By virtually any standard, Pope Francis’ recent trip to Mexico, which began with a brief stop in Cuba to meet the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, was a triumph. Large crowds showed up everywhere he went, and the visit drew saturation coverage, especially with the pontiff’s dust-up at the end with Donald Trump.
Certainly if you were an undocumented immigrant on the US side of the border, or a prisoner or worker or victim of drug violence or an indigenous person inside Mexico, you have special reason to feel good about the pope’s presence, since he made a point of reaching out to these groups.
On the other hand, any papal trip is by definition an exercise in choice, and there are always others on the outside looking in – groups which, for one reason or another, feel neglected, or unheard, or disappointed in whatever the pope said or did.
The vast discussion sparked by the pope’s remarks on Trump has to some extent meant that after-the-fact analysis of the Mexico trip got lost. Looking back, it’s clear that there are at least three other constituencies, beyond anti-immigration presidential candidates in the United States, with a case to make for having been overlooked or hurt:
- Mexico’s Protestant minority
- Survivors of clerical sexual abuse
- Ukrainian Greek Catholics
As a Latin American pastor, Francis certainly knows that the transition in Latin America in the late 20th century from an almost homogenously Catholic continent to a competitive spiritual marketplace, with a mushrooming Evangelical and Pentecostal footprint, arguably was the most important religious transformation of the era.
One would think history’s first Latin American pope would feel compelled to reach out to that sprawling new Christian world, and he’s already done a great deal, including visiting a Pentecostal congregation in Italy run by an old friend from Argentina to deliver an apology for past Catholic mistreatment of Pentecostals.
It’s curious, then, that while he was in the country, Francis did not meet or even refer to the Protestant minority in Mexico, now around 10 percent of the population.
Granted, he may have felt that since the trip began with an historic ecumenical overture by staging the first-ever summit between a pope and a patriarch of Moscow, there was no need.
However, anyone who knows the Christian scene realizes that the Russian Orthodox and Latin American Evangelicals and Pentecostals are very different animals, and the relationship has to be correspondingly different.
Those Evangelicals were especially disappointed on Feb. 15, when the pope traveled to Chiapas to celebrate its indigenous cultures, but didn’t address its sizable Protestant minority. It was a striking omission, given that on the same day, a Protestant church in Chiapas was subject to an arson attack, merely the latest in a string of violent assaults on Protestants usually driven by traditionalist, sometimes syncretistic Catholics.
Particularly with a pope who has spoken multiple times about how anti-Christian persecution is creating an “ecumenism of blood”, Evangelicals were hoping that he would make a point of denouncing that persecution when it comes from elements of his own flock.
During the Pope Benedict XVI years, it became a standard feature of papal travel that when the pope visited a country that had been hard-hit by clerical abuse scandals, he would meet with victims. That was seen not only as an important gesture of sensitivity, but also a way of encouraging local bishops to do likewise.
On that score, Mexico certainly qualifies. It’s the birthplace of the Legion of Christ, a religious order launched in 1959 whose founder, the late Marcial Maciel Degollado, was found guilty by the Vatican in 2006 of various forms of sexual abuse and misconduct and sentenced to a life of “prayer and penance.”
In late December, a Mexican archbishop said that a meeting with victims and their families was in the works, but in the end, it never happened.
Such a meeting would have come at a good time for Francis. In recent weeks, the Vatican has faced controversy over its response to the abuse scandals on three different fronts:
- A survivor on the pope’s own anti-abuse commission was given a leave of absence after he was publicly critical of Francis for appointing a bishop in Chile known as an ally of that country’s most notorious abuser priest.
- A Vatican training session for new bishops came under fire for inviting a French monsignor who told the bishops they have no obligation to report abuse charges to police and failing to mention the Church’s extensive efforts in various parts of the world to develop cutting-edge abuse prevention programs.
- The pope’s top financial official, Cardinal George Pell, is facing a new round of allegations in Australia related to an ongoing probe by a Royal Commission into the Church’s handling of abuse cases.
Whatever Francis’ reasons for not meeting survivors in Mexico, it will add to the questions already being raised about where the Vatican, and the pope himself, presently stand in terms of the commitment to turning over a new leaf.
The five-million-strong Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine is the largest of the 22 Eastern churches in communion with Rome, and to be honest, they have good reason to be wary of the Russian Orthodox Church.
During the Soviet era, their parishes and other property were confiscated and given over to the Orthodox, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Russian Orthodox have not exactly looked kindly on what is undeniably a renaissance in Greek Catholicism in Ukraine.
Orthodox officials routinely accuse the Catholics of trying to convert their faithful, even though the Catholics have done no more than reclaim people who had been their faithful for centuries. Orthodox also resent Greek Catholic criticism of Putin’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine.
Before Francis’ meeting with Patriarch Kirill on Feb. 12, many Ukrainian Catholics worried that Moscow would exploit it for propaganda value, and that’s exactly what many of them think happened. Not only do they believe Kirill got a free pass for his role as a chaplain to Putin’s imperial ambitions, but they also think the joint declaration signed in Havana undercuts their position on key points.
In that light, Greek Catholics were cheered by the airborne press conference Francis gave on the way back to Rome. Although American coverage was dominated by the pope’s remarks on Trump as well as birth control in the context of the Zika virus, Francis also took a question on Ukraine.
Not only did the pope defend Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Greek Catholic Church, who had been critical of the fallout from the Havana summit, as a “son of the Church,” but the pontiff also said the joint declaration is “debatable.”
Francis said it’s “understandable” that many faithful in Ukraine feel hurt and betrayed by Rome, since they are living in the context of war.
Given that, many Ukrainians felt that six days after perceiving themselves as hung out to dry by the pope, he had done a great deal to repair the damage. It remains to be seen if, and when, he’ll find ways of doing the same for Protestants and abuse survivors.