Dear Pope Francis
3rd September 2018
Dear Pope Francis,
I am writing to you as someone who is struggling to make sense of it all. Over the past decade, I’ve stepped back a little from the Church and find myself very much on the outside looking in. I’m equally aware of the widening gap between my own spiritual journey and the glaring anomalies of an institution that has betrayed its own people so badly. There are thousands of others like me, still searching, still aspiring to higher ideals, still looking to the universe and discovering something new and magical with each new day. Outside the walls of old, we begin to see more clearly.
Your arrival here stirred the deepest of reactions. You walked among us with real grace; your smile, your humility, your compassion shone like a beacon in the darkness. Many sang a new song in your honour. Yet, for others, your presence was met with stiff resistance as a beleaguered people still struggle to see beyond the savage pain wreaked on all too many at the hands of the church you now preside over. Our experience of church has scarred the collective consciousness of our nation. Most of us, myself included, lie somewhere in the middle, torn between irreconcilable sides, wanting to believe again but feeling totally estranged from a church that has let us all down. I looked at your face. I could sense the pain. You made a promise to act. I believe you will.
Now more than ever Pope Francis I think you need to trust your deepest instincts. In our darkest hour, wediscover something new about ourselves. You know only too well that in those very moments when we’re stripped of what once defined us, we can discover primordial reserves of courage to see us through. The revolution of love you speak of starts out from the innermost point of our being. In the stillness of the night, listen to your heart. A voice cries in the wilderness and draws us back to where we belong. Your people have spoken. Their pain struck the deepest of chords in you. Now is the hour to atone.
You are the one that can lift the lid on a grotesque underworld of abuse that has been systemic in the Catholic Church for decades. The shocking nature of these crimes and the subsequent cover up reveal a church that, up to now, has turned away with such cold indifference. Your time with survivors has brought you face to face with their ongoing, unrelenting torture. The horror of it all is etched deep within all of us; infants buried in septic tanks, countless children stripped of their innocence so savagely, many more exploited by “religious” whose actions make a mockery of everything they claim to believe. Somewhere along the line, the church strayed so far off course that it has now totally lost its bearings. You cannot navigate the tempestuous waters on your own but you can steer the ship back in the right direction.
Too many have suffered. Their interminable hurt can be eased if you deliver on your promise. Nothing will heal their wounds but taking decisive steps to ensure that justice is done is a start. You know this yourself. Your words before Mass in Phoenix Park gave us all a glimpse of your inner turmoil after meeting with survivors. You know those who perpetrated crimes must be held accountible: “We ask forgiveness for the time that as a church we did not show the survivors of whatever kind of abuse compassion, in the seeking of justice and truth and concrete actions.” Your plea for forgiveness, no matter how genuine, only becomes credible if it is matched by a clear resolve to overhaul the system that permitted, and often camouflaged, these crimes in the first place. The truth screams out at us for change. From here there is no turning back.
You will need to confront head on those very forces that have been opposed to your reform from the start. You see Pope Francis, there are some on every level of the clerical ladder who have hidden behind a veneer of piety for years now and have created their own myopic culture of power and self-preservation. They have become a law onto themselves. Whilst there are many good men and women in positions of service in the Church who live out the Gospel they proclaim to the world, others wallow in a cocoon of self-importance with scant regard for anyone but themselves. We all know them. They are the ones who dig in their heels, who discourage creative expression, who dictate from on high, who doggedly resist change. In the meantime, the story of the carpenter from Nazareth has all but slipped from our view and the true identity of the church in the world remains blurred beyond recognition.
Taking on this culture is not going to be easy. You’ve lived with this for some time now. You need to know that you are not alone. You must draw your strength from your people, especially those hidden in the shadows who bring out the very best in all of us. I could see how you came alive among the homeless men, women and children you met in the Capuchin Day Centre for homeless people in Dublin. Their spirit touched something deep in you. You could see in them the truth about humanity in its barest form; what matters most for them is the love of family, keeping the faith no matter how great the adversity, retaining a sense of humour in life against all the odds. You mingled with them, listened to their stories, held their hands, embraced them as your own. Their brokenness and yours merged as one.
In a spontaneous moment, almost hidden from glare of the cameras, you could sense that you were part of something mystical. Here in the hallowed sanctuary of a Homeless Day Centre, your vision of Church was laid bare amidst the fragile hope of a suffering people. The truth had been revealed in the faces before you and it flowed unscripted as you addressed Br. Kevin and his fellow Capuchins: “You have a special understanding of the people and the poor especially. You have the grace of contemplating the wounds of Jesus in those in real need… For you these people are the flesh of Christ. This is your witness and the Church is in need of your witness.” Your words rose beautifully from the mire, sprinkling light across a tinged landscape.
Pope Francis, there is a need for new energies in a church grown weary. It is time to open the shutters and let in some fresh air. People here are no longer waiting on pronouncements from on high. They are seizing the initiative and running with it. A plethora of new ways of being church is opening up before our eyes; Gospel choirs, Taizé vigils, social justice groups, food kitchens for the homeless, care for the earth movements, meditation and mindfulness workshops, sports clubs… the list goes on. Hope is stirring outside the boundaries of old.
If the church is to have a future here, it needs to connect to what is happening outside its walls. People who have languished on the sidelines for too long must be welcomed back centre stage and encouraged to play a leading role in mapping out where we go from here. Women need to be central to this process. To date, their capacity to transform the church has been rendered obsolete in a male-dominated bureaucracy that will not yield. There is a reservoir of creative talent waiting to be tapped. Open the floodgates and let the waters of real change flow. When a once silenced people begin to find their voice, anything is possible. Then the aspiration of a new dawn moves one step closer.
A thought struck me as I walked through Crough Woods at the foot of the Comeragh Mountains here in Waterford at the time of your visit. The silence was beautifully interrupted by the soothing sounds of the Mahon River as it meandered its way from the falls above to the ocean below. I was lulled gently into a reflective space. Shielded in the shade, the sun glimmered in a way I had not noticed before. As the waters flowed by with unwavering purpose, it dawned on me that all that has gone before us does not define us. What is yet to come can complete the story. Nature has a way of guiding us home. Pope Francis, your heart knows the pathway of your destiny. I wish you well on your journey.
Be assured of my thoughts and prayers,
Dr. Phil Brennan
(Founder and Musical Director of the Island of Ireland Peace Choir/Author ‘In the hands of the people – a new vision of Church’)
Island of Ireland Peace Choir; www.islandofirelandpeacechoir.com