DENVER — Near the end of a troubling year in Pope Francis’s home country, the bishops of Argentina have expressed their support for the pontiff, claiming the Church and its leader have never been under attack, both at home and abroad as they are right now.
Bishop Oscar Ojea, president of the Argentine bishops’ conference, said these attacks even come from inside the institution. Speaking about the country’s general situation, he warned that the “social and economic crisis hitting the entire Argentine people is beginning to erode trust in political leadership, increasing a social bad mood, the anger and intolerance which makes coexistence very tough.”
“We’re closing an extremely difficult year,” Ojea said. “Many events that we’ve lived in recent months have provoked perplexity, and at the same time present us with great pastoral challenges that need to be illuminated by the light of the Gospel.”
“They’re complex and conflictual situations, that hide a message we still have to discover,” he said, before ticking off developments such as a national debate for the legalization of abortion, where even Catholic schools and communities had people supporting an abortion legalization bill that, in the end, didn’t get a greenlight in Congress.
Following that, there was an organized, en masse apostacy, with thousands of Argentinians officially renouncing their Catholic faith; allegations of clerical sexual abuse that “increase the pain at the deepest part of the Church’s heart; attacks against the person of the pope, from inside and outside the Church, which leads to a scarce transmission of his message.”
[Though Ojea didn’t specify it, he was likely referring to sensational accusations from a former papal ambassador in the U.S. that Pope Francis knew about sexual misconduct concerns regarding ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2013 and covered them up.]
“This extends to the Church as a whole, as it would seem that to say anything nice about it is not politically correct,” Ojea said.
It’s been a bumpy year for the Argentine bishops, and not only for the reasons the bishop listed: There’s a growing confrontation with some members of the government of President Mauricio Macri, who are calling for a further separation between church and state. A 1994 constitution makes it clear that “the Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic apostolic religion.”
Recently Macri’s chief of staff, Marcos Peña, pointed out that the Argentine government pays the salaries of Catholic bishops, which represents about 0.04 percent of the national budget. Yet the Catholic Church supported itself financially until 1822, when the government expropriated much of its lands and properties.
Ever since, the state has paid the salaries of the bishops, amounting to a bit more than $4 million each year.
The bishops and the government are currently in conversations to gradually put an end to this financial support, and some local observers believe that an announcement on this front could come soon, after the bishops’ plenary session ends on Friday.
Seeing the challenges, Ojea said in his homily opening the plenary, that there are two “evident” ways in which the Church could react: With ire, anger, and victimization; or, by becoming paralyzed and immobilized.
The first reaction, which would amount to thinking that “Jesus went through the same thing,” thinking that “we’re fine, it’s the rest who are in the wrong,” would be unfair and dishonest: “In many of these situations we’ve had our share of responsibility. We must think in our own personal and pastoral conversion,” he said.
On being paralyzed, Ojea said that the bishops had never imagined they’d have to face some of these problems, “the roots and motives of which we sometimes struggle to understand.”
This reaction, he said, would be comprehensible but not appropriate, as the pope calls for a Church that “goes out,” which is missionary, preferring “a Church that has had a few accidents to a Church that gets sick from being closed,” Ojea said, quoting a homily Francis delivered in 2013, not long after his election.
Bishops are called to respond with “unity and empathy,” with humility and watching over the interests of others, following Jesus’ call to break the “closed circle of comfort and invest in relations that can be fruitful, inviting the excluded: The poor, the infirm, the blind.”
Humility, Ojea said, allows the Church to “listen in a new way to the heart of who is mad at the Church, who’s felt the absence of someone who showed him [or her] the real face of Jesus.”
“Looking at our sins and the scandals that have taken place in some of our communities, we have to deepen the path of our personal and ecclesial conversion,” he said. “A serious commitment in this sense makes visible the fact that we’re assuming our responsibility as shepherds.”
As bishops, he said, they have to learn to let go of the “social recognition” that used to come with their positions.
A humble church is a concrete and providential way to become a “poor Church for the poor,” Ojea said, again quoting Francis.
A second virtue the bishops should exercise, he said, is patience tied to strength: “It is not immobility, nor softness, nor resignation, it is the patience of the one who firmly resists. The patience of those who persevere in the good that no one sees, always open to hope. The strenuous patience of the martyrs.”
The third virtue Ojea mentioned is “courage, the braveness of Jesus,” to face the changes guided by the Holy Spirit, with the “spiritual disposition to speak freely and with the truth even in adverse situations.”
To resist attacks the Church is facing, the prelate said, it’s important to have a “free and wise spirit, to discern and choose when to speak and when to stay quiet,” being “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves,” which is a quote from the Gospel of Matthew.
Lastly, he said that “today more than ever,” the bishops need to protect the unity of the conference, being honest and upfront about their disagreements, “not allowing for the spirit of evil to divide us.”
On Tuesday, the bishops were visited by Cardinal Peter Turkson, of Ghana, the head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, who spoke to the assembly about Laudato Si’, Francis’s encyclical on the environment, sharing with the bishops three possible lines of action to apply it: dialogue and citizen’s participation; ecology-mindful education; and spirituality.