DUBLIN – In what amounted to the crescendo of his 32-hour visit to Ireland for the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis once again apologized for the Church’s failures in protecting its own members from clerical sexual abuse.
“Yesterday I met with eight people [who are] survivors of abuses of power, of conscience and of a sexual nature,” Francis said before opening the concluding Mass of the World Meeting Sunday. “Collecting what they have told me, I would like to put in front of God’s mercy these crimes and to ask forgiveness for them.”
These acts, the pope said, were committed by “qualified members of the Church.”
Acknowledging the cover-up of abuse as well as the crime, Francis added, “some members of the hierarchy didn’t own up to these painful situations and kept silent. We ask for forgiveness.”
Francis also referred to Ireland’s history of abuse within Church-affiliated schools, orphanages and other social institutions.
“We apologize for the children who were estranged from their mothers and for all those times in which it was said to many single mothers who tried to look for their children who had been estranged from them, or to the children who were looking for their mothers, that ‘It was a mortal sin’. This is not a mortal sin, it is the fourth commandment! We ask for forgiveness,” he said.
“May the Lord maintain and increase this state of shame and give us the strength to commit ourselves to work so that they never happen again and justice is done,” the pope said.
“In a special way, we apologize for all the abuses committed by institutions run by male and female religious and other members of the Church,” the pope said, “and we ask for forgiveness for the crimes to which so many minors were subjected.”
Francis’s words came as he was beginning an open-air Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
His homily was focused on forgiveness and overcoming “sin, selfishness, greed and indifference to the needs of the less fortunate,” something which, he said, can only be done through Jesus’ love.
The pope said that everyone can find the teaching of Jesus to be hard: “How difficult it is always to forgive those who hurt us; how challenging always to welcome the migrant and the stranger; how painful joyfully to bear disappointment, rejection or betrayal; how inconvenient to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, the unborn or the elderly, who seem to impinge upon our own sense of freedom.”
Though entrance to the park was free for Sunday, there were a limited number of tickets – half a million – which were allocated in days. However, campaigns to request tickets and not show up in order to make the park look empty were organized by protestors, leading to many Irish people who actually wanted to attend the liturgy ending up empty-handed.
When he arrived in Phoenix Park, Francis spent close to 30 minutes going through the Mass site in the pope mobile where Pope John Paul II said Mass for over a million people in 1979, when the authorities put no safety restriction on the limit of people who could attend.
Towards the end, Pope Francis announced that the next World Meeting of Families will take place in 2021, and will be held in Rome.
Regardless of the controversies surrounding the papal visit, including a letter released on the eve of the Mass by a former papal representative in the United States claiming Francis knew about charges against ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2013, most people at the Mass appeared upbeat and happy to see Francis.
Margaret Kerry, who spent several hours in the park before the pope got there, having walked over two miles to get to the very first row, told Crux that she was there because Francis is “the right hand of God.”
“I know people want for him to apologize for what others before did before him, but how many times can a mother apologize for the sins of her sons?” Kerry said, referring to the scandals that have rocked the Irish Church, including clerical sexual abuse.
All the pope can do, she argued, “is reform the Church, make sure this doesn’t happen again, and he’s doing that, but he’s finding roadblocks. We have to pray for those roadblocks to be removed.”
Brenda O’Sullivan came to Phoenix Park all the way from Belfast, Northern Ireland, with her family, including her mother who’s in a wheelchair. They were in the first row and proudly displaying a flag from Argentina, the pope’s, and her fiancé’s country.
“I’m here because I’m a Catholic, and he’s the pope. And he’s a good one. I love how he’s focused on the poor and the marginalized,” she told Crux. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
The altar was located in the backdrop of a cross erected in the park. Welcoming Francis to the Mass, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said they were gathered around the cross “in the hope of a spring for the Irish Church. We look towards a spring sun that does not wish to cover up the harshness of dark days.”
“It may seem a paradox for me to say in the same breath that the faith in Ireland is strong, and that faith in Ireland is fragile,” he said. “There is an intrinsic fragility in faith that can steer us away from arrogance and self-centeredness and as our Gospel reading will remind us, to journey with Jesus even when others ‘stop going with him’.”
To arrive at the Mass site, people in the crowd had to walk more than two miles to get to their locations in Phoenix Park, Europe’s largest gated park. While waiting for things to begin, they were entertained by what organizers described as a “mammoth 12-hour program,” exploring faith through music, reflections, video and drama.
In total, hundreds of people from Ireland, England, America, Germany, Austria, France, India, Canada and the United States were involved in keeping the crowd energized.
Shortly after the Mass concluded, Francis was scheduled to meet with the bishops of Ireland. On his way back to Rome Sunday evening, Pope Francis was expected to answer questions from journalists, in his customary in-flight press conference.