By Christopher Wells
Pope Francis reflected on his weeklong visit to Chile and Peru, speaking with reporters during the thirteen hour flight back to Rome from the Peruvian capital of Lima. He said he was touched by the warmth of the people he met, and described their faith as “unbelievable.”
There were many emotional moments throughout the trip, he said, noting first the final Mass at Lima’s Las Palmas Air Base, where more than one million, three hundred thousand faithful were present. He said he was similarly impressed by the affection expressed by the people of Chile.
In particular, the Holy Father said he was especially moved by his visit to the women’s prison in Santiago. “Seeing these women,” he said, “the ability to change their lives, to return to society with the power of the Gospel, moved me very much.” He also mentioned his meeting in Puerto Maldonado, in the Amazonian rain forest; and the encounter with young girls and boys in the “Little Prince” Children’s home in Peru.
However, the eagerly awaited in-flight press conference was dominated by questions about the Pope remarks in Chile on the case of Bishop Juan Barros, who has been accused of personally witnessing sexual abuse by a popular Chilean priest. The Holy Father has consistently supported the Bishop, saying he has seen no evidence to substantiate the accusations.
Responding to reporters’ questions, Pope Francis acknowledged that some of his remarks had “wounded” survivors of abuse. “I ask pardon if I have hurt them without realizing it,” he said, insisting that this was not his intention. He also admitted that the words he had used were unfortunate, but said the Bishop in question would remain in place – because, as he said, “I cannot condemn him if I do not have evidence.”
Pope Francis said he had seen the statement issued by Cardinal Sean O’Malley about the pain his words had caused, and thanked the American prelate for that statement – which the Pope said “was very just.” Cardinal O’Malley’s statement, he said, “spoke about all I have done and am doing, and what the Church is doing, and then spoke about the pain of the victims, not of this case, but in general.”
Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors
The Holy Father was also asked about the status of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection, which was headed by Cardinal O’Malley. The Commission’s mandate expired in December of 2017 and has not yet been renewed, and the Pope was asked if that meant that the protection of minors was no longer considered a priority. Interrupting the question, Pope Francis said that, as with Benedict XVI before him, the official line he has taken remains “zero tolerance.” He said he appreciates the work the commission has done so far, and that that work will continue; currently the renewal of membership on the commission is ongoing, but needs time to be completed.
Reporters also asked about the unprecedented marriage the Pope presided over on a flight during his time his time in Chile. The Pope explained, “I questioned them a little bit, and their answers were clear – ‘for their whole lives’ – ‘And how do you know these things? [I asked.] Do you have a good memory?’ ‘No, no’ [they answered] we did the pre-matrimonial course.” He said the couple was prepared, and they asked him to celebrate their marriage. In his anser, the Pope noted that the sacraments are for human beings, alluding to the famous saying of Jesus, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” “All the conditions were clear,” Pope Francis continued, “And so why not do what can be done today, without putting it off ’til tomorrow” since waiting might have meant another 8-10 years.
A wide range of topics
Other topics touched on during the press conference included questions on environmental policies that contrast protection of nature with protection of human beings; and the necessity of rooting out corruption in South America.
Pope Francis said he had nothing to add to the comments of Cardinal Maradiaga, in response to a question concerning accusations that the Honduran prelate had misused Church funds.
And with regard specifically to the political situation in Chile, and the value of liberal policies, Pope Francis said one must consider various cases carefully. But, he said, while he does not now the case of Chile very well, there are nonetheless “countries in Latin America with liberal policies that have led the country to greater poverty.” He admitted that he is not an expert, but said that “in general, a liberal policy that does not involve all peoples is selective, and brings them down.”