Lombardi: Benedict never sought to hide the evil in the Church
Interview of Fr. Federico Lombardi with Gabriella Ceraso
“I was struck by his sincerity, his intensity, and his depth,” says Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, in this interview with Vatican Radio’s Gabriella Ceraso.
Gabriella Ceraso: What struck you about [Benedict’s] letter?
Fr Federico Lombardi: I was struck by his sincerity, his intensity, and his depth. As he says in the text of the letter, he went through a painful period in which he made an examination of conscience: about his life, his behaviour, the situation of the Church today. He reflected on this. The letter is the result of a deep, painful time of sincere examination before God. He is an elderly person, who knows that he is going towards an encounter with the Lord and therefore towards God's judgement, and this shows the great sincerity and depth of the text and of the way in which he is living this response that he gives, after a period that was certainly [a time] of reflection and suffering for him, but also of great debate in the Church, of confusion, of bewilderment... He gives his testimony, a help to see with truth, with objectivity, and with sincerity and serenity, the situation and the prospects.
What is the significance of his request for forgiveness in the letter?
The Pope Emeritus puts himself in a situation that he lives every day, celebrating the Eucharist. At the beginning of the Mass, there is the request for forgiveness before meeting the Lord, and he always experiences it very deeply. And this involves all his reflection on his personal situation and on the situation of the Church, in which he feels personally involved. So, he gives these words that we have repeated countless times – through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault – great significance. He tries to see with absolute clarity what is the nature of this most grievous fault in which he also feels implicated, in solidarity with the whole Church. And he makes it clear that it is a question, at this time and in his time of reflection, of the most grievous fault involved in the whole matter of sexual abuse. He carries out this penitential reflection in the presence of the victims of abuse themselves. He evokes the encounters he has had with the victims and his ever-deepening knowledge of the seriousness of the victims’ suffering and the consequences of this abuse. He demonstrates, with great sincerity and in a very explicit way, the shame, pain, a sincere request for forgiveness. These are expressions that we have also heard in recent years on the lips of Pope Francis, and they are ones that are also recalled profoundly to those who review a little of his entire history on the subject of abuse, from his early experiences in the diocese of Munich to the responsibility he had in Rome, to the pontificate itself.
This reflection of his should not be considered abstract and generic, but concrete: he refers to the lack of attention to victims, to the disciples sleeping in the face of the suffering of Jesus, which naturally also includes the suffering of the victims; to the lack of sufficient commitment to combat this scourge and these crimes... So he makes very precise references to this reality, he does not develop an abstract and generic discourse. So, his request for forgiveness is also, in the end, a request for prayer for himself, addressed to God but also to his brothers and sisters, and therefore to the victims as such and to the whole community of the Church that feels implicated in this grievous fault before God. It is a very wide-ranging question in which he feels implicated and sees the whole reality of the seriousness of this affair as something for which he must ask forgiveness, purify himself and commit himself with all his strength to changing his attitude and being more faithful to the demands of the Gospel.
Father, the Pope Emeritus was accused of having lied about his participation in the meeting of January 1980, when the decision was made to receive a priest-abuser into the diocese of Munich. What happened?
There is also a reference [to this episode] in the letter of the Pope Emeritus and then there is a more detailed explanation in an annex that is published, signed by the consultants, by the legal experts, who helped the Pope [emeritus] in his response to the claims, both in the first answer they gave, and now in a synthetic and conclusive position on this matter. There was a mistake in the first response – it was a long one, of 82 pages – given to those who were drafting the Report: it said that the Pope had not attended a meeting. Just a few days after the publication of the Report, the Pope himself – the Pope Emeritus, always – naturally had a statement made in which he said: “No, it's not true: I attended this meeting, and I will ask for an explanation of how this error occurred, which has caused a certain, we could say, confusion, of course, and a certain resonance.” And in the annex, those who drafted this response explain how this happened in the process of drafting this long answer. They explain, moreover, that this does not affect the substance of the fact that the then-Archbishop Ratzinger did not know the reality of the accusation of abuse against this priest; and that therefore, the error [concerning his presence at the meeting] was the result of an oversight in the drafting, and not something that had been consciously written to deny his presence (which in any case was apparent from the protocol of the meeting and other considerations) and that therefore there was no reason to deny it.
Here, now, I would not go into too much detail. The point is this: the Pope Emeritus suffered from this accusation that was made against him of being a liar, of having knowingly lied about concrete situations. Not only that, but also in the Report as a whole, the accusation arose that he knowingly covered-up for abusive persons, and therefore that he had a lack of attention to the suffering of the victims and a contempt for them. So, the Pope Emeritus replies: “No, I am not a liar. This accusation has caused me great suffering, but I testify that I am not a liar.” I must say, even on a personal level, that I am absolutely convinced. I think it is right that he should vindicate his truthfulness. Because it is a characteristic of his personality and his behaviour throughout his life, which I can also testify to, having lived close to him as a collaborator for several years: the service of truth was always in the first place. He never tried to conceal things that could be painful for the Church to acknowledge; he never tried to give a false image of the reality of the Church or of what is happening. So I absolutely believe that one cannot doubt in any way his truthfulness. And he attests to this, and I believe it is right to accept it with confidence and conviction.
Do you think that this letter can be significant for the Church in this particular, difficult, moment?
Certainly, this letter manifests a very deep and very sincere penitential attitude of engagement with and sharing in the victims’ suffering, but also in all that this has meant, not only for the victims but also for the ecclesial community. And this sincere penitential attitude before God is, I believe, a great Christian witness that he gives us.
There is one last aspect, however, that he wanted to express in the letter and that seems important to me, and that is that although it is right to recognize the seriousness of the fault – a most grievous fault – and the burden of its consequences on us too, spiritually, we must not lose hope. Feeling that he is facing God's judgement, which is imminent, at the end of his life, he says: “But in this situation, however much I may fear or dread the judgement, I feel the closeness of Jesus Christ as a friend, as a brother, and I feel that God’s grace will help me to pass even through the door of death and to meet the Lord.” So: the fact that we are living in a situation of great humiliation, of great suffering of the Church together with the victims and starting from what has happened, must not make us despair. We must also continue to look to the Lord's grace, to trust in Him.