By Bradley Brooks
The Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO — In word and deed during his trip to Brazil, Pope Francis put clergy and faithful alike on notice: Get energized, go out and spread the Gospel, give the Roman Catholic Church a more active role in society.
Francis led the way, with upward of three million faithful gathering for his Mass on Copacabana beach, a gushing local press following his every move on nationwide TV and even a group of nuns squealing in delight like groupies upon spotting him. By all measures, the pope’s first international trip was a smash success.
But the burning question in the post-trip glow remains: How to carry out Francis’ commands with a church that’s loaded with challenges, from a severe shortage of priests to the fleeing of faithful for two decades in strongholds such as Brazil, as well as across Europe and the United States.
On Monday, priests, lay people and religious experts alike interpreted through their own cultural lens how to understand Francis’ call to action, when he told bishops in Brazil that clergy must work on the peripheries, get out in the street and better understand how to communicate with modern society.
“As a younger priest, that’s part of my idealism, to take our work into the streets,” said Father Roy Bellen from Manila. “It’s encouraging for me to hear from the boss that the old school ways aren’t welcome, that of clergy sticking to their comfort zones inside the church.”
Some predicted a rough road ahead if the church is going to change its more traditional pastoral forms, which put a priest at the front of a Mass talking to instead of with parishioners. The growth sought by Francis will require many clergy to exercise atrophied missionary muscles.
Francis told Latin American bishops they must be spiritually close to their parishioners and had earlier instructed Brazilian clergy to have the “scent of their flock” on them.
“There are pastoral plans which are ‘distant,’ ... which give priority to principles, forms of conduct, organizational procedures ... and clearly lack nearness, tenderness, a warm touch,” Francis said Sunday. “The bishop has to be among his people in three ways: in front of them, pointing the way; among them, keeping them together and preventing them from being scattered; and behind them, assuring that no one is left behind.”
But how do you take the Gospel to the street when the clergy are spread so thin? Nearly 25 percent of the world’s parishes don’t have a resident priest, according to Vatican statistics.