Just when we were thinking we’re all pretty tired of in-flight papal pressers, Pope Francis went and said something. He said a few somethings, in fact, mostly of the pot-stirring variety and in connection with things at best tangentially tied to the trip he’s just concluded to Cyprus and Greece.
In the hard news department, Pope Francis confirmed that he has another meeting with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in the works. “Hilarion,” said Pope Francis, referring to the Moscow Patriarchate’s point man for ecumenical affairs, “will visit me to agree on a possible meeting.”
That’s a big deal, if it happens. Pope Francis met Kirill in Havana in 2016, secured a joint declaration – one that didn’t say much, admittedly – and promised to keep the lines of communication open.
On the one hand, all the talk of ecumenical brotherhood is just that – talk – and after literally a millennium of it, even folks who are members of an institution that thinks in centuries can grow impatient.
On the other hand, “Jaw, Jaw,” is better than “War! War!” roughly as Churchill put it, though when the war has been one of words for a hundred years or so, it’s tough to remember that. Though Pope Francis doesn’t always get credit for it (or govern as though he remembers it), he knows that Western Christianity in its own way has an institutional memory as long as does Eastern Christianity.
However you look at it, there’s something to be said for refusing to disengage from the conversation, such as it is, and letting the Almighty work his work in His good time.
A second meeting with Kirill would be something, indeed. Arguably, it would be more important than the first meeting, even if less spectacular or differently newsworthy.
When it comes to grist for the mill, Pope Francis offered plenty of it in his in-flight remarks en route to Rome from Athens at the end of his weekend visit to Greece and Cyprus, especially regarding the gargantuan kerfuffle in France over the resignation – hastily accepted – of Paris’s Archbishop Michel Aupetit in the wake of an unflattering profile in Le Point alleging Aupetit practiced strongman governance and had an “indiscreet attachment” with a woman some years ago.
“Regarding the Aupetit case,” Pope Francis said, “I ask myself: ‘What did he do that was so serious he had to resign?’ Someone answer me, what did he do? And if we do not know the charge we cannot convict.” Now, that reminded this old Vatican-watcher of Francis’s line on the unfortunate Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, going on three – no – four years ago, now.
After weeks turned into months and stretched over more than a year, Pope Francis continued to support the bishop he’d chosen for the small see in Chile, over the cries of the faithful and the accusations of three survivor-advocates who said Bishop Barros had protected and enabled their abuser.
“The Osorno community is suffering the Pope told a group of pilgrims on the sidelines of a General Audience in May of 2015, “because it’s dumb.” It would take three years and persistent international media scrutiny to get Pope Francis to budge on Bishop Barros.
In 2021, Pope Francis is singing a different tune: “[W]hen the chatter grows, grows, grows and takes away a person’s good name,” said Francis, “he will not be able to govern, because he has lost his reputation.”
It’s not because of Archbishop Aupetit’s alleged transgressions, mind – not even a matter of ascertaining whether the allegations are correct – but “because of people’s chatter,” that Aupetit had to go.
“That is why I accepted the resignation,” Francis said, “not on the altar of truth but on the altar of hypocrisy.” The chatterers’ hypocrisy, one is given to understand.
There’s a pretty straightforward way to deal with such chatter: “Conduct an investigation, OK?”
That’s what Pope Francis said on the plane.
To be perfectly frank, we can debate whether a liaison with a lady back in the day ought to have kept a fellow like Aupetit from rising in the government of the Church, but to hear Francis tell it, the allegations are that Archbishop Aupetit had a “failing on his part, a failing against the sixth commandment, but not total, of small caresses and massages that he did to the secretary.”
“The secretary” may have been a willing player in a game of touch that stopped before any serious moral lapse. Or, she could have been the victim of criminal sexual assault. Either way, it appears Aupetit got handsy with a lady. So, yeah, maybe investigate that?
Also, announce the investigation, publish the report, detail the findings and conclusions.
Memo to Churchmen: When it comes to transparency, you’re doing it wrong.
Pope Francis also told journalists he has yet to read the independent commission report on abuse and coverup in the French Church – the one that’s been out since October – but plans on asking the French bishops about it when they’re in to see him next.
It seems there’s a learning curve on responsibility and accountability, too.
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