ROME – On the same day that a French Cardinal became the latest churchman to be convicted for covering up clerical sexual abuse, Pope Francis on Thursday acknowledged “the pain and unbearable suffering” recent scandals have brought during a yearly Lenten speech to Roman clergy.
“Sin perverts us, and we painfully experience it when we ourselves or one of our brother priests or bishops falls in the bottomless chasm of vice, of corruption, or even worse of crime that destroys the life of others,” the pope said March 7 in off-the-cuff remarks during a closed-door meeting at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.
Later in the day, the Vatican released an official transcript of the pope’s comments.
“We mustn’t lose hope, [because] the Lord is purifying his spouse, he is converting us all to him,” the pope said. “He’s making us face this challenge so we understand that without him we are dust. He is saving us from hypocrisy.”
Francis’s remarks took place after French Cardinal Philippe Barbarin was found guilty by civil courts of failing to report cases of sexual abuse by clergy and given a six-month suspended sentence.
Barbarin’s sentence follows several high-profile scandals involving cover-up and sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in the past year, including Australian Cardinal George Pell and former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, both accused of sexually abusing minors. McCarrick abandoned the College of Cardinals and was later expelled from the priesthood, while Pell was convicted in a criminal trial in his native country (he’s appealing that verdict.)
“I feel that I should share with you the pain and unbearable suffering that have been brought upon the entire ecclesial body following the wave of scandals that are now filling the newspapers of the entire world,” Francis said.
The Church, he added, “has been caught in flagrant adultery,” and the scandals that have emerged show God’s will to eliminate a “spirituality of appearances.”
“It’s obvious that the true meaning of what is happening must be found in the spirit of evil, in the enemy who acts with the pretense of being the master of the world,” the pope said, recalling that he said much the same thing at the close of his Feb. 21-24 summit on clerical sexual abuse in Rome.
Francis mixed recognition of the Church’s failings with hope in speaking to the priests of his Roman diocese, calling this “a time of grace, so that we may put God at the center.”
He also offered tips for clergy, ranging from being connected to one’s flock to praying “face to face with God,” not as an administrator but as a believer willing to fight with God for his people.
“You need ‘pants’ to talk to God this way,” the pope said, using a colloquial expression meaning, loosely, “brazenness.”
Priests, the pope said, must speak to God “not as cowards, but as men.”
Referring to an icon of the Virgin Mary in the Italian city of Bari known as the “Hodegetria”, which represents Mary pointing to the naked infant Jesus as the source of salvation for humankind, Francis said that “God knows our shameful nudity, and nonetheless never tires of giving himself to us to bring reconciliation to men.”
Forgiveness was an important part of the pope’s message, echoed by Italian Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, Vicar of the Diocese of Rome.
“The liturgical season that we will experience will ask us to be ministers of reconciliation, ambassadors and deacons of God’s forgiveness for all of our brothers,” he said.
“We will invite everyone to ask for forgiveness with humility, to God and our brothers for the evil that was done,” he added.
The cardinal encouraged priests to “learn to search incessantly, to walk paths that haven’t been traced” in order to walk with God and “open new roads.” He also denounced the “false security” of those who believe to have all the answers and instead be open to listening.
Listening must be extended also to lay people, De Donatis added, especially the young who are often left outside of the Church’s projects and dynamics.
“We ask the Lord forgiveness for the tendency, often found in us priests, to be diffident toward lay people, not to delegate, to center everything into our hands, strong in the presumptuous conviction that our will coincides with the will of God,” he said.
“Often we are neither wise nor prudent, but just scared of losing our central role,” De Donatis concluded, adding that today the word of God must be evangelized “with transparency” and in a spirit of synodality and collegiality that embraces the entire Church.
Pope Francis pointed to reflections he proposed to Roman priests to prepare for the 2025 Jubilee year, centered around the book of Exodus and dedicated to the theme of “becoming a people.”