Frank Bruni / The pope's radical whisper

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It's about time. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church has surveyed the haughty scolds in its ranks, noted their fixation on matters of sexual morality above all others and said enough is enough. I'm not being cheeky with this one-word response. Hallelujah.

But it wasn't the particulars of Pope Francis' groundbreaking message in an interview published last week that stopped me in my tracks, gave fresh hope to many embittered Catholics and caused hardened commentators to perk up.

It was the sweetness in his timbre, the meekness of his posture. It was the revelation that a man can wear the loftiest of miters without having his head swell to fit it, and can hold an office to which the term "infallible" is often attached without forgetting his failings. In the interview, Francis called himself naive, worried that he'd been rash in the past and made clear that the flock harbored as much wisdom as the shepherds. Instead of commanding people to follow him, he invited them to join him. And did so gently, in what felt like a whisper.

What a surprising portrait of modesty in a church that had lost touch with it.

And what a refreshing example of humility in a world with too little of it.

That's what stayed with me, not the olive branch he extended to gay people or the way he brushed aside the contraception wars but his personification of a virtue whose deficit in American life hit me full force when I spotted it here, in his disarming words. Reading and then rereading the interview, I felt like a bird-watcher who had just stumbled upon a dodo.

I'm hardly the first to flag this pope's apparent humility or the fact that it extends beyond his preference for simple dress over regal costumes, for a Ford Focus over a papal chariot, for modest quarters over a monarch's suite. Less than two months ago, when he answered a question about gay priests with a question of his own -- "Who am I to judge?" -- the self-effacement in that phrase was widely and rightly celebrated. Was a pope really acting and talking like this?

But Francis' tone so far is interesting not just as a departure for the church but as a counterpoint to the prevailing sensibility in our country, where humility is endangered if not quite extinct. It's out of sync with all the relentless self-promotion, which has been deemed the very oxygen of success. It sits oddly with the cult of self-esteem.

Humility has little place in the realm of social media, which is governed by a look-at-me ethos, by listen-to-me come-ons, by me, me, me. And humility is quaintly irrelevant to the defining entertainment genre of our time, reality television, which insists that every life is mesmerizing, if only in the manner of a train wreck, and that anyone is a latent star: the housewife, the hoarder, the teen mom, the tuna fisher. Just preen enough to catch an audience's eye. Just beckon the cameras close.

Politics is most depressing of all. It rewards braggarts and bullies, who muscle their way onto center stage with the crazy certainty that they and only they are right, while we in the electorate and the news media lack the fortitude to shut them up or shoo them away. They disgust but divert us, or at a minimum wear us down. Maybe we get the showboats we deserve.

For a textbook case of humility gone missing, consider right-wing Republicans' efforts to derail Obamacare by whatever crude and disruptive means necessary. The health care law has its flaws, some of them profound, but it was legitimately passed, in accordance with the rules, and to stray outside them in order to make it go away is to believe that they don't apply to you, that your viewpoint trumps the process itself. It's the summit of arrogance.

Humility doesn't work in the cross-fire of our political combat. Certainty and single-mindedness are better fuels.

How exactly does President Barack Obama fit in? While his Syria reversals may well have diminished him, they had a sort of humility to them, reflected a willingness to yield to the strong feelings of others and deserve some acknowledgment along those lines. Leadership, more art than science, should be a mix of rallying people to your cause and recognizing when you stand too far away from them.

But in Mr. Obama there's a recurrent deflection of criticism and a refusal to abide certain political customs and efficiencies -- the stroking, the rewarding, the mantra-style repetition of a simplified argument for a distracted populace -- that work against his success and smack of excessive pride. He could take a page from this pope.

I never expected to write that. For too many years I watched the chieftains of the church wrap themselves in lavish pageantry and prioritize the protection of fellow clergy members over the welfare of parishioners. They allowed priests who sexually abused children to evade accountability and, in many cases, to abuse again. That cover-up was the very antithesis of humility, driven by the belief that shielding the church from public scandal mattered more than anything else.

For too many years I also watched and listened to imperious men around the pope hurl thunderbolts of judgment from the Olympus of Vatican City. But in his recent interview, Francis made a plea for quieter, calmer weather, suggesting that church leaders in Rome spend less energy on denunciations and censorship.

He cast himself as a struggling pastor determined to work in a collaborative fashion. He characterized himself as a sinner. "It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre," he clarified. "I am a sinner."

He didn't right past wrongs. Let's be clear about that. Didn't call for substantive change to church teachings and traditions that indeed demand re-examination, including the belief that homosexual acts themselves are sinful. Didn't challenge the all-male, celibate priesthood. Didn't speak as progressively -- and fairly -- about women's roles in the church as he should.

But he also didn't present himself as someone with all the answers. No, he stepped forward -- shuffled forward, really -- as someone willing to guide fellow questioners. In doing so he recognized that authority can come from a mix of sincerity and humility as much as from any blazing, blinding conviction, and that stature is a respect you earn, not a pedestal you grab. That's a useful lesson in this grabby age of ours.

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Frank Bruni is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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