Roman holiday: No Shoes, Please

I was in Rome at Christmastime, which included a Wednesday morning during which Pope Francis held his weekly papal audience. Normally, he would be addressing the faithful in St. Peter’s Square, but during the winter months, he conducts himself on stage in a large Vatican auditorium.

You need tickets for the audience, which are easy to obtain. However, when the auditorium reaches its roughly 6,000-seat capacity, even ticket holders are turned away. But we arrived a couple of hours ahead of time, queued up and were able to get in.

I attended Catholic school for 13 years, but I’m not a baptized Catholic. So while I’m not what you would call a true believer, I have a personal, affectionate relationship with the Church. I am, however, also aware of the financial and sex abuse scandals that have plagued the institution. In fact, I would never have considered an audience with the former Pope Benedict because I believe that he was directly involved in covering up much of the Church’s dirty laundry.

But Pope Francis is different. He’s the embodiment of humility and empathy, famous for washing the feet of homeless people in Rome, and for refusing to condemn gays and lesbians to the bowels of hell.

Is there any other kind of leadership more necessary in today’s world?

Washing people’s dirty feet, speaking softly and gently, not throwing weight and authority around – that’s how this pope rolls, and I believe him to be an invaluable argument against the bluster and violence perpetrated by other actors on the world stage.

Pope Francis is what you might call an oasis. The notes he strikes in how he conducts himself vibrate with a serenity and certainty that people literally flock to.

At Christmastime, the pope’s message was about love and hope – no surprises there. He may have been eloquent on the subject, but I wouldn’t know, because he spoke principally in Italian and I could only understand as much as my rudimentary Spanish allowed, which wasn’t very much at all. It didn’t matter. What pierced the hearts of those in attendance was the speaker himself rather than what was actually spoken.

The pope’s understated charisma was a powerful thing to witness. He greeted people in the aisles. He joked about being able to rev up the crowd from Latin America – which he did, immediately and easily. He smiled indulgently at the circus act that performed for him onstage – a weirdly unexpected part of the agenda, by the way.

Other charismatic figures on the national and world stage are impressive in their own rights, sometimes delightfully, sometimes distastefully. But there isn’t anyone quite like Pope Francis.

During an era in which potshot points are scored on Twitter, he sends messages of kindness in simple but explicit gestures designed to promote connection and tolerance.

He leads by example, and does it with as little fanfare as the head of one of the world’s major religions possibly can.

Kindness and empathy are not often on display in front of large crowds. Too often they are confused for weakness and capitulation, or dismissed as useless devices when confronting brutal realities. But Pope Francis displays an authority that emanates from his impulse to be deeply kind and perpetually empathetic. It is persuasive, and does have the power to move, if not mountains, certainly the masses.

He’s not the only conduit through which compassion enters the bloodstream of humanity, but, unfortunately, there are too few like him around. Let’s hope his voice gets somehow amplified in 2017. It looks like we’re going to need it.

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