The New York Times

Francis, the Anti-Strongman

IN OUR AUTHORITARIAN AGE, THE POPE OFFERS A DIFFERENT MODEL OF POWER.

VATICAN CITY — One recent Friday evening, Pope Francis presided over a penitential service at St. Peter’s. After the Gospel was read he strode beneath the great dome and knelt at a wooden booth, while other Catholics did likewise throughout the basilica. “I am a sinner,” he had said shortly after his election in 2013, and five years later the self-description still holds: Before going into the booth to listen as others confessed their sins, he confessed his own.

In recent centuries, the pope has been both symbol and cipher for an authoritarian ruler. As Western governments became more expressive of

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