Remarkable leadership

Pope Francis may be the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church, but there are many areas in which he is first. He is the first Pope who is a Jesuit. He is the first Pope who is from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first from the Americas. In fact he is the first Pope since the eighth century to have come from outside of Europe. (Gregory III was from Syria.) He has been called the protestants’ favorite Pope. We, who are not members of the Roman Catholic church and who watch its activities from the outside, have appreciated his leadership for reform in the historic church and his consistent and persistent voice for the world’s poor and downtrodden. He has, from my point of view, demonstrated remarkable leadership in the church.

Last week he did two things that are worthy of the attention of all world leaders. He apologized and he issued a remarkable and powerful document.

First the apology. He apologized for “grave errors” in his misguided defense of a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse by an infamous pedophile priest. His defense of the bishop was surprising and disappointing to those of us who are observing from outside the church. We have seen Popes and other church leaders engage in similar behavior before. When they place institutional self-preservation over concern for those who have suffered, the results can be terrible. Across the board, Protestant and Catholic, the church has engaged in systematic cover-up of horrible and inexcusable abuses by those in power. The victimizing of children is among the gravest horrors of the church. The repercussions of abuse within the church has caused so much pain and suffering for its victims that defense of the perpetrators is unspeakable. Unfortunately, there are those who fear that continuing revelations will damage the image of the church. Damaging or not, however, the truth must be told for the sake of the victims. When Francis defended the bishop, who is most certainly guilty of covering up the abuses of the priest, he fell into an old and all too familiar pattern of religious leaders who place institutional survival over the suffering of victims.

But something different happened this time. Francis apologized. In a letter to Chile’s bishops h wrote, “As far as my role, I acknowledge, and ask you to convey faithfully, that I have made grave errors in assessment and perception of the situation, especially as a result of lack of information that was truthful and balanced. From this time I ask for forgiveness to all those that i offended and I hope to do so personally, in the following weeks, in meetings that I will hold with representatives” of those affected.

Priests routinely hear confessions. Here is a Pope making a public confession. It is striking and remarkable.

It is leadership at its finest.

In the church, the institution that believes that God comes to us in human form, we do not expect our leaders to be superhuman. We expect them to be human, which means bailable and capable of errors. We have not, however, frequently experienced genuine and heartfelt apology and expressions of real change.

It is this apology that invites all Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, to sit up and take notice. It lends weight and credible to Pope Francis’ second remarkable action of the past week. In an Apostolic Exhortation, he calls on all Christians to view holiness as demanding an engagement with “the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged.” The teaching, titled “Gaudete et Exsultate” (Rejoice and Be Glad), urges all true Christians to do more than have concern for those who are marginalized by society. He calls for genuine engagement with those who have deep needs, putting aside personal gain or security for the sake of those who suffer. The statement is even more powerful in the wake of the apology issued by the Pope in which he demonstrates a personal commitment to the concepts he outlines.

He lifted up words from our scriptures that we are unlikely to hear from politicians and other leaders in our country: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him.”

Following centuries of history in which the Catholic Church has projected a confidence about its processes of determining who the saints are, Francis speaks of the “Saints Next Door,” and acknowledges the holiness of people who have not been beatified and canonized by official actions of the church. Warning of the temptations of a purely subjective faith and the tendency of contemporary people to fall into the temptation of trusting only in one’s own powers and abilities, Francis reminds all believers that a will lacking humility consistently misleads those who fall into its delusions. We are human. What we are and what we are able to do comes from God and not from ourselves.

Francis invites those who are faithful to go against the flow - to listen more to Jesus than to the tides of popular culture. He noted that we can “waste precious time” by being caught up in “superficial information” and “instant communication.” He called on the faithful to make time for genuine prayer and contemplation in their lives.

It is an amazingly strong statement and I, as a Protestant, have found much in it that is instructional and helpful. As I read it I was struck by the stark contrast between the statement and the type of leadership that is being shown in American politics today. A thoughtful, carefully worded and edited document, that takes time to explore ideas contrasts starkly with a series of angry tweets issued from a cell phone with minimal attention to spelling, grammar and punctuation. The call to reach out to and engage with those who are dispossessed contrasts with political leaders who call for reform of public safety-net programs. An invitation to show hospitality to immigrants sounds very different from crowds chanting “build the wall!”

I’ll leave it to history to sort out and judge the leaders of our world. But last week, I found far more inspirational leadership in a church to which I do not belong than from the government of the country where I am a loyal citizen.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!