The Leadership of Pope Francis

28 July 2019
Bishop Vincent Long, Padmi Pathinather and Cardinal John Dew. Image: Diocese of Parramatta.


The Leadership of Pope Francis

Address by Cardinal John Dew, Archbishop of Wellington

Servant Leadership in the spirit of Pope Francis, Diocese of Parramatta, July 16 2019


It was just on 8am in New Zealand on 14th March 2013, 13th March in Rome, when it was announced that Jorge Bergoglio had been elected the Bishop of Rome.

I had just begun the 8am Mass at the Cathedral when one of the priests came in and handed me a note with this news.

As soon as Mass was finished, I rushed back over to our house and watched some of the television coverage. As I watched my first thoughts were “this is a man of incredible freedom, he is his own man, and he is going to do things his way.”

I was thinking that not too far away was his predecessor, Pope Benedict, but the new Bishop of Rome was clearly not wondering about that his predecessor might be thinking or have done as he began to do things differently.

His first words were simple: “Brothers and sisters, good evening,” he then asked the assembled people to pray for him.

He accepted the stole for the blessing, then took it off and handed it back.

He rode in the bus rather than a limousine. The next day he chose to wear a simple mitre and vestments.

A few weeks later the world saw a little boy come up onto the stage in the Paul VI Audience Hall, he stood next to Francis, others tried to get him away, some looked disapprovingly. Francis patted him on the head, and allowed him to stay and play, then spoke about how the boy was mute and “was free to play in front of everyone.” He used this as a teaching moment.

What is it about Francis that allows him to be so easy, open, clear and almost counter cultural to Church and society?

He leads out of his own inner authority, sure of who he is before God and content to be who he is. He is content to be a flawed human being, flawed but still chosen because of the goodness of God’s mercy and grace.

Remember the question of the reporter, “Who are you” and his response “I am Jorge Bergoglio, a sinner.” He was obviously very aware and very comfortable with his identity as a sinner. It was a real Jesuit response. One of the decrees to come out of the 1975 General Congregation of the Jesuits was called “Jesuits Today.” The opening sentence of that reads; “What is it to be a Jesuit? It is to know that one is a sinner, yet called to be a companion of Jesus as Ignatius was…” Francis has never been afraid to acknowledge that he is “flawed, but called.”

That’s a very different way to lead in today’s world which looks for extroverted power, efficiency, productivity and quick decisions. Where there is an attitude of get to the top, trample over anyone who gets in your way, don’t show any weakness or frailty, be right, be great, be important. Francis is happy to lead as a flawed human being, and shows us that it is really the only way to lead.

He is now 82 years of age. He seems to be in pain a times as he almost hobbles along, but he keeps going. In his travels to some countries he endures intense heat and hardly bats an eyelid. I look at this sometimes and wonder how day after day he can keep going, and some days he is meeting hundreds of people a day, with a word for each of them, a smile – and often the chance to ask a question of someone or tell them something he wants them to know about or take action on. He sees, listens and hears. He has complete trust in God and keeps on going.

It is very clear in all the comments about the conclave that elected him that there were many calls, including his own, for the reform of the Roman Curia. He knew that it had to be done, and he is making great efforts to do so. In the recent document Praedicate Evangelium [Preach the Gospel], he put the work of evangelization at the centre of the Roman Dicasteries, even above the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  The biggest novelty in the document is the establishment of the “super dicastery” for evangelization, which has the potential to be more important than the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), often called “The Supreme Congregation.”

That takes courage, I have been privileged to see him lead with courage, conviction and compassion. There is another lesson in leadership here… How was he to go about this? He was now the Pope, he had the authority, he could have just gone ahead and made his own decisions. But no, he chose to gather a group of advisors around him, initially known as the C8, then the C9 when he added Cardinal Parolin, now I am not sure whether it is C5 or C6, but they continue to meet to advise him.

Once again, this was coming out of his Jesuit background and straight form the Jesuit Constitutions where Ignatius had legislated that leaders “should have persons designated to give counsel, with whom they should consult on the matters of importance which arise.” (Constitutions 810). His leadership shows us that he is not afraid to consult and include others, he admits he does not have all the answers. Leaders who think they do have all the answers are often described as “arrogant,” that it not an adjective we could ever use for Pope Francis. In fact the word I hear most to describe him is “Authentic.”  People follow a leader who is an authentic human being, one they know they can trust and who is in touch with life. He knows that authenticity, kindness, a smile are what speaks to the hearts of people today

He has shown us something else, awareness: he is aware of what is happening all around the world. Think of the way he has brought human trafficking to the world’s attention and has inspired others to tackle the problem which he refers to as “Modern day slavery.” Think of how within a few weeks he travelled to Lampedusa and put the plight of refugees on the word map. He highlighted the thousands who had lost their lives fleeing from Africa to look for a new and safe life. The first time he visited that island he challenged the world not to be complacent, he thanked the people of that tiny island for welcoming the migrants and for being an example of solidarity to a “Selfish society which is sliding into the globalization of indifference.” In commemorating the thousands who had lost their lives he emphasised his drive to put the poor at the centre of his papacy.

Six days after his election – the Feast of St Joseph, Pope Francis declared unambiguously that “Authentic power is service.”

In 2015, at the 50th Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops he said in his speech, “Let us never forget this! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of service, the only power is the power of the cross. As the Master tells us: “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Mt 20:25-27). In these words we touch the heart of the mystery of the Church, and we receive the enlightenment necessary to understand our hierarchical service.”

For me that says so much about the type of leader he is. He shows us that too, and hearing him say that day in 2015 “the only authority is the authority of service” reinforced for me what leadership is all about, those words are burnt into my mind and I repeat them often to our priests and lay pastoral leaders.

In that same speech he said, “From the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome, I sought to enhance the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the Second Vatican Council. For Blessed Paul VI, the Synod of Bishops was meant to reproduce the image of the Ecumenical Council and reflect its spirit and method. Pope Paul foresaw that the organization of the Synod could “be improved upon with the passing of time”.

Twenty years later, Saint John Paul II echoed that thought when he stated that “this instrument might be further improved. We must continue along this path. It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.

What the Lord is asking of us is already in some sense present in the very word “synod”. Journeying together — laity, pastors, the Bishop of Rome — is an easy concept to put into words, but not so easy to put into practice.

In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I emphasised that “all the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients.” Francis is very clear that we are in this TOGETHER.

I sometimes think Evangelii Gaudium is his best document, then I think that it might be Misericordiae Vultus, proclaiming the Year of Mercy. They are both documents which give us his vision for the Church. There are other important documents:

Laudato Si in which everyone is challenged to take care of our common home, to protect the word gifted to us by God;

Gaudete et Exsultate reminding us that holiness is for everyone, the saints are the ordinary everyday people who do their every-day tasks with joy and commitment; and

Christus Vivit emphasising the place of the Young in our Church today.

It’s easy to quote from any of those documents and to use words that are powerful, eloquent and challenging. In February of last year the Pope spoke to Anti-Usury organizations, he said: Usury humiliates and kills. Usury is an ancient and unfortunately still concealed evil that, like a snake, it strangles it victims” That is very direct speaking, they are great words.

I come back to MERCY, very early the analysts started saying that MERCY was the word the Pope was using the most. It was a brilliant initiative to proclaim the Year of Mercy and to emphasise that we are a Church of mercy.

Francis knew at a young age that he was “chosen in mercy.” We probably all know the story of him going out one Saturday evening with his mates, he decided to go to Confession and while there his life was changed as he heard those words “chosen in mercy.” That’s the motto he chose when he became bishop, it’s the motto he still uses today.

In announcing the Year of Mercy he wrote: “We recall the poignant words of Pope St John XXIII when opening the Second Vatican Council, he indicated the path to follow “Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy, rather than taking up the arms of severity” MV 4  I.

In the same document he expressed confidence that the Church would open its doors to the full realisation of the power of Mercy in our World. “Mercy is the very foundation of the Churches life.  All her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Churches very credibility is seen in how she always shows mercy and compassionate love” MV 10.

He has told us time and time again that the credibility of the church is seen when we walk with our people, when we journey with them at whatever stage of life’s journey they are on, where we don’t judge them, but encourage and enable them to continue on their journey…..our presence, actions and companionship supports them as they try – as we all do – to Walk the Way of Jesus, Tell the Truth of Jesus and Live the Life of Jesus.  He is very aware, and he reminds us of the first lines of Gaudium et Spes. The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts” (GeS 1).

Pope Francis is showing in his leadership that ALL the baptised are engaged in the life of the Church, that ALL are to be “journeying together.”

What does that imply for us as leaders? Clearly that every effort needs to be made to draw more and more people into the life of the Church. Ministry is not something we do to people, it is something we do together. The Church is not the domain of the ordained, it is the place of all the baptised. He clearly sees that his emphasis on SYNODALITY is the way to include people in decisions to do with their local Church.

He has emphasised the peripheries, the edges, the outskirts…he does not just talk about it, he goes there, either physically or symbolically…this year alone he has been to Panama, United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Romania; he is yet to visit  Mozambique in September, Madagascar and Mauritius, and Japan in November……he is about to hold a Synod for the Amazon …he is concerned about the effects of climate change, deforestation et cetera.

For his first formal visit to a Roman parish in May 2013, Francis chose not a Baroque masterpiece near the Vatican but travelled to the outskirts of the city because, as he told the parishioners, “We understand reality not from the centre, but from the outskirts.”

Just before he visited that parish he said “We should not lock ourselves up in our parish, among our friends …with people who think as we do – but instead the Church must step outside herself. To go where? To the outskirts of existence, wherever they may be” (Address 18th May 2013).

A few weeks later he told Jesuit journalists from La Civillita Cattolica “Your proper place is on the frontier not to build walls but bridges” (14th June 2013).

I couldn’t speak on the leadership of Pope Francis without saying something about the way he has tackled the crisis and scandal of sexual abuse within the Church. Very early he established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

The commission received its statutes in 2015 as part of the Church’s efforts to deal with the scandal of sex abuse. Its singular purpose was to propose initiatives that could protect children from paedophiles in the church. Following a slow start the Commission began meeting with bishops and sponsoring training for church staff worldwide. The most significant proposal of the commission, the creation of an in-house Vatican tribunal to judge cases of bishops who are accused of failing to protect victims, was approved by Francis but was not implemented. That of course has been rectified in recent months (May this year) with the publication of the Motu Proprio Vos Est Lux Mundi which has very stringent reporting expectations.

August last year, at the World Meeting of Families, was a particularly difficult time for the Pope and for the Church.  Many accusations were being made about the Church and about the Pope’s Leadership. On the Sunday morning Archbishop Vigano’s call came for him to resign, he remained silent. I was about three yards away from the Pope at the Mass in Phoenix Park that afternoon. He made the sign of the Cross, reached into his pocket and took out a handwritten note, showing he could be adaptable and take into account the particular moment and make changes because of the seriousness of the situation.

In a hand written note in Spanish – which became the penitential Rite – he was able to mention that he had met the day before with eight abuse victims, asked pardon for abuse in Ireland and particularly in Institutions run by the Church, forgiveness for children taken away from their mothers, he asked forgiveness for those children who went looking for their mothers and were told that they were committing a mortal sin. In this Penitential Rite he managed to mention so many things, showing he could be flexible and that it was important to acknowledge all those who had been hurt by the Church in the past.

His leadership meant that he called the Presidents of Bishops Conferences from all over the world to Rome in February of this year. It was made very clear that we always put victims first, that this is a problem we all must face together, the abuse of clerical power and clericalism is at the heart of this crisis. One of his priorities is to end clericalism and empower the laity, and he has been clear “To say NO to abuse is to say an empathic No to all forms of clericalism.”

Broadly speaking, clericalism refers to the abuse of power by any person with authority in the Church. Behind it lies a false sense of “entitlement,” an attachment to power and privilege. It encourages an obsession with ladder climbing and obedience.

Instead Francis asks as he asked the Bishop of Brazil in 2013 “can the Church today still ‘warm the hearts’ of its faithful with priests who take the time to listen to their problems.”  He went on to say, “we must train ministers capable of warming people’s hearts, of walking with them in the night, of dialoguing with their hopes and disappointments, of mending their brokenness.” That is very different to an attitude where bishops and priests think they are set apart and are unaccountable to anyone.

In a book written by Chris Lowney, Pope Francis Why He Leads the Way he Leads, he recalled an interview with a former student of Fr Bergoglio at a Jesuit secondary school in Argentina.  The former student recounted the story in an interview with the author. “It happened during some sports match. I slapped a younger kid, the kind of thing that happens in sports, nothing out of the ordinary, and a typical ‘youth brawl’ happened.” Fr. Bergoglio found out about it, “he asked me to show up the next day in one of the classrooms at a certain time.”

“So, when I get there, I see ten of my best friends sitting in a circle, and Fr Bergoglio sitting off to the side. He told me I should tell my friends in detail what had happened, and it became something that stuck with me for life. They were understanding, they gave advice, and somehow I felt as if a load had been lifted off me – I felt no reproach or attacks from them.” Fr Bergoglio never intervened but merely watched as the friends ran the meeting and eventually decided the appropriate punishment:  he was suspended from sports for two weeks and had to call the younger kid out of class to apologise for what he had done.

Look at the great lesson in human development Fr Bergoglio managed to squeeze from one childhood fistfight on the playground. We would probably focus on misbehaviour; he focused on forming a young person to lead life well. He brought together this young man and his classmates, then trusted them to orchestrate their own mini seminar on human frailty, on dignity, on assuming leadership, and on accepting the call to be a better version of oneself. The young man concerned summed up the episode: “Jorge Mario Bergoglio was above all a person who helped to draw the best out of each one of us, who really raised our self-esteem.”

In August 2016 when a Former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark – a well-known agnostic, was campaigning for the position of Secretary General of the United Nations. She was asked about Leadership in the world today and who she saw as world leaders.

She replied, “I look around the world at who is providing a sense of inspiration and hope at the moment. It’s the Pope. I am not a Catholic, but I recognise in this man tremendous goodness. A voice of sanity in a troubled world, often speaking what we all feel but could not express as eloquently. So, yes, leadership matters and he is giving that leadership.”

The day Laudato Si was released to the world I had been invited to a Day of Prayer and Reflection with the women and men religious of the diocese. A Sister visiting from England was leading the day, she had spent most of the night analysing the Encyclical. Among the many passages she drew to our attention was Paragraph 148, where the Pope speaks of densely populated cities, where there is pollution, lack of water, facades of buildings are derelict, people live amid disorder and uncertainty.

He says, “The feeling of asphyxiation brought on by densely populated residential areas is countered if close and warm relationships develop, if communities are created, if the limitations of the environment are compensated for in the interior of each person who feels held within a network of solidarity and belonging. In this way, any place can turn from being a hell on earth into the setting for a dignified life.”

I don’t think he is just speaking of the vast polluted cities of the world, I think he is also speaking of our parish and religious communities, our Catholic schools and colleges, the various movements we have in the Church today. Our task is to develop and create:

  • close and warm relationships
  • communities of care
  • look to the interior of each person
  • hold others within a network of solidarity and belonging

Then, we can together turn what looks like hell on earth for some people into a setting for a dignified life.

Throughout his ministry Pope Francis has lived servant leadership.

He is self and other aware, he listens, empathises, teaches, challenges thinking, is ceaselessly kind and acts to change people and the systems that oppress or disempower whether in the church or society.

My first-hand experience of Francis and my study of his documents and letters provide me with inspiration and courage. His example of servant leadership is in word and actions. He challenges us to follow Christ’s words and actions.

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for others”.

We are called to think, talk and act as servant leaders and to be open enough to the Spirit to respond with courage and humility in the face of opposition, destructive negativity or seemingly impossible situations.

In April of this year Francis hosted a healing and reconciliation retreat in Santa Marta. He pleaded with the three political faction leaders from the South Sudan.

“To the three of you who have signed the peace agreement, I ask you as a brother: stay in peace, I am asking you with my heart. Let us go forward. There will be many problems but they will not overcome us. Go ahead, go forward, and resolve the problems.

There will be struggles and disagreements amongst you, but let this be within the community – inside the office, as it were – but in front of the people, hold hands, united; so as simple citizens you will become fathers of the nation.”

Francis, aged 82, then knelt down and kissed the first leaders’ feet. He was helped up and he kissed the second leaders’ feet, was helped up and then kissed the third leaders’ feet.

The Pope knelt and kissed their feet!

This is the example of servant leadership that we are challenged to emulate. This is the Spirit of Servant leadership that Christ calls us to live in our different ministries.

“Let us never forget this! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of service, the only power is the power of the cross”.

Today we are challenged to be servant leaders and disciples who through our obvious and daily words and actions are radical living witnesses of Jesus’ love, mercy, compassion and hope.

With thanks to Cardinal John Dew.

Cardinal Dew delivered this address, Servant Leadership in the spirit of Pope Francis, in the Diocese of Parramatta at the Ailsa Mackinnon Community Centre at Our Lady of Mercy College, Parramatta on Tuesday 16 July. 



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