Letter from Rome

What Did Francis Mean with Comments on Children?

St. Peter’s Square was packed on Wednesday morning as some of the many tourists and pilgrims currently overtaking Rome came to see Pope Francis at his first general audience of the Easter Season. The venue and large crowd offered the pope the perfect opportunity to make a major statement. And he did. “You don’t mess with children!” he said to loud applause. At least that’s one way to translate his actual words he used in Italian (con i bambini non si scherza). Francis went on to denounce a long list of situations and ways that children undergo their own “passion” (suffering), which he said was almost always caused by the “errors of adults” and the “system that we adults have created.” He included the following on his list: “poverty, vulnerability, abandonment”; criminal exploitation “for shameful trafficking and commerce” or recruitment into “war and violence”; and suffering “due to the crisis of the family, lack of education and, at times, inhumane living conditions.” He said, “In every case, their childhood is violated in body and soul.” But the pope did not stop there. He went on to say children “too often” suffer when their parents are struggling with “precarious and badly paid work, unbearable hours and inadequate transportation.” He said they are also the “first victims” to “pay the price” when their parents have undertaken “immature unions or irresponsible separations.” According to Francis, kids “suffer the effects of the culture of exasperated, subjective rights,” as well, and thus turn out to be “the most precocious children.” Then he said, cryptically: “Often they absorb violence they are unable to ‘digest,’ and under the watch of grown-ups are forced to accustom themselves to degradation.” Was this the veiled reference to sexual abuse of children that many wish he’d have mentioned more explicitly? Hard to know. Instead, he said this: “In our day, as in the past, the church offers her maternal care to all children and their families.” And he then added this somewhat disjointed pledge: “To the parents and children of our world she brings God’s blessing, maternal tenderness, firm reproach and decisive condemnation.”

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Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who will mark ten years as dean of the College of Cardinals at the end of this month, shows no signs of slowing down. Even though he is just seven months shy of his eighty-eighth birthday, the former papal diplomat looks and moves more like someone in his late sixties or early seventies. And he still wields considerable influence inside the Vatican, especially with the help of his foot soldiers – loyal officials who worked under him during the nearly sixteen years he was secretary of state. During this past decade that he’s been dean of the college (he succeeded Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger when the Bavarian became pope in 2005), Cardinal Sodano’s profile has not diminished. As dean he also holds the title of cardinal-bishop of Ostia. And throughout history the man in this post has often carried out special assignments in the name of the pope. Cardinal Sodano was to do so again on Wednesday evening by leading a special “prayer for Europe” at a small church inside Vatican City. The occasion was the six-hundred-sixtieth anniversary of the crowning of Charles IV in 1355 as the holy Roman emperor. Cardinal Pierre Bertrand de Colombier, Sodano’s predecessor as bishop of Ostia at the time, did the honors at the Vatican in the name of Pope Innocent VI who resided in Avignon (France). The newly crowned emperor was from Prague, where he had become King of Bohemia nine years earlier. During that period, and in the further twenty-two years as emperor, the “scholar king” helped create the Golden Age of Bohemia, which is today the Czech Republic. In fact, it was the Czech Embassy to the Holy See that organized Wednesday’s commemoration of Charles IV and the prayer for Europe. Retired Czech Cardinal Miloslav Vlk was also on hand for what was surely just the beginning of many celebrations that his Central European country will hold to honor its “pater patriae.” All next year there will be special events to mark the seventh centenary of Charles IV’s birth on May 14, 1316.

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There are some people we wish we had met earlier in our lives. Robert Blair Kaiser, Time magazine’s legendary Rome correspondent during the Second Vatican Council, was such a person for me. Bob died on Holy Thursday in Phoenix at the age of eighty-four. He had been battling cancer (and I mean really getting on with life) for several months, busily working on the manuscripts of at least three or four more books he had hoped to complete before going to God. I’m told he actually died with his laptop computer on his chest. For a writer that’s what is called dying with the proverbial boots on. And Kaiser was a writer. He wrote a lot. And incessantly. He didn’t only write about the church, though it and its people were his most beloved topic. (Well, maybe church, God, and American football were all a toss-up – probably women, too!) Kaiser was a real character. But I didn’t meet him until 2001, shortly after I had left Vatican Radio and began as Rome correspondent for The Tablet of London. Bob had moved back to Rome for his first long-term assignment here since the council and the occasion was a dinner party that he hosted for John Allen, newly assigned here by the National Catholic Reporter. Naturally, I had read much of what Kaiser had written at Vatican II and afterwards and was anxious to finally meet him. The weekly dinner parties he threw for theologians, bishops, and journalists during the council were famous. Well, we hit it off immediately and soon became good friends. We were together at one of Bob’s soirées the night the Vatican announced that John Paul II was about to die. We then kept each other “in the loop” as we each reported on the interregnum and conclave. Kaiser had been a Jesuit and continued to be one through and through, even though he left the Society of Jesus before becoming a priest. He was generous as a friend and a colleague, even to a fault. So it was fitting that he should die on Holy Thursday, the great celebration of feasting and serving. And it’s just as fitting that his funeral this Friday should come during the Octave of Easter and on the sixtieth anniversary of the death of one of his Jesuit heroes – Teilhard de Chardin. 

Robert Mickens is English-language editor of La Croix International.

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