RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — In the thick of his historic visit to Brazil this week, Pope Francis urged young Catholics to make a “mess” in their dioceses and break out of their spiritual cages.
Francis’ exhortation during a special meeting with Argentine faithful on Thursday, won him acclaim as a renegade leader of the world’s biggest church. But it also left many of his followers with their own interpretations of the pontiff’s words about the need to shake up the church.
Some said they thought Francis wanted them to object more forcefully when taught ideas that clash with church doctrine. Others said it meant hitting the streets and pushing for social change.
“If in my biology class they speak about abortion, I should raise my hand and say I don’t believe in that,” said Maria Alejandrina de Dicindio, a 54-year-old Argentine catechism teacher who had traveled to Rio to see her pope, a fellow Argentine. “The youth should open their mouths when it’s their turn.”
For Mexican pilgrim Gilberto Amado Hernandez, the pope’s message meant he should start showing the world Jesus Christ’s message of love.
“It’s difficult to meet young people who want to get close to Christ,” Amado said. “We have to show them that faith is something beautiful.”
Francis himself didn’t specify what to do, but he has displayed his own mold-breaking ways throughout this week’s visit to Rio de Janeiro and rural Sao Paulo state, his first overseas trip as pope.
The first pontiff from the Americas worried security officials by riding through massive crowds atop an open-sided popemobile rather than the fully enclosed, bulletproof vehicle his last two predecessors used. He’s also ventured straight up to well-wishers to kiss babies and bless children and met privately Friday with juvenile offenders.
While speaking to his fellow Argentines Thursday, Francis said Catholics should make a concerted effort to get outside their own worlds.
“I want to see the church get closer to the people,” he told them. “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.”
His final message: “Don’t forget: make trouble.”
In his own way, he lived those words as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, before being selected as pope in March.
Then known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future pope largely abandoned the kinds of luxuries favored by other high-ranking church officials. He rented out the archbishop’s luxurious suburban mansion, living instead in a spartan room in a downtown church office building. He also rode subways and buses around town rather than keep a chauffeur.
Francis’ visit to a Rio slum on Thursday wasn’t his first such venture. He made regular unescorted trips to dangerous slums as archbishop and saw to it that every major “misery village” in Buenos Aires had a chapel and a priest to spread the Lord’s word.
He also encouraged young people and the laity to take on leadership roles in parishes that were previously held by priests, so that church members would have much more say in what happens in their communities. Though the Catholic Church openly supported Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, Francis later approved sainthood investigations for priests who were killed by the military government.
Yet biographer Sergio Rubin said Francis the archbishop also had a very keen sense of politics and took care to act prudently, choosing his battles and avoiding challenging superiors in ways that would backfire.
He wasn’t so gleeful and devoted to the crowd, seemingly mindful that he didn’t yet have the power to make a big splash in the church, according to an Argentine Catholic official who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to talk publicly about church politics.
Instead, Francis molded the church in Argentina in quieter ways by recruiting and promoting a new generation of outgoing priests in his own model, and not only fellow Jesuits used to living among lay people.
His replacement as archbishop, Mario Poli, had impressed Bergoglio by earning a degree in social work from the public University of Buenos Aires. In a book of dialogues with a friendly rabbi, Francis said, “This is a much better situation, because in the (university) you become acquainted with real life, the different points of view there are about it, the different scientific aspects, cosmopolitanism. . It’s a way of having your feet well planted in the earth.”
The shake-up message is also one he’s applying as pope to the Vatican’s staid and dysfunctional bureaucracy. Francis has made clear that big change is on the way, naming commissions of inquiry to investigate the scandals at the Vatican bank and propose an overarching reform of the entire central governance of the Catholic Church.
The pontiff has dived into crowds that have greeted him at the Vatican and in Brazil.
During two raucous rides down Copacabana beach, he’s waved, smiled and stopped repeatedly to accept gifts thrown at him from the crowd. At one point, Francis gave away his own white skullcap and put on another one tossed in from the street.
For Argentine student Ana Paula Garrote, Francis was showing Catholics they needed to live that type of spirit.
“For me, the pope wanted to say that we should go out into the streets, not stay in the parishes, and not be ashamed of talking about God,” Garrote said.
Michael Warren reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Associated Press writer Marco Sibaja contributed to this report from Rio de Janeiro.