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Life Lessons From… Pope Francis I

Words by Scout Boxall
Illustration by Jennifer Choat

At a spry 77, Argentinian-born Jorge Bergoglio has broken a few barriers as the first non-European pope in 1200 years and the first with a living predecessor since the fifteenth century. After a disastrous decade for the Church—including the revelation of widespread child abuse by ordained priests and entrenched corruption in the Vatican—the Bishop of Rome has reinvigorated the world’s largest faith. Here are a few key take-outs from the man sitting on the most exalted throne on Earth.

Choose your name wisely.

Bergoglio is the first man in history to choose “Francis” as his papal name. His inspiration was St Francisco of Assisi, a humble twelfth-century ascetic who eschewed the comfortable life to beg for alms in St Peter’s basilica. Bergoglio’s predecessor Pope Benedict XVI is named after the patron saint of schoolchildren and discipline—which sounds like enough to gird the loins of any sordid Irish deacon. This is a fitting sobriquet for a man who pays his own bills, dresses in simple white with a simple iron crucifix and threw out Ratzinger’s Mercedes for a pre-owned Ford Corolla. When next receiving an accolade or compliment, Pope Francis wants you to remember the mantra of minimalism: less is more.

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

The Church has always been a stalwart when it comes to sexual diversity. In Africa, Catholicism’s fastest-growing community, homosexuality is punishable by death and the archaic cultural practice of female genital mutilation threatens thousands of young girls. Naturally, it came as a surprise when Francis conceded these key ideological battles in a few throwaway comments to reporters at World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. When quizzed about homosexuality, the Pope seemed bemused: “Who am I to judge?” In the same breath, he advocated “a stronger presence of women” in decision-making. Now… the Pope isn’t lowering heaven’s exacting standards or changing canonical law. He’s not about to ordain female cardinals or endorse same-sex marriage. But he has successfully placated liberal non-believers with a few choice words without compromising on tougher issues such as abortion. He’s the first of God’s representatives on Earth to appreciate the value of good PR.

Stay relevant. 

It’s difficult to keep a first-century outfit up to date, but Bergoglio manages. He tweets, poses for selfies with worshippers, and even weighed in on the climate change debate. He’s down with the kids, okay? For a religious institution long stultified by distance and opulence, this is no mean feat. In his speech “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), he issued a bold challenge to free-market thinking, likening unfettered capitalism to “a new tyranny” subjugating the world’s poor. Bergoglio wants to reinvent the Church into a social enterprise. Rush Limbaugh has called him a Marxist. He must be doing something right.