The private meeting between Pope Francis and the Jesuits in Ireland
On August 25, during his visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis met a large group of Jesuits of Ireland. The meeting was due to take place at 6:20 p.m., but the pope chose to lengthen his private meeting with a group of eight victims of sexual abuse, a meeting that lasted an hour and a half. At around 6:40 p.m., Francis entered a room of the Nunciature where 63 Jesuits were gathered. Among them were two bishops: Alan McGuckian, bishop of Raphoe (Ireland), and Terrence Prendergast, archbishop of Ottawa. Fr. John Dardis, General Counsellor of the Society of Jesus for discernment and apostolic planning, was also there. Three Irish Jesuits are now members of the province of Zambia-Malawi and one is living in South Sudan. Three Jesuits in formation came from the United States, Canada and Cameroon.
Provincial Fr. Leonard A. Moloney spoke first, giving a welcome on behalf of all: “Holy Father, our brother Francis, on behalf of the Irish Jesuits I say to you ‘Céad míle fáilte!’ This is the customary Irish expression of welcome and means ‘a hundred thousand welcomes.’ We welcome you as a brother in Christ and son of St. Ignatius.” Fr. Moloney continued and gave thanks for this “intimate and informal” encounter, despite the pope’s busy agenda. In particular, he said, “we thank you for your deep faith in Jesus Christ, as the merciful and loving face of God our Father. You present the faith as something attractive at a difficult time.”
Fr. Moloney spoke about the commitment to “promote the understanding of freedom, discernment and spiritual accompaniment.” Francis has requested this commitment from Jesuits many times during his apostolic voyages, as La Civiltà Cattolica has always reported. The provincial, referring to those present, said: “As you can see, we are not so young – you are one of the youngest in this group! – and we ask you to pray for vocations. This province has great courage and a desire to serve and to love in all things. We have listened this week to your call for prayer and fasting and to do everything possible to eradicate the evil of abuse within the Church.”
The provincial then concluded his welcome: “Once again, Holy Father, a thousand thanks for being here, for accompanying us along this path, and especially for the joy, the humor and the serenity with which you carry the burden of your leadership. Be assured of our prayers and know that we are here to support you in all your needs so that you can carry out your mission in peace and with courage!”
(Antonio Spadaro, SJ)
Then Francis began to speak: Many thanks! I am sorry that our meeting is so rushed. I am late and shortly I have to go to the meeting of families. There is a precise schedule that I have to respect. Firstly, I am sorry to have forgotten all the English that I learned at Milltown Park so many years ago, when I came to Ireland for the first time. I am not at ease speaking in English. It must be a psychological limit! But many thanks.
Why am I late? Because I had a meeting with eight survivors of sexual abuse. I didn’t know that in Ireland there were also cases where unmarried women had their children taken away from them. Hearing this particularly touched my heart. Today the minister for children and young people spoke to me about this issue, and then sent me a memorandum. I want to ask you a special help: help the Church in Ireland to put an end to this. And what do I mean by put an end to it? I don’t mean simply turn the page, but seek out a cure, reparation, all that is necessary to heal the wounds and give life back to so many people. The letter I wrote recently to the people of God speaks of shame for the abuses. I wish to repeat it here and share it with you today.
There is something I have understood with great clarity: this drama of abuse, especially when it is widespread and gives great scandal – think of Chile, here in Ireland or in the United States – has behind it a Church that is elitist and clericalist, an inability to be near to the people of God. Elitism, clericalism fosters every form of abuse. And sexual abuse is not the first. The first abuse is of power and conscience. I ask you to help with this. Courage! Be courageous! I really was unable to believe the stories that I have seen well documented. I heard them now in the other room and was deeply upset. This is a special mission for you: clean this up, change consciences, do not be afraid to call things by their name.
Another thing. The provincial told me that I am making the faith joyful. Really? As long as it is not a circus! [Here the pope and everyone laughed out loud]. No, this is the joy of Gospel, its freshness moving you forward, not losing peace. We need to work so that the freshness of the Gospel and its joy are understood. Jesus came to bring joy, not moral casuistry. To bring openness, mercy. Jesus loved sinners. But now I am preaching … I didn’t intend to! Jesus loved sinners … he loved them! He had a strong dislike of the corrupt! The Gospel of Matthew in chapter 23 is an example of what Jesus says to the corrupt.
To have the freshness of the Gospel is to love sinners. I know one confessor. When sinners come to confess, he welcomes them in such a way that they feel free, renewed … And when the penitent has something difficult to say, he does not insist but says, “I understand, I understand,” freeing that person of embarrassment. He makes of that confession an encounter with Jesus Christ, not a torture room or a psychiatrist’s couch.
We need to be the reflection of merciful Jesus. And what did Jesus ask of the adulteress? “How many times and who with?” No! He simply said, “Go and sin no more.” The joy of the Gospel is the mercy of Jesus, indeed, the tenderness of Jesus. And Jesus liked the crowd, the simple, ordinary people. The poor are at the heart of the Gospel. The poor follow Jesus to be healed, to be fed. This is what came to my mind when you [turning to the provincial] spoke of joy.
Then you spoke of freedom, freedom of discernment. I believe in discernment, and we need to be able to do it. It needs to be done in prayer, seeking the will of God … and – this might sound heretical but it is certainly not – as Jesus is present in the Eucharist, so in discernment the Holy Spirit is present. It is the Spirit who acts in me. And so you go on and find a road you hadn’t thought of … This is the spirit of freedom, the spirit that always works in us. And we should not lose this when speaking of freedom.
The pope asks the provincial:
And how many novices have you?
The provincial replies that there are three in the same novitiate: one from Ireland and two from Great Britain. Then Francis goes on:
This is something that worries me: vocations. What happens if people no longer become enthusiastic for our life? We have to look again at our life to blessed with future generations. Or are we already sterile? When we discover our sterility, if we put ourselves in prayer with the desire to be fruitful, the Lord will give us fecundity. Have faith. Each one of us should show tenderness to children and speak with grandchildren. And we (Jesuits) almost no longer have “children” and “grandchildren”! And after so many saints that we have had in the Society over the ages … We have to think and ask ourselves: What is happening? With so many young people that there are … I suggest you pray.
Then the pope asks if there are any questions … Fr. Michael Bingham gets up to say: “This is not a question. I just want to thank you for the example of solidarity that you offer, especially to those in prison.”
The pope replies: Please, say hello from me to those you know. I love those who are in prison. I have a special place for them in my heart.
Fr. Brendan McManus asks what can be done concretely against the abuses.
The pope replies: We have to denounce the cases we know about. And sexual abuse is the consequence of abuse of power and of conscience as I said before. The abuse of power exists. Who among us does not know an authoritarian bishop? Forever in the Church there have been authoritarian bishops and religious superiors. And authoritarianism is clericalism. Sometimes the sending in mission decisively and with authority is confused with authoritarianism. Instead they are two different things. We need to defeat authoritarianism and rediscover the obedience of the sending in mission.
Fr. John Callanan takes his turn and asks: “But how do you manage to keep your heart happy with all that is happening to you?”
The pope replies: It is a grace. Every morning for 40 years, after morning prayer, I recite the prayer of St. Thomas More, asking for a sense of humor. It seems the Lord has given it to me! But generally, we should have this sense. Fr. Nicolás used to say that we should give Fr. Kolvenbach the Nobel Prize for Humor, because he was able to laugh at everything, about himself and even his own shadow. This is a grace to ask for. I don’t know if the one I have is the right one, perhaps it is only foolishness… [and here all laugh]. Having a sense of humor is a fruit of the consolation of the Spirit. I insist on something that helps me: A Jesuit must always seek consolation, he must always seek to be consoled. When he is desolate, he is arid. Consolation is the balm of the Spirit. It can be strong or minimal. The minimum of consolation is interior peace. We have to live with this peace. A Jesuit who does not live in peace, lives desolate.
Fr. Michael O’Sullivan gets up and says: “I don’t know if you remember, but we met in the 1980s here at Milltown.” The pope asks his name and remembers, and also the name of another Jesuit he knew. Fr. O’Sullivan carries on to ask about responsibility for abuse cases. Francis begins to respond saying that of course people must take up their responsibilities and do so following the very structure of the Church, that is of the local Churches.
At this point a person enters the room to ask the pope to conclude the meeting, as he was falling behind schedule. An elderly Jesuit brother, George Fallon, in the name of all, offers Francis a small pyx to bring communion to the sick and says: “I ask the Lord to give you the gift of the Holy Spirit and also Wisdom to help you during your visit.” Sadly, there was not time for a group photo, nor to greet all one by one, as usually occurs. The pope asks all to pray together a Hail Mary. All stand up. After the prayer and before exiting, Francis does not fail to greet some of the elderly Jesuits in wheelchairs in the front row.