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Benedict XVI’s birthday and that “penitential” approach that unites two pontificates

The Pope Emeritus’ birthday this year is accompanied by a debate on his recent letter regarding abuse. An analysis of three documents reveals a common thread that unites the Pope and the Pope Emeritus in the fight against this scourge.

By Andrea Tornielli

Benedict XVI, the Pope Emeritus, is marking his 92nd birthday. The occasion is accompanied by a lively debate triggered by one of his writings: some “notes” - as he himself has described them - dedicated to the theme of child abuse. In his text, Benedict XVI asks a question regarding the right answers to the scourge of abuse and says: "The counterforce against evil, which threatens us and the whole world, can ultimately only consist in our abandoning ourselves to the love of God”. There can be no hope in a Church built by the hands of man, who trusts in his own abilities. And further:  “When thinking about what action is required first and foremost, it is rather obvious that we do not need another Church of our own design”. “Indeed, the Church today is widely regarded as just some kind of political apparatus”.  And “The crisis, caused by the many cases of clerical abuse, urges us to regard the Church as something almost unacceptable, which we must now take into our own hands and redesign. But a self-made Church cannot constitute hope”.

As we celebrate Joseph Ratzinger's birthday, it may be useful to highlight the approach that both Benedict XVI and his successor, Francis, have taken in the face of scandals and child abuse. It is not a very media-oriented or blaring response; it does not lend itself to being reduced to slogans. It is a response that does not rely on structures (that are necessary), on the new emergency regulations (equally necessary) or on the increasingly detailed and accurate protocols to guarantee the safety of children (that are however indispensable): all of these are useful tools that have already been defined or are in the process of being defined.

First Benedict’s and then Francis’ response are profoundly and simply Christian. To understand them it is sufficient to re-read three documents. Three letters to the people of God, in Ireland, in Chile and in the whole world; letters that two Popes have written in moments of great tension regarding the scandal of abuse.

Writing to the faithful of Ireland in March 2010, Pope Ratzinger explained that “measures to deal justly with individual crimes are essential, yet on their own they are not enough: a new vision is needed, to inspire present and future generations to treasure the gift of our common faith.”

Benedict XVI invited us “to devote our Friday penances, for a period of one year, between now and Easter 2011, to this intention. I ask you to offer up your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture and your works of mercy in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland. I encourage you to discover anew the sacrament of Reconciliation and to avail yourselves more frequently of the transforming power of its grace”.

“Particular attention” the Pope added, “should also be given to Eucharistic adoration”. Prayer, adoration, fasting and penance. The Church does not accuse external enemies, she is well aware that the strongest attack comes from internal enemies and from sin within the Church. The remedy he proposes is in the rediscovery of the essence of faith and of a “penitential” Church, which recognizes its need for forgiveness and help from High. The heart of his message is imbued with humility, pain, shame, contrition, but at the same time it is open to hope; it is a Christian and evangelical perspective.

Eight years later, on 1 June 2018, another letter from a Pope to the Christians of another country struck by the scandal of pedophilia, was made public. It’s the letter that Francis sent to the people of God in Chile. “To appeal to you, to ask for your prayers – he writes - was not a practical recourse nor was it a simple goodwill gesture.”  “On the contrary, I wanted to frame things in their precise and valuable place and put the issue where it ought to be: the condition of the People of God… The renewal of the Church hierarchy by itself does not create the transformation to which the Holy Spirit moves us. We are required to together promote a transformation of the Church that involves us all.

Pope Francis insists on the fact that the Church does not build itself, does not trust in itself: “A wounded Church does not put itself at the center, does not think it is perfect, does not seek to cover up and dissimulate its evil, but places there the only one who can heal the wounds and he has a name: Jesus Christ”.

This brings us to 20 August 2018, to the letter of Francis to the people of God on the subject of abuse. It is the first such letter of a Pope addressed to the faithful throughout the world. This renewed appeal to the people of God contains the same conclusion:

"Prayer and penance will help. I invite the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting, following the Lord’s command. This can awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says “never again” to every form of abuse”.

Penance and prayer, moreover, “will help us to open our eyes and our hearts to other people’s sufferings and to overcome the thirst for power and possessions that are so often the root of those evils”.

Once again, Francis points to a penitential way, far from any triumphalism - as he reiterated in his homily this Palm Sunday - and far from the image of a strong Church that wants to appear as a protagonist, that  seeks to hide its weaknesses and its sins. It’s the same proposal as made by his predecessor.

15 April 2019, 17:19