I met Pope Francis last Saturday, as Putin was puffing out his chest in triumph over taking the Crimea, Beijing was putting an oil rig in Vietnamese territorial waters and Boko Haram was selling girls into slavery. Under such world conditions, how can this pope make a difference for good?
I sat in the first row of chairs in a large room in the inner papal apartment behind St. Peter’s. A chair for the pope to use when he entered to give us audience sat about 20 feet in front of me. The frescos on the wall behind the empty chair and on the ceiling above us had been painted, I was told, by Michelangelo. Not as stirring as his Sistine Chapel works, but impressive nonetheless. Unlike any big reception room in the United States, this one made you aware that popes have been in office for 2,000 years or so. We only come and go; the papacy goes on and on.
Pope Francis came in through a door to my right and passed not 4 feet in front of me. He was smiling, waving gently and walking slowly with stiff legs as an old man walks.
He sat down. The chair of the Centesimus Annus Foundation — an educational arm of the papacy that had just completed a conference where I had spoken — rose to report our conclusions to the pope. Francis then stood and gave us his thoughts and best wishes for continued success in an important moral and intellectual undertaking. Then those of us seated in front were invited to stand, line up, move forward and greet the pope personally.
This was a bit unusual for me, as I am not a Catholic. There I was, technically a heretic, standing face to face with a pope, shaking his hand and chatting. Later, I laughed inwardly a bit thinking of what my Calvinist New England great-grandmother might have thought of the episode. I think she would have been pleased for the honor, but worried that I might let it go to my head and, more important, that it might influence my understanding of “true” Christianity.
I gave Pope Francis a copy in Spanish of my book “Moral Capitalism,” and he was taken in thought by the title — as if it were a new idea to him that there could be a moral capitalism.
I was taken by three aspects of his personhood: old black shoes, his smile and his eyes.
First the shoes: While seated in front of him, I glanced at the black shoes poking out below his white cassock. They were unpolished and had been worn for a long time — the very ordinary shoes of a parish priest who had walked in them while attending to ordinary tasks.
No dignified red shoes of high papal office for Pope Francis. Not even shoes as fancy as the pair I had brought from St. Paul to wear for the occasion.
His smile is as it appears in all of the photographs. But up close, when you are shaking his hand and he is looking into your eyes, it is even more appealing. Through his smile, he gives off a conviction of sunny resolve. He expects good things to happen. He is comfortable with himself. He likes you and the people around him. He is not depressed or overwhelmed by portents of our abiding sinfulness or of the evil that we might do to each other.
Then, his eyes. It’s said that our eyes reveal our souls. Pope Francis’s eyes — small, focused, energized — spoke to me of determination, of steadfast dedication to his work.
I felt that this man is not an amateur, not an actor, not a lightweight. He is a serious man of substance and conviction. Nothing in him is superficial or just putting on appearances.
He knows who he is and what he has to do to reform his church. and he is, if not happy in his fate, not burdened by it. He is in the moment, striving to do his best and being spiritually refreshed each day, I think, by awareness of the special grace that has come upon him to pick up the work his God has laid before him.
Most dramatic was his refusal to accept people’s kneeling down before him and kissing his ring.
Many in our group were older, devout Italian and Spanish Catholics of high social status and high standing among the faithful. I felt a bit as if I were among barons of the realm, come to affirm fealty to their liege lord. These men and their wives would walk up before Pope Francis and begin to drop to one knee while bending over to kiss the papal ring. It was instinct on their part, very much in their proudly assumed role as submissive followers of unquestionable loyalty.
Time and again, Pope Francis quickly put out his left arm and pulled them up to stand in front of him. All who were thus stopped in the process of following traditional protocol were surprised and a bit unnerved.
But there was to be no feudal toadying in this papacy. Francis put them physically on his level as if to say theologically that, in his church, all are children of God, of equal dignity with him and equally, with him, to receive the love and grace of Jesus.
Among the many sitting behind me passed ripples of surprise and slight discomfort.
This was a new kind of pope.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.