Recently, in addition to the four classic marks of the church — one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, Pope Francis has offered four other traits for consideration and actualization — smelly, crazy, messy, and noisy. At first glance, for reasons of personal hygiene and social decorum, these “new” ones may surprise you. Yet, though not proclaimed every Sunday in the Creed, I think you’ll agree these marks have always been with the church and are essential if it is to thrive in the future.
Shortly after his papacy began, Pope Francis celebrated Holy Week with the church. At the Holy Thursday Chrism Mass, when the sacramental oils used throughout the year are blessed, he called the church, priests in particular, to go to the margins of society. There, Pope Francis stated, one will encounter “suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters.”
They’ll also end up smelling. But, according to Pope Francis, this is a good thing. In anointing “the poor, prisoners and the sick, [those] ... who are sorrowing and alone,” priests and all those who enter into solidarity with the outcast will live with “the smell of the sheep.” That supposed smell is really the odor of holiness all of us are asked to embrace in light of our baptism.
Speaking to a group at World Youth Day, Pope Francis offered some up-ending and, for all those who teach adolescents, counter-intuitive advice: “Let me tell you what I hope will be the outcome of World Youth Day: I hope there will be noise. . ..I want you to make yourselves heard in your dioceses, I want the noise to go out, I want the church to go out onto the streets, I want us to resist everything worldly, everything static, everything comfortable, everything to do with clericalism, everything that might make us closed in on ourselves.”
The first translations that I read of the quote had Pope Francis encouraging persons “to make a mess,” Either way there is a call here for Christians to be a disruptive force for good. The status quo is not the Kingdom of God and, rightly, needs to be questioned, challenged, and, ultimately, changed.
If that wasn’t enough, Pope Francis seems to be comfortable with what most of seek to resist — the chaos and craziness of life. Returning home to Rome from World Youth Day in Brazil, against the counsel of his advisors, Pope Francis held an impromptu press conference on the plane. One question dealt with the mob scene that ensued when his driver took a wrong turn and got stuck in traffic. This allowed literally thousands of people to rush his car, reach into it and take pictures of him.
In response Pope Francis said, “The climate [in Rio de Janeiro] was spontaneous ... I could be close to the people, greet them, embrace them, without armored cars. During the entire time, there wasn’t a single incident. I realize 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.”
All of these traits suggest a person — Jesus. In the Incarnation, God, through His Son Jesus, embraced and blessed the smells, noises, messes, and craziness of the world. Rather than avoid them as places where God’s graces are not present, we’re invited to go and seek them aware that we’ll discover Jesus in the process. Somewhat ironically, as well, the church will see its oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity realized.
So, who wants to remain in this smelly, noisy, messy, and crazy tradition? I do. In fact, it’s what keeps me Catholic.
Daley is freelance writer and teacher at St. Xavier High School. (The Catholic Telegraph, Sept 2013 Pg 24.)