Pope Francis’ World Youth Day messages were overshadowed by his comments on respecting those who are homosexual and reiterating the Church’s No to women’s ordination from the press conference he gave to reporters on the plane from Rio de Janeiro to Rome. And Catholic bishops and commentators went into high gear correcting the secular media’s misinterpretations of Francis’ words.
But the presser wasn’t a departure from the theme of the 28th World Youth Day ("Go, and make disciples of all the nations"), nor from Pope Francis’ message the week of July 22-28. It was his message lived out.
"We cannot keep shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel," he told clergy and religious at a Mass on July 27.
To the more than 3 million pilgrims gathered for the closing Mass July 28, he issued a challenge: "Where does Jesus send us? There are no borders, no limits; he sends us to everyone. ... Do not be afraid to go out and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those farthest away, most indifferent."
Reflective of that, the Pope visited a hospital and a slum community, and he met with prisoners.
When Pope Benedict XVI retired from the papacy in February of this year, he recognized the necessity of "both strength of mind and body" to govern the Church and spread the Gospel in a world "shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith." The 85-year-old Pope admitted that his strength had diminished and that he could no longer fulfill his Petrine ministry. Benedict entrusted the care of the Church to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to Mary, Mother of the Church, and to the conclave that would elect his successor. And the electors delivered Pope Francis.
Now, just over four months after Pope Francis’ election, the world received a deeper glimpse of the man the cardinals, guided by the Holy Spirit, chose to lead the universal Church.
At WYD Rio, the 76-year-old Pope showed his energy, his relevance and his vision of the Church. To the youth, Francis spoke in a language they understand — direct, simple and related to the realities they experience: "Let Christ be your strength; don’t get drunk on other things," he told them during the papal reception.
"Stir things up," he told Argentinian youth, exhorting them to challenge clericalism and complacency. To the throng at the closing Mass, the Holy Father showed his confidence in young people. "The best evangelizers are other young people," he said.
While, at times, the large international event resembles a huge but wholesome rock concert, World Youth Day is essentially an encounter — with the Successor of Peter and the Church, through the gathering of bishops, priests and religious and the celebration of the sacraments.
Further, it’s an encounter with other young people, who are galvanized by a meeting with so many others who share their faith.
Ultimately, it’s an encounter with Jesus Christ, who calls everyone to be transformed by his love and mercy.
The youth responded enthusiastically. They recognize in Francis a pope of the people who is down-to-earth and simple.
For the youth, the Pope who met them on the streets of Rio isn’t a rock star, but a man who drinks
matte and shares deeply in the emotion of people. Many had tears in their eyes when the Pope spoke, and the crowd’s well-timed cheers showed they were tuned into his words.
His actions had equal impact. When a 9-year-old boy jumped a barrier and ran up to the popemobile, Francis stopped to give the boy a hug. The crying youth whispered in the Holy Father’s ear, "I want to be a priest of Christ," and then Francis shed his own tears and encouraged the boy in his vocation. The moment showed Francis’ warmth and emotional depth. During a meeting with Brazil’s leaders, a girl with Down syndrome presented the Pope with a gift. She smiled as she handed him a simple card, and he touched her face tenderly and beamed his own genuine smile.
During his trip, in two separate gatherings, Pope Francis met with Brazilian bishops and the Latin American and Caribbean bishops (CELAM). According to the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, these two talks were the longest and most significant addresses so far in Francis’ pontificate. In these occasions, the Pope outlined a vision of the Church’s mission that focused on "an encounter with the Master and an encounter with men and women who await the message."
He emphasized the humble ways that God acts to restore brokenness. "God always enters in poverty, littleness," he said. And, later, he said that "God’s way is through enticement, allure. … Mission is born precisely from this Divine allure, by this amazement born of encounter."
He regretted that, often in the Church, "we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people."
In a sort of examination of conscience, he asked: "Are we still a Church capable of warming hearts? ... Is the Church still able to move slowly: to take time to listen, to have the patience to mend and reassemble? ... Or is the Church herself caught up in a frantic pursuit of efficiency?"
He emphasized formation, collegiality and solidarity as ways to face challenges within the Church. He spoke of the permanence of the missionary call and the task of the Church to "go against the tide" in society.
To the Argentinian youth, the Pope expressed the hope that World Youth Day would "stir things up."
Pope Francis himself has caused a stir. The presser on the plane ride home was no accident or mistake. Nor was the cardinals’ choice of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.
Francis’ frankness is proving to be a gift to the Church.