The Francis Factor

FrancisAmericans have gone completely gaga over a simple Argentinian priest who happened to get himself elected head of the world’s largest church.

First it was Washington DC, the power base of American life and politics, turned upside down by the simple elegance of “El Papa”. In a city of influence-pedaling and power-broking, his earnest requests for people to pray for him were glaringly out of place.

Then NYC, the epicenter of high finance, high fashion and everything high-falutin, came to a screeching halt when a tiny black fiat wriggled its way like a worm through the Big Apple. In a city where creating an image and putting on airs are the essence of life, his bold embrace of little children and the weeping faithful was as incongruent as square pegs and round holes.

Philadelphia, the birth place of both Democracy and cheesesteaks, fell under that same spell as the smiling man in white gave his message of hopeful community to waiting throngs. Francis’ authentic affection for individuals–not just crowds–stuck out like a sore thumb in a city desperately needing Brotherly Love.

In many ways, Francis appearance among the leadership of our land was as out of place as a sumo wrestler at an anorexia convention.

I admit, though not a Catholic, I too have been smitten by this man who has blown into church hierarchy like a fresh wind in a stagnant room.

What has captured my attention and garnered my affection is the credible way Pope Francis moves with unaffected grace, understated humility, unrelenting joy and unrestrained compassion. And it appears, he shall not be moved from that course.

That is the heart and soul of the Francis Factor.

Honestly, I am not used to that kind of intestinal fortitude in a time when a leader is afraid to speak or act until he puts a finger to the wind to test which way public opinion is blowing.

Many of my Evangelical friends will take exception to my unabashed appreciation for this Catholic cleric. They will quickly point out all the theological and ecclesiastical reasons I should diametrically disagree with him. Some will go all Apocalyptic on me with visions of bowls, vials and beast-marks.

But I see something very refreshing in his quiet intrusion into the morass of contemporary political, social and religious leadership. I believe Pope Francis represents an affront to the maniuplative tactics and techniques espoused by the power-brokers and trend-setters of our day.

It reminds me of a simple Galilean who turned tables and temples upside-down in his day.

Listening to the effusive praise of both pundits and people on the street, two characteristics have come to sum up the Francis Factor for me. Without fail, “humility” and “hope” are the words used to describe this Pope. They are spoken in somewhat hushed tones of curious bewilderment.

Herein lies the rub. This humble, hopeful man is a jarring affront to the widely-accepted and commonly-expected image of a leader in a world where leadership has lots it collective mind.

It is both scary and tragic when a humble heart and a hopeful message are anomalies among those who would guide others to a better way of living.

In truth, Francis really is not a Phenom of the unusual. He is simply a paradigm of what should be normal.

But the juxtaposition is stark when he enters the current leadership climate where power, audacity, ego and venom have “trumped” traditional understandings of the greatness of servant leadership.

He seems to have taken seriously the words of the one he looks to as the first leader of his church, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them… eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5:2-3)

This Francis Factor raises some uncomfortable questions:

  • Is humility such an uncommon trait that we are stunned when it is the modus operandi of a person of power?
  • Is simplicity such a rarefied lifestyle that we are shocked when we see it authentically portrayed in a key leader?
  • Is hope such a scarce commodity that we are surprised when we hear it spoken into the rancor of public debate?
  • Is joy such a devalued attribute that we are startled when its smile intrudes in the spiteful atmosphere of governing influence?

Perhaps Francis has just decided to do things Jesus-style.

After all, it was this Jesus who said to his leaders-in-training, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

No leading by lording. No influence by force.

Instead, become great by becoming small. Be first by being last. Give life by giving your life.

This is leadership in the upside-down, inside-out Kingdom that will stand when all the temporal structures fail and cultural icons fall.

No leader in history has had the impact of The Carpenter from Nazareth who chose to lead by living simply, hugging children, touching lepers, honoring women and washing feet.

Such leadership changes the course of history.

Imperfectly portrayed as it may have been through men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, …and yes, Pope Francis, humility in leadership raises the quality of life in both leaders and those who follow them.

Leading by serving moves us from the way it is to the way it can be by insinuating the way it should be into every decision-making process.

So Catholic or not, I am grateful for the intrusion of Jorge Mario Bergoglio into the current leadership cauldron.

I absolutely love that this humble Pope sees Jesus-style leadership as more Fiat than Ferrari.

That is the Francis Factor.

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