When the white smoke billowed in St. Peter’s Square, concluding one of the oldest spectator sports (until the next conclave), and when the humble man dressed in plain white raised only one hand to the masses on what was the greatest day in his life, I knew that something different was in the works.
Will Francis follow the way of his predecessor from Assisi? Can the meek and humble lead the political and conniving? Even Jesus tried and paid for it with his life. The Church has been described in many ways, and the one that sticks in my mind is, “It’s like concrete, all mixed up and fixed solid; nothing can break it. That’s why it’s withstood 2000 years. And yet like a lonely concrete wall it is useless unless it props up a roof that can provide shelter to those who seek it.”
I once belonged to the largest religious denomination, the Christians (and I tested out four variants within that umbrella, including being baptized a Catholic). I now belong to the third largest (but growing) group – classified as non-believers. “Non-believer” is an oxymoron; we all believe in something. Even the most scientific among us ascribe that which cannot be explained as “yet to be researched.” We simpler folk decide to call this unknown “the spiritual,” “the God-like.” I warrant that many of the non-believers were once Christians too. My shift to the dark side was not brought about by a loss of belief in God but by the loss of belief in Man, especially Man in Power. Despite the powerful work for humanity that its field force has performed over the centuries, dark tales of the Church’s hierarchy throughout that same period make for a myriad of novels, not just the Dan Brown variety. Power corrupts absolutely and the Church, run by mortals, is not immune to its venom. I chuckled when my parish priest tried to advise me on how to be a good husband, when he had (according to the record) been celibate all his life. And I lashed out when pedophiles marched among the ranks of the men of the cloth back in the old country and we were denied whistle blowing because we had to “obey and bear our cross.”
How do you change an organization whose very existence is contingent on it not changing? Re-engineers and restructurers can bring about change in the corporate world. Plastic surgeons can do it in the medical world. Civil engineers can demolish and re-build entire cities. But an organization that has evolved over 2000 years, where the unofficial rule book may be a dozen times larger and more complex than the official one – how do you change that?
Incremental change will not do. Radical redesign is called for. The fundamental question needs to be: what is needed today, what structure do we need to execute the new design and who do we need to people it? Everything, and everyone, else is subcutaneous fat. It’s called Big Hairy Audacious Dreaming. And once implemented, the fallout could be seismic before light is seen at the end of the tunnel. Vatican II will look like a tea party by comparison.
Can the humble Francis do this? Can he dream big enough? Is it going to take a series of Francis’s to cut through the layers of dysfunction and bring the non-believers home? Hope sprang within me when I saw that one raised hand on the balcony, as if he were calling me back. Will we get there in my life time?
(Note: the title of this post is derived from the 1994 book Built to Last by James Collins and Jerry Porras)