Monday, June 10, 2013

Going Off-Script: Pope Francis and Jazz

There were times when, as a teacher, I'd abandon my prepared lesson plan and go "class rogue." On these days, we'd have an impromptu discussion of matters pertinent to the students. Because it was off-script and a breach of our usual operating procedure, I found the students to take these conversations with the utmost seriousness. These were the classes we'd talk about traditionally sensitive issues - poverty, racism, inequality, sex and sexuality, relationships - in a way where we could be honest and genuine. If these lessons mattered more to my students than the pre-planned lessons I prepared for them, it is because the structure and stability of the regular class day made the rare venture off-script meaningful to them.

This, perhaps, is a lesson learned best by high school teachers who have come to appreciate the importance of flexibility-in-structure.

As we know, when he was a young Jesuit, Pope Francis taught chemistry to high school students. His recent audience with students impresses upon me that he is my new model of flexibility-in-structure. Facing a crowd of 7,000 he realized that his 1,250 word talk might be "a little boring." Rather than being a slave to his text, he gave a summary of its high points and then took questions arising spontaneously from the crowd.

He was prepared. His lesson was set. Yet he read his audience and responded to their need, not to his agenda. The Pope met the people where they were at, where they were most vulnerable: in the questions stirring within their hearts.

The simplicity of the Pope's words strike me profoundly:

  • Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope! … And who robs you of hope? The spirit of the world, riches, the spirit of vanity, arrogance, pride. All of these things rob you of hope. Where do I find hope? In the poor Jesus, Jesus who became poor for us.
  • Do not be afraid of falling. In the art of walking, what is important is not avoiding the fall but not remaining fallen. Get up quickly, continue on, and go...but it is also terrible to walk alone, terrible and boring. Walking in community with friends, with those who love us, this helps us … get to the end.
  • We must participate in politics because politics is one of the highest forms of charity because it seeks the common good. And Christian lay people must work in politics.

In an institution where going rogue, or departing from the script, is a relatively new phenomenon, the Pope's impromptu responses must be maddening. Yet they reveal the heart of a teacher who understands that his preparation and planning do not dictate the course an event must follow but, rather, equips him with the tools necessary to speak to the heart of those he meets.

If I were to put it musically, I think Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI strike me as more symphonic thinkers: they were able to spin out huge works, massive thoughts, that they performed brilliantly. Pope Francis strikes me, however, more like a Jazz musician who is able to lock into the deep rhythm of the music surrounding him and play with it, accommodate it, and transform it. His words do not colonize or squelch the music around him but kicks it into a new key - the key of Christ - and reminds all of us that Christ is the true key of our lives.

Should the image of a Jazz musician hold for Francis, it reveals simply that our spiritual lives do not create the music but deepen it. God, the author of creation, sings existence in to being and our lives are meant to respond to this. Pope Francis demonstrates one way of engaging the music of creation by playing along with the Poor Christ. The Pope, in riffing on and adapting to the music, shows us often neglected spiritual depths and untapped spiritual resources. He is not giving us new music but helping us to hear the music anew.

Organizational psychologist Frank Barrett, in his Yes to the Mess, offers seven principles for leadership based on his experiences as a jazz musician. Jazz musicians “deliberately disrupt routines as a way of ‘unlearning’ so as to be more alive, alert, and open to new possibilities. The Pope’s ongoing call for a more extroverted, outgoing Catholicism recalls Barrett’s “Jamming and Hanging Out: Learning by Doing and Talking.” It is in the performing of the music, in impromptu sessions with others, that musicians learn to think and hear like a jazz musician. By playing with others, by encountering the “choice points” on which one focuses one’s performance, the musician grows in musical freedom.

Barrett concludes the preface to the book as follows:

Jazz musicians seek to live lives of radical receptivity. Human beings are at their best when they do the same – when they are open to the world, able to notice expansive horizons of possibility, fully engaged in skillful activity, and living in contexts that summons responses that lead to new discoveries.


In his willingness to go off-script, to go a bit rogue, the Pope isn’t cavalierly or unthinkingly defying custom. Instead, he is leading us like a jazz musician who wants to give us the freedom to encounter Jesus as the choice point in the music of our lives, giving us the courage to play anew in the Christic key. We can, all of us, take a lesson from the jazz musicians and their “radical receptivity.” In saying yes to the mess of human life, the mess of Christian discipleship, we lock into the melody that brings joy to our hearts and gives us to play here and now the tune we hope to play, forever, in the Kingdom of God.


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