Leadership style, a comparison between Dr. King and Pope Francis

National Catholic Reporter

January 16, 2018

By Ken Briggs

Martin Luther King Jr.’s words left an indelible mark on our eyes and our ears. Nothing but the Gettysburg Address is so imprinted on the scroll of American history than the “I Have a Dream” speech, to cite only the most incandescent of his exhortations. That legacy also bolsters the case for Providence. If he had preached earlier or later in the century, his eloquence and charisma might have been limited by circumstance. One could argue that he appeared on stage at just the right time, now unimaginable at any other.

As it happened, Dr. King delivered his soaring message as television coverage was ramping up its McLuhan-esque “medium is message” magic of immensely powerful, enigmatic impact. Its scope ballooned to national and international dimensions. A decade or two earlier, he would have been limited principally to radio and movie theater film clips. His influence would surely have been felt, but his suddenly emergence as a major figure in the cultural and political realm would likely have needed much more time to ripen. And the time for such a prophet and activist was ripe right then.

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Remembering Dr. King reminds me of Pope Francis’ style of leadership. He is a compassionate prophet full of pleas for the poor, the victims of brutality, the visionaries of a kinder, gentler church and the welfare of suffering human kind in general. In that, he reflects a loving, self-less posture that sends a clear message no less profound than Dr. King’s. So far, though, nearly five years into his papacy, he has not appeared at the barricades or directed the church to place its assets, its personnel or its ethical partisanship behind any social or political efforts to shift power away from the tyranny of wealth and oppression, except very indirectly.

Pope John Paul II (be careful what you wish for) gained stature by aiding the particular force, solidarity, to gain success over communism. He deputized then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to run followers of liberation theology out of town. Those kinds of actions probably contributed more than anything else to the “Great” designation tacked on to his memorial. By no means does that require Francis to follow similar strategies, but he might translate some of his wise words into actions that give form to them.

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