SANTIAGO, Chile – In his second public acknowledgment on Tuesday of the clerical sexual abuse scandals that have rocked Chile in recent years, Pope Francis told priests and religious that many have had to “pay a heavy price,” sometimes facing insults in public for the mere fact of wearing clerical attire.
Francis said the abuse cases that have come to light have been painful for everyone in the Latin American nation.
“I know the pain resulting from cases of abuse of minors, and I am attentive to what you are doing to respond to this great and painful evil,” he said.
Victims and families in Chile have suffered, the pope said, because their trust was betrayed. The crisis has also been hard, he said, on ecclesial communities and individual priests and religious.
“After working so hard,” he said, “many have fallen prey to suspicion and questioning,” and some have doubted their own vocation or lacked confidence to fulfill it. Many religious, Francis said, have been insulted in public areas, and their clerical attire can sometimes lead to them paying a “heavy price.”
“For this reason, I suggest that we ask God to grant us the clear-sightedness to call reality by its name, the strength to ask for forgiveness, and the ability to listen to what he tells us,” he said.
The pope’s words came as he was speaking to the priests, religious men and women, consecrated and seminarians of Chile, gathered in the Cathedral of Santiago, during the first day of Francis’s Jan. 15-18 visit to this Latin American nation.
The encounter began with Francis walking through the cathedral, dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. As he passed by, many of the religious greeted him and tried to take selfies with him.
Francis arrived in the cathedral after visiting the female penitentiary of Santiago, where he met some 500 people, including inmates, the children of some of them, police officers who guard the prison, and pastoral workers.
For a pope famously depicted as a cartoon superhero by a Roman street artist, in an image now available on a line of t-shirts, Francis also passed on a bit of advice with special personal resonance: Don’t try to be “super-heroes,” he told the priests and religious, only compassionate men and women.
Francis said that those gathered in the cathedral aren’t superheroes who stoop down from the height to encounter mortals, nor are they better than others. Instead, he said, they are “men and women conscious of having been forgiven.”
Neither the Church nor the religious are called to ignore or hide their wounds, since a wounded Church is capable of understanding the wounds of the world, suffering with those who suffer and accompanying and helping those who need healing, the pope said. A Church with knowledge of her wounds is capable of putting at its center the only one capable of healing said wounds: “Jesus Christ.”
“In Jesus, our wounds are risen,” Francis said. “They inspire solidarity; they help us to tear down the walls that enclose us in elitism and they impel us to build bridges and to encounter those yearning for that merciful love which Christ alone can give.”
The faithful, he continued, don’t expect their pastors to be superheroes, but consecrate people who know what it means to be compassionate, who can spend time with those who’ve fallen.
Most of his address turned on a passage from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus questions the apostle Peter, saying: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Jesus, the pope said, neither “reproaches nor condemns” the apostle.
“He wants to save Peter” from the danger of being closed in on his sin, he said, which was the danger of “giving up” and being self-centered.
“He wants to free him from seeing his opponents as enemies and being upset by opposition and criticism,” the pope said. “He wants to free him from being downcast and, above everything, negative.” Jesus wants to save his apostle from watering down commitment, which ends in the “worst sort of relativism.”
Quoting from a book he wrote in 1987, when he was still Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, titled Las Cartas de la Tribulación, or “The Tribulation Letters,” the pope told the religious that God doesn’t defend the truth at the cost of charity, nor “charity at the cost of truth,” nor does he “smooth things away at the cost of both.”
“Jesus wants to avoid turning Peter into someone who hurts others by telling the truth, or is kind to others by telling lies, or simply someone paralyzed by his own uncertainty,” the pope said, quoting himself, and adding these are things that “can happen to us.”
Peter, Francis said, experienced the wounds of sin, but also that his wounds could be a path of resurrection. This knowledge, according to the pope, is an invitation for the Church to go from being that of the “unhappy and disheartened to a Church that serves all those people who are unhappy and disheartened in our midst.”
Such a Church, he continued, is capable of serving God in the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked, the thirsty, the homeless and the sick, through service related to a “conversion of hearts” and not a welfare mentality or paternalism.
“The problem is not feeding the poor, clothing the naked and visiting the sick, but rather recognizing that the poor, the naked, the sick, prisoners and the homeless have the dignity to sit at our table,” he said.
In a country that has been experiencing increasing secularism, and that saw several churches in Santiago attacked ahead of the visit – including a warning that a bomb would be placed under the pope’s cassock – Francis also said that societies are changing, and urged the religious not to fall for the temptation of becoming isolated and “defending our way of seeing things, which then turn out as nothing more than fine monologues.”
Turning one’s back to reality, he said, might lead the religious to profess apathy instead of the “good news,” shutting their eyes to the pastoral challenge, “thinking that the Spirit has nothing to say about them.”
The Gospel, he said, is a path of conversion, not only for “others,” but “for ourselves.”
Afterwards, the pope was headed to the sacristy of the cathedral, where he had a short private encounter with Chile’s 50 bishops.
During the meeting with the bishops, Francis spoke about what he believes is one of the most damaging temptations to missionary outreach: “clericalism.”
“We begin to think that we belong to no one; we forget that we are part of God’s holy and faithful people, and that the Church is not, nor will it ever be, an elite of consecrated men and women, priests and bishops,” he said.
Speaking about the laity, the pope reminded them that they are neither peons nor employees of the bishops, and they’re not called to “parrot back whatever we say.”
He also urged bishops to “be on guard” against the temptation of clericalism, particularly in the seminaries.
“Let us say no to clericalism, and to ideal worlds that are only part of our thinking but touch the life of no one,” he said.
Francis is closing his first day in Chile at the St. Alberto Hurtado shrine, where he was scheduled to meet some of the beneficiaries of a charitable organization founded by the Jesuit priest, and then meet his brother Jesuits in a private encounter.
On Wednesday, he’s flying to Temuco, in the Araucania region, where he’s expected to focus much of his attention in the Mapuche, an indigenous community.