Despite the creation of two saints and first Pope to retire in 600 years in attendance, there was no question that Pope Francis was the star of the show last Sunday in Vatican City. More than 500,000 gathered near St. Peter’s Square with another 300,000 watching on monitors throughout Rome as the Pope canonized John XXIII as well as John Paul II, then rode through the masses to the Tiber River in his open-top car.
In just 13 months Pope Francis is redefining his office and revitalizing Catholicism. As Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist sees it, Francis isn’t just walking in the footsteps of St. Peter but far less saintly figures who have brought failing corporations back to life.
“He’s probably one of the best turnaround CEOs we’ve ever seen,” says Wooldridge in the attached clip. “The Roman Catholic Church is the world’s largest multi-national [corporation]. [Francis] came in at a very low point. People were leaving the church, there was an abuse scandal. Within the space of a single year he’s managed to turn around the sentiment.”
Back from the Depths
Francis certainly had his work cut out for him. For decades the Catholic Church has struggled under the weight of sexual impropriety and financial mismanagement. Francis has addressed issues of gender, sacked four of the five Cardinals who had been mismanaging the Vatican bank, and lived the example of dedicating the Church to serving the poor.
It was the proper message of humility, indeed humanity, at exactly the right time. Even among the faithful in the U.S., the Papacy has been viewed as clueless. Today under Francis a clear majority of U.S. Catholics view the Church as being “in touch with the needs of Catholics.” It’s an accomplishment not even the Sainted John Paul II was able to muster.
Though a healthy 24% of American adults consider themselves to be Catholic, that number represents a steep decline from the 31% of the same group who say they were raised Catholic. Fully 10% of the Americans are former Catholics. Only disproportionate levels of Catholicism among immigrants keeps the size of the market as large as it is.
The Pope’s 85% approval rating among Catholics has politicians on both sides of the American aisle trying to curry his favor. After the Pope tweeted (yes, Tweeted) his thoughts on inequality earlier this year, Paul Ryan, Harry Reid and Bernie Sanders all claimed allegience with his thinkings. This sweep of the Right, Left and Independent is a D.C. trinity that hasn't been seen in decades.
There are more than one billion Catholics in the world, 90% of whom live outside the U.S. They are the Pope’s customers and sales staff and their passion for Francis is perhaps unprecedented. By stripping away some pretense of his office and directly addressing hideous moral failings of the past and present, Francis removed a spiritual scarlet letter from those who couldn’t reconcile their faith with the church.
As long as Francis has the loyalty of these masses, those on the inside who oppose him do so carefully and against the will of global Catholics. Wooldridge says Church insiders are still fighting against change, but that’s as much as issue of geography and tradition. In the big picture the Vatican needs to look outside of itself and away from Italy, and into the emerging world. As the first Latin American Pope, the Argentine Francis has thus far stayed true to this vision, even when it's meant alienating the people surrounding him.
“The old Italian establishment is fighting a losing battle. The Church’s customer base has shifted very dramatically to the emerging world,” Wooldridge says. “The power the Pope has, the charisma he has, and his bond with emerging markets will allow him to push forward with this.”
Charisma is an interesting word choice. Though wasted on descriptions of pop stars, charisma is literally a divinely-bestowed power that inspires devotion and followers. In Francis, the Catholic Church has the true charismatic leader it's been missing since John Paul II’s prime.
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