The headlines this week have been dominated by the naming of a new pope. Some have wondered why this is such big news. The Catholic Church claims some 1.2 billion adherents, which cannot be ignored. But it is a well known fact that those who truly follow it’s teachings make up a much smaller number. Latin America can claim a greater cast of faithful followers, while Europe is certainly in decline. I lived in Italy for five years, and while most Italians would claim to be Catholic, there is great suspicion and distrust towards the church and little taste for its moral teachings. So why all the fuss?
I hold a conviction that every person on the planet has created value and will worship something. Therefore, we long for spiritual guidance and moral leaders. The pope becomes a visible representation of that longing. And that’s why the news this week matters.
Pope Francis is faced with some really tough leadership challenges. He steps into a 21st century reality needing to reform an institution who many feel is stuck in the last century. The church is being rocked by scandal. The Vatican Curia is seen as divided and divisive. The congregations are growing old. And the church is seen as culturally out of touch with a world in need.
We now know who will lead the Catholic Church into this complexity, and his name is Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina. He is the first pope from the Americas, the first pope from the Jesuit order, and the first pope to take the name Francis.
But how will he lead? What clues do we have of his posture towards the needs of the Catholic church and that of the world? The best indicators of how a leader will lead into the future come from looking at his past. People don’t typically change simply because their title does (we could take some lessons from that principle alone). Here is my humble assessment of how Pope Francis may lead.
1. Without Pretension. By now you have probably heard the stories of Archbishop Bergoglio choosing to take public transportation in Argentina rather than a limo. He chose to live in a small city apartment rather than the royal trappings fit for a Cardinal. His first public message as pope was to request prayers for himself from the masses, rather than declaring a papal blessing over those who had gathered.
2. With Compassion. As a Jesuit, Archbishop Bergoglio made much of meeting the needs of the downtrodden and neglected. Kim Daniels, Director of Catholic Voices USA, stated “He is a real voice for the voiceless and the vulnerable. That is his message.” Even his chosen papal name, Francis, harkens back to St. Francis of Assisi, who was renowned for leaving a life of comfort to identify with those less fortunate. St. Francis is often depicted as having compassion for all of God’s creation, including the animals. The chosen name was meant to reflect an internal desire to minister to “the least of these.”
3. With Conviction. Archbishop Bergoglio is known to have had his differences with elected officials. He has had several run ins with the current President of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez. When he believes he has seen injustice his voice is raised. A significant part of his conviction seems to lie in the belief that a true spiritual leader must live among the people. Last year, Bergoglio made this charge to the priests of Argentina, “Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony. Go out and interact with your brothers. Go out and share. Go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit . . .”
Obviously time will tell what type of leader Pope Francis will be. And time will reveal his effectiveness as a leader in meeting the needs of the Catholic Church.
These three traits are only ones that I will put forward at this time from the writing that has appeared about this Argentinian priest. I believe, though, that they are traits that would serve any of us well who claim to be leaders–certainly those who claim to be spiritual leaders.
The title of this post, “Lowly But Chosen”, are the words that make up the moto of Archbishop Begoglio’s archdiocese in Argentina. I appreciate these words. They seem to well represent the man. May they be true of him. May they be true of us.