Thursday, March 13, 2014

Walking is an art: Review of Chris Lowney's Pope Francis - why he leads the way he leads

Last March 13th, just past 2:30 in the afternoon, I was (presciently) standing in the entry way of a Jesuit retreat house, fishing for my car keys and phone in the depths of my bag where I'd dropped them when I arrived the night before.  I pulled up my phone to see a message from my oldest son  “We have a Pope!"

A quick check of the webs through the tiny portal of my phone revealed that (1) we indeed had a Pope and (2) no one (aside from his fellow Cardinal Electors) knew who.

I had to be back for office hours at 4pm, so there was no retreating back upstairs and finding a spot to wait for the news, so I got in the car and tuned the radio to Philly’s all news station. This far out from the city, it was more static than news, but it was a thread that tied me to what was happening in St. Peter’s Square. At last, the scratchy voice of the Protodeacon made its way from Rome to my car on the Pennsylvania turnpike.
Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum;

habemus Papam:
Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum,

Dominum Georgium Marium
Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio
sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum.
Who was this man the Holy Spirit had brought us?

My Italian was stretched to the limit (and the static on the radio was no help!), but I thought I had an inkling of what sort of leader we had been given when the newly elected Pope asked us for a favor: “Before the Bishop blesses the people I ask that you would pray to the Lord to bless me – the prayer of the people for their Bishop. Let us say this prayer — your prayer over me — in silence.” The roaring of the crowd ceased, while for a long 20 seconds, they prayed, I prayed, that he might be blessed in the days and years to come. Blessed, as God told Abraham, to be a blessing.

Chris Lowney — once a Jesuit scholastic, then a director for J.P. Morgan, now the head of a large health care organization — has written a book about Pope Francis, once Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and his leadership style:  Pope Francis, Why He Leads the Way He Leads. Lowney’s time in the Society of Jesus gives him an intimate familiarity with the Jesuit way of working.

In the process of unpacking for us the forces that shaped Pope Francis as an effective leader, Lowney gives one of the best short introductions to Ignatian spirituality and the Exercises that I have read, deftly laying out the dynamic of the First Week and sketching the practice of the Examen in three short paragraphs, all without burdening the reader with much of Ignatian spirituality’s specialized vocabulary.

Lowney peppers the text with illustrative anecdotes from people who know the Pope, including former students, and spiritual directees. The stories illustrate Lowney’s points well, but taken together, draw a more three-dimensional and nuanced portrait of Pope Francis than emerges from most of the articles I have read about him. We come to know a man with an acute awareness of his frailties and his strengths, who is steeped in the Spiritual Exercises. Someone who is comfortable enough with the contemplative to ask the crowd to pray over him in silence, humble enough to bow his head before them. We find, too, a man with a sharp sense of humor. “Father,” said the porter of the then rector’s visitors over the phone, “the Daughters of Jesus are here to see you.” Fr. Bergoglio shot back, “Jesus didn’t have any daughters.”

As he stood on the balcony a year ago today, Pope Francis’ first words were also tinged with humor, teasing the cardinals about how far they’d had to go to find a bishop for Rome. But he continued on to reflect on the journey he was undertaking with us, the journey that he desired would bring the joy of the Gospel to Rome and beyond. Lowney’s frames his analysis of the Pope’s approach to leadership around the Pope’s own journey to share the Gospel, from his early years, through his Jesuit training, to his work as a Jesuit provinical, seminary rector, and finally as bishop of Buenos Aires.

It is probably not surprising then that feet provide an enduring image throughout the book, from the Pope’s washing of the feet of the young men and women in a detention center last Holy Thursday to the dirty shoes that Fr. Bergoglio expected to find on his seminarians after a day spent in the barios. Lowney points out Ignatius’ hope that Jesuits would be men with “one foot raised” at all times, always prepared to take the next step, and describes well the training it takes to be ever ready.

My favorite foot image in the entire book, though, is the Pope’s in his response to a young man who wanted advice on his struggle to live a life of faith. Walking is an art, the Pope told him candidly. One that requires you keep an eye on the horizon, one that may bring you to dark and difficult places, one that can best be walked within a loving community of fellow pilgrims. You may fall, but the art of walking isn’t so much staying on your feet as it is the will to get up again. “Have you understood?” the Pope asks, “You won’t be afraid of the journey?”

I hear clearly in Lowney’s book Pope Francis’ missioning of us all, sending us to share the joy of the Gospel, sending us to be with those at the margins, urging us to get our feet dirty walking with each other, reminding us to be instruments of mercy, not forces of judgement. Lowney’s book emphasizes that call, suggesting that we are all called to lead — to serve — on this journey, and responds by suggesting a uniquely Jesuit approach to leadership, one that is predicated on a strong foundation, one that continually renews itself through the examen, and one that is oriented to service, ad maiorem Dei gloriam — to the greater glory of God.

Walking is an art, says Pope Francis. Like any art it requires our hearts be engaged as well as our heads, but I suspect Pope Francis would tell us that in the end it is our hands and our feet that must follow heart and head to bring the joy of the Gospel to the margins. I hope we will not be afraid of the journey.

Chris Lowney is walking to the margins along with the Pope, half the profits from the book will go to Jesuit ministries to the poor, see for more details. Readers looking for another book project that directly benefits the poor, might check out the Homilists for the Homeless project, to which I contributed, including the homily for next Sunday -- on Abraham’s blessing from God.

The next stop on the tour is Mary Poust’s Not Strictly Spiritual - be sure to visit!

Disclosure, I received a copy of this book to review from Loyola Press.

1 comment:

  1. Michelle, this is an excellent review which has motivated me to order this book. Thank you.