The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, met Pope John Paul II for the first time yesterday, as signs grew that the Pope may be near death.
The Pope and the archbishop spent only 10 minutes together in the private one-to-one meeting that preceded the public part of the audience. At this, watched by the small Vatican press corps, the Pope succeeded in reading his statement in English in its entirety, although very slowly, and with much slurring and long pauses. The message, however, was clear enough: that differences between the two churches over homosexuality had created further obstacles to union.
"We have listened hard to what has been said to us," Dr Williams said later, but added "we haven't had any surprises" on the Vatican's views over what he called "a serious and potentially divisive issue".
Dr Williams's first visit to Rome as leader of the Anglican Communion's 76 million communicants has been dominated by speculation over how much longer John Paul has to live. Vatican aides had warned the archbishop in advance that he should not expect to have a substantive discussion. Nevertheless, the archbishop described the meeting as "a deeply moving occasion" and, while noting that the Pope was struggling with ill health, he praised "the indomitable spirit of will that lives in him".
Earlier in the week, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, head of the Congregation of Bishops, noted that John Paul "has difficulty moving and pronouncing words" but, he insisted, was still "very lucid ... he has a clear vision of the world and of the church".
Speculation about the Pope's health grew after he told pilgrims in St Peter's Square on 28 September that he would create 31 new cardinals later this month. It had been assumed until then that the next consistory - the ceremony at which new cardinals receive their red hats of office - would not take place until February.
Vatican sources said the Pope had insisted on bringing the consistory forward, even though his October calendar was full of major engagements, including the celebration of the 25th anniversary of his papacy and the beatification of Mother Teresa.
The change of date is significant because it is the conclave of cardinals that elects a new pope; all cardinals under the age of 80 are entitled to vote. With the creation of the new batch of cardinals, Pope John Paul II will have done everything in his power to ensure a smooth transition once he is gone.
After that announcement, the normally impermeable Vatican sprang a leak. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief bureaucrat, was reported as saying: "He is in a bad way. We should pray for the Pope." A day later, John Paul was forced to cancel his regular Wednesday general audience because of what the Vatican called "an intestinal ailment". Then last Thursday, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn stoked the fires of speculation by describing the Pope as "sick", "disabled" and "dying", and saying that he was entering "the last days and months of his life". Other voices close to the Pope have done what they can to dampen the rumours. Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz, whom the Pope promoted to Archbishop on Monday, and who has been John Paul's secretary ever since he assumed the papacy, told reporters that speculation about the Pope's imminent demise was nothing new. "Many journalists who in the past have written about the Pope's health are already in heaven," he said.
During his meeting with Dr Williams, the Pope did not mention the subject of homosexual priests directly, but the allusion was obvious. "As we give thanks for the progress that has already been made, we must also recognise that new and serious difficulties have arisen on the path to unity," he read, sitting beside the archbishop. "These difficulties are not of a merely disciplinary nature; some extend to essential matters of faith and morals."
The archbishop had been forewarned of the rebuke. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican official in charge of relations with other churches, told Vatican Radio yesterday that he had told Dr Williams of his concern about "the conflicts and tensions that have emerged in the Anglican Communion in recent months following the ordination of priests who practise homosexuality".
The cardinal said he had expressed concern "because it is not only an internal problem of the Anglican Communion, but also affects our relations."
In August, a few days before Episcopalians in the US elected the Rev Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion, the Vatican published a new denunciation of homosexuality, calling it "a troubling moral and social phenomenon" and repeating the Vatican's view that homosexual acts were "intrinsically disordered".Reuse content