Pope Francis and the power of five words

Luca Zennaro / Reuters
Luca Zennaro / pool

The most remarkable line from the news conference Pope Francis gave on Monday was this one: "Who am I to judge?"

You are, Pope Francis, the man who drew an estimated three million people to a Rio de Janeiro beach on Sunday. The man whom the Roman Catholic Church gives "full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." You are the leader of the Catholic Church, the successor of Saint Peter, the head of the Vatican. If anyone is in a position to judge--rightly or wrongly--it might be you.

But the Pope's comment about not judging gay clergymen may just be the best example yet of the humble leadership style that has captivated millions. “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis said in response to a question from a reporter. “We shouldn’t marginalize people for this. They must be integrated into society.”

In the less than six months since Pope Francis was elected leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, he has repeatedly made symbolic gestures of humility. He has washed the feet of a Muslim woman. He has shunned the papal apartments, paid his own hotel bill and invited homeless people to dinner at the Vatican. He has dressed simply, refused to sit on an elevated platform after being elected, and chosen the name Francis, an homage to the saint most known for his devotion to the poor. On this most recent trip to Brazil, he toted his own carry-on, opted against the popemobile and visited some of Brazil's poorest and most dangerous slums.

But in asking the question "who am I to judge?", the Pope sends perhaps the strongest signal so far that his humble approach to the papacy is not just about a disciplined man trying to send a message with his simple way of life. He truly does not seem to see himself as having more of a right than others to pass judgment. He does not see leadership as being about mandating decrees or beliefs, but as being about modeling behavior and accepting others.

Usually, actions speak louder than words. And the Pope's many acts of humility have certainly declared that he intends to reform the church into a simpler institution that is more attuned to the needs of the world's poor. Still, those five words--"who am I to judge?"--display not only a humble leadership style but a prioritization of dignity, faith and forgiveness over traditional dogma. As Michael Gerson wrote in a Post op-ed recently, "his symbolism has begun seeping into substance." His recent question proves that to be true.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Pope Francis, the 'humble pope'?

Pope Francis and a holy, humble break from tradition

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Tom Fox | July 26, 2013