A PRIEST who works in relative obscurity in the Vatican bureaucracy was astonished not long ago to receive a formal invitation to lunch with Pope John Paul II, whom he had previously seen only on ceremonial occasions. For several days the priest fretted. Why had the Pope invited him? Had he done something wrong?
Hours before the luncheon was to begin, the man learned that a recent papal speech had touched on an area he had been working on for almost a year. "It was a delightful lunch and an instructive one," says the priest, who hastily outlined his work on the problem before joining the Pope and a handful of senior churchmen in the private dining room of the papal apartment. "Instructive because I learned that when you receive his invitation you'd better know why you were invited and come prepared. It's strictly business. He doesn't ask you there for small talk."
The story, which the priest recounted only on condition that he not be identified, offers a hint of Pope John Paul's executive style. Unlike the entrepreneurs and business moguls of the secular world, John Paul doesn't have to concern himself with balance sheets and stock performance, nor need he lose any sleep worrying about efficient production of widgets. He is not a businessman, by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, as leader of 840 million Catholics and guardian of one of the world's largest and least understood organizations, John Paul's management strategy in many ways parallels that of men who have run massive corporations.
Like Chrysler's Lee A. Iacocca, IBM's Thomas J. Watson Jr. and EDS's H. Ross Perot, John Paul has a clear view of his organization's goals and has devoted himself tirelessly to teaching others about them. Like his corporate counterparts, he has surrounded himself with energetic subordinates who share their leader's vision and has inspired them to action. And while the Pope's warm, relaxed graciousness might at first seem out of place in a corporate board room, it seems to let his employees know that he expects nothing less than their very best efforts in everything they do.
That doesn't mean that the Pope's modern management techniques have assured smooth sailing for the church--far from it. Roman Catholicism is in the midst of the most massive upheaval it has experienced in this century, as growing numbers of Catholic activists, particularly in the United States, challenge the Pope's conservative teachings on such emotional issues as divorce, birth control, premarital sex, homosexuality and the ban on women priests. At the same time, the church has been elevated to a new level of world controversy. Just recently, John Paul's audience with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who has been implicated in the World War II deportation of Jews to concentration camps, triggered a tremendous uproar, which was partially calmed by a subsequent meeting with Jewish leaders and a papal letter expressing sorrow over the Holocaust. And the Pope's repeated calls for human rights, often delivered publicly in the shadow of dictatorships, have fanned the flames of controversy still higher.
One cannot measure the efficiency of a Pope as one does a chief executive officer, because the "product" of any church is in some real sense immeasurable. Still, a close look at John Paul, on the eve of his first visit to the West Coast, reveals not only a spiritual leader but also an accomplished, remarkably popular executive.
IN COMMAND OF THE CURIA
THERE WERE SIGNALS from the beginning that Pope John Paul would vigorously manage his church. Early in his papacy, John Paul ordered a swimming pool to be built at Castel Gandolfo, a kind of papal Camp David outside of Rome, so that he could swim laps for exercise. When some churchmen criticized the expense involved, the Pope replied that building the pool would cost considerably less than convening another conclave, the meeting of cardinals that is called when a Pope dies.
Other Popes might well have given in to critics among their own troops, even in such trivial matters. For as the usually affable Pope John XXIII, faced with an intransigent Vatican bureaucracy, only half-jokingly told friends, "I am only the Pope here." The quip captured a view of the bureaucracy, known as the Curia, that has been shared by many supreme pontiffs: that it is an autonomous, self-protecting apparatus whose staff of mostly Italian clergy resists papal control. But in the view of most of the members of today's Curia, John Paul has succeeded in banishing that administrative inertia and instead brought a heightened sense of purpose.