Finishing off his first international trip as pope at the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis looked to the young people present and in his native Spanish beckoned, “Hagan lio!” which has been translated as “make some noise” and “make a mess.”
Some prominent Catholics balked at his comments at the time, saying that the last thing young people need is a faith that is ambiguous or imprudent. That criticism certainly didn’t quiet the pope, as he has returned to this expression several times in the past five years — and it’s one that we, as millennials, intuitively understand.
Two years after his March 2013 surprise election, we were both invited to speak on a panel examining Pope Francis’ papacy. Elise spoke about the debate that was beginning to emerge over the clarity of his message, and Chris spoke about how a generation defined by contradictions has embraced this pope because he has put the countercultural message of the Gospel front and center though bold actions and gestures that have bolstered credibility to the message he preaches.
Pope Francis’ invocation to “make a mess” or to shake things up is largely reflective of the colorful and accessible language he uses so frequently. While critics charge that he is theologically imprecise, we believe the pope’s language expresses closeness to the people of God — like a shepherd who smells like his sheep.
His call to make a mess is intuitive for those of us who find little resonance with current political parties uninterested in coming together for the common good, economic systems that are consumer-driven and transaction-based, and communities or parishes that are self-referential and detached from the real needs of those around us.
His image of the church as a field hospital — made messy by its blood, sweat and tears and one that tends to visible wounds with compassion — is an image of a church that is compelling and one we want to be a part of because we know it’s one that responds to real-life experiences rather than remote or abstract ideas.
Young people want to be the first responders in this type of church. One look at the faces of the March for Life in Washington reveals tens of thousands of children, teens and emerging adults committed to helping both mothers and their unborn children in the United States.
Or one can call to mind the young adults who commit to long-term service after graduating from college every year, 20-somethings who live in some of the poorest communities in the world. Or one can think of the young men and women demanding solutions to the scourge of gun violence in their schools.
This is impressive, and miraculous, for a generation or two of young Catholics and their peers who have lived through the mess of a culture laden with divorce and family breakdown, terrorist attacks and mass shootings, and painful scandals within their own church.
Young Catholics know the mess. They know carnage. And so when a pope who understands that mess asks them to show up, they do.
In his 2016 apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis writes: “I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness that the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, ‘always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.'”
That image of a mother in the street fighting to save her children is one that we believe has made our peers outside of the church willing to give the church a second look — and on the five-year anniversary of his election, we’re grateful for a Holy Father who not only understands that, but one who has invited us to join him in the muck of it all.
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Italiano is the founding executive director of The Given Institute.
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