If someone had said to me in March 2013 ‘This is what the Church will look like in twelve months’ time’, I would likely have laughed. No event or person could surely change the mood of the universal Church in such a short period. No-one could make such an impact, even outside the Church, in the way that Pope Francis seems to have done in a year. With no word of criticism of his predecessors he has set new priorities for the Church and made a lot of us feel rather uncomfortable! His challenge is addressed to us all.
In Rio de Janeiro he spoke to the South American bishops, saying that it was not enough for them to sit in their churches with the doors open, inviting people in. He asked them to have the courage to go out of the churches and to walk with people, even if they might be walking away from the Church, taking his cue from the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They had left Jerusalem believing the Lord to be dead. Yet Jesus Himself came and walked by their side as they journeyed away, explaining the scriptures to them and showed why everything that had happened had been intended and predicted. Then, at the end of the day's journey, they recognised him in the breaking of bread. Had Jesus not been there, would they ever have regained their faith?
To other bishops Pope Francis said not to worry about making mistakes. It is much better to be courageous, and risk making mistakes, than to make no mistakes through fear of getting things wrong.
"Mess" is a word that he has used on other occasions. He wants our parishes to be “messy”, because it is in the “mess of life” that real evangelising can be done and people can be met where they are. Another image he evoked was of the Church being “like a field hospital, after a battle”. In such places the wounded are not asking about their cholesterol levels or blood sugars or fussing over details; they first of all need treatment for life-threatening wounds.
There were some who were ready to dismiss the early words and decisions of Pope Francis as superficial gestures. Real change would not follow, they suggested. But there are serious reviews going on within the central organisation of the Church and such reviews, done properly, take time.
Perhaps the clearest sign of Francis’s intention to challenge us all has come with his Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium” The stark reminder of that document is that the Church is called to a new form of evangelisation and that we are, without exception, called to be "missionary disciples". He has much to say about how we are all able to play our part through our decisions and actions. He speaks of the energy and enthusiasm that we should have as we witness to the “joy of the Gospel” in our families, our work places and our friendships.
Pope Francis wants us to be very comfortable in the reassurance of the loving mercy of God. He has said on many occasions that there is forgiveness for all and that he, with everyone else, is a sinner in need of forgiveness. Being comfortable with that promise, he is not afraid to challenge us to embrace all that we can and must be doing to end the suffering, hunger, poverty and injustice in our world. I, for one, am most grateful for the challenge he places before us, before me!