Pope Francis offers the world something that is in short supply these days:  unity.  This past week, the Pontiff completed his first year of leading the oldest Christian community, the Catholic Church.  And I have noticed that no matter the company of conversation I choose to keep (conservative or liberal), the person across the table speaks fondly of Pope Francis.  This is a rarity.  I am part of a Christian denomination deeply divided and poorly organized.  Most of my conversations about the church, politics or religion in general are problem solving oriented (So many problems!).  Yet when it comes to Pope Francis, the conversational tone is more observant. 

So I have observed this new Pope.  Here are the lessons I think he teaches us in his first year:

1.      A component to spiritual maturity is being comfortable in your own skin.

Sitting across the table, cradling a hot tea, was a best liberal friend.  She shared with me how touched she was that Pope Francis had placed his head in the lap of a homeless man.  Then she followed up the praise with a wish.  She hoped that Pope Francis was indeed everything that these images relayed.  Her shoulders sunk as she reflected.

I understand the concern.  With Photoshop, the insatiable thirst for celebrity gossip and the Internet in general, we have been made weary.  Not all seen, read or heard can be truly trusted.  But my friend, whose theology has been shaped by personal tragedy and theological education, had a deeper concern.  She hoped that Pope Francis was not faking self-leadership (an internal process).  I am convinced he is the real deal.

St. Ignatius 1491-1556

Pope Francis exhibits a deep knowledge and acceptance of himself that allows him to offer authenticity beyond any other leader currently on the national stage.  I believe this is possible because Pope Francis first leads himself, meaning his emotions, his thoughts and his actions.  He is comfortable with world leaders as well as homeless men and curious children because (I believe) he sees a part of himself in each.  This type of self-leadership comes from the communal and personal philosophy of St. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits.

“The heart has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing.” – Ignatius Loyola

Pope Francis is a Jesuit.  This stream of thought and practice in the Catholic Church follows the example of St. Ignatius.  The major tenant of spiritual renewal for the Jesuit focuses on the heart, over intellect.  It assumes that we do not always understand our actions and reflection upon them in the light of our accompanying emotions reveal great internal knowledge.  This knowledge gives us insight into God’s hand in our internal world as well as the external world. The other component to this spirituality is faith in action. St. Ignatius left his followers with writings on imaginative prayer, spiritual reflection, self-scrutiny and generous service to others.  Pope Francis exemplifies these teachings in a very public way.

The new Pontiff refuses “special treatment” like red slippers or a papal palace.  I can assume he is a nightmare to those in charge of his safety.  This Pope finds himself in and among the people by eye to eye contact, physical touching and serving in person and on spot.  Is this all an act?

The evidence suggest no.  Pope Francis is who he has always been:  a priest with a track record of humility and servant focused, hands-on work among the people he was sent to serve.  Knowing what I know about the spiritual life and the Jesuit way, I believe Pope Francis’ Jesuit spirituality has made him aware of his shortcomings and taught him how to allow Christ to love him anyway.  That is the key principle behind his hunger to be among “the people”.  He wants to convey this life changing love.

Pope Francis gifts us with a component of spiritual maturity that is essential for religious leadership today.  We are hungry for authentic leaders who first embrace themselves and allow Christ to love them.  They openly claim shortcomings and approach success with humility.  These leaders operate from their spiritual journey of healing, rather than a need to prove something.

 Pope Francis teaches the United Methodist Church

 First things first, my hat goes off not to Pope Francis.  I am impressed with the papal conclave (the gathering of cardinal who chose Pope Francis).  Can we get a copy of their play book, please?  This papal conclave’s actions speak directly to those who choose leaders for our churches.  Here is the take-away:

  1. a.     For those serving in our churches at whatever capacity, seek out spiritual maturity in your own life.  Consider a study on the Jesuit way.
  2. b.     For those serving in our pulpits, (follow step a then) preach, teach and lead people into spiritual maturity, choosing those on this path to be church leaders.  Order worship so that times of reflection are employed, use language of forgiveness, not judgment, speak in terms of process not behavior modification models, teach with times of conversation about emotions…refocus on the internal life.
  3. c.    For district superintendents and bishops, (follow step a, and step b then) reorganize everything in your sphere of influence to reflect this pursuit.  Begin meetings with spiritual reflection readings and silent reflection times, invite clergy to round table discussion on emotions and the internal spiritual life, and work at being comfortable with listening to clergy struggles.
  4. d.     For those who are chosen to elect leadership for our church at the Jurisdictional conference level, (follow step a then) sift through bishop candidates by determining who is authentic and who is running for the office with less than authentic intentions.  Push for talk back session with the candidates and ask questions about internal self-leadership.  Study the CV each candidate presents. 

One last thought:  Chris Lowney wrote a book on Pope Francis called Pope Francis:  Why He Leads the Way He Leads.  From Chapter 5, we find this quote:  “Be comfortable in your own skin.  Know who you are, the good and the bad.  And find the courage not just to be yourself, but to be the best version of yourself.  These are the foundations of self-leadership, and all leadership starts with self-leadership because you can’t lead the rest of us if you can’t lead yourself.”

Look forward to the next post about more lesson from this Pope….