Pope Francis and his use of personal stories of identity

Pope Francis and his use of personal stories of identity

I had certainly never intended to continue my musings about Pope Francis for so many weeks, but forces seem to be pushing me to continue. As my co-author and I have been researching examples for our new book–and she is particularly keen to include leaders from outside the English-speaking world–I got stuck in on following stories about the pope in the press every day.

Reading about him has been enlightening, and it has also proven quite useful for our writing. One of our book’s major themes is he is how effective leaders use their personal stories of identity to inspire others, and now that I have read so much about him, I would be hard pressed to find a better example than this pope.

And so, two things in particular have happened in the past months that have held my attention. First, I keep finding fascinating documents that show what a remarkable man he is. And second, I have come to believe that Pope Francis has an opportunity to make a historic impact on the Church and on the world, and that this will certainly be a worthwhile subject to observe and to chronicle. In fact, the more I study him closely, the more I am convinced that this is a story with the potential to become one of the truly great transformational leadership tales of our time.

In my searches this week, I came across a truly extraordinary conversation with Pope Francis in the Italian Jesuit magazine, “Civiltá Cattolica”. As I was reading it in its original Italian version, it occurred to me that this was such an important interview that some English publication would have picked it up. So, of course, it was quickly translated, and one can read the entire piece here

In this thoughtful interview, there are some fine examples of the pope using personal stories to express who he is, what he stands for, why he does the things he does, and how he sees the future.

In the past, I have written often that storytelling is the leader’s most powerful form of expression, since leaders reveal themselves to others in the form of the personal stories they tell. This self-revelation is so engaging because it inspires confidence.

When speakers tell stories about themselves, they take us beyond facts and rational arguments. They touch our emotion. We have the impression that we know them, that they have shared something of themselves with us, that we understand something about who they are and what they stand for. When we know their human side, we are inclined to believe in their integrity. We are inclined to trust them.

Pope Francis has said on numerous occasions that he wishes to be “a pope of the people”, that despite his high office and a multitude of ceremonial obligations, he would like to remain close to his followers. Certainly, many individuals in high positions of power and influence claim that they will strive to be close to their constituents. Such declarations may sound real or may sound hollow, depending on our level of trust in the speaker.

The story the pope tells about choosing his living quarters is a striking example of a personal story of identity that inspires trust, a  story of “who I am and why I do things the way I do”, a story that provides a glimpse at the Pope’s inner self. It gives us the impression that we know this man, not as a public figure but as a human being. And, the story makes far more believable his assertion that he will stay close to the people.

When asked why he was not living in the traditional papal apartment, the palatial residence that his predecessors had used, Pope Francis replied with words that seem forthcoming and honest: “I chose to live [in Santa Marta, a guest house near the palace] in Room 201, because when I took possession of the papal apartment, inside myself I distinctly heard a ‘no.’ The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”

By telling this story, the pope is revealing something of his personality, about how he makes decisions, and about what is important to him. We can see that he listens to his inner voice, and that he is not bound by convention.

Hearing all this in narrative form makes his assertion–that he wants to be the pope of the people–come alive for us.


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