ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – Pope Francis has said he wants to “deflate” expectations for his Feb. 21-24 summit for presidents of bishops’ conferences on clerical sexual abuse, saying it’s mostly about transmitting a “catechesis” on the “drama” of abuse.
The pontiff also rejected the idea of optional celibacy for Catholic priests, though he did leave open the possibility of ordaining married men in remote locations and for specific sacramental purposes.
Asked about his expectations for the summit, Francis said the initiative was born in the C9, a group of cardinals that advise him on reform of the government of the Church. Three of those cardinals were removed late last year, two of them over allegations of either covering up abuse or of having sexually abused minors.
“We saw that some bishops didn’t know what to do, didn’t understand, did one thing good and another one bad,” the pope said.
Hence, he said, the C9 felt the need to offer a “catechesis” to bishops’ conferences that would make the “drama of children who’ve been abused” comprehensible.
The second scope of the meeting, Francis said, is to teach bishops how to respond when facing an allegation of abuse by a member of the clergy. Thirdly, he wants the February meeting to lead to “protocols” on how Church leaders should handle abuse cases.
During the meeting, Francis said, the bishops will “pray, listen to witness and have penitential liturgies, asking for forgiveness for the whole Church.”
He also said that he’s perceived “inflated expectations” over the February summit, saying that it’s necessary to deflate it to the three points he mentioned.
The problem of abuse, he said, “will continue. It’s a human problem. But a human problem everywhere.”
“If we resolve the issue within the Church, we may be able to help solve it in society, in families,” he said. “But firstly, we need to become conscious of it, have the protocols, and move forward.”
The pope’s comments came during an airborne press conference on his return flight to Rome following his Jan. 23-27 trip to Panama for the Church’s World Youth Day.
Though from time to time rumors arise about Francis allowing priests of the Latin Rite to marry – it’s allowed in the Oriental churches in communion with Rome – the Argentine pontiff was clear: “I would rather give my life than to change the law on celibacy.”
The quote belongs to St. Paul VI who, as Francis said, issued it “when times were tougher than now, in 1968-1970.”
“I’m not in agreement with allowing optional celibacy. No,” he said.
Francis did say, however, that he believes theologians should study the possibility of “elder married men” being ordained, in “far, faraway places,” such the islands in the Pacific, and even then, ordained only to celebrate Mass, hear confessions and anoint the ill.
The pope cited Bishop Fritz Lobinger from South Africa, who’s written on this issue. Yet, he insisted, this is a matter to be “prayed on,” “meditated,” and discussed by theologians, and one he personally hasn’t meditated on enough.
“It’s not for me to decide. My decision is, optional celibacy before the diaconate, no,” referring to the fact that future priests typically are first ordained as deacons. “I will not do this. I don’t feel like standing in front of God with this decision,” Francis said.
During a 45-minute Q&A with journalists who travelled with him to Panama, Francis said that the message of God’s mercy applies to everyone, including the unborn human person, and those who made “this mistake” of getting an abortion.
“It’s a difficult mercy, because the problem is not giving forgiveness,” Francis said. “The problem is accompanying the woman who becomes conscious of having had an abortion. It’s a terrible drama.”
“When a woman thinks about what she did…” the pope continued, not finishing the sentence. “To tell the truth, you have to be in the confessional [to understand], to give consolation and not attack.”
According to Francis, many times women who’ve had an abortion need to “encounter their child.” He also said that many times he’s told the women who came crying to him that their child is in heaven and that they can talk to him or her, “singing the lullaby that they didn’t get to sing to them. And there you have a reconciliation between the mother and the child, because God has already forgiven.”
A journalist from Panama asked Francis about sexual education, saying that in countries such as the one the pontiff just visited, sex education is not allowed in schools due to pressure from the Catholic Church and this leads to teenage pregnancies.
Francis said he wouldn’t address the local situation because that would be getting involved with politics, but said they should have sexual education because “sex is a gift from God, not the bogeyman.”
The fact that some use sex to make money or exploit others is “another problem,” but an objective sexual education should be given, he said.
It should occur “without ideological colonization,” Francis added, because if from the beginning “you give them an education full of ideological colonization, the person is destroyed.”
Though he didn’t delve into what he meant, on previous occasions he’s tied ideological colonization to gender ideology, meaning the idea that one’s gender is independent of biology, and that as such, people can choose if they want to be men, women or neither.
Francis said the problem with sexual education is the “system,” and the professors and books chosen to teach it. Families, he added, should be the first teacher and then the schools, because sometimes parents don’t know how to address the matter.
If neither families nor the school take charge, the pope said, then youth are exposed to having the void filled with “any ideology.”
“I support the entire Venezuelan people, that is suffering,” Francis said, while declining to offer specific political or diplomatic direction.
“If I began saying ‘do what this country suggests, or listen to these other [countries],’ I would be entering into a role that I don’t know. It would be imprudent on my part, and it would do harm.”
Earlier on Sunday, Francis said that while he was in Panama he had “thought a lot about the grave situation that [Venezuela] is going through.” He said he hopes for a “fair and peaceful solution” to the country’s political crisis, respecting the “human rights of all the inhabitants of dear Venezuela.”
Nicolas Maduro, the successor of Hugo Chavez, was sworn in for another term earlier this month following elections labeled as “fraudulent” by many in the international community. After opposition leader Juan Gaido was also sworn in at a rival ceremony, Maduro said he will “never resign” the presidency.
Speaking about his carefully calibrated remarks on Sunday, the pope said that he’d “thought” about them thoroughly, and that he wanted to express his “closeness” to the people of Venezuela.
“I suffer with all of this,” he said. “Reaching an agreement is not enough. A just and peaceful solution [is needed]. I’m worried about the bloodshed.” To avoid it, he said, “I ask for greatness from those who can help resolve the problem.”
Francis also said that he’s “terrified” about the possibility of violence, noting that in Colombia after a negotiated peace to end a decades-long civil war, an attack by the National Liberation Army on a school of cadets left 14 people dead.
“I don’t like the word ‘equilibrium,’” he said, referring to his role. “I have to be a shepherd, and if they need help, the [involved parties] can reach an agreement and ask for it.”
In 2017, the Vatican tried to mediate between the government of Maduro and the opposition, but the efforts failed, as one refused to relinquish power and the others demanded that he did so.
Among other things, Francis fielded a question on immigration. In his answer, he repeated concepts he’s employed before, such as the need to welcome, to integrate and to have a memory regarding where a country’s population originates.
“Argentina, we’re all migrants. United States, all migrants,” he said.
He called on politicians to be prudent, and also to be open to helping the countries where people are fleeing either conflict or hunger. Talking about Africa, he lamented the “common mentality” that Africa is there to be exploited.
Asked about what keeps young people away from Church, the pontiff said that there are several reasons, but he believes the main one is the “lack of witness” from clergy, religious and even laity.
If one is a Catholic but exploits people by refusing to pay a fair wage and uses the money to fund a vacation in the Caribbean, the pontiff said, they would serve the Church better by saying that they received a Catholic education but that they’re “tepid in my faith, I’m sorry, but don’t take me as an example.”
Francis also said that in Panama he was impressed by people showing him their babies as he was passing through the crowds, as if to say, “This is my victory, my future, my pride.”
“In the demographic winter we’re living in Europe, we must think. What’s my reason for pride? Tourism, the villa, the puppy, or lifting up a child?”
Next Sunday Francis will hit the road again, becoming the first pope in history to visit the Arab Peninsula when he sets foot in Abu Dhabi.