Pope Francis’ Gandhi Problem

In his book Pope Francis: Why He Leads the Way He Leads, Chris Lowney compares Pope Francis to Gandhi. And it’s not a wholly flattering comparison.

If you haven’t read Lowney’s book, you should. The book is thought-provoking and easy to read. Lowney’s key point, moreover, that Pope Francis’ popularity stems from a deep hunger for good, moral leaders, says as much about the world in which we live as about the pope.

Among other things, Lowney characterizes Pope Francis’ “leadership style” as one of modeling: Francis shows how he hopes the rest of us will act. From wearing simple clothes to carrying his own bag, Francis has consistently applied Gandhi’s maxim to “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

It’s a beautiful way to lead, and there is no question that it accounts in large part for Francis’ popularity.

The problem is, it’s not enough.

As Lowney points out, the “Gandhi model” is a necessary but insufficient condition for change. Such personal modeling has to move beyond itself. It has to inspire others to take action towards change. But such change can’t be taken for granted. Leaders as diverse as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Pope John Paul II and Gandhi himself modeled heroic leadership. In some cases, change followed. More often, however, the world shrugged and went back to business as usual.

In the case of Pope Francis, the pope can model Christian virtue and piety all day long, but that doesn’t matter if we don’t follow him. Are we following him?

One way we fail to follow Francis is by making everything about him. (I am doing that right now.) An incredible amount has been written about Pope Francis since his election in 2013, and many corners of the Church love nothing more than to talk about him. But here’s the problem: the point of Francis’ striking departures from papal traditions is not to draw attention to himself. His teachings on mercy and love have never been about boosting his own image. Rather than trying to create a personality cult, he’s trying to draw our attention to Jesus.

Another way we fail to follow Francis is when we “defend” him with a total lack of the charity and mercy that are the central message of his example. Yes, critics often treat Francis harshly and unfairly. But his “defenders” are often little better.

As wonderful as it is to be able to gush about Francis’ global popularity, we miss the point of his witness if it never moves us beyond words to actions. And as hungry as we clearly are for the moral leadership he provides, few of us seem willing to accept it for the challenge that it is.

Thus my New Year’s resolution: less talking about Pope Francis, and more acting like Pope Francis. But what I really want, then, is to act and be more like Jesus. I think Pope Francis would approve.

E-mail Newsletter

Stay connected with The Jesuit Post and be notified of new content and ongoing discussions.