Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads

Published on 31 Jan 2014

I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.[i]

That sentence contains the core of Pope Francis’ leadership. Ecclesiastical paraphernalia is not important in itself; it derives its meaning and its purpose from the Church’s mission – which it takes on as the mystical body of Christ. And every aspect of the Church must be judged in terms of how it furthers or obstructs this vision.

Several years ago, an article in the Harvard Business Review sought to distinguish the roles of leader and manager. Managers were concerned with process, leaders were concerned with mission. Indeed, the two temperaments were different and, to some extent, antipathetic. The leader, looking not at the next hill but at the hills beyond, created the vision which gave the business its sense of purpose and its sense of direction.  The leader inspired.

If you think all of this to be a sort of gung-ho idealism, then you will be interested to test this against Chris Lowney’s book. Lowney himself has been a Jesuit seminarian. This gave him a framework of Jesuit principles which he was later to test as a senior executive at J.P. Morgan & Co. He uses his experience to examine in this book Pope Francis’ approach to leadership.

I will not try to summarise all of the ideas Lowney explores but let me give you a sample. He writes of the pilgrimages young Jesuits are asked to make. They are obliged to survive on their basic resources and the help they meet on the way. They experience poverty in their own condition and they get to meet, know, and learn from poverty in their encounters. They experience the frontier – a favourite word for Francis.

Lowney tells us how Jesuits undertake to forgo any advancement. Their focus must be mission and they must be ready to take any load proffered to them. Francis himself addresses this issue vividly: ‘The freedom from ambition or personal aims, for me, is important, it’s important! Careerism is leprosy! Leprosy!’[ii]

The Jesuit must know himself. He must consider his weaknesses and strengths realistically. He must know how far he falls short yet he must value himself as an instrument for mission.

He must value others – from the poor, who can teach us more than we can teach them, to the atheist, whose capacity for doing good is a witness to the Redemption. God is to be found everywhere: ‘I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life.’[iii]

And then there is a bias towards action. The Jesuit is always on a journey. He must pause from time to time to consider his direction, but he must always step forward and risk mistakes if he is to reach his destination. We may imagine that Cardinal Bergoglio had thought much about the mission of the Church, and had come to believe in a great need for renewal. When he embarked on his new pilgrimage, after a brief time of contemplation, he hit the ground running. He was not preoccupied with carefully honed statements; he led by his example. Most recently he has set out a more detailed survey of his vision in Evangelii Gaudium, but he went into action immediately.

Francis’ concern for the poor is not rhetoric; through his actions from the beginning of his papacy, he has lived out poverty. He displayed his insistence that authority is service by imitating Jesus in the washing of feet, and he extended the gesture by choosing to do so to young offenders, including women and Muslims. (Lately, he has most delicately described the godly things in orthodox Islam.[iv])

As for personal humility, Francis’ statement is clear:  ‘“Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” “I do not know what might be the most fitting description.... I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition.”’[v] I hear the echo of Mandela: ‘I am not a saint unless a saint means a sinner who keeps trying.’ Not a bad definition, I think.

Why does Francis work in this way? Some might be cynical and say that dramatic gestures are cheap, that they are a quick route to popularity; others that they are sincere, but naïve. But, having lived most of my life, directly or indirectly, under the aegis of the Jesuits, I see a consonance with a well-tried path.

I see a deliberate purpose. Francis has undertaken to correct the mismatch between the Church’s mission and the Church’s practice. It is a formidable challenge. A manager would have withdrawn into his sanctum, written out a mission statement, and detailed the necessary changes and how they should be made. A leader says: I understand the mission and I am going to live it out in my personal behaviour. I am offering an invitation, not a command. He sets out the principles and then leaves it to his managers to explore the detail. He must start by changing minds so that we can end by changing the Church.

Will he succeed? I do not know, and Lowney confesses that he does not know either. The obstacles, so strewn that they will outlive Francis, are huge. Turning a liner around in a narrow waterway would be easy by comparison. But I believe that this analysis, which Lowney frames in terms of Jesuit spiritualty, offers useful keys to the way Francis thinks and acts.

It is a happy irony that J. Pierpont Morgan, the founder of the company for which Lowney once worked, would say: ‘A man always has two reason for what he does: a good reason, and the real one.’ Francis is bent on ensuring that the good Church and the real Church are one and the same thing. In nearly eighty years of Catholic life, I had given up ever expecting to see it.


The reviewer, Quentin de la Bédoyère, is Science Editor for the Catholic Herald and author of Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church (T&T Clark, 2002).

[i] Evangelii Gaudium §27

[ii] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2013/06/06/careerism-is-leprosy-pope-warns-future-diplomats/

[iii] http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20130919_1.htm

[iv] Evangelii Gaudium, §252ff

[v] http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20130919_1.htm