Pope Francis’ story for the future of the Catholic Church

Pope Francis’ story for the future of the Catholic Church


Once again this week, news from the Vatican drew me back to writing about Pope Francis. I continue to feel that we are witnessing, at least potentially, a truly broad and transformational leadership story of historic proportions.

From the stories that Pope Francis has told since the beginning of his time in office, listeners and observers can draw clear conclusions about the future he sees for the Church. He would like the work of Catholicism to be less about doctrine and dogmatic teaching, more about optimism and radiance. His “future stories” portray a Church of openness, forgiveness, togetherness, optimism, and inclusion.

In one of his first speeches to the cardinals, he told a tale of two possible paths: As Catholic leaders, we can continue the road we are on, one of clinging to dogma and doctrine, or we can define a new future, one that he sees as open and embracing, morally correct, bright and shining. In Francis’ eyes, the first path leads to certain failure. In his words: “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently…We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards…The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant.”

When the Buenos Aires daily newspaper Clarín writes of “Bergoglio’s peaceful revolution” and of the path he seeks for the Church’s future, it is all about leaving behind spirit of gloom, guilt, inhibition and prohibition that has been dominant for centuries, and returning to the essence of the Gospel: love, inclusion, and understanding.

A Church that faces outward rather than inward: When we listen to the pope’s words, it seems apparent that he would like to change from a closed and fearful interpretation of the doctrine to an open and embracing one. His future story is one of frank and respectful dialogue that can even include atheists. Early in his tenure, he reached out to Eugenio Scalfari, one of Italy’s most outspoken nonbelievers, and the founder of the daily newspaper La Repubblica. When questioned by Scalfari about the attitude toward atheists, Francis was both accepting and deferential: “God’s mercy has no limits…the issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience”.

Indeed, his story of evolution for the modern Church is one that breaks with tradition, one that embraces inclusion and acceptance, even toward the previously shunned gay community. When he first spoke of his vision for embracing the homosexual community, his words made headlines around the world: “If someone is gay and is looking for the Lord, who am I to judge him?” 

This past Tuesday, though, he took his far-reaching views and his confrontation of Church tradition to unprecedented levels. In the first teaching document of his papacy that he is said to have composed alone, entitled “Evangelii Gaudium” (the Joy of the Gospel), we see his agenda in his own written and unfiltered words. And these words offer the clearest indication yet of his intention to jolt the church out of its inward focus and complacency

In what can be seen as a direct provocation of the entrenched Vatican hierarchy, Francis called for a radical decentralizing of power, saying the Vatican and the pope must collaborate with bishops, and also with laypeople and even women.

In terms of my study of leaders and their use of storytelling, I see two remarkable elements to Pope Francis’ first formal teaching document. First, it is extraordinary as a story of inclusion, one of the most powerful I have ever witnessed. And the second exceptional aspect of this papal document, in my view, is how much it has its roots in the Francis’ own personal story of identity, and how much he has remained an authentic embodiment of that story. 

I will explain these two elements in some more depth next week.


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