The recent words of Pope Francis to the youth gathered in Rio de Janeiro last month spread like wild-fire: “I want to tell you something. What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses! I want to see the church get closer to the people. I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!”
It has been interesting to watch the reactions of Catholics to the Pope's words. Some have swooned at these words, waxing nostalgic about how he reminds them of Blessed John XXIII. "Dust off the picket signs and the blow horns everyone! Let’s go march on the hierarchy and make a mess. You heard the Pope, he wants us to! Time to challenge this male-dominated and homophobic church and enter the modern world."
And then you have those who have interpreted the Pope’s words in the same way, but with horror: “He’s as bad as Obama. Next thing you know he is going to be telling us that there was no virgin birth."
But what about actually seeking to understand the Pope’s comment, rather than use it as a launching point to promote an agenda or instigate panic?
What did the Pope mean when he said “Make a mess?” I would submit that what he was saying is not immediately apparent. He was speaking in another language and off the cuff, and he used words that were open to an incredible range of interpretation when not understood in context. There are few words in the English language that say so little as the word 'mess.'
So what was the context of his remark? “We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder,” Pope Francis said, “but I want trouble in the dioceses!” The Pope was first referencing the mess in Rio de Janeiro: the mess in the streets. Anyone who watched the coverage during World Youth Day saw how the celebrations shut down the city, they snarled traffic, they brought normal life to a standstill. In this context it becomes clear that the Pope is expressing a desire that the Church be for society the same kind of visible and tangible and yes, “messy” presence of Christ that the youth were for the people of Rio this July. “I want to see the church get closer to the people,” he said.
The pope’s next line is an important interpretive key for us to further understand what he meant by this mess: “I want to get rid of clericalism, the mundane, this closing ourselves off within ourselves, in our parishes, schools or structures. Because these need to get out!”
Those who have been reading Pope Francis since he was elected will recognize in this statement a reference to a dominant theme of his teaching as archbishop, of his address to the cardinals prior to being elected pope, and of many of his addresses and other public statements since beginning his pontificate: the rejection of what he terms ‘clericalism,’ and particularly of a clericalization of the laity, and the insistence that the Church is not and cannot ever be viewed in merely mundane or secular organizational terms, but that the Church is first and foremost a spiritual reality: the living Body of Christ in the world.
Many have read excerpts from an interview then Cardinal Bergoglio gave in 2011, when he spoke of sickness in the Church. Asked about the role of the laity, the cardinal did not mince words: “There is a problem, and I’ve said it many times before: the temptation of clericalization. We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We don’t realize it, but it is like our [clerical state] being contagious. And the laity –not all, but many,- ask us on their knees to clericalize them because it’s more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of the way [of life] of the laity. We don’t have to fall into that trap. It is a complicity that is sinful. Neither to clericalize nor to ask to be clericalized. The lay person is a lay person and has to live like a lay person with the strength of baptism, which renders him capable of being leaven of God’s love in society itself, to create and sow hope, to proclaim the faith, not from the pulpit but from his or her daily life. And carrying the cross like we all do. The lay person’s cross, not the priest’s cross. Let the priest carry the priest’s cross. God gave him shoulder enough to bear it.”
And so when the Pope speaks of a ‘mess,’ I would submit that it is pretty clear that he is not talking about the mess of a protest in front of a chancery. Instead, I think he is speaking of a mess that shares more in common with the commotion that first clogged the streets of Jerusalem 2000 years ago and has continued to disrupt the day to day life of men and women since. The mess that ensues when the divine breaks into the human, when the kingdom that is not of this world encounters the kingdoms of this world. In short, the mess of the cross.
Where is the cross encountered, where is the mess to be made today? Certainly there are crosses and messes inside the Church, but this is not where Pope Francis wants the laity to focus. He wants them to focus on the streets. That has been the Pope’s continual message: that the laity stop messing around in the sacristy and in the sanctuary and get out into the world. That they start messing around in the world, bringing their faith to bear in daily life and witnessing to the transformative power of the Gospel in the street. Let the Pope worry about corruption in the curia. Let the Bishops worry about what is in the Catechism. Let the priests worry about how to offer Mass. The pope, the bishop, the priest: the hierarchy is in service to the Church, but it is not the Church. The Church must extend to the dining rooms, living rooms, bedrooms, voting booths, and classrooms where the laity live: and the hierarchy cannot and should not interfere in spreading the Gospel in these parts of society. These places are the specific domain and responsibility of the laity; it is in their homes and communities that Christ desires to work through all baptized men and women to build his kingdom, his body, the Church.
As Cardinal and now as Pope, Francis is identifying one the most serious ailments facing the Church in our time, particularly in the West. The doors of the Church were flung open during the Second Vatican Council, but rather than the laity rushing out to meet the modern age, it seems that many were confused and rushed inside the sanctuary and sacristy and pulpit. The doors were opened, but they went the wrong way.
Instead of bringing others to encounter our Lord in the Eucharist and confession, parishes were embroiled in battles over where to place the tabernacle and rivalries about who would get to be an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. Instead of planning ways to increase understanding of the Gospel so that families would live according to Christ's teachings in their communities, religious educators debated translations and gender inclusivity and ecclesiastical authority. Instead of enriching programs that would foster direct service to the poor and the needy, the imprisoned and the sick, pastoral councils were preoccupied with making the parish a ‘welcoming community,’ organizing small sharing groups, and planning the next bean supper.
It is this welcoming and comfortable self-referential country club of pseudo-spiritual communitarianism that the pope wants replaced with authentic parish life: with the messiness of a community that is trying to live the Gospel in the day to day world. He desires for us to build Catholic communities that do not seek to be the end in and of themselves, but to be a source of strength and encouragement for those who are working to live the mess that is necessarily entailed in following Christ in our families, the streets, the schools, the courthouses, the hospitals, the nursing homes, the tenements, the prisons, the workplaces, the malls, the parks and neighborhoods. He reminds us that the purpose of the Church is not to be a locus of neat and tidy worship services that serve as a refuge from the hard realities of life in a fallen world. The Church is the body of Christ incarnate, a body that shone with divine light on the Mount of Olives and anointed with precious oil, but that also was spit on and scourged and crucified on the cross.
The refuge of the sanctuary is meant to recharge us and equip us for carrying the cross, for confronting the mess, of life in a world groaning in labor pains as it awaits resurrection. We are not in heaven yet. The Church is not triumphant yet. This is the Church militant, and a sign of her authentic presence in a culture is often not peace and tranquility but a great big mess.
In a way, the Pope’s words to the youth were a further precision of the words of Blessed John Paul II: “Do not be afraid to set out into the deep and lower your nets for a catch.” How our recent popes have desired the laity in particular to become the protagonists of conversion within society! To deliberately approach the activities of daily life so as to ensure that they are authentically witnessing to their union with Christ in the world, and thereby becoming vessels of his grace that reaches out in love to all people.