An enduring image for me of the decidedly mixed year that is fast passing away is the whimsical cover illustration of a recent New Yorker magazine of the Jesuit Pope Francis spread eagled in the snow, six-year-old like, creating a snow angel. It seems a perfect image of hope in what has often seemed to be a year marked only by discord, strife and bitterness.
From the partisan breakdown in Washington politics, including the now distant memory of a pointless and costly shutdown of the federal government and the more recent abandonment of unemployment protections and reductions in food stamp benefits for millions of Americans, to the deadly and protracted civil wars in Syria and South Sudan and the near civil war in Iraq, from media fixation on the trivial ignorance of Duck Dynasty and Anthony Weiner to the incompetence of the Affordable Care Act roll out, only Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela seemed able this year to cut through the clutter and address something important.
In a superb profile in the same New Yorker with the Argentine snow angel on the cover, James Carroll offers a nuanced assessment of the still-new Bishop of Rome. Yet you come away from Carroll’s profile and the recent reporting of other Vatican watchers believing – even hoping – that this man is the radical that both his church and the world need. And the word radical is used not in its usual polarizing political context of right vs. left, but rather in the context of a moral and spiritual leader who recognizes the need for fundamental change both in tone and substance.
Carroll recounts that the Pope is “a large man with a ready smile” who preaches with fervor and with questions. “What kind of love do we bring to others? . . . Do we treat each other like brothers and sisters? Or do we judge one another?”
Elsewhere it is reported that President Obama sees the surprising Pope as an ally with like-minded notions about the need to shrink the gulf between the world’s rich and poor. However, what Francis has and Obama struggles to obtain may make the Pope a better mentor than a kindred soul. After two successive leaders of the Catholic Church who placed a premium on doctrinaire obedience by the church and its leaders to a our-way-or-the-highway view of social issues like gay rights, contraception and abortion, the new pope seems determined to reform the Catholic bureaucracy and turn the church’s message in a new and better direction with both his words and his deeds.
Symbols are important, as presidents from Lincoln to Reagan have taught us, and Pope Francis seems to instinctively grasp that truth. He has mostly abandoned the Popemobile for a small car, lives in a two room apartment rather than the Vatican penthouse, shuns the red loafers and ermine capes, and, yes, he kisses babies. He has attacked the bloated and corrupt Vatican bureaucracy like a born-again political reformer and dismissed some bishops and scolded others for forgetting – or ignoring – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“The spirit of careerism,” Francis warned a recent gathering of new bishops, “is a form of cancer.” And he possessed of enough self-awareness – an indispensable political attribute – not to shield himself from criticism. “Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others,” he wrote in recently, “I too must think about a conversion of the papacy.” That sounds a good deal like a radical with a plan laying the groundwork for a new direction.
One suspects that Francis also is a strategic enough political thinker to understand the value of surprise, the power of the unexpected gesture. As a 76-year old with only one lung Francis could easily have been a caretaker pope, but he’s been anything but so far. Rather he seems like a man in a hurry, at least in the context of a church that is defined by glacial change, who realizes he may not have much time to change things. So, with the surprise of his symbols and the courage of his convictions the pope, it seems to me, is executing on a grand strategy.
First he must change the focus of the church from a hectoring, secretive institution that has become comfortable with constantly saying “NO” to one that actually speaks of its real purpose, which is to serve the poor, seek justice, be inclusive even with non-believers, and advocate for peace. Once that moral authority is established and the bureaucracy is better under control he can move on to even more controversial issues.
One of the many remarkable things this new pope has done is to be gentle with the man he replaced. Under different circumstances and with a different leader having the previous Pope Benedict literally living above the store could have been awkward in the extreme. But Francis has done not only the kind and Christian thing, but the politically strategic thing by tending to his relationship with the uber doctrinaire ex-pope who once led the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office dedicated to keeping the church in line. On Dec. 23 Pope Francis visited his predecessor for prayers and lunch, just the kind of small but telling gesture that speaks volumes and resonates on television.
Pope Francis like Mandela, another great leader who was able to transcend his circumstances, are better politicians than most politicians. They understand that change – political and institutional change – come from a careful meld of arts both soft and firm. Leadership requires both moral authority and sense of purpose. It can mean quiet persuasion delivered with a smile as well as fierce determination to succeed coupled with the energy and drive to execute on a plan. Leadership also means outwitting your opponents and, a lesson Obama has yet to learn after five years in office, a willingness to cajole, flatter and co-opt. But it begins with moral authority.
Perhaps the president’s New Years Resolution should be to not merely quote the pope’s speeches, but adopt his political tactics.
Given what may become the long lame duck presidency of Barack Obama and given the dispiriting lack of genuine leaders elsewhere in the world – think of the thuggish Putin or any of the bureaucrats running western European nations – maybe, just maybe we have reason to hope at the end of this mostly hopeless year that God does work in mysterious ways.
When most we need a reminder of what one man can do on a journey from a jail cell to the Nobel Peace Prize we end 2013 reflecting on Mandela’s remarkable life. And when most we need to believe that someone can articulate with real moral authority the universal truths of compassion, respect, inclusion and peace we at last have a Pope of Hope.