ROME — Pope Francis has delivered one of his strongest statements to date on the Catholic Church’s child sexual abuse scandals, calling them a “grave problem” and declaring that “one priest abusing a minor is reason enough to move the Church’s whole structure.”
The pontiff also warned against “disproportionate” expectations for change as a result of a looming Synod of Bishops on the family, which is expected to address hot-button issues such as communion for divorced and remarried believers and a more welcoming stance for gays and lesbians.
Francis conceded he’s long had a “vague sensation” that his papacy might be short, perhaps four or five years, but said “I always leave the possibility open” that it might go on longer.
The comments came in a wide-ranging interview on the second anniversary of his election with the Mexican network Televisa, which also covered themes such as his trip to the United States, immigration, reform of the Church’s government, and the Argentine ego.
The interview, conducted by Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki with the technical support of Vatican Radio, took place in Santa Marta, the hotel inside Vatican grounds where Francis has lived since the beginning of his pontificate.
On sexual abuse by clergy, Francis said that one case “is enough for us to be ashamed of ourselves and do what needs to be done.”
He said that the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors he created, which is led by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, is primarily focused on the prevention of abuse.
“It is a priest’s duty to nurture a little boy or girl in holiness and in their encounter with Jesus,” he said, “and what [abusers] do is destroy this encounter.”
Pope Francis also acknowledged Benedict XVI’s courage in publicly stating what a horrible crime it is to destroy the life of an innocent creature with such actions and Pope Saint John Paul II’s in having started the work of reporting these crimes.
On the question of the divorced and remarried who want to receive communion, the pope said that access to the sacraments shouldn’t be desired as “a badge of honor.” Those in a second union are called to reinstate themselves in the life of the Church, Francis said.
“Some people simplify it, saying that going to Church is enough to give Communion for the divorced and remarried,” Francis said. “But with that you don’t solve anything. What the Church wants is for you to be part of the Church’s life.”
However, he then said that if a person has faith, even when they’re in a “dissolving situation called irregular union,” and they know and accept their situation and what the Church thinks on these issues, it shouldn’t be an impediment for them to have an active role, like being allowed to be godparents.
Talking about his September trip to the US, Francis said he wanted to begin his visit coming through the Mexican border, but to visit this country without going to Mexico City to see our Lady of Guadalupe, patron of the Americas, would have been “perplexing” for many Mexicans.
The pope then said that people from all over Central America and Mexico crossing over to the United States looking for a better future is related to the tyranny of an economic system that has the god of money at its center and not the human person.
“Nowadays migration is a result of discomfort, in the etymological sense of the word, the result of hunger, of looking for new borders,” Francis said. “The same thing happens in Africa, with people crossing over the Mediterranean sea because they’re going through hard times, because of either hunger or war.”
He praised the generosity of the Italian island of Lampedusa, which went from being a tourist destination to a land of hospitality for thousands of African migrants every year.
“There are some heroic facts, and thanks be to God, I see that Europe is rethinking its migration policies,” he said.
Francis emphasized that the mere fact of possessing wealth isn’t an obstacle to holiness, citing the example of Enrique Shaw, a wealthy Argentine business man currently in in process of beatification.
“A person can have money. God gives it to someone to be a good administrator,” Francis said. “Not by being paternalistic, but by making those who need help grow.”
The problem, the pope said, is putting one’s hope and safety in money and the inequity of those who have money and don’t pay a fair wage.
“This is a mortal sin. It’s taking advantage of another man’s poverty,” Francis said. “Like when the cleaning lady gets her salary under the table because she’s the maid.”
Quoting Pope Paul VI, Francis said that the poor are more prepared to understand some Christian virtues because they are “at the center of the Gospel” and that the flag of poverty was “stolen” by the Marxists because “we didn’t use it.”
“We had it in the museum, they came, stole it, and used it,” he said, insisting that today labels such as “Marxist” or “left and right” have lost much of their meaning.
Talking about the Mexican border with the United States, he said: “I’ve been told that the United States – and I don’t want to give numbers, because I then get into diplomatic trouble – but I’ve been told and I read this in a magazine, is among the first global consumers of drug and the main entry of drugs is the Mexican border.”
The region also has many problems due to drug trafficking, Francis said. The city of Morelia and the whole area is one of great suffering, where organizations of drug traffickers “are not subtle in the least.”
The pontiff said these organizations carry out their work of death, being messengers of death both for the drugs they produce and sell, and for their “clean sweeping” of those who oppose drug dealing.
He mentioned 43 kidnapped students from the Mexican city of Iguala, saying that they represent those who are asking for justice and to be remembered.
Francis also said that even though he “doesn’t mind” being pope, he’d love to be able to sneak out one day and have a pizza at a pizzeria without anyone recognizing him.
The pontiff reflected at some length on his Argentine background.
“In Argentina, I’ve seen very difficult situations,” he said.
“Poverty and marginalization, even drug addiction, these are the things that move me. They come naturally, not ideologically. Because of this, I’m sometimes careless and I lose my tongue, but it doesn’t matter.”
Francis also said that the fact that he comes from Latin America and is the son of an immigrant family makes him especially sensible towards migrants and makes him want to be their voice.
Speaking to a Mexican news outlet, the pope also addressed that country’s political and social hardships.
“Who’s to blame? The government?” he asked. “This is the most superficial solution or answer. Yes, the government, but we’re all in some way responsible at least, for not taking ownership of suffering.”
“I know it’s very hard to denounce a drug trafficker, because it’s a kind of martyrdom. It’s hard, but I think that everyone in these situations, either in Mexico or not, should put the shoulder. I mean, to blame only one sector, one person, or one group is childish.”
Francis has become famous for making phone calls to people who write him or send him messages, and he acknowledged some difficulties in keeping those exchanges private. Sometimes people just can’t “hold it,” he said, and make them public.
“There are people to whom I have called and have never said anything, no? Sick people, or that I have written to but never made the letter public, when others have. But if I feel like I have to do something, I do it and face the risk, but … what can you do?!”
As a Latin American pastor, he also acknowledged that the Catholic Church bears some responsibility for its losses across the region to Evangelical and Pentecostal movements, what Latin Americans often call the “sects.”
He cautioned against the generalization, of “putting all the Evangelicals in the same bag,” making a distinction between honest and good Evangelical movements and those that are “not even Christians and rejected by the Evangelical community.”
“[The Evangelical movements] offer, in general, proximity, closeness,” he said. “You go to the service once, and next Sunday they are waiting for you at the door, they know your name and the greet you. You’re a person,” Francis said.
“We, Catholics, many times, for being large crowds or for a big flaw we have in Latin America, clericalism, we put a distance” the pope said. Clericalism in Latin America was one of the biggest shackles for the growth of the laity.”
“The laity in Latin America only grew with popular piety. Because there, the laity is free, and creative, has its processions, its cults, but organization-wise, the laity didn’t grow enough as a result of that clericalism that creates distances” Francis said.
The pope says that in Latin America, many leave Catholicism because of clericalism, boring homilies, the lack of integration between work and the “burning word of God.”
Talking about the “disastrous” homilies Catholic priests give saying that it’s regretfully that some find comfort in attending a Mass in which the priest doesn’t preach. “Typically Evangelicals are close to the people, the aim for the heart and prepare their homilies really well.”
Francis debunked a couple of misconceptions that have grown up around him.
For one, he said it’s not true that he didn’t like going to the Vatican when he was cardinal of Buenos Aires.
“I believe that my biggest penance is traveling. I don’t like traveling. I’m neurotically attached to my habitat,” he said. “[Now that I live in Rome], I don’t mind it. There’s a lot of really good people here.”
On living in Santa Marta, he said that it’s simply because there’s people and that his decision has nothing to do with luxury, “as some people claim. I wouldn’t have tolerated the loneliness.”
Along the way, the pontiff cracked a joke at his own expense, based on stereotypes about Argentinians and their egocentrism.
“When the Argentinians saw there was an Argentinian pope, they all forgot about being in favor or against [him],” he said. “You know we’re not humble, that we’re very egocentric.”
“Do you know how an Argentinian kills himself?” the pontiff asked. “By climbing over his own ego and jumping.”