We were all dismayed when in this year of all years, and to a degree we could not have imagined, we came to know of abuse of minors committed by priests who twist the sacrament into its antithesis, and under the mantle of the sacred profoundly wound human persons in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime. 

In this context, a vision of St. Hildegard of Bingen came to my mind, a vision which describes in a shocking way what we have lived through this past year: “I had a vision of a woman of such beauty that the human mind is unable to comprehend. She stretched in height from earth to heaven. ... But her face was stained with dust, her robe was ripped down the right side, her cloak had lost its sheen of beauty and her shoes had been blackened.” 

Repair injustice 

In the vision of St. Hildegard, the face of the Church is stained with dust, and this is how we have seen it. Her garment is torn — by the sins of priests. The way she saw and expressed it is the way we have experienced it this year. We must accept this humiliation as an exhortation to truth and a call to renewal. Only the truth saves. We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred. We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen. We must discover a new resoluteness in faith and in doing good. We must be capable of doing penance. We must be determined to make every possible effort in priestly formation to prevent anything of the kind from happening again. This is also the moment to offer heartfelt thanks to all those who work to help victims and to restore their trust in the Church, their capacity to believe her message. In my meetings with victims of this sin, I have also always found people who, with great dedication, stand alongside those who suffer and have been damaged. This is also the occasion to thank the many good priests who act as channels of the Lord’s goodness in humility and fidelity and, amid the devastations, bear witness to the unforfeited beauty of the priesthood. 

We are well aware of the particular gravity of this sin committed by priests and of our corresponding responsibility. But neither can we remain silent regarding the context of these times in which these events have come to light. There is a market in child pornography that seems in some way to be considered more and more normal by society. The psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise, is a terrifying sign of the times. From bishops of developing countries I hear again and again how sexual tourism threatens an entire generation and damages its freedom and its human dignity. 

Octopus tentacles of sin 

The Book of Revelation includes among the great sins of Babylon — the symbol of the world’s great irreligious cities — the fact that it trades with bodies and souls and treats them as commodities (see 18:13). In this context, the problem of drugs also rears its head, and with increasing force extends its octopus tentacles around the entire world — an eloquent expression of the tyranny of mammon which perverts mankind. No pleasure is ever enough, and the excess of deceiving intoxication becomes a violence that tears whole regions apart — and all this in the name of a fatal misunderstanding of freedom which actually undermines man’s freedom and ultimately destroys it. 

[In the 1970s] it was maintained — even within the realm of Catholic theology — that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a “better than” and a “worse than.” Nothing is good or bad in itself. Everything depends on the circumstances and on the end in view. Anything can be good or also bad, depending upon purposes and circumstances. Morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences, and in the process it ceases to exist. The effects of such theories are evident today. Against them, Pope John Paul II, in his 1993 encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor, indicated with prophetic force in the great rational tradition of Christian ethos the essential and permanent foundations of moral action. Today, attention must be focused anew on this text as a path in the formation of conscience. It is our responsibility to make these criteria audible and intelligible once more for people today as paths of true humanity, in the context of our paramount concern for mankind. 

This is an excerpt of a Christmas speech to Vatican officials. The full text is at bit.ly/hZ3Ytw.