It was a routine day at the office during my pastoral year assignment as a seminarian when I decided to tune in to the “chimney cam,” a live online video feed from a camera aimed at the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, the smoke from which would indicate whether a new pope had been elected. After a moment of staring at the screen — then a moment of laughing at myself for staring at the screen — light smoke billowed against the dark Roman sky. This is it! After conferring with some others in the office (“Does this smoke look white to you?”) we agreed that it was the smoke we were waiting for, and shortly thereafter it became official: Habemus Papam. We have a pope!
Last Sunday marked the third anniversary of the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the little-known archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, as Pope Francis. In the three years since he walked out onto the loggia for the first time, appearing overwhelmed at the tremendous crowds and the outpouring of affection, the Holy Father has become an international sensation, garnering tremendous media attention and earning high marks from people from a wide variety of faith traditions (or no tradition at all) for his pastoral style. But all of this attention, on top of an already monumental task of shepherding a fold over a billion in number, has been, as I think Pope Francis might joyfully agree, a little messy.
“Making a Mess”
On several occasions in public remarks, often to young people, Pope Francis encourages the faithful to “make a mess.” In remarks to World Youth Day pilgrims, he elaborated as to what he means by the expression:
“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!”
Certainly Pope Francis’s own governance of the Church reflects this request. He has enlisted his own council of Cardinals to advise on various matters of Church affairs, which has led to financial overhaul at the Vatican and other considerations regarding restructuring Church offices. The Synod on the Family provided sharp contrast and vigorous debate on some of the hot-button challenges facing family life. He’s spoken about appointing bishops who bring experience in pastoral ministry and share his desire to go to the margins. On occasion, his frank manner of speaking and his frequent availability for interviews have left him open to misinterpretation, yet he often speaks of the greater danger that comes from isolation and introversion, being “closed off.” Having come from a pastoral environment in which he was very hands-on and frequently engaged in this holy “mess-making,” he has brought about the same kind of openness to his newer, larger role, and invites each of us to do the same. Sure, it might be uncomfortable or awkward at first, but to borrow a line from Pope Emeritus Benedict, “Man was not made for comfort, but for greatness,” and sometimes greatness involves…well, making a mess.
Entering Into the Mess
(Above: Pope Francis eats lunch with some homeless men from Rome)
While Pope Francis has encouraged the faithful to make their own mess, shaking things up for the sake of the Gospel, there are also malignant messes around the world that have already been created — human trafficking, the widespread “throwaway culture,” threats to the sanctity of marriage and human life in various stages, religious persecution and division, widespread poverty, global climate change, and numerous diplomatic and geopolitical crises. In each of these areas, as in so many others, the Holy Father has demonstrated a willingness to use his office and profile to enter these discussions with the light of truth and a courageous love that comes from the heart of Christ.
As one of many particularly poignant examples, on a small Italian island of Lampedusa, Pope Francis celebrated Mass in remembrance of the countless migrants from North Africa who died on ships trying to discover a better life in Italy. In this tiny town, the population of which is often outnumbered by the number of migrants awaiting entry into Europe, Francis spoke of the situation as indicative of a larger moral crisis in the world:
“How many of us, myself included, have lost our bearings; we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live; we don’t care; we don’t protect what God created for everyone, and we end up unable even to care for one another! And when humanity as a whole loses its bearings, it results in tragedies like the one we have witnessed.”
In response to these crises, Pope Francis has often called on the Church to be a “field hospital” for sinners where these wounds can be healed. Each one of us, then, is called to enter into the mess of the world, according to our vocation, in order to help bring about healing and reconciliation. As a priest, I am constantly challenged by the pope to go out, to encounter this suffering, to live as a shepherd “with the smell of the sheep,” but this opportunity to encounter others in their own suffering, in their own messes, is not reserved for the clergy alone. In a culture that is so dominated by social sterility, by social media presenting a curated version of our lives, it is a necessary, counter-cultural move to enter and impact the messes of our society.
Cleaning Up Our Mess
(Above: Pope Francis hears a young man’s confession at World Youth Day in Brazil)
Considering all of the messes of the world, be they inspired by Christ or contrary to the Gospel, we would be remiss if we didn’t also consider the messes that exist in our own lives and hearts. Pope Francis has made mercy a central theme of his pontificate, going so far as to declare the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy we are now celebrating. In the document declaring the jubilee year, Pope Francis explained:
“At times we are called to gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives. For this reason I have proclaimed an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy as a special time for the Church, a time when the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective.” (MV, 3)
By his teaching and example, the Holy Father has shown the importance of seeking the Lord’s mercy, particularly in the sacrament of reconciliation. This encounter with the healing power of God not only transforms our own hearts and lives, but also serves as an impetus to be the merciful disciples Christ calls us to be. When asked by an interviewer to describe himself, Pope Francis said, “I am a sinner,” which he has often repeated since. His frequent acknowledgment of his own weaknesses and need for God’s mercy in turn invite each one of us to consider where our lives are in need of healing, and to seek it out with haste and true repentence.
Frustrations with Francis
In reflecting on the “messiness” of Pope Francis, I’m reminded of the home kitchens of a great cook making dinner. To someone like me, who would be lucky and grateful if I could get my microwave to work properly, watching someone prepare an elaborate meal resembles (sometimes-)organized chaos, with multiple burners and pots in use and virtually every instrument in the kitchen being pressed into service. It can be hard to see in the middle of things what is going to come of the apparent disorder, and yet I put my trust in the skill and loving preparation of the cook. It seems to me that Pope Francis is a bit like a good cook, who is using the sustaining faith and rich tradition of the Church, the “spice” of his pastoral style and manner of speech, employing his training, experience, and inspiration in prayer — indeed, his very being — to prepare a meal for mankind. The process has been, and will likely continue to be, messy! Some will wonder about the process, still others might not particularly care for this course or that, and things might not fit neatly into traditional or comfortable categories we’ve become accustomed to. But we can find comfort in the love of our “cook,” which ultimately comes from Jesus Christ Himself, the Bread of Life. Let’s pray for Pope Francis in his ministry, that he will continue to nourish us with his teaching and example as we move forward in our journey of faith.
(Photos:  CNS/Paul Haring;  AP/L’Osservatore Romano pool photo  CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)