If you asked the average person in this country to name a few world leaders, most people would list leaders of major countries, maybe some famous diplomats or generals, and perhaps the occasional Nobel Peace Prize laureate. I would expect a smaller number of people to name religious leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu or the Dalai Lama, perhaps due to the more secular nature of our time. Or, perhaps, those figures are not relevant “world leaders” because they are perceived to be incapable of leading anything substantial—that is, until you consider the Pope, or more specifically, the current Pope.
In his first year in office, Pope Francis has consistently made headlines around the globe, and not just for visits to foreign places or symbolic gestures—he is actively trying to lead the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics by example. Even though the Catholic Church is two thousand years old, Francis has done much more than his predecessor in terms of keeping the Church relevant in today’s world, and therefore meaningful not only to his own flock, but to others as well, religious and nonreligious.
Since the reforms of Vatican II, there have been several popes who became famous for different leadership initiatives, such as Paul VI’s reopening of ties with eastern churches and John Paul II’s efforts against Communism in his native Poland and elsewhere. However, during the penultimate pontificate of Benedict XVI, the Church was very much consumed by one of JPII’s greatest failings, the clerical abuse scandal. Any leadership efforts on the world stage outside of the abuse scandal were overshadowed by it, and it became the defining element of Benedict’s papacy. (His much less than deft handling of it also didn’t do much to help.)
To his credit, though, Benedict realized he was not the man for the job anymore. When he resigned, people across the globe wondered who would succeed him and what his new administration would be like. After Cardinal Bergoglio was elected, the world found out a great deal about him simply by hearing that he took the name of the eleventh century saint most famous for simple living and helping the poor.
The impact his decisions have made has been quite significant. By traveling to places like Israel/Palestine, South Korea, and Albania, the so-called “Catholic periphery” as opposed to the traditional bastions of European Catholicism like France or Spain, he has reinforced the idea that the Church is truly global in nature and is determined to stay that way, and thence world leaders should expect more such action from him in the future. By publishing his first major ecumenical work, “The Joy of the Gospels” in which he attacks aspects of free-market capitalism as disenfranchising and dehumanizing to billions of people, he reasserted the Church’s stake in global politics in a new way and reminded politicians and economists alike that there are important moral arguments to be made about how the global community is structured—and that he will not shrink from making them.
In his most recent trip, to Albania, Francis made several speeches that can in significant ways encapsulate his papacy. In journeying to a majority Muslim nation, with substantial minority populations of both Catholic and Orthodox Christians, the pope was deliberately trying to highlight the contrast between their peaceful coexistence and the atrocities being committed in the name of religion in Iraq and Syria. After describing how the basic premise of ISIS is totally unfounded on Islamic values, he went on to state in one of the clearest expressions of Christian teachings in recent memory: “To kill in the name of God is sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.” He followed that with his continual plea for solidarity among peoples and rejection of strict individualism by saying that the “more men and women are at the service of others, the greater their freedom.”
I encourage you to read the rest of his comments, as they not only tell the ultimately hopeful story of Albania’s difficult past, but also illustrate what this pope values. The values of a pope are important things to consider; JPII is widely credited with helping the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and John XXIII helped create a greatly updated, more liberal Church. Granted, these reforms have not gone far enough as serious issues, like sexual abuse and discrimination against homosexuals, still need to be more forcefully addressed.
But if there is one individual who seems not only capable of leading the Church into a new era but also eager to do so, it is this bishop from Argentina. If Francis has created this much of an impact in just his first year in office, I think it is fairly safe to say that world leaders—and average citizens—can expect real, thoughtful, impassioned leadership far above simply “maintaining papal relevancy” from him (and hopefully the Church) for years to come.