When I was first on Tampa’s City Council, one of the events of the fall to which my wife and I looked forward was the annual invitation to sit in the Tampa Sports Authority box for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game. The afternoon always was a relaxed and fun affair, made more so by the air conditioning and appropriately fun food (no filet mignon; this is football, after all). It didn’t matter that neither of us were big Bucs fans; we got to spend time together doing something fun.
(FYI – this was unarguably legal at the time)
Only much later would I reflect on the underlying assumptions I was making about the perks of office. I was giving an extraordinary opportunity to authority board members (who I did not know before my election) to develop a friendly relationship with me. They never pressed their advantage, but choosing to spend three hours every year having fun at their expense (so to speak) was an interesting statement about my unexamined priorities.
After all, I would have been considerably less likely to spend three hours at a backyard barbecue of neighborhood activists in Sulphur Springs, or three hours over cafe con leche and Cuban toast with advocates for the needs of West Tampa. In point of fact, there was no such “low power” group with whom I regularly spent three hours even once a year (except perhaps for a couple of well-organized neighborhood associations).
There are good reasons for public leaders to be invited to various functions, whether for the mighty or the less so. Some of them have nothing to do with seeking to curry favor. It’s a courtesy, after all, to invite a community’s official leaders to see and participate in the good things happening there.
But some of those invitations and their implications quite clearly have much to do with influence. My tendency to embrace these “above my station” moments reflects my personal priorities in a way that, in hindsight, I am not proud to acknowledge.
So when Pope Francis (apparently) declined an invitation to dine with some of Washington’s most powerful people, I was reminded of the power of being present and the importance of to whom we choose to be present.
The pope didn’t decline the invitation to snub these powerful individuals. I doubt seriously that Pope Francis has anything like the personal axe to grind that members of Congress and the president himself must set aside for these convivial moments.
Which is not to say that Pope Francis wasn’t making a statement. He was. It just wasn’t that statement.
Pope Francis, instead, had lunch with some of the least in our society, with individuals who were finding food and housing in a homeless shelter.
I suspect the food wasn’t anywhere near as good, nor the rooms’ furnishings as pleasant (let alone as elegant), as they would have been in the Capitol.
All of us understand the idea of symbolic gestures. Politics is full of them. Handshakes are one of the most common and nearly empty of political gestures; everyone who has a modicum of class will shake hands with an opponent, even a bitter and hated opponent. Not shaking hands speaks volumes, most of it not good.
Candidates and elected officials embrace children and kiss babies, too. It’s expected.
But when Pope Francis kissed and blessed a little girl on the motorcade route in D.C., when he paused to touch and bless a little girl in a wheelchair upon his arrival in New York City, and when, many months ago, he kissed the feet of the felons whose feet he had knelt down and washed, there was more than symbolism evident, though the symbolism was a real as the t-shirt, the wheelchair and the tattoos.
It seems absolutely clear that Pope Francis actually cares for those considered least, the vulnerable, the poor, the incarcerated, the outcast. His gestures speak to us, but they also speak from him . . . from his very essence.
One can agree or disagree with various things Pope Francis has said and done with regard to policy priorities and moral standards. Indeed, his speech before Congress respectfully challenged both major parties’ priorities and left members of Congress (and us?) squirming a little.
But his model of personal leadership is one that is hard to criticize.
Care for everyone, especially those who most need your care. Listen to everyone, especially those who most often are not heard. And take action – personally, as well as programmatically – to carry out the good work that needs to be done to make the organization, the city, and the world, a little bit better tomorrow than it is today.