Pope Francis I’s First Moments: Matching Word and Deed


The world was witness to a remarkable series of events today with the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the head of the Roman Catholic Church as Pope Francis I.  Just two days ago, I reflected on leadership lessons culled from past popes, here.  I’d like to extend those remarks, focusing on the leadership notes that played out in my eyes in Francis I’s first moments as a world figure – in which he succeeded brilliantly, I believe, in matching word with deed (any leader’s most telling task).

Setting a Tone
Biographical reports on the new pope universally remark on his humble nature – regularly avoiding the trappings of his office as cardinal by taking public transportation to work, and living in his own apartment instead of the bishop’s palace.  This humility came through loud and clear in his first action – choosing to wear a simple, wood cross instead of an ornate, bejeweled one.  Most tellingly, before he gave his first blessing, he humbly asked for the crowd’s prayers and blessing on him, that he might be strengthened by those he will lead – servant leadership of the simplest but most powerful order.  (Wishing the crowd a “good night and a good sleep” in the manner one would speak to an old friend or family member was a simple and endearing moment of the same nature).

Drawing in Your Flock
Putting aside the worldly powers of the papacy, it is – in its essence – a spiritual role, meant to draw the faithful to God.  Rather than offering a sermon or theological statement, Francis I chose to lead the crowd of more than 100,000 in a cold, rain-swept, but buoyant St. Peter’s Square in the simplest but most important prayers in the faith, the Our Father and the Hail Mary – known to even the youngest Catholic children the world over.  In this one gesture, he symbolically connected the 1.2 billion members of his flock, creating a powerful moment of unity transcending nations, hemispheres, and any and all divisions.

The Symbolism of Names
Finally, in what was literally his first decision after accepting the papal office, he chose the name Francis I – in honor of the great saints, Francis of Assisi and Francis Xavier.  Francis Xavier was a great evangelizer, and Francis of Assisi was known for his deep humility, simplicity, and his passionate commitment to the poor.  Perhaps most importantly, Francis was called to “repair the church” that was then torn by scandal, corruption, and despair – not too different, unfortunately, from descriptors that have been frequently used regarding today’s state of church affairs.  By choosing this name, Pope Francis signaled that he understood exactly what he was elected to do – to love and serve the poor, to bring people to God, and to start to repair a broken Church.

The faithful dearly hope that this is exactly what this humble man from Argentina is able to do.  At the very least, it was a brilliant first day – matching word (humility, unity, and repair) to deed.  May we all, as leaders, always strive for the same.

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