In a wonderful headline, church historian Martin E. Marty wrote, “Pope Francis means it!”
It seems so! This summer, at the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis told a group of young Argentine pilgrims, “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!” he said, speaking off the cuff in his native Spanish. “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!”
More recently, Pope Francis rocked the Catholic Church and surprised the wider world with a free–ranging interview that charted a course away from an institution that’s “obsessed” with a few sexual and moral issues and toward one that is more pastoral, less clerical and less doctrinaire.
Pope Francis is sketching out a vision for the church, a broad, inclusive vision. But the question that remains unanswered is whether he can make that vision a reality.
He faces a great deal of opposition in the Roman Catholic Church. There are many influential bishops and others in the Curia who are opposed to any sense of renewal or change. Part of what Pope Francis needs is time, enough time to appoint bishops who share his views, and who will in turn encourage like–minded priests and seminarians. In a very real sense, the changes the Pope envisions will take a generation or more.
Some of the more conservative bishops have spoken about their unhappiness with the Pope. Bishops in Rhode Island and Philadephia have expressed disappointment that the Pope hasn’t spoken more about abortion.
I have been watching with growing excitement ever since he was elected. From the very beginning, he set a different tone. Here is a humble man, who lives in a very modest apartment, with few of the perks his predecessor seemed to love. He reaches out the people, and seems to be most comfortable as he wades in among the crowds, or washing the feet of imprisoned youths.
So far, his comments have all been in the context of interviews. That is to say, this is not formal church teaching. His comments don’t have the kind of weight that a long–thought–out encyclical would have. But he knows that there will be a huge response to what he has said. He knows that his thoughts will be broadcast around the globe.
He will face strong opposition as he tries to implement his vision. While I am not a Roman Catholic, I have appreciated many modern papal statements, particularly those dealing with war and peace, and social justice. Those issues are important to Pope Francis as well, but now he’d like equal time for other issues.
He knows that the church must wear a different face if it is to invite its own lapsed members or new people into the church. He also knows that expressions of authority are not the best way to change attitudes. He knows the power of symbol, and he has shown natural ways of dealing with people, inviting them in with a personal warmth.
His statements won’t change church doctrine, but it does set a fresh new tone. According to a recent survey, Pope Francis’ words and gestures have made him wildly popular among American Roman Catholics.
He has sent shock waves into the Roman Catholic Church. But, as he said to the young pilgrims from Argentina, it is time for the church to get closer to people. It may get messy. It probably will. But often, such a mess is the playground of the divine.
The bottom line is that I join those who cheer. We are seeing a Pope who wants the church to connect with the people on the street, speaking good news in a world which desperately needs to hear such good news. Whatever else may or may not happen, so far his papacy shows the promise of excitement, revision, and hope.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook