PETER DAY. An Open Letter to Pope Francis

Dear Papa Francesco,

The Australian Catholic Church is in deep crisis and is in urgent need of your pastoral presence and leadership.

Today, the former President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, archbishop Phillip Wilson, was formally charged with covering-up child sexual abuse; while Cardinal George Pell has himself be charged with sexual abuse and will face trial later this year.

Indeed, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has uncovered extraordinary crimes against humanity – and on an unimaginable scale. Between the years 1950-2010, for instance, as many as 7% of diocesan priests have been implicated in the abuse of children, while the statistics regarding non-ordained religious are nothing short of catastrophic:

  • 40-4 percent — St John of God Brothers
  • 22.0 percent — Christian Brothers
  • 21.9 percent — Salesians of Don Bosco
  • 20.4 percent — Marist Brothers
  • 13.8 percent — De La Salle Brothers
  • 12.4 percent –Patrician Brothers
  • 4.8 percent — Society of Jesus

The people of God are bereft, angry, scandalised, and in shock – and so are we priests.

Your presence would not only be of great comfort to them, but far more importantly, it would be a powerful and momentous gesture of mercy to those innocent children and their families crippled by the betrayal of the Catholic Church.

I should like to add; such a visit would also help counter the widespread and, in many instances, justifiable perception among the People of God that the church’s leaders just don’t get it; that they are more interested in protecting the institution than tending the wounds of our most vulnerable.

It has become is abundantly clear, Papa Francesco: the ordained hierarchy of the Catholic Church needs to divest itself of power – that insidious drug that has taken it to the precipice – and share it more substantially with the body of the Church in governance, strategic decision making, financial supervisions, and selection of office holders. The simple fact is that the Catholic Church is trapped in an administrative prison that may have been developed long ago to correct abuses of former ages. But today, it is inflicting its own abuse on the capacity of the church to do its job – preach the Gospel in word and deed.

I humbly ask, then, that you consider a pastoral visit to Australia as soon as is convenient and that, on an international scale, you consider:

  1. Hosting a worldwide gathering of Church leaders to specifically address this crisis.       What a message such a universal gathering would send to our children, our people, our world: “Your lives, your dignity, your sanctity deserve nothing less than a concerted global focus and response; whatever the cost.”
  2. Convening the 22nd Ecumenical Council of the Church in which the ‘hired men’ culture is called to account, victims are afforded a voice, and a collective wisdom is given room to breathe and act. As it stands, we are tending to be defined by our collective silence, obfuscation, and inertia.

In essence, Papa Francesco, the Catholic Church is in great need of inner conversion.

Your former confrère, Pedro Arrupe sj, offers a good starting point – and I paraphrase:

There is nothing more important than falling totally and utterly in love with God. Love determines everything we do. It determines why we get out of bed, what we do with our day, and how we spend our evenings. Fall in love. Be in love. Stay in love.

Indeed, when one is in love, one is drawn to those places in which the beloved is to be found: I want to be where they are; what’s important to them is important to me; I’ll risk and leave everything behind for them.

A church that professes Jesus to be its first love must hasten to the ‘margins and befriend the poorest and learn from them’ (Jean Vanier).

This is our most natural habitat because it is His.

A church that professes Jesus’ leadership as its cornerstone must humbly kneel at the foot of humanity and serve it.

This is our most natural disposition because it is His.

As you have said in so many different ways: the church should look like a ‘field hospital’ serviced by disciples with bedpans and towels. 

If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet.  I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you’. (John 13: 13-15)

That our institution has lost sight of this is of great concern to many Catholics – and so it must be.

As you know, better than most, a tremendous struggle lies ahead because those in the thrall of power do not easily give up the privileges it bestows. In our clamour for ‘honour at banquets and the most important seats at churches’, we have forgotten our place. And what is our place? No one has said it better than John the Baptist: ‘In order for Christ to increase, I must decrease.’

We are the towel people,
Soothers, cleansers, healers
Of feet tired and sore and cut from the journey. 

Christ’s sent people,
Wiping away the dirt and blood and spittle
Of the world’s hatred spewed onto the faces of the weak. 

On our knees before others –
And in homage to them,
for Christ is there.

(Anonymous)                                                        

In the end, Jesus Christ, who, himself, experienced abuse and humiliation at the hands of religious leaders, has left us an eternal and living legacy; a profound responsibility: to walk humbly and gently alongside others, especially the most vulnerable, whatever the cost.

“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  (John 10:11)

May the Peace of Christ be with you.

Yours faithfully,

Fr Peter Day
HOME in Queanbeyan
NSW AUSTRALIA

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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