[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 20 October, 2003, 01:13 GMT 02:13 UK
Working for the Pope
By Peter Gould
BBC correspondent in Rome

For one billion Catholics around the world, John Paul II is their spiritual leader, a remote figure they usually see only on television.

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald
Archbishop Fitzgerald - calls the Pope boss

For Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the Pope is also the boss, an employer who can summon him with a telephone call.

"He is a very good person to work for," says Archbishop Fitzgerald.

But the Englishman admits he was a little apprehensive about his first meeting with the pontiff.

"After about a week here, I was called to meet him privately and was a bit in awe but the Pope immediately puts you at ease.

"He was asking questions and I couldn't say, 'well, Holy Father, you know everything'. If I'm appointed to do something, I'm supposed to be able to do it. So I had to answer."

Michael Fitzgerald was born in Walsall, but has been based in Rome for 35 years, much of it working for the Vatican's civil service, the Curia.

There are things that he wants done, and one feels that this is his personal insistence, and this is his line that he wants to take
Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald

His official title is president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. Put simply, his job is to promote good relations between the Catholic Church and the world's other faiths, particularly Islam.

The work of this Vatican department has always been of particular interest to the Pope. By giving Michael Fitzgerald the top job last year, John Paul II acknowledged the special skills of the Englishman.

Now aged 66, he has spent a lifetime studying Islamic religion and culture, and speaks Arabic. He travels widely, and has extensive contacts in the Muslim world.

Sitting in his office, close to St Peter's Square, he showed me an album of photographs of a recent trip to Lebanon, where he had talks with religious leaders.

I was curious to know how much contact he has with John Paul II. There has been speculation that the Pope's failing health means he has less influence over the day-to-day work of the Vatican.

"I think his rhythm has decreased with the increasing debility," says Archbishop Fitzgerald.

"But he is still calling the heads of the departments to see him. It is not all that frequent, but it has not been less frequent in recent years.

"There are things that he wants done, and one feels that this is his personal insistence, and this is his line that he wants to take."

Building bridges

A major theme of the papacy of John Paul II has been building bridges to other religions, such as Islam. The task seemed even greater after the events of 11 September 2001.

"Has it become more difficult? It certainly has become more urgent," says the archbishop, when I pose the question.

"I think the difficulties lie within the communities. If you are thinking of Islamic extremism, this is of great concern also to moderate Muslims. They feel that Islam is being branded as a terrorist religion, and they want to defend themselves, and legitimately so.

"In the Christian world, we also have people who tend to look upon other religions as demonic, on Islam as completely demonic, and I think that doesn't help us either."

He is the one who decided to meet with Jews, and Muslims, and Hindus, and Buddhists wherever he went. I think that is quite remarkable
It was as a boy, on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1950, that Michael Fitzgerald saw his first pope, Pius XII.

Four papacies later, he sees John Paul II as a spiritual leader who has used his personal magnetism and his many journeys to reach out to people of all faiths.

"He has wanted to carry the Christian message everywhere in the world, but he has not excluded people of other religions," he says.

"He is the one who decided to meet with Jews, and Muslims, and Hindus, and Buddhists wherever he went. I think that is quite remarkable."

Varied career

In 1961, Michael Fitzgerald became a priest with Society of Missionaries of Africa, a religious order known as the White Fathers.

In addition to a doctorate in theology, he has a degree in Arabic from London University, and taught at the Pontifical Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, in Rome.

Last year he took over from Cardinal Francis Arinze as head of the department for inter-religious dialogue, a promotion that makes him the highest-placed Briton at the Vatican.

His unassuming manner belies his growing status in the Catholic hierarchy.

He has a wonderful memory for faces and names and people that he's met
Three years ago, a delegation of English bishops arrived in Rome. He tagged along for their meeting with the Pope, and found himself being introduced, rather unnecessarily, to his boss.

"Ah," said the Pope. "He's one of ours."

The archbishop chuckles at the memory, and tells me it is typical of the Pope to give recognition to the people who work for him.

"He has a wonderful memory for faces and names and people that he's met," he says.

"You do feel that you're a person, not just a cog in a wheel."

After his years in Rome, Michael Fitzgerald is now very much a Vatican insider, and a key member of the Pope's team.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Robert Piggot
"The Pope audibly struggled for breath"



RELATED INTERNET LINKS:
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific