Opinion: Catholic Church has a duty to migrants, abuse victims

In the eyes of many, the Catholic Church has lost all moral authority. It must use this year's Easter message as a chance for renewal, to once again stand up for the oppressed in society, says Christoph Strack.

The cross remained. And the world was amazed, touched by the apparent miracle. As firefighters moved into the burning church, they and a camera caught a glimpse of the fire-ravaged sanctuary, the cross seeming to glow through the smoldering darkness, a sign of Europe's Christian tradition.

The catastrophic fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, just before Easter, cast the Catholic Church in a new light. It struck secular France at its heart, and focused the world's attention on this symbol of Europe — one of the continent's few undisputed symbols.

What say does the Church still have?

For once, the many controversies that have surrounded the Roman Catholic Church — the sexual assault and abuse scandals, the infighting and competing alliances —were not on people's minds.

These controversies have severely tarnished the image of the Church, and brought it to a low point. In Australia, a cardinal is in jail for abuse. In France, another church official has received a suspended sentence for covering up abuse. And Pope Francis has defrocked a cardinal and several bishops as a result of the scandals.

Religion | 21.04.2019

All of these well-publicized cases have diminished trust in the Church. Meanwhile, the Church is still learning to be honest with itself.

In light of this crisis, what say does the Church still have in society? The glowing cross in the midst of Notre Dame's destruction is a reminder of what's most important. It stands for Easter's central message, overcoming death — a symbol of the Christian faith.

But if the Church really wants to win back respect, even trust, it needs to take this message seriously. In Roman times, crucifixion was the most shameful form of death, the undisputed symbol of suffering.

Read more: Doris Reisinger: For clergy, 'I was the perfect victim' 

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Church needs to stand up for those in need

In recent days Pope Francis and the official papal preacher, Raniero Cantalamessa, have given this symbol a concrete meaning, in the form of young victims of abuse and desperate migrants.

In his Good Friday homily at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Cantalamessa called Easter the "beginning and the promise of the unique turnaround that is completely just and irreversible concerning humanity's fate.

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"We can say to the poor, the outcasts, those who are trapped in different forms of slavery still occurring in our society: Easter is your feast!"

For this to be more than just empty promises, the Church needs to stand up for these people in need. The pope has been doing this, both symbolically and in real terms, actions for which he has been both reviled and revered. Yet, in this time of populism and national egoism, who else could be a voice for the voiceless?

The pope's example is one thing, but quite another is implementation, including at the local level. And that includes the matter of payments to survivors of sexual assault.

The Church has lost its way, and therefore has lost trust and moral authority. But it can continue to help bear the cross for those carrying it today, as it did 2,000 years ago. This is the story of the Resurrection, of which we've been reminded in recent days by the cross at Notre Dame. It's the Church's duty to make good on that promise.

5 years of Pope Francis

'Buona sera!'

On March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio greeted the crowd in St. Peter's Square in the heart of Rome with a simple "good evening!" moments after the Conclave had selected him as the new pope. He thus began his term with a down-to-earth tone that has marked his stewardship of the Catholic Church ever since.

5 years of Pope Francis

Reform committee 'K9'

The new pontiff immediately tackled topics that the Catholic Church had been discussing before his election. He set up a nine-person cardinal conference to reform the church's organization and direction. The guiding principle: the Roman Catholic Church is not an end in itself. Instead, it should seek to spread the teachings of the Bible and bring the Vatican and its followers closer together.

5 years of Pope Francis

Supporting the weak

The deaths of migrants crossing from Africa to Europe are "a thorn in the heart," said Pope Francis on his first bridge building trip to Lampedusa. At the time of his visit in the summer of 2013, thousands of migrants were on the Italian island hoping to receive legal permits to continue their journey onto the European mainland.

5 years of Pope Francis

Symbol of humility

It aligned perfectly with his own message of the "poor church:" the picture of Pope Francis with the 30-year-old Renault 4 that he had received as a gift from a pastor in Verona. Francis reportedly wanted to drive the car, but was not allowed to due to security concerns. The symbol of modesty has endured.

5 years of Pope Francis

Francis the celebrity

Francis' worldly style quickly made him an icon for progressive Catholics and other Christians. Even non-Christians applauded the pope and rubbed their eyes in amazement at the contrast between Francis and his conservative and academic predecessor, Pope Benedict. After 10 months in office, Francis became the first pope to make the cover of "Rolling Stone" magazine.

5 years of Pope Francis

Controversial bridge builder

Francis takes his task as bridge builder very seriously. He has acted as a mediator between warring parties in civil conflicts in central Africa and Colombia and also helped bring an end to frozen relations between the US and Cuba. With an eye toward the Mexican-US border, he has also urged US President Donald Trump to build bridges rather than walls.

5 years of Pope Francis

Believers and religions from all corners of the earth

Francis has also tried to build bridges between confessions and religions. He prayed at the wailing wall in Jerusalem and met the Grand Mufti Mohammad Hussein. In Egypt, he visited the head of the Coptic Church, Tawadros II, and Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb. In Myanmar, he spoke to Buddhist monks and in Havanna, he met with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kyrill I (pictured).

5 years of Pope Francis

People person

Francis spontaneously wed a couple on an airplane during a trip to Chile in January 2018. The two crew members were traveling with the pope on a flight from the capital Santiago to the northern city of Iquique. They had apparently told Francis of their plans to marry.

5 years of Pope Francis

Criticism from within the church

Francis' reform course has been too radical for some clerics. This poster in Rome accused Francis of showing no mercy within the church. He reportedly also has little time for dissent within the Vatican. Some church members think his course is too secular, his humility too bold, its display too media-orientated. The essence of religiosity – spirituality – some fear, could get lost in it all.

5 years of Pope Francis

Sexual abuse scandal in the Church

But the major challenge now faced by Francis is the problem of sexual abuse, including of minors, by church representatives. In January, the pontiff was heavily criticized for supporting Chilean Bishop Juan Barros (pictured right), accused of an abuse cover-up. On a recent trip to Ireland, the pope begged for forgiveness amid an abuse scandal there. But critics say much more is needed.

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