ROME – In a major new document on young people, Pope Francis acknowledges the clerical sexual abuse crisis as a major challenge to the Catholic Church’s credibility, but, following the lead of a summit of bishops last fall upon which it’s based, notably omits any reference to a “zero tolerance” policy.
The new apostolic exhortation titled Christus vivit, meaning “Christ is Alive,” was released April 2 and is harvested from discussions of the Oct. 3-28, 2018, Synod of Bishops on “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment,” which focused on youth aged 16-29.
The document was signed by the pope during a March 29 daytrip to Loreto, where the Nazareth home of the Holy Family is believed to be housed after having been transported in the late 13th century.
The document treats a wide range of issues facing young people today, from the emergence of a new digital culture to migration, from abortion and drug addiction to youth homelessness and poverty. In keeping with the discussions at the October synod, the abuse crisis comes in for extended treatment in a section titled “Ending every form of abuse.”
Pope Francis describes sexual abuse is a “scourge” and a sin “that can last a lifetime and that no repentance can remedy,” and which is widely present in society, in the Church, in families and in various institutions.
“This problem, while it is universal and gravely affects our societies as a whole… is in no way less monstrous when it takes place within the Church,” Francis says, adding that “in people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted.”
He refers to different kinds of abuse, including the abuse of power and conscience, sexual abuse and financial abuse, saying “the irresponsibility and lack of transparency with which so many cases have been handled have to be challenged.”
Francis pointed to clericalism as a temptation for priests which leads them to lose respect for the value and freedom of those in their care, and he thanked victims who have chosen to speak out about their abuse. He also praised the many priests, bishops and religious who serve faithfully, noting that abusers “are not the majority of priests.”
He stressed the need to make a commitment to adopting “rigorous preventative measures” to avoid the repetition of “these crimes,” beginning with formation and education.
However, following the lead of the synod itself, Francis does not include an affirmation of zero tolerance in his exhortation.
The absence of that phrase in the final document of the October synod, which had been included in an initial draft of but removed, sparked debate among participants, with some arguing that too much attention was being devoted to sexual abuse and others saying the final text did not go far enough.
The absence of the term is especially noteworthy given that in a 2016 letter to the world’s bishops on the Dec. 28 Feast of the Holy Innocents, Francis told the world’s pastors to “adhere, clearly and faithfully, to zero tolerance.” The phrase was also used often during his Feb. 21-24 summit on clerical abuse.
In an April 2 press briefing on the new exhortation, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, said the lack of a commitment to zero tolerance in the text is not a sign that Pope Francis is taking the issue less seriously, but that “the pope wanted to underline other aspects” of the crisis, such as the need to encourage and accompany priests in their vocations.
“Youth need to know that this problem exists and the Church doesn’t tolerate it,” he said, adding that “the pope could not say everything in one document,” and he does not find the absence of zero tolerance problematic, as the pope has emphasized his commitment to fighting abuse on several occasions in the past.
Bishop Fabio Fabene, undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops, also weighed in, saying that “none of us can put into question the zero tolerance that the pope is promoting,” but that the exhortation is not the place to focus on it, because “it is an exhortation dedicated to youth and the people of God.”
What is more striking in the text, he said, is the “mission” Pope Francis entrusts to young people, “to be beside priests so they can find their vocation.”
On zero tolerance, he said he believes the pope is pursuing it “through the acts of his pontificate,” including Francis’ recent motu proprio, or legislative document, detailing norms on child protection for Vatican City State.
Notably, there was also no mention of the role of women in the text, which had been a key theme in the March 2018 pre-synod meeting, as well as the October 2018 synod discussion.
Asked why there was no mention of the role of women, Fabene said the exhortation is “not a document on women,” and they are included under the wider umbrella of young people. When the pope speaks of youth, he said, “he speaks of young men and women.”
Composed of nine chapters, Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation is 63 pages long and runs to almost 35,000 words in the English version.
It includes several scripture references on young people and examples of young saints, an emphasis on youth ministry and discernment, friendship, family, the importance building relationships with the elderly, and an encouragement for young people to grow in maturity without getting slowed down or frustrated by the challenges they face.
Calling young people the “hope and future of the Church,” Francis said they can help to keep the Church young and “stop her from becoming corrupt; they can keep her moving forward, prevent her from being proud and sectarian, help her to be poorer and to bear better witness, to take the side of the poor and the outcast, to fight for justice and humbly to let herself be challenged.”
The document also touches on challenges young people face due to poverty, war and migration, which was a consistent point of the discussion during the October synod gathering from all corners of the world.
Migration is a “structural phenomenon,” he said, noting that many migrants, a great number of which are young and in search of better opportunities, fall victim to traffickers or are met with a “xenophobic mentality” upon arrival in their host countries.
Of greatest importance to the Church, the pope said, are migrants who flee their homes due to war, violence or persecution. “The very fact that the Church can embrace all these varied perspectives allows her to play a prophetic role in society with regard to the issue of migration,” he said, and urged young people to view migrants as fellow human beings and to treat them with dignity.
He condemned the “scourge of abortion” and the problem of drugs and homeless youth, saying some realities in the world can only be seen “with eyes cleansed by tears.”
Calling the ability to cry a sign of mercy, he asked, “Can I weep? Can I weep when I see a child who is starving, on drugs or on the street, homeless, abandoned, mistreated or exploited as a slave by society? Or is my weeping only the self-centered whining of those who cry because they want something else?”
While some assistance is offered by those in power, Francis noted that this help often comes “at a high price,” most notably in aid given to poor countries but which is “tied to the acceptance of Western views of sexuality, marriage, life or social justice.”
“This ideological colonization is especially harmful to the young,” he said.
Francis in the document also warned of the dangers of technology, saying the internet and social networks provide “extraordinary opportunity” for dialogue, encounter and evangelization, but adding the digital world can also be driven by economic interests “capable of exercising forms of control as subtle as they are invasive, creating mechanisms for the manipulation of consciences and of the democratic process.”
Young people, Francis said, must be wary of threats such as online pornography, which “distort a young person’s perception of human sexuality,” and they must learn how to take meaningful connections and make them human, finding ways “to pass from virtual contact to good and healthy communication.”
Pope Francis spoke at length of the need to build friendship with Christ and to learn how to recognize his call, saying to find one’s vocation is the result of a personal decision requiring silence, accompaniment and prayer.
Stressing the need to follow the Lord rather than the seductions of the world, he spoke directly to young people, saying, “you are priceless! You are not up for sale! Please, do not let yourself be bought. Do not let yourself be seduced.”
“Do not let yourself be enslaved by forms of ideological colonization that put ideas in your heads, with the result that you end up becoming slaves, addicts, failures in life,” he said, encouraging young people to “fall in love” with the freedom offered by Christ.
While Jesus is often depicted as an outdated memory “from the distant past,” Francis said this concept of Christ is not only untrue, but it is of no use to young people, because “it would leave us unchanged, it would not set us free.”
“The one who fills us with his grace, the one who liberates us, transforms us, heals and consoles us is someone fully alive,” he said, and closed his document voicing hope that young people would “keep running the race before you, outstripping all those who are slow or fearful.”
“Keep running, attracted by the face of Christ, whom we love so much, whom we adore in the Holy Eucharist and acknowledge in the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters. May the Holy Spirit urge you on as you run this race.”