keys to the kingdom

Today, February 22, is the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter.

I’ve been to Rome many times. When you enter St. Peter’s Basilica, you can’t miss the famous “Chair of St. Peter” hanging on the far wall. The relic appears miraculously suspended in mid-air, floating among Bernini’s golden clouds and cherubs. As with many relics, the authenticity of the chair may be questioned, but the belief in the central role of Peter and his papal descendants is on clear display.

chair of st peter

Today’s gospel reading tells the story of Jesus asking Peter, “Who do YOU say I am?”

Peter replies with, “You are the Messiah. The Son of the Living God.”

Jesus rewards Peter with what seems to be an over-the-top gift.

“I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (see Matthew 16)

Wow! I was lucky to get a holy card from Sister Francis for giving the right answer in catechism class. The keys to heaven is some powerful reward!

Reminders of Jesus’s gifting of the keys to Peter are all over Rome. The keys are central to the papal insignia shown below. The keys, gold and silver, represent the power to loose and bind. They are part of the Vatican flag, and are included in each pope’s individual coat of arms.papal keys


In all honesty, I struggle with this gospel reading and its interpretation over the years. The power of the keys gave popes and bishops the rationale to claim ever increasing power throughout church history. Imagine having an unscrupulous leader who was granted this kind of divine right. What could possibly go wrong?

The keys have been used as tools of intimidation, bludgeoning the faithful into submission while emptying their pockets to fill church coffers. Who wouldn’t be intimidated by richly dressed, powerful men who claimed to be judge and jury over all things earthly and divine, threatening you with eternal hell-fire and brimstone?

Peter, himself, was a sinner. Sure, he had one shining  moment of inspiration. One right answer. The gospels also show him as a doubter. A denier. A cowardly man who ran from the cross with the other disciples, fearing for his life. How many times have we heard that this is what made Peter so special? Jesus didn’t choose him because he was perfect. Jesus chose him despite his sins and imperfections.

But, why would Jesus give God-like power to one man? Was absolute power his intention? Was it his intention that this absolute power would be passed down an unbroken line of popes through the centuries, claiming unarguable validity from a couple of scripture lines? Surely, Jesus knew enough about human nature to realize that this was a recipe for disaster?

Miraculously, the church has survived centuries of popes, both sinners and saints…and there were some humdinger sinners! By the 1960’s, Vatican II focused on the collegial nature of papal power. The pope rules in union with his bishops, guided also by the sensus fidei, the sense of the faithful. You and me. The church is the Body of Christ, composed of all the people of God with Jesus as its head. WE are the church.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t need leaders. We do. We need popes, bishops, priests, religious and lay people who embrace servant leadership, not autocratic, absolutist power. We need this in our church. We need it in our world.

We need true servant leaders.

From the moment he was elected, Pope Francis showed the world that he was a different kind of pope, determined to reform church leadership from the Vatican to the parish level. He never tires of preaching about humility, faith of the heart, integrity and sincerity in word and deed.

On this feast day,  I pray that Pope Francis will lead us with his service and example for many years to come.




servant leadership, lessons for the Donald


Canada is in the midst of a federal election. At eleven weeks, it is the “longest federal election campaign in recent history“. Constant reference to this election campaign as a “marathon” is laughable compared to the electoral process of our friends to the south. While we count our election campaigns in weeks, Americans count them in months and years. While we bemoan voter apathy and lack of voter engagement, we watch with both bemusement and horror at the the media circus that is American politics. Currently, in the centre ring, we have the unabashedly self-centred and outspoken Donald Trump.

At first it was fun to watch his daring act. He fearlessly flung flaming torches and knives at minorities, undocumented workers, women, and candidates. He hurled accusations and despicable names with no regard for political correctness or basic human decency. Surely this man will sizzle and fade away with the smoke of public censure and disbelief? With others, I eagerly awaited his inevitable downfall. Yet, we’re still waiting. Neil Macdonald, senior CBC correspondent, writes

Mainstream Republicans (admittedly a relative term nowadays) have lost control to a reality show star, a vulgar braggart who somehow manages to evince populism while flaunting extreme wealth and his membership in the .0001 per cent club.

Donald Trump is a one-man sideshow and taking the car keys away from him isn’t going to be easy, if it can be done at all.

As Catholics, we speak of the need for “servant leaders”. Pope Francis models this style of leadership. The goal of a servant leader is to work for and to work with those you are called to serve. Servant leadership does not focus on the trappings of authority. It does not lead with a domineering or heavy hand. But, a servant leader is also not a pushover. She or he needs moral strength and courage to work towards a fair, just, and equitable world – whether it be the board-room, factory floor, class-room, government offices, or religious institutions.

A servant leader knows how to listen, and intentionally seeks to hear many and diverse voices. They know that wisdom is found in open and honest dialogue. When deep set polarity threatens peace, searching for common ground through dialogue can nurture greater understanding. Shutting out voices different from ours simply increases the divide and fuels fear and hatred of the “other”.

A servant leader also knows that no one person is the sole owner of all knowledge. When complex issues cloud discernment, clarity can be discovered by seeking the wisdom of others. It is a truly egotistical mind that believes it has the answer to all issues, often wrapping that answer in impenetrable armours of black and white reasoning. The problem with armours is that they give a false sense of security and impede movement.

I cannot speak of servant leadership and Donald Trump in the same breath, unless it is to ponder how far he is from epitomizing these qualities. The man equates power with money, and unabashedly claims the right to power because of his wealth. He shouts down anyone who dares to question him, presenting his arguments with a bullishness that ignores any need for rational discourse or logical reasoning. Instead of seeking dialogue with those who disagree with him, he resorts to trash talking and character defaming.

What began as a “believe it or not” style of circus, is now morphing into a horrendous “what if?”

leadership by bullying is an energy sucker

My latest column for the Prairie Messenger is titled Leadership can have a powerful hold over our spirits.

One of the strongest powers of leadership is the power that it can hold over our spirits. True servant leadership has the power to raise our spirits and energize us for our mission. Abusive, authoritative power crushes those same spirits and transforms our zeal into disillusion and doubt. Read more…..

Bullying is often at the root of dysfunctional leadership. We see it in the workplace, in classrooms, in homes and, sadly, in our churches. Besides making our lives miserable, these leaders bring immeasurable harm to those they are called to serve.

Leaders who speak to the heart hold the most effective power for growth and reform.

Pope smiles as he arrives to lead general audience in St. Peter's Square at Vatican