Guest Columnist Pope Francis — a comforting, uncomfortable pope

Pope Francis is the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. There are bound to be some who don't like him. But what is of greater interest is that so many non-Catholics love him. In fact, this week's People magazine features Pope Francis on its front cover and describes him as a saint for all. A local witness to the Pope's visit to Cuba called him "the most loved man in the world." There is ample evidence of Pope Francis' global appeal. No doubt, this church leader has what it takes to be a leader in today's world.

In the US, many of the pontiff's comments have lent themselves to ideological manipulation. Proponents of socialist ideals, pro-life activists, gay rights supporters, environmentalists, all have felt affirmed by the Pope's remarks. Politicians and interest groups are, no doubt, eagerly awaiting further affirmation during his US visit.

But when political-ideological groups attempt to co-opt the pope's words to serve their own interests, it not only cheapens the Pope's intentions, it misses the point entirely. Popes do not fit into American categories of left and right - they transcend them. To be clear, at no point has Francis contradicted or questioned traditional Catholic doctrine, which mostly runs counter to the outlook of particular interest groups. If anything, he has only amplified it. His call for mercy to the marginalized, kindness to the condemned, and hope to the hopeless does not mean that the Church condones the entire spectrum of human behavior and lifestyle choices. The pope's mission is spiritual, not political, and this is what makes his message so powerful.

Pope Francis' popularity is, above all, due to his style of engagement and the powerful humanistic elements of his faith. He moves people to tears when he emphasizes the need for compassion and reaches out to his audience with kindness. Above all, he has succeeded in transcending rigid ideological and political barriers.

The Catholic Church suffers from fragmentation along cultural and political lines - perhaps never more explicitly than during the conclave that chose Cardinal Bergoglio as her spiritual head. Shortly before his election on March 13, senior cardinals called for greater unity in the Church and worried about the risk of schism between "ultra-traditionalists and ultra-progressive extremists." Cardinal Bergoglio, still Archbishop of Buenos Aires, knew the cause and already had an answer. To him, "self-referentiality," or an inward focus of the Church, had led to an alienation from the real world and to theological rigidity. He called priests, religious, and lay people to engage with the "existential margins" of society, guided by compassion and energized by the joy of a common faith.

Many Catholic saints have "gone to the margins," dedicating their lives to serving the poor and neediest. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is just one example. However, what sets Pope Francis apart is not his concern for the needy, the outcasts, and lonely, but his ability to communicate such dedication with joy from the pulpit, through social media, and on a global stage. He leads by example but also offers a message that inspires the world at a time when societies are torn apart by ideological divisions.

Since his election as pope, conflicts within the Catholic Church have hardly been resolved. However, through Pope Francis's leadership, all sides have been challenged to focus on the essence of Christianity and to live their faith with passion. He has succeeded in reshuffling entrenched positions within traditionalist and liberal/progressive camps of the Church and has, by focusing on the poor and "wounded" and on "fraternity," brought attention to the early foundations of Christianity.

In America, this message clearly separates Catholicism from national "culture wars." His conciliatory and collegial approach to leadership has been manifested by his reliance on non-curial cardinals for advice and by holding the Synod on the Family, called to convene for the second time in October. Furthermore, he has reached out to other religions in a fraternal way. Pope Francis has consistently shown that he is a man of dialogue, a leader with an open heart and an open mind.

American politics, too, would benefit from such re-direction. Our leaders have much to learn from the Catholic pontiff who transcends ideology and internal division through a more humane rhetoric and a willingness to listen. True leaders rise above pettiness and political theater and inspire through strength of character, a focus on our shared humanity, and common sense. "Service is never ideological," the pontiff proclaimed during the Mass on Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, "for we do not serve ideas, we serve people."

Pope Francis is immune to temptations of political maneuvering or manipulation. He cares nothing for power politics or votes. Instead, he has the liberty to speak the truth and to provide comfort, from a spiritual and humanistic point of view, that people are longing to hear. His call for all to work for the common good proves powerful in a culture that celebrates individualism and is out of touch with bigger questions of meaning and human connection. He has not only emerged as a global spiritual leader, but has articulated the characteristics of true leadership. When addressing Brazilian bishops in 2013, Pope Francis called upon them to "above all" instill hope. And he outlined the structure of leadership:

"The Bishop has to be among his people in three ways: ahead of them, pointing the way; among them, keeping them together …; and behind them, ensuring that no one is left behind, but also, and primarily, so that the flock itself can find new paths."

Can American politicians learn from Pope Francis? They should. And if they do, we might end up with a leader who can guide our nation by inspiring us and challenging us to be the best Americans we can be in constructive engagement with one another and the rest of the world.

This column originally posted on NewBostonPost and is posted with permission. 

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