By Gerard O’Connell
Vatican City, August 4, 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 August 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.
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 August 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.
Pope 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.”
Pope 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.”
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.”]