Pope Francis’ Chilean Healing Mission

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father's meeting with the Chilean bishops echoes the ‘emergency summit’ Pope John Paul II had with U.S. cardinals in April 2002, but it’s altogether different.

Auxiliary Bishop Luis Fernando Ramos Perez of Santiago de Chile (l) and Bishop Juan Ignacio Gonzalez of San Bernardo meet reporters at the Vatican May 14.
Auxiliary Bishop Luis Fernando Ramos Perez of Santiago de Chile (l) and Bishop Juan Ignacio Gonzalez of San Bernardo meet reporters at the Vatican May 14. (photo: AP photo/Gregorio Borgia)

The May 15-17 meeting of the Chilean bishops with Pope Francis has invited comparisons to the emergency summit of American cardinals convoked by St. John Paul II in April 2002, when the heat of the sex-abuse scandal was burning hottest.

The Chilean summit differs from the U.S. summit in three key ways — in its origin, in its immediate consequences and in its ethos. It will likely end up just like the U.S. summit, though, in terms of its medium-term results.

The Chilean summit is not the result of the Father Fernando Karadima/Bishop Juan Barros scandal, which has been boiling away for several years. It is the result of Pope Francis himself turning up the heat. Indeed, the papal visit to Chile in January caused the entire matter to boil over.

Thus, while the origin of the 2002 summit was a crisis in the United States to which Rome was called upon to provide assistance, the 2018 summit has its origins in a crisis for the Holy Father to which the Chilean bishops have been summoned to help solve.

The Karadima affair has inflicted grave wounds on the Church in Chile, but Father Karadima himself had already been sentenced in a canonical trial before Francis’ election. It was the Holy Father’s subsequent decision to appoint Bishop Barros to a new diocese that ignited the embers in Chile, in a conflagration that derailed this year’s papal visit to Chile.

So the Chilean summit’s principal task is to repair the damage caused by the Holy Father’s visit, which poured salt in wounds instead of oil upon them, as Pope Francis repeatedly questioned the credibility of sex-abuse victims. That task has largely been achieved, with the Holy Father himself expressing his contrition in person to victims for bungling the Chilean sex-abuse file.

The Vatican summit will allow the Holy Father a personal opportunity to apologize to the Chilean bishops for not following their repeated advice on the matter of Bishop Barros, whom he appointed over their strenuous objections.

The Chilean bishops are certainly not victims in this matter generally, but Pope Francis has compounded their errors, frustrated their attempts at correction and damaged their credibility. There is a good deal of healing required there. No doubt the Holy Father will take responsibility for that and seek forgiveness from his Chilean brothers.

Second, the summit needs to “discern together, in the presence of God, the responsibility of all and of each one in these devastating wounds,” in the words of the Vatican statement released May 12 in advance of the summit.

This will be the most difficult task of this summit. The U.S. summit was largely focused on a policy response for future consideration. The Chilean summit has the task of assigning responsibility — personally — for past mistakes.

Pope Francis has clearly confessed that he made errors, but, equally loudly, he has insisted that these were not faulty judgments based on reliable information, but erroneous judgments due to bad information.

The summit will now have to identify who gave the Holy Father that bad information and what the consequences will be for that. There was open discussion before the summit by Chilean bishops about resignations, and it appears quite likely that at least the bishops who came from the ambience of Father Karadima will go.

One drama before the summit swirled around Cardinal Javier Errázuriz, the retired archbishop of Santiago, who serves on the “council of cardinals,” the chief advisory body to Pope Francis. The Holy Father appointed Cardinal Errázuriz to that post even after he had publicly acknowledged that he had not responded adequately to the Karadima affair, which took place on his watch.

In recent weeks, it has become an issue of near-consensus that Cardinal Errázuriz is the most likely source of bad information, given his proximity to Pope Francis and familiarity with the persons involved. The victims who Pope Francis met with last month denounced the cardinal as a “criminal.”

If Cardinal Errázuriz is dismissed from the cardinals’ council and assigned responsibility for the Bishop Barros mess, he will end his career in disgrace. It seems equally likely that he is not eager to be fitted for the role of scapegoat, which may be why he initially announced that he would not attend the Vatican summit at all.

Last week, Austen Ivereigh, biographer and a key defender of Pope Francis, tweeted that both Cardinal Errázuriz and his successor, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, vigorously opposed the Barros appointment. Whatever the truth, it does seem that if Errázuriz does not go, it will be more difficult for Pope Francis to sustain that he was misinformed.

Third, the ethos of the Chilean summit is quite different from the U.S. summit. The latter was largely a crisis-management affair, with the heads of all the relevant Vatican departments meeting in intense meetings to produce a policy response — what eventually would become the “Dallas Charter.”

The Chilean summit involves no Vatican officials, save for Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. Instead of crisis management, Pope Francis has chosen the path of spiritual conversion and renewal, devoting the entire first day to prayer and meditation.

While St. John Paul II welcomed the U.S. cardinals in 2002, the actual meetings were left to his deputies, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger principal among them. The Chilean summit is being run directly by the Pope himself.

The Chilean summit is meant to provide short-term, medium-term and long-term measures for reform. The short term is clear: Who and how many Chilean bishops will be forced to resign and face the consequences on behalf of the Holy Father and their brothers?

The medium term is also fairly clear, as Chile will likely follow the United States and Ireland. There will be a strengthened set of protocols — the Dallas Charter for Chile — and the Holy See will almost surely announce an apostolic visitation. That is standard Vatican procedure in times of crisis. The U.S. summit resulted in an apostolic visitation of seminaries, and the Ireland summit resulted in an apostolic visitation of Ireland’s archdioceses and seminaries.

As for the long term, that is beyond the capacity of the Holy Father and the Chilean bishops to determine today. But much depends on whether there is consensus on the short-term path the Holy Father has laid out for the Chilean bishops. Will they follow it?



Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.

In Advent, we await the coming of Jesus at Christmastime.

What Is Advent Anyway?

EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.