‘There’s going to be a raid’: A Chilean prosecutor forces Catholic Church to give up secrets

Archbishop of Santiago, Ricardo Ezzati attends his religious service at the Santiago cathedral, in Santiago, Chile, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Aislinn Laing and Cassandra Garrison

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Two special envoys sent by Pope Francis to investigate a child sex abuse scandal in Chile were meeting priests and Church workers at a university in the Chilean capital last month when aides rushed into the room with an alarming development: police and prosecutors were about to start raiding Church offices.

The envoys were 90 minutes into a seminar on how to investigate allegations of sex abuse committed by fellow clergy following revelations that hundreds of children might have been molested. For decades, the Roman Catholic Church in Chile quietly investigated such allegations without alerting police, but it now stands accused, even by Pope Francis himself, of a cover-up that allowed abusers to operate with impunity.

One of the clergymen listening to the envoys was Jaime Ortiz de Lazcano, the legal adviser to Santiago’s archbishop. The aides rushed to his side and told him, “‘Father, go to the (Church offices) because there’s going to be a raid’,” Ortiz later recounted.

Chilean prosecutor Emiliano Arias, who is leading an investigation against alleged sex abuse crimes by Roman Catholic priests, is seen at his work place in Rancagua, Chile, July 18, 2018. Picture taken July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Esteban Medel

Chilean prosecutor Emiliano Arias, who is leading an investigation against alleged sex abuse crimes by Roman Catholic priests, is seen at his work place in Rancagua, Chile, July 18, 2018. Picture taken July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Esteban Medel

Police and prosecutors were staging simultaneous raids on Church offices less than a mile away from the university and outside the capital, looking for evidence of sex crimes the Church had not reported to the police.

The surprise sweeps, ordered by Emiliano Arias, a provincial prosecutor, marked the start of what experts who track sex crimes in the Roman Catholic Church say is one of the most aggressive investigations ever undertaken by a judicial authority anywhere in the world.

Since that cold June afternoon, there have been five more raids on Church offices to seize documents, phones, tablets, and computers, leaving the Vatican scrambling to respond to a rapidly unfolding scandal that is the worst image crisis of Francis’ papacy, now in its sixth year.

Leading the charge against the Church is Arias, 45, who is experienced in fighting organized crime and has a showman’s fondness for taking television news crews on the raids.

Arias told Reuters in an exclusive interview that documents seized by his team contained 30 cases of alleged abuse dating back to 2007 that the Church had not reported to the police. While Reuters was allowed to film his investigators poring through seized documents, he declined to give details from the files because he said they named victims of abuse.

He also alleged that some local Church officials had tried to destroy documents but that his team – made up of two prosecutors, three lawyers and a unit of specialist sex crime police – had salvaged them. He declined to say who had tried to destroy them or how they had tried to get rid of them.

Citizens hold a banner reading "They will not steal our hope" as Archbishop of Santiago Ricardo Ezzati (not pictured) attends his religious service at the Santiago cathedral, in Santiago, Chile, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Citizens hold a banner reading “They will not steal our hope” as Archbishop of Santiago Ricardo Ezzati (not pictured) attends his religious service at the Santiago cathedral, in Santiago, Chile, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

Reuters was unable to independently confirm those assertions.

Víctor Villa Castro, head of communications for the Santiago archbishopric, said he could not comment on any cases under investigation by Arias.

“We would, however, say that we have no knowledge of the destruction of documents, nor the covering-up of crimes,” he said. “The victims are the first, and most important, in this and we will cooperate with the civil authorities in any way that can help to get to the truth of these matters.”

Arias says he wants to arrest both those who perpetrated the abuse and those who he says helped to cover it up. He arrested Oscar Munoz, a top aide to Santiago’s archbishop, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, after seizing church documents in which Munoz confessed to sex crimes. Munoz’s lawyer has acknowledged that some of the accusations in the documents are true but says he will challenge some others.

Arias last week named Ezzati, the most senior Roman Catholic in Chile, as a suspect, accusing him of covering up his aide’s alleged abuses. Ezzati has denied any wrongdoing and promised to cooperate.

Arias said he launched the raids after Church officials in Rancagua, the capital of O’Higgins region, told him he would have to make a formal petition to the Vatican to obtain information he was seeking because it was protected by ‘pontifical secret.’

A spokesman for the Rancagua archbishop’s office said they were told to do this by the Vatican and insisted they were cooperating fully with civil authorities. Vatican spokesman Greg Burke declined to comment.

The Roman Catholic Church says the ‘pontifical secret’ provision in canon law is intended to protect the privacy of all involved in sex abuse claims. Critics say bishops have historically used it as a shield to block inquiries from civil authorities.

“We are not talking about a fraud, or a theft, we are talking about crimes against children,” Arias said in an interview in his office in Rancagua, explaining his decision not to submit the request to the Vatican and instead get a judge to approve the raids.

‘CULTURE OF ABUSE’

Allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy are not new, but under Chilean law governing the separation of church and state, the Catholic Church, a powerful and politically influential institution in this conservative Andean nation, has no legal obligation to report the allegations to police.

The sex abuse scandal came to a head after Pope Francis visited in January and was initially dismissive of claims by survivors of a cover-up by top Church officials there. A backlash among advocates for abuse survivors prompted him to dispatch an investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who produced a confidential 2,300-page report on the allegations.

After receiving the report Pope Francis wrote an open letter to Chile’s faithful in May in which he decried “the culture of abuse and the system of cover-up” by the Church in Chile.

He summoned all 34 of Chile’s bishops to Rome in May where they offered to resign en masse. He has so far accepted five resignations and is expected to accept more.

Arias speaks mostly without emotion during the hour-long interview until he talks about how, according to their accusers, priests convinced their victims that they were doing nothing wrong. Then he displays flashes of anger, sometimes so impassioned that he trips over his words.

“I have seen some tough cases but what shocks me about all this is the abuse of conscience – how an accused (Church worker) has entered into the soul of another person and is capable of convincing him that satisfying his desires is not even a sin,” said Arias, who describes his family as “very Catholic” but says he has lapsed.

Arias said he can prosecute senior Church officials for covering up the abuses if he can prove they knew about the systematic abuse and failed to do anything to stop it, or hid evidence to prevent civil authorities from getting involved.

But first he must prosecute the abusers, said Maria Ines Horvitz, a senior lawyer at the State Defense Council of Chile, a public agency that provides legal advice to the Chilean state. And to do that he must find cases within the 10-year statute of limitations – a potential problem that has bedeviled prosecutors in other countries – or turn to the one court in Chile that still handles cases from before roughly 2000, which is backlogged.

PROSECUTORIAL ZEAL

The national public prosecutor instructed all provincial prosecutors last month to pursue sex abuse allegations more vigorously.

But Arias has gone much further than his colleagues in his zeal to bring prosecutions. He has repeatedly widened his remit, from a handful of cases to dozens, from his provincial base to the capital, and from investigating claims of abuse by 14 priests in Rancagua to the alleged complicity of Ezzati, Santiago’s archbishop, himself.

As a result of his uncovering new cases in Church documents, the national prosecutor last week authorized him to expand his investigation into other regions.

BishopAccountability.Org, which tracks allegations of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, says the only comparable investigation into sex abuse in the Church was in Belgium in 2010 when police launched coordinated raids on Church offices and the home of a cardinal. That investigation did not lead to any prosecutions because of the statute of limitations.

Arias is carrying out his investigation in the absence of any public backing from the center-right Sebastian Pinera government. Shortly before becoming president in March, Pinera criticized the Church for its “defensive” attitude to the scandal and “insufficient” investigations but has remained silent on the issue since.

A government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

WHY NOW?

For decades allegations of sexual abuse by priests swirled through Chilean society, but little was done to address them. The Church was largely left to police itself.

But this year that suddenly changed.

Church watchers say several factors contributed to this watershed moment – the international attention received by several victims who went public; the pope’s initial poor handling of the claims; and the ripple effect of the global #MeToo movement.

The Church’s grip on Chile is also weakening, public opinion polling shows, even though the formerly predominately Catholic nation remains largely conservative on social issues.

The waning support for the Church was evident when the pope visited Chile in January – there were many empty seats at his public masses. This was “a turning point for Francis’ papacy” a Vatican official said. “It is when he realized that he was listening to the wrong people about the real situation in Chile.”

For Arias, the pope’s subsequent mea culpa that the Church had covered up abuses gave him the impetus he needed to act. “His description of what was happening in Chile was powerful and should concern us all,” he said.

(Reporting by Aislinn Lange and Cassandra Garrison in Santiago; Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Editing by Ross Colvin and Paul Thomasch)

Exorcism by cellphone: Beating the devil in the 21st century

A priest holds a leaflet advertising a course for aspiring exorcists in Rome, Italy April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) – About 200 aspiring exorcists gathered on Monday for a week-long course in casting out demons – including by cellphone if necessary – amid increased demand for the service among Roman Catholics.

Participants, many of them priests, will attend lectures and talks on a range of topics including witchcraft in Africa, how to tell the difference between demonic possession and mental illness, and a step-by-step guide to casting out demons.

Cardinal Ernest Simoni of Albania drew strong interest in the first session by citing the use of cellphones in exorcisms.

“They call me and we speak and that’s how I do it,” the 89-year-old Simoni told Reuters after his address, explaining how he would read the prayers of exorcism in Latin over the phone just as he would if performing the lengthy rite in person.

Although no official figures are available, Catholic Church officials say the number of demonic possessions is on the rise.

“The number of exorcisms has definitely increased over the years, as the requests to carry out exorcisms has increased,” said Professor Giuseppe Ferrari, an organizer of the “Course on Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation” at the Vatican-approved Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University in Rome.

“This course is useful because it prepares the priests who carry out exorcisms to have a complete vision, a multi-disciplined view of the situation,” he added.

Father Benigno Palilla, an exorcist for the diocese of Palermo, told Vatican Radio in February that he had performed about 50 exorcisms in the past two and a half years.

“AUXILIARY EXORCISTS”

As well as licensed exorcists, theologians, psychologists, medical doctors, criminologists, and Church historians will also address the course participants.

With a nod to U.S. thriller writer Dan Brown, whose novels such as “Angels and Demons” often concern the Catholic Church, one lecture is entitled “Angels and Demons in Sacred Scripture and the Teachings of the Church”.

Students, who include several dozen women, will receive a certificate, though Ferrari stressed that it would not entitle them to cast out demons. Only priests can perform exorcisms, and only with their bishop’s permission or a license.

Lay Catholics, including women, can be what a course entry called “auxiliary exorcists,” meaning they can be present at the rite, pray and give moral support to the priest casting out the demon.

Simoni, the Albanian cardinal, said exorcisms should only be attempted after doctors are unable to explain the behavior of a person deemed to be demonically possessed.

“Discernment is important,” he said, stressing several times that he only saw himself as the instrument of a higher power.

“It is Jesus who liberates. It is his power,” he said. “In all the exorcisms I have done, the Lord has helped me. I am not the great one.”

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Gareth Jones)

For one Catholic parish in China, division and confusion as historic deal looms

FILE PHOTO: A Catholic faithful holds a rosary during a mass on Holy Thursday at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing, China March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

By James Pomfret

YINGTAN, China (Reuters) – Like many Chinese Catholics, Lin Jinqing was shocked when news trickled through to him of an impending deal between Beijing and the Vatican that would end a long dispute over control of the Church in China.

As a member of a so-called “underground” church – one that is not sanctioned by Beijing – in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, Lin and fellow parishioners have for years been attending clandestine Bible readings and services.

In recent years, as Chinese authorities cracked down on underground services as part of broader restrictions on religious groups, he has also started attending services at state-sanctioned churches in order to avoid trouble.

“The pressure on underground church members has been quite big,” said Lin, who lives in Yingtan, a gritty city of one million people in southeastern Jiangxi province.

Now, the deal between China and the Vatican is worrying him.

“Many of us don’t know what to think,” he said. He said that the underground churchgoers wanted more freedom to worship. “But at what cost?”

A senior Vatican source told Reuters last month that a framework accord was ready and could be signed in months. The expected deal would allow China to appoint bishops, in consultation with the Vatican, and eventually could lead to the restoration of full diplomatic relations between the two sides for the first time in seven decades.

Until now, China and the Vatican have not recognized most bishops named by each other. Underground Catholics like Lin have stayed loyal to Vatican-appointed bishops – and the Pope.

News of the impending deal has split communities of Catholics across China, according to some critics like Cardinal Joseph Zen in Hong Kong.

Some fear greater suppression should the Vatican cede greater control to Beijing, but others want to see rapprochement.

“We hope for an early establishment of ties. It will definitely bring advantageous policies, and greater openness to the Church,” said Father Pan Yinbao, a priest affiliated with the official Church in Yingtan, in an interview with Reuters. “There is a need for change. There is a need for adjustment.”

Lin’s apprehensions, meanwhile, are echoed in WeChat groups used by Catholics, and the few uncensored religious news sites still viewable in China like www.tianzhujiao.life – as is cautious criticism.

“Churchgoers stay hopeful on the Vatican-China deal, but no one wants to live in a bird cage or only fighting for a larger space in the bird cage,” read one post by a blogger named Priest Shanren. “People are born to be free.”

The Chinese Communist Party has long sought to control organized groups, including religious ones, whose devotees can only worship under the auspices of state-sanctioned bodies, like the Catholic Patriotic Association.

Of the 146 bishops now in China, about a third are affiliated with the underground church.

A source close to the Vatican based in Hong Kong said that there would be a tightening of religious freedoms following a restructuring of China’s religious affairs authority this year, to bring it directly under party, rather than state control.

A Chinese government statement explaining the move said it would help China “steadfastly persevere in the direction of Sinicizing our country’s religions”.

This week, Guo Xijin, a bishop in the southeastern province of Fujian was detained by authorities for refusing to officiate Easter services with an official bishop. Guo, who is reportedly one of two Chinese bishops the Vatican has asked to retire or accept demotion to make way for a Beijing-backed one, couldn’t be reached by Reuters for comment.

Some critics and Chinese Catholics say rapprochement between Beijing and the Vatican could drive an even deeper wedge between the faithful in China, and engender some bitterness toward the Vatican.

TORN LOYALTIES AND FACTIONS

Those divisions are evident in places like Jiangxi province, where there are factions even within the underground Church.

When the province’s then 92-year-old Vatican-appointed bishop, Thomas Zeng Jingmu, retired in 2012, one faction, led by a relative, split from another underground faction loyal to the Vatican’s appointed successor, Bishop John Peng Weizhao.

The faction loyal to Peng, which now has at least six priests leading underground Masses, is likely to remain opposed to any deal and lead to the erosion of the Vatican’s authority, according to a source with close ties to underground Catholics in Jiangxi’s three dioceses.

She said that some devout Catholics across China were prepared to cut ties with the Vatican over a deal. “If they’re abandoned by the Vatican they’ll pray to God themselves at home,” said the source who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the matter.

“The Vatican has done the calculations and they feel it doesn’t matter if they abandon the underground, because they are a relatively small group, and will sooner or later fade away.”

Peng, who was detained by authorities for six months in 2014, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign minister, said at a conference on Chinese Catholicism in Rome, that while the faithful in China had experienced “great suffering” in the past, the country was seeking to regain a central position in the world and so efforts should be made to forge Catholicism with “Chinese forms”.

 

RELIGIOUS SPIN

While some dioceses in coastal Fujian and in inland Hebei have large clusters of underground Catholics, Jiangxi’s are less influential. Many in the area, including 62-year-old Liu Ande, have switched to the official Church.

“We are sons and daughters of God but for our country, we must listen to the leaders here,” Liu said after a Sunday Mass at the official Catholic church in Yingtan.

The church is a shabby building in need of paint wedged into a residential courtyard with several cracked windows, where 48 mostly elderly Catholics listened to a sermon by Father Pan.

After Mass, on the steps of the church, some of the tensions of the impending deal were laid bare.

Liu asked Pan to verify if the Vatican had asked another Bishop in southern China besides Guo, to step down.

“Is it true? We’ve heard it’s true? It should be true,” said Liu. “Everyone is opposed to this.”

But Pan, the official priest, now dressed in a blue fleece jacket after mass, disputed the standoff.

“Whether it’s true or not isn’t clear,” he told Liu, who began nodding. “There’s a lot of news on the internet.”

Another worshipper dressed in a pink coat, who would only give her surname as Li, said she would be praying for a better tomorrow.

“If you’ve done bad things, you must then try to do lots of good things,” she said. “There shouldn’t be tensions,” she added. “We are all just trying to save our own souls.”

(Additional reporting by Anita Li in Shanghai; Philip Pullella in Rome; Greg Torode, Venus Wu and Chermaine Lee in Hong Kong; Editing by Philip McClellan)

Unholy war of words breaks out over Vatican rapprochement with China

A believer prays during a weekend mass at an underground Catholic church in Tianjin in November 10, 2013.

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – An unholy war of words has broken out among Vatican and Catholic officials over the Holy See’s rapprochement with Communist China, with cardinals, archbishops and priests caught in an undiplomatic crossfire.

In the past few days, one cardinal has accused another of spouting “nonsense” and a priest accused an archbishop of being so naive about China that he was like Alice in Wonderland.

The exchanges came as the Vatican and China moved closer to an accord on the appointment of bishops in what would be an historic breakthrough and a precursor to a resumption in diplomatic relations after 70 years.

Any deal was bound to be controversial because of concessions the Vatican would have to make to a government that has kept religion under its thumb. But the accusations have become exceptionally shrill as diplomacy has collided with passion.

Father Bernardo Cervellera, head of the AsiaNews agency, which specializes in China, accused Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, of being “naive”.

In an interview this week, Sanchez Sorondo praised China, saying that Chinese today were those who are perhaps best implementing Church teachings on social issues, such as concern for the environment and human dignity.

“We can understand that in the heat of desire for relations between China and the Vatican one can be doting and exalt Chinese culture … but adulating China is an ideological affirmation that makes a laughingstock of the Church,” Cervellera wrote in an editorial headlined “Sanchez Sorondo in Wonderland”.

Catholics in China are split between “underground” communities that recognize the pope and a state-controlled group where bishops are appointed by the government in collaboration with local Church communities. Critics have blasted the deal because it would involve accepting the legitimacy of bishops appointed by the government.

The war of words also reached the stratosphere of Church hierarchy, cardinal versus cardinal.

The Vatican rebuked Cardinal Joseph Zen, 86, the outspoken former bishop of Hong Kong, after he accused it of “selling out” China’s underground Catholics to the communists. Zen, known for his feistiness, did not take it lying down.

He accused the Vatican’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, of speaking “nonsense,” after Parolin said in an interview that the aim of dialogue was the greater good and that the Vatican understood the “pain” of Chinese Catholics.

Zen retorted in his blog on Monday: “Oh! This man who lacks faith, how would he understand what is real pain?!”

A Vatican source has said the deal could be signed in the next few months. The clerical gloves are expected to stay off at least until then.

(Additional reporting By Venus Wu in Hong Kong, editing by Larry King)

Vatican urges Venezuela’s Maduro to suspend new legislative superbody

Vatican urges Venezuela's Maduro to suspend new legislative superbody

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – The Vatican called on Friday for Venezuela’s government to suspend its new legislative superbody and made a direct appeal to the security forces to avoid excessive force in dealing with opposition protests.

Current initiatives including the constituent assembly “create a climate of tension and conflict and take the future for granted”, the Holy See Secretariat of State said in a statement, calling for the changes to be prevented or suspended.

The spiritual home of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics also urged Venezuela’s security forces to avoid “excessive and disproportionate use of force”. More than 120 people have died in four months of opposition protests.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has defended the newly minted superbody, created as a result of a vote on Sunday, and which countries around the world have criticized as a bid to indefinitely extend his rule.

The Vatican statement called for a negotiated solution following the same guidelines the Vatican set out last year when it brokered talks between the government and the opposition which later broke down.

It also called on Venezuela to respect human rights and the country’s current constitution.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie, editing by Alister Doyle)

World cardinals back pope after anonymous attacks by conservatives

A worker covers with a banner reading "illegal poster" a poster depicting Pope Francis and accusing him of attacking conservative Catholics, in Rome, Italy,

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Senior Roman Catholic cardinals from the around the world defended Pope Francis on Monday against a spate of recent attacks from conservatives challenging his authority.

In an unusual move, nine cardinals in a group advising Francis on Vatican economic and structural reforms issued a statement expressing “full support for the pope’s work” and guaranteeing “full backing for him and his teachings”.

The statement was unusual in that the cardinals – from Italy, Chile, Austria, India, Germany, Congo, the United States, Australia and Honduras – customarily issue statements only at the end of their meetings, which are held four times a year.

The statement said the cardinals expressed their solidarity with the pope “in light of recent events,” which Vatican sources said was a clear reference to the attacks.

On Feb. 4, mystery activists working under cover of dark plastered posters around Rome criticizing the pope for moves seen as targeting conservatives in Church.

They featured a picture of a stern-faced pontiff and the slogan: “Where’s your mercy?” The posters accused Francis of several controversial acts, including what they called “the decapitation of the Knights of Malta.”

This was a reference to an ancient Catholic order of knights which is now a worldwide charity. Its former grand master, or top leader, handed in his resignation after he and his main backer, American Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, lost a battle with the Vatican for control of the order.

Last week, a fake electronic edition of the Vatican daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, was sent anonymously to Vatican officials and journalists.

It poked fun at the pope for not having responded to a rare public challenge in November by four conservative cardinals, led by Burke, who accused him of sowing confusion on important moral issues such as homosexuality and divorce.

Cardinals are the highest-ranking Catholic prelates below the pope and those under 80 years old can vote in a conclave to elect his successor.

Burke has become a rallying point for conservatives who think the pope is taking the 1.2 billion member Church too far to the left and accuse him of showing more concern for social issues such as poverty and climate change than moral doctrine.

The cardinal was demoted from a senior Vatican position in 2014 and shunted to the post of chaplain to the Knights of Malta. On Jan 28, he was effectively sidelined from that post as well when the pope appointed a delegate to help run the order until a new grand master is elected.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Pope decries ‘malevolent resistance’ to needed Vatican reforms

Pope Francis (L) speaks during the traditional greetings to the Roman Curia in the Sala Clementina (Clementine Hall) of the Apostolic Palace, at the Vatican

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis decried “malevolent” internal resistance to his campaign to reform the Vatican bureaucracy on Thursday and said lay men and women should get top jobs if they are more qualified than clerics.

For the third year running, Francis used his annual Christmas greetings to the Roman Catholic Church’s central bureaucracy, or Curia, to lecture the assembled cardinals, bishops and other department heads on the need for change.

The Argentine-born pontiff, who in his 2014 address said the Italian-dominated Curia suffered from “spiritual Alzheimer’s”, listed 12 guidelines to reform including better coordination, dedication to service and openness to “the signs of the times”.

Speaking forcefully, he acknowledged that there had been resistance from some self-centered members of the bureaucracy, some of it open, some of it hidden and some hypocritical.

“But there has also been some malevolent resistance,” Francis, who turned 80 last week, told cardinals, bishops and monsignors gathered in the Vatican’s frescoed Sala Clementina.

“This (type) germinates in distorted minds and presents itself when the devil inspires wicked intentions, often in lambs’ clothing,” he said.

Pope Francis speaks during the traditional greetings to the Roman Curia in the Sala Clementina (Clementine Hall) of the Apostolic Palace, at the Vatican,

Pope Francis speaks during the traditional greetings to the Roman Curia in the Sala Clementina (Clementine Hall) of the Apostolic Palace, at the Vatican, December 22, 2016. REUTERS/Gregorio Borgia/Pool

Last month, four conservative cardinals made a rare public challenge to the pope over some of his teachings in a major document on the family, accusing him of sowing confusion on important moral issues and requesting clarification.

Francis has not directly answered them but said some people displayed “a certain legalism” and misunderstood the document.

After his election in 2013, Francis set out to reform the Curia, whose intrigues, alleged corruption and leaks were widely held responsible for the decision by his predecessor Benedict XVI to become the first pope in six centuries to resign.

He has shut departments deemed inefficient or outdated and merged others. He has also worked to make the Vatican’s often murky finances transparent according to international standards.

In his address, Francis said Curia officials must be less concerned with careers or promotions and more with spiritual renewal, humility and a sober lifestyle.

He said the reforms, in which a number of ranking members have lost or will lose power, would be continuous and deep and Curia officials should implement them with “courage … firm decisions … (and) unconditional obedience”.

They would not be like “plastic surgery to remove wrinkles,” he said, adding: “Dear brothers, it is not wrinkles that the Church should fear, but stains.”

The Curia, he said, had to be more multinational, more multicultural and, where possible, less clerical.

“It would be opportune to foresee access (to Curia jobs) for a greater number of lay faithful, especially in those departments where they can be more competent than clerics …,” he said, adding that lay men and women should be “integrated in leadership roles”.

Francis called the age-old bureaucratic practice of promoting someone to get them out of the way was “a cancer” that had to end.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Don’t turn backs on refugees, Pope Francis says at Palm Sunday service

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) – Pope Francis, leading the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in Palm Sunday services leading up to Easter, on Sunday criticized those who he said were washing their hands of the fate of desperate refugees.

Francis blessed palm and olive branches in St. Peter’s Square before tens of thousands of people to commemorate Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem the week before the crowd turned against him and he was crucified.

He departed from his prepared homily to appeal to nations not to turn their backs on refugees.

After mentioning the part of the gospel recounting how Jesus was denied justice and abandoned to his fate, Francis added in unscripted remarks:

“I am thinking of so many other people, so many marginalized people, so many asylum seekers, so many refugees. There are so many who don’t want to take responsibility for their destiny.”

Over 1.1 million migrants fleeing war and failed states flowed into the European Union in 2015 and the influx has continued, prompting countries straddling the main migration corridor through the Balkans to the wealthy north of the EU to seal their borders, trapping tens of thousands in Greece.

Last week, Macedonia trucked 1,500 migrants back to Greece after they forced their way across the border. Images of exhausted migrants fording a fast-moving stream in the cold were splashed across Italian newspapers.

Under a European Union deal reached last week with Turkey, all migrants and refugees, including Syrians, who cross to Greece illegally by sea will be sent back to Turkey once they are registered and their asylum claims have been processed.

In return, the EU will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with more money, early visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership negotiations.

Palm Sunday marks the start of the busiest week in the Catholic liturgical calendar.

Francis has two events on Holy Thursday, including a ritual where he washes and kisses the feet of 12 people commemorating Christ’s gesture of humility toward his apostles on the night before he died.

The pope presides at two services on Good Friday, including a candlelight Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession around Rome’s Colosseum.

He leads an Easter vigil service on Saturday and on Easter Sunday he delivers his twice-yearly “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing and message from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.

(Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Putin may benefit from historic meeting of pope and patriarch

VATICAN CITY/MOSCOW (Reuters) – A meeting between Pope Francis and Russia’s Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on Friday could not happen without a green light from President Vladimir Putin, diplomats and analysts say, and he may be one the beneficiaries.

In a landmark step towards healing the 1,000-year-old rift between the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity, the two religious leaders will meet in Havana on the pope’s way to Mexico.

“There is no doubt the Kremlin took part in making this decision,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin adviser in Moscow. “Otherwise the meeting would not have happened.”

Putin has aligned himself closely with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), making Friday’s two-hour private meeting not just a religious event but politically charged as well, especially when Russia is at odds with the West over Ukraine and Syria.

“Putin clearly sees the value of his relationship with the ROC and the ROC’s relationship with the pope,” said a diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“He understands the pope is a big player on the world stage and I think that he would be happy about having the possibility of using the improved relations between the Vatican and the ROC to get the Kremlin’s view across to the Vatican,” he said.

Alexander Volkov, Russian church spokesman, said that while a joint declaration will dwell on the Middle East’s persecuted Christians, tensions between Russia and the West may be brought up in the talks.

“This is one of the burning issues and we can assume it will be reflected in the dialogue. It can’t be ruled out,” he said.

DIFFERENT POPE, WARMER TIES

Relations between Moscow and the Vatican have improved steadily since the reign of Pope John Paul II, a Pole who had an inbred suspicion of Russia and who died in 2005. But Francis is an Argentinian with no historical baggage associated with the East-West divisions of Europe after World War Two.

In 2013, Moscow was pleased after Francis opposed a proposed U.S.-led military intervention in Syria, a key Russian ally.

Last year, Catholics in Ukraine accused Francis of being soft with Moscow when he described violence in Eastern Ukraine as “fratricidal”. They saw it as a product of foreign aggression.

One commentator said Francis’ view was perhaps “blurred by ecumenical correctness” in the hopes of a meeting with Kirill.

In an interview with Reuters, Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Vatican office for Christian unity, was non-committal when asked if the meeting could help Putin. “I think Putin agrees with the meeting, but I can’t say more,” he said.

Russia’s ambassador to the Vatican, Alexander Avdeyev, said the two Churches organised the meeting but that it could “help politicians and diplomats” with policy decisions.

“The two Churches clearly understood that all threats and challenges in the world threaten both of them and cooperation has to be stepped up to fight nationalism and terrorism,” he told Reuters.

The meeting, which will put another historic notch on Francis’ legacy, came after two years of secret contacts in Rome, Moscow and Havana, Vatican and diplomatic sources said.

Agreement was clinched last autumn but the ROC wanted to keep it under wraps for several more months, one Vatican source said.

The Russian Church had long accused Catholics of trying to convert people from Orthodoxy after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The Vatican denied the charges and both sides say that issue has largely been resolved.

One sore point remains the fate of church properties that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin confiscated from Eastern Rite Catholics in Ukraine and gave to the Russian Orthodox there. After the fall of communism, Eastern Rite Catholics took back many church properties, mostly in western Ukraine.

The meeting was brokered by Cuban President Raul Castro, who hosted the pope in Cuba last year. The Vatican helped arrange the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States.

(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Vatican Admits Consideration of Canonization of Mother Teresa

A Vatican spokesman has confirmed that Mother Teresa could be canonized during the Jubilee for Mercy in 2016.

Fr. Federico Lombardi said nothing has been formally scheduled but that her canonization is “a working hypothesis.”

“There is no official date but you can say that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints is studying the cause,” Fr. Lombardi told Catholic News Agency.

A celebration of the life of Mother Teresa has been scheduled as part of the events for the Jubilee of Mercy.  The possible canonization would take place the day before the scheduled remembrance on September 5, 2016.

September 4th is scheduled to be a day of jubilee for workers and volunteers of mercy.

The canonization for Teresa has significant support within the church.

“Who more than Mother Teresa can be recognized today as one who lived the works of mercy, and who more than she could be capable of sustaining the commitment of millions of people – men, women, youth – in various forms of volunteer work express the beauty of the mercy of the Church?” Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization said.

The Vatican admits planning would be necessary for a canonization because over 300,000 people came to the Vatican for Teresa’s beatification ceremony in 2003.