A Chance Meeting

An ordinary Wednesday in Rome

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome

Midnight Oil

The Pope’s light was burning late tonight.

In fact, in all the years of his pontificate, since the spring of 2005 after his election, his custom has been to keep his light on until about 11 pm. Then the window goes dark. Sometimes it is a little before 11, sometimes a little after.

But this evening, it was still burning at 11:15, at 11:30, at 11:45, and at 12 midnight. I don’t know if it was on any longer, because midnight was when I glanced up at the Apostolic Palace for the last time before calling it a day myself and heading back here to write. The light was still on as I turned and walked away.

Is the Pope working late?

Or did someone forget to turn off the light?

I don’t know — I only know that the light stayed on much longer than usual.

The Next Pope?

This evening I was invited to dine, along with a dozen other journalists, with Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, 61, the Archbishop of Cape Coast in Ghana, in West Africa.

Turkson is not just any cardinal.

He is the youngest African cardinal.

And, as the “Relator,” or General Secretary, of the Synod on Africa currently taking place in Rome, he is unquestionably one of the “top” African cardinals (as he is often termed in the press).

Indeed, some have gone so far as to speculate that Turkson may become… the first African Pope. (See: https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otn.cfm?id=506)

At an October 5 press conference to open the Synod, Turkson was asked whether he thought the time was right for a black Pope, particularly following the election of President Barack Obama.

Turkson replied: “Why not?”

He argued that every man who agrees to be ordained a priest has to be willing to be a Pope.

He noted that, with Obama and the previous U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, there have been several blacks in positions of global leadership.

He said, “If God would wish to see a black man also as Pope, thanks be to God.”

And his words put him in the headlines around the world.

“He is my brother”

It was a beautiful, warm October evening as I walked up the cobblestones, past the Synod Hall, for our 7:30 pm dinner appointment inside the Vatican.

Next to me was my friend, Jesus Colina, the founder of the Zenit news agency. About nine other journalists were walking with us.

We reached a Vatican security checkpoint inside Vatican City (there are several of these). The guards checked our names on a list they had received the day before, and we were free to continue toward Casa Santa Marta, but we stood for a moment, waiting for two more journalists who were late.

An African prelate walked by, dressed very simply. From his clothes, he could have been an ordinary monsignor. But something about his greying hair and the shape of his head…

Jesus nudged me as the man walked by.

“I think that’s him,” he said to me.


“Cardinal Turkson…”

I hadn’t seen him well because he had walked past the far side of our little group, and now all I could see was the back of his head.

“What?” I asked. “You think so?”

“I think so,” he said.

“Come one,” I said.

So, while the other journalists waited at the checkpoint, we hastened after the African cardinal.

“Your Eminence…” I called out, from about 20 feet behind him. He turned and looked at us both quizzically.


“Are you… Cardinal Turkson?”

A moment of silence.

“He is my brother.”

And then he laughed and indicated that we should come up to him and walk along with him the rest of the way.

It was Turkson.

Roman Rumors

The dinner in Casa Santa Marta, where many of the Synod cardinals are staying — and where the cardinals reside in the case of a papal conclave, going back and forth from here to the Sistine Chapel — was delightful.

I sat just next to him on his right.

Turkson, a scripture scholar by training, was friendly, frank, thoughtful, and he didn’t duck any questions — except one, which Robert Mickens of the London Tablet asked: whether he would accept a post in Rome, in the Curia, if the Pope were to offer one to him.

Why that question?

Because there are rumors here that the Pope may soon call Turkson to Rome to succeed the retiring Italian Cardinal Renato Martino, 77, as the head of the Council for Justice and Peace.

For this reason, at the end of the evening, some of the Italian journalists, as they said their farewells to the cardinal, smiled and winked and said, “See you again soon…”

The veteran Vatican journalist John Allen has given some insight into the situation.

“The hold-up is apparently due to Turkson himself, who’s made it known that he doesn’t want the job, preferring to focus on his pastoral obligations in Ghana. Nonetheless, it’s more or less taken for granted, both in Africa and in Vatican circles, that Turkson will wind up in Rome.” (Source: https://ncronline.org/news/people/ghanaian-cardinal-destined-be-ecclesiastical-star)

(Note: Some still believe the Pope may choose instead, as Martino’s replacement, the African Archbishop Robert Sarah, 64, of Guinea, who since 2001 has been the Secretary of Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the former Propaganda Fide.)

Turkson seemed reluctant to answer at first, and the question had to be repeated.

Then, prompted just a bit by an official of the Press Office, who attended the dinner, Turkson responded: “I would respond just as I responded to the Pope’s request that I become a bishop, and then a cardinal: I would obey, and accept.”

Our conversation was wide-ranging.

We learned about Turkson’s family — his father was a Catholic, his mother a Methodist who became a Catholic after marriage. He is the fourth of 10 children, and he now has 30 nephews and nieces, the children of eight of his brothers and sisters (one brother died in a plane crash some years ago).

He said that one of his sisters has married a Methodist and become a Methodist — as if in compensation for his mother’s leaving Methodism when she married his father.

We learned about his African name.

“My name is Monday,” he told us. “Kodwo — that means ‘Monday’ in my native language. It is our tradition to name each child by the day of the week he or she is born on. I was born on a Monday, so that is my first name, Kodwo. Peter was added later…”

A journalist asked how this could be. With 10 children in the family, how could they all be named with the days of the week, since there are only seven days…?

“There are two Fridays in my family,” Turkson replied, laughing. “And three Sundays. I am the only Monday.”

We all laughed.

Turkson expressed some concern about the rapid increase of Islam in Africa, often by means of questionable methods.

“Sometimes a person will take out a loan, and the person will have difficult paying it back, and the loan will be forgiven on one condition — that the person converts to Islam,” Turkson said. “There is definitely a strategy to increase the Muslim population in Ghana, and throughout Africa.”

When a journalist asked him what was one change he would make in the Church, he said: “More attention to priestly formation.”

He said he has ordained about 35 priests in recent years from his diocese, and that he allows each priest to take a “sabbatical year” after finishing his studies, but before ordination.

“We don’t follow them everywhere,” he told us. “But we do observe their lives from a distance. If a man says he wishes to be a priest and then during that year he stops attending Sunday Mass, then we have a question about the depth of his vocation…”

I had the sense that Turkson has built up his diocesan clergy in such a way, under his close supervision, that it would be understandable if he were reluctant to leave his diocese — he has built up a clerical “team” which tight-knit and effective.

Speaking of teams, he told us that he is a great fan of Ghana’s national soccer team.

When I said that Nigeria also has an excellent soccer team, he turned toward me and fixed his eyes on mine and said: “Perhaps that is so, but Ghana beats them every time they meet!”

Turkson studied for several years in Rome, and he speaks perfect Italian (he spoke Italian during our dinner).

And, coming from Ghana, he of course speaks perfect English.

But he also speaks American — he studied for four years in Albany, New York.

Coming from an African country near the Equator where it never, ever snows, Turkson remembers especially the upstate New York winters.

“Albany, that’s the Hudson River Valley,” he said to me during dinner. “It funnels the air right down from Canada.” He pursed his lips slightly, as if to imitate a fierce winde blowing. “Cold!”

Tomorrow, Turkson will prepare the final “propositions” to put before the Synod for voting on Friday.

The Synod will then end on Saturday, and the approved propositions will go to the Pope for his evaluation and reflection.

The Pope will then prepare a pontifical document, taking into account everything the bishops have said during this Synod, and publish it in a few months.

Genetically Modified Seeds

One thing I did not ask Turkson about was the controversial question of genetically modified seeds.

I didn’t raise the issue because I wanted some other journalist to raise it, but no one did.

So I let it go, a bit reluctantly.

I had thought I might get a perspective on the issue from Turkson, the highest possible Synod source, but I let the opportunity slip away.

Why had I wanted an authoritative perspective?

Because of something that happened 10 days ago.

I haven’t written anything in these newsflashes about the Synod on Africa, now nearing its close (it ends in three days, on Saturday, October 24).

But 10 days ago, I did write one piece on the Synod for the Zenit news agency. It was published on October 12.

In my article, I discussed the issue of genetically modified seeds, and I noted that some African bishops had concerns about possible negative consequences of using these seeds.

I noted that these bishops thought it might be wise to hold off for a moment on using these new seeds, and instead focus all of Africa’s attention on infrastructure improvements, like better roads, more irrigation systems, and better food storage, as the essential priorities to help Africans feed themselves.

I wrote this after reading an excellent interview with an African bishop done by John Allen earlier this year.

Allen interviewed Cameroon’s Archbishop George Nkuo in May after Nkuo attended at a “study week” in Rome from May 15-19 held by the Pontifical Academy for Sciences (which generally seems to favor the new seeds) to look at the entire problem of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Nkuo was the only African bishop, and one of the few non-scientists, who took part. The interview was published May 20, 2009.

“Objectively, if this technology really makes a plant more productive, if it’s accessible to the poor, and there are no obvious dangers to health or the environment, then I think there’s nothing wrong with it,” Nkuo told Allen after the meeting.

But, he added that he did not know whether all this — higher productivity, accessibility to the poor, no side-effects — is really true.

“I really don’t know,” he said. “That’s my problem. I don’t understand how the science can be so confused. I thought there was supposed to be objective evidence, but the science seems to be in conflict. I think it’s amazing how divergent the opinions are. The pro-GMO people say these plants are environmentally friendly and pose no threats to health. The anti-GMO people say they are dangerous and there’s a problem of safety. What am I to believe?”

And so I wrote: “If a bishop who spent a week at a recent pro-GMO gathering in Rome still does not know what to believe, then it seems the prudent course is to withhold judgment until the facts are clear.”

My piece sparked outrage in some quarters.

Letters of protest were written to the Zenit editors.

And, two days after my piece was published, a second Zenit piece appeared, strongly critical of my piece and strongly in favor of using genetically modified seeds wihtout any delay.

It was authored by two pro-GMO scientists, one Italian, one Swiss.

The authors said many people are uncertain about GMOs because they have been frightened by “myths” in the media.

“One of the myths circulating for more than a decade on these seeds reappeared recently in Zenit in an article by Robert Moynihan,” they wrote. “The myth is that seeds of crops produced through modern biotechnology are sterile. This is simply not true.”

I had written that GMO seeds are problematic because the following season, the seeds are sterile, meaning that a farmer cannot simply set a part of his harvest aside to plant the following year, as has been customary for thousands of years, but has to buy more seed from the seed company, which then creates a financial problem for subsistence farmers.

I had based this on articles like one in the Ottawa Citizen on June 13, 2007: “Environmentalists are raising the alarm about the latest development in genetically modified foods — ‘zombie seeds’ programmed to be sterile until treated with a special chemical. These and other ‘sexually dysfunctional’ seeds are being developed by the biotech industry as a solution to the problem of genetically modified plants contaminating conventional crops.” https://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/story.html?id=2afe4e12-461a-4831-8bf4-aed842488bb7

But my critics wrote: “No GE [genetically engineered] crop on sale to date has been made sterile to prevent farmers from reusing the seeds.”

So I began to wonder what the truth was.

And that brings me to a second unexpected meeting that occurred this evening.

Where Peter Died

As our group of journalists left the Casa Santa Marta and walked back toward the security checkpoint, I walked with Colina.

For some reason, as we came near to the checkpoint, we noticed scaffolding and drapes against the side of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is being cleaned. A high scaffold covered the whole wall of the basilica in front of us, and next to it, a white expanse had just been cleaned.

“Right over there is where St. Peter was crucified,” Jesus said to me. “There is a marker with an inscription on the exact spot where he died.”

“Really?” I said. “I’ve been here all these years and I’ve never seen that…”

“Come on,” he said,

So we walked across the cobblestones toward a narrow archway that leads to the back of the basilica.

There, fixed in the ground, a square of white marble is set into the black cobblestones.

In the dark — it was almost 10 pm now — we couldn’t make out the inscription. Then we realized that we were looking at it upside down, and shifted our position so we could slowly decipher the words: “On this spot stood the Vatican obelisk until 1586.” (For more on the Vatican obelisk, see: https://everything2.com/title/the+Vatican+Obelisk)

“I think this is it,” Jesus said. “Though I thought there was a reference to Peter’s crucifixion.” He paused, puzzled. “Anyway, this is where the obelisk was, the one is now in the middle of St. Peter’s Square. It was here because Nero’s circus was here, and the circus is where Peter was crucified upside down. And that is why the tomb is just over there…”

He gestured toward the basilica a few feet away, looming massive and grey in the night.

As I meditated on this, a dark figure began to walk toward us from across the cobblestones, coming from the sentry box.

He wore a black clerical soutane and a black beret, pulled down a bit over his forehead so that it was difficult to see his face. He seemed to be bent forward slightly, and he seemed to be carrying something in his hand.

I could see it was a Vatican monsignor, but I didn’t know who it was.

He passed by us in silence.

I thought that I recognized him, but wasn’t sure.

Then Jesus said, “Eccellenza, buona sera. Sono Jesus Colina, di Zenit.”

The monsignor stopped.

“Ah!” he said, recognizing Jesus. “Buona sera.”

He paused for a moment. “You know,” he said, “there has been some concern in the Synod about this question of genetically modified seeds… and about what’s appearing in Zenit…”

I froze. What was he going to say?

Then I realized suddenly, with surprise, who this man was: Archbishop Nikola Eterovi?.

Eterovi? is… the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops.

That means he is the Vatican official in charge of all Synods. He is the one who prepares the Synods, who oversees them, and who follows up after they are over. The top guy.

“Many of the bishops and even some of the observers at the Synod have expressed grave reservations on this issue,” he continued. “Africa needs to improve its infrastructure before anything else. Almost one-third of the food that is harvested is lost due to lack of adequate refrigeration and storage facilities….”

I heaved a sigh of relief…

And then…

We spoke with Eterovi? for a few minutes, then took our leave.

As we walked out of the Vatican, I said to Jesus, “Well, that was amazing. I was with you, and we had dinner with Turkson, and even though there was so much controversy over my Zenit piece, it didn’t come up — so, pazienza. And then, we were walking out and suddenly went to look for the plaque marking the spot where Peter died, and then, just there, Eterovi? comes walking by, and without me saying anything, he starts telling us that these genetically modified seeds are a major concern of the Synod. I mean, you couldn’t script this!”

“True,” Jesus said. “And did you notice what he had in his hand?”

“No,” I said. “What?”

“A rosary. As he came up to us, he slipped it into his pocket. He was praying the Rosary when we stopped him…”

And so, despite everything that has happened, in the Church and in the world, in recent decades, inside the Vatican you can still sometimes meet a high-ranking prelate who goes about humbly and alone, praying his rosary.


“[I]t should not frighten you that in the Church the bad are many and the good few. [Terrere …vos non debet quod in Ecclesia et multi mali et pauci sunt boni] For the Ark, which in the midst of the Flood was a figure of this Church, was wide below and narrow above, and at the summit measured but one cubit (Genesis vi, 16)… It was wide where the beasts were, narrow where men lived: for the Holy Church is indeed wide in the number of those who are carnal minded, narrow in those who are spiritual. For where she suffers the morals and beastly ways of men, there she enlarges her bosom. But where she has the care of those whose lives are founded on spiritual things, these she leads to the higher place; but since they are few, this part is narrow. Wide indeed is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction; and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate that leadeth to life; and few there are that find it! —Saint Gregory the Great, Homilia XXXVII

Facebook Comments