Pope Francis will probably never have a direct impact on my life. Not in the same way that a law can compel me to behave a certain way or a boss can make my work feel either fulfilling and worthwhile or endless and futile. Long gone are the days when the pope, backed by the power of excommunication, could coerce national leaders into governing the way the church preferred.
The Holy Father has no militias ready to take up arms at his behest. And because I grew up long after Vatican II and the upheaval of the 1960s, the institution that the pope leads -- the Catholic Church -- doesn’t exactly instill the fear of God in me the way that it once did with my grandparents and their parents.
And yet, as spiritual leader to the world’s Catholics, the pope still holds a global platform that, as we saw last month, commands the attention of the media, many Catholics, and not a few others interested in great world religions.
Days before the election, my sister, a campus minister at a small Catholic college in the Bronx, asked me what effect, if any, the next pope would have on my life. I confess I hadn’t thought about it, and I couldn’t come up with an answer. But in the weeks since Francis’ election, I’ve found myself -- and many other Catholics -- already being shaped and affected by this new pope.
I work in communications for a Catholic nonprofit, the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, which shares office space with a Catholic philanthropy, Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities. During the conclave, my computer, like millions of devices around the world, streamed an around-the-clock view of the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel.
Together with the throng in St. Peter’s Square, we watched for the signal that would tell us a new pope had been elected. Eventually, after two days -- the high point of which was the now-famous seagull who perched atop the chimney -- we saw what we had been waiting for: white smoke.
As word spread, an excited crowd from throughout the Roundtable and FADICA gathered around my laptop. Finally, out onto the balcony stepped Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina.
And at once, in our office and throughout the world, a single question rang out: “Who?”
Since then, we’ve witnessed Francis eschew fancy dress, decline an opulent apartment and speak repeatedly of the need to remember the poor. On Holy Thursday, we saw him wash the feet of young men and -- even more significantly -- young women, all residents of a juvenile detention center in Rome. Two were Muslims.
Watching this new pope -- my new pope -- I have felt like a political junkie whose candidate just won the big election. For years, some Catholics have felt marginalized, or at least ignored, by the Vatican bureaucracy. Francis’ pontificate seems to be saying, “I hear you!” in ways unimaginable even weeks ago. As one friend who works in the church put it, “It’s like Lent ended early.”
So what does this all mean for the millions who support the church around the world, either as ordained leaders, consecrated religious, or lay employees like me who work within or alongside the church?
Francis’ first few weeks as pope have been filled with powerful examples of humility and charity. They compel all Catholics, indeed arguably all Christians, to look at our lives and ask: How do I serve the poor and marginalized? Am I too attached to material goods? And a question particularly addressed to Catholics: Do I care and worry and argue more about the church and its politics than I do about Christ’s radically simple message of loving God and neighbor?
If the pope can convince even a tiny fraction of the world’s Catholics to focus on these questions -- and then to act on their answers -- imagine the profound impact he will have on the whole of humanity.
Francis’ leadership has sent a wave of energy throughout the Catholic world. The Rev. James Martin, the well-known Jesuit priest and writer, told his more than 20,000 Facebook followers that the pope’s example of humility and service to the poor compels him “to be a better Jesuit and a better priest.”
I’m no priest, but I understand what he’s saying. The zeal that the pope brings to his job, his love for those he serves and his perhaps deliberate avoidance of the issues that divide the church challenge me to think about how I approach my work, how I interact with others. Do I seek to build up or tear down? Do I challenge the status quo or go along to get along? Do I live differently now that Francis is pope? Do I, to paraphrase the pope’s namesake, preach without words?
On Monday of Holy Week, hundreds of priests, deacons and religious gathered with a crowd of laypeople at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., for the annual Chrism Mass. Celebrated in every diocese in the world at some point in Holy Week, the liturgy is one in which the local bishop blesses the oils that will be used by priests throughout the year to bless the baptized, anoint the sick and seal those seeking confirmation with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
In D.C., the local bishop is Cardinal Donald Wuerl, one of the 115 cardinals who days earlier elected the new pope. In his homily, he talked about his experiences in Rome and his first meeting with Francis after the election. The cardinal offered a vision of hope in Francis to the priests gathered there, stories they would undoubtedly tell their parishioners.
From pope to bishop to priest to everyday Catholics in the pews -- this is the network the Catholic Church has always used to communicate its message and inspire its adherents. Pope Francis is challenging us to examine how we live our lives, how we approach our work, and even how we think about church.
That is leadership. Like any leader, Pope Francis will have stumbles and missteps, but his witness to the simple truths of Christianity is a powerful start to his papacy, a message that will resonate deeply with Catholics for years to come.