pope francis teaches servant leadership by example

Francis 4

“just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” Matthew 20:28

Pope Francis has spoken out against careerism in the church. He is a living example to priests and bishops about the call to serve, not to be served. The world’s media is enthusiastically sharing images of Francis carrying his own case into the plane, or opening his own car door. And, the door is attached to a simple Ford Focus. These aren’t big gestures, but they are having a big impact.

While in Rio de Janeiro for the World Youth Day, the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen produced two interesting interviews; one with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and the other with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Both bishops are known as head-line making (and head-line seeking) culture warriors in the American church. Some view them as classic examples of clerical careerists.

When asked why there were only 40 pilgrims from his diocese attending WYD, Archbishop Chaput responded that, “There was fear that it would pose a risk to people’s health and well-being by coming to Rio de Janeiro.” He admitted that “a number of dioceses in Pennsylvania actively discouraged their young people from coming and didn’t sponsor diocesan pilgrimages on purpose.”

Contrast his fearful attitude to that of the pope who visited one of the poorest slums, or favelas, of Rio called Varginha. According to John Allen,

In his native Argentina, Francis is already known as the “pope of the villas,” the Argentine equivalent of the Brazilian favelas. Both substantively and symbolically, Francis on Thursday made himself the apostle of slum-dwellers everywhere.

Francis is a bishop who never tires of telling his priests that they must be where the people are…to take on the “smell of the sheep”.

Chaput also made a puzzling comment about the right wing of the church that, “generally have not been really happy about his election, from what I’ve been able to read and to understand. He’ll have to care for them, too, so it will be interesting to see how all this works out in the long run.” Really??? Astute commentators on the discussion boards voiced the obvious. Previous popes didn’t seem too concerned about appeasing the left wing of the church. The desire for a smaller and purer church was pushing away more Catholics than it was welcoming.

The Archbishop also believes that the most enthusiastic support for the new pope comes not from committed Catholics who are “ordinarily impressed with the pope”, but from non-Catholics and those who have been alienated from the church. He seems to believe that it is a shallow admiration rooted in a hope that Francis will be less doctrinal than John Paul II or Benedict XVI. What Chaput seems to miss is that the new pope is modeling the brilliant simplicity of the new evangelization; reaching out to all with the gospel challenge of faith, love and justice.

An enormous amount of time and energy goes into writing, translating and publishing papal encyclicals, exhortations and letters. I doubt that any of these theologically dense – and too often painfully lengthy – documents are moving as many hearts as Francis’s daily pontifical sound-bites and images. In our fast-paced, attention deficient world, his simple lessons are not only being listened to. They are being absorbed.

In the Cardinal Dolan interview, John Allen asked if Pope Francis was having a personal impact on him. Here is Dolan’s reponse,

I find myself examining my own conscience … on style, on simplicity, on lots of things.

For instance, I saw the pope open his own car door, close his own door, and carry his own carry-on bag. That says something to me. I used to do those things for myself, and it’s not that I think I’m above it now, but it’s just that as archbishop of New York people are doing it for me all the time. That’s a very down-to-earth example, but I’m beginning to say that I need to watch this guy closely because he’s a good example for me.

I also find myself thinking about living arrangements, because that’s a pretty nice house I’m living in. In some ways it’s not clear what I could do about it, because it’s the historic, traditional residence of the archbishops of New York, and it’s not like we can sell it. [Note: The residence is attached to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.]

In general, I find myself thinking about some of the perks, the cushiness, we associate with being a bishop. He’s pushing me to ask whether they’re necessary, and if they might actually be counterproductive.

No, we don’t all associate cushiness with the episcopacy. But, at least the Cardinal is being honest. And, he seems to get it. There is a new CEO in town, and the executives have to seriously consider re-working their play-books.

Pope Francis is slowly nudging the church onto a new path where the last become first; where the humble will be exalted, and the exalted humbled. If this is the case, there are many priests and bishops who will be quietly selling their black luxury vehicles and perhaps seeking newer, simpler digs.

lent, a looming conclave, and the sexual abuse crisis

Mea Maxima Culpa; Silence in the House of God

This year, the global church entered into Lent with the bombshell announcement of Pope Benedict’s abdication. The news over-shadowed all other church stories in the media – for a day or two. Papabile prognostications quickly replaced emotional commentaries and quickly drafted summaries and evaluations of Pope Benedict’s legacy.

John L. Allen Jr. has provided daily commentaries for the National Catholic Reporter. Allen is my favorite Vatican journalist and writer. He has an amazing depth of knowledge and the ear of many at the heart of the action. His respectful and balanced writing has obviously won him the respect of many in Rome. Besides keeping us updated on the latest details of the transition period, Allen has been writing daily essays on each of the Cardinals who are considered possible contenders to don the papal whites. The essays are valuable, as he points out the positive and negative qualities (real or perceived) of each candidate.

Perhaps because we aren’t wrapped up in mourning the death of a pope, more attention is being made on vetting the cardinals in the public forum. This is a good thing. With transparency and honesty, though, comes a realization there is no perfect person to step into the shoes of Peter. The sexual abuse scandal continues to make international head-lines with new revelations each day.

Should Cardinal Roger Mahony, former Archbishop of Los Angeles, be allowed to participate in the conclave after court documents were released showing his role in the cover-up of abuse cases?

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, was deposed Wednesday in a lawsuit filed by clergy sex abuse victims. He was called to testify over his management of priests in the Milwaukee archdiocese, which he led from 2002-2009.

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana was highlighted as the Papabile of the day by John Allen on Tuesday. By the afternoon, his remarks during an interview with Christiane Amanpour on CNN were making headlines. He told Amanpour that the sexual abuse crisis has not reached his country because, “African traditional systems kind of protect or have protected its population against this tendency. Because in several communities, in several cultures in Africa homosexuality or for that matter any affair between two sexes of the same kind are not countenanced in our society.” As the lid is blown off the abuse crisis around the world, his denial is either naïve or dangerously ignorant.

Hubby and I sat and watched Mea Maxima Culpa this past weekend. It was a difficult documentary to watch. The only thing worse than the ongoing abuse perpetrated by these most unholy of priests, was the institutional denial and cover-up from bishops and the highest offices in the Vatican. Sadly, the smoking gun too often pointed to the desk of the current Pope.

Perhaps this is the true Lenten penance of our church; to finally face head-on the reality of a scandal so evil and so far reaching. As the College of Cardinals prepares to elect the pope, it is a reality that can no longer be ignored. The people of God demand that justice be done. We must have a pope with a proven record of standing on the side of the victims, not on upholding the pure image of the church. Is there such a man?

Here is a short piece I wrote for the NCR Today blog.