Pope Francis Looks Outward

In line with tradition Pope Francis this holy week washes the feet of the poor. In a departure from tradition he did it in a juvenile prison in Rome. In line with tradition he will live in the Vatican. In a departure from tradition he will live not in the apostolic palace but in a small suite (Room 201) in the Vatican guest house where cardinals stay in conclave. In line with tradition he quickly reappointed the department heads of the curia. In a departure from tradition he reappointed them temporarily.

He is a man of some surprises; he does not fear the ad hoc. He’d known for at least eight years that he was a possible pope but apparently never gave a thought to the name he would take if elected. When he was, a friend implored him to remember the poor. Which made him think of Francis of Assisi.

He is not drawn to pomp and finery, but took time in his homily on Holy Thursday in St Peter’s basilica to praise and explain “the beauty . . . of liturgical things.” It is not about “trappings and fine fabrics” but reflects “the glory of our God resplendent in his people.”

He knows the church has deep troubles, but does not see the answer as turning inward in self-examination. Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega was quoted in a Cuban Catholic magazine this week saying that hours before his election, the future pope told his fellow cardinals the Vatican must turn away from self-absorption and “theological narcissism.” Instead, an embrace of others: The church must focus its energies on the “peripheries,” which Cardinal Ortega understood to be not only a geographic reference but a reference to those who feel, or have been treated as, peripheral—the poor, the damaged, the unbelieving.

Pope Francis washes the foot of an inmate
Pope Francis washes the foot of an inmate at the juvenile detention center of Casal del Marmo, Rome, on March 28.

Francis often refers both to the center of things and the margins. He speaks of the centrality of Christ to the church’s efforts. But he often spoke this week of “the edges” of things: The power of a good priest “overflows down to the edges.” He even spoke of the edge of Christ’s cloak. A papal tweet: “Being with Jesus demands that we go out from ourselves, and from living a tired and habitual faith.”

All this suggests the new pope’s coming approach: into the world, out to the suffering. And all of it, says Chris Lowney, a former Jesuit, reflects the training, spirituality and culture of Francis’s Jesuit order. After seven years as a seminarian, Mr. Lowney entered the business world, where for 17 years he worked for J.P. Morgan. His book, “Heroic Leadership,” is his take on the “best practices” of the 450-year-old order, and how they apply to other spheres.

“There are a lot of things I really love about his style,” he said of Francis. “I love the idea that when he [came in] No. 2 in the last conclave—everyone who ever worked in a company knows what you’re supposed to do” if you want to win in the future. “You get a job in Rome, you network, get to know people, be ready for the next time around. Instead, he immediately goes back to Argentina, in no way does he raise his profile, he spends time with the poor—and the poor don’t vote for pope!”

Mr. Lowney says Francis’s use of words like “frontier” and “periphery,” and his repeated references to taking action, are all part of “the Jesuit DNA.” Ignatius Loyola, the order’s founder, said his priests should live “with one foot raised,” ready to go into the world. “The other religious orders have monasteries and houses, but a Jesuit’s most comfortable home is the mission.” Jesuits are agile, even ad hoc: “There’s a powerful sense of bottom-line mission but . . . you give up whatever needs to be given up to satisfy it.”

He did not know Jorge Mario Bergoglio but had heard a story about him that struck him as “very Jesuit”: “When he was cardinal in Buenos Aires, they did some study that said the ambit of real influence of a church is about 600 meters. So he said, ‘Why don’t we have storefronts—put people out there, have more impact?'” A priest answered: “If we did that people might not come to the church.” Cardinal Bergoglio asked: “How many people are coming to the church anyway?”

The point, said Mr. Lowney, is to be out there, among the people, like the earliest apostles: “We should not be talking to ourselves, we should be looking for the poor sheep . . . and not be condemning things we don’t like.”

He sees the church, particularly in America, as roughly divided between those who see themselves as progressive and those who see themselves as traditional—what he called “the social-justice people and the personal-morality people.” He thought Francis might “come up with a unifying force that gets us beyond that.”

“If you take over a company your question is: ‘Can I get people aligned together on a mission instead of going in different directions? Can I pull people together in a fundamental mission?'” He thinks some of the pope’s “personal behaviors and example, which have been so winning,” might help bridge divisions.

That may happen. Francis so far seems to embody the best hopes of both sides—for tradition but open for action, for the truth and for the poor. He may come to remind people that they have more in common than perhaps they understood. His love for simplicity is something both sides have in common and perhaps didn’t know it, or didn’t fully credit within each other. But who now wouldn’t want more simplicity and humility, for their own sake but also as a sign the church knows it must turn away, in a manner that is vivid and unmistakable, from an unconscious arrogance—the kind human beings are prey to when they hold high office in a great institution. In the past 50 years, some church leaders became like military officers who wear all their medals and spend too much time dreaming up new ones to award themselves. Scandals followed that.

Francis’s love for the poor comes both as a relief and a reordering fact. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Everyone yearned for this, but not everyone knew it until they saw it.

Another thing in common on both sides: a unifying hope for the rise of women in the church to positions of higher authority. The issue of female priests aside, and it will be aside for a long time, pretty much everyone left, right and center honors and trusts the nuns of the church and is eager to see their position enhanced. The scandals of the past 50 years would not have happened, or happened so systemically, if the nuns hadn’t been shooed from the rectories.

The church needs more women in powerful positions—more laywomen and women religious—in the Vatican, the curia and the cardinal’s offices back home. Some orders in America have been rebuked in the recent past. This would be a good time to begin to praise, raise and elevate. Nuns save the world.

Anyway, it’s stirring to see so much promise in Rome.

It’s good news.

A beautiful Passover, a stirring Easter to all.