When you spend the majority of your time watching and analyzing politicians you get pretty good at distinguishing the good ones from the bad. Having recently spent two weeks in Italy we can say without reservation that we are witnessing the evolution of one of the most effective politicians of our time.
We are speaking of Pope Francis.
Pope Francis presides over a Catholic Church in crisis; reeling from scandal and struggling to repair the rift between liberal and conservative Catholics who hold very divergent views for the future of the institution. The one thing both factions do agree upon is that the current state of affairs in Vatican City isn’t working. They want a church that is focused on helping the sick, the poor and the otherwise disadvantaged...not a church so obsessed with its image that it would go to any extent to cover up felonious behavior. Pope Francis gets it, and in his first year at the helm he has made extraordinary strides to return the Church to its basic values.
This Pope understands that small acts can send a powerful message. As any good politician knows…optics DO matter… and in this case 1.2 billion followers are watching his every move.
He took the name of Francis of Assisi; the son of a wealthy silk merchant who gave up the trappings of wealth to live a life of poverty and humility. In similar fashion Pope Francis has rejected the trappings of the papacy favored by his predecessors.
On the day of his election, his aides wanted to usher him to the newly renovated Apostolic Palace apartments where all previous popes have resided. Francis refused; opting instead to ride the shuttle bus with his fellow cardinals back to the 131 room Domus Sanctae Marthea guest house where he and all the other cardinals had lived since the conclave began. His explanation was simple…he had to pay his bill. When he finally got his first look at the lavish papal apartment he recoiled and returned to his simple room in the guest house where he still resides today.
Francis, a Jesuit, has refused most of the trappings of the office. Gone are the glitz, glitter, pomp and circumstance that have been associated with the office for centuries. Francis prefers simple vestments void of ornamentation and still wears the same pectoral cross he wore when he was a cardinal. The red slippers worn by his predecessors are gone as well…replaced by black work shoes that resemble beat up doc martens. We saw these shoes first hand. They could use a spit shine.
While these changes are small in nature they send an important message. There is a new sheriff in town…a man of the people….one who is far more concerned with substance than accoutrements.
Francis has altered the direction of the church in more meaningful ways than by his dress and choice of residence. When asked about his views on gay lifestyle he said that gays “should be integrated into society instead of ostracized. Who am I to judge?” The impact of this statement will have a profound effect on the future teachings of the Church.
This past Sunday Francis presided over the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. The political significance and brilliance of this move cannot be understated.
John XXIII was one of the most liberal pontiffs in the history of Catholicism. His calling for the Second Vatican Council in 1962 authored the most significant changes in the Catholic Church since the 16th century.
Pope John Paul II was one of the most conservative popes in modern times. He is credited with playing an integral part in the fall of Communism and improving Church’s relations with Judaism, Islam and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Pope Francis’ decision to canonize these two historic yet divergent figures on the exact same day sends a very powerful message to the liberal and conservative factions of the church. By this gesture Francis is building a unifying bridge between the two. His message is clear…we are one church.
The Catholic Church is like any other international mega corporation. It is run by human beings who exhibit all the flaws common in any society. Greed and the abuse of power are not strangers here. Set aside the whole “saving of souls” concept and we could be talking about IBM, Exxon or any number of similar organizations. The CEO of an institution like the Catholic Church must be not only be a learned theologian but a savvy businessman and shrewd politician as well.
Pope Francis gets it. It will be interesting to watch his political evolution.