A 'revolution' based on the willingness to be vulnerable

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Pope Francis has spent more than two decades dreaming up ways to start a revolution.

But when he first mentioned the idea back in 1994 when he was the Jesuit auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, his confreres and aides warned him to be careful.

Pushing such notions, they said, would cause confusion and get him nowhere fast, even if (or maybe because) the revolution he was talking about was a "revolution of tenderness."

Twenty-two years have passed since Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, moved from being an auxiliary in Argentina to the first-ever Jesuit and Latin American to be elected bishop of Rome.

And he's been taking advantage of the powerful, global stature his "new diocese" offers to finally unleash the revolution he's long envisioned.

The church-wide Jubilee Year of Mercy, which he inaugurated last December, is part of the effort.

And so is his current visit to Mexico, where he is in the midst of a six-day tour to some of the country's poorest, most violent and economically disadvantaged regions.

The 79-year-old pope said he's gone as a "missionary of mercy and of peace."

One might say the second part of that moniker pretty much sums what he hopes to achieve during this extraordinary holy year -- peace.

That's not limited to ending the many bloody wars that are devastating so many places around the globe.

It also includes restoring peace to troubled consciences, broken relationships, hurting families, ideologically divided societies and fractured communities -- especially those within the church.

Francis, following his original intuition in 1994, believes the way to bring about peace in all these areas is through mercy -- by opening up oneself or one's group to the possibility of experiencing mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation and then offering the same to others.

It sounds pretty simple. But there are those who say it's simplistic, simpleminded or even pie-in-the-sky naïve.

Actually, what the pope is calling for takes a lot of courage, the courage to willingly be vulnerable before others whose true motives one can never know for certain.

Francis offered a clear example of this when he stopped in Havana last Friday on his way to Mexico City in order to meet Russian Patriarch Kirill.

It was an historic event because a face-to-face meeting of the (Catholic) bishop of Rome and the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow and all Russia had never occurred before. That's because neither of these two spiritual leaders -- that is, Francis' and Kirill's predecessors -- would surrender his own pre-conditions before the encounter could take place.

Each side had legitimate reasons for placing the prerequisites. But the end result was always the same -- a standoff or muro contro muro (literally, wall against wall), as the Italians call such an uncompromising confrontation.

Pope Francis, against the advise of certain Catholic officials, changed all that by dropping any and all such demands. Not only that, he also told Patriarch Kirill he would meet him whenever and wherever the Orthodox leader desired.

"Let's just meet already!" was basically the plea.

Francis allowed the patriarch to dictate the terms. Political analysts said it was yet another example of him being a "risk-taker" (a calculating one at that!), similar to his decision last year to visit Central African Republic where a civil war was still underway.

Many people, probably even some Catholics, will find it hard to believe that maybe the pope was actually inspired by a different sort of Christian logic, one that even those who profess to be believers find difficult to accept.

The desire for reconciliation and the restoration of right relationships requires that one becomes vulnerable, that he or she is willing to risk losing face or looking weak and being subjected to merciless criticism and even rejection.

This is the logic of willing vulnerability that was practiced by Jesus.

And hopefully, this logic -- which was the key to bringing about the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill -- can and will be applied to other situations in the world and in the church where there is currently a stalemate.

There are many, but one thinks particularly of the various issues surrounding clergy sex abuse, which -- even more than being just a crisis or scandal -- has become something of a global pandemic.

The current pope has been accused of not doing enough to "fix" the problem or for not making it one of his top priorities. The few initiatives he has launched so far seem to be moving at glacier speed.

Groups representing those who have been abused are understandably frustrated with a Vatican that thinks in centuries when nearly every week or month another priest is credibly accused, some for the very first time. More than some church officials would like to admit, the accusations often refer to events that happened recently, showing that clergy abuse is not an anomalous phenomenon from decades ago.

Victims groups must be thanked for the important role they have played in forcing the church to acknowledge and begin dealing with this issue. They need to continue to be part of this effort. But they don't trust the bishops.

Unfortunately, there are bishops and other Catholics who have grown to mistrust the victims' group, as well. That's because of these advocates' outright refusal to acknowledge absolutely anything positive in the steps that Catholic individuals or institutions are taking towards dealing with abuse.

And what we're left with is muro contro muro.

Is there a way to break this impasse?

It should be assumed that the bishops (including the bishop of Rome) and abuse victims (including their advocates) fully agree that the following are top priorities: prevention of further abuse and healing for those already abused.

But then there are also the demands of justice, specifically the question of punishing abusers and those who protect them. The bishops and victims groups have disagreed here, to the point that there is virtually no longer any meaningful dialog on the issue.

Pope Francis' insistence that true justice must be tempered with mercy does not sit well with some victims' groups. They see talk of mercy as code for clerics protecting other clerics and letting the criminals among them get off easy.

On the other hand, when the advocates of the victims insist that the church apply the harshest penalty to all degree of offenders, to some people it sounds more like a thirst for vengeance than true justice. At best it looks like a one-size-fits-all "justice" where a priest accused of making a flirtatious remark to a teenager gets the exact same sentence as the cleric who admits raping numerous pre-pubescent children.

How to deal with such issues is one of several areas where the bishops and victims' groups differ. And, yet, the two sides profess that they basically want to achieve the same thing -- protect minors from abuse, heal the victims and hold abusers and enablers responsible.

The Holy Year of Mercy could be a perfect opportunity for church leaders and abuse victims to make a fresh start in dealing with sexual abuse of minors.

But it may mean that Pope Francis will have to choose to make himself vulnerable, as he did with Patriarch Kirill, and meet face-to-face with those groups representing victims on their terms and without pre-conditions.

It would be the right thing to do. And it would also constitute a small of act of solidarity with people abused by his fellow priests, because their innocence, trust and faith were robbed because of a vulnerability not of their choosing.

[Robert Mickens is editor-in-chief of Global Pulse. Since 1986, he has lived in Rome, where he studied theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University before working 11 years at Vatican Radio and then another decade as correspondent for The Tablet of London.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Robert Mickens' column, A Roman Observer, is posted. Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

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