The pontiff, who visits the US this week, has effectively used symbols in his communications to change the dialogue about the Roman Catholic Church. Photo by Tânia Rêgo for Agência Brasil, used under Creative Commons 3.0 Brazil license.
By Mike Kuczkowski
Imagine, if you will, a hypothetical scenario for the 2016 presidential election. After a tough series of primary battles, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire[i], is drafted out of retirement by enthusiastic Democratic supporters into the South Carolina primary and secures a stunning win.
After a run of primary victories, she secures enough delegates to compete for the party nomination. She makes a moving four-minute speech at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, speaking stirringly of America’s need to recall its origins and find strength in essential truths: freedom, liberty, equality of opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. After five ballots, she wins.
Throughout the fall, the nation watches as she projects a humble yet visionary profile. In two presidential debates, she is sharp, articulate and unruffled. Her ads are upbeat and optimistic. On a cold and expectant November night, she accepts a phone call from her opponent, who concedes. Against all expectations, she has won.
That night, she appears before a massive crowd of supporters in jeans and a t-shirt. They cheer her madly. Beaming generously, she says simply “Thank you,” and wades into the throng shaking hands and embracing supporters. Days after the election, she announces that she will not move into the White House, preferring an apartment in Georgetown. On Inauguration Day, after taking the oath of office, she serves dinner to prisoners — something no sitting American president has ever done.
That is a rough equivalent of what happened in March 2013 when Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church following the unexpected retirement of Pope Benedict XVI. Bergoglio hails from a country — and a continent — that has never before produced a pope. He was elected on the fifth ballot of the papal conclave, after giving a four-minute speech about the church’s need to return to its evangelical roots, spreading the good news of Christ.
As Pope Francis arrives for his first visit to America this week, there will be much reflection on his leadership of the world’s one billion Roman Catholics. Yet, while the media will talk about the church’s major scandals and the many unresolved debates facing the institution, Francis has stepped aside from the culture wars and advanced a powerful dialogue centered on love, compassion and poverty. For Catholics (disclosure: I’m one) it is as though we are talking about an entirely different church than just a few years ago.
Looking at his 2 1/2 years in office, Pope Francis serves as a powerful example of how leaders can use symbols to reframe the dialogue surrounding their institutions, and how quickly communications can change culture.
Naming conventions: Bergoglio chose Francis as his papal name, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis is to Catholics what Abraham Lincoln is to Americans — a larger-than-life figure who represents humility, intelligence and a bias toward peace. It is notable that in the 785 years since St. Francis’s canonization, Bergoglio is the first pope to use the name. His first words upon election, “Although I am a sinner, I accept,” signaled a humbler approach.
Stand-up guy: Traditionally, the new pope sits, as if on a throne, and greets the members of the conclave who have just elected him. Pope Francis stood. Mic drop. (Or, perhaps, the opposite.)
Fashion statements: The vestments of priests, cardinals and other religious orders are part of the ritualism of the church, of which the pope’s regalia is the most elaborate. Red slip-on shoes, fur-trimmed velvet capes. Not for Pope Francis. He eschewed those clothes in favor of simpler vestments, wears regular black shoes, and rides the bus. He says morning mass four days a week at the Casa Santa Marta, where he lives in a suite rather than occupying the Papal Apostolic Palace. He drives a Ford Focus, rather than the traditional chauffeured Mercedes.
The washing of the feet: There is a tradition in the Catholic faith that on Holy Thursday, as part of the celebration of the Last Supper, a presiding priest will wash the feet of a dozen people, recreating Jesus’s act of washing the feet of his disciples. (I had my feet washed when I was 10 as an altar boy, and trust me, you want to have very clean feet.) For centuries, the pope traditionally washed the feet of a dozen senior priests and clerics. Pope Francis, a month after his election, went to a juvenile detention center and washed the feet of a dozen prisoners. Two of the prisoners were women, at least two were Muslims — also firsts.
Media Savvy: The pope famously does not hold press conferences, but he does give press interviews — often on the papal plane, during state visits. In one of his first interviews, asked about rumors of homosexuality surrounding a priest he had appointed to oversee an internal investigation into the Vatican bank, Pope Francis said “Who am I to judge?” That response has come to embody the compassion of his papacy and has been widely quoted. His first major interview, granted in September 2013, yielded the following Q and A: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” After a pause, he said “I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” (The interview itself, at 40,000 words, is an astonishing read.)
Vision Statements: Pope Francis’s symbolism has not been without depth of thinking. He has so far issued two encyclicals, or major public statements on church doctrine. The first was titled “The Light of Faith,” and in keeping with his more positive public agenda, emphasized the elements of love, tolerance, openness and
duty to the poor. The second was a treatise on the environment that spoke broadly of the need for social justice.
The list doesn’t stop there. He has allowed a child who had wandered up to the Pope’s side to remain at his side during a speech at the Vatican. He made headlines around the world for embracing a severely disfigured man. He has taken aim at the curia and the Vatican Bank. And he has personally helped broker a peace agreement between Cuba and the United States.
In their 2003 book “Reframing Organizations,” Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal propose that decades of management theory can be distilled into a four-frame model. The structural frame involves thinking of the organization as a machine, like the early Ford factories. The human resource frame looks at an organization like a family. The political frame looks at the organization as jungle. The symbolic frame considers the organization as theater.
Pope Francis clearly understands this last frame, with its emphasis on culture, rituals and ceremonies. As papal biographer Paul Vallely said last week on NPR’s Fresh Air, “[T]here are lots of little symbolic things, and one of the things about the Church is it’s a place of symbol. So people say, ‘oh it’s just symbolic,’ but it’s not just symbolic in the church. Changing the symbols is changing the substance in some ways.”
Vallely is careful to describe Pope Francis not as a liberal, pointing out that he has been largely consistent with historic church doctrine on issues like contraception and the ordination of women. But, he does consider Francis a radical, and he credits Francis’s symbolic leadership with leading the church forward.
“All those kind of things — they’re not intuitive or spontaneous. This is how he was when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, so he’s bringing that notion with him. Christians must change to respond to the modern world. That’s what he’s saying. And, the change starts with the Pope.”
Just two years in, Pope Francis’s legacy is very much a work in progress. The church still has many deeply troubling issues with which it must grapple. But in his use of symbols and his communications, Pope Francis has shown a remarkable ability to shift the dialogue both within and around the church. Expect to see more of his deft use of symbols in the week ahead, and beyond.
[i] I know nothing of Gov. Gregoire. The fact that she is a female governor and from the state of Washington (unlike any president yet) makes her a unique metaphor for Pope Francis, who is a Jesuit and from the Americas.