 years, at times just barely and at times very well.

JIM BOWDITCH, JOHN CABOT UNIVERSITY: I mean it's no accident that St. Peter's is the largest church in Christendom.

BITTERMANN: Papal power, according to historians like Jim Bowditch, reached a peak during the Middle Ages.

BOWDITCH: For most of the thousand years after the fall of Rome, Christianity was the dominant religion. The church was the dominant institution. It was the best controlled. It was the best financed. It was the best ordered. It was certainly the richest single institution in the West and it had that indescribable thing called faith. People believed. BITTERMANN: But it took both faith and reform for the papacy to survive. Back before procedures were established for selecting the pope, all manner of men held the job. There was a lawyer, a banker and a judge. Over the centuries, there were popes who led troops into battle, who were put on trial, who sired children or were themselves born out of wedlock. Pope Felix III was the great grandfather of Pope Gregory I.

LEWIS: From the beginning, the church has been made up of saints and sinners. I'm always sort of fond of the Renaissance popes simply because of their sinfulness. They had a lot of nice parties. On the other hand, in the same period you had a lot of very, very sincere Christians who sought changes and were able to get the church to change from outside.

BITTERMANN: It was at the Council of Trent in the 16th century that the serious Christians prevailed and any papal partying came to an end. The bishops of the Roman church, faced with the competition and threat of the rapidly spreading Protestant Reformation launched counter reforms.

BOWDITCH: They tightened up their finances. They eliminated a good deal of the corruption and nepotism and selling of offices. And so in some ways the Catholic Church came out of that Reformation or the papacy also came out of that Reformation smaller, less grand, but in many ways stronger.

WILTON WYNN, AUTHOR, "KEEPERS OF THE KEYS": I would say that they have been much more flexible than one would have imagined, that is in meeting the demands of a new situation.

BITTERMANN: Long time papal observer Wilton Wynn credits the church's adaptability for much of its survivability, tracing that capacity to adapt and move on right up to 1962, when Pope John XXIII gathered his bishops for their council during what became known as Vatican II, an event meant to bring the church up to date.

WYNN: I think the pope just felt that there was a general malaise in the church, that it was declining under its own weight, more or less, and not keeping up with the modern world.

BITTERMANN (on camera): But for some Catholic faithful, the promise of Vatican II outstripped the reality. The suggestion that bringing things up to date might mean more democracy in the church was clearly rejected by popes after the Vatican II meetings came to a close.

(voice-over): There was Paul VI with highly controversial decrees on subjects like birth control and then John Paul II with his ongoing effort to bring discipline to his churchmen and make his bishops directly accountable to the Vatican.

WYNN: I have reason to believe that he is afraid if you don't keep that powerful papacy here the church may become fragmented and it would lose its role as a universal church. BITTERMANN: Maintaining that role has been John Paul II's unending concern as he has tirelessly traveled the world as papal evangelist. No pope has ever used transportation and communication the way John Paul has, modern methods but a message that he will not change to suit the times.

LEWIS: Technology doesn't replace the old ways. The challenge is to adapt to the reality of the lifestyles of the Christians who are living today.

BITTERMANN: But for now, the Catholic Church shows no sign of adapting its doctrine and dogma to those modern realities If anything, the present pope demands more of his flock than ever before.

LEWIS: I've always liked the quotation of G.K. Chesterton (ph) that Christianity hasn't been tried and found wanting, but it's been found difficult and not tried.

BITTERMANN: Still, not all modern Catholics are challenged by the difficulties of faith. John Paul II rules a church of a billion people who identify themselves as Catholic but who increasingly do not follow his teachings. It's almost a contradiction in terms that while the pope has demonstrated time and again how powerful his moral force can be in world affairs, he and his advisers are said to be most concerned about the indifference of their own flock to his theological message.

In his effort to find and hold believers, John Paul has broadened the church's missionary work outside its traditional territory and committed himself to naming more saints to provide believers with a wider range of spiritual examples. So far, he's added more than 280 to church rolls, some not without controversy, John Paul's interest in sainthood for his predecessor Pious XII, for example. Pious, who reigned during W.W.II, is accused of having sympathized with the Nazis and been indifferent to the plight of the Jews, charges some Vatican officials deny.

UNIDENTIFIED VATICAN OFFICIAL: This is an ideological opposition not based on historical evidence but on ideological preconceived ideas to attack the church.

BITTERMANN: But the Vatican has come under attack before. Just as recently when churchmen celebrated the cleaning and restoration of St. Peter's, they have lived to see their spiritual institutions emerge renewed. Still, the world is changing. The Catholic faithful are being enticed by the secular. The secular are being attracted to religions other than Catholicism, which are growing at a faster rate.

BOWDITCH: The church has had to be an ever smaller minority, it seems to me, in the next few centuries if this trend continues, plus the danger of secularization inside their own traditional areas, I think you could, you could be pessimistic.

BITTERMANN: It is a rainy Wednesday near the end of the century, the end of the millennium and the long end of the papacy of John Paul II. The faithful by the thousands are gathering for his weekly audience to honor the office but also the man. John Paul, now aged and suffering, brought innovation and new humanity to the papacy, revived some of its temporal power with his skilled diplomacy and never wavered from his traditional theology.

It is the 264th and latest adaptation of the role first filled by the apostle Peter, to whom Catholics believe Christ entrusted the keys to heaven, a role 2,000 years later that is far different but no less demanding.

Jim Bittermann, CNN, Vatican City.


MCEDWARDS: And joining us now from Rome are two journalists who cover the pope. Marco Politi is considered the dean of Vatican correspondents, having covered it for 23 years. He reports for "La Republica." And Alessandra Stanley has been the Rome bureau chief for the "New York Times" since April 1998 and has often traveled with Pope John Paul. Welcome to you both. And I understand that there is a large marathon about to get underway in Rome behind you there so we may have some noise to deal with for a few minutes until it gets underway but hopefully you'll be able to hear me and Leon and we'll be able to hear you.

Alessandra, can I start with you? Tell us how the pope's health is.

ALESSANDRA STANLEY, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I think you can see it even from today at the mass. He's not in great shape and, you know, he struggles to get through these events. But it's painful for him and it's painful to watch. There's no way of really knowing, you know, the exact state of his health because that is kept, you know, secret. But, you know, every event that he does is a difficult one.

MARCO POLITI, AUTHOR, "HIS HOLINESS": There is something new. Last night during a ceremony in St. Peter's the pope used for the first time a rolling platform. This means that he is now really too weak to walk, to stand and a couple of years ago an (unintelligible) Catholic writer, Mr. Masori (ph), told that maybe one day we could see the pope in a wheelchair. It could be. It can be a possibility and the Venezuelan Cardinal Castille Yolara (ph) has said OK, there is no problem. Olsa Gusmet (ph) was an excellent president in a wheelchair.

MCEDWARDS: All right, Marco and Alessandra, I'm just going to stop you there because it is quite loud. We're going to take a short break but stay right where you are. We'll come back in just a moment.


MCEDWARDS: All right, we are back with more of our in depth coverage of Pope John Paul II and the future direction of the Roman Catholic Church.

Our guests are Marco Politi in Rome and also Alessandra Stanley. They have both been covering the Vatican for many, many years together. We've been competing with a little bit of bell noise there from the square as a marathon gets underway but hopefully you can both hear us a little bit better now.

Alessandra, on the issue of the pope's health again, is this something that's talked about a lot within the Vatican?

STANLEY: Well, Vatican aides and people who work in the Vatican talk about it amongst themselves. It's not something that people want to talk about publicly and it's done always very delicately. When he brought out that platform that he used last night the spokesman, Navarro Valls (ph), said well it's both to help the pope but also to let people see him better, which is true. But it's also very much a milestone.

MCEDWARDS: Marco, does the Vatican ever say ...

POLITI: People in the Vatican have become accustomed now to the fact that the pope is very frail. Some months ago there was a discussion what to do but as the pope has still a very strong character and has a lot of vision also with the other troubles he wants to do, they have decided to help him only with things like the rolling platform. But they want that he performs his job till the last moment.

STANLEY: And he wants to. I mean I think that he's the one who's sort of insisting on doing as much as he can himself and he, you know, you can see him at the ceremonies shaking off aides who try to help him stand up or move. He just doesn't like to be assisted.

HARRIS: If I my introduce one particular idea, I happen to have heard discussed often is retirement. Has this pope ever considered the idea or the concept of retiring?

POLITI: He doesn't want. There were some people within the Catholic Church who suggested that it could be that the pope retires at the year, with 80 years. But he doesn't want. He doesn't want because he feels that it is his mission to go on also with a very frail body, also suffering because his mystical nature tells him that to suffer is also a way to share the passion of the lord, Jesus Christ.

MCEDWARDS: The issue of succession ...

STANLEY: I think only one pope has ever -- oh, sorry.

MCEDWARDS: Sorry, I'm going to interrupt you there, Alessandra. Sorry. The issue of succession is important, of course, in terms of the direction of the Catholic Church and we're actually going to go through three of the people who are talked about most often in terms of succession. But before we do that, Alessandra, can you please outline what you feel is the biggest issue for the catch in terms of its future direction?

STANLEY: Well, its survival, you know, and this is what the pope has been working on for several years is, you know, whether the catch can continue to grow. It is, you know, is it shrinking? Is it, in parts of the Third World it's up against competition from other religions, including Protestant sects. So I think that the main goal for the church is to, I mean, and this is what this pope is supposed to be concerned about is finding a way to keep on going.

MCEDWARDS: All right. One of the candidates ...

POLITI: The main role is survival ...

MCEDWARDS: Go ahead, Marco.

POLITI: The main point is survival but the hottest issue is the democracy within the church because the catch with a billion of believers can't be ruled like an absolutist monarchy like it was in the last 500 years. So what in the church language they call collegiality means that a lot of bishops won't really take part in the policy making process and this pope didn't open no windows on this issue.

So the next pope must make a change and there are some candidates who are ready to do it.

MCEDWARDS: And one of those candidates we'd like to take a look at is from Brazil, actually, Cardinal Lucas Moreira Neves and he is the most powerful churchman in Brazil, the highest ranking cardinal. Let's take a look.


CARDINAL MOREIRA NEVES: Brazil is still the Third World and I am very sad to say this, that in Brazil the separation and the difference between classes is scandalous (unintelligible) a lay man, lay woman can be conservative in this situation and very progressive in other situations and we can be conservative in the essential values and very progressive in occidental and secondary level. I try to be like this.


MCEDWARDS: Cardinal Neves is considered a conservative like Pope John Paul II. Alessandra, what impact would that have on his candidacy?

STANLEY: Well, the church is more conservative. I mean this pope has been pope long enough to appoint a lot of the bishops and cardinals who surround him so that it's not surprising that there are conservatives. You know, it's impossible to know ahead of time whether a conservative or a more liberal candidate will win. But, you know, most of them are conservative. Even the ones that we describe as liberal are not liberal by what the average American could consider a liberal Catholic.

POLITI: In this moment in the church there are two options, I would say, for the next conclave, the Italian option and the Third World option. If the church wants to give another signal of its internalization then of course you can choose a Brazilian candidate like Moreira Neves or an African candidate like Cardinal Josef Arinze (ph).

But if you want maybe to make changes and reforms in terms of democracy of collegiality, maybe an Italian candidate who knows better the roman curia could be the best because if you have to change something you have to change it here in the Vatican to give more decentralization, to give more possibility to the bishops to decide really how the church must be ruled.

HARRIS: Well, with that thought in mind, let's take a look at another one of the possible candidates that we've been looking at as a successor to Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Carolo Maria Martini. Let's take a look at him.


CARDINAL CAROLO MARIA MARTINI: I don't think that the church is first of all an agency for morality. This is a mistaken view of the church. The church is for the gospel, for the great idea of god's love for us. Many young people are afraid before future. They say what will our future be? We are not able to take a decision. We have to help them in doing the right decision for life.


HARRIS: Alessandra, your thoughts on this particular candidate and his thinking and what this could mean in terms of the leadership of the church in the future?

STANLEY: Well, he's extremely well liked in Italy, probably more by people outside the Vatican than even in the Vatican, and he's even recently talked about the need to slightly change the role of the pope, which could be seen as a sort of attempted campaign, as well. But, you know, none of this can be known ahead of time.

POLITI: Cardinal Martini puts the accent on the church as community, not as institution, and that's because he puts forward the idea of making again a great world council of all the bishops. It may be also a council with representatives of other Christian churches to decide how the church can be united again.

MCEDWARDS: Marco, you mentioned just a few moments ago Cardinal Francis Arinze, a candidate from Africa. Let's take a look at him.


CARDINAL FRANCIS ARINZE: I don't feel any disability because I come from another culture. If anything, sometimes I feel I get more attention than I want and it is possible that some of the people are listening because they want to know what this African will say, to see whether it will be exactly the same as what the Italians said to them. It could be. That's OK. As long as they listen.

The message of Jesus Christ has to be presented in such a way that the people see this faith as at home among them and they themselves as at home in the church. The church must not appear as a visitor with passport and visa. That's not theologically acceptable.


MCEDWARDS: Cardinal Arinze obviously has a direct and humorous manner of speaking, Alessandra, son of a Nigerian tribal chieftain, your thoughts on his candidacy?

STANLEY: Well, he's interesting to talk about simply because he would be such an extraordinary change for this church. But, you know, I don't take him very seriously as a candidate for the papacy but again, you know, maybe I'm wrong.

POLITI: Well, he would be a great symbol, but certainly there are still within the cardinals many people who think that it's too early to have a black pope. For instance, also Cardinal Rassinger (ph) has told some time ago that maybe the time is not right for that.

MCEDWARDS: All right, thank you both. Stay with us there. We're going to take a short break and we'll be right back with a quick look at Pope John Paul II's legacy.


MCEDWARDS: Pope John Paul II has been referred to as a diplomatic artist for his role in helping to bring down the fall of communism. Alessandra Stanley, what's his legacy?

STANLEY: Well, that is one, obviously. I mean historically the first non-Italian pope, Polish pope who oversaw the downfall of communism. There's also his legacy within the church, which is slightly different, and that is more his attempt to bring the church back into the Catholicism he grew up in in Poland before the war, which is not the Catholicism that, say, we know in the United States or Europe.

MCEDWARDS: Marco, has he succeeded in doing that?

POLITI: Well, he has given a billion Catholics a sense of togetherness, a unique sense of togetherness. He has shown that in modern world faith is still relevant and he has succeeded in transforming the roman pontiffs from religious personalities into spokesmen of human rights all over the world.

MCEDWARDS: All right, thank you both very much. Marco Politi writes for "La Republica" and Alessandra Stanley for the "New York Times."

HARRIS: That's actually some fascinating questions there and I must say as an African-American I have to wonder if there will be a black pope before there is a black U.S. president. Interesting idea.

MCEDWARDS: All right. And our special coverage of the millennium continues right here on CNN. Stay with us.

HARRIS: Don't go away.


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