I often talk with my clients and seminar attendees about being acutely aware of symbol. In fact, we should all be very attentive to the images we project with every one of our actions, whether large or small. The stories that others will tell about our symbolic moments or acts will greatly affect our reputation, and our ability to lead or influence.
I am not sure if Pope Francis is consciously using the power of symbol as he goes about his daily business. It may well be that he is simply being himself, that he is speaking in his natural voice and embodying his natural persona. However, whether all of this is conscious or not, to me he is a master of using symbolic acts that complement his stories of “who I am” as an individual and “who we are” collectively.
The story of Pope Francis is replete with symbols of change. Even before he took office, one can say that the designation of Cardinal Bergoglio to succeed Pope Benedict was itself a symbolic act of choice on the part of those who voted for him. As has been widely reported in the worldwide press, the cardinals appear to have wanted a pope who could make a clean break with the arrogance and distance of the past.
Consequently, the cardinals chose someone whose personal narrative and emblematic behavior convey the opposite of arrogance and distance. Throughout his entire life, Pope Francis has told–and completely embodied–a story of simplicity and transparency. Even in his new role, he chooses to dress and act simply, with none of the customary papal regalia or finery.
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, his story was never one of displaying the Church’s splendor and ceremony, but one of staying close to his people. He chose to move out of his palatial residence to live in a Spartan apartment, gave up his chauffeur-driven car to ride the bus to work, cooked his own meals and washed his own dishes.
The symbol of his choice of name: Once he was chosen as pope, Archbishop Bergoglio moved further in symbolizing the concept of change by choosing the name Francis. Even this straightforward act can be seen as a significant departure from the past. No pope had ever before taken the name of the exceptional saint of the poor, Francis of Assisi, who was himself a beggar in 13th century Italy. This name is widely considered a sign of humility, in sharp contrast with the images of pomp and grandeur that have characterized the modern papacy.
In choosing this particular name, he is connecting his own life story to that of Francis of Assisi, and this is not a casual choice. It is a symbol for the type of leader he wishes to be: a servant, a poor man among the poor, and a beggar among beggars.
It is a message to the world, also to the Church and to the Curia, the governing body he seeks to reform. For Francis, the Church’s grandeur is beautiful, but he does not see his role as pope as that of being grand. With his story and his symbolic behavior, he seems to be sending a strong message of change to the old Vatican.