ON BOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – Pope Francis insisted Sunday that restricting access to sacraments such as priestly ordination, as the Catholic Church does for women, and marriage, in the case of the LGBTQ+ community, is not a sign of close-mindedness.
In an airborne news conference, the pope also touched on his reasons for opting not to mention Ukraine out loud while in the famed Marian shrine of Fatima on Saturday, addressed clerical abuse scandals in Portugal, mental health struggles among youth and his own physical condition, insisting that despite a grueling foreign trip this week “my health is good.”
Francis made the comments to reporters during his return flight from an August 2-6 trip to Portugal, where he presided over World Youth Day, a massive gathering of Catholic youth from around the world instituted under St. Pope John Paul II.
Asked why the church was not a place of equality for women and members of the LGBTQ+ community given that they cannot receive all of the Church’s sacraments, Pope Francis said, “The Church is open to everyone, then there is legislation that regulates life inside of the Church.”
According to the church’s legislation, these groups cannot have access to the sacraments, he said, but insisted that “this doesn’t mean that it is closed.”
“Each one encounters God on their own path in the Church, and the Church is a mother, she guides each one on their path. Because of this, I don’t like to say, ‘Everyone come, but you [stay] over there,’” he said, saying everyone is welcome.
Each person in prayer and in internal and pastoral dialogue “looks for a way to go forward,” he said, reiterating that everyone is welcome and saying that in the Bible, “The Lord is clear, eh? Sick and healthy, old and young, beautiful and ugly, good and bad.”
“Another thing is ministry of the Church, and the way of bringing a flock forward. One thing is patience in ministry, accompanying people step by step in their path of maturation,” he said, saying, “Each one of us has this experience that the mother Church has accompanied us in our own path of maturation.”
Francis said he doesn’t like to reduce ecclesial life to only certain ideas, because “this doesn’t help. The Church is mother, she accepts everyone, and…without publicity.”
“Who among us has not made a moral mistake in our lives? Everyone … each one of us has our own falls and mistakes. Life is like this, the Church awaits everyone, with mercy, it is mother,” he said.
The issues of women’s priestly ordination and the welcome and inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community have long been hot-button topics for the Catholic Church.
A recently-concluded controversial German synodal process favoring women’s ordination and blessings for same-sex couples has met pushback from the Vatican over the past 18 months and is a source of ongoing tension within the German Church.
The issues will also be discussed in October during Pope Francis’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which is aimed at helping the Church to be a more welcoming and inclusive place for all of its members.
During WYD, a group of LGBTQ+ Catholics celebrated a special Mass for their community but complained that the venue cancelled on them on the last minute amid pushback, forcing them to scramble to find a new location, which they said is another chapter in the discrimination they face as members of the Catholic Church.
During his inflight press conference, Francis was also asked why he did not speak about Ukraine or deliver a much-anticipated call for peace in the country during his visit to the Marian shrine of Fatima Saturday, given the shrine’s historic ties to the region and his own peace-making efforts.
Fatima, which has long been associated with Russia, is the site of the famed 1917 apparitions of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children, two of whom were canonized by Pope Francis during his visit for the centenary of the apparitions in 2017.
One of the “three secrets” Our Lady of Fatima disclosed to the children was a request to consecrate Russia to her immaculate heart in order to prevent the spread of atheist communism. While various popes have made acts of consecration over the years, some hardcore Marian devotees have said these gestures have not gone far enough.
Pope Francis himself in March 2022, one month after the outbreak of the war, consecrated both Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in gesture intended to inspire efforts toward peace.
Asked why he did not specifically mention Ukraine in Fatima, Francis told journalists that he prayed for peace in front of the Madonna, but “I didn’t do publicity, I prayed.”
“We must continue this prayer for peace. In the first World War, she asked this, and this time I asked for it, I prayed. I didn’t do publicity,” he said.
Responding to a question about his own health, given concern over his eyesight and his grueling schedule in Portugal in the heels of a recent abdominal surgery, the pope said that “my health is good.”
“They took my stitches out, I have a normal life,” he said, referring to the incision point for his abdominal surgery. He said he has to wear a special compress for 2-3 months “to avoid another surgery” and ensure that the muscles heal properly, “but I am good.”
Concern first arose over his eyesight Friday morning when the pope read the first few paragraphs of a prepared speech to charity workers before setting it aside, saying he had trouble reading due to the lighting. He then tossed aside several other speeches, including his highly anticipated message in Fatima.
The 86-year-old pontiff has had two hospital stays this year and also suffers from chronic sciatica and knee pain which for over a year has often confined him to a wheelchair. Last year he had surgery to repair cataracts.
In reference to concerns about his vision, Francis said he cut the speech with charity workers because “there was a light in front and I couldn’t see.”
He said his reason for cutting the other speeches he made was because when he speaks, “I try to communicate,” and even tell jokes.
“For long speeches, I had the essence of the message, but I took those moments to communicate,” he said, saying young people don’t have a long attention span, and that if he asked the crowd a question, he could tell from “the echo” whether “I was going in the right direction.”
Francis referred to a lengthy chapter on giving homilies in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium in which he gave advice to pastors on how to form a good homily.
“Homilies are often a torture…the Church must convert itself in this aspect of the homily,” he said, saying they should be short and clear with their message.
He also touched briefly on his decision to visit Marseille in late September for a conference on the Mediterranean, making a visit to a city, but not a formal state visit to France.
Pope Francis said he is going to Marseille because “I am concerned about the Mediterranean” and that what happens to migrants along their voyage “is criminal.”
To this end, he suggested that journalists read a book called Hermanito he has spoken of before by a Spanish author who wrote the story of migrants he encountered, recounting the horrors they endured on their journey.
“I am visiting small European countries,” he said, saying larger ones such as Spain, France, and England, can wait.
Francis also spoke about Portugal’s clerical abuse scandals and the backlash the Church has faced following the publication of an independent report in February finding that 5,000 children had been abused going back decades.
On his first night in Lisbon, the pope met privately with a group of 13 survivors and representatives of organizations that assist them.
In this meeting, “I could touch this plague, and it’s a tremendous plague,” he said, saying the Church must mature in its response.
However, he said that steps had been taken and pointed to the 2019 Vatican summit on child protection that drew the participation of the presidents of all bishops’ conferences around the world, as well as a slew of experts and survivors.
“It’s serious, we must talk about it. In the Church there’s a phrase we use a lot, zero tolerance,” he said, saying pastors “must take charge of this…with seriousness. It must be taken seriously.”
He lamented the growth of online sexual exploitation, noting that pedophiles can livestream a child being abused online. This must be addressed, he said, saying questions must be answered such as, “who films it? Where is it done?”
Again referring to his meeting with survivors on Wednesday, he said that “speaking with people who have been abused is a very painful experience,” but it helps him know what to do.
Francis said the Church must work so that all forms of abuse are stopped, noting that sexual abuse “is not the only kind, there are also other forms, the abuse of child labor, abuse of women.”
“There is a culture of abuse which humanity must revise and must convert,” he said, “But things are going well.”
Pope Francis also addressed mental health issues such as depression and suicidal thoughts among young people, which he referenced in his speeches during WYD and which youth themselves addressed in meditations they wrote for Friday night’s Via Crucis.
Asked if he had ever experienced mental health struggles himself and whether someone who commits suicide is condemned to hell, which is the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching on the issue, the pope largely dodged the question, but recognized that “today youth suicide is important.”
Although the numbers are high, “the media don’t talk about it a lot because they are not informed,” he said.
Francis said one young person he met during WYD had asked him for his thoughts on suicide, and that the youth confided that a year prior, they had been contemplating whether or not to take their own life.
“Many young people are anguished, psychologically,” he said, noting that many young people feel pressure to succeed but “aren’t able to graduate or find that job and they kill themselves because they feel a great sense of shame. It’s a problem.”