What to make of a pope who tells young Catholics to go back to their dioceses and “make a mess!”
Or, allowing for ambiguity in translation, “stir up trouble!” or “shake things up!”
However the words were rendered into English, one thing was clear: Pope Francis believes that the old ways of the church are not enough in today’s world, that it needs new approaches, a shake-up – which of course is what the pope is trying to do at the Vatican, as well.
Here’s how the Vatican officially translated the pope’s remarks, delivered off-the-cuff to Argentinian pilgrims at World Youth Day in Brazil:
“I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses, I want the noise to go out, I want the church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves. The parishes, the schools, the institutions are made for going out ... if they don’t, they become an NGO, and the church cannot be an NGO. May the bishops and priests forgive me if some of you create a bit of confusion afterward. That’s my advice. Thanks for whatever you can do.”
That’s a radical message from a pope, and yet it was perfectly in line with Francis’ effort to move the church out of the sacristy and into the street, away from theological debates and toward real-life encounters with the suffering and marginalized.
Throughout his seven days in Brazil, the pope tried to do just that. He lunched with young people and heard their confessions, prayed with inmates and visited recovering drug addicts, embraced the sick at a local hospital, chatted with a poor family in a Rio de Janeiro slum and challenged the world’s powerful to end social and economic inequality.
The pope communicated solidarity in small ways that caught people’s attention, too: asking trash pickers to join him on the papal platform for the Stations of the Cross, for example, or arriving in a simple grey sedan instead of an armored limousine.
His meetings and gestures humanized the church’s social teaching, making it less abstract. In one pastoral setting after another, the pope himself came across more as a figure from the Gospel than an official from Rome.
For those and other reasons, Pope Francis can look at his first foreign trip as a success on many fronts.
-- He critiqued what he called a “culture of selfishness and individualism,” saying that an economic model based on material gain has been unable to feed the hungry or make people truly happy. That’s a message that seemed to resonate with young people, especially when the pope took aim at the corruption and economic injustice that’s helped spawn recent protests in Brazil.
-- The pope implicitly addressed the challenge raised by Pentecostal and evangelical communities, which have attracted many Brazilian Catholics over the last 30 years. He did so primarily by showing attention to spiritual needs of the suffering – the kind of attention many say they have not found in the Catholic Church.
On another level, Francis’ insistence on the Gospel of the poor stood in marked contrast with the “prosperity theology” espoused by some Brazilian Christian preachers.
And while he spoke of an “exodus” of Catholics in recent decades, the pope made clear that his evangelization strategy is not so much about restoring the Catholic Church’s numbers, but revitalizing its energy throughout Latin America and the world. As he told young people at the closing Mass, “The church needs you, your enthusiasm, your creativity and the joy that is so characteristic of you.”
-- He gave some strong marching orders to Catholic ministers and pastoral workers, telling them to promote a “culture of encounter” with those outside the church: “We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel! It is not enough simply to open the door in welcome, but we must go out through that door to seek and meet the people!”
And taking a page from his own playbook, the pope encouraged ministers to reject intellectualism and speak the language of simplicity. He spelled it out bluntly: “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying.”
-- Francis connected with the young – but reminded them to keep in mind the elderly. It was clear that the pope sees young people in the church as part of a larger community, not as an isolated subset that needs a special “marketing” approach by the hierarchy.
He emphasized that young people need to appreciate the experience and wisdom of elders, who are often forgotten by society. In this way, he introduced a new theme into World Youth Day: that the young and the old are sometimes victims of our modern economy, which treats both categories as disposable. "We do the elderly an injustice. We set them aside as if they had nothing to offer us," he said.
-- In his speeches, the pope had little or nothing to say about hot button issues like abortion, birth control, gay marriage or sexual permissiveness. But at the closing Mass, he asked to personally bless a baby girl born with anencephaly, a condition in which a large part of the brain is missing. Most children with the condition do not survive or are aborted. The pope’s gesture, in the view of Vatican officials, spoke much louder than a speech about abortion.
-- The 76-year-old pope’s high energy level during the trip, especially his enthusiasm in crowd settings, put to rest any concerns about his age or health.
As he heads back to Rome, the success of this trip is going to segue into tough challenges. When September rolls around, he’ll go from a long honeymoon into a season of expected results on a wide variety of issues, including Curia reform, the Vatican bank, collegiality and governance.
At some point, he’ll be expected to spell out some details behind the popular phrases like “going to the outskirts” to evangelize. Does that mean building bridges to disaffected Catholics? Opening up the sacraments for those who are divorced and remarried? Bringing more lay men and women in to decision-making positions at the highest church levels? Asking bishops and priests to give up some of the material privileges they enjoy?
We’ll see in coming months if he takes his own advice and shakes things up at the Vatican. And we’ll see if he makes a bit of a “mess” along the way.