‘Structured dialogues’

One in a series.

Catholic News Service Rome bureau staffers always get to cover papal trips, yet, as Pope Francis’ visit approached, we in Washington began thinking about our favorite moments of when we got to cover popes. No one in our newsroom is a papal rookie, so we agreed to share some of our stories.

To prepare for Pope Francis’ U.S. visit, I hauled out a copy of “Unity in the Work of Service,” a book compiling messages by, and to, St. John Paul II during his 1987 visit to the United States. (Whether there is a similar book in the works for Pope Francis’ trip, including his remarks to Congress and the United Nations, I don’t know.)

In his introduction to the book, Archbishop John May of St. Louis, then the president of the U.S. bishops, noted that the texts in the book included “a number of thought-provoking presentations by women and men speaking on behalf of the ministries and apostolates sponsored by the church in the United States. These structured dialogues contributed greatly to the success of the visit and the realization of its theme,” which was the book’s title. The phrase “structured dialogues” jumped out at me. The first time I had heard it was in preparing for coverage of St. John Paul’s 1987 visit.

Like most reporters, I was eager to learn the identities of those speaking to the pope at various venues. In Detroit, while working for The Michigan Catholic, I was covering his visit to “Polonia,” those of Polish ethnic heritage living outside of Poland. I interviewed one of the teenagers chosen to address the pope to ask her what she had planned to say.

I was expecting her to respond on how she was still working on her speech, but possibly expressing some themes she might want to cover. Much to my surprise, she told me the speech had not only been written, but sent to the Vatican, which already sent it back — with notes on changes church officials expected her to make.

Pope John Paul II blesses Mercy Sister Teresa Kane in 1979. (CNS photo)

Pope John Paul II blesses Mercy Sister Teresa Kane in 1979. (CNS photo)

Well, that was a surprise. After a little digging, I found out the Vatican had been vetting remarks after St. John Paul’s first U.S. visit in 1979, when Mercy Sister Theresa Kane, then president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, surprised the pontiff with her address during a ceremony in Washington at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception — not yet a minor basilica.

At the shrine, she made headlines when issued a plea for the pope to provide “the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministries of the church.” That meant ordination of women. St. John Paul rejected the notion before the ceremony was over. In 1994 his apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” the pope reaffirmed church teaching that the church “has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”

It was that experience that led to the practice of structured dialogues. “No more surprises” seemed to become the order of the day.

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