VATICAN ( -- Father Nicholas Gruner, a Canadian priest who has been suspended from his ministry, has received support in an open letter to Pope John Paul II, signed by 20 bishops. But the publication of that open letter in the Italian daily Il Messaggero has prompted new questions.

      Father Gruner, who for 20 years has organized conferences on the messages of Fatima, has been suspended a divinis-- that is, forbidden to exercise his priestly powers. The open letter which appeared in the Italian press today called upon the Holy Father to restore the priest's faculties, and accused "Vatican bureaucrats" of undermining his work. The letter used the same accusation to explain why the appeal on behalf of Father Gruner was published in the secular media, rather than relayed through normal Church channels.

      The letter was signed by 20 bishops-- 3 of them retired-- from India, Malaysia, Brazil, Honduras, China, Belgium, and Syria, all of whom indicated their desire to participate in conferences organized by the controversial Canadian priest. However, Vatican sources expressed some doubts that all these bishops knew that their names had appeared on the document, or that they understood Father Gruner's situation.

      Father Gruner was suspended by his bishop in the Italian Diocese of Avellino in 1976. When he continued his public work, regardless of the ban, the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy finally issued a statement in 1992, announcing that his annual conferences on the Fatima message were organized without ecclesial approval. In January of this year Bishop Natalino Zagotto, an auxiliary of the Rome diocese, again reminded potential supporters that Father Gruner's conferences were unauthorized.

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April 6, 1998 volume 9, no. 68         DAILY CATHOLIC