Thousands of anxious parents kissed their children goodbye as they headed off to Rio for a meeting with Pope Francis celebrating Catholic World Youth Day. Every one of these parents, I'm sure, issued some version of, "Don't make a mess!"
So what is the first thing the kids hear from their new pope? "Make a mess." After five months of his papacy, after a raucous, exciting, even nail-biting week coursing through throngs in Rio, the pope made clear that orderliness is not his calling card.
He exhibits the most exhilarating fearlessness I've ever witnessed in a leader. In an age obsessed with security, he shuns shields and guards even when literally millions press in on him tossing shirts, hats, flowers, and babies. In an age when public figures utter only prefabricated, presanitized sound bites, he speaks off the cuff to a notoriously cynical press, tears up sermons that he finds boring, and answers every question he is asked, usually with a smile.
And in an age of polarization, condemnation, and denigration, he reaches beyond Catholics to atheists, gays, Muslims, Jews, women, and prisoners and insists on a culture of encounter, a human community united by the passion to do good.
It's been pretty heady, but do you know what is most astounding amid all his astounding attributes? Pope Francis has shown in word and deed that he trusts us. You and me. Whether it's cruising serenely, joyously, with us down the wrong street in an unprotected car or talking to us in words flowing freely from his faithful, hopeful, loving heart, he trusts us.
He even trusts a few million kids to get his point when he tells them to make a mess. Speaking in Rio to a group of bishops, he asked if bishops, himself included, give the laity the freedom to continue discerning. "Do we support them and accompany them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them?" This is a striking call to trust rather than micromanage our faith journey.
On the way home from Rio, he grabbed a mike and held an impromptu news conference, no surprise since this so far seems very much like an impromptu papacy. In one momentous exchange, he was asked the ultimate "gotcha" question: How would he respond if he learned that a priest was gay but not sexually active? "Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?" Pope Francis answered. "You can't marginalize these people."
Steeped in the Gospel, the pontiff serves up Jesus fresh and challenging, writing in the Galilean dust as an adulterous woman cowers before him and men with rocks ready to throw turn and walk away. The Jesus who asks, "Who is left to judge you?" No one. "Then neither do I judge you."
Now I'm not saying press people are like chief priests with stones in their hands; I'd never suggest such a thing. I am saying this pope is the avatar of the Jesus he loves so thoroughly. Who am I to judge a gay person? He is the pope, that's who, and his unwillingness to condemn is a command to us all to refrain from issuing judgments that marginalize and demean. It is a command to trust, to say to the sinner, "Go your way and sin no more."
He is funny, too. When asked about a recently arrested monsignor, he used a colorful expression that meant, in effect, that no one would be canonizing the monsignor any time soon. Questioned about the strange "gay lobby" purportedly lurking within the Vatican, he countered that he had not seen "gay lobbyist" stamped on anyone's ID, a pretty good joke amid a press corps required to carry specially stamped IDs.
In a sermon to bishops, he likened the church to a bride and then warned the prelates to be men who are not ambitious, to not behave like princes, to be men who are "married to one church without having their eyes on another." Funny, yes, but a truly startling admonition to a bunch of celibates.
The trust he extends to our often frightened, cowering souls was summed up in the answer he gave when asked why he took such risks in the open car in Rio. "I realize," he answered, "there's always a risk of a crazy person, but having a bishop behind bulletproof glass is crazy, too. Between the two, I prefer the first kind of craziness."
It is undoubtedly crazy, Papa Francisco, for you to trust us with your undoctored words, to trust us with leaders who let us struggle, to trust us with our yearning souls pressing upon your unprotected body. But then, you consider it even crazier to separate a bishop from his people with a bulletproof shield, and that fact tells us all we need to know about your heart.
In Rio, the City of Marvels, you placed the gospel of Jesus Christ in the hands of the young and trusted them to run with it. To make a mess. I have this strange, unearthly sense that those beautiful children will not let you down.