Pope USA

Pope Francis: “Parish-Priest of the World”

In January of 2015, I was in Rome with my students, and as part of our course, I interviewed Archbishop David Moxon, who told us: “Pope Francis has become the parish-priest of the world.” Moxon, a New Zealander, is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the Holy See.


Moxon went on to say that in contrast to most world leaders, Francis’ unconventional personal style makes him stand out as truly authentic. It’s Francis’s warmth and personal touch that brings comfort to people at his weekly audiences and those “orphans of the storm” in visits to places like the island of Lampedusa, the refugee center off the coast of Sicily.

In light of so many seemingly insolvable global issues and Church conflicts, can the pope’s moral authority run aground in a sea of good intentions and futile efforts?

In the wake of much human suffering with wars, injustice, and poverty, according to Moxon, people want to know, “What is the pope thinking?” This question is on the minds of Catholics and people everywhere.

Here, the pope’s ability to identify pressing global issues and, at the same time, develop a message for the Church, one of mercy, apostolic courage, and reform have defined his papacy in these two short years.

Frankly, his is a most remarkable feat for a man at 78, the formerly retired-archbishop, Jesuit from Argentina, and now as pope at the center of this vast worldwide communion.

As we forecast, his visit to Cuba (9/19) and the United States (9/22-27), I’d like to provide an overview of his leadership role, key themes particular to his unique message, his distinctive personal style and appeal, and lastly a reflection of mine.

1. Leadership

To explore the pope’s “adaptive leadership” let me draw from Jorge Bergoglio’s experience in Argentina and draw on insights from seasoned observers of the pope, those theologians, academics, and the press/media that cover him day-to-day.

Two writers have a particular influence on my thinking. Harvard’s Joseph Nye, in his book “The Powers to Lead” (Oxford, 2008), provides a theory of leadership and the criteria to assess the skills of leadership. I’ve adopted this works as the textbook for my undergraduate course on “Communication & Leadership.”

Recently, a new biography of Pope Francis by English historian Austen Ivereigh, entitled “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope,” (Henry Holt, 2014) has come along, and to my mind, the single best biography providing insight into the pope’s personal story, so rich in details, and so convincing especially about the pope’s deep, inner spiritual life.

In my courses on leadership, I tell students to begin with biography, which provides endless clues as to how a leader makes decisions and comes to her/his role in forwarding nations, or corporations, and, in the case of a pope, the Roman Catholic Church.

Since 1979, I have worked for CBS News as a producer and consultant on the news of religion. I have assisted the news media with the funeral coverage of popes going back to Pope Paul VI. I also provided commentary about the process of electing a new pope and then handicapped the cardinals who may be elected pope. An almost fruitless effort.

I’ve been a failure at predicting the outcome of the conclaves, those secretive workings of how a particular man moves from a cardinal to the final selection as pope. In terms of researching those who might merit election, I’ve been convinced that we know precious little about the cardinals that would be pope.

Yes, they may have press/media coverage day-to-day in their particular office or region of the world. Still, no one carefully examines the childhood or upbringing, early experiences as a clergyman, essential decisions, writings, sermons, or interpersonal skills with people with enough clarity to forecast how a person might function as a leader adequately.

It’s here where Austen Ivereigh makes a significant contribution. This biography is a vastly compelling and detailed portrait of Jorge Bergoglio; the book is a model for future biographers.

For example, Ivereigh documents the kind of priestly service and Jesuit training that tells us something peculiar about Pope Francis. Nothing about his early aspirations would indicate the far-fetched idea that he might become pope or even a bishop. Instead, his focus as a seminary rector, spiritual director, and day-to-day contact with parishioners and those “people on the periphery” make him the only pope in recent memory with genuine pastoral experience.

Indeed, what’s so compelling about the pope’s story is his command of what’s essential in people’s spiritual lives, those he came to know. People’s pain and personal struggles are central to his thinking about God’s mercy extended to all and remained a key theme in his writing, preaching, and evangelizing.

Most important, these themes come out of his prayer, his directed retreats, and devotional practices where only a handful of Jesuits or parishioners listened to “Padre Jorge.” At the time, he went unnoticed by the Church establishment and the media, but as Ivereigh describes in his biography of Bergoglio, here was a man whose profound influence affected people’s lives, heart-to-heart, person-to-person.

His is the rare example of “grassroots” leadership as the Church has ever experienced. To gauge this kind of “model pope” and his rise to the top of the hierarchy in Argentina and later his election as Pope Francis, historians may have to go back to the selection of Pope Saint Gregory the Great (540-604AD). Gregory’s innovative leadership and mostly his service to the poor of Rome are still celebrated.

Joseph Nye and other writers such as Chris Lowney (“Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads” Loyola, 2013) classify Francis’s style as that of an “adaptive leader,” the kind of leader who addresses the genuine needs of people, or constituents. After careful listening, she/he works within a process or method to permit hearing disparate voices, discerning or deliberating over issues or conflicts, making judgments, and then taking action.

Such a method reflects Bergoglio’s past work for the General Chapters of the Jesuits; and, more directly, his participation as the Archbishop of Buenos Ares in the Aparecida General Assembly (2007), a consulting body of South American hierarchy.

His style of leadership appears, at times, disruptive to the Vatican’s way of doing things. For example, this past year in his management of the “Synod on the Family” (2014) in Rome Francis called for “apostolic courage” or parrhesia, implying there should be an open discussion among participants.

Here his pastoral style included deliberative and specific vocabulary and was formed in his days as a Jesuit. These management tools of his were on display and sometimes clashed with the monarchical stance of cardinals and bishops so tone-deaf to Francis’s “process of discernment.” To one bewildered member of the Synod who expressed concerns to him directly about an open discussion on family issues, Francis replied: “Don’t worry, Peter is here!” In other words, “I am the pope, remember?”

Francis’s conversational tone is best evidenced in his initial interview conducted by Father Antonio Spadaro, S.J., for the worldwide Jesuit press (America, 9/30/13). He is not the guarded and overly cautious leader whose every word is calculated for its effects.

Even his use of the telephone for personal conversations, often to the disbelief of people on the other end, has become the subject of countless stories and misquotes in the press. This is the style of a man that is more immediate and improvisational, and not willing to be packaged for theological journals or media/press releases.

His publication of “The Joy of the Gospel,” (11/26/13) Francis’s first formal “papal elocution” charts his course as pope, draws on his years of experience as a pastor and bishop, with personal insight and in his own language, so much more accessible to his readers.


Clearly, Pope Francis came to the papal office both with a distinctive voice, and a full range of tasks that would challenge any leader.

2. Key Themes of Pope Francis

In a recent talk at the “World Communication Day,” at the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., Austen Ivereigh examined four recurring themes in Francis’s public communication:

  • Reform within the Catholic Tradition
  • Mercy is the cornerstone to evangelization
  • Mission over “spiritual worldliness”
  • Apostolic Courage or “parrhesia.”

Drawing on the accomplishment of Vatican Council II, Francis is a devotee of theologian and Dominican Father Yves Congar. His classic texts such as “True and False Reform in the Church” suggest a middle way of Church renewal that goes out from the center to the periphery, and seriously takes in the lives and perspectives of the poor. Francis’ reform is not elitist, rather innovative within the tradition, and draws on the strength of “God’s holy people.”

God’s tenderness is a second theme that focuses Francis’ attention on the great mercy of God, and for him, this is a primary attribute of God – a God who has a heart for those who suffer.

On the very first Sunday of his pontificate from the balcony of the Apostolic Palace overlooking Saint Peter’s Square, Francis told the crowd: “Mercy is the Lord’s greatest message.” And added: “God is never tired of forgiving us.” It was on this occasion that he mentioned Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book “Mercy” which the pope had been reading during the conclave.

Perhaps a very first clue is that Jorge Bergoglio was well-versed in the theological contretemps that contrast the two most prominent Catholic and German theologians Cardinal Kasper and Joseph Ratzinger, the recently retired Pope Benedict XVI.

The “medicine of mercy” is the cornerstone of Francis’ evangelism, and consequently, he has called for a “Jubilee Year of Mercy” beginning in December of 2015. Moreover, if the Church is to restore credibility in light of so many challenges, including the “sexual abuse” crisis, a merciful community that reflects the “merciful face of God” is the Jubilee Year’s goal.

In his interview with the Jesuit press, he spoke about healing: “I see clearly that the Church needs to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds…And you have to start from the ground up.”

Drawing on the concerns of French Jesuit Henri de Lubac, another of the Vatican II theologians, Francis supports a renewed church mission, and one that avoids the trappings of “spiritual worldliness.” A gospel message focused on the people means its ministers must have the “smell of the sheep.” And in this sense, Francis’ appeal is deeply radical, especially challenging to those whose notion of tradition, renders the Church as “self-reverential,” and worse of all, vainglorious.

So for Francis, and all Christians, the mission of Christ is the work.

When in 1986 at the age of fifty, Jorge Bergoglio left his Jesuits in Argentina for advanced study in Germany. He came across a particular devotion to “Mary, the Untier of Knots” at the Church of Sankt Peter am Perlach in Augsberg. During this difficult period in his own life, Bergoglio turned to Mary, to discern his next steps, which would include his return to Argentina without a doctoral degree. It may be this devotion of his, the untying of knots, one that puts aside fear to take up the work of Christ with “apostolic courage,” and his word parrhesia — that is most distinctive.

Some say this is Francis’ vision, rather I would say, this is his imagination within the confines of the Church, its gospel, and tradition. Here he is drawing on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, removing blockage, resetting the papacy, and the Church’s mandate, with a spiritual imagination, as the great reformer of a modern Church.

3. Distinctive personal style and appeal


Any close examination of the photographs of Jorge Bergoglio may reveal some clues to his inner life. There are countless images of him as Pope Francis, and yet when taking a look at photos of him from his early days as a youth, as a Jesuit priest, or archbishop, one rarely sees his smile. Now, as pope, his public expression is joyful, like the gospel he represents.

What changed is hard to gauge, but his powerful and effective public presence is more than his words, and more than “skin deep.”

Whether it’s his simplicity or humility, his appeal to millions of followers, his presence that does not appear schooled or trained, rather authentic and real. His charisma and personal style are a version of the Kennedy/Nixon televised debates, where the make-up or the TV lighting makes for political and media success. Instead, there is something more here.

Remember this is a man who had not traveled much of the world before he was pope. Nor does he have the gift of languages as Saint John Paul II; instead, Francis speaks his native Spanish, and Italian, the language of his parents and grandparents. Yet, he still speaks and appeals to people worldwide.

His personality and character developed in an Italian-Argentine household. He took charge as the first son of immigrants, worked at small jobs, attended technical school and studied chemistry, and learned to cook for the family after his mother’s illness. These early lessons in life that nurture seeds of “emotional intelligence,” and forecast a leader’s ability to deal well with people as a “moral authority.”

Pope Francis possesses the character and personality that comes along all too infrequently. Daniel Goleman, who coined the term “emotional intelligence” (“On Emotional Intelligence,” HBP, 2015); and Eugene Kennedy, whose study of “moral authority” (“Authority” with Sara Charles, Free Press, 1997) makes Pope Francis a unique case study.

According to Dan Goleman, there are five components of “emotional intelligence”: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy that treats people fairly, and a person who is “socially skilled” with a network of relations already in place from which to draw strength.

Here, his family, the Jesuit community, his unique ability to draw on people, his San Lorenzo soccer team, and traveling as he did “shoulder to shoulder” on public transportation are essential aspects of this form of intelligence. In all good human relations, feelings must be mutual. So it does not come as a surprise that the San Lorenzo soccer team is naming their new stadium after Pope Francis.

Eugene Kennedy’s ideas about “moral authority” deal with the authoring of relationships such as a coach authoring teamwork, or teaching authoring new knowledge and insight among her/his students, or parents whose “parenting” provide livelong lessons of love, honesty, and resiliency.

Kennedy calls this mode of behavior “generative moral authority” one that does not impose. Instead, he provides life lessons that come back to us as a “second nature” in the conduct of people’s moral lives.

To my mind, few world leaders today have such personal connections and emotional intelligence. Pope Francis is unique in his distinctive style and appeal; and how rare coming into public attention, something like a meteor shower, only three years ago.

4. A Reflection from “In the Footsteps of the Early Christians”


Our goldenrod-colored tickets to Pope Francis’s General Audience for Wednesday, January 28th, were not the best seats in the house, but then again, the gospel tells us: “the first shall be last, and the last first.”
At a papal audience, it’s best to be on the aisle for the best opportunity for a “close encounter” with the pope. However, the aisle seats were filled.

After hours of waiting outside — under the Bernini columns, with the security checks and x-ray machines, and the hustle of 10,000 people – a crowd that could fill twenty Boeing 747-400 jumbo jets masses pushed past police and the Swiss Guards. Once behind the Vatican gates, we filed into the Paul VI Audience Hall.

To our initial dismay, our group from Saint Mary’s College of California was seated close to the exit doors. While we had come to Rome to study, we were there in the crowd to do what thousands of people from around the globe come to do – try to meet the pope.
The anticipation of the pope’s arrival hung over the crowd. We gazed at the giant television screens in the audience hall that magnified every movement in that vast space. Then, a band began playing music, and onto this sacred stage came a carnival act with jugglers, tumblers, and, more amazingly, colorful burlesque “quick change artists” who switched from costume to costume. As an “opening act” to warm up the crowd that day, they set the tempo and the tone for the papal audience.

Once at his seat, at the very center of the stage, Pope Francis laughed at the merriment and the festive spirit of the carnival troupe. It may have been the closest the Catholic Church ever comes to the “Ed Sullivan Show;” and perhaps, the very “Joy of the Gospel” itself.
The pope enjoyed himself moved through the crowd from person to person — for over an hour and a half. Two of our students made it to the aisle and waited it out among the group– and finally handed a letter to the friendly, smiling pope. Meaghan told us: “I am still in shock that I met Pope Francis, who embodies the love and kindness of Christ Jesus in the world today.”


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