Less than one year into his papacy, Pope Francis is now one of the most recognizable people in the world.  For me, he is a fascinating study on the impact a leader can have in a short time, on a leader’s approach to changing the culture of an institution, on the wisdom of selecting a pope the way the Catholic church votes, and on the impact of a countercultural leader.


Often times, people suggest leaders should sit back and observe for a year.  “Don’t make any big changes in your first year” is the advice for new leaders.  Oddly, it’s also the advice given to recent widows.  And it was apparently never given to Pope Francis.  He used the momentum of his surprising selection to unleash a series of new initiatives.


He also caused quite a stir for forgoing the trappings of the office and displaying a delicate, pastoral touch.  He has the incredible ability to seem human!  He has brought big crowds, reached new hearts, and proven to be media-savvy.  He is as charismatic as Kennedy, Mandela, or the Dalai Lama.  If he could run for office, he would win.  But he’s not running for reelection.  The selection of a pope is one of the most conservative exercises since the cardinal electors have all been chosen by previous popes.  Now that he’s elected, however, Pope Francis doesn’t need to worry about polls, raising money, or appointing the right cardinal electors.  He can simply lead.


His approach and his priorities are so different that he has proven to be an anti-authoritarian voice.  How does that work when the most authoritarian figure is anti-authoritarian?  He reminds me of Ronald Reagan who railed against big government as the wildly popular president of that very government.


Time will tell how effective Pope Francis will be, if his substance matches his style.  Yet the tricky thing about Pope Francis is understanding that his anti-authoritarian voice is not that different from his predecessors’.  Take one issue that holds special interest for me, the vocation of the laity.


“The Church needs a change in mindset, particularly concerning laypeople.  They must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy, but truly recognized as ‘co-responsible’ for the Church’s being and action, thereby fostering the consolidation of a mature and committed laity.”


Most people would assume that the person who spoke of the increased value of the laity would be Pope Francis.  But it was Pope Benedict who voiced this opinion.  Pope Francis is continuing this legacy by preaching and living a life of inclusion.


As the American Catholic church has seen a vocation crisis there has been hyperfocus on recruiting, forming, mentoring, and nurturing more men into the priesthood.  But as the church has spurned the ordination of women or married men, there hasn’t been equal focus placed on the value of lay vocations.  Thus preaching about the equality of every vocation–lay or ordained, male or female– is a radical idea.


It’s certainly clear to me that if the Catholic church is going to thrive in America it will be up to the lay people.  If a Catholic school wants to live out its vocation, it must promote the idea that every young person needs to find his/her place in the world and find how best to serve the world.  That’s what vocation means.


One year ago, these were radical ideas.  So radical that a Catholic school principal might even fear writing those words, fearing that he would be seen as anti-authoritarian or not a truly authentic Catholic leader.  But when the pope is saying it, how can’t we?