When one considers an enormous task such as implementing change in an organization as widespread and traditional as the Catholic Church, one wonders where to begin. While this pope has been highly effective at speaking directly to the common people, he also seems intent on engaging church insiders in his journey of reform. Consequently, Pope Francis’ saw one of his early tasks as that of inspiring the church’s hierarchy not only with a new vision for the church’s role in the world, but also with his ideas about a different way of managing.
Let’s go back to March of this year, which somehow seems a long time ago, since Pope Francis has been exceedingly active in the past 9 months. Let’s recall that it was a considerable surprise to both insiders and observers of the Catholic Church when Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was chosen to become the next pope.
One of the messages of this unexpected election seemed to be that the cardinals were tired of scandal and as such ready for a general shake-up of the Curia, the church’s internal governing body. This conservative group was widely viewed as inward looking, protective of entrenched institutional interests, and increasingly out of touch with the needs of a modern, global church.
In fact, when various confidential papal documents were made public in the VatiLeaks scandal of 2012, they illustrated an internal environment of infighting and bickering. Certain episodes described therein would lead one to suspect that old-style management and cronyism were largely the norm inside the Vatican. Generally, the Curia comes across as a collection of individuals more concerned with protecting their own interests than with the mission of the church itself.
As we have come to know, Pope Francis is a straight talker and masterful storyteller. In one of his first public statements, Francis took on the challenge of the Curia, calling it a highly effective manager of the services of the Holy See, with one critical flaw: It focused foremost on looking after the interests of the Vatican, which he called, for the most part, temporal interests.
From the outset, the new pope’s story was clear. This Vatican-centric perspective is highly problematic, as it neglects the larger world around us, which is where the church should place its emphasis and its energy. Pope Francis pledged to do everything he could to change this view, which is one he obviously did not at all share. He declared that the church should go back to being a community of people, priests, pastors and bishops who are about service and caring for souls.
He recognized the need to make sure that his was a vision that was more than personal, one that engaged and inspired the cardinals, the bishops, the parish and pastoral priests.
To embody his story, and to give an example of his views on management, Francis’ has appointed a variety of commissions to help him make decisions, declaring that the church needed to become far less dependent on a single voice or department. In April, the pope named a council of eight cardinals from around the world as an advisory board to help govern the church, and he has set up committees to advise him as he considers changes in the operation of the Vatican Bank and the management of economic affairs.
As pope, he has decided to rule less by decree or edict, and more in consultation. Such an arrangement is a true break from the past, where popes tended to make their decisions privately, alone with their conscience or behind closed doors with a small cadre of advisors. Above all, it is an arrangement that allows the pope to build bridges and to engage the church’s key personnel directly in his story of change.
In addition, Pope Francis has stated publicly that his council of advisors will not be a ceremonial entity but rather an independent body that will discuss issues and try to reach consensus. As he describes: “I do not want token consultations, but real consultations. The consultation group of eight cardinals, this ‘outsider’ advisory group, is not only my decision, but it is the result of the will of the cardinals, as it was expressed in the general congregations before the conclave. And I want to see that this is a real, not ceremonial consultation.”
Of course, we do not know today how far or exactly where this new pope plans to go with his vision of change. But, we can say that by telling and living a story that engages the key players in his world, he is off to a good start.