In Sunday’s New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni did an excellent job summing up Pope Francis’s recent philosophical offensive to restore the Roman Catholic Church’s credibility.
Buffeted by priestly sex scandals and an emphasis on negatives — don’t be gay, don’t use birth control, don’t have an abortion under any circumstances, don’t be a married priest, don’t take the sacraments if you’re divorced — the church has endured years of crisis, loss of membership and fewer applicants for the priesthood.
But it wasn’t the particulars of Pope Francis’ groundbreaking message in an interview published last week that stopped me in my tracks, gave fresh hope to many embittered Catholics and caused hardened commentators to perk up.
It was the sweetness in his timbre, the meekness of his posture. It was the revelation that a man can wear the loftiest of miters without having his head swell to fit it, and can hold an office to which the term “infallible” is often attached without forgetting his failings. In the interview, Francis called himself naïve, worried that he’d been rash in the past and made clear that the flock harbored as much wisdom as the shepherds. Instead of commanding people to follow him, he invited them to join him. And did so gently, in what felt like a whisper.
Bruni has been a long-time critic of the recent church leadership. Coming from him, positive reaction to a pope’s approach is a new wave washing away much of the old bitterness.
For crisis managers, honesty, openness, a willingness to apologize and make amends are just the sorts of efforts organizations and their leaders need to embrace to ease a crisis. Francis’ words will not heal men and women sexually abused as children by priests. Nor will the church’s conservative doctrine on social issues change, in the view of many Americans. But the welcoming aspect of his messages go a long way to restoring confidence that Francis’ church, at least, will listen.
This is the antithesis of the arrogant, in-denial approach of too many top church leaders over recent decades. Sticking to the tenets of a faith and enforcing dogma and rules is not a bad thing in any religion. Doing so in an abrupt, no-exceptions manner creates anger, distrust and disconnection. Jesus lived humbly.
Francis seems to live and embrace that. No doubt he will face internal reaction. The famed curia does not react well to change and is staffed by doctrinaire conservatives. But Francis has spent decades understanding the papacy’s internal workings. Surely he’s got allies watching his back. Let’s hope he uses the papacy’s power internally to demand at least allegiance and acquiescence from his opponents.
What a surprising portrait of modesty in a church that had lost touch with it.
And what a refreshing example of humility in a world with too little of it.
That’s what stayed with me, not the olive branch he extended to gay people or the way he brushed aside the contraception wars, but his personification of a virtue whose deficit in American life hit me full force when I spotted it here, in his disarming words. Reading and then rereading the interview, I felt like a bird-watcher who had just stumbled upon a dodo.
I’m hardly the first to flag this pope’s apparent humility or the fact that it extends beyond his preference for simple dress over regal costumes, for a Ford Focus over a papal chariot, for modest quarters over a monarch’s suite. Less than two months ago, when he answered a question about gay priests with a question of his own — “Who am I to judge?”— the self-effacement in that phrase was widely and rightly celebrated. Was a pope really acting and talking like this?
But Francis’ tone so far is interesting not just as a departure for the church but as a counterpoint to the prevailing sensibility in our country, where humility is endangered if not quite extinct. It’s out of sync with all the relentless self-promotion, which has been deemed the very oxygen of success. It sits oddly with the cult of self-esteem.
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.