The Dalai Lama is the most famous Buddhist in the world. His message is powerful, positive and universal. Even with the huge platform he has, his brand of Tibetan Buddhism is a bit exotic for many people, so still somewhat limited. He is also one of the coolest people on the planet. So as much as a basic Buddhist message would be great for the world at large to take to heart, it isn’t about to happen.
Pope Francis is also an outsized moral leader. He is the head of a church with more than a billion followers. And while there are hundreds of millions of Protestant Christians who question whether that church and its Pope can claim Christian legitimacy—and who find the Catholic Church plenty exotic too—you can’t deny the size and scope of the Pope’s Christian community. And if the Dalai Lama is cool, so is Pope Francis; he was once a bar bouncer, which is something the Dalai Lama can never claim.
The biggest argument for the supreme leadership role of Pope Francis is that he is exactly the right person for the right time, acting and speaking on a very big stage. Two of the major characteristics of the moment are that materialism seems to be failing or failing us and that our changing social universe requires some tricky balance between the old and the new, the absolute and the relative.
Pope Francis gets this and sells this from the very foundations of his faith. He has just had to deny that his is a not a Marxist, but proceeded in the same breath to appreciate the work of those who sincerely act in the name of Marxist ideals. It is not just that he seems to have a vision that synthesizes the original Christian communities with the complicated world two millennia later. He sees in the very institution he is charged with running the embodiment of the problems. If the institutional church, the church membership and the world have lost their way, it is not his job to order them around. Instead he just points to a playbook that is to be taken seriously, not selectively and strategically, and advises to live by and as its example. It’s a choice, one he has made, one he hopes others, from the church hierarchy on out, will make.
Whether the Catholic Church straightens out its affairs, whether disaffected Catholics return, whether new Catholics arrive, whether we are Catholic or Protestant or Jewish or Buddhist is beside the point and beside the Pope’s point. It is about being better and getting better. Pope Francis is not the first to say that, not even the first Pope to say it. But his walking the walk in the world of 2013 is different. These are the times that try people’s souls. We seem to have a world leader willing to make that reality both an ancient and modern quest, a quest that may, in the real and not theological sense, save us all.