Lest my recent columns convey the impression that I hold out little hope for transformational leadership ever happening in our country, because of the arid landscape presented by our national politics, I will shift terrain and theme today by tackling the inspiring and promising change now taking place in the Roman Catholic Church, as a result of the election of Pope Francis as the new pontiff on March 13 last year.
If ever there was a transformational leader among us (Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela are other examples that come to mind), Pope Francis is surely one, even judging solely by his impact after a little over nine months in office.
At the helm of one of the oldest, largest and richest institutions in the world, which was facing its own crisis of scandal and relevance in contemporary times, the new pope has moved spectacularly fast in stopping the erosion of prestige, stemming the sense of demoralization, and in raising the hopes for a new day of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world (including some 80 million Filipinos).
When Time named him as its Person of the Year last year, it seemed not so much a culmination, as it was a foregone conclusion. No one has had so deep and sweeping an impact on his congregation, nation or the world than the pope during the year. In the life of institutions, no one in this new century has probably meant so much in terms of change in tone and outlook.
We do not expect massive change in a church that is now over two thousand years old and measures change in centuries. But as Time insightfully pointed out in its cover story, Pope Francis did not change the words, he has changed the music: “tone and temperament matter in a church built on the substance of symbols – bread and wine, body and blood – so it is a mistake to dismiss any Pope’s symbolic choices as gestures empty of the force of law.”
When he was first presented to the world, he was plainly dressed, a simple white cassock, no regalia, no finery. He stood there on the balcony looking out at the crowd on the square. He made no grand gestures for the media to record.
A leader of humility from Day one
Then the telling moment came. Before he gave a blessing he asked for a blessing: He asked the crowd to pray for him. He bent his head down and the raucous, cheering square suddenly became silent, as everyone prayed.
It was an act of humility that has marked his Papacy since Day one.
After his election, he returned to his hotel to pay his own bill. He has retired the papal Mercedes in favor of a modest Ford Focus. He wears no red shoes, no gilded cross, just an iron one around his neck. He has rejected the pomp and privileges of his office.
This is consistent with his background. He gave the cardinal’s palace in Buenos Aires to a missionary order with no money. He lived in an apartment, cooked his own food, rode the bus. He rejects pomposity. He does not feel superior. He is a fellow soul. He had booked a flight back to Argentina when the conclave to elect a new pope ended.
In his first utterances as pope, including his first exhortation, he has placed himself at the center of discussions of the crucial issues and debates of our time: wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, and the temptations of power.
A Pontiff of the poor
From the first, he was determined to be a Pontiff of the Poor. He turned the Vatican Almoner, an agency that has existed for 800 years, into a real agency to give alms. He turned over its charge to a youngish Polish archbishop, saying: “You need to get out of the Vatican. Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor.”
In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gladium (The Joy of the Gospel), Pope Francis criticized “the idolatry of money.” “How can it be,” he asked, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
And then he goes after capitalism and globalization: “some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion has never been confirmed by the facts.”
For him, the church must work “to eliminate the structural causes of poverty. While the Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike…he is obliged to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.”
In case anyone in the church missed his point, he suspended a bishop in Limburg, Germany, for overseeing a $42.5 million renovation of the church residence that included a $20,500 bathtub.
Elaborating on his vision, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
Speaking for the culture of life
Pope Francis is no liberal; he is orthodox, he hews closely to the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He firmly speaks for “the culture of life.”
Pope Francis is now so popular that some in the media consider him a rock star. One journalist reports that this pope “has a talent for empathy and for engaging people in conversation.” That may be his biggest strength. It is a great antidote for a time of cynicism about leadership, politics and religion.
Pope Francis is showing the world a kind of public leadership that many have not seen for a long time — simple, unassuming, and self-effacing. Leaders today are more in-your-face and brazen. They’re adept at using teleprompters and the techniques of showbiz. They know how to flash a smile for the cameras.
Francis the Humble is carving a leadership style that may be suitable for the man or woman who will lead this nation of 100 million starting in 2016. It is right because it understands the poor, of which we have so many. It could start to bridge the gap between the rich and poor in our society, which is widening every year.