PANAMA CITY (AFP) - Pope Francis acknowledged on Saturday (Jan 26) that the Catholic Church was "wounded by sin" in a message addressed to priests and seminarians reeling from sexual abuse scandals and coverups.
In a mass that he officiated at the centuries-old Cathedral of Santa Maria La Antigua in Panama City, Francis warned of the "weariness of hope that comes from seeing a Church wounded by sin, which has so often failed to hear all those cries."
It was the Argentine pontiff's first reference to the sex abuse scandals rocking the Church since he arrived in Panama on Wednesday for a global gathering of young Catholics.
It comes as he prepares to meet senior bishops from around the world in Rome next month to deal with widespread clergy sex abuse of children and young people.
Addressing white robed young seminarians and priests during the mass, the Pope said "a subtle weariness" had entered Church communities that "calls into question the energy resources and viability of our mission in this changing and challenging world."
Those changes, he said, "call into doubt the very viability of religious life in today's world."
But he said that the notion that religious communities had nothing to contribute - that the world "has no room for our message" - would be "one of the worst heresies possible in our time."
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said Friday that next month's meeting in Rome would be a unique chance to provide bishops with "concrete measures" to tackle the "terrible plague" of sex abuse by the clergy.
LUNCH WITH THE POPE
After the mass in the basilica - home of the first diocese on the American mainland - the Pope and the archbishop of Panama, Cardinal Jose Domingo Ulloa, hosted a lunch for 10 young people of different nationalities attending World Youth Day, a tradition at the global gatherings, held every three years.
The Pope's homily to seminarians about the challenges of the priesthood raised the problem of dwindling vocations around the world.
Around the globe, there were 414,969 Catholic priests at the end of 2016, more than 800 less than in 2014, according to the Vatican. There were nearly 700 less people joining the priesthood over the same period.
Francis himself acknowledged at a general audience in August that the scandals of abuse and cover-up by Church leaders has caused a decline in vocations to the priesthood in Ireland.
Later Saturday, the Pope was set to preside over an evening vigil with an expected crowd of 200,000 pilgrims at the 3km Metro Park on the outskirts of Panama.
Francis, 82, drew the largest crowd of his five-day visit on Friday evening at a solemn ceremony commemorating Christ's crucifixion in another Panama park.
In a swipe at US President Donald Trump's plans to build a border wall against Central American migrants, the pope told hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims that it was "senseless" to condemn every immigrant "as a threat to society."
He has used his encounter with young people in Central America this week to speak out strongly in defence of migrants, and address other problems affecting the region such as poverty, drug trafficking, violence and what he said was a regional "plague" of murders of women.