ROME – Closing a month-long gathering of bishops in Rome, Pope Francis on Saturday said the Catholic Church is under attack by the devil and urged bishops from around the world to defend the institution because “you don’t touch a mother.”
“Our mother, [the Church] is holy, but we the children are sinners,” he said. “Sinners, all of us. Let’s not forget this expression from the fathers [of the Church]: The Church is holy, the Mother is holy, with children who are sinners.”
“At this moment, [the devil] is accusing us very strongly,” the pope said. “And this accusation becomes persecution.”
This persecution can take the form of violence against Christians, as the one lived in regions in the Middle East, which was referenced before the pope’s remarks by Iraqi Cardinal Raphael Sako. But, Francis said, this persecution can take other shapes, “constant accusations, to dirty the Church.”
Although Francis did not spell it out, many observers are likely to take those words as a reference, at least in part, to the massive clerical sexual abuse scandals that have gripped the Catholic Church in various parts of the world in recent months.
The “great accuser” is one of the many names given in Christian literature to the devil, and Francis has invoked it considerably of late. In September, for instance, he urged Catholics from around the world to pray the rosary and to close it with an appeal to the Virgin Mary and to St. Michael Archangel, to protect the Church from what he sees as attacks by the devil.
“The Church is not dirty,” the pope said. “The children are, but the mother isn’t. This is the moment to defend the mother with prayer. It’s a difficult moment, because through us, the great accuser wants to attack the mother. And you don’t touch a mother.”
Francis’s words came at the last day of deliberations of the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment. The official closing of the gathering will take place on Sunday, as he says Mass in St. Peter’s Square.
His short, improvised remarks came around 8:00 p.m. in Rome after grueling day-long voting on the final document, which was approved with a comfortable majority and released shortly thereafter.
Francis said that he takes two things from the synod in his “heart.” The first was a reminder that the Synod of Bishops is not a “parliament,” and that what happens in it is “protected,” meaning not fully shared with the outside world, so that the “the Holy Spirit can act.”
Second, Francis said that the result of the synod is a “document” that might or might not have an impact outside of the synod hall, “but it must have an impact on us. It must work in us.”
The main audience for the document, the pontiff said, are the participants of the synod, who are now called to study it, pray on it, and allow the “Holy Spirit to work in our hearts.”
Also addressing the close to 250 synod fathers who were in attendance at the final official session was Sako, who took the opportunity to request those present to remember the suffering of Christians in the Middle East.
“If the [Middle] East is emptied of Christians, Christianity will remain without roots,” said Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, to the support of his peers. “We need your humanitarian and spiritual support and your solidarity, friendship and proximity until the storm passes.”
Anti-Christian persecution was an issue that was brought up on the synod floor by many participants, including Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, India, who moved the pope so much that Francis quoted him during his daily morning Mass the day following the prelate’s remarks.
Sako also noted that it was a very “constructive work of ecclesial synodality,” saying it’s something the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome are used to, sparking laughter.
“But to experience synodality with the whole Church has a special taste, thanks to the Holy Spirit,” he said. “This is not found anywhere, except in the Catholic Church. We are united despite the differences of our countries, our language and our culture, because Christ unites us and sends us forth with the same mission to proclaim the Gospel and to serve our brothers and sisters with joy and enthusiasm.”
The patriarch also had words of support for Francis, telling the Argentine pontiff that “you’re not alone, as all the representatives of the Catholic bishops around the world are with you and we’re united to you in an integral communion.”
Millions of faithful, Sako said, pray for the pontiff every day, and many men and women of “good will” admire his words and gestures in favor of a world with a “universal fraternity, justice and peace.”
“There’s nothing to fear,” the patriarch said. “Move forth with courage and trust. Peter’s boat is not like the other boats, Peter’s boat despite the waves, remains solid, because Jesus is in it and He will never leave it.”