ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – Pope Francis on Saturday said a former member of his reform commission on sex abuse who quit citing Vatican resistance “was right on some issues,” and that when he meets President Donald Trump on May 24, he’ll be looking to find doors that “aren’t closed” to cooperation between the Vatican and the White House.
The pontiff also appeared to suggest at least some credibility to the early revelations associated with Medjugorje, a controversial site of alleged Marian apparitions since 1981, but was dismissive of the flood of later claims, saying Mary is not “the head of the post office that every day sends a message at a given hour.”
Francis also said he’s determined to continue pursuing reconciliation talks with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which broke with Rome after the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, but that the process can’t be rushed.
Pope Francis was speaking Saturday on his way back from a May 12-13 trip to Fatima, Portugal, where he marked the 100th anniversary of the famed Marian apparitions and officially declared two of the seers as saints.
There were also a couple of one-off lines from Francis during the airborne news conference that weren’t part of any larger discussion, such as a statement that clericalism is a “plague in the Church” and a confession that the pontiff had asked Mary for forgiveness for his mistakes, including “poor taste in choosing people.”
“I don’t make a judgement of a person without listening [to them first],” the pope said, refusing to give an opinion of Trump in advance of their May 24 encounter, the first between the two leaders.
“I will say what I think, he will say what he thinks,” he said. “I’ve never, never wanted to make a judgement of a person without listening to them.”
The pope also said that there are always doors that “aren’t closed,” and that he’ll work on finding things the two have in common, as a way to move forward.
“Step by step,” he said. “Peace is artiginal, it’s done day by day.”
Asked about any hopes of Trump softening his policies after their meeting, the pope said that was a political calculus he wouldn’t get into: “Even from the religious point of view, I am not a proselytizer,” he said.
Journalists from the Portuguese-speaking group also asked the pontiff about Trump, specifically about what he hopes the outcome of the meeting will be. He answered by saying that from now on, everyone he speaks with should expect him to talk about peace.
It’s worth noting that the meeting with Trump will begin at 8:30 in the morning. Seeing that it’s a Wednesday, the pontiff will be pressed for time, since thousands will be waiting for him in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly audience, which always begins between 9 and 9:30, with Francis doing a swing through St. Peter’s Square in the popemobile.
Clerical sexual abuse and the Collins resignation
English-speaking journalists also asked Pope Francis about the recent decision by Irish lay woman Marie Collins, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse herself, to resign from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors which he instituted at the beginning of his papacy.
When she announced her resignation, Collins said in various interviews that resistance within the Roman Curia, meaning the Vatican’s governing body, drove her decision.
“Marie Collins explained the situation to me, I spoke with her. She’s a great woman,” the pope said, adding that she’ll continue to work with the Vatican in the formation of priests in the fight against the clerical sexual abuse.
“She’s right on some things,” he acknowledged, saying “there are too many delayed cases … backed up here,” referring to the Vatican.
He added, however, that several steps have been taken to advance the Church’s promise of fighting clerical sexual abuse.
Among the things the pope said still need attention is the shortage of personnel capable of dealing with these cases, so both the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the chief of the doctrinal office, which handles abuse cases, German Cardinal Gerhard Muller, are looking for more people.
He said the fact that by now most dioceses around the world have protocols on how to act when accusations of abuse arise is a “great step forward,” because bishops know how to produce the dossier that is studied by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Francis then described the way the process is handled in the Vatican, once the dossier against a priest is presented, including the newly-erected tribunal that hears the priest’s appeals when they are found guilty. This tribunal is headed by Malta’s Archbishop Charles Scicluna, whom the pontiff described as “among the strongest against abuse.”
Scicluna was the chief prosecutor on sex abuse cases at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, and was known for having an aggressive approach to the issue.
“If the sentence is approved, the case is over,” Francis said. “The last resource is to send a letter to the pope asking for a grace [forgiveness]. I have never signed a grace.”
This last response puts an end to a series of rumors about Francis forgiving an Italian priest, something which was reported by several news outlets.
Headed by American Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, who was in Fatima during the pope’s visit, the pontifical commission is an advisory body set up to guide the Church’s long-term response to the crisis, including best practices, provide formation, and assist the world’s bishops’ conferences on the setting up of their guidelines on how to deal with abuse cases.
The Society of St. Pius X
The pontiff was also asked about the traditionalist Society of Pius X, a group with which the Vatican has had on-again, off-again talks about reconciliation for years.
Francis said that he has good relationships with Archbishop Bernard Fellay, head of the society, but that he doesn’t like to rush things.
“Walk, walk, walk,” the pope said, in reference to an idea he uses regularly, often when talking about ecumenism and interreligious dialogue.
The pontiff defined the current relations as “fraternal” and highlighted the fact that despite the theological differences the group has with the Vatican, they’ve continued to be in contact, for instance by sending to Rome cases of clerical sexual abuse within their ranks.
Founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the group has been at odds with Rome since the 1980s, when Lefebvre ordained four bishops in defiance of Pope John Paul II. This act of rebellion lead to the excommunication of the five prelates.
Since then, Rome has been trying to bring them back into the fold. Among other things, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of the bishops, and Pope Francis extended a major olive branch by giving the priests of the society faculty to hear Confessions and also offered a solution for them to be able to celebrate marriages.
To this day, they have no legal standing within the Church. However, the possibility of them becoming a personal prelature has been floated several times, and many believe that this will be the ultimate solution, if it is ever reached. At the moment, Opus Dei is the only prelature.
Ironically, the Lefebvrists, as they are often called, broke away protesting the Second Vatican Council, that among many things, gave birth to the personal prelature in the code of Church law.
Despite Francis’s good intentions, however, unless Archbishop Bernard Fellay signs a professio fidei, a document considered a necessary step to resolve the legal process by the Vatican’s Congregation of the Faith and the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which leads the talks with the society, the situation is likely to remain at an impasse.
Put in very simple terms, it’s a doctrinal statement originally presented to Fellay during Benedict’s papacy, and which has since then been reworded and simplified, outlining the points to which the society needs to agree for full communion to be restored.
Another question posed to the pope, this time by Italian-speaking journalists, touched on the alleged Marian apparitions of Medjugorje, that some report have been ongoing since 1981 in this otherwise unknown town of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Much of Pope Francis’s answer turned around what is known as the “Ruini report,” presented by a commission of theologians and experts set up by Pope Benedict XVI and headed by Italian Cardinal Camilo Ruini.
The report was presented to the Vatican’s doctrinal office in 2014.
“Three things must be distinguished,” Francis said, beginning with the credibility of the messages attributed to Our Lady of Peace, as described by a group of seers.
“The first apparitions, [when the seers] were children, the report more or less says that they must still be investigated,” he said.
“[On] the alleged current apparitions, the report has its doubts. Personally, I’m meaner. I prefer the Virgin Mother, not the Virgin who is head of the post office that every day sends a message at a given hour. This is not the mother of Jesus. These alleged apparitions don’t have so much value. I say this as a personal opinion.”
Despite the fact that the Church hasn’t officially recognized the apparitions, some 2.5 million pilgrims visit the site each year.
Earlier in the year Francis appointed Polish Archbishop Henryk Hoser to review the pastoral situation for the residents and the pilgrims. It’s not the scope of his mission to determine the veracity of the alleged Marian apparitions at Medjugorje.
The Vatican’s doctrinal office set up a commission in 2011 for that purpose, which allegedly finalized its work in 2014, but to this point, nothing has been announced.
The local bishop, Ratko Peri of Mostar-Duvno has repeatedly said that there’s no truth to them. In fact, he did so again last February, two weeks after Francis tapped Hoser to determine the pastoral situation of the pilgrims.
The alleged supernatural events in Medjugorje reportedly began in 1981, when six children claimed they had seen the Virgin Mary in the form of Our Lady Queen of Peace. The visionaries claim that the apparitions continue to this day, with three of them receiving daily visits.
Speaking of his press for peace in the world and Fatima as a sign of hope, the pope said that shortly before he left Rome he met a group of scientists taking part in a meeting sponsored by the Vatican observatory.
“An atheist, without telling me what country he came from, greeted me this way: ‘I’m an atheist! I’m asking you a favor: Tell Christians to love Muslims more.’ That’s a message of peace!” the pope said.
Later, discussing the fact that Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of his nomination as an auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires, Francis said that had only occurred to him the day before while he was praying to Mary.
“I asked the Madonna to forgive my mistakes, and also for my poor taste in choosing people,” he said, without explaining which people he had in mind.
Finally, the pope was asked about the recent adoption of gay marriage and the decriminalization of abortion in once-Catholic Portugal.
“There are zones, in Italy and Latin America, for example, in which many people are Catholic and at the same time anti-clerical and priest-eaters,” he said, using a colloquial Italian term, mangiapreti.
“It worries me, but I say to priests that it’s clericalism that drives people away,” he said. “Clericalism is a plague in the Church.”