The pontiff marks two years ahead the Catholic Church this week
Pope Francis, who marks his second year as leader of the Catholic Church this week, has garnered the type of favorability ratings that any leader would envy. In a Pew poll released last week, nine out of ten Catholics in America gave the Pope high marks—nearly on par with the hugely popular Pope John Paul II’s top ratings. Around the world, sixty percent of Catholic and non-Catholic respondents alike said they viewed Francis favorably.
And his achievements have extended beyond popularity. As Francis’s tenure reaches the two-year mark, the Pope can already look back on significant economic reforms at the Vatican, published a report condemning unbridled capitalism and fueled an evolving discussion on divorce and homosexuality throughout the Church (not to mention being named TIME’s Person of the Year in 2013).
So how has a relatively obscure Jesuit cardinal from Latin America become such a successful leader? Here are five lessons that Pope Francis’s early tenure offer drawn from The Francis Miracle: Inside the Transformation of the Pope and the Church by John L. Allen, Jr.
1. Set an example
The reformist Pope immediately set his sights on the Vatican’s finances, aiming to clean up a regular source of scandal. For the Pope—who took his name from the saint who devoted himself to a life of poverty—financial reform was a priority because it brought “together the three vices that distress him more than anything else: corruption, exaggerated clerical privilege and indifference to the poor,” Allen writes
But he also knew that ensuring clean books at the highest levels would set an example of good governance for the entire Church and clear the path for pursuing a wider agenda. “Today, perhaps the most audacious of all of Pope Francis’s plans is to make the Vatican into a global model of best practices in financial administration—not just as an end in itself but as a way of leading the Church at all levels to clean up its act,” Allen writes.
2. Don’t just hire your friends
Australian Cardinal George Pell was an unlikely candidate for spearheading Francis’s financial reforms. A staunch conservative, Pell was privately disappointed with the Pope’s election, concerned that he would lead the Vatican down a liberal path. In size–he’s a 6-foot-3 former Australian football player–and in personality, he also differed from the soft-spoken Pontiff.
But Francis had heard Pell’s rants against the status of the Church’s finances and knew that his blunt style would be effective in pushing reforms through the traditional institution. At a meeting in March 2014 during which the two spoke Italian because neither was comfortable in each other’s language, Francis asked Pell to become his finance czar.
3. Take advice seriously
From the very beginning, Francis has demonstrated a willingness to listen to those around him. As his first substantial move in office, for example, he created a Council of Cardinal Advisers comprising eight members from around the global who hold ideologically diverse views. The group has since advised him on each of his major actions, and Allen calls it the “the most important decision-making force in the Vatican.” Meanwhile, Pope Francis has given renewed significance to the Synod of Bishops, an advisory group that Pope John Paul II was known to occasionally sit through while reading a book. Francis, by contrast, attended one meeting almost entirely unannounced to join in the discussion (Allen compared it to a U.S. president walking into a meeting of a House committee), and he placed a heavy emphasis on the rare Extraordinary Synod that he convened to discuss family issues like divorce and remarriage.
4. But also be willing to ignore advice
The Pope has also been willing to act unilaterally to ensure that his agenda moves forward, such as when he named Bishop Nunzio Galantino to be secretary-general of the powerful Episcopal Conference of Italy in December 2013. Galantino had a reputation of modesty that reflected Pope Francis’s persona,eschewing, for example, formal titles and rejecting a secretary or chauffeur. But he was not terribly popular with the Italian clergy. When Francis asked for potential names to fill the role of secretary-general, nearly 500 Italian clergymen submitted their recommendations and Galantino received only a single nod. Francis chose him anyway.
5. Be accessible
As the head of the Vatican, Pope Francis has plenty of headaches to deal with at home. But he’s also the leader of nearly 1.1 billion Catholics, and he has made an impressive effort to connect with his followers. There’s no better example of his outreach efforts than the cold-calls he makes to unexpecting people around the world. There was the call to Michele Ferri, the 14-year-old brother of a gas station operator who had been killed in an armed robbery; a call to a Vatican critic who was sick in the hospital; a call to an Italian woman who had beseeched the Pope in a letter to help her solve the mystery of her daughter’s murder; and many more that have not been reported in the media. In one case that was reported, the Pope dialed (he does the calling, not an aide) a convent of cloistered Carmelite nuns in Spain to wish a happy New Year. When they didn’t pick up, he left a message, jokingly asking, “What are the nuns doing that they can’t answer?” (praying, according to a local media report) He later called back, and this time the nuns were gathered around the phone to talk with Francis on speakerphone.