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  • Francis at the two-year mark: Early achievements and persistent obstacles

    Pope Francis’ pontificate hits the two-year mark this week, and it’s a delicate moment for his program of bureaucratic house-cleaning and pastoral revitalization. The pope has set new directions and new priorities, reflecting his vision of how the Vatican should operate and how the church should evangelize. I think he’s seen real success in several areas, but he’s also encountered serious obstacles.

    Here is a brief summary:

    -- Financial reforms at the Vatican. With the recent consolidation of the Secretariat for the Economy, the pope has put in place a system of financial safeguards that is unparalleled in Vatican history. His reforms have effectively cleaned out hidden accounts and rogue budgets, and thankfully lessened Italian influence over Vatican finances in general.

    But the fierce infighting over the Economy secretary, Cardinal George Pell, along with other turf battles that have simmered in the background, only illustrate that the culture of power struggles persists inside the Vatican walls. That culture is the real problem, and I see no sign that it is disappearing.

    -- Reform of Roman Curia offices. The planned streamlining of the Vatican bureaucracy is at least halfway to the finish line, and eventually we’ll see fewer agencies and greater coordination, especially among communication agencies. That’s all to the good.

    It’s equally clear, however, that the pope has no intention of challenging the “system” in the Roman Curia, by which I mean a network of powerful administrative departments, headed by cardinals, where decision-making is linked to clerical identity and lay people function in auxiliary roles.

    The pope has called several times for an attitude of service in the Curia, but it appears to me that few if any structural changes are being contemplated that would end careerism at the Vatican.

    -- The pope as a communicator. By speaking plainly and spontaneously, without the usual Vatican filters, Pope Francis has revolutionized papal communication and, I would argue, papal teaching. It’s not just that he’s willing to converse freely with journalists and visitors; he has made this kind of direct discourse, often in interviews and off-the-cuff sermons, a primary method of instructing the faithful.

    Spontaneity, however, has brought with it a wider margin for misspeaking and misinterpretation. And the wars of interpretation over the pope’s words are being fought, rather predictably, along familiar battle lines by conservative and liberal wings of the Catholic Church.

    -- “Synodality” and collegiality. By challenging the Synod of Bishops to have truly open discussions about a series of pastoral problems (including but not limited to divorced and remarried Catholics), I believe the pope is trying to tackle collegiality from the ground up – beginning with how bishops relate to each other. How the bishops might share greater responsibility with the pope in church governance and pastoral care is a related question, but one that so far has barely been posed.

    Keep in mind that the pope is caught in a bit of a paradox. There’s no doubt Pope Francis wants to govern more collegially and involve the bishops in any major pastoral changes. But he’s working with a generally conservative hierarchy put in place by his two predecessors. For many of them, the very topics that need a fresh pastoral approach are considered “off limits.” In other words, the pope’s own pastoral initiatives may not survive the collegiality test today.

    -- Papal popularity. We read last week that Pope Francis’ popularity rating in the United States is 90 percent. Global media interest also remains sky high. There is much applause for the pope’s willingness to tackle social and environmental issues like climate change, and for his more recent statements that Catholic morality and theology are pointless without mercy and without direct contact with suffering humanity.

    For many, these words are a welcome change from the doctrinal litmus-test approach of recent decades. But have the pope’s words been translated into energy and engagement in local parishes around the world? Because that’s what Francis has in mind. If the net result is merely a collective “like”, then that’s not good enough for him.

    In some ways, energizing Catholics remains the biggest challenge facing Pope Francis. And in that regard, here’s another paradox he’s dealing with: The pope said at the outset that he wanted to move the church away from self-referential debates and preoccupation with its own structures, and move it toward engagement with the world. Yet in his first two years, interest in his pontificate has been largely focused on these very things: structural reforms and pastoral policy debates.

    As the church looks ahead to the next two (and more) years of Pope Francis, here’s a thought to keep in mind, a “mission statement” expressed in the pope’s own document on evangelization, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”):

    I dream of a “missionary option,” that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself.

  • A papal call for mercy, and a warning against a 'closed caste' church

    Pope Francis today delivered an impassioned defense of what has become a leitmotif of his pontificate – the church of mercy that reaches out to the marginalized vs. the church of rules that closes itself into a “closed caste.”

    The pope’s homily was addressed to a group of new cardinals gathered for Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. But one had the impression that it was also aimed at in-house critics who have questioned some of Francis’ statements and who have warned against an over-emphasis on mercy at the expense of doctrinal truth.

    The pope said the Gospel account of Jesus’ curing of the leper was, in a sense, a model for how the church must operate with compassion to “reintegrate the marginalized” – including fallen-away Catholics – even when it provokes criticism.

    “Jesus does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized by any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity,” the pope said.

    The pope said the modern church, too, stands at a crossroads of two ways of thinking: “We can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost.” The thinking of the “doctors of law,” he said, would remove danger by casting out the sick or sinful person. But God’s way is to show mercy and accept this person, turning condemnation into salvation.

    That has always been the church’s way, too, he said. This means the church must “leave her four walls behind” and not only welcome people who knock at its doors, but also seek out those on the “outskirts” of life, including the sick, the suffering and the spiritually alienated. It also means “rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world,” he said.

    The pope told the cardinals: “Total openness to serving others is our hallmark, it alone is our title of honor!”

    He asked them to help make sure the modern church turns to the outcast, resisting the temptation to become “a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it.”

    They should see Jesus, he said, in everyone who is excluded – the sick, the imprisoned, the unemployed, the persecuted, and even in “those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith.”

    “Truly the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is found and revealed!” he said at the close of his remarks.

    The homily was a capsule version of the vision that inspires so many of Pope Francis’ actions to date, including his consideration of new policies for divorced and remarried Catholics, for example, or his efforts to make the Vatican bureaucracy more responsive to real-world problems.

    With most of the world’s cardinals in attendance, the pope made it clear that this vision of the church’s mission is not something he invented, but is rooted in the words and actions of Christ.

  • Pope Francis has found cardinals who share his vision of the church

    Most of the 20 new cardinals created today by Pope Francis never thought they’d be wearing the cardinal’s red hat. Most of them never wanted to be a cardinal.

    And that, perhaps, is the most important defining quality of the pope’s choices, as he shifts the College of Cardinals away from careerists and toward pastors who, as true shepherds, “live with the smell of the sheep.”

    Sure, geography is part of the pope’s plan. By choosing cardinals from such far-flung places as Tonga, Myanmar and Cape Verde, he is expanding the global mix in an institution that has been dominated for centuries by Europe.

    The pope is also choosing prelates from small dioceses, places that have never had a cardinal before. I think this is a deliberate move to end the perception that cardinals should be the most powerful church leaders from the most populous and “important” archdioceses.

    But what’s really striking about the new cardinals is that they seem to embody Pope Francis’ vision of the church as a merciful mother, a promoter of justice and a bearer of good news, directly involved in the lives of those who suffer. By most accounts, the pope’s choices are bishops who are close to their people.

    Uruguayan Archbishop Daniel Sturla Berhouet, for example, was doing pastoral work in the slums of Montevideo when he learned the pope had made him a cardinal. Reaching young people in the poorer barrios of the city, he said, is his top priority.

    Panamanian Bishop Jose Lacunza Maestrojuan of David, another of Francis’ choices, is a social activist who has helped mediate disputes over mining concessions on indigenous reserves. He has described his primary mission as “to work among the poor, with the poorest, that is, the indigenous people.”

    In Mexico, Archbishop Alberto Suarez Inda of Morelia said the example of Pope Francis has led him and other bishops to speak more forcefully on issues like drug violence and immigration.

    The first-ever cardinal from Cape Verde, Arlindo Gomes Furtad, has said the church needs to be a teacher with the heart of a mother, reaching out to broken families with “practical incentives and welcoming gestures.”

    In Italy, the pope skipped over larger dioceses like Turin and Venice when he named new cardinals. Instead, he chose Archbishop Edoardo Menichelli of Ancona, known for his pastoral energy, human warmth and lack of pretension, and Archbishop Francesco Montenegro of Agrigento, who has worked closely with the immigrant community in Italy.

    In selecting cardinals, it seems clear that Pope Francis has found a way to identify people who can keep their sense of self-importance in check. Lest there be any doubt, he wrote to the new cardinals and told them, “Keeping oneself humble in service is not easy if one views the cardinalate as an award, like the culmination of a career, a dignity of power or of superior distinction.”

    In his homily at today's consistory, the pope cautioned that church leaders are sometimes tempted by pride and self-centeredness, and by irritability with their people and their colleagues, or, even worse, by pent-up anger. The antidote, he said, is found in St. Paul’s words, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated.”

    The pope added something that no doubt resonated with the new batch of cardinals, on the link between love and justice: “Those called to the service of governance in the Church need to have a strong sense of justice, so that any form of injustice becomes unacceptable, even those which might bring gain to himself or to the Church.”

  • Don't look for laity in top Roman Curia positions under reform plans

    “Downsizing expectations.”

    That’s the title I’d give Father Federico Lombardi’s briefing today on the College of Cardinals’ meeting to discuss Roman Curia reform.

    For one thing, the cardinals were told it could take years to complete the reforms. An explicit comparison was made to Pope John Paul II’s modifications to the Roman Curia, which took 10 years to design and implement, with multiple stages of consultation and approval.

    I’m not sure Pope Francis has 10 years to dedicate to this project.

    The cardinals were also offered a vague outline of a proposal to combine six or seven pontifical councils into two new congregations, which are more important Curial agencies. The hypothesis, which has been floating around a while, would foresee a Congregation for Laity, Family and Life, and a Congregation for Charity, Justice and Peace.

    The latter congregation, Father Lombardi said, may have a special sector for environmental issues and “human ecology,” which are the focus of an encyclical that Pope Francis is expected to publish this year.

    But the Vatican spokesman illustrated the limits of change when he said it was “unthinkable” for any Vatican congregation – even one for laity – to be headed by a lay person. Because of the level of responsibility involved, that position will no doubt continue to be filled by a cardinal, he said.

    That tells me that whatever the pope’s advisors have in mind, Curia reform is not going to touch the fundamental clerical framework of decision-making in the Vatican.

    Nor is there serious discussion of adding a “moderator” office to the Roman Curia, a position responsible for coordinating the various activities of the Vatican’s many agencies. The role of moderator will probably be implicit in the role of the Secretariat of State, which would be no change at all.

    In this morning’s discussions, it appears that even relatively modest proposals like rolling some councils into congregations met with objections. Some said congregations had a traditional function in church governance, while councils did not.

    There were different points of view, as well, on whether term limits for Curia officials made sense. Some favored distinct terms, and others thought experience sometimes argued for open-ended terms.

    The cardinals only began to explore the concepts of collegiality and synodality, which the pope wants to strengthen in the way the Roman Curia functions. Those issues probably offer material for many years of further discussion.

    It seems to me that it may take some forceful leadership moves by Pope Francis to advance this reform movement beyond the “endless study” stage.

  • Pope opens cardinals' meeting, says he's determined to bring reform to Roman Curia

    Pope Francis delivered a brief but significant talk to open a two-day meeting of cardinals, convened for a progress report on Curia reform.

    At a time when the pace of the reform project is slowing and resistance has increased inside the Vatican, the pope underlined his “determination” to follow through on plans to streamline the Vatican bureaucracy, establish transparency and end the power struggles and careerism inside the Roman Curia.

    He reminded his audience that two years ago, in meetings ahead of the conclave that elected him, the majority of cardinals pushed strongly for these reforms.

    “The goal is to favor greater harmony in the work of the various agencies and offices, so that there is more efficient cooperation, carried out in that absolute transparency that builds true synodality and collegiality,” the pope said.

    “Certainly, to reach that goal is not easy. It requires time, determination and above all the cooperation of everyone,” he said.

    Pope Francis also underlined that merely structural reforms at the Vatican – which have been the focus of the work so far – are only a means to an end. That’s an important point: the pope wants to change the culture in the Curia, not just the office nameplates.

    The real purpose of these reforms, he said, is to better witness the Gospel (yes, even in Vatican affairs), to make evangelization more effective, to promote an ecumenical spirit and to “encourage a more constructive dialogue with all.” In short, he wants a simpler Vatican bureaucracy so that it can better keep the faith and spread the faith.

    He said that means “perfecting” the identity of the Roman Curia, which he described as helping the pope in his pastoral duties “for the good and for the service of the universal church and particular churches.”


  • As Curia reform moves (slowly) forward, Cardinal Muller weighs in

      Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman

    I’ve seen this week described as “crucial” for Pope Francis and his plans for Vatican reform, a “turning point” in his pontificate, a make-or-break moment for the Francis “revolution.”

    But so far, there have been no dramatic announcements and no final decisions, just a series of progress reports from an array of councils and commissions that seem to meet a few times a year.

    This doesn't mean important things aren’t happening. But they are happening at a slower pace than many would have foreseen two years ago.

    Pope Francis came out of the gate fast. Elected with a mandate to reform the Roman Curia and streamline Vatican structures, he quickly named a council of eight cardinals (now nine), established financial watchdog agencies and let it be known that his reforms would be deep, not superficial. Later he set up a child protection commission, another commission to revamp Vatican communications and brought in outside consultants to make recommendations on best practices.

    But Francis soon came face to face with an inconvenient reality: The Vatican operates in its own time zone, a dimension where you can check your watch and calendar at the door, and where change is always in slow-motion.

    When Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters that he hopes the statutes for the Secretariat for the Economy (instituted a year ago) will be ready soon, there was soft laughter in the room. The reporters know that, in Vatican time, “soon” can mean months or even years.

    Today, Lombardi was asked whether the College of Cardinals, when they meet Thursday and Friday, will be reviewing a draft for the new constitution of the Roman Curia. The answer was no.

    “We’re still in a phase of considering the outline of the structure of (Vatican) agencies. Considering that legal experts are being consulted when these texts are pulled together, it’s not going to happen in a very brief time,” the spokesman said.

    Yesterday, Lombardi referred to an interim report presented by the commission studying how to better coordinate the Vatican’s media structures. He underlined that it was too early, of course, to be looking for final proposals – the commission began its work only five months ago. But before that, there was a separate seven-month study of Vatican media by outside consultants.

    The Vatican’s child protection commission held a press conference this week, and its members sounded mildly optimistic about the progress they had made. But Peter Saunders, an abuse survivor and commission member, summed things up when he said: “I have learned that the church and the Vatican operate in a slightly different time dimension than the rest of us.” Given that reality, he said he was willing to allow the Vatican another year or two to take steps to make bishops accountable for covering up abuse cases.

    The line-up of important meetings at the Vatican this month has included the Council for the Economy, a 15-member panel of lay and clerical experts. They are trying to figure out how the Vatican’s new economic agencies will operate and coordinate their specific activities. One big task is to more clearly define the competencies and authority of the Secretariat for the Economy, headed by Australian Cardinal George Pell. This month’s meeting ended with no conclusions, at least none that were published. (Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, who is on the council, said after the meeting that the rollout of economic reforms has been met with some resistance, even by those who were "shouting the loudest" for the Vatican to clean up its act during the 2013 conclave.)

    In a sense, this is the “working out the details” phase following the bold steps announced by the pope. But it’s a phase that involves not only issues of efficiency and transparency, but also questions about the very nature of the Roman Curia.

    That was the subject of a very interesting article written by Cardinal Gerhard Muller and published a few days ago in the Vatican newspaper. Cardinal Muller, who heads the doctrinal congregation, said it was important that Pope Francis’ reform project be understood as a spiritual purification, and not as a rearranging of ecclesial power, influence and prestige.

    He strongly defended the traditional role of the Roman Curia, which he said helps the pope in a special way to exercise his primacy, reflecting the unique function of the “Roman Church” in the pastoral and doctrinal governance of popes.

    “The Synod of Bishops, bishops’ conferences and the various groupings of particular churches belong to a category that is theologically different from the Roman Curia,” he said.

    For that reason, Muller said, decentralizing the church’s administrative structures “does not mean giving more power to bishops' conferences.” As for the Synod of Bishops, he said, it does not really belong to the Roman Curia.

    “The Curia and the Synod are formally distinguished by the fact that the Roman Curia supports the pope in his service for unity, while the Synod of Bishops is an expression of the catholicity of the church,” he said.

    Cardinal Muller’s words seemed to sound a note of caution about Pope Francis’ idea of enhancing “synodality” in church governance. There has been talk, for example, about giving the Synod of Bishops more authority, or of making the pope’s “Council of Nine” a permanent advisory body that would give greater voice to the world’s bishops in papal decision-making.

    Muller’s article helps explain why the pope cannot rearrange the Vatican’s bureaucratic landscape overnight. Francis would face objections and resistance if reform is not done carefully, and with some level of consensus. There is an equal risk, however, of allowing time to slow the pope’s momentum and take the edge off reforms.

    I remember that when Pope John Paul II unveiled his reform of the Roman Curia, it turned out to be a rather disappointing touch-up rather than an upheaval. It was a project that took the Polish pope ten years – a flash in Vatican time.

  • 'Bishop of Bling' getting a job at the Vatican

                    Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst

    The Vatican has found a place for the “Bishop of Bling.”

    It’s still a bit of a mystery, with no official confirmation, but it seems that Pope Francis has agreed to make German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst the “delegate for catechesis” at the Pontifical Council for New Evangelization. It’s a new position, created just for him.

    Nearly a year ago, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Tebartz-van Elst as the bishop of Limburg, in the wake of a spending scandal. The bishop was remodeling his residence and a diocesan center to the tune of $40 million (his walk-in closets alone were said to have cost $480,000.)

    At that time, the Vatican said Tebartz-van Elst would eventually be given another assignment. His position at the new evangelization council will involve making contact with bishops’ conferences on issues involving religious education, which has been one of his areas of interest. In contrast to earlier reports, he will not be given an executive position at the council.

    It struck some as odd that a bishop forced to resign for financial mismanagement would land any job in the Roman Curia. All the more, in this case, because under the Curia restructuring plan being hammered out by papal commissions, the council for new evangelization may well disappear sometime next year.

    However, parking problematic bishops in the Curia is a bit of a Vatican tradition.

    After former Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo was removed from his Zambian diocese over faith-healing practices in 1983, he was brought to the Council for Migrants and Travelers as a special delegate. In 2011, Portuguese Bishop Carlo Azevedo ended up in a newly created position of delegate at the Pontifical Council for Culture, following disagreements with the patriarch of Lisbon.

    Bishop Tebartz-van Elst is only 55, and presumably has many years of service to the church ahead of him. Whether his time at the Vatican is rehabilitation or reward remains to be seen.

    One group wasted no time criticizing the appointment. SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said in a statement: “This is why corruption in the church hierarchy continues. And it’s why the supposed ‘new policies’ to deal with irresponsible bishops won’t work. Because virtually no wrongdoer is ever harshly disciplined. And even when a prelate’s misdeeds are so egregious that the Vatican must act, the ‘discipline’ is temporary.”

  • Pope's sex abuse commission zeroes in on bishop's accountability

        Sex abuse survivor Peter Saunders and Cardinal Sean O'Malley

    For months, I’ve heard mixed reviews of Pope Francis’ efforts to confront the sex abuse scandal in the church.

    The pope generally gets high marks for two initiatives – his meeting with abuse victims last summer and his establishment of a Vatican child protection commission to strengthen and coordinate anti-abuse policies worldwide.

    Critics, however, have pointed out that the commission, established late in 2013, is still getting organized and setting priorities. That makes its current three-day meeting in Rome especially important. People are waiting to see what concrete changes will emerge.

    On Saturday we got a glimpse of the commission’s agenda from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who heads the Vatican agency. Probably the most important disclosure was that the commission is drawing up recommendations for sanctioning bishops who have covered up abuse cases.

    To date, bishops’ accountability has been the missing element in the Vatican’s approach to the scandals. While Pope Francis has investigated and, in a couple of cases, removed bishops, there is no systematic procedure for discipline or dismissal when reporting guidelines are not followed.

    The assumption has always been that only the pope can “fire” a bishop – and that it’s almost impossible for the pope to follow details in every diocese. But the commission appears to be looking at a new way to bridge that gap.

    Cardinal O’Malley said a specific working group that includes canon lawyers is drawing up “policies that would allow the church to respond in an expeditious way when the bishop has not fulfilled his obligations.” He said work on the recommendations is nearly complete, and that they would be presented to the pope and “hopefully implemented.”

    “We think we have come up with some very practical recommendations that would help to remedy the situation that is such a source of anxiety to everybody on the commission,” O’Malley said.

    “Obviously, there have to be consequences” for such bishops, O’Malley said. He declined to say specifically what sanctions the commission had in mind.

    Marie Collins, an Irish survivor of clerical sexual abuse who is also on the commission, said she considers the accountability issue crucial. If the commission’s recommendations are followed, she said, she felt confident that they would resolve the problem.

    “You have to have sanctions (for bishops), or it’s a waste of time,” she said.

    Asked about the fact that dismissal of a bishop is seen as only the pope’s prerogative, Collins said, “Currently, yes.” She said she could not elaborate at the present time.

    Cardinal O’Malley outlined several other initiatives by the commission and its various working groups:

    -- Each bishops’ conference around the world will be asked to name a contact person who will keep open a line of communication with the commission.

    -- The commission will work with the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation to suggest “best practices,” especially to bishops’ conferences, and will also present methods for measuring compliance. O’Malley said that only a small minority of bishops’ conferences, about 4 percent, have failed to draw up sex abuse guidelines, as requested by the Vatican in 2011. But he added that some of the guidelines that have been devised were too weak.

    -- The commission is developing educational seminars on sexual abuse for Roman Curia officials and new bishops who come to Rome for orientation.

    -- A church-wide Day of Prayer for all those harmed by sexual abuse is being prepared, to aid spiritual healing.

    -- The commission is asking Catholic funding organizations to include child protection in the guidelines for eligibility for funding, and to award grants to countries that lack resources to deal with sexual abuse.

    -- One of the commission’s working groups is reaching out systematically to survivors and survivor groups, so they can participate in the overall work of the commission. One commission member said it was proposed to request cooperation from U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, a group that has been sharply critical of the pope, the Vatican and local dioceses on the sex abuse issue.

    Beyond the details of commission projects, what was striking about the Vatican press conference was the change in attitude, compared to years past. When the sex abuse scandal exploded in 2002, Vatican officials were often defensive and dismissive, suggesting that the problem was being blown out of proportion by lawyers and the media.

    At Saturday’s meeting with the press, the Vatican went out of its way to make commission members available to reporters, including the two victim survivors serving on the panel, who spoke bluntly about church failures.

    Peter Saunders, a British survivor who was abused by two priests and others for five years, was outspoken in his call for bishops’ accountability, saying there had been “an abysmal record of so many ill-judged responses by priests and dioceses around the world.”

    Saunders said the commission was also looking at how experts can study the deeper causes of sexual abuse. He said one factor that should be studied is priestly celibacy, although he made clear that he did not think celibacy led to abuse.

    “In my version of the Bible, Jesus never said, ‘If you want to follow me, you have to be celibate,’” Saunders said.

  • Pope Francis: Church urgently needs to offer space to women

    Evidently, Pope Francis does not share Cardinal Raymond Burke’s concern about an overly “feminized” church.

    Addressing a Vatican conference on women today, the pope said there was an urgent need to offer space to women in the life of the church, taking into consideration the “changed cultural and social sensibilities.”

    “It is desirable, therefore, for a feminine presence that is more capillary and incisive in the community, so that we can see many women involved in pastoral responsibilities, in accompaniment of individuals, families and groups, as well as in theological reflection,” he said.

    Not surprisingly, the pope made no mention of women priests. He has previously said the door is closed to that possibility.

    Cardinal Burke made headlines a month ago when he said that Catholic parish and liturgical activities had become so influenced by women and so feminine that “men do not want to get involved.”

    Pope Francis said it was important for women to be full participants in church and social life, and not just feel like guests.

    He offered a special thanks to the many women who work with families, in religious education and other pastoral programs, and in social and economic services.

    “You women know how to embody the tender face of God, his mercy, which is translated more by a willingness to give one’s time than to occupy spaces, to welcome rather than to exclude,” he said.

    The pope said society, at least in the West, had wisely moved away from seeing women as subordinate to men. At the same time, he said, it was a mistake to try to impose a model of “absolute equivalence” between men and women. He said the proper relationship is an equality that recognizes and appreciates the differences between the sexes.

    The pope also condemned violence against women, saying the female body was often attacked and disfigured, even by those who ought to be “guardians and life companions.” Domestic violence was a topic of discussion at the meeting, which was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture.

    “The many forms of slavery, commercialization and mutilation of the woman’s body challenge us to work to defeat this form of degradation that reduces it to a pure object to be sold off on various markets,” the pope said.

    He offered a special thought for the many women living in poverty and on the margins of society, in conditions of risk and exploitation.

  • Pope Francis asks bishops for their 'complete cooperation' with Vatican sex abuse commission

    Pope Francis has written to the world’s bishops and the heads of religious orders, urging them to take “whatever steps are necessary” to protect children from sexual abuse by clerics and provide psychological and spiritual assistance to victims.

    Families need to know the church is “making every effort to protect their children,” the pope said.

    “Consequently, priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal, since there is absolutely no place in ministry for those who abuse children,” he said.

    The letter was released Thursday at the Vatican, the day before the start of a three-day meeting of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors, which the pope established in 2013. The pope recently added new members to the commission, which includes two sex abuse victims.

    Francis asked bishops and religious superiors to give their full cooperation with the Vatican commission, especially in exchanging best practices and developing programs of education, training and response to sexual abuse.

    He also insisted on full compliance with a 2011 Vatican document that called on bishops’ conferences around the world to draw up guidelines for handling sexual abuse of minors by clerics. Once norms are established, he added, the conferences should establish practical means to guarantee that they are being followed.

    The pope said his meeting with sex abuse victims at the Vatican last summer had deeply moved him and left him even more convinced that “everything possible must be done to rid the church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused.”

    He called specifically on bishops and superiors of religious orders to establish programs that provide psychological assistance and spiritual care to victims. He said pastors should be available to meet with victims and their loved ones.

    “Such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those who have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness,” he said.


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