Pope Francis on what leadership should look like in the Catholic Church


Luca Zennaro / Reuters

Pope Francis's extensive interview in La Civilta Cattolica, a Rome-based Jesuit journal, is making headlines for his comments about homosexuality, abortion and contraception. In the interview, the pope talks bluntly of how the church has become "obsessed" with these topics. "It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time," he told Rev. Antonio Spadaro, also a Jesuit and editor in chief of the journal. "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent."

But the interview, said to be the pope's most revealing and first of that length since he was elected earlier this year, also provides some valuable insights on his personal leadership lessons, as well as his thinking on leadership issues facing the Church. Here, a few excerpts:

On being a young leader and the problems with authoritarianism: "My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults. That was a difficult time for the Society: an entire generation of Jesuits had disappeared. Because of this I found myself provincial when I was still very young. I was only 36 years old. That was crazy. I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself. Yes, but I must add one thing: when I entrust something to someone, I totally trust that person. He or she must make a really big mistake before I rebuke that person. But despite this, eventually people get tired of authoritarianism. My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative."

On the importance of consulting others: "So as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, I had a meeting with the six auxiliary bishops every two weeks, and several times a year with the council of priests. They asked questions and we opened the floor for discussion. This greatly helped me to make the best decisions. But now I hear some people tell me: ‘Do not consult too much, and decide by yourself.’ Instead, I believe that consultation is very important. The consistories [of cardinals], the synods [of bishops] are, for example, important places to make real and active this consultation. We must, however, give them a less rigid form. I do not want token consultations, but real consultations."

On the responsibility of church leaders: "The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials."

On the role of women in the church: "The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions."

On the value of personal experience for leaders: “When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it. There is a brilliant letter by Father Arrupe to the Centers for Social Research and Action on poverty, in which he says clearly that one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty. The word insertion is dangerous because some religious have taken it as a fad, and disasters have occurred because of a lack of discernment. But it is truly important.”

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Pope Francis and the power of five words

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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Lillian Cunningham · September 19, 2013