Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Example of Pope Francis

Michael J. Gerson


By Michael J. Gerson

March 28, 2014

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

The very idea of a pope has been divisive within Christianity since the Reformation.  But the views of American Protestants – and many evangelicals – shifted significantly during the papacy of John Paul II, who offered such a bold and consistent defense of human dignity.  At the same time, conservative Protestants and many Catholics found themselves allies in public debates such as abortion – and now on religious liberty.  Some deep theological differences remain, but the cooperation and sympathy between Protestants and Catholics have never been stronger. 

In this light, many of us non-Catholics have been rooting for the new pope.  His task of internal reform – following sexual and financial scandals – is massive.  But Pope Francis’s leadership on these issues has been decisive.  In particular, he has moved to impose transparency and sound financial practices on the Vatican bank – and challenged the fiefdoms of the Roman curia in the process.  This effort has been described as an “earthquake” in the affairs of the Vatican.  And it is designed to be a model for the reform of Catholic Church finances around the world. 

This is a demonstration – as many involved in ministry already know – that financial responsibility is one of the basic callings of the church, and that financial reform can be an important mission. 

But Pope Francis’s influence outside the institution he leads has been more dramatic.  He has used tangible acts and symbols to remind the world that the Christian faith – properly understood – is not tame or predictable.  When Francis met a man disfigured by hundreds of boils all over his face and body, his immediate reaction was to wrap his arms around the man’s head and embrace him.  The man later said, “I feel like I can move ahead because the Lord is protecting me.”  The pope has washed the feet of Muslim women in prison.  He invited the homeless to attend his birthday party. 

Protestants may dispute that any pope should be called the Vicar of Christ.  But these actions reflect the attitude and disposition of Christ, who touched lepers and washed dirty feet and talked of a wedding banquet attended by strangers off the street. 

There are many lessons about effective communication in these examples, both ancient and modern.  As a writer, I believe in the importance of words. But there is a unique power in an unexpected, symbolic act of service and sacrifice.  John Paul II visits and forgives the man in prison who attempted to assassinate him.  Jesus writes on the ground and stops a stoning with a single question, or spits on the ground, makes some mud, and applies it to a blind man’s eyes.  These are the kind of deeds we don’t forget. 

And this is more than a communications lesson.  If every follower of Christ were to follow this example in their own lives – to remind the world that Christianity is not tame or predictable – the world would never be the same.

- Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”