Francis’ ‘Mess’ Making: Assessing the First Five Years of This Papacy


Pope Francis preaches in St. Peter's Basilica for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God Jan. 1.
Pope Francis preaches in St. Peter's Basilica for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God Jan. 1. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

“You know that it was the duty of the conclave to give Rome a bishop. It seems that my brother cardinals have gone to the ends of the Earth to get one. ... But here we are.”

With those words from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis began serving as the 265th Successor to St. Peter in the wake of the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI only a few weeks before. 

Months later, Pope Francis famously called on young people in Rio de Janeiro to go out and “make a mess.” Those words in hindsight shed a significant light on the last five years in which a consistent stream of irregular off-the-cuff statements and actions have given the faithful confusing signals from the one person who is supposed to embody Church unity.

The College of Cardinals that elected Francis put forward a clear mandate: Reform the Roman Curia and the Vatican and guide the Church in the 21st century to communicate the teachings of the Church to a world that has grown more disconnected from the reality of God.

However, many Catholics across the globe are questioning the direction of internal reform, theological continuity and how best to reach out to the marginalized in ways that remain faithful to the magisterium.

From the start of his pontificate, the Holy Father pledged he would launch reforms based in what he sees as discernment and going out to the peripheries to proclaim mercy and find the face of Christ in the poor, the refugee and the suffering.

A month after his election, the Holy Father named a “Council of Cardinals” to spearhead the renewal within the Vatican. The cardinals have met more than 20 times, and the Curia has been partially realigned, with consolidation of different offices into several new “dicasteries,” such as that of Integral Human Development and the Secretariats of the Economy, Laity, Family and Life, and Communication.

The as-yet-inchoate changes are supposed to be made official in a long-expected apostolic constitution, but this is all in many ways secondary to Francis’ preoccupations with spiritual reform for those in service of the Holy See.

The first Jesuit pontiff, Pope Francis issued a blueprint for his pontificate in 2013 with his 50,000-word apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which stressed mercy, reaching out to the peripheries and his desire for decentralization of the Church. As a child of the Southern Hemisphere, the Pope brought a focus on the plight of those affected by what he sees as unbridled capitalism, globalization and ideological colonization.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis wrote, “The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion,” and he has used multiple opportunities to exhort the Curia “to improve and to grow in communion, holiness and wisdom, in order to carry out fully its mission.”

He has embarked on the decentralization of ecclesiastical governance that he forecast in Evangelii Gaudium, where he wrote, “Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach” (32).

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has a markedly reduced role, most so after the unexpected dismissal of its prefect, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, last year. Likewise, the translation of liturgical texts has been essentially handed off to the world’s bishops’ conferences through the decree Magnum Principium, issued in September 2017.

How these reforms are being communicated is another often-challenging feature of the pontificate. Francis is comfortable with an extemporaneous approach to papal communications, especially in his now much-anticipated in-flight press conferences and the risks and rewards that they entail. Some in ministry have noted a renewed interest in the Church, given Pope Francis’ less formal style (see stories here and here).

Yet for others, informal interviews have caused consternation over his comments about abortion, civil unions, proselytizing and the Church’s relationship with atheists, and Catholics “breeding like rabbits.” And, of course, there is his famous line, “Who am I to judge?” that prompted a media frenzy in 2013 and has often been used by the opponents of Church teaching in an effort to “modernize” the Church. 

The dangers of extemporaneous messaging were driven home painfully during Francis’ trip to Chile and Peru in January. The Pope sparked criticism over his comments about clergy sex-abuse victims and received an unprecedented public rebuke from one of his closest collaborators, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who is also head of the Vatican Commission for the Protection of Minors.

The scandal over the Pope’s perceived slight of victims of sexual abuse threatened to damage his credibility on an issue of great interest to him and to turn even his most ardent supporters against him.

Similarly, the Vatican’s effort to normalize relations with China has caused great alarm and confusion to Catholics in China and around the world who fear that Chinese Catholics will be betrayed in the interests of diplomatic agreements.

Even these controversies have been overshadowed, of course, by Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), with its contentious Chapter 8 that has been interpreted by some to open the door to Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Confusion about Amoris has only deepened in the face of irreconcilable differences among the worlds bishops conferences over its pastoral implementation and, as Cardinal Müller recently wrote in First Things, its use by some interpreters to “advance positions contrary to the constant teaching of the Catholic Church” on marriage and sexuality in the name of so-called pastoral accompaniment.

Francis recently said that he is aware of blogs that call him a heretic, but he chooses not to read them. He stresses instead the classically Ignatian call for discernment and seems willing to live with the resulting tensions and the possible confusion. As he told a group of newly named bishops last September, “We must strive to grow in incarnate and inclusive discernment, which dialogues with the consciences of the faithful, which are to be formed and not replaced in a patient and courageous process of accompaniment.”

For many Catholics, the pillars of Pope Francis’ pontificate of peripheries, mercy and discernment have elicited pleas for temperance, justice and clarity. Francis, however, seems determined to push ahead with his vision for the Church.

As he famously told the Argentinian youth gathered for World Youth Day in 2013, “So make a mess! But also help in cleaning it up … a mess that brings a free heart, a mess that brings solidarity, a mess that brings us hope, a mess that comes from knowing Jesus and knowing that God, once I know him, is my strength.”

All of this can be disconcerting to the faithful, but as Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, reminds: “Our criticisms of the Pope should always be ordered toward the good of the Church, as we best see it. Moreover, those criticisms should be made with the spirit of humility that Francis himself embraces. Finally, we should never speak about the Pope in ways that bring scandal to the Church.”

Sound advice for the coming years.