There’s plenty to be anxious about right now. Plenty to sweat over and stress over and just wear ourselves out with worry over. It could make anyone want to live under a rock — honestly I kinda understand the appeal of living under a rock as a reactive response to everything that’s happening.
Against the backdrop of violence close to home and across the globe, and a seemingly hopeless search for a new leader for this country, my soul rests and finds direction and roots in Pope Francis. His leadership astounds me more and more each day. As I’ve been reading through his messages from WYD, often I found myself silently thanking God for Pope Francis’ great presence in the world. In God’s good Providence, Pope Francis is exactly the caliber of leader that our world needs right now. I’d like to pause and thank God especially for 3 characteristics…
He understands how fear and anxiousness effect our connections with each other
Pope Francis sees our human reality, and in the grace of God poured upon him as Peter, he speaks with a depth of truth about the human person and a wisdom of life that is from him and yet also unmistakably from beyond him. Here’s an excerpt from his words to the youth a WYD during the prayer vigil:
“Where does fear lead us? The feeling of being closed in on oneself, trapped. Once we feel that way, our fear starts to fester and is inevitably joined by its “twin sister,” paralysis: the feeling of being paralyzed. Thinking that in this world, in our cities and our communities, there is no longer any room to grow, to dream, to create, to gaze at new horizons – in a word to live – is one of the worst things that can happen to us in life, and especially at a younger age. When we are paralyzed, we miss the magic of encountering others, making friends, sharing dreams, walking at the side of others. This paralysis distances us from others, it prevents us from taking each other’s hand, as we saw [on the stage], all closed within the small rooms of glass.” WYD Prayer Vigil
And again, how fear can drive us apart if we allow it:
Life nowadays tells us that it is much easier to concentrate on what divides us, what keeps us apart. People try to make us believe that being closed in on ourselves is the best way to keep safe from harm. Today, we adults need you to teach us, as you are doing today, how to live in diversity, in dialogue, to experience multiculturalism not as a threat but an opportunity. You are an opportunity for the future. Have the courage to teach us, have the courage to show us that it is easier to build bridges than walls! We need to learn this. Together we ask that you challenge us to take the path of fraternity. May you point the finger at us, if we choose the path of walls, the path of enmity, the path of war. (WYD Prayer Vigil)*
Pope Francis is calling all of us – youth and folks of every age – to an immense challenge. It’s much more natural, in some ways, to divide into groups and anxiously cling to those who are like us or who agree with us (who ever the “us” is). It’s much more of a challenge to make real efforts towards mature and Christian love – to remain connected to people who disagree with us or see things differently, while speaking the truth we see and listening to the other. His challenge also shows the way to freedom – in fear, we become “paralyzed” captives, driven and bound by our own reactivity to others. In Christian love, we strive to make choices against those natural downward pulls and reach beyond ourselves, to be open to the other, to serve the other. I am thanking God for Pope Francis…for God knows how much we need this wisdom in the US right now (Can’t you easily think of multiple polarized and fearful groups? And can you consider how you’ve also fallen into fear and reactivity? I’m working on this in my own life…it is quite a challenge!)
He is able to step back and look at the bigger picture, and only say what he has to say
Part of anxious times is that people are all too primed to leap in and start saying whatever comes into their heads, or all too ready to fold back into the security of not having an opinion at all. It takes enormous courage to say, “I don’t know. I need to think about that some more.” In one part of the in flight press conference, a journalist pressures Pope Francis about what’s happening in Turkey, asking “Why haven’t you intervened, why haven’t you spoken out about this? Are you perhaps afraid that there would be repercussions on the Catholic minority in Turkey? Thank you.” Pope Francis responds:
“Whenever I have had to say something displeasing to Turkey, but something I was convinced about, I have said it, and all of you know the result. I spoke out… I was sure. In this case, I have not spoken out yet, because, from the information I have received, I am still not certain what is happening there. I review the information from the Secretariat of State and from some other important political analysts. I am studying the situation carefully with my staff at the Secretariat of State and the matter is still not clear. It is true that we always want to avoid harm to the Catholic community – we are concerned about this – but not at the price of truth. There is the virtue of prudence – one has to say certain things at certain times in certain ways – but in my case, you can testify that when I have had something to say about Turkey, I have said it.” (In Flight Press Conference from Poland to Rome) *
I think it also takes a deep, deep inner life to be able to step back and strive to see the bigger picture and ask these tougher questions of what is going on in the world today. But it is exactly this deep inner life and discipline of reflection that allows leaders to get objective about what is really happening, and then speak what they see in a clear cut way. Here’s what I see as a shining example of this- On the way home from Poland, a journalist asked Pope Francis this question during the inflight press conference: “So I have two brief questions, Holy Father. When you speak of these violent acts, why do you always speak of terrorists and not of Islam? You never use the word “Islam”. Pope Francis responds:
I don’t like to speak of Islamic violence because every day when I open the newspapers I see acts of violence, here in Italy: someone kills his girlfriend, someone else his mother-in-law… And these violent people are baptized Catholics! They are violent Catholics… If I spoke about Islamic violence, I would also have to speak about Catholic violence. Not all Muslims are violent; not all Catholics are violent. It’s like a fruitcake, there’s a little bit of everything, there are violent people in these religions. One thing is true: I believe that in almost all religions there is always a small fundamentalist group. Fundamentalist. We have some ourselves. And when fundamentalism gets to the point of killing – and one can kill with the tongue (these are words of the Apostle James, not mine) as well as with a knife – … I believe that it is not right to identify Islam with violence. It is not right and it is not true. (In Flight Press Conference from Poland to Rome) *
I have rarely heard a leader speak so clearly. Pope Francis goes even farther to name positive stories about Muslim- Christian relations that never seem to get enough media time, and also to acknowledge some of the greater influences on what contributes to youth joining radical groups in the first place:
I had a long talk with the Grand Imam at the University of al-Azhar, and I know what they are thinking: they are looking for peace, for encounter. A Nuncio in an African nation told me that in the capital city there is constantly a line of people – a long line! – before the Holy Door for the Jubilee: some go to confession, others pray in the pews. But the majority of them go straight to the altar of Our Lady to pray: these are Muslims who want to participate in the Jubilee. They are our brothers and sisters. When I was in Central Africa I went to see them, and the Imam even came aboard the Popemobile. We can live together in harmony. But there are little fundamentalist groups. But I also ask myself how many young people – how many young people! – have we Europeans left without ideals, without jobs, and then they turn to drugs, alcohol… they turn to these things and they enlist in fundamentalist groups. Yes, we can say that the so-called ISIS is an Islamic state that acknowledges itself as violent, because when they lay their cards on the table, they slit the throats of Egyptians on the Libyan coast and do similar things. But this is a little fundamentalist group called ISIS. But you cannot say – I believe it is false and unjust – that Islam is terrorist. (In Flight Press Conference from Poland to Rome)
He is able to laugh at himself, and to learn
Another reporter asked this question: “Holy Father, the youth of our country were very moved by your words, which really struck home for them and addressed their struggles directly. In your speeches, you also used words and expressions young people typically use in their own way of speaking. How did you prepare for this? How were you able to give so many examples that resonate with them and their problems, even using their own words?” Pope Francis responds:
“I enjoy talking with young people, and I enjoy listening to them. It’s always a challenge, because they tell me things I’ve never thought of, or things I’ve only half thought through. Young people are restless, creative… I like this, and I take my cues on how to speak to them from this. Often I have to ask myself, “What does that mean?” and they explain it to me. I enjoy speaking with them. They are our future, so we have to be in constant dialogue with them. This dialogue between the past and the future is important. That is why I have emphasized so often the relationship between young people and the elderly, and when I say “the elderly,” I mean both the old and the not-so-old – I’m with the first group! – so that we can hand on to them our own experience and they can listen to the past, our history, in order to take it up and carry it on with the courage of the present, as I said this evening. I don’t like it when I hear people say, “But young people say such ridiculous things!” We adults also say a lot of ridiculous things! Young people say a lot of ridiculous things, but they also say a lot of good things, just like us, like anyone. We need to listen to them, to speak with them, because we need to learn from them and they need to learn from us. That’s the way it is. That is precisely the way history is made, and this is exactly the way to grow without closing ourselves off, without criticizing. So it is. And that’s how I learned to speak to them. (In Flight Press Conference from Poland to Rome)
I think being open to inspiration from others and not claiming to have all the answers is a huge mark of deep, authentic leadership. Pope Francis admitted that youth tell him things he’s never thought of, and that adults say ridiculous things too – in his words, I understand that he really values human life – all human life. He doesn’t take an authoritarian or self-sufficient stance before others – but an equal, humble and open stance. And at the same time, he speaks with a fatherly warmth and the authority of faith and love in action that our world so hungers for – that our Church hungers for – indeed, that my own soul hungers for.
In this post, I’ve only touched on a tiny snippet of the WYD coverage – I encourage you, friend, to dive into his messages for yourself- to really spend some time reading him and listening to him for yourself. I have a hunch that you too might find a renewing inner calm and the strength of Christ flowing from Pope Francis and the way the he leads.
*All italics and bold mine.