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Religion: Silenced Microphone

3 minute read

Father Riccardo Lombardi, S.J., is a kind of modern-day Savonarola. In Italy between 1946 and 1956, the fervent little Jesuit, who was popularly known as “God’s microphone,” drew crowds of 300,000 and more for fiery lectures that urged rich and poor alike to recapture the zeal of early Christians if they would save the world from Communism. In 1955, he set up an ambitious Better World Institute on Lake Albano, near Rome, as a center for Christian studies of social reform. During its first three years, while his friend and protector Pope Pius XII was alive, more than 260 bishops, 3,000 priests and 2,000 laymen came to the institute for courses on democracy and the redistribution of wealth. Pope John XXIII has been less enthusiastic about Father Lombardi’s kind of evangelism. In recent years the institute’s big missionary projects have been quietly shelved and its sleek modern headquarters demoted to the status of a study house for priests.

A Protest Against Pomposity. Father Lombardi’s zeal for Christian reform was reawakened last year by Pope John’s call for Vatican Council II, the great gathering of Catholic prelates set for late this year. Collecting his own views on what the council should do, Lombardi last December published a book called Council: For a Reform of Charity. He personally presented a copy to Pope John. It proved to be a blistering attack on the fusty habits of Catholic bishops and Vatican bureaucrats. Likening the church to “an old building constructed many centuries ago,” Lombardi insisted that it must be remodeled to suit the present tenants. Among his suggested revisions:

> A “senate” of outstanding Catholic laymen to advise the church on world problems.

> An overhaul of the Roman Curia, the Vatican’s governing bureaucracy, which would be composed of the “best-fitted and most competent” clerics in the entire world, and not merely from Italy.

> A ban on any cleric’s spending his entire service in the curia, since ecclesiastical careerism is “virtually a betrayal of our common cause and God’s cause.”

> A more modest way of dress for bishops and cardinals. “In every earthly hierarchy,” he wrote, “there is little overt indication of differing rank. Among us, however, there still exist various modes of dress and pomposities which serve to affirm different positions: flaming colors, ermine, trains. People would be edified to see ecclesiastics dress simply.”

A Certain Notoriety. That sort of criticism was bound to make almost any Vatican cardinal see red, and church authorities struck back. An anonymous, front-page article in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, written by a cleric engaged in council preparations, warned the laity and the lower clergy not to “interfere in discussions reserved to the hierarchy itself.” An example of such interference was Father Lombardi’s book: “reckless and unjust.” Last week, addressing Vatican Council II’s preparatory commission. Pope John joined in the criticism: “It is to be hoped that various works—especially those by authors of a certain notoriety—be written with caution and objectivity to avoid rousing perplexity and confusion.”

Father Lombardi’s book, which received the approval of his Jesuit superior and an imprimatur from a local auxiliary bishop, has not been ordered withdrawn from print. But Vatican officials agreed that only placement on the Index could have been a sterner rebuke. Murmuring that his book was only the opinion of a “simple priest,” Father Lombardi affirmed his loyalty to the church and retired to silence. Said one Vatican cleric: “Only the Pope is God’s microphone.”

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