Friday 22. October 2021

Pope Francis – to lead is to serve

Since he took office five years ago, one thing has been clear: Pope Francis has a unique, distinctive leadership style. The Austrian theologian Peter Rosegger analysed this leadership style in his published Master’s thesis undertaken as part of an MBA course.

He concluded that this leadership style could have a healing effect, including and perhaps particularly for those who serve the European Union in an official capacity, such as politicians.


Under the heading “The Traitor”, Thomas Assheuer examines the first five years of Pope Francis’s papacy in an article in the weekly Hamburg newspaper “Die Zeit” on 8 March 2018. The title of his article refers to the theory that Pope Francis would abandon core elements of Christian faith in favour of unreasonable pastoral concessions.

Thomas Assheuer ascribes to the Pope a “theology of withdrawal”, to be rejected as outrageous: “This Pope is demanding something very strange of the Church: a supreme powerlessness, the renouncing of pomp, prestige and a clerical desire for fame. It should only appear in the world with purity of action and with magnanimity, as in every act of self-glorification lies a secret triumphalism, a forgetting of the cross” (p. 54).

In a time when, in the face of growing complexity, chauvinistic illiberalism is increasingly regarded as chic, and the associated post-ideological behaviour considered smart and innovative, Pope Francis’s leadership style is, to put it mildly, unusual. The question of the relationship between principle-led liberality and illiberal populism is a worryingly current one. ‘Post-factual’ was chosen as a word of the year in 2016, and rightly so.

In today’s global society, appeals to feelings are becoming distanced from distinctions on the basis of facts. Facts are relativised in favour of an emotionally based, erratic voluntarism and therefore alternative facts. The Catholic church faces the challenge of similar dynamics, which strengthen the notion of a Catholic bourgeoisie, often concealed by the mantle of a “pastoral mission”. In its isolationism, designed to consolidate a religious milieu, it shies away from a clearly defined debate with one another and with the modern world, something its proponents are not willing or in a position to face.

In this context of a short-sighted and allegedly consolidatory realpolitik, Pope Francis is a heartening exception using the pretext of humanity. His pursuit of different confidence indicators is not in vain. Against the background of that which the Catholic church stands for, his leadership style is considered to have integrity, authenticity and foresight.

His reference to distancing oneself from the cold logic of power and favouring modesty should not be misunderstood as self-deprecation on the part of the church or a retreat to comfortable corners. It represents far more a seeking of a firm foundation from which to proactively to hold tensions in balance, and refusing to subordinate underlying principles to short-term demands. This rootedness in the greater whole of church and world, and using resources effectively and in an integrated fashion, increases the possibility of “initiating processes rather than possessing spaces” (Evangelii Gaudium 223).

This aspect of leadership, which serves the common good rather than one’s own status, is at the core of the ‘provocation’ of Pope Francis, with which he finds himself fully in the territory of the Gospels. It is also at the core of the logic of the church’s actions, which he has made an essential concept of his papacy and in particular his document Amoris Laetitia. Jesus Christ “didn’t sit down at a desk and study the situation, he didn’t consult the experts for pros and cons. What really mattered to him was reaching stranded people and saving them, like the Good Shepherd who leaves the flock to save one lost sheep. Then, as today, this kind of logic and conduct can be shocking” (The Name of God is Mercy, p. 61).

It is precisely this position of irreplaceable personal commitment to people in need, and to the fight for the global common good, that the Pope expects of the citizens of Europe. Responsible figures in politics, business and society can see from the Pope’s example that the ongoing insistence on standing up for principles, often to the detriment of oneself, is considered honourable and courageous, and are thus discouraged from spreading apparently comfortable truths in order to serve their own interests. At the same time, they can see that subsidiarity and development can only be maintained by principles, since post-ideological realpolitk is neither real nor policy.

Thirdly, Pope Francis inspires them to think by making the alleviation of human need an essential criterion of successful action. Alongside his joyful Franciscan humility and his Jesuit hands-on imperturbability, these positive provocations are the inspiration of his papacy to all aware contemporaries: supreme powerlessness as a behaviour that promotes life and principles. 

Peter Rosegger


The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of COMECE and the Jesuit European Social Centre.

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.