Pope Francis has lost none of his ability to surprise. On his seven-day journey to Rio he eschewed traditional security protocols (which allowed a crowd to mob his traffic-trapped mini-Popemobile), wandered into Rio’s slums, accepted drinks from strangers on the street, and just for the fun of it added a meeting with young people to an already packed schedule. At the impromptu July 25 meeting, in the Cathedral of San Sebastian, Francis delivered off-the-cuff remarks that capture not only his wish for the young, but the essence of his papal approach.
“What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day?” Francis said. “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!”
Francis’s papal style is so different from the piercing intelligence of Benedict XVI or the philosophical theatricality of John Paul II that it is almost jarring. The new pope is at once blunt and simple — much like those receiving his message. And the “mess” that Francis has encouraged, the unpredictable “mess” that he has incorporated into his papacy, only makes him more attractive to people in and outside of the pews.
A non-Catholic woman who had heard me comment on the pope weeks earlier stopped me at the gym the other day. “I like this pope,” she said. “I’m not one for organized religion, but I believe this Pope Francis lives what he says.”
Truth be told, so did the last two popes. I knew them personally, and I can vouch for that. But the fact is, people perceive that Francis is somehow more authentic because he has made it a point to publicly underscore his message in both word and deed. He has himself become the message.
Kissing babies, shaking hands from the back of a Fiat, sharing gestures of friendship with the poor and disabled — all are meant to convey an openness to people on their own terms. Pope Francis is urging his Church and all her members to go out and reach individuals in their needs. He told his bishops as much in Rio:
“We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel!” Francis said. “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! Let us courageously look to pastoral needs, beginning on the outskirts, with those who are farthest away . . . go and look for them in the nooks and crannies of the streets. . . .”
During his return flight to Italy, Pope Francis engaged with those “farthest away” (at least in terms of access): the media. Venturing into the back of the papal plane, he convened a spontaneous press conference, fielding questions from reporters on board for 80 minutes.
After speaking of mercy and Christ’s forgiveness toward the repentant, the pope took a question about the “gay lobby” at the Vatican. Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service reports: Pope Francis said it was important to “distinguish between a person who is gay and someone who makes a gay lobby. A gay lobby isn’t good.”
“A gay person who is seeking God, who is of good will — well, who am I to judge him?” the pope went on. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this very well. It says one must not marginalize these persons, they must be integrated into society. The problem isn’t this [homosexual] orientation — we must be like brothers and sisters. The problem is something else, the problem is lobbying either for this orientation or a political lobby or a Masonic lobby.”
In the aftermath of the in-flight presser, the Huffington Post raved, “Breakthrough: Pope Okay with Gays.” The pope, indeed the Church, has always been “okay” with all sinners (just check out the membership). That does not mean that the Church approves the actions of all her members, straight or gay. Despite the media reports, the pope is in no way altering Church teaching. He is merely quoting the Catechism and, in his laid-back manner, affirming the long-held teaching of the Catholic Church. Having read several transcripts of his comments in context, I think the pope is saying that once a gay person repents and “is seeking God,” presumably in chastity, he is not to be judged or marginalized. How this could be misconstrued as an innovation or a “breakthrough” is bewildering. Though it is a tonal shift, to be sure.
The entire episode reminds us that papal handlers do have their place. As cumbersome as they are, and as much as they distance the pontiff from his people, handlers can protect the pope from this sort of misinterpretation. Vigorous off-the-cuff expressions have their place, but so do unambiguous, vetted statements — especially when dealing with a media unversed in Church teaching.
Pope Francis in the aftermath of World Youth Day may have gotten the “mess” he desired. Such is the cost of a full-throttled engagement with a secular culture. But as long as people are talking, as long as Francis maintains the spotlight on the saving message he is trying to impart, perhaps his “mess” is worth it — and even beneficial.
— Raymond Arroyo is news director at EWTN, host of The World Over Live, and a New York Times bestselling author. He has anchored more papal events than anyone else in broadcasting.