Pope Francis urges a transfigured church in Chile as harm from abuse crisis persists

Pope Francis meets with priests, religious and seminarians at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Santiago, Chile, Jan. 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) Pope Francis meets with priests, religious and seminarians at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Santiago, Chile, Jan. 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In a profoundly spiritual talk on Jan. 16 at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago during the first full day of his visit to Chile, Pope Francis urged hundreds of priests, religious and seminarians to embrace a transfigured church, leaving behind a church disheartened by the sexual abuse crisis and restoring a church able to speak and walk with the people of Chile.

The pope sought to address the demoralization and disorientation many church workers, priests and religious feel because of the abuse scandal in Chile. His aim was to encourage his audience to reflect on their experience, re-discover their original vocation and renew their commitment to it.

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He told them that St. Peter “learned from Jesus that his wounds could be a path of resurrection. To know both Peter disheartened and Peter transfigured is an invitation to pass from being a church of the unhappy and disheartened to a church that serves all those people who are unhappy and disheartened in our midst. A church capable of serving her Lord in those who are hungry, imprisoned, thirsting, homeless, naked and infirm.”

An informed Vatican source told America that the pope’s words were directed not only at those present in the cathedral but were meant for all the 2,283 diocesan and religious priests as well as the 4,006 professed religious in this majority Catholic country of almost 18 million people.

Francis' words were delivered amid unprecedented opposition to his visit: Three more churches were torched overnight, including one burned to the ground in the southern Araucania region where Francis celebrates Mass on Wednesday. Police used tear gas and water cannons to break up an anti-pope protest outside Francis' big open-air Mass in the capital, Santiago.

Francis focused for the second time today during his visit to Chile on the abuse scandal that has rocked the Chilean church. “I know the pain resulting from cases of abuse of minors, and I am attentive to what you are doing to respond to this great and painful evil,” he said.

Despite the incidents, huge numbers of Chileans turned out to see the pope on his first full day in Chile, including an estimated 400,000 for his Mass, and he brought some inmates to tears with an emotional visit to a women's prison.

Francis’ talk at the cathedral centered around three moments in the life of St. Peter and the first Christian community: “Peter and the community disheartened, Peter and the community shown mercy and Peter and the community transfigured.”

Pope Francis said he wanted to “play” with this pairing of Peter and the community “since the life of apostles always has this twofold dimension, the personal and the communitarian. They go hand-in-hand and we cannot separate them.”

“We are called individually but always as part of a larger group,” he said. “Where vocation is concerned, there is no such thing as a selfie! Vocation demands that somebody else take your picture, and that is what we are about to do!”

Francis began to take the photo by speaking of how disheartened Peter and the Christian community were after the death of Jesus, and then referred to the situation of the church in Chile. He cited the welcome address at the beginning of this meeting in the cathedral when the cardinal-archbishop of Santiago, Ricardo Ezzati, said, “The priesthood and consecrated life in Chile have endured and continue to endure difficult times of significant upheavals and challenges. Side by side with the fidelity of the immense majority, there have sprung up weeds of evil and their aftermath of scandal and desertion.”

Francis focused for the second time today during his visit to Chile on the abuse scandal that has rocked the Chilean church. But he did so in a different way to what he had done at La Moneda palace this morning. “I know the pain resulting from cases of abuse of minors, and I am attentive to what you are doing to respond to this great and painful evil,” he told them.

It is “painful” too, he said, “because of the harm and sufferings of the victims and their families, who saw the trust they had placed in the church’s ministers betrayed.”

“Where vocation is concerned, there is no such thing as a selfie! Vocation demands that somebody else take your picture, and that is what we are about to do!”

At the cathedral Pope Francis told his audience of priests and religious that he recognized that the crisis is “also painful for you, brothers and sisters, who, after working so hard, have seen the harm that has led to suspicion and questioning; in some or many of you this has been a source of doubt, fear or a lack of confidence.”

“I know that at times you have been insulted in the metro or walking on the street and that by going around in clerical attire in many places you pay a heavy price.”

For this reason, the pope said, “I suggest that we ask God to grant us the clear-sightedness to call reality by its name, the strength to seek forgiveness and the ability to listen to what he tells us.”

He added, “Our societies are changing. New and different cultural expressions are being born which do not fit into our familiar patterns. We have to realize that many times we do not know how to deal with these new situations.”

He counseled against the temptation to become closed, “isolating ourselves and defending our ways of seeing things, which then turn out as nothing more than fine monologues.” He warned against the temptation “to think that everything is wrong.”

Succumbing to that belief, he said, “we shut our eyes to the pastoral challenges, thinking that the Spirit has nothing to say about them” and “in this way, we forget that the Gospel is a journey of conversion, not just for ‘others’ but for ourselves as well.”

The Jesuit pope, like a retreat master, reflected on the second moment in the life of Peter and the first Christian community, “the hour of truth” when Peter had to confront “his limitation, his frailty and his sinfulness” and recognize that “he was a sinner like everyone else.”

"As disciples, as church...there are moments when we have to face not our success but our weakness. Crucial moments in the life of a disciple, but also the times when an apostle is born.”

Francis told them that “as disciples, as church, we can have the same experience: there are moments when we have to face not our success but our weakness. Crucial moments in the life of a disciple, but also the times when an apostle is born.”

He recalled that the Risen Jesus, after taking breakfast with Peter and the other disciples, took Peter aside “and his only words are a question: Do you love me?”

He noted that “Jesus neither reproaches nor condemns. The only thing that he wants to do is to save Peter.” He wants to save him from “the danger of remaining closed in on his sin, the danger of giving up, because of that frailty. He wants to save him from the destructive attitude of becoming a victim or of thinking ‘what does it matter,’ which waters down any commitment. He wants to set him free from seeing his opponents as enemies and being upset by opposition and criticism. He wants to free him from being downcast and, above all, negative.”

He recalled that “Jesus questioned Peter about love and kept asking until Peter could give him a realistic response: ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’” In this way, he said, “Jesus confirms him in his mission.”

Like Peter, the pope said, “we are apostles because of one thing only: that we “received mercy.” Francis reminded them that “we are not here because we are better than others; we are not superheroes who stoop down from the heights to encounter mere mortals. Rather, we are sent as men and women conscious of having been forgiven. That is the source of our joy.”

“Jesus Christ does not appear to his disciples without his wounds,” the pope said, and “we are not asked to ignore or hide our wounds.” Indeed, he said, “A church with wounds can understand the wounds of today’s world and make them her own, suffering with them, accompanying them and seeking to heal them. A wounded church does not make herself the center of things, does not believe that she is perfect, but puts at the center the one who can heal those wounds, whose name is Jesus.”

Francis said, “God’s people neither expect nor need us to be superheroes. They expect pastors, consecrated persons, who know what it is to be compassionate, who can give a helping hand, who can spend time with those who have fallen and, like Jesus, help them to break out of that endless remorse that poisons the soul.”

Then turning to the third moment in the life of Peter and the first community, Francis recalled that “Jesus asks Peter to discern and events in Peter’s life then begin to come together, like the prophetic gesture of the washing of feet. Peter, who resisted having his feet washed, now begins to understand that true greatness comes from being lowly and a servant.”

He added, “The prophetic gesture of Jesus points to the prophetic church that, washed of her sin, is unafraid to go out to serve a wounded humanity.”

It is likely that the abuse crisis will continue to be a theme during the remainder of the pope's visit to Chile.

“Sex abuse is Pope Francis’ weakest spot in terms of his credibility,” said Massimo Faggioli, a Vatican expert and theology professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia. “It is surprising that the pope and his entourage don't understand that they need to be more forthcoming on this issue.”

Anne Barrett Doyle of the online abuse database, BishopAccountability.org, praised Francis for opening his visit with the apology, but said Chileans expect him to take action against complicit church leaders. “This is a crucial opportunity for Francis. With luck, he will not make the mistake of his brother bishops in underestimating the savviness and moral outrage of the Chilean people,” said Barrett Doyle, who last week released research showing nearly 80 Chilean priests have been credibly accused or convicted of abuse.

The article includes reporting from the Associated Press.

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