In his address to the Curia Pope Francis tells abuser priests to “convert and hand themselves over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice”

The full text of the address follows. His remarks on the sexual abuse crisis and call to abusive priests to give themselves up to justice come part way in the section entitled Afflictions.

“The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” (Rom 13:12).

Filled with the joy and hope that radiate from the countenance of the Holy Child, we gather again this year for the exchange of Christmas greetings, mindful of all the joys and struggles of our world and of the Church. To you and your co-workers, to all those who serve in the Curia, to the Papal Representatives and the staff of the various Nunciatures, I offer my cordial good wishes for a blessed Christmas. I want to express my gratitude for your daily dedication to the service of the Holy See, the Church and the Successor of Peter. Thank you very much! Allow me also to offer a warm welcome to the new Substitute of the Secretariat of State, Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra, who began his demanding and important service on 15 October last. The fact that he comes from Venezuela respects the catholicity of the Church and her need to keep expanding her horizons to the ends of the earth. Welcome, dear Archbishop, and best wishes for your work! Christmas fills us with joy and makes us certain that no sin will ever be greater than God’s mercy; no act of ours can ever prevent the dawn of his divine light from rising ever anew in human hearts. This feast invites us to renew our evangelical commitment to proclaim Christ, the Saviour of the world and the light of the universe. “Christ, ‘holy, blameless, undefiled’ (Heb 7:26) did not know sin (cf. 2 Cor 5:21) and came only to atone for the sins of the people (cf. Heb 2:17). The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal. She ‘presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God’, announcing the cross and death of the Lord until he comes (cf. 1 Cor 11:26). But by the power of the risen Lord, she is given the strength to overcome, in patience and in love, her sorrows and her difficulties, both those from within and those from without, so that she may reveal in the world, faithfully, albeit with shadows, the mystery of the Lord until, in the end, it shall be manifested in full light” (Lumen Gentium, 8). In the firm conviction that the light always proves stronger than the darkness, I would like to reflect with you on the light that links Christmas (the Lord’s first coming in humility) to the Parousia (his second coming in glory), and confirms us in the hope that does not disappoint. It is the hope on which our individual lives, and the entire history of the Church and the world, depend. Jesus was born in a social, political and religious situation marked by tension, unrest and gloom. His birth, awaited by some yet rejected by others, embodies the divine logic that does not halt before evil, but instead transforms it slowly but surely into goodness. Yet it also brings to light the malign logic that transforms even goodness into evil, in an attempt to keep humanity in despair and in darkness. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). Each year, Christmas reminds us that God’s salvation, freely bestowed on all humanity, the Church and in particular on us, consecrated persons, does not act independently of our will, our cooperation, our freedom and our daily efforts. Salvation is a gift that must be accepted, cherished and made to bear fruit (cf. Mt 25:14-30). Being Christian, in general and for us in particular as the Lord’s anointed and consecrated, does not mean acting like an élite group who think they have God in their pocket, but as persons who know that they are loved by the Lord despite being unworthy sinners. Those who are consecrated are nothing but servants in the vineyard of the Lord, who must hand over in due time the harvest and its gain to the owner of the vineyard (cf. Mt 20:1-16). The Bible and the Church’s history show clearly that even the elect can frequently come to think and act as if they were the owners of salvation and not its recipients, like overseers of the mysteries of God and not their humble ministers, like God’s toll-keepers and not servants of the flock entrusted to their care.

All too often, as a result of excessive and misguided zeal, instead of following God, we can put ourselves in front of him, like Peter, who remonstrated with the Master and thus merited the most severe of Christ’s rebukes: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on the things of God but on the things of men” (Mk 8:33).

Dear brothers and sisters,

This year, in our turbulent world, the barque of the Church has experienced, and continues to experience, moments of difficulty, and has been buffeted by strong winds and tempests. Many have found themselves asking the Master, who seems to be sleeping: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mk 4:38). Others, disheartened by news reports, have begun to lose trust and to abandon her. Still others, out of fear, personal interest or other aims, have sought to attack her and aggravate her wounds. Whereas others do not conceal their glee at seeing her hard hit. Many, many others, however, continue to cling to her, in the certainty that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her” (Mt 16:18). Meanwhile, the Bride of Christ advances on her pilgrim way amid joys and afflictions, amid successes and difficulties from within and from without. Without a doubt, the difficulties from within are always those most hurtful and destructive.

Afflictions

Many indeed are the afflictions. All those immigrants, forced to leave their own homelands and to risk their lives, lose their lives, or survive only to find doors barred and their brothers and sisters in our human family more concerned with political advantage and power! All that fear and prejudice! All those people, and especially those children who die each day for lack of water, food and medicine! All that poverty and destitution! All that violence directed against the vulnerable and against women! All those theatres of war both declared and undeclared. All that innocent blood spilled daily! All that inhumanity and brutality around us! All those persons who even today are systematically tortured in police custody, in prisons and in refugee camps in various parts of the world! We are also experiencing a new age of martyrs. It seems that the cruel and vicious persecution of the Roman Empire has not yet ended. A new Nero is always being born to oppress believers solely because of their faith in Christ. New extremist groups spring up and target churches, places of worship, ministers and members of the faithful. Cabals and cliques new and old live by feeding on hatred and hostility to Christ, the Church and believers. How many Christians even now bear the burden of persecution, marginalization, discrimination and injustice throughout our world. Yet they continue courageously to embrace death rather than deny Christ. How difficult it is, even today, freely to practice the faith in all those parts of the world where religious freedom and freedom of conscience do not exist. The heroic example of the martyrs and of countless good Samaritans — young people, families, charitable and volunteer movements, and so many individual believers and consecrated persons — cannot, however, make us overlook the counter-witness and the scandal given by some sons and ministers of the Church. Here I will limit myself to the scourges of abuse and of infidelity. The Church has for some time been firmly committed to eliminating the evil of abuse, which cries for vengeance to the Lord, to the God who is always mindful of the suffering experienced by many minors because of clerics and consecrated persons: abuses of power and conscience and sexual abuse. In my own reflections on this painful subject, I have thought of King David — one of “the Lord’s anointed” (cf. 1 Sam 16:13; 2 Sam 11-12). He, an ancestor of the Holy Child who was also called “the son of David”, was chosen, made king and anointed by the Lord. Yet he committed a triple sin, three grave abuses at once: “sexual abuse, abuse of power and abuse of conscience”. Three distinct forms of abuse that nonetheless converge and overlap.

The story begins, as we know, when the King, although a proven warrior, stayed home to take his leisure, instead of going into battle amid God’s people. David takes advantage, for his own convenience and interest, of his position as king (the abuse of power). The Lord’s anointed, he does as he wills, and thus provokes an irresistible moral decline and a weakening of conscience. It is precisely in this situation that, from the palace terrace, he sees Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, at her bath (cf. 2 Sam 11) and covets her. He sends for her and they lie together (yet another abuse of power, plus sexual abuse). He abuses a married woman and, to cover his sin, he recalls Uriah and seeks unsuccessfully to convince him to spend the night with his wife. He then orders the captain of his army to expose Uriah to death in battle (a further abuse of power, plus an abuse of conscience). The chain of sin soon spreads and quickly becomes a web of corruption. The sparks of sloth and lust, and “letting down the guard” are what ignite the diabolical chain of grave sins: adultery, lying and murder. Thinking that because he was king, he could have and do whatever he wanted, David tries to deceive Bathsheba’s husband, his people, himself and even God. The king neglects his relationship with God, disobeys the divine commandments, damages his own moral integrity, without even feeling guilty. The “anointed” continues to exercise his mission as if nothing had happened. His only concern was to preserve his image, to keep up appearances. For “those who think they commit no grievous sins against God’s law can fall into a state of dull lethargy. Since they see nothing serious to reproach themselves with, they fail to realize that their spiritual life has gradually turned lukewarm. They end up weakened and corrupted” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 164). From being sinful, they now become corrupt. Today too, there are consecrated men, “the Lord’s anointed”, who abuse the vulnerable, taking advantage of their position and their power of persuasion. They perform abominable acts yet continue to exercise their ministry as if nothing had happened. They have no fear of God or his judgement, but only of being found out and unmasked. Ministers who rend the ecclesial body, creating scandals and discrediting the Church’s saving mission and the sacrifices of so many of their confrères. Today too, there are many Davids who, without batting an eye, enter into the web of corruption and betray God, his commandments, their own vocation, the Church, the people of God and the trust of little ones and their families. Often behind their boundless amiability, impeccable activity and angelic faces, they shamelessly conceal a vicious wolf ready to devour innocent souls. The sins and crimes of consecrated persons are further tainted by infidelity and shame; they disfigure the countenance of the Church and undermine her credibility. The Church herself, with her faithful children, is also a victim of these acts of infidelity and these real sins of “peculation”.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Let it be clear that before these abominations the Church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes. The Church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case. It is undeniable that some in the past, out of irresponsibility, disbelief, lack of training, inexperience, or spiritual and human short-sightedness, treated many cases without the seriousness and promptness that was due. That must never happen again. This is the choice and the decision of the whole Church. This coming February, the Church will restate her firm resolve to pursue unstintingly a path of purification. She will question, with the help of experts, how best to protect children, to avoid these tragedies, to bring healing and restoration to the victims, and to improve the training imparted in seminaries. An effort will be made to make past mistakes opportunities for eliminating this scourge, not only from the body of the Church but also from that of society. For if this grave tragedy has involved some consecrated ministers, we can ask how deeply rooted it may be in our societies and in our families. Consequently, the Church will not be limited to healing her own wounds, but will seek to deal squarely with this evil that causes the slow death of so many persons, on the moral, psychological and human levels.

Dear brothers and sisters,

In discussing this scourge, some, even within the Church, take to task certain communications professionals, accusing them of ignoring the overwhelming majority of cases of abuse that are not committed by clergy, and of intentionally wanting to give the false impression that this evil affects the Catholic Church alone. I myself would like to give heartfelt thanks to those media professionals who were honest and objective and sought to unmask these predators and to make their victims’ voices heard. Even if it were to involve a single case of abuse (something itself monstrous), the Church asks that people not be silent but bring it objectively to light, since the greater scandal in this matter is that of cloaking the truth. Let us all remember that only David’s encounter with the prophet Nathan made him understand the seriousness of his sin. Today we need new Nathans to help so many Davids rouse themselves from a hypocritical and perverse life. Please, let us help Holy Mother Church in her difficult task of recognizing real from false cases, accusations from slander, grievances from insinuations, gossip from defamation. This is no easy task, since the guilty are capable of skillfully covering their tracks, to the point where many wives, mothers and sisters are unable to detect them in those closest to them: husbands, godfathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, neighbours, teachers and the like. The victims too, carefully selected by their predators, often prefer silence and live in fear of shame and the terror of rejection. To those who abuse minors I would say this: convert and hand yourself over to human justice, and prepare for divine justice. Remember the words of Christ: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals! For it is necessary that scandals come, but woe to the man by whom the scandal comes! (Mt 18:6-7).

Dear brothers and sisters,

Now let me speak of another affliction, namely the infidelity of those who betray their vocation, their sworn promise, their mission and their consecration to God and the Church. They hide behind good intentions in order to stab their brothers and sisters in the back and to sow weeds, division and bewilderment. They always find excuses, including intellectual and spiritual excuses, to progress unperturbed on the path to perdition. This is nothing new in the Church’s history. Saint Augustine, in speaking of the good seed and the weeds, says: “Do you perhaps believe, brethren, that weeds cannot spring up even on the thrones of bishops? Do you perhaps think that this is found only lower down and not higher up? Heaven forbid that we be weeds!… Even on the thrones of bishops good grain and weeds can be found; even in the different communities of the faithful good grain and weeds can be found (Serm. 73, 4: PL 38, 472). These words of Saint Augustine urge us to remember the old proverb: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. They help us realize that the Tempter, the Great Accuser, is the one who brings division, sows discord, insinuates enmity, persuades God’s children and causes them to doubt. Behind these sowers of weeds, we always find the thirty pieces of silver. The figure of David thus brings us to that of Judas Iscariot, another man chosen by the Lord who sells out his Master and hands him over to death. David the sinner and Judas Iscariot will always be present in the Church, since they represent the weakness that is part of our human condition. They are icons of the sins and crimes committed by those who are chosen and consecrated. United in the gravity of their sin, they nonetheless differ when it comes to conversion. David repented, trusting in God’s mercy; Judas hanged himself. All of us, then, in order to make Christ’s light shine forth, have the duty to combat all spiritual corruption, which is “worse than the fall of the sinner, for it is a comfortable and selfsatisfied form of blindness. Everything then appears acceptable: deception, slander, egotism and other subtle forms of self-centeredness, for ‘even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Cor 11:14). So Solomon ended his days, whereas David, who sinned greatly, was able to make up for his disgrace” (Gaudete et Exsultate, 165).

Joys

Our joys have been many in the past year. For example: the successful outcome of the Synod devoted to young people; the progress made in the reform of the Curia; the efforts made to achieve clarity and transparency in financial affairs; the praiseworthy work of the Office of the Auditor-General and the AIF; the good results attained by the IOR; the new Law of the Vatican City State; the Decree on labour in the Vatican, and many other less visible results. We can think of the new Blesseds and Saints who are “precious stones” adorning the face of the Church and radiating hope, faith and light in our world. Here mention must be made of the nineteen recent martyrs of Algeria: “nineteen lives given for Christ, for his Gospel and for the Algerian people … models of everyday holiness, the holiness of “the saints next door” (Thomas Georgeon, “Nel segno della fraternità”, L’Osservatore Romano, 8 December 2018, p. 6). Then too, the great number of the faithful who each year receive baptism and thus renew the youth of the Church as a fruitful mother, and the many of her children who come home and re-embrace the Christian faith and life. All those families and parents who take their faith seriously and daily pass it on to their children by the joy of their love (cf. Amoris Laetitia, 259-290). And the witness given by so many young people who courageously choose the consecrated life and the priesthood. Another genuine cause for joy is the great number of consecrated men and women, bishops and priests, who daily live their calling in fidelity, silence, holiness and self-denial. They are persons who light up the shadows of humanity by their witness of faith, love and charity. Persons who work patiently, out of love for Christ and his Gospel, on behalf of the poor, the oppressed and the least of our brothers and sisters; they are not looking to show up on the first pages of newspapers or to receive accolades. Leaving all behind and offering their lives, they bring the light of faith wherever Christ is abandoned, thirsty, hungry, imprisoned and naked (cf. Mt 25:31-46). I think especially of the many parish priests who daily offer good example to the people of God, priests close to families, who know everyone’s name and live lives of simplicity, faith, zeal, holiness and charity. They are overlooked by the mass media, but were it not for them, darkness would reign.

Dear brothers and sisters,

In speaking of light, afflictions, David and Judas, I wanted to stress the importance of a growing awareness that should lead to a duty of vigilance and protection on the part of those entrusted with governance in the structures of ecclesial and consecrated life. In effect, the strength of any institution does not depend on its being composed of men and women who are perfect (something impossible!), but on its willingness to be constantly purified, on its capacity to acknowledge humbly its errors and correct them; and on its ability to get up after falling down. It depends on seeing the light of Christmas radiating from the manger in Bethlehem, on treading the paths of history in order to come at last to the Parousia. We need, then, to open our hearts to the true light, Jesus Christ. He is the light that can illumine life and turn our darkness into light; the light of goodness that conquers evil; the light of the love that overcomes hatred; the light of the life that triumphs over death; the divine light that turns everything and everyone into light. He is the light of our God: poor and rich, merciful and just, present and hidden, small and great. Let us keep in mind this splendid passage of Saint Macarius the Great, a fourth-century Desert Father, about Christmas: “God makes himself little! The inaccessible and uncreated One, in his infinite and ineffable goodness, has taken a body and made himself little. In his goodness, he descends from his glory. No one in the heavens or on earth can grasp the greatness of God, and no one in the heavens or on earth can grasp how God makes himself poor and little for the poor and little. As incomprehensible is his grandeur, so too is his littleness” (cf. Ps.-Macarius, Homilies IV, 9-10; XXII, 7: PG 34: 479-480; 737-738).

Let us remember that Christmas is the feast of the “great God who makes himself little and in his littleness does not cease to be great. And in this dialectic of great and little, we find the tender love of God. Greatness that becomes little, and littleness that becomes great” (Homily in Santa Marta, 14 December 2017; cf. Homily in Santa Marta, 25 April 2013). Each year, Christmas gives us the certainty that God’s light will continue to shine, despite our human misery. It gives us the certainty that the Church will emerge from these tribulations all the more beautiful, purified and radiant. All the sins and failings and evil committed by some children of the Church will never be able to mar the beauty of her face. Indeed, they are even a sure proof that her strength does not depend on us but ultimately on Christ Jesus, the Saviour of the world and the light of the universe, who loves her and gave his life for her. Christmas gives us the certainty that the grave evils perpetrated by some will never be able to cloud all the good that the Church freely accomplishes in the world. Christmas gives the certainty that the true strength of the Church and of our daily efforts, so often hidden, rests in the Holy Spirit, who guides and protects her in every age, turning even sins into opportunities for forgiveness, failures into opportunities for renewal, and evil into an opportunity for purification and triumph.

Thank you very much and a Happy Christmas to all!

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Ministry with young people after the Synod on Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment

By Isaac Withers

Over the month of October the Synod of Bishops on “Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment” has been taking place and it has seen a lively conversation around how the Church can accompany young people.

Pope Francis has framed the conversation of the Synod as one including both the young Church and the old Church, making sure that they were a part of the process with the Pre-Synod Meeting of Young People in March of this year, a meeting of young people that was globally representative. At that event, the Pope focused on this scripture verse from Joel and it sums up well his approach to the Synod: ‘And afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions’ (Joel 3:1). This was later echoed in his homily at the start of the Synod, ‘May the Spirit grant us the grace to be synodal Fathers anointed with the gift of dreaming and of hoping. We will then, in turn, be able to anoint our young people with the gift of prophecy and vision.’

The Pope has made sure that the Youth Synod is not just about young people but includes them heavily, and so the final document from that meeting went on to influence the Instrumentum Laboris (the working document of the synod) and the Synod of Bishops’ itself has also included young people from over forty countries as official auditors. Here are just a few things to know about the Synod and an idea of how it can guide Catholic youth ministry in the future.

There is Realism to this Conversation

From the beginning, the narrative of the Synod has been a realistic one. When addressing the Pre-Synod Meeting Pope Francis had decried the rising rates of substance abuse and suicide among young people, linking it with a lack of purpose, citing the Italian youth unemployment rate of 25% nationally, in some parts of over 50%. Pope Francis told that meeting ‘these are realities we must be conscious of. A job on the continent would save them!’ He then phrased this as a ‘disorientated generation’ in need of a counter culture that young people themselves could help to build. It is this sense of seeking purpose and meaning that led to Pope Francis to add ‘Vocational Discernment’ to the title of the Synod, instead of it simply being focused on ‘Youth and Faith’.

Cardinal Vincent Nichols of England and Wales expressed in an interview early on in the process of the Synod that this spirit of realism at the Synod itself has been a shock. ‘Its a shock of realism, the shock of reality, and the one thing the gospel and the message of Jesus are not afraid of, is reality. Often debates in the synod can become abstract and idealistic, and wishful. But this is much more realistic.’ This realism has meant that the Church’s history of child abuse, cover up and credibility has also been discussed heavily and, as Cardinal Nichols put it, ‘It’s unquestionably good for the Church to come face to face with its own past, with its own mistakes. And to come face to face with the damage that’s been done, and what the victims carry.’

This realism has been brought to the Synod also by the presence of the young people who were auditors, and in their interventions. One of the key moments of the Synod seems to have been the intervention of the young Iraqi auditor Safa Al Abbia, a 26-year-old Iraqi dentist and a Chaldean Christian. Al Abbia is quoted as saying ‘It certainly is important to talk about the family, sexuality and the social media. However, the main challenge facing young people in Iraq is peace and stability, and the need to live in dignity.’ It is reported that he received the longest applause of the whole Synod, and was later photographed being embraced by Pope Francis.

This realism will be reflected in the final document of the Synod as Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference revealed that Part One of the document features ‘the topics of the digital world, immigrants, and abuse.’

Young People Want Answers

Receiving clear answers from the Church was a serious through line of the Pre-Synod discussion – the final document mentions it five times, usually in the same way. ‘We need rational and critical explanations to complex issues – simplistic answers do not suffice’, ‘The young have many questions about the faith, but desire answers which are not watered-down, or which utilize pre-fabricated formulations. We, the young Church, ask that our leaders speak in practical terms about controversial subjects.’ These statements read as though young people feel that they have not always been given proper answers by the Church, and that their pastors and teachers have sometimes been afraid of addressing difficult issues.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney addressed just this failure to provide real answers to those seeking them in his speech to the Synod. This came in the form of one long extended apology, starting with the scandal of sex abuse and cover up in the Church, but which transitioned into something broader. 

‘For the times Catholic families, parishes and schools have failed to introduce you to the person of Jesus Christ, his saving word, and his plan for your life; and for the times we’ve seemed to you unwelcoming, distant or harsh, or have not demonstrated the sheer joy of being Christians; and for the times when you were searching for your sexual, ethnic or spiritual identity, and needed a moral compass, but found Church people unsympathetic or ambiguous: I apologize.

For when we’ve sold you short not encouraging you to live heroically your baptismal call to holiness and the paschal path to life through self-renunciation; or when we’ve provided too little youth ministry or other support, so you’ve found living as a young person of faith and ideals lonely in a secular, often cynical world; or when unbeautiful or unwelcoming liturgies have failed to inspire or include you, and when you’ve been denied the Church’s treasury of examination of conscience, reconciliation, adoration, pilgrimages, penances and devotions: I apologize.’

This long apology was the first part of the Synod to go quite viral on ‘the Catholic internet’ and the  theme of answers was echoed again later by Bishop Robert Barron. Bishop Barron in his intervention to the Synod called for ‘a new apologetics’, saying: 

‘Innumerable surveys and studies over the past ten years have confirmed that young people frequently cite intellectual reasons when asked what has prompted them to leave the Church or lose confidence in it … What is vitally needed today, as an aspect of the accompaniment of the young, is a renewed apologetics and catechesis. … I hope it is clear that arrogant proselytizing has no place in our pastoral outreach, but I hope it is equally clear that an intelligent, respectful, and culturally-sensitive explication of the faith (“giving a reason for the hope that is within us”) is certainly a desideratum. … That the faith has not been effectively communicated was verified by the most recent Religious Landscape Study, from the Pew Research Center in America. It indicated that, among the major religions, Catholicism was second to last in passing on its traditions.’

Bishop Barron then made an interesting insight and suggested that the Church start with the questions that young people naturally have, instead of just rolling out the answers. He described this new apologetics saying that it, ‘would not be imposed from above but would rather emerge organically from below, a response to the yearning of the mind and the heart. Here it would take a cue from the method of St. Thomas Aquinas. The austere texts of the great theological master in point of fact emerged from the lively give-and-take of the quaestiones disputatae that stood at the heart of the educational process in the medieval university. Thomas was deeply interested in what young people were really asking. So should we.’

The Synod is not over

The Final Document of the Pre-Synod Meeting of Young People concluded by saying that the synodal process was a ‘vital and fruitful listening process. It would be a shame if this dialogue were not given the opportunity to continue and grow! This culture of openness is extremely healthy for us.’

Cardinal Tagle of the Philippines just days ago spoke about this too, saying with the young auditors behind him, that the conclusion of the synod of bishops does not mean that this dialogue and listening is finished. ‘The ‘meeting’ is about to end, but the Synod will continue where you are, in your homes, in your parishes, in your school’s. The celebration and the implementation of the synod will continue.’ 

This too will be a part of the final document. Archbishop Gadecki has said that the Final Document of the Synod is based around this idea of synodality in the wider life of the Church. ‘The first chapter talks about the Church’s missionary Synodality. The second chapter refers to synodality in everyday life. The third chapter draws attention to renewed missionary zeal. The fourth chapter addressed the topic of integral formation.’ He went on to say that, ’Only then will the time of its realization and implementation begin. Local churches will begin dealing with their final text and adapt it to their conditions, their environment.’

It is clear that Pope Francis wants the Church to be a synodal place, a place of openness and conversation more than judgement, and that this is what he wants young people to experience in the Church. In his opening homily to the Synod he said ‘The gift of that ability to listen, sincerely and prayerfully, as free as possible from prejudice and conditioning, will help us to be part of those situations which the People of God experience. Listening to God, so that with him we can listen to the cry of the people; listening to our people, so that we can breathe in with them the desire to which God calls us.’

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Australian bishops resist calls to overturn seal of confession in abuse cases

[Austen Ivereigh]

The Australian bishops have accepted “98 per cent” of the recommendations of a five-year major inquiry into institutions’ handling of sex abuse, but have rejected the commission’s calls for a change to church law that would oblige priests to break the seal of the confessional. 

The bishops said the call was “contrary to our faith and inimical to religious liberty” and that there was no contradiction between the safeguarding of children and vulnerable people and maintaining the seal.

The BBC story is here. The bishops’ response document is here. 

The royal commission inquiry, which ended last year, heard more than 8,000 testimonies about abuse in churches, schools and sports clubs. Among its recommendations specifically related to the Catholic Church, the commissioners said Catholic priests should face criminal charges if they failed to report sexual abuse disclosed to them during confession.

“Laws concerning mandatory reporting to child protection authorities should not exempt persons in religious ministry from being required to report knowledge of suspicions formed, in whole or in part, on the basis of information disclosed in or in connection with a religious confession,” the royal commission said last December. 

Responding to the findings yesterday in its 57-page report, the Australian bishops accepted almost all of the recommendations. But they said that while clergy should be obligated by mandatory reporting requirements, an exception had to continue to be made in respect of information revealed during celebration of the Sacrament of Penance (Confession). They said: 

Children will be less rather than more safe if mandatory reporting of confessions were required: the rare instance where a perpetrator or victim might have raised this in Confession would be less likely to occur if confidence in the sacramental seal were undermined; and so an opportunity would be lost to encourage a perpetrator to self-report to civil authorities or victims to seek safety. Mandatory reporting of confessions would also be a violation of freedom of religious belief and worship.

The call for the Church to revise its strict adherence to the confidentiality of confession is not new, especially in relation to sexual abuse of children. The argument is favour is apparently reasonable: that priests who have received absolution for abuse in the confessional later go on to commit further acts that might have been prevented if they had been reported to the police. In some cases, an assumption is made that receiving absolution in the confessional is seen by an offender as a kind of alternative (and far more lenient) punishment than he would have received by going to the police. 

But in reality, offenders who are not ready to turn away from their behaviour are very unlikely to go anywhere near the confessional, and those that do confess their abuse will be told to present themselves to the authorities as a condition of receiving absolution. In other words, the seal of the confession, as the Australian bishops say, makes it more, not less, likely that victims will be protected from depraved acts. 

Like doctor-patient confidentiality or a journalist’s commitment to protect her sources, the seal of the confessional is all about trust. It is inviolable because once an exception is made, the trust on which it depends breaks down. Like a journalist prepared to go to jail to protect her source, a priest cannot violate the seal, even if the law of the land demands it, and must be willing to suffer to protect, for the sake of the greater good. 

But the Australian bishops have promised to consult the Holy See on two related issues. 

The first is to clarify whether information received from a child during the sacrament of reconciliation that they have been sexually abused is covered by the seal of confession. There has been disagreement among canonists in relation to this issue, because in this instance the child is not confessing. 

The second is whether canon law should make mandatory what is almost always the case, namely, that absolution can and should be withheld from someone confessing abuse until they report themselves to civil authorities. 

Listen to Austen Ivereigh on BBC World Service here.

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Pope Francis in Ireland – Final Mass

[Melissa Byrne from Dublin]

“The joy of love, a joy for all God’s family”, my sisters and I sing at top volume as we walk alongside hundreds of others making their way to the Phoenix Park. As we sing, other voices belonging to strangers start to join in and as smiles are exchanged I feel as though I’m surrounded by family. Excitement seems like too passive a word to sum up the look on everyone’s faces as they see Papal flags flying alongside the River Liffey.

Pope Francis arrives at the World Meeting of Families closing mass in Phoenix Park

I was lucky enough to see Pope Francis in Poland at World Youth Day two years ago but being able to see him in the country I have grown up in was an experience I’ll never forget. Hearing visitors from other countries speak of the Irish welcome left me with an exceptional amount of pride for this country. How lucky we are to have held such a joyous and momentous occasion that provided an opportunity to reawaken the love of the church in Ireland.

One particular moment during the Mass which I found particularly emotional was the penitential rite. Pope Francis asked, on behalf of the Catholic church, for forgiveness for the grave sins of some members of the church in Ireland:  “We ask forgiveness for the abuses in Ireland, abuses of power, of conscience, and sexual abuses perpetrated by members with roles of responsibility in the church”. I cannot imagine the pain, heartbreak and betrayal victims of abuse and their families and friends must feel. It pains me to imagine my younger siblings being abused by the person who is supposed to be a representative of Christ in their lives. Pope Francis makes it very clear that these actions were and are inexcusable and that we must be in constant pursuit of truth and justice. Those who committed these horrific crimes were living a life far removed from the teachings of Catholicism. I, like Pope Francis and many others in the Catholic church, pray for justice, peace and healing for all those affected by abuse.

Applause was heard from the crowds after this plea for forgiveness and I have no doubt that I wasn’t the only one who was glad that Pope Francis had made very clear the condemnation of these actions by members of the church.

In his homily, Pope Francis spoke about imitating Christ’s self sacrifice, being reborn to a more enduring love and how, through this love, we can save our world from selfishness, greed and its indifference to the needs of the less fortunate. Pope Francis has always spoken on the unique dignity of every human being and the value that each person has.

LeoVPhoenixPark

How Pope Francis acted during his time here shows how he lives his life in accordance with what he preaches. His visit to the Capuchin Day Centre forced me to look at my life and evaluate how I treat those less fortunate than myself. Candice Hartigan, a woman who avails of the services provided by the centre, said “They’re non-judgmental. They don’t ask you why you want something. You just put your name down and that’s it.” We are not called to the bare minimum, but rather to extreme selflessness for others, whether they be those less fortunate or our family members.

Pope Francis when speaking to people at the Capuchin Day Centre said, “They help you without taking away your dignity. That is the face of Jesus Christ.”. To truly live as Jesus Christ requires us is to reach out to those who feel marginalised and excluded from society. “Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart.”

Another line in his homily that made me think was when he said: “The task of bearing witness to the good news is not easy”. This has never been more applicable than it is for the church in Ireland today. We can be timid in our sharing of the faith and often worry about how we may be perceived by others who don’t share our views. There is no room in Catholicism for a passive faith that we hide away from others. Our faith is beautiful, joyful and loving! Through our witness of the faith we can reignite the fire of Catholicism in Ireland!

We don’t need to hide away, but rather stand together in unity as we proclaim, as Pope Francis said, “The joy of the Gospel!”.

After many people had left the Phoenix Park, my family and extended family were still there. They’re always afraid they might miss some craic! As I witnessed crowds of people flooding the altar to take selfies, children singing and dancing as they threw ponchos up into the wind and my dad putting his arm around my mom, I felt hope. Not a meek hope, but a fiery hope for the future of the Catholic church in Ireland. A church that is very much alive!

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Pope Francis in Ireland – Day 1

[Jason Conroy from Dublin]

On Saturday, Pope Francis once again reaffirmed that he is, above all, a pastor.

dublin1-1

His arrival in Ireland was marked by all the pomp and formality of an official state reception. He made the obligatory visit to the head of state, President Michael D Higgins, in Áras an Uachtarån, for a ceremonial tree planting, which was followed by a trip to Dublin Castle where he met the political and cultural establishment of Ireland.

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s Prime Minister, officially addressed the Pope with a speech touching firmly yet tactfully on the main points of controversy about the Catholic Church which have increasingly occupied the media in recent years. He fairly acknowledged the good done by a Church which had provided for the education and healthcare of the nation in the earliest years of independence when the state could not.

On the other hand, he also addressed the public scandals of the Irish Church, the historic abuse of children by priests and mistreatment of women in religious run mother and baby homes. He mentioned the successive referendums in Ireland which legalised divorce, same sex marriage, and abortion, ending his speech with the prevailing theme that the country has changed and progressed a lot since John Paul II’s visit in 1979 and expressing hope that a new and positive relationship between the Church and the State can be developed for a modern Ireland.

The Pope responded with a brief address to an audience which included Varadkar’s partner Matthew, and many of the leading campaigners behind the abortion and gay marriage referendums, reminding listeners that Ireland is once again missionary territory. The main themes included the importance of family, the throwaway culture that discards even the child in the womb, and the ‘challenge to our conscience’ of homelessness and poverty, all issues of especial relevance in today’s Ireland.

In typical Francis style, having spent about half an hour at the Dublin Castle reception, he then proceeded to spend over 90 minutes in private with eight Irish victims of clerical sex abuse, followed by a meeting with homeless families at the Capuchin Day Centre, which provides shelter, food, and medical help the marginalised and deprived.

We’re all very used to this reputation of Francis, true to his namesake, and hearing about it on the internet or on television, but those of us who were among the 80,000 present in Croke Park stadium during that evening’s Festival of Families felt his warmth of character very clearly..

It became clear to many how much more Francis enjoys being among his flock, ‘the People of God’, than with officials and dignitaries – though I was only one in a huge crowd, I was struck by how closely I felt the affection of the Pontiff. It is an affirmation and a huge encouragement for the faithful in Ireland who have felt harassed and dejected, with more and more revelations of abuse and corruption surfacing in recent weeks, and ever higher figures in the hierarchy implicated.

The theme of the Festival of Families, like the World Meeting of Families Congress of the preceding week, could be summed up as ‘solidarity amongst the family of families’, with an emphasis on the international nature of this family which, though flung far across the globe, nonetheless experiences together the shared challenges of new technology, addiction, poverty, family breakup, even violence.

The crowds it gathered came from across the globe, with typically large detachments of Latin Americans from Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, but also Angolans, Nigerians, Kenyans and Ugandans, Filipinos, Russians, and Iraqis, to name just a few – in total, there were 82,000 people from 130 different nations present, and performers from Ireland and around the world, including the renowned singer Andrea Bocelli.

While most great rallies of this size are about great political movements and campaigns, issues that fill news headlines, only in the Catholic church could you find such a rally about the pressing importance of washing the dishes and the urgent need to spend quality time together as a family – indeed, Pope Francis’ revolution of tenderness really is a revolution of the little things, such as reconciling after a fight before bedtime, or helping one another with the daily household chores.

Among the performances of the night the sounds of 500 youths performing Riverdance was an altogether unrepeatable experience. The testimonies of families from around the world, from couples who recovered from heroin addiction, to Iraqi refugees, left a deep impression, and once more the theme of solidarity, not only between family members, but between families, was hammered home.

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World Meeting of Families in Dublin: a joy for the whole world and a joy worth sharing

[Maria Byrne]

There has been a lot of excitement in Ireland in anticipation of the long awaited visit of Pope Francis. Those of us who are old enough still have fond memories of the last time a pope visited Irish shores. In 1979, almost everyone I knew travelled to the Phoenix Park in Dublin where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass for over a million people. The iconic message delivered to throngs of young people at a youth Mass in Galway, “Young people of Ireland, I love you” which was followed by rapturous applause has gone down in history as the most memorable moment of the whole visit. That one expression of a heartfelt love and the enthusiasm of the response from thousands of teenagers and young adults captured the imagination of the nation and was reported on with glowing positivity.

Fast forward almost 40 years as we are about to welcome Pope Francis and we are in a very different Ireland. In the lead up to the visit, the reporting and media coverage has been generally negative. There were stories about the need to be up to date with one’s vaccinations; that large crowds could be a health risk; with mention of pop up morgues and risks for the elderly or infirm. The old arguments also resurfaced centring on the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality, its place in education, women’s role in the Church, the sexual abuse of children and accusations of the Church excluding gay people.

This approach to the visit of Pope Francis may give the impression of a Church that is on its last legs; not quite dead, but rapidly heading in that direction. After three days attending the World Meeting of Families 2018 Pastoral Congress in the RDS in Dublin, I saw a very different Church, one that has a valuable message for our times, a message that is as relevant today as it was over two thousand years ago.

The theme song for the World Meeting of Families 2018 is “The Joy of Love”, the joy of the family of Christ which, even when broken, bowed or wounded, has a hope that shines brightly in the darkness. There was a visible sense of that joy among the people who came from Ireland, the UK and all over the world to pray, to listen, to learn, to interact and to celebrate. Over the course of the week of the congress, there was an ambitious programme with an impressive lineup of speakers, daily Mass, music and adoration and so many stands and displays in the main hall that it would have been impossible to visit them all. Like the other pilgrims, I spent three days racing around, being both inspired and humbled, challenged and enriched.

There were numerous different subjects touched on but all centred on the unique dignity and value of every human being and the importance of the family as a school of learning Christian values. On the first day, I opted to attend Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle’s presentation – Choose Life: Pope Francis on the “throw-away” Culture. In his appealingly good-humoured way, Cardinal Tagle traced the history of planned obsolescence and the production of products with an artificially limited useful life and linked this to a culture of viewing people as expendable. Drawing on Laudato Si, the care for our common home and Amoris Laetitia, he talked about how, in our present world, people can be viewed in a “transactional fashion” and treated as commodities.

After the recent referendum on abortion in Ireland, Cardinal Tagle’s reference to the words of Pope Francis on the throwaway culture rang very true. The unborn child, the elderly, the sick and those with disabilities, prisoners, migrants and those who have been victims of human trafficking are often discarded, cast aside as being of lesser value.

Archbishop Eamon Martin in his homily, during a celebration of Mass in the family arena, also spoke of the key place in society of the family quoting St Pope John Paul II, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” He pointed out that the welfare of the family is crucial to the welfare of the world and how supporting families in all their complexity should be a prime consideration of those concerned with promoting the common good of society. We should approach our politicians and ask them to what extent their policies support families and life.

The week of the congress was a time of great grace. The various speakers on topics affecting families included Dr Mary Aiken on turning technology to the greater good; talks on marriage, marriage preparation and sexuality in marriage; a harrowing account of human trafficking from “Maya”, a survivor of slavery and abuse and topics that explored every possible family situation and every challenge that families might face.

There was a packed hall for Bishop Robert Barron who described the family as “the place par excellence for the growth in virtue” and how growing in virtue makes us truly free. Seeing the large crowds queuing to get into the hall for his talk, I pondered on how the recent portrayals of the Catholic faith as a relic of the past is way off the mark. I think Bishop Barron’s upbeat and insightful words would have attracted the greatest cynic to what the faith of Christ offers us and our families. He spoke in a language that parents could understand about training our children, the self-giving that is central to true love and the challenges of trying to raise a child in the faith.

I was really uplifted and energised at seeing how many initiatives and projects have been started, many directly responding to the social justice doctrine of the Church reaching out to the poor, the homeless and the vulnerable.

Those who had been dragged down by unrelenting negativity left with bags full of books and information, medals and pencils and hope in their hearts, refuelled spiritually and really to take on the task of evangelising our lovely country.

Ireland is often called Ireland of the thousand welcomes. The Irish are known for their great welcome; as we welcome Pope Francis to Ireland, we must also work hard to ensure that there is also a welcome for our ancient values, ones that are forever new and that have a place in the public square. Seeing the mothers, fathers, teenagers and small children singing joyfully together during the final Mass of the week, I felt sure that what we have, the joy we have as Catholics, is a joy for the whole world and a joy worth sharing.

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Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse: Interim report released on Downside and Ampleforth Schools

[Joe Ronan]

A report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was released on 9thAugust. This document, one of a number already released, with others planned, reported specifically on the sexual abuse that took place in Ampleforth and Downside Schools over the last 50 years, and on the response to that abuse by the schools’ authorities. It makes grim reading.

IICSA was set up in 2015 to look at the response of public bodies and important institutions to child sexual abuse in their organisations.  This was in the wake of the revelations about Jimmy Savile and of abuse in various public bodies including the NHS, the BBC, and the prison service.

IICSA is looking into the response to child sex abuse in institutions including custodial institutions for children, children’s homes, Nottinghamshire Councils, Rochdale Borough Council, as well as the Catholic and Anglican churches. Its remit is to “consider the growing evidence of institutional failures to protect children from child sexual abuse, and to make recommendations to ensure the best possible protection for children in future.”

In this case study on Downside and Ampleforth the report says there was “blatant openness”in describing how abusive behaviour took place in group settings, but contrasts that with the secretive and evasive approach to child protection. “For decades, they tried to avoid giving information, other than what was specifically requested,  to the statutory authorities, that might have assisted the investigation of the abuse of children in their care.”

Conclusion 5 states “On the few occasions where parents raised complaints about sexual abuse, or were informed about it by either institution, some preferred not to have the matters treated as a crime requiring police investigation, but to keep it quiet at all costs. Their interest was to protect the school, the Benedictine Congregation and the Catholic Church. In some instances, parents also wished to protect their children from the process of police investigation.”

The report contains harrowing descriptions of the abuse suffered by children at the school, and of the completely inadequate and evasive response both by individuals and the institution as a whole.

The IICSA report also criticises the way that “Even after the Nolan Report, when monks were obliged to work with the statutory authorities and gave the appearance of cooperation and trust, their approach could be summarised as a ‘tell them nothing’ attitude.”

The English Benedictine Congregation (both schools are owned and managed by Benedictine monks) has recognised the failings shown by this report. The current Abbott President of the EBC said “Once again I apologise unequivocally to all those who were abused by any person connected with our abbeys and schools. The report highlights how flawed many of our past responses have been. We continue to work conscientiously to ensure our communities are safe environments for young people both now and in the future.

Damning as the conclusions are, the frightening truth is that the facts that come out of this report are by no means unique in today’s society or confined to the Catholic Church.

IICSA has reported similarly on abuse in Rochdale children’s homes and has on-going investigations into Lambeth Council, Children in custodial institutions, Residential schools, the Anglican Church and Westminster.  Even this wide purview is a cut-down version of the original intention to include the BBC and the NHS in the investigations.

The Catholic Church around the world has in the past failed in many ways to protect children in its care, but starting with the Nolan report in 2001, it has begun to create the environment in which safeguarding and protection of children is a primary concern.

In 2001 Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor asked Lord Nolan to study the situation regarding safeguarding and child protection within the Catholic Church and to make recommendations for the future.  His eventual report resulted in a sea-change in the way that Catholic Dioceses and institutions responded to child protection. Five years later the Church commissioned the Cumberlege Commission to review the way the Nolan recommendations had been put into place.  That report (‘Safeguarding with Confidence”) showed that the Church was then a safer place, had implemented 79 out of the 83 recommendations either completely or partially, and made further recommendations to improve things further.  This process of improvement continues to this day with the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission producing an annual report monitoring the effectiveness of responses to abuse, and publishing statistics on new allegations.

The IICSA report acknowledges that good data on the extent of child sexual abuse in institutions is very scarce.  In November 2017 the Inquiry published a review of existing research on child sexual abuse within the Anglican and Catholic Churches. This highlighted that the best published quantitative information on abuse within the church was commissioned by the US Catholic Church in a report known as the ‘John Jay Report’. This report has been followed up subsequently by further study, forming perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of abuse in any institution.

The analysis by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice shows clearly the extent of abuse within church structures, but also puts that in the context of the level of abuse throughout society.  It shows that children are significantly less at risk in Catholic dioceses than in US society as a whole.  It also indicates that the level of clerical abuse in the USA rose from a low level in the 1950’s, peaked in the 1970’s and has dropped back to a low level in recent years.

The Catholic Church having acknowledged its failings, has in commissioning such studies as the Nolan Report and the John Jay Report shown that it is very serious about understanding the problem and scale of institutional abuse, and establishing suitable systems to address it.  The summary of the follow up report to the John Jay Report “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010 contains a call to other institutions to follow suit:

“No other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church. Other organizations should follow suit and examine the extent of sexual abuse within their groups to better understand the extent of the problem and the situations in which sexual abuse takes place.”

Individual Church Institutions such as Downside and Ampleforth need urgently to review their responses and ensure that such abuse as has been described can never happen again.  But only if all institutions, secular and religious, take to heart the fact that sexual abuse of children is widespread, in families and public bodies, religious organisations and secular ones, will we be on the path to eliminating it in our society.

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