One fact about Pope Francis’ pastoral visit to Chile and Peru is not to be missed: This 81-year-old man just flew 22,000 miles round trip — nearly the distance around the entire planet — to some of the world’s most remote and forgotten places, spending Jan. 15-22 meeting with massive crowds and small groups, addressing some of the Church’s and society’s most difficult and important issues. The determination, physical resilience and mental agility necessary to accomplish it all is by itself impressive.
The trip included much worth noting. For instance, the pope promoted devotion to Mary in its various cultural expressions. He defended the environment and criticized human trafficking. He also met with victims of Chile’s 1973-90 Pinochet regime. But two aspects of the visit surely serve as its two poles.
‘My pain and shame’
The most painful issue in the Chilean Church today is revelations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Indeed, addressing this situation is clearly one of the reasons Pope Francis wanted to visit the country in the first place. Trinitarian Father Juan Molina, director of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on the Church in Latin America, told Our Sunday Visitor that as a result of the scandal, many Chilean Catholics are currently “standing at a distance from the Church.” He compared the current situation in Chile to that of the Church and U.S. society in 2003 and 2004, soon after the worst revelations about clergy abuse emerged here.
Francis turned his attention to the issue at his first opportunity. After a nighttime arrival in the country, he began the next morning with a meeting with Chilean government and society leaders. He told them, “I feel bound to express my pain and shame at the irreparable damage caused to children by some ministers of the Church. I am one with my brother bishops, for it is right to ask for forgiveness and make every effort to support the victims, even as we commit ourselves to ensuring that such things do not happen again.”
“On a number of occasions, I have spoken of the throwaway culture. A culture that is not satisfied with exclusion, as we have grown accustomed to observe, but advances by silencing, ignoring and throwing out everything that does not serve its interests; as if the alienating consumerism of some is completely unaware of the desperate suffering of others. It is an anonymous culture, without bonds, without faces, a throwaway culture. It is a motherless culture that only wants to consume. The earth is treated in accordance with this logic. Forests, rivers and streams are exploited mercilessly, then left barren and unusable. Persons are also treated in the same way: they are used until someone gets tired of them, then abandoned as ‘useless.’ This is the throwaway culture, it throws away children, it throws away the elderly. As I was being driven around the crowd, there was an elderly lady, 97 years of age. Should we throw away that grandmother? What do you think? No, because she is a grandmother full of the wisdom of her people.”
— Pope Francis, address at Puerto Maldonado, Peru, on Jan. 19
Francis brought it up again later that day, at a meeting with the nation’s priests, religious and seminarians. “I know the pain resulting from cases of abuse of minors,” he said, “and I am attentive to what you are doing to respond to this great and painful evil.” He also noted the pain of clergy who now fall under heavy suspicion in Chilean society. “I know that at times you have been insulted in the metro or walking on the street, and that by going around in clerical attire in many places you pay a heavy price,” he said.
The pope also met with victims of abuse by priests. It was only his second meeting with abuse victims on a foreign trip since becoming pope (after doing so the first time during his September 2015 visit to the United States). Meeting alone with a group of victims, said Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, the pope “listened to them and prayed and cried with them.”
But addressing the abuse issue also produced what some see as a serious misstep. When asked by a journalist about a Chilean bishop who has faced severe criticism for covering up serial abuse by a popular priest decades ago, Francis seemed to doubt victims who insist the bishop knew what was happening, saying, “There’s not a single proof against him. It’s all a calumny.” The comment caused immediate dismay, particularly among abuse victims, in Chile and beyond. Boston’s Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, appointed by Francis as head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, even issued a public statement acknowledging the harm the statement had caused. The pope apologized on his return flight to Rome Jan. 22, saying he realized he had “wounded many people who were abused.”
‘We need one another’
As he has throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis made attention to society’s marginalized a key element of this trip. In a powerful statement of solidarity with the poor, Francis traveled to Chile’s poorest region, La Araucanía. Rich in breathtaking mountains and rainforests, this region is the heartland of the indigenous people known as the Mapuche, who have been involved in a simmering conflict with the Chilean government for decades as they seek greater autonomy, return of control over their ancestral lands and greater recognition of their culture and language. The Catholic Church in Chile has provided prominent support of their cause, but the conflict has recently erupted into violence carried out by Mapuche activists.
Pope Francis celebrated Mass with thousands of indigenous people at an airport built on land taken from the Mapuche a century ago. He opened his homily by offering greetings in Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche, and noted that he wanted to “pause and greet in a special way the members of the Mapuche people.” He went on to offer an inspiring call for unity that respects diversity.
“We need one another,” he said, “and our differences so that this land can remain beautiful! It is the only weapon we have against the ‘deforestation’ of hope.” But he also criticized the use of violence to achieve goals, even if the goals are good. “You cannot assert yourself by destroying others, because this only leads to more violence and division. Violence begets violence, destruction increases fragmentation and separation. Violence eventually makes a most just cause into a lie,” he said.
After Mass, Francis shared a lunch with 11 inhabitants of La Araucanía region, including eight Mapuche people.
Francis’ concern for those on the margins was clear again at a meeting with local people in Puerto Maldonado, Peru and in his visit to the tomb of Chile’s great defender of the poor, St. Alberto Hurtado.
Barry Hudock writes from Minnesota.