Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, writes that he prefers “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” This is certainly a bold statement and one that is worth examining more closely.
In particular, how “dirty” should the Church get?
Father Karol Wojtyla
In order to answer that question, I believe a great example of getting “dirty” is in the life of the soon to be Saint, Pope John Paul II. In particular his life before he became Pope, even while he was a Cardinal, is full of instances where he chose to be out on the streets with his people, rather than ruling from a white ivory tower.
First of all, while he was a humble priest Father Wojtyla chose to be with his people, accompanying them on their journey. His first assignment as a vicar in a country parish, nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains outside of Krakow, proved to set the stage for what kind of a priest he would be for the rest of his life. Upon arriving at his assignment, walking through the fields of grain on the way, he knelt down and kissed the ground. This simple sign learned from the Cure of Ars showed that at the very beginning of his ministry, Father Wojtyla did not want to be a priest who was always immaculately clean from his fear of getting “down and dirty.” Instead, he wanted to show his people that he will do anything to show his respect and solidarity with them.
Additionally, in this first assignment as a priest, Father Wojtyla truly desired to be with his parishioners. He would trudge through the snow in his worn and dirty cassock and make visits to each house in his parish. As a result of his personal style of leading, his parishioners loved him and felt close to him. They respected his simplicity and his ability to lead by example.
Cardinal Wojtyla, the Farmer
Fast forward to 1976, just a few years before Karol Wojtyla would be elected Pope John Paul II. At this point, Karol Wojtyla was a “Prince of the Church,” participated in the Second Vatican Council and was a powerful force in the Polish hierarchy. Yet, when he made an unexpected visit to Central Wisconsin, he again showed his solidarity with his people and did not mind getting a little “dirty.”
After giving an academic lecture to the local university, he proceeded to visit the countryside of Wisconsin. Cardinal Wojtyla wanted to see the Polish farms in America and so the organizers of the visit led him to a potato farm. While there he observed the potato harvest and toured the barns. Bishop Freking, who was Bishop of La Crosse at the time, said later in an interview, “He walked down the cow barns of the farm, got full of silage, and it didn’t bother him one bit.” Thus, even while a “Prince of the Church,” Karol Wojtyla did not mind getting “dirty” or being with the people of God. Instead, he desired to lead by encountering people in their everyday life and recognizing their ordinary needs and struggles.
In the end, while Pope Francis did not entirely mean that we must physically get dirty in our ministry, we should examine ourselves and see if we are willing to get a little “dirty.” An unfortunate trend among priests (and seminarians) is to live by the phrase, “I was made for Chalices, not Calluses.” Yet, this is not what Pope Francis envisions. He sees a Church where the laity and the ordained meet the people where they are at, in the dirt and filth of everyday life. It is there that we can invite, elevate and bring people closer to Christ. It is an “incarnational” type of ministry, following after the example of God who became a lowly human baby in order to raise us up to divinity.
image: A young John Paul II as a priest on a rowing trip.