The theology of the people that formed Pope Francis thus enabled him to understand the extent to which clericalism opened up the path to abuse by setting aside the notion of the Church as People of God, reducing it to “small elites” despite the priority that Vatican II had given to this concept

“In moments of shadow and great tribulation, when the ‘skeins’ and ‘knots’ cannot be unraveled and nothing is clear, it is then that we need to keep silent,” he wrote during the 1980s.

“The gentleness of silence shows us as even weaker,” he continued. “Thus the emboldened devil also displays himself as he really is with his true intentions, no longer disguised as the angel of light but brazenly and shamelessly.”

‘make space’ for God and that is the way he himself taught, namely humiliation and kenosis. Silence, prayer and humiliation.”

Published Feb. 19, 2019.

To understand Pope Francis’ attitude to the scourge of sexual abuse that has wounded the Church, it is necessary to look back at his years in Argentina.

As with many other Latin American bishops, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s understanding of the crisis developed only slowly.

“In Argentina, the issue of sexual abuse in the Church, as in society, has only really emerged over the last eight or ten years,” admits Brother Juan Ignacio Fuentes, a Marist expert on sexual abuse issues in the Argentine Catholic education system. “Culturally, it is still a taboo subject.”

Seeing Christ’s wounds in victims

Brother Fuentes recalls the state of mind of Church leaders following the years of dictatorship when moral matters were used by the military to discredit protesting priests.

“Today’s adults grew up under thirty or forty years of dictatorship, which was a real formation in silence!” he emphasizes. “Even though things have changed in recent years, there is no such thing as a culture of transparency.”

Victims have only recently started to open up.

The future pope himself first encountered the issue via contact with victims. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he worked closely with victims of exploitation and trafficking.

He publicly supported threatened women, preached against their exploiters and assisted them to reintegrate into society.

“I see the wounds of Christ in them,” the pope confided.

Once he became pope, he adopted a similar approach with sexual abuse victims whom he has met regularly, as did his predecessor Benedict XVI.

In fact, he continues to meet victims despite their often harsh words against the Church.

He quickly became aware that although Pope Benedict’s “zero tolerance” policy was effective for punishing future abuse cases, it was inadequate for preventing abuse.

In addition, there was the problem of abuse that had previously been covered up.

However, Francis was trained in the Argentine theology of the people, a branch of liberation theology that is based primarily on a sociological school.

This “sociology of the people” combined with his Jesuit experience in discerning situations enabled him to understand how abuse occurred in the Church as an organization.

Thus, in his letter to Chilean Catholics, Francis challenged a “culture of abuse and the system of cover up that allows it to be perpetuated” within the Catholic Church.

He called for the development of “a culture of protection that will permeate our ways of relating, praying, thinking and experiencing authority, our own customs and languages as well as our relationship with power and money.”

The theology of the people that formed Pope Francis thus enabled him to understand the extent to which clericalism opened up the path to abuse by setting aside the notion of the Church as People of God, reducing it to “small elites” despite the priority that Vatican II had given to this concept.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis’ analysis cannot be regarded as merely sociological and theological. As a Jesuit, he also insists on a strong spiritual dimension. For Francis, there is a real spiritual battle against the devil involved.

During the 1980s, during a genuine “exile” experience when his superiors sent him to Cordoba in northern Argentina, Father Bergoglio took the time to reflect on the “tribulations” that the Jesuits were experiencing at that time, likening it to the events that led to the suppression of the order in the 18th century.

He then analyzed the spiritual combat that is required to deal with the Devil’s attacks.

The devil shows himself as he really is

“Thirty years later, we are in a different context but the war is the same and it belongs solely to the Lord,” he explained in the preface to a new edition of his letters published in February, which also includes his recent letters to the Chilean people and to the People of God.

“In moments of shadow and great tribulation, when the ‘skeins’ and ‘knots’ cannot be unraveled and nothing is clear, it is then that we need to keep silent,” he wrote during the 1980s.

“The gentleness of silence shows us as even weaker,” he continued. “Thus the emboldened devil also displays himself as he really is with his true intentions, no longer disguised as the angel of light but brazenly and shamelessly.”

Only way to “make space” for God: silence, prayer and humiliation

Father Bergoglio went on to explain that in some crises “the visceral powerlessness” of human solutions may necessitate “the grace of silence.”

He also emphasizes that, in the face of adversity, only Christ can force evil to reveal its true face, thus creating the necessary space for the light of God.

In Bergoglio’s view, the only ways to arrive at such a revelation are precisely those adopted by Jesus during his Passion.

“There is only one way to ‘make space’ for God and that is the way he himself taught, namely humiliation and kenosis. Silence, prayer and humiliation.”

This amounted to a warning against solutions that are too human, as he recently repeated to the American bishops.

In this respect, in the genuinely Jesuit four day retreat to which he has called the presidents of bishops conferences, the penitential liturgy to be held on the evening of Saturday Feb. 23 with Pope France and the bishops of the world represented by conference presidents will be a capital event.

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