Whether one is religious or not, so much can be learned from the life and leadership of Pope Francis. In the blink of an eye he has transformed the Papal office in ways that will materially affect not only the Roman Catholic Church, but the spiritual and indeed physical lives of generations to come. He has done this by working hard, eschewing the trappings of the position and resisting the temptation to settle into the comfort of being a benign figure-head. In short he has decided to live simply and with love – surely the mandate of all leaders religious or otherwise. He places the foundational issues of justice, mercy and compassion at the top of the agenda and sets aside all pomp and ceremony to ensure that this mandate is met.
Some of course say that he is too real; too down-to-earth, maybe not ‘regal’ enough to be a pope. But this demonstrates a lack of understanding of his Spiritual father and namesake Saint Francis of Assisi and the simple mission of love and compassion that he embodied. The Pope would echo St. Francis’s famous petition: “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”
But what ensures that this man’s name will be etched in the annals of not only religious, but secular history is that he has crossed over to the dark side as it were; he has got out from behind the pulpit and he has entered the domain of real life, off-limits to many religious leaders. For far too long the church has remained largely passive on issues of politics, justice, human rights, race, equality, lawfulness, poverty – ironically all the things that Christ spoke of a great deal. It has preferred to play it safe and keep its rent payers happy by being vocal about what it deems to be the greater sins; abortion, contraception, homosexuality, worship of other Gods etc.
This Pope is working to turn all that on its head, and is for a great deal more than he is against. He is all too aware that a church that remains in church may just as well not exist. He is also radically inclusive and this is setting people free, something that the church has historically traded on preventing.
I have followed this man since his ordination and have been endlessly inspired by his feet-washing brand of leadership. But I was totally winded by what he did last week on Lesbos island in Greece. He went to this island – a primary gateway for refugees to Europe – to witness first-hand the devastation caused by Europe closing its borders to refugees. This was a radical move in itself.
But the billed main feature of the trip was quite foreign for a Pontiff. After a tour of the refugee detention facility, he sat down for lunch with some of the 3,000 plus men, women and children being held in overcrowded conditions awaiting their likely deportation. At the end of this emotional and deeply symbolic visit he did the unimaginable; he acted out his counsel that refugees be embraced, not shunned by taking 12 Syrians – Muslims to boot — including six children — back to the Vatican with him. In an act of kindness bordering on the irresponsible – even scandalous – he did the religious equivalent of giving Europe’s leaders the middle finger.
What do we make of this? Do we dismiss it as posturing, reject it for its clear political message – or do we perhaps accept it for what I believe it was first-and-foremost meant to provide; a new life for 12 people. And might we even ask: “If he can do this – why can’t I?” Or is that taking things too far because he is, after all, the Pope.
This kind of leadership can inspire us if we are prepared to be brave and let it. It can cause us to ask: “What can I do to play a role in a world – a country – that is seemingly so broken?”
And lest you imagine that this trip was all about the grand gesture, we can perhaps learn and be inspired even more by the less documented parts of his trip; parts that might speak to us even louder than the saving of the 12. As Francis made his way through the camp — surrounded by high fences and patrolled by police — he greeted observant Muslim women who had their scarves pulled over their hair, by placing his hand respectfully above his heart and bowing. In these small but powerful gestures, Francis invites us to shrug off our bigotry and become radically inclusive of all races, religions and orientations. And little children handed Francis gifts – drawings they had done for him. One little girl tried to fold up her artwork, presumably to make it easier for Francis to carry. I believe that in this moment years of contemplation and a life of love welled to the surface for Francis as he said to the little girl: “Don’t fold it. I want it on my desk.”
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17-year-old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.