THE BLOG
01/15/2014 05:15 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2014

Pope Francis As the World's Greatest Social Innovator

Much has been said about Pope Francis during his first year in office. We have celebrated him as a spiritual leader, a politician, and even a diplomat. After being named Time's Person of the Year, one might be tempted to argue that all has been said that can be for now.

I disagree. There's at least one more thing to say.

I would posit that, right now, Pope Francis is also the world's greatest social innovator.

Definitions of what makes a social innovator abound. They range from the leader who can start something new, to the one who can incorporate essential business practices into nonprofit undertakings, to those who take radical new approaches to old, intractable problems. Check, check, and check.

At the risk of sounding like a starry-eyed groupie instead of a critical thinker, I would argue Pope Francis embodies all of those definitions, and a few more that truly mark social innovation.

Let's start with the social innovator as the one who starts something new. In December 2013, the Pope launched a global campaign against hunger. He used social media, including a YouTube video, to get his message out, and even identified a specific day (Dec. 10) around which people worldwide could rally. Our culture has been calling such campaigns "innovation" since the days of Bob Geldof's first Live Aid.

Indeed, the Pope has made fantastic use of social media technologies -- another trait often lauded as a hallmark of the social innovator. In addition to YouTube videos, this Pope tweets - @Pontifex. He's also incredibly savvy about the communication power of a connected world. When he washed the feet of a Muslim woman in prison, he knew that image would hit the blogosphere faster than you could say "God bless you." Francis is altering radically how a Pope communicates change. Speeches and documents? Yes. Pictures worth a thousand words at a gazillion bites a minute? That, too.

Some prefer the innovator-as-user-of-good-business-practices definition. Pope Francis is flattening his organizational structure and shaking up his management team. He has restricted use of the honorific title of "monsignor" in order to reduce the sense of hierarchy and distance between priests and the faithful. He also has begun internal investigations of the finances of the Vatican Bank, and he has replaced a number of powerful senior officials with outsiders, such as Archbishop Pietro Parolin -- most recently of Venezuela -- as Secretary of State.

For those who judge social innovators on their ability to create radical new approaches to old, intractable problems, Pope Francis offers a new mission of love, empathy and the call to get "bruised, hurting and dirty" serving the poor and marginalized. Doesn't sound "new" to you? How many mainstream leaders have you seen even talking about the poor? Sneaking out to serve them without publicity or credit? Kissing the hurting and disabled?

Sometimes "new" means reminding us of what is old and important, but woefully forgotten. Calling people to deep solidarity with those who are suffering is radical, all right. And after more than a decade in the poverty fight, I believe it's the right idea at the right time.

Last, all of these actions reflect another key definition of the social innovator favored by my very smart colleagues here at the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work -- the social innovator as "intrapreneur." This definition values those who can create true, innovative and lasting change in large, existing institutions -- especially those that have, perhaps, been slow to change in the past.

Enough said.