Getting Religion

Volume IV, #11

One of my family’s favorite restaurants is a neighborhood Italian place that can best be described as cheesy. My kids love it because they get to watch the chef make pizza. I love it because the kids are occupied and because my favorite poster hangs in the men’s room. The poster is called the “Pope Chart” and, according to Amazon (where it is currently out-of-stock) “features a medallion-sized image and a short biography of every pope; Peter and his 265 successors.”

Bathroom at my favorite restaurant: soap + popes.

Not surprisingly, over two millennia there have been a number of popes whose achievements, according to the Pope Chart, are less than stellar. Here is the Underwhelming Pope Chart I scribbled on paper towel recently while waiting for one of my boys to finish:

Pope # Name Achievement
11 St. Anicetus Decreed that the clergy should not have long hair.
14 St. Victor Decreed that, in Baptism, any kind of water could be used in an emergency.
46 St. Hillary Decided that a certain level of culture was required to become a priest.
87 Sisinnius Little noteworthy to report” given that he served on the throne of St. Peter from January 15 to February 4 in the year 708.
133 John XIII Introduced custom of giving names to bells.
183 Clement IV Before being a priest and a bishop he was a “man of the world.” (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more.)
186 Gregory X Elected after a 3-year conclave that only concluded because the people removed the roof and put the cardinals on bread and water.
194 Benedict XI Died after eating a poisoned fig, “a fruit of which he was particularly fond.”
215 Pius III Gout forced him to celebrate mass while seated.

But my interest in the Catholic Church extends beyond the Pope Chart. The Church is the only institution in the Western world older than universities. It also founded many of the earliest universities. Pope #96, St. Leo III founded the Palatine School, which became the University of Paris, and Pope #195, Clement V founded University of Oxford. Most important, like traditional colleges universities, the Church must continue to evolve to meet the needs of the modern era.

The Pope Chart is instructive as to the two keys to reform. First, many of the most successful popes focused on directly serving the Church’s customers. They mobilized the resources of the Church to provide the greatest value to the greatest number of parishioners – mostly poor and working class Catholics.

Second, the best popes led with humility. By humility, I don’t mean Pope #110, Steven V, who “on hearing of his election, barricaded himself inside his house, but the doors were broken open by force” and he was elected. That’s more about fear than humility; this was an era when there were few more dangerous professions than becoming pope.

In my mind, leading with humility is exemplified by the current pope, Pope Francis. Francis has opted out of the Papal Palace to live in a modest guest apartment, has distinguished himself from prior popes by washing the feet of the poor, infirm and homeless, and has asked, on the question of gay priests, “if someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

In doing so, Pope Francis has signaled to the famously inflexible Vatican bureaucracy that he is so serious about reforming the Church to better deliver value to parishioners that he puts himself and his high office below their needs. After only one year in office, Pope Francis has achieved popularity with youth and those not typically drawn to organized religion in a way that eluded his predecessors.

Francis’ success is reflected in the phenomenon of Sister Cristina, a nun in full habit who entered as a contestant on the Italian version of the reality television show “The Voice” and who, on March 19, performed an earth-shattering version of “No One” by Alicia Keys. Since then, Sister Cristina has become an international phenomenon. Under the tutelage of her coach, Italian rapper J-Ax, she’s continued to advance through the competition by belting out Cyndi Lauper and Mariah Carey songs and singing “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” with Kylie Minogue. For his part, J-Ax, a sinister-looking character and the first judge to hit the button for Sister Cristina (and spin around to view the singer – the show’s conceit), began to cry as the judges discussed her performance. After Sister Cristina chose J-Ax as her coach, J-Ax promised Sister Cristina’s mother superior he would protect her from evil and has talked about a rekindled interest in the Church. Thanks to Pope Francis’ leadership, faith has become cool again.

Higher education institutions could learn something from watching what’s going on in Rome. Changes are coming quickly, and in an era when Bible study has already moved online, colleges and universities don’t have much time to change priorities to focus on maximizing value for tuition-paying students. Likewise, Presidents may not have much time to adjust leadership style to drive the necessary changes through their institutions. Unfortunately, those that don’t may someday find themselves historical relics on a chart on a bathroom wall.

Raj Kaji received divine inspiration and contributed to this newsletter.

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