Qualified to Lead

By Dr A. Reese

Since his election as leader of the Roman Catholic church in 2013, Pope Francis has made a point of identifying as “one of us”. One of the ways he has done this is by acknowledging his co-humanity with the poor, seen especially in his visits with inmates in a variety of prisons. These sojourns have been marked, not so much by the eloquence of his speech but by his empathy, as shown by physical touch and the washing of the prisoners’ feet. Recently in a Roman prison he said, “Life means getting our feet dirty from the dust-filled roads of life and history. All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed.” More recently in Philadelphia he said, “All of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from. May the knowledge of that fact inspire us to live in solidarity, to support one another and seek the best for others.”

Both Francis’s words and “washing” actions draw on the example of Jesus cleaning the feet of his disciples at his last meal. Peter, an emerging leader of the new Jesus movement, initially protested at having his feet washed by his master, but relented when Jesus reminded him that all needed continual cleansing from our daily contact with the world.

Amongst other things, Jesus was saying to leaders that none of you are “above” those whom you are leading. All leaders share the common human need of being “cleansed” and all should model the mercy of “cleansing” others. This position of humility provides the appropriate place from which to lead. Apart from the fundamental truth inherent within such a positioning; as Pope Francis’s example shows, it helps to restore the confidence of disillusioned followers and makes them more inclined to listen and follow.

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