“Lowly But Chosen”

imgresThe 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.

The Pope & Positional Leadership

Last week I had to travel to Rome to obtain a visa to India for an upcoming emerging leader training.  I traveled down a little early so I could climb the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral.  It truly is one of the best views of Rome.  When I arrived, I noticed a lot of people and a lot of security.  It was Holy Week at the Vatican-so I should not have been surprised.  I was quickly informed that the dome was closed until 1:00 p.m. because of a general audience with Pope Benedict.  I decided to stick around and take in the moment.  Everyone seem to have special tickets for this Easter week gathering.  I was hanging around the entrance, which was being monitored by the famous Swiss Guard-when one of them motioned me into the sectioned off seating area.  I looked around to be sure he was directing his attention to me-he was, and I went in.  I had an incredible seat. I was about 15 rows from the front. So I stayed to hear what the Pope would say.

As I waited for the Pope to address the crowd I began to wonder how this man still garnered so much devotion and attention.  Pilgrims from many parts of the world were on hand.  Thousands filled the square.  When the Pope finally made his appearance, the crowd erupted in wild cheers.  But why-really?  The last few years have not been the best for the Catholic Church in terms of public relations. With the sexual scandals dogging the priesthood and unpopular stances regarding abortion, marriage, and celibacy-and shrinking attendance at mass-you would think his appearance would hardly garner a small crowd.  If he were the president of some corporation with the current circumstances, he would have been soundly booed off the stage.  There would have been protests galore.  But as he made his appearance you would never know of the problems that surround the Catholic church.

Here are some thoughts on why people will still follow, even in light of glaring issues:

1. People will ascribe moral authority to the position or office even if some expressions of that authority have failed them.  People believe Pope Benedict is a good man. People believe that he is a man who desires to lead well and do right by the church and her parishioners.  People ascribe a certain amount of authority to the title, the position, or the person-and that can cover for a number of wrongs committed by his underlings.  In other words, most leaders have a certain amount of authority lent to them.  If the leader leads well and effects positive change, that lent authority can turn into granted authority-willingly and rightly extended and given to those who prove worthy.

2. People deeply want to believe in something.  People generally believe the best in their leaders.  We want to give people a second chance.  There is something within us that wants to believe in the ideal.  We want to hope-we want to trust.  So we will remain patient in the face of inconsistencies-to a point.  We will extend the second and third chance.  But patience will run out when the inconsistencies begin to exact a real toll.  When our patience begins to feel like foolishness we will withdraw our trust.  Trust must be validated by character and consistent actions-from the top of the structure to the bottom of the structure.

3. People want to be led and will willingly follow when authority is earned.  People will flock to a truly good leader.  When a leader’s character and consistent actions match a community’s real needs, authority will be granted and honored.  But that character must include dealing with obvious problems within the organization.  If problems are ignored, granted authority will be withdrawn.  The only hope at that point for the leader is to demand followership through threat or dominance.

I don’t think these principles are only for the church.  Any leader’s moral authority is really only as good as the effective change they create and the consistent leadership they provide.

There are three types of authority-demanded, lent and granted.  People will lend you a certain amount of authority as a leader-but if you don’t move rather quickly from lent authority to granted authority you will have to resort to demanded authority to maintain your influence.  And that is never where you want to be.  That is authority that is only derived from the power of the position.  Granted authority is what people willingly extend to consistent character and positive influence.  Even the Pope-or the institution, can over extend it’s moral authority. Leadership character includes really dealing with real problems.

The Vatican Under Fire and Moral Authority

The headlines each day carry something related to the Catholic Church being under enormous pressure in light of the sexual abuse charges by priests around the world.   I live in Italy-the vortex of the Catholic world.  On the whole, Italians are suspicious of the Catholic Church.  I often hear university students speak of the prime minister, the mafia, and the Catholic church being in cahoots together regarding all things Italian.  At best, the Catholic Church is seen by most Italians as irrelevant to the lives of everyday people.  And honestly, they have over 1000 years of history to validate some of their claims.  Over Easter many parishioners were bothered that Pope Benedict did not mention the scandals at all.  People want to know what happened on his watch while a Cardinal in Germany.  Some pundits have already claimed that this is the end of the Catholic Church.  I don’t pretend to know about the demise of the Catholic Church-I do know that the cathedrals here are more empty than full these days.  But I actually believe that the current controversy is a primary lesson in leadership.  The Pope is losing moral authority.

Leadership is about influence and always includes authority.  In leadership there are two possibilities regarding authority-moral authority and structured authority.  Structured authority is that authority which comes with position or title.  People follow and obey largely because they have to.  Moral authority-or what I like to call granted authority-is that authority which is given to you by your followers because they want to follow and obey you.  Structured authority goes with the title or position-the other type is earned-every day.  Leaders earn granted authority through their authenticity and character.  And it comes just as much from admitting mistakes and dealing with real problems as it does from making progress in the mission or seeing success.  As the elected head of the Catholic Church Pope Benedict has structured authority-but he is quickly losing moral or granted authority.  People may continue to “follow” by code of conduct or association-but he is currently aiding the abiding notion that the Catholic Church is irrelevant by not acting in a more determined way towards these abuses.  God will preserve His Church-by that I mean the whole body of Christ.  But I am saddened that people may miss Jesus because of the church.

Presence and Proclamation

My family and I recently made a trip to Cinque Terra. As the name describes this is a cluster of five lands–five small villages along the western Italian coast. A seven mile hiking trail connects these five villages in a very picturesque journey. We spent four days exploring, eating, resting, shopping, and hiking. The rugged coastline is one of the prettiest I have ever seen–it is well worth the time if you ever get the opportunity to come to Italy.

On one particular day as I was off doing a little exploring on my own–something stood out to me. In every one of the five villages there is at least one–if not two or three–Catholic churhes. Usually they hold some of the most prominent locations in each setting–often at the very center of the town. Now these towns are small–I can’t imagine that any one of them has more than a few hundred full time residents–yet there is at least one church for each community.

This thought occurred–if fulfilling the Great Commission in Italy were only about “presence”–then the Catholic church has done the job. All over this country you would be hard pressed to find a city, town, or village without a church building at the center of town architecture. Sometimes even today the debate goes on that really all we need to do is be present in the lives of unbelievers to draw them to Christ. Or some would say that this is the primary thing we must do–we must stop being only attractional in our strategies–and we must be more missional by being very present in the places where unbelievers live, work and play. I was forced to go back and re-read some of the passages in Scripture that we look to in describing this missional mandate. And sure enough–it is hard to escape the need for presence. “Going” implies location. “All the world” implies location. But there is one other critical element that one cannot escape either–proclamation. Throughout the New Testament the gospel is something to not only be lived out and demonstrated–but something to be communicated–proclaimed.

I visited some of these churches while touring–it is rare to find more than a dozen people at mass. Certainly the Catholic church has made many efforts to be present in the lives of people everywhere. But presence is not all that is required. There must be a faithful proclaiming of the simple and pure gospel message of Jesus Christ to accompany any presence. While I would completely agree that attractional ministry will not take us where we want to go–neither will simple presence among the lost. There must be both presence and proclamation.