A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about Pope Francis and the new way in which he was going about being a Pope. He has won widespread acclaim thus far in the early days of his papacy with popular gestures like washing the feet of juveniles during Holy Week and refusing many papal perks.
Someone asked me about that column. “Do you think that his humility will change the way the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican works? Do you really think that’s going to be enough?”
It led to an interesting discussion. The short answer is “Yes … and no!”
I take my cue from Max DePree, a best–selling author about what it takes to exercise leadership in today’s world. In his book “Leadership Jazz: The Essential Elements of a Great Leader”, he reminds us that leadership is more an art than a science. It’s like playing jazz. “Today’s successful leaders are attuned to the needs and ideas of their followers and even step aside at times to be followers themselves.”
DePree has been influential in my understanding of leadership. In one remarkably concise statement, he reminds us that a leader has two primary tasks: to articulate the vision of the organization, and to say thank you.
It’s that first task of leadership that is driving my initial assessment of Pope Francis. He is articulating a new vision for the church he leads; more importantly, he’s living it out. A leader such as this can inspire followers by his actions. He is asking a different set of questions: “How can we be a church for the poor? How can we serve? How can we live humbly and set an example for others?”
These are important questions to ask. In fact, I would say that the questions are more important than the answers. Pope Francis is seeking a new way forward, and his initial days as Pope are very promising. He wants to get back to the roots of his faith, and the church’s faith, that Jesus lived among the poor and embraced the outcasts, and welcomed them all.
So instead of washing the feet of 12 priests on Maundy Thursday to commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, this Pope goes to a juvenile detention home to wash the feet of teenagers. Many of those teens were “Roma” — what we used to call “gypsies” — people scorned throughout Europe. Even more shocking to traditionalists, Pope Francis washed the feet of two young women, one a Muslim. That has not happened in recent memory! What a profound, symbolic act.
This Pope refuses to live in the luxurious papal apartments, choosing to live in a much more modest guest house instead.
This Pope sometimes cooks his own meals.
This Pope mingles with the ordinary folk in the square in front of St. Peter’s.
We should not minimize the importance of such actions. They have power to inspire the world. He is articulating the vision. All of this is the “yes” part of my answer.
The “no” part is that by itself, this will not be enough. In addition to articulating a vision, a leader must also build a community which can put that vision into place. Now the hard work begins for Pope Francis as he begins to reform the Vatican.
The Roman Catholic Church is dealing with scandals and issues which must be met head on: allegations of sexual abuse and pedophilia; a bureaucracy marked by infighting and careerism; the issue of women in ministry; Vatican finances; reforming significant departments of the Curia; and the list goes on.
He chose the name Francis. Today we call him St. Francis. In his day, however, he was seen as just being an oddity, weird, a screwball. He divested himself of all his wealth — or, as he put it, he married a widow named Lady Poverty. He did not enter a cloister as an earlier generation might have done, but sent his disciples into the villages of Europe to preach, to live a life of holiness, and to embrace poverty. St. Francis felt himself called to reform a church which had become too worldly.
It may be that the verdict of history is that Pope Francis could be nothing more than an oddity, holy but eccentric.
I choose, however, to be hopeful that his actions may well inspire some real change, even if it be modest.
Will it be enough? I don’t know. It’s going to be an uphill struggle for him. I will pray for his success.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook.