‘Brothers and sisters, all of us need the healing that comes from Jesus, the physician of souls and bodies. Lord, as the people on the shores of the Sea of Galilee were not afraid to cry out to you with their needs, so we come to you, Lord, this evening, with whatever pain we bear within us. We bring to you our weariness and our struggles, the wounds of the violence suffered by our indigenous brothers and sisters. In this blessed place, where harmony and peace reign, we present to you the disharmony of our experiences, the terrible effects of colonisation, the indelible pain of so many families, grandparents and children. Lord, help us to be healed of our wounds. We know, Lord, that this re-quires effort, care and concrete actions on our part; but we also know that we cannot do this alone. We rely on you and on the intercession of your mother and your grandmother’.
Some of us here have family members in Canada and we know that some watch our Masses from that country on Livestream; and many of us have been deeply moved by scenes from the Holy Father’s pilgrimage of penitence in the last week, so different from most papal visits. The words above were spoken by the pope when he was at the Lac St Ann in Alberta during the week; characteristically he likened the lake to the Sea of Galilee. As far as I know this was the first time a papal visit anywhere had been so focused on an act of corporate penitence, in relation to terrible crimes committed against the children of indigenous First Nation peoples in many Catholic residential schools, involving terrible abuse and many deaths. For the Vicar of Christ, himself so frail at the moment, to have led this act on behalf of the Catholic Church, was a profound statement in itself.
As in every period of human history, there are manifold problems and evils in the world, and indeed in our own society. Since Catholic moral teaching is about the whole of life, as a community we are bound to have much to say about these evils, and this is always true: war, poverty, climate change, economic policy, corruption in political life, provision of healthcare resources, the right to strike and many other issues. Just over twenty five years ago, our own bishops in this country, in their document leading up to the 1997 General Election (The Common Good) reminded us that ‘nothing is beyond the scope of faith,’ and many of us are engaged in teaching and research to deepen the ways in which we address such issues. At the same time, there is no doubt that the teaching authority of the Catholic Church has been gravely damaged by our own mistakes, sinfulness and errors: the abuse scandal has meant that many of our own people are less inclined to listen to popes and bishops, let alone anyone else. Inevitably this has led in some places to a hesitancy on the part of Church leaders.
It certainly should lead to humility, and in this respect, as always, Pope Francis has led the way. He has persistently, particularly in recent years, linked the problem of abuse to clericalism (as has my colleague Deacon Seán) which in itself has attracted much opposition to him from within the Church (linked to his teachings and actions about Catholic liturgy). Pride and vanity, along with bad theology, are at the heart of ways in which some clergy lord it over others, wilfully blind to crimes and sinfulness: these have to be repeatedly challenged. But it’s not good enough simply to identify the guilty (though that would be a start): the whole Church bears a corporate responsibility for sinfulness; we all have to examine our consciences and seek forgiveness. At the beginning of this century, in the year of the Great Jubilee, St John Paul II saw this by leading many acts of penitence to mark the Millennium and seek forgiveness for the Church’s past sins. It is only when we acknowledge the depths of our sinfulness that we can dare to speak about moral issues.
This is why the Holy Father’s visit to Canada last week is so important, not simply for the Church in that country and for the people damaged by what was done, but for all of us; it has to be seen as part of the synodal pathway on which the pope has set the Church. Dialogue, listening to God, listening to one another – these always need to include sorrow for our sins and penitence, a seeking of merciful forgiveness from God and from our brothers and sisters. ‘Not being synodal’ – and frankly a lot of clergy and laypeople have contempt for what the pope has invited us to do – is about false claims to sinless-ness and a desire to protect the institution at all costs and, above all, its leaders. I am sure many opponents of the Holy Father throughout the Church winced at what he did last week (they probably didn’t like the music either), and I am sure there have been many snide comments in the darker parts of the Catholic blogosphere. Such people also probably recoiled at his reference in the quote above to ‘the terrible effects of colonialism’; all these things are connected.
All of what happened last week is on YouTube and the texts of his addresses are on the Vatican website. Although he preached in Spanish with a simultaneous translation, when saying prayers he spoke in English which he doesn’t do very often. Please pray for him and the continued recovery of his knee.