My reaction to the remarkable interview with Pope Francis that dominated the international news cycle last week was hardly unique. The New York Times’ Frank Bruni wrote Sunday about having the same feeling.
“It was the sweetness in his timbre, the meekness of his posture,” Bruni wrote that was truly remarkable. “It was the revelation that a man can wear the loftiest of miters without having his head swell to fit it, and can hold an office to which the term ‘infallible’ is often attached without forgetting his failings. In the interview, Francis called himself naïve, worried that he’d been rash in the past and made clear that the flock harbored as much wisdom as the shepherds. Instead of commanding people to follow him, he invited them to join him. And did so gently, in what felt like a whisper.”
As a general rule Pope’s don’t do interviews or if they do they speak in a certain Vatican code that is as difficult to decipher as a Ben Bernacke news conference. And when a pope speaks it is not typically in a whisper. Yet, the Argentine Jesuit who has been surprising the world since moving to Rome earlier this year sat for three different interview sessions and then gave the transcript the papal seal of approval by looking it over. In all his answers he spoke like a real person on everything from the Church’s fixation with abortion and gay marriage to his own taste in movies and art. Even before the blockbuster interview that appeared around the world in Jesuit journals Francis was shunning popely convention, as well as the royal trappings and red shoes of the Bishop of Rome, by living in a guest house and working the phones.
Remarkable. Also hugely important, not just for his message of inclusion and self-reflection, but for his style. His Holiness has provided a lesson to leaders – or alleged leaders – in our modern culture, whether they be in business, politics or entertainment on how to lead.
If you are an American Catholic who believes the Church has strayed from the Gospel message focused on works of charity and taking care of the poor and disaffected the Pope’s lengthy interview provides a welcome dose of hope. For those inclined to embrace the Church’s unfailing focus on abortion and gay marriage the Pope has no doubt created some heartburn in the pews. Even the doctrinaire Archbishop of New York had to admit that the big-minded Pope had created “a breath of fresh air.”
Reading the remarkable interview one come away with the impression of a man of faith who, like most of us, struggles with that faith. In how he wages that struggle is the essence of leadership in the modern age – humility, candor, humor, an appeal to reason and above all inclusion.
Contrast Pope Francis’ approach with the senseless bickering and daily preening of small-minded leaders in Washington, D.C. Oh but to possess the certainty of a Sen. Ted Cruz, a young man who has been in the Senate for weeks and has seen his head grow daily ever larger as he speaks as the oracle of the ages that he apparently believes himself to be. So full of their convictions and themselves are Cruz and his Tea Party acolytes that they threaten, bluster and filibuster the country to the edge of another fiscal cliff to unfund a law that both houses of Congress passed and the president signed – three and a half years ago.
In the depressing aftermath of another mass murder by guns, this time in the nation’s capitol, the NRA’s mouthpiece rails against the “broken” mental health system, but nowhere hints at even a tiny bit of humbleness that might acknowledge that the gun culture the NRA helped create might – just might – have something to do with the outrageous level of gun violence in America. In this ever-so-sure world there are never shades of grey only moral certainty articulated in a loud voice.
Or consider those members of Congress like Indiana Republican Marlin Stutzman who voted recently to throw several million poor Americans off food stamps in a move that the Congressman casually says “eliminates loopholes, ensures work requirements, and puts us on a fiscally responsible path.” Mr. Stutzman’s appeal to reason doesn’t look so good when you understand that he took away $39 billion in food assistance with one hand, while cashing in on his own $200,000 farm subsidy with the other and he wasn’t alone. A “fiscally responsible path” obviously only leads to the other guys door.
I could go on, but you get the drift. Little wonder Americans have essentially given up on their political leaders handing the Congress a 20% approval rating, which is actually up a couple of points apparently because voters are embracing Congressional reluctance to rush into another war. Imagine that. Still compared to the enormous problems we face – from gun violence to failing schools, from climate change to a middling economy – the swelled heads who might actually try to tackle those problems seem so very small, so very petty and so very lacking in humility.
As Frank Bruni wrote of the Pope, “authority can come from a mix of sincerity and humility as much as from any blazing, blinding conviction, and that stature is a respect you earn, not a pedestal you grab. That’s a useful lesson in this grabby age of ours.”
Pope Francis, the Jesuit scholar who loves Mozart, Puccini and Fellini’s films, knows something most people in modern public life seem unwilling to learn. You lead not by having the best daily soundbite or finding the newest, most novel way to insult your opponent, but by walking in the other person’s shoes, understanding their motivations and fears and by appealing not to the crassness of partisan politics, but to the sweet reason that is the product of facts and candor and trust.
“We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus” says the pontiff from Buenos Aires. This still new Pope is doing something Washington, D.C. hasn’t done for a long time. He’s making sense.