Growing through our Failures and Mistakes

A friend of mine, Theresa, loaned me her copy of the Pope’s new book, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. In it Pope Francis explores some of the ways the Covid crisis can teach us to handle upheaval in our lives. In this reflection I would like to share one of the Pope’s personal failures or mistakes in his life and what he says he learned from it.

In 1973, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, was named to two important leadership ministries consecutively. First, he served as Provincial Superior of the Jesuits and later as Rector of the Seminary. But something was not right during this time. It was the way he exercised his leadership that was wrong. “I could be very harsh,” he admits. He doesn’t go into detail, but whatever he did, it was serious enough to have the “higher ups” abruptly remove him from office and send him to the mountain city of Cordoba in central Argentina. He was only in his mid-fifties when this happened. He says, “In Cordoba they made me pay and they were right to do so.”

The future pope spent “a year, ten months, and thirteen days” living in the Jesuit residence there. (Was he counting the days?) He celebrated Mass, heard confessions, and gave spiritual direction. But he hardly went anywhere—except perhaps to the post office. He describes this period as “a kind of lockdown.” It is not an exaggeration to say he was living in “exile.” As difficult and as painful as this time was for him, he cites several blessings he received during this period. For example, he developed a greater capacity for prayer. And (“weirdest of all” he says), he felt drawn to read all thirty-seven volumes of Ludwig Pastor’s History of the Popes! (Was God preparing him for the papacy?!)

He cites other fruits of this time of “purification.” He writes, “It gave me greater tolerance, understanding, the ability to forgive, and a fresh empathy for the powerless.” It also gave him greater patience. He realized that “important things need time… and there are limits we have to work within while keeping our eyes on the horizon.” He adds, “Like Jesus, I learned the importance of seeing the big in the little things, and attending to the little in big things.” He compares the growth he experienced to “new growth that happens after a harsh pruning.” He summarizes this painful time in his life in these words: “What I learned was that you suffer a lot, but if you allow it to change you, you come out better. But if you dig in, you come out worse.”

“Mistakes can be a bridge to greater wisdom.”

How humiliating it must have been for the Holy Father to be removed from a leadership position. (The mistakes one makes while in leadership are often very public!) I was impressed by his humility. It takes self-knowledge and honesty to admit you failed at something or did something wrong—and then to learn from it! And it’s a special grace to do all of this (as the Holy Father seems to have done) without becoming bitter.

So what does this have to do with you and me? We too experience failures and we make mistakes. What do we do with them? Do we hide them.. deny them… dig in and allow them to fester? Or do we acknowledge them… face them… learn from them and allow them to make us better? As Sr. Joyce Rupp said, “What we saw as our failure was really our teacher.” And someone else wisely said, “Mistakes should be reasons for growth—not excuses for discouragement.”

Patience… patience… patience

Writer Rachel Held Evens makes this interesting observation: “It’s strange that Christians so rarely talk about failure when we claim to follow a guy whose three-year ministry was cut short by his crucifixion.” So, today I suggest we reflect on the role that failures and mistakes have played in our lives. I offer these questions as a starting point:

Did you ever fail in a significant way or make a big mistake and grow because of it? Have you ever felt you were sent into “exile” because of something you did? How did you respond? Name some of the “virtues” your failures and mistakes have nurtured in you. Can you think of any other well-known individual who failed or made mistakes and grew through them?

PS: Thank you for your prayers for last week’s retreat for the Pittsburgh Benedictine Sisters. And I want to thank these Sisters for their warm hospitality at their new priory in Bakerstown. Special thanks to Shelly and her team for inviting me to give this retreat and to all the Sisters who assisted me and made me feel so much at home!

I came across this song while looking for another one. It’s by Micah Tyler and it’s called “(Your Mercies Are) New Today.” My two favorite lines are “I can rest on your shoulders/ There is grace to start over.” And “Show me how I can forgive myself…” I hope this song brings you encouragement and consolation today.

I welcome your comments—especially your responses to any of the questions. I also encourage anything else you may want to say about this reflection, the pictures, or the song. Thank you for sharing!


  1. Thomas DeFreitas on July 5, 2021 at 5:19 am

    I feel an almost boundless gratitude for the papacy of our dear Pope Francis. A huge influence for the good in a world where people often mistake ecclesial partisanship (or partisanship of other disheartening varieties) for an authentic love of God. He seems to be trying his best to live the Gospel in its integrity, not whittling the Christian witness down to one or two “issues.”

    I’m fascinated to learn of this “exile,” this ostensibly fallow period in the Holy Father’s life, that actually laid the groundwork for much future good.

    The failures in my life are too many and too painful to catalogue. Often my largest and most tragic “failures” came from not trying in the first place—out of fear of failing!

    And of course, failures of charity, deficits of compassion: these are what I keenly lament.

    Grateful, too, to see that wonderful soul (of blessed memory) Rachel Held Evans get an approbatory mention. The world is in dire need of more souls like her!

    Peace and light, all. Have a great week!

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on July 5, 2021 at 8:03 am

      Tom, I like the way you described the Holy Father’s time “in exile” as “fallow time that laid the groundwork for much future good.” Also, I’m glad to hear you know of and like the writing of Rachel Held Evans. I plan to do a blog on her in the near future… Yesterday the Holy Father underwent intestinal surgery. Let’s all keep him in our prayers… Thanks again for responding, Tom! Sr. Melannie

  2. Jean Canatsey on July 5, 2021 at 12:21 pm

    I made the biggest mistake of my life at the age of 16 and it turned out to be the best decision of my life. I got pregnant and married the father of my child. Together we bore and raised 8 children and 65 years later we are still companions along the road.
    Two of our sons had prison experiences. One had a positive attitude and treated the time as a sabbatical (not unlike Pope Francis). The other had a negative attitude and is angry to this day. The way you live through a decision determines whether it is a good one or a bad one.
    I loved the quote by Rachel Held Evans and posted it on Facebook.

  3. Christina Keil on July 5, 2021 at 9:09 pm

    I like Rachel Held Evans’ quote. A local priest here said at a Lenten day of reflection once that Jesus, in terms of doing what God wanted him to do, show us how to live our lives in love of God and one another, failed. I thought that was a little harsh at the time, but realize that it’s true!
    Thank you

  4. Madelyn Frances Svidergol on July 6, 2021 at 9:57 am

    I had heard that about Pope Francis in the past, and knew he had to have growth from that experience. Life is not easy and things happen unexpectedly but it is how you handle them (sometimes it takes awhile until you adjust your acceptance of it). I want to thank you again as we attended two days of your retreat with the Benedictine Sisters. What can I say, you took our breath away, thanks again. We are still in awe of the retreat.

  5. Melannie Svoboda SND on July 6, 2021 at 8:29 pm

    A friend of mine read this reflection and he said, “I know two people who experienced failure and mistakes, yet something good came from their experiences. The two people are Bill W. and Bob Smith, founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.” My friend has been in A.A. for quite a few years. He told me I could share his response with all of you. Sr. Melannie

  6. Gordy Palzer on July 9, 2021 at 6:21 pm

    Hi, Sister Melannie, this week’s entry reminded me of a great prayer I discovered purely by grace: my son had given me the front page of his college newsletter to read, but I flipped it over and discovered this profound and challenging prayer instead! I will attach it here:


    You draw me out.

    You are more insistent
    Than I want to believe
    And so I fail to see my
    Troubles as your probing,
    Your way of saying that
    I need to grow.

    I am
    So blind to you that I
    Pray for deliverance
    From what you send
    To make me whole.

    Give me light to see by.

    (From Autumn, Murray Bodo’s Song of the Sparrow, p.51)

    This prayer stunned me with its rightness, and your blog article reminded me of it and I thought you might like it, if you haven’t seen it before!

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