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Before God and before men

Confronted by the serious and shameful situation that the Church in Ireland has been going through for all too many years, Benedict XVI made the decision to write a Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, a Letter which is unprecedented for its courage: an evangelical document to respond to an unheard-of obscuration of the light of the Gospel, which the Pope wanted to publish after having met the Irish Bishops whom he had summoned to Rome.

Declaring his profound concern, Benedict XVI affirmed his sharing of the sense of anxiety, dismay and betrayal experienced by many Catholics for the sinful and criminal acts and for the manner in which they were dealt with by the leaders of the Church in Ireland.

The bitterness and severity of the papal text evoke the lost letter which the Apostle Paul remembered having written to the Corinthians “with anguished heart and with many tears”, not to add to the sorrow in their community, but to sustain it with his love. Similarly, the Letter to the Catholics of Ireland was not written to conceal the wrong done – before God and before men – but primarily to look ahead. In the first place, so that the terrible offence of the abuses perpetrated on minors may be redressed according to justice and the Gospel.

To achieve this, Irish Catholics must think back to their great and often heroic Christian history of which in the last few decades the Church in Ireland has not been worthy, neglecting the patrimony of her tradition and misinterpreting the renewal desired by the Second Vatican Council.

In particular, the Church did not apply canon law, which is at the service of the Gospel and the human being, with disastrous consequences regarding admission to the priesthood and the formation of priests, and finally in covering up the failings to avoid scandal.

The lucid and severe diagnosis of the Letter is perfectly consistent with Cardinal Ratzinger's work over approximately 30 years, as summed up in his exclamation during the Via Crucis on 25 March 2005, just a few days before the death of John Paul II: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those in the priesthood, who should belong completely to Christ!”. It is also consistent with how much the Pope has achieved since the day of his Election, even for Ireland: on 28 October 2006 he had already urged the Bishops of Ireland “to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes”.

The Pope “humbly” addressed clear and touching words to those who have suffered abuse, declaring once again the shame and remorse, acknowledging that for some victims it is now “difficult even to enter the doors of a church”, but assuring them that they can be healed precisely by the wounds of Christ. He advised the young people to fix their gaze on Jesus, “because he will never betray your trust”. Trust that instead was betrayed by the offenders who will have to answer to God and to the courts. To them, and to the Bishops who failed to act, the Letter directs very severe words that are part of a process, which will be lengthy, of penitence and healing; with a gaze turned to the one Lord who can make all things new.

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