Pope to Religious: Your Hearts Must be Open 24-7 A ‘CRUX’ Article by Cindy Wooden – With a Commentary by Brian Mark Hennessy (A Member of the Comboni Survivor Group)

Pope to Religious: Your Hearts Must be Open 24-7
A ‘CRUX’ Article by Cindy Wooden

Lift up your eyes from your smart-phones and see your brothers and sisters, those who share your journey of faith and those who are longing for the Word of life, Pope Francis told consecrated men and women. “Today’s frantic pace leads us to close many doors to encounter, often for fear of others,” the pope said in his homily for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord and the World Day for Consecrated Life. “Only shopping malls and internet connections are always open.” Yet believers’ hearts must be open as well, because every believer receives the faith from someone and is called to share it with others, the pope said at the Mass Feb. 2 in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The feast day commemorates the 40th day after Jesus’ birth when, in accordance with ancient Jewish practice, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple and presented him to the Lord. The feast’s Gospel reading from St. Luke recounts how the aged Simeon and Anna, who were praying in the temple, recognized Jesus as the Messiah. The Mass, attended by thousands of women and men belonging to religious orders, began with the traditional blessing of candles and a prayer that God would guide people toward his son, “the light that has no end.” In his homily, Francis focused on a series of encounters: Between people and Jesus; between the young Mary and Joseph and the elderly Simeon and Anna; and between individuals and members of their religious communities or their neighborhoods.

“In the Christian East,” the pope explained, “this feast is called the ‘feast of Encounter’: It is the encounter between God, who became a child to bring newness to our world, and an expectant humanity.”

The pope, himself a Jesuit, told the religious that their own journeys were “born of an encounter and a call” which, while highly personal, took place in the context of a family, a parish or a community. Members of religious orders must realize that they need each other – young and old – to renew and strengthen their knowledge of the Lord, he said. They must never “toss aside” the elderly members because “if the young are called to open new doors, the elderly have the keys. One’s brothers or sisters in the community are a gift to be cherished, he said before adding a plea: “May we never look at the screen of our cellphone more than the eyes of our brothers or sisters, or focus more on our software than on the Lord.”

Francis said strengthening the intergenerational bonds in a religious community also is an antidote to “the barren rhetoric of ‘the good old days’” and the only way “to silence those who believe that ‘everything is going wrong here.’” Religious life, with its vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, always has been countercultural, he said. And yet it is the source of true freedom because while “the life of this world pursues selfish pleasures and desires, the consecrated life frees our affections of every possession in order fully to love God and other people.”


It is somewhat excruciatingly painful for me as a Victim of childhood sexual abuse by a priest of the Comboni Missionary Order to witness the number of lost opportunities by Pope Francis to talk about an issue which must be openly and firmly addressed by him to the Religious of the Catholic Church. Yes – child sexual abuse might be the very last thing that Religious Communities wish to hear about, but it is the biblical ‘mote’ in the eye of the Church and it needs to be addressed again and again and again.

We only have to look at the statistics that were unearthed during the Australian Royal Commission about the rate of abuse within Religious communities to understand why. In one community 40% of Religious were abusing children. In another it was 20% – and the overall average was 14% abusing. In the UK Mirfield seminary of the Comboni Missionary Order it was also 14%. That may not sound likes it’s the end of the earth to some readers – but the result of sexual abuse at the rate of 14% in that seminary produced the horrifying statistic that between the late 1950’s and the early 80’s the number of known incidents of child sexual abuse against seminarians – as young as 13 years of age – was nigh on 1000 incidents –each incident a heinous crime against a child in its own right.

The abuse was reported at the time to priests within the order on 26 occasions that we know of. In the cases of two priests nothing was done about it until two years later by which time those child predators had abused countless more children.

Three priests were then moved from the seminary. Where did they send them? One was sent to a parish in Italy in the Diocese of Como. Another was sent to Uganda to look after the Catholic Uganda Scouts Movement. The third was also sent to Uganda where he founded and ran a school for children. They all had access to even more children! Since those times the Victims have been struggling with their lives each with his own demons and scars. The Comboni Missionary Order is silent. It has refused to discuss the issues. It has prevaricated at all levels. It has made vague press statements to the effect that so much time has passed that now the truth will never be known, but ‘if’ it ever happened they are ‘truly sorry’. That grudging ‘sorry’ was churned out only for the press.

‘Sorrow’ has never been expressed by the Order to the Victims of the abuse… and worse than that the manner in which they have expressed such ‘sorrow’ in the full glare of the public was quite notable in 2015. In the early summer of that year a Victim of the Mirfield abuse travelled to Verona in Italy to see the priest who had abused him. They had a brief hushed and reflective conversation in the Chapel of the Order’s Mother House during which the Priest had expressed his sorrow and the Victim had forgiven his abuser. On arrival back in the UK, the postman delivered a summons from the Criminal Court of Verona in Italy to the Victim on indictments of trespassing, stalking and interfering in the life of the priest (the abuser). The Judge duly dismissed the case as without any foundation what so ever. The Comboni Missionary Order mustered the gall to appeal. The Appeal Judge dismissed the case for the Order had presented no new evidences – and he praised the Victim for his forgiveness of the priest who had abused him. The Comboni Missionary Order does not yet ‘Get It’ and recent events suggest that nor does this Pope – for he has just missed the perfect opportunity to express his concerns.

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