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  • Pope denounces scandals … but which ones?

    Pope Francis today made a brief, impromptu request for people to forgive the “recent scandals both in Rome and in the Vatican.” The problem in interpreting his remarks was that there are several scandals to choose from.

    The gay official of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation who recently came out with his partner, saying the climate at his workplace was homophobic? Accusations of sexual impropriety made by a group of Catholics against priests and an official of the Carmelite religious order in Rome? The resignation of Rome’s leftist mayor, Ignazio Marino, following press reports that the pope was unhappy with the mayor’s action on a number of issues?

    The accusations of sexual abuse against a Vatican diplomat, who was found dead in his Vatican residence in late August before he could stand trial? Or this week’s leak of a “Letter of 13” cardinals to the pope, contesting the direction and methods of the current Synod of Bishops on the Family, which was followed by a series of confusing denials and clarifications?

    “Jesus is realistic and it is inevitable that scandals occur,” the pope said at the start of his general audience in St. Peter’s Square. “But woe to the person who causes scandal. Before I start this catechesis, I'd like to ask you for forgiveness, in the name of the church, for the scandals that have occurred both in Rome and in the Vatican in recent times.”

    Perhaps it’s likely that the pope had sexual abuse in mind. After his off-the-cuff remarks, he spoke in his regular audience talk about the place of children in the family. Every child trusts that he or she will be loved, the pope said, and “when that promise is broken, the result is a ‘scandal’ which Jesus condemns.”

    But beyond sexual abuse, there is growing concern at the Vatican over the multiplication of scandals and a return of the “Vatileaks” syndrome – a climate of revelations, suspicion and rumors of a “gay lobby” that helped convince Pope Benedict XVI to resign in 2013. The most notorious chapter, played out in 2012, was the systematic leaking of papal documents to an Italian journalist by Benedict’s butler.

    I wrote yesterday that the developments at the synod, in particular, were reminiscent of the final days of Pope Benedict’s pontificate. Today, in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, veteran Vatican analyst Massimo Franco suggested that the recent scandals were part of an attempt by opponents of Pope Francis to “recreate the climate of Vatileaks.”

    “It makes one think of an operation that’s been planned for some time, and which aims at delegitimizing not the synod but the two years of the Argentine pope,” Franco wrote. “It describes an episcopate in the grip of chaos and fratricidal conflicts, as if it were the Curial version of the Italian Parliament. It pushes everything back to the time of thirty months ago, as if during this time nothing or little had changed.”

    It was Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who first evoked the “Vatileaks” scandal. Mueller refused to confirm reports that he was one of the signatories of the letter critiquing some aspects of the synod, but he condemned the publication of a version of the text, saying: “The scandal is that a private letter to the pope has been published. It is a new Vatileaks.”


  • A ploy that will boomerang

    As the smoke clears, somewhat, over the “Letter of the 13” cardinals to Pope Francis regarding the Synod of Bishops, a couple of things stand out.

    First is that some synod participants – a small minority, it appears – don’t trust the synodal process as modified by Pope Francis to be fair or collegial. They chose to raise the issue in a private letter rather than on the floor of the synod; that set a political dynamic in motion, one that was easily exploited.

    Second, despite Pope Francis’ reform efforts at the Vatican, the culture of leaks, manipulation and power struggles is still very much alive in Rome. Indeed, at times this week the clock seemed to have turned back to the final days of Pope Benedict’s pontificate, when petty scandals and internal conflicts became such an embarrassment to the church.

    We still don’t know exactly what the letter said, but by most accounts it included objections to the process by which the synod’s conclusions will be expressed, specifically the role of a 10-member writing commission appointed by the pope. The suggestion that Francis cannot be trusted to select an unbiased editorial group and to guide the synod to an honest conclusion is rather astonishing.

    The letter also warned that a synod that was intended to reinforce the church’s teachings on the dignity of marriage and family could end up being dominated by the issue of Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

    Maybe Pope Francis does not believe that raising these issues is out of line. After all, he has said repeatedly that he wants to hear directly from those who disagree with him. And the pope, in fact, appeared to respond to the letter-writers in two ways: by having the synod’s secretary-general explain the procedural details more fully, and by saying himself that the synod would not change church doctrine on marriage, and was far from a single-issue discussion on divorced Catholics.

    The pope also pointedly cautioned against what he called a “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” by which I can only suppose he meant the eagerness to embrace the rumors that this synod has been “rigged” from the start.

    In effect, I think the pope neutralized these objections with his unexpected words to the synod, which came a day after the “Letter of the 13” was hand-delivered to him.

    And that’s precisely when the move to “leak” the letter – or a version of it – was made, clearly an attempt to make it look like the pope was facing an internal revolt. The wheels began falling off this maneuver almost immediately, when several cardinals denied having signed the letter and others said the content was mistakenly reported.

    Today, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said the leak was a “disruption” to the synod that was not intended by the signatories, and that a very positive atmosphere reigns at the synod.

    My reading of all this is that the ploy has backfired. I suspect most synod participants are not amused at this rather obvious attempt to pre-emptively discredit the synod’s outcome.

     

  • Yes, the church will survive an open discussion about the family

    There’s an awful lot of hand-wringing going on about the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which is only a few days into its second and final session.

    We’ve heard warnings that Pope Francis and his “mercy” agenda may be leading the church down the road to schism (over the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics), or confusion (over more welcoming language regarding gay people, cohabitating couples and others), or a “first-world vs. third-world” split, or some type of dangerous pastoral shift that was worked out before the bishops even arrived in Rome and which non-Italian speakers might not even understand when it comes time to approve or disapprove.

    We heard these concerns during last year’s synod session, too, and they have evidently persisted. I think that’s why Pope Francis has taken the floor and tried to reduce some of the hyperventilating that’s going on inside and outside the synod hall.

    He began by encouraging bishops to be open to the Holy Spirit, and not to view their meeting as some kind of Parliament. That the pope felt he had to say this speaks volumes about the kind of political posturing that’s been going on in recent months. One participant said the pope also asked the bishops not to give in to a “hermeneutic of conspiracy,” apparently responding to the murmured fears about this synod’s new methodology.

    The pope emphasized that the “deposit of faith” is not a “museum” but a living fountain that must have a connection to people’s lives. He said apostolic courage includes the courage to look critically at the “hardening of hearts” in the church that simply sends people further away from God.

    While insisting that the synod had never contemplated changing basic doctrine about the permanence of marriage, the pope said bishops need to show “evangelical humility.” That means “not pointing fingers at others in order to judge them, but extending them a hand in order to help them up, without ever feeling superior to them.” I think this plays into the pope’s exploration of how the church can restore full sacramental participation for divorced Catholics, among other things.

    Meanwhile, predictions that the synod would be muzzled (allegedly part of the “conspiracy” to shove through a prefabricated outcome) are proving untrue. Bishops are free to talk to reporters, and the Vatican is providing a daily “meet the press” with several bishops each day.

    The fact that these bishops sometimes disagree about important issues has already emerged in the press hall. That has prompted an “oh my God” reaction among some reporters, who apparently believe the church cannot survive an open discussion on these questions.

    I think that’s the kind of melodrama that Pope Francis is trying to move beyond. The tension between mercy and truth is not something this pope created, as readers of the Gospel will recognize.

    Francis believes, correctly I think, that unless the church changes its language and pastoral approach, it will continue to alienate many of the people it is trying to save. He knows this involves a difficult debate, among a hierarchy that was largely put in place by two popes who emphasized doctrinal identity.

    It’s far too early for predictions, but I’ll make some anyway: The synod will not derail, bishops will not pick up their briefcases and march out of the hall, the faithful will not be stunned and disoriented by the outcome. At the end of the month, I think we’ll see a final document that is largely positive about the many contributions given and sacrifices made by families today, recognizing that in the modern age the church needs to also work with “untraditional” families in ways that are more welcoming than judgmental.

    The pope has wisely structured this synod in a way that avoids up-and-down votes on specific final proposals. I think he probably realizes that reaching a consensus on issues like divorced and remarried Catholics, or replacing the “living in sin” language the church has used to define some relationships, will take more time. I expect some of these questions will be handed to commissions for quiet advancement in the months to come.


  • Opening synod, Pope Francis aims for balancing point

    Pope Francis tried to set the tone of the Synod of Bishops on the Family in his opening Mass today. It was a tone of balance between preaching truth and practicing mercy.

    The pope’s point was that the church can and must do both, that there is no contradiction between the church as a doctrinal teacher and the church as a pastoral “field hospital.”

    In one of his homily’s key passages, he first quoted Pope Benedict XVI in saying, “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality.” Then, explaining why the church must be a bridge and not a roadblock to people who fall, he quoted Pope John Paul II, who said that those who err must be “understood and loved.”

    By drawing on both his predecessors, I think Pope Francis was doing a little bridge-building himself, between the liberal and rigorist wings of the more than 270 bishops who will participate in the three-week long synod.

    Here is how the pope described the church’s mission in today’s world. On the one hand, truth:

    To carry out her mission in fidelity to her Master as a voice crying out in the desert, in defending faithful love and encouraging the many families which live married life as an experience which reveals of God’s love; in defending the sacredness of life, of every life; in defending the unity and indissolubility of the conjugal bond as a sign of God’s grace and of the human person’s ability to love seriously.

    And mercy:

    To carry out her mission in charity, not pointing a finger in judgment of others, but – faithful to her nature as a mother – conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy; to be a “field hospital” with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support; to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them to the wellspring of salvation.

    Not surprisingly, the pope did not focus on hot-button issues like divorce, gay marriage and cohabitation, topics that became lightning rods in last year’s synod debate. Instead, he emphasized the spiritual and material afflictions – including loneliness and selfishness – that are harming family life around the globe.

    Today we experience the paradox of a globalized world filled with luxurious mansions and skyscrapers, but a lessening of the warmth of homes and families; many ambitious plans and projects, but little time to enjoy them; many sophisticated means of entertainment, but a deep and growing interior emptiness; many pleasures, but few loves; many liberties, but little freedom.

    I think of the elderly, abandoned even by their loved ones and children; widows and widowers; the many men and women left by their spouses; all those who feel alone, misunderstood and unheard; migrants and refugees fleeing from war and persecution; and those many young people who are victims of the culture of consumerism, the culture of waste, the throwaway culture.

    In describing the contemporary culture, the pope seemed to strike some notes of criticism that sounded familiar to those (like me) who heard many such homilies from John Paul II and Benedict. Lasting and fruitful love, Pope Francis said, is “increasingly looked down upon, viewed as a quaint relic of the past.”

    “It would seem that the most advanced societies are the very ones which have the lowest birth-rates and the highest percentages of abortion, divorce, suicide, and social and environmental pollution.”

    I expect this is the kind of message we’ll hear from the synod, too. The more unsettled part of the debate, however, is pastoral language and practice regarding those who don’t align perfectly with church teaching, including Catholics who practice birth control, couples who live together outside of marriage, divorced and remarried Catholics, and gay couples.


  • On eve of synod, a Vatican official comes out as gay

    If the Vatican wanted to bury the question of homosexuality during the Synod of Bishops that begins tomorrow, those plans were upset today when a longtime official of the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation came out as gay.

    Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa did not come out quietly, either. He held a press conference (at which he hugged his partner), gave interviews and announced that a book on his experience is imminent.

    Saying he was “happy and proud” to be gay, Charamsa said his (soon to be former) workplace at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was homophobic and paranoid. He said he was asking Pope Francis to change the Catholic catechism, which calls homosexuality “disordered.”

    That gay priests work at the Vatican will come as no surprise to those who have read my book, “The Vatican Diaries.” But this kind of public revelation represents a real challenge to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude that reigns there.

    Keep in mind that for church officials, there are two kinds of public admission here. First is Charamsa’s sexual orientation. The second, and probably more serious in the eyes of the Vatican, is that the priest is in a sexual relationship, violating the promise of celibacy he made when he was ordained.

    Most objectionable of all, for the Vatican, was the publicity he sought out, with the expressed desire to influence the outcome of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which begins Sunday.

    A Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said there was no way Charamsa could continue in his position at the CDF. Lombardi saw it as a move to manipulate the synod.

    “The decision to make such a pointed statement on the eve of the opening of the synod appears very serious and irresponsible, since it aims to subject the synod assembly to undue media pressure,” the spokesman said.

    For his part, Charamsa said in an interview that he wanted the synod to take note: “I would like to tell the Synod that homosexual love is a kind of family love, a love that needs the family. Everyone – gays, lesbians and transsexuals included – foster in their hearts a desire for love and family.”

    The Synod of Bishops is discussing the family, and at its first session last fall homosexuality became one of the hot-button issues that quickly drew the attention of bishops and the media.

    This month’s session will feature a more controlled, point-by-point discussion of family issues, with less public reporting on the proceedings.

    Charamsa called Pope Francis “fantastic” for his emphasis on dialogue. The pope recently met with a former student who is gay, along with the man’s partner.

    The pope, however, has also made it clear that he opposes outside efforts to manipulate the debate during the Synod of Bishops.



  • Pope Francis and Kim Davis

    For those asking what I think about the pope's meeting with Kim Davis last week, I point them to this Tweet yesterday from Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, one of the pope's closest advisors in Rome:

     

    If a top papal advisor is saying Pope Francis was "exploited," that raises questions about the entire episode.

    Some may remember that Rebecca Kadaga was the Ugandan parliamentarian who pushed for that country's controversial anti-homosexuality bill. While in Rome in 2012, she was in a group that met with the pope -- an encounter that was billed by her supporters as a papal blessing for her cause. The Vatican later put out a statement saying that was not the case, that there was no implied papal approval of her actions or proposals.

     

     


  • At final U.S. Mass, pope preaches openness and tender mercies

    Pope Francis wound up his U.S. visit with a defense of the family as a place of “little miracles,” where gestures of compassion and tenderness often reflect true holiness.

    The pope also said the church needs to recognize that the Holy Spirit works in many settings and among many people, sometimes bypassing “officialdom and inner circles.”

    “To raise doubts about the working of the Spirit, to give the impression that it cannot take place in those who are not ‘part of our group’, who are not ‘like us’, is a dangerous temptation. Not only does it block conversion to the faith; it is a perversion of faith!” the pope said.

    The pope spoke at a Mass celebrated on a Philadelphia parkway before several hundred thousand people, the culmination of a church-sponsored World Meeting of Families.

    His homily made the point that family life is made up largely of small, tender gestures that are crucial in a world full of “new divisions, new forms of brokenness.”

    The pope recalled the words of Jesus, “Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded.”

    The pope added: “These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children.

    They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work.”

    The pope said people should ask themselves: “In my own home, do we shout or do we speak to each other in love and tenderness?”

    “That’s a good way of measuring our love,” he said.


  • Pope meets with abuse victims, promises accountability for those who failed to protect minors

    After meeting with five sex abuse victims in Philadelphia, Pope Francis told international bishops that the church owes them a debt of gratitude for bringing to light shameful crimes.

    "I am profoundly sorry. God weeps," the pope said of sexual abuse. He called abuse victims "true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy."

    The five were not all Catholic, and not all of them were victims of sexual abuse by priests. Some had been abused by a teacher or family member, the Vatican said. A spokesman later said that while previous such encounters had been with victims of abuse by clerics or other church personnel, this meeting had a "larger perspective."

    UPDATE: Here is the text of the pope's remarks after the encounter with victims:

    “I hold the stories and the suffering and the sorry of children who were sexually abused by priests deep in my heart. I remain overwhelmed with shame that men entrusted with the tender care of children violated these little ones and caused grievous harm.

    I am profoundly sorry. God weeps. The crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of children must no longer be held in secret. I pledge the zealous vigilance of the church to protect children and the promise of accountability for all.

    You survivors of abuse have yourselves become true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy. We humbly owe each one of you and your families our gratitude for your immense courage to shine the light of Christ on the evil of the sexual abuse of children.”

    Earlier this year, Pope Francis approved a system of reporting and judging bishops who fail to protect minors, including a Vatican tribunal to determine whether a bishop is guilty of “abuse of office.”

    The Vatican said the pope met with three women and two men who had been abused as minors. The pope met with each, expressing his own "pain and shame" at their suffering. 

    Here is the Vatican statement on the encounter:

    This morning between 8:00 and 9:00 am, at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, the Holy Father received some victims of sexual abuse by the clergy or by members of their families or their teachers. The group consisted of five adults - three women, two men - who have suffered abuse when they were minors. Each person was accompanied by a family member or support person.

    The group was accompanied by Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston and Chair of the commission set up by the Pope for the protection of minors; by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Most Reverend Charles Chaput and Bishop Fitzgerald, head of the Diocese of Philadelphia Office for the protection of minors.

    The Pope spoke with visitors, listening to their stories and offering them a few words together as a group and later listening to each one individually. He then prayed with them and expressed his solidarity in sharing their suffering, as well as his own pain and shame in especially in the case of injury caused them by clergy or church workers.

    Pope Francis reiterated the commitment of the Church so that all victims be heard and treated with justice; the guilty be punished and crimes of abuse be combated with an effective prevention program in the Church and in society. The Pope thanked the victims for their essential contribution to restore the truth and begin the journey of healing. The meeting lasted about half an hour and ended with the blessing of the Holy Father.

     

  • Pope to bishops: Families need our support, not complaints and criticism

    It’s become increasingly clear during his U.S. trip that Pope Francis is trying to get bishops on board in his quest for a church that is more merciful, less judgmental and closer to its people.

    That was the sub-theme at this morning’s encounter with international bishops attending the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

    The topic was the modern family, which usually prompts a litany of problems from church leaders. Pope Francis began his talk by stating that the “foremost pastoral challenge” facing the bishops is to recognize the family as a gift.

    “For all the obstacles we see before us, gratitude and appreciation should prevail over concerns and complaints,” he said.

    The pope did address the challenges facing families, in particular a “consumerism” mentality that has invaded even personal relationships – accumulating friends on social networks, for example. He also appeared to reference gay marriage when he noted “the unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary society, with their social, cultural – and now juridical – effects on family bonds.”

    But as pastors, he said, the response is not to condemn or exclude:

    Should we blame our young people for having grown up in this kind of society? Should we condemn them for living in this kind of a world? Should they hear their pastors saying that “it was all better back then”, “the world is falling apart and if things go on this way, who knows where we will end up?”

    No, I do not think that this is the way. As shepherds following in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, we are asked to seek out, to accompany, to lift up, to bind up the wounds of our time. To look at things realistically, with the eyes of one who feels called to action, to pastoral conversion. The world today demands this conversion on our part.

    That “conversion on our part” was a pretty remarkable comment. He went on to explain that it’s a mistake for the church to interpret contemporary culture as merely indifferent to marriage, or engaged in selfishness. And it’s wrong to assume young people are “hopelessly timid, weak or inconsistent.”

    “We must not fall into this trap,” he told the bishops.

    The pope then turned the argument around, saying it’s the church’s responsibility to “rebuild enthusiasm for marriage.”

    “We need to invest our energies not so much in explaining over and over the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family,” he said.

    And in a line that reflected the “actions vs. words” theme of his pontificate, he added: “A Christianity which ‘does’ little in practice, while incessantly ‘explaining’ its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced. I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle.”

    Shepherding, not talking, is what is required of bishops today, and they may need “infinite patience” in that process, he said.

    He closed his speech with a rather amazing request that bishops “become more and more like fathers and mothers, and less like people who have simply learned to live without a family.”

  • Pope throws away speech, talks from his heart to families

    If you want to see what Pope Francis' preaching and pasturing style is all about, watch this from the vigil Saturday night in Philadelphia:

     

     

     

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