“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it”: beginning with Saint Paul, the Pope writes a dramatic and unprecedented “Letter to the People of God”. In this way he extends to the entire Church a profound reflection on the tragedy of abuse, because, he emphasizes, “the only way that we have to respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God”.
It is obvious that in this dramatic situation condemnations and punishments are not enough, even if they are indispensable. And it is not enough to circumscribe the responsibility within the clergy: it requires an in-depth analysis in order to understand the origin of this profound evil and to eradicate it. For this reason, as Pope Francis indicates, all believers must be involved. In many cases they have been victims, but in others, in certain ways and to various degrees, they have also been complicit.
The modalities of abuse reveal very serious crimes: the priesthood exchanged for a role of power to be exercised over others, the hypocritical cover-up of such conduct as standard practice for the ‘good of the Church’. Essentially, an attitude which negates every word spoken by Jesus, as the Pontiff decries, citing the Magnificat.
But with this Letter, Pope Bergoglio also seeks to broaden the gaze of the laity who have been steadfast and silent for so long. And many ask themselves: why did the faithful accept being silent even when they were aware? Why did they continue to close their eyes without defending the victims? They are questions, for example, that Isabelle de Gaulmyn asks in a book about the sexual abuse in Lyon, of which she herself, as a young scout, was a witness, and for which, in a certain sense, she feels somewhat complicit. Indeed the laity too have preferred to accept these situations in a context from which they could extract favours and secular aid, rather than run the risk of a battle that could see them defeated by the power structures perceived as threatening.
In fact in these cases, even some faithful did not believe in the Gospel and preferred feeble acquiescence rather than helping their Church, that community in which, by virtue of baptismal priesthood, they participate precisely as clergy. Even some faithful likewise fell asleep and closed their eyes, as if this situation were none of their business, confirming the worst clericalism with this approach.
Because clericalism, the Pope states in his Letter, is precisely this: thinking that the Church is only represented by priests, constituted in a hierarchy of power, and is not a supportive community of believers, witnesses to the Gospel. Instead, the Pontiff says, “such solidarity demands that we in turn condemn whatever endangers the integrity of any person”, because “every one of the baptized should feel involved in the ecclesial and social change that we so greatly need”. For this very reason, Pope Francis observes, and not for the first time, that “to say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism”.
In this text, which goes to the spiritual root of the crisis, the Pontiff asks us all, as the unique and wounded body of the Church, for penance and prayer, and proposes “fasting that can make us hunger and thirst for justice and impel us to walk in the truth, supporting all the judicial measures that may be necessary. A fasting that shakes us up and leads us to be committed in truth and charity with all men and women of good will, and with society in general, to combatting all forms of the abuse of power, sexual abuse and the abuse of conscience”. It is thus impossible to imagine a true conversion in the Church, the Pope says, “without the active participation of all the Church’s members”.
St. Peter’s Square
Nov. 19, 2018
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