Pope Francis is visiting Ireland this weekend, the first pope to come since 1979. Of course, much has changed since Donna Summer and the Village People were on top of the music charts. This time, instead of an adoring crowd equivalent to a third of the population of Ireland, the pontiff is walking into protests, bitterness, and a much smaller crowd of pilgrims. To deal in understatement, the intervening thirty-nine years have not been good for the Irish Catholic Church. Francis’ visit is opening a host of old wounds, and the public square has been awash in expressions of anger, hurt, and frustration.
I read one post that said there is literally nothing the pope can do, that honestly nothing good can come of this visit at all. This led me to the question, how would I handle this visit if I were pope for the day? Here are a few ideas:
- Apology (for real). Just like in real life, one can give a sorry-not-sorry apology, one can give the old I’m-sorry-you-feel-that-way, or other combinations of half-hearted, insincere, not-taking-ownership statements of false contrition. This is not what I’m talking about. There needs to be acknowledgement of the many wrongs done and – even if everything predates Francis’ term – acceptance of institutional responsibility. The apostle Peter writes that church leaders ought not be “lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:3)
- Restitution. We see this concept in various parts of the Bible, from the Israelite Law to the ministry of Jesus. In no case does restitution make it right or excuse the wrong done. But it is an act of contrition, a result of repentance, and a way to back up an apology (see #1) with something tangible. There are many ways the billions of dollars in assets of the Catholic Church could be put to work – compensation, counseling, community development. Again, it’s not going to undo or erase the sins of the past. But a strong commitment from the top to devote resources in real ways to help those who have been hurt shows there is repentance. We see this idea in the example of Zaccheus, a government official who had grown wealthy by fraud and corruption (Luke 19:8): “Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.'” Restitution follows repentance.
- Transparency. There are so many stories of cover-up, of sweeping matters under the rug, of keeping people in the dark. So many questions that have not been answered. So many victims made to believe they were the ones in the wrong. As long as the organization protects the perpetrators, there is a sense of implicit conspiracy. Are there still officials who were involved in atrocities or in covering them up? It’s time they were held accountable for their actions. As in the last point, this will not make everything right, but there is a duty to act and a duty to protect that seems to have been overlooked for too long. And we should be clear, this is not out of a sense of vengeance but justice. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” (Ephesians 4:25)
That’s a lot for one day, so we’ll leave it at that. And, really, if I were pope for any more than a day, I’d have a lot of work to do to correct other areas! But, even though I’m not the pope and not going to be the pope – not even for a day, I am sorry. I’m sorry that those who were thought to be representing Jesus on Earth did anything but that. I’m sorry that these actions have led many to question, doubt, and reject the truth of the Gospel. And I’m sorry the wondrous freedom and hope that is in Christ has been so tangled up with evil. This is not who Jesus is. This is not what the Bible is about. I am praying for healing today.