Pope Francis writes new letter encouraging priests during the fallout caused by the abuse crisis

Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican June 26, 2019.(CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-AUDIENCE-COMMUNITY June 26, 2019.

Pope Francis has written a letter to the more than 400,000 Catholic priests worldwide encouraging them during the tribulations from the sexual abuse crisis. The letter is meant to give priests, many of whom feel disheartened because of the horrendous crimes of abuse committed by a small percentage of their fellow priests, hope in these times of tribulation when they are so often blamed or treated with suspicion, distrust, contempt or ridicule.

The letter comes as a surprise. Last year, on Aug. 20, in the wake of the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick scandal, on the eve of his visit to Ireland, he wrote “A Letter to the People of God” in which he condemned outrightly the sexual and other abuses of minors by clergy as well as the failure of church leadership to take action and called for an effort by the entire church to deal with it. This year, he speaks directly to all priests because he is well aware and deeply concerned that in many countries, including the United States, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany and Chile, the morale of priests has suffered greatly because of the abuse scandal.

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The letter is meant to give priests, many of whom feel disheartened because of the horrendous crimes of abuse committed by a small percentage of their fellow priests, hope in these times of tribulation. 

He wrote this letter in Spanish during his July vacation without help from anyone in the Roman Curia, an informed source told America. He signed it Aug. 4, the 160th anniversary of the death of St. John Mary Vianney (1786-1859), popularly known as the Curé de Ars, who also lived through difficult times for the church in his homeland and was declared patron of parish priests by Pius XI. The Vatican released the letter this morning in various languages together with a synthesis and editorial comment. 

Francis addresses his letter to all those priests who have given their lives to Jesus and “are working in the trenches” exposed to countless difficulties, and says he wants to be close to them. “I want to say a word to each of you who, often without fanfare and at personal cost, amid weariness, infirmity and sorrow, carry out your mission of service to God and to your people,” he says. He tells them that “despite the hardships of the journey, you are writing the finest pages of the priestly life.”

Writing “as an older brother and a father,” he says he wants “to thank you in the name of the holy and faithful People of God for all that you do for them” and “to encourage you never to forget the words that the Lord spoke to us with great love on our ordination day: ‘I no longer call you servants…I call you friends.’”

The 5,000-word letter focuses on four themes: pain, gratitude, encouragement and praise.

On the first theme, pain, Francis addresses the abuse crisis in the church and says that in these last years “we have become more attentive to the cry, so often silent and suppressed of our brothers and sisters who were victims of the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience and sexual abuse on the part of ordained ministers.” He acknowledges that “this has been a time of great suffering in the lives of those who suffered such abuse, but also in the lives of their families and of the entire People of God.”

He assures priests everywhere that “we are firmly committed to carrying out the reforms needed to encourage from the outset a culture of pastoral care, so that the culture of abuse will have no room to develop, much less continue.” He also acknowledges that “this task is neither quick nor easy: it demands commitment on the part of all” as well as “conversion, transparency, sincerity and solidarity with victims.”

Pope Francis says that many priests around the world “have shared with me their outrage at what happened and their frustration that for all their hard work, they have to face the damage that was done, the suspicion and uncertainty to which it has given rise, and the doubts, fears and disheartenment felt by more than a few.” At the same time, he claims to have been “comforted” by “meetings with pastors who recognize and share the pain and suffering of the victims and of the People of God and have tried to find words and actions capable of inspiring hope.”

Francis addresses his letter to all those priests who have given their lives to Jesus and “are working in the trenches” exposed to countless difficulties.

He declares significantly that “without denying or dismissing the harm caused by some of our brothers, it would be unfair not to express our gratitude to all those priests who faithfully and generously spend their lives in the service of others.”

Pope Francis declares he is “convinced” that “to the extent that we remain faithful to God’s will, these present times of ecclesial purification will make us more joyful and humble, and prove, in the not distant future, very fruitful,” adding, “Let us not grow discouraged.”

In the second part of the letter, on gratitude, he tells priests everywhere, “I do not cease to give thanks to God for you.” He recalls that when they responded to God’s call, “the implications” of their “yes” then “were so momentous that often we find it hard to imagine all the goodness that it continues to produce.”

He tells them that “especially in times of trial, we need to return to those luminous moments when we experienced the Lord’s call to devote our lives to his service.” He reminds them that “amid trials, weakness and the consciousness of our limitations, the worst temptation of all is to keep brooding over our troubles for then we lose our perspective, our good judgement and our courage.” At such times, he says, “it is crucial to cherish the memory of the Lord’s presence in our lives and his merciful gaze, which inspired us to put our lives on the line for him and for his People. And to find the strength to persevere.”

Francis declares that “gratitude is a powerful weapon” and “only if we are able to contemplate and feel genuine gratitude for all those ways we have experienced God’s love, generosity, solidarity and trust, as well as his forgiveness, patience, forbearance and compassion, will we allow the Spirit to grant us the freshness that can renew (and not simply patch up) our life and mission.”

Francis thanks them “for your fidelity to the commitments you have made...for the joy with which you have offered your lives...for your witness of persistence and patient endurance in pastoral ministry” and “for celebrating the Eucharist each day and for being merciful shepherds in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”

He told them that “nothing is more necessary than this: accessibility, closeness, readiness to draw near to the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters.” Finally, he asked them to give thanks “for the holiness of the faithful People of God, whom we are called to shepherd and through whom the Lord also shepherds and cares for us.”

In the third part of his letter, Pope Francis offers “encouragement” to priests worldwide and tells them that “faced with painful experiences, all of us need to be comforted and encouraged.” He reminds them that “the mission to which we are called does not exempt us from suffering, pain and even misunderstanding. Rather, it requires us to face them squarely and to accept them, so that the Lord can transform them and conform us more closely to himself.”

The 5,000-word letter focuses on four themes: pain, gratitude, encouragement and praise.

He tells them that “one good way of testing our hearts as pastors is to ask how we confront suffering.” He says “we can often act like the levite or priest in the parable by stepping aside and ignoring the injured man” or “we can draw near in the wrong way, viewing situations in the abstract” or “yield to an uneasy fatalism.” But he declares that all this “ends up holding us back from confronting our own wounds, the wounds of others and consequently the wounds of Jesus himself.”

He puts them on guard against “sweet sorrow or sadness.” He describes this as “the most harmful for those of us who would serve the Lord, for it breeds discouragement, desolation and despair.” It comes from “disappointment with life, with the Church, or with ourselves,” and “can turn into a habit and lead us slowly to accept evil and injustice.” He describes this as “a sadness that stifles every effort at change and conversion by sowing resentment and hostility” and tells priests that “when that sweet sorrow threatens to take hold of our lives or our communities…let us together beg the Spirit to rouse us from our torpor, to free us from our inertia.”

Pope Francis again tells priests that “in times of difficulty, we all need God’s consolation and strength, as well as that of our brothers and sisters.” He tells them that “in our own lives, we see how with Christ, joy is constantly born anew” but he emphasizes that “that joy is not the fruit of our own thoughts or decisions, but of the confidence born of knowing the enduring truth of Jesus’ words to Peter: “I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail” (Lk22:32). He reminds them that “the Lord is the first to pray and fight for you and for me. And he invites us to enter fully into his own prayer.” He tells them that “in prayer we experience the blessed ‘insecurity’ which reminds us that we are disciples in need of the Lord’s help, and which frees us from the promethean tendency of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules.”

He reminds priests that “Jesus, more than anyone, is aware of our efforts and our accomplishments, our failures and our mistakes” and “he is the first to tell us: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” He counsels them to never neglect their relationship with Jesus, nor their relationship with the people entrusted to them.

In the final part of his letter, on “praise,” Pope Francis encourages priests to look to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who “teaches us the praise capable of lifting our gaze to the future and restoring hope to the present.” He confides that “whenever I visit a Marian shrine, I like to spend time looking at the Blessed Mother and letting her look at me. I pray for a childlike trust, the trust of the poor and simple who know that their mother is there, and that they have a place in her heart. And in looking at her, to hear once more, like the Indian Juan Diego: ‘“My youngest son, what is the matter? Do not let it disturb your heart. Am I not here, I who have the honor to be your mother?’”

Pope Francis concludes his letter by telling his brother priests: “‘I do not cease to give thanks for you’ (Eph1:16), for your commitment and your ministry. For I am confident that God takes away even the hardest stones against which our hopes and expectations crash: death, sin, fear, worldliness. Human history does not end before a tombstone, because today it encounters the ‘living stone’ (1 Pet 2:4), the risen Jesus. We, as Church, are built on him, and, even when we grow disheartened and tempted to judge everything in the light of our failures, he comes to make all things new.”

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Danny Collins
2 months 1 week ago

Unfortunately, Pope Francis has no credibility on this issue. He has promoted child molesters, tried to get them out of jail, and is one of the worst promoters of sexual and financial corruption that the Church has seen in hundreds of years. If people want to see proof of this, Pope Francis lies on camera in the Martin Boudot's documentary (on Amazon and other sources) "Sex Abuse in the Church: Code of Silence." He was introduced to the world by Danneels, a man caught on tape blaming a victim for his abuse in an attempt to bully him into not going to the police.

So, why should we believe anything Francis says now? Has he done anything to uncover the networks of morally corrupt men who promoted and protected Cardinal McCarrick when his sex abuse was an open secret? Of course, not. Even the editorial staff at America and James Martin himself admit to having known about McCarrick's abuse, but everyone wants to just sweep it under the rug. I can't go there anymore. In 2004 the Church asked Catholics to trust them that they would clean things up, but when they trotted out a child molester and known serial sex abuser to do the Sunday morning talk show circuit as spokesman, it was mostly for show and to cover-up the role the bishops played. If Pope Francis really wants us to believe him, he will order dioceses to release victims from secrecy agreements that they forced to sign if they wanted a settlement from the Church without a lengthy court trial. This was blackmail which allowed the networks of priest abusers to remain hidden. Victims need to be allowed to speak up about how this happened. Requiring silence as a condition of settlement is wrong.

arthur mccaffrey
2 months 1 week ago

So, the CEO has given a pep talk to the troops--reminding them that the laity are sheep whom they need to shepherd! Thanks a lot Francis! I would rather be shepherded by a wolf than many of my local priests. And why have many of these priests not resigned in protest at being associated with such a corrupt institution? That would have been the brave moral choice, instead of moaning about feeling "disheartened because of the horrendous crimes of abuse committed by a small percentage of fellow priests". Really? The revelations of abuse are almost weekly if not daily and we are not done yet. What have priests done to get their bosses to stop covering up and colluding in the crimes of their fellow criminals?
I am not sympathetic to the priests' complaints as articulated by Francis who , once again, seems to be trying to speak out of both sides of his mouth simultaneously. But then, who am I to judge?

Dan DeMatteis
2 months 1 week ago

What a moving letter! I am often overwhelmed by the pain, sorrow and remorse that the many priests who have given me comfort during difficult times and cared for me over the good and bad years are experiencing and repeatedly express in their heart-felt actions, sermons and prayers. We have all been deeply hurt, disheartened and feel betrayed by the sexual abuse crisis and we all need healing, as the spiritual says, for our "sin-sick" souls. Personally I feel compassion for the victims as well as their outrage for the violation of their innocence. The hierarchy's attempts to excuse or hide the hideous offense and protect the offender and the way many downplayed the pain and injury to the abused victims was sinful and shocking. And the feeling of betrayal and helplessness of the religious and all the people of God whose faith in and dedication to the Church that has nurtured them and been their home is devastating. God help us all! And thanks to Pope Francis for his words of encouragement and care.

Tatiana Durbak
2 months 1 week ago

I agree with those who are underwhelmed by this letter. I find it to be beyond disingenuous to portray the priests as any sort of victims in this crisis. This crisis was created and perpetuated by the clerical caste of the Church. It strains credulity to suggest that there was any priest who did not know of the fact that sexual abuse of children and of other clergy was occurring. Yet, almost to a man, they chose to deny and hide it, while protecting the perpetrators.
I know that this will not happen, but I would like the Pope to find the strength to acknowledge that the clerical caste must be taken apart and then, that there needs to be a new way for the Church to move forward.

sheila gray
2 months 1 week ago

I feel the same way, Tatiana. Survivors are being triggered everyday by new clergy abuse revelations here in the US, and the Pope takes time to praise priests? For every abuser, at least ten other clergy members “heard stories” for years that they didn’t follow up on, or simply ignored. Sorry, no one is innocent. Not to mention all the suspicious family members of victims who never said a word...!

PAUL KENDRICK
2 months 1 week ago

Wouldn’t you think that everything about a priest’s ministry would instinctively call them to bring aid and comfort to the victims?

David Power
2 months 1 week ago

I met cardinal bergoglio in 2009 and had a chat with him for thirty minutes, I thought him a nice man.
I asked him what the biggest danger facing the church was and he said "laicism"

I did not know what he meant at the time.
I am troubled by his incorrigible clericalism now , I thought it would decline with each papacy but it is not proving to be so
For the next Pope I am hoping for a thrice divorced father of ten

sheila gray
2 months 1 week ago

Fascinating. And thanks for making me laugh at the end.

David Power
2 months 1 week ago

The self love of priests is their most salient trait today.
They might fail to mention that a colleague has been errant with young children but will never fail to recall his heroic acts for the community.
It reminds me of the comment on Thomas merton he could only live in a hermitage if it had a neon sign that had "hermitage " written over it.
The celibacy nonsense has deformed the church ,lead to a massively impoverished clergy and reduced the intellectual profile of the clergy by many IQ points .
The fact that a virile man can both love a woman and jesus should no longer scandalize , the calibre of priest will continue to drop until all catholic men are given the chance to serve the lord and not only those who are not that interested in women as Ratzinger said

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.]

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