“I would like to say to the youth, in the name of all of us adults: forgive us if, often, we have not listened to you, if, instead of opening our hearts, we have filled your ears,” Pope Francis said on Oct. 28, 2018 at the closing Mass of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment.
This was a way of recalling that “in the Church, the sin of the faithful is assumed by the pope, just as in a company, the error of a subordinate is assumed by his hierarchical superior,” said Dominican Philippe-Marie Margelidon.
That does not mean that adults no longer need to apologize for not listening to youth. On the contrary, they are being urged to do so even more.
However, said Collaud, “when Pope Francis asks for forgiveness on behalf of abuser priests, he always speaks in the plural – “we have let …. develop”, “we’ve badly managed…”
This means, according to the Swiss theologian, that “the pope is not thinking so much as a hierarchical leader, but as a member of the Body of Christ. When a body allows this type of sin to develop within it, there is undeniably an issue of collective responsibility shared by all members of that body.”
These words recall the idea of “structures of sin” espoused by St John-Paul II.
“Because I am my brother’s keeper, when my brother errs, I share the wrong he commits,” explains Thierry Collaud, alluding to Cain’s famous response after he killed his brother Abel. (Gen.4:9).
Pope Francis had taken over this Biblical response for his own account at a prayer for peace in the Vatican in 2013. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asked. “Yes, you are your brother’s keeper! Being a human person means being one another’s keepers!”
“Just as Christ took the sin of the world upon himself, the Church needs to purify itself ceaselessly from the wrongs committed by its members and sometimes its highest representatives,” said Father Margelidon.
Like his predecessors, Pope John Paul sometimes apologizes for the past misdeeds of the Church. He did it for example in Bolivia in 2015 for “the crimes perpetrated by the Church against indigenous peoples during what is erroneously termed the conquest of the Americas.”
Reflecting on Power
The closing Mass on Sunday Feb. 24 was held in a highly symbolic space. The Sala Regia, the “throne room” inside the Apostolic Palace, is surrounded by huge frescoes denoting papal power, from depictions of Henry IV at Canossa to the Battle of Lepanto.
In his homily, Australian Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, invited participants to reflect on the notion of papal power.
He stated that power is “dangerous, because it can destroy,” especially “when separated from service.” He added that it requires a “Copernican revolution,” such as the one the bishops and religious leaders gathered for four days at the Vatican were ready to embark upon.
“For us, the Copernican revolution is the discovery that those who have been abused do not revolve around the Church but the Church around them,” he stated unequivocally.
“In discovering this, we can begin to see with their eyes and to hear with their ears; and once we do that, the world and the Church begin to look quite different. This is the necessary conversion.”
Abuse victims focus of summit
Personal accounts given by survivors were the central component of the summit. On the evening of Feb. 22 a 50-year-old woman spoke, telling the story of her destroyed childhood: “I was 11 years old when a priest from my parish destroyed my life.”
One participant described the bishops leaving the session as looking groggy. Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg said, “I had to close my eyes, they were filled with tears,” adding, “it is absolutely necessary that we listen to these accounts.”
As a moderator of one of two French-speaking working groups at the summit, the President of Bishops of the European Union said that watching and listening to participants, he had witnessed a gradual evolution and improvement, thanks to the personal testimony given by survivors.
“Bishops are changing. I can feel it in the way we are sharing and talking to one another,” he said.
“I had the impression at the start of the summit that some would be defensive, but in fact, they let them down. Our pope is wise, he knows that the Church cannot be changed through top-down orders, but that we have to change people’s hearts,” Hollerich said.
The pope’s rather Jesuit response to the situation also includes a high degree of clarity and pragmatism.
There were nine keynote speeches, three per day. Most of them were given by papal advisors and they clearly outlined the approach that Pope Francis intends to adopt in order that abuse is not only punished but also anticipated, prevented and denounced within the Church.
Listen to individual cases, but make no excuses
The Vatican took the time to listen to those who wanted to outline strategies in certain countries or continents with regard, for example, to the systematic denunciation of perpetrators, which is not always straightforward in places where the rule of law does not prevail.
But, “cultural differences cannot be used as an excuse not to do everything we can to protect minors,” said Father Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus.
“The fact that there might be serious issues including poverty, health care, war and violence in certain countries in the south does not mean the question of sexual abuse should be set aside,” insisted Nigerian Sister Veronica Openibo, congregational leader of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus.
Her statement was a response to African bishops who have often questioned the priority of the issue.
The important role of women’s testimony
Despite the small proportion of women, only 15 in a total of 190 participants, their testimony played a significant role over the course of the four days.
“I heard the Church speak of itself: a feminine insight which is reflected in the Church,” the pope said after one woman’s testimony.
The women’s speeches were among the most moving and powerful, helping create an understanding of the mechanisms through which the Church was able to dissimulate sexual abuse and leading, finally, to the awareness of the absolute necessity to take immediate action.
Did Pope Francis’ closing speech at the meeting of bishops conference presidents on child protection on Feb. 24 come as a disappointment? The long text he read out in the Sala Regia inside the Apostolic Palace did not in fact contain any significant new announcements. On the other hand, he had already warned well in advance against “inflated” expectations from the meeting.
A Church that admits its faults and sins and rejects justicialism, a church that is no longer a besieged citadel but rather a Church genuinely in the world.
But the real point of his address had less to do with the concrete measures the Vatican has already started working on than the kind of Church that Pope Francis envisions.
In how it responds to sex abuse by priests, this will be a very different Church from the one that existed only a few years ago.
No longer will it be a besieged citadel but rather a Church genuinely in the world.
Instead of identifying the cause of abuse as society’s “moral decadence,” the Church will now perceive it as more deeply rooted in evil, or “Satan” at work in the world as well as in the Church itself, as Francis said.
It will be a Church that therefore also admits its own faults and sins. A Church that rejects what the pope has characterized as “justicialism.”
This amounts to an overly legalistic vision that is content simply to punish abusers but without a corresponding real increase in awareness or without working with those who have already mobilized to combat the scourge of child abuse around the world.
Better awareness among bishops
In an achievement that would have been impossible just a few short years ago, Pope Francis has succeeded in his efforts to develop a much greater level of awareness among the world’s bishops, many of whom who were a long way from sharing his vision.
The pope is convinced that processes are more important than blunt decisions. And through patience he been able to change the collective state of mind in the space of a few short days.
Whereas Rome’s attempts at change have bumped up against the inertia of some bishops’ conferences for many years, the bishops’ growing awareness of their common responsibility for abuse and its management should now enable the Church to make much more orderly progress both against abuse and cover ups.
Very useful meeting
“The message given to the bishops was to ‘return home and get to work’,” said Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, one of the meeting organizers.
“There were many ideas but now we need to put it all into practice and I am also expecting the backing of the Holy See with this,” said Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, which has often been at loggerheads with Rome when it sought more freedom to act.
By removing the blinkers of a number of bishops, the meeting also enabled them to better appreciate their own failures.
“Many of those who believed that abuses did not exist have suddenly begun to raise very basic questions,” noted one observer of the meeting.
“Now, they are aware of what they need to to do and they want to act,” he added. “The meeting was very useful on this point.”
A Vatican law against sex abuse
“This change in attitude will allow us to apply the law,” said Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, the adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
The CDF will also soon publish a practical document that will clearly set out the procedures bishops must follow in abuse cases.
In addition, regional task forces will be created in order to provide experts who will assist the bishops conferences with fewer resources.
And since example needs to come from the top, Father Federico Lombardi, the moderator of the meeting’s plenary sessions, announced on Feb. 24 the forthcoming publication of legislation against abuse in the Rome Curia and the Vatican as well as specific guidelines for the Vatican state.
While all bishops conferences must send their own guidelines to the CDF for evaluation, the Holy See has until now has strangely lacked any legislation on the issue.
This also concerns the Vatican diplomatic service and thus any crimes committed by nuncios during the course of their service.
The pontifical secret
Although general legislation on abuse and against cover up already exists in the Church, there are many more issues that still need to be addressed.
One of these is the pontifical secret, which means victims have no access to the procedures taken against those who abused them.
“The pontifical secret exists for the freedom of the Church, e.g. in the selection of future bishops, and should not be used to cover up abuse,” admitted Archbishop Scicluna, who told La Croix that he is “hopeful” of reform in the CDF on this issue.
“In any event, it has no absolute value. It’s not the secret of the confessional,” he added during a press conference.
Other more technical issues were also raised, including ensuring the responsibility of bishops as outlined in the motu proprio, As a Loving Mother, which provides for any bishop who covers up abuse to be punished.
On Feb. 22 morning, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago also shared a reflection on the process, which is very detailed but should not be difficult to implement.
Meanwhile, Father Lombardi noted that the working groups in which the bishops met twice each day also offered many suggestions.
Back to work already on Monday
And just as iron must be forged when it is still hot, the summit’s organizers were scheduled to meet again at 9 a.m. on Feb. 25 with the heads of each dicastery of the Roman Curia.
This exceptional “council of ministers” meeting organized by the pope will provide an opportunity to launch in depth work on each of the issues which should lead to concrete results.
Even more significant than adopting any new laws, it will be vital to establish a more collegial Church in which Rome will work more closely with the bishops and they, in turn, with lay people.
It will be no longer be a Church inherited from the Council of Trent. Rather, it will be the Church of Vatican II.