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Pope Francis, Symbols & Communication Failure

Pope Francis was in town last week. There was great anticipation for his visit, as there is with every Pope, but Francis seemed to have something special.

From the minute he began his papacy, he seemed far more inclusive than his predecessors. His manner bespoke humility. He chose to live in a smaller, less ostentatious residence in Vatican City. His words were crafted to convey non-judgment. These careful and deliberate messages were intended to confirm that this pope was different, new, with fresh ideas about how to treat the marginalized.

And then, poof, all gone, with one, depressing misstep.

The Pope’s error was as surprising as it was obtuse. After the US visit and all the fanfare, after the tremendous good will it engendered, it was discovered he’d met secretly with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who’s been in the news because she refused to grant marriage licenses to same sex couples in violation of federal law. There is no questions she has been a very polarizing figure.

Now, the Church’s views on homosexuality are clear and no one expects that to change any time soon and it wasn’t his choice of Davis to meet with that presented the biggest problem, but that he did so in secret, and then waited until he was gone for it to become public knowledge to evade the backlash. Make no mistake, the release of this information in this way was planned; he had to have exacted promises and agreements from Kim Davis and her representatives to hold off until a specific date and time. This pope, with every public movement scheduled and documented, cannot credibly say otherwise.

And with that revelation, his entire, brilliant message and style, welcomed by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, was significantly weakened. No longer could people look at this leader of one of the world’s great religions in the same way. No longer could he be viewed as a unique and refreshing moral arbiter. No longer was he speaking truth to power. He ran from the truth and threw his power away.

The lesson for us all is to choose our symbols carefully. And if you do choose one that is controversial, don’t run away from the controversy.

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