Last week Pope Francis came to my neighborhood. While I had to follow his activities from afar since I was in Korea at the time, his visit still had a profound impact on me. When I flew home to Washington, DC a few days later, there remained a palpable sense of the Pope’s presence in the city.
During his time in Washington, DC, Pope Francis met with President Obama, addressed Congress, dined with homeless people, prayed with the U.S. bishops, canonized a new saint, and visited two churches and Catholic Charities. The media covered him constantly.
The Pope tirelessly spoke out about issues that matter to him: the arms race, climate change, his pro-life stance, homelessness, refugees. Because he doesn’t fit neatly into any one category on the U.S. political spectrum, he challenged everyone. In his address to the joint session of Congress, for example, he said:
Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.”
Listeners heard an audible gasp in the audience in response to these words.
At the same time that he challenged everyone, he also managed not to alienate many. He met with warm welcomes everywhere he went. He proved his reputation as the most popular Pope in history. How did he do this? In a nation of political polarization, where leaders regularly alienate their constituents, Pope Francis spoke challenging words and at the same time commanded respect.
The answer? At least part of the answer is integrity. Washington, DC is hungry for integrity. Like a breath of fresh air in a stultifying environment, Pope Francis embodied integrity. While almost no one agreed with all of his positions, everyone recognized him as a leader who walked his talk. Everyone recognized him as one who fearlessly spoke truth as he saw it, never pandering to power.
The Pope’s words and deeds align. He eats lunch with homeless people instead of with members of Congress. He travels in a Fiat instead of a limousine. He lives in simple quarters in a Vatican guest house instead of in the Papal apartments.
What would it look like if the leaders around us spoke words that aligned with their deeds? What would it look like for political leaders, for church leaders, for organizational leaders to embody the kind of integrity that Pope Francis embodies? How can your leadership, whatever your sphere of influence, embody full integrity?
May we make it our intention to bring a breath of fresh air to the stultifying environments we enter, just as Pope Francis did. May we live with integrity and inspire others to do the same.