LEADERSHIP AND AUTHORITY IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH,
Jesus And Service
by John R. Connolly
Jesus is the model for understanding the exercise of authority in the Church. The Risen Christ, the true head of the Church, is present in the Church today as its supreme leader. Therefore, the pope, the bishops, priests, religious, and laity who hold positions of authority in the Church today are called to follow the example of Jesus. The understanding of authority in the Church is rooted in Jesus’ exercise of authority as it is portrayed in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Mk 10:35-45, the Gospel reading for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 17, 2021, the authority of Jesus is described as one of service as opposed to an authority that lords it over others. Let us listen to the Word of God.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him,
"Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."
He replied, "What do you wish me to do for you?"
They answered him, "Grant that in your glory
we may sit one at your right and the other at your left."
Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking.
Can you drink the cup that I drink
or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?"
They said to him, "We can."
Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink, you will drink,
and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;
but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give
but is for those for whom it has been prepared."
When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.
Jesus summoned them and said to them,
"You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles
lord it over them,
and their great ones make their authority over them felt.
But it shall not be so among you.
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mk 10:35-45.
Other Gospel passages confirming this teaching of Jesus can be found in Luke 22:24-27 and Matthew 20:20-28.
The New Testament demonstrates that the authority in the Church is a unique authority. It is not like that of a political king, the legal power of a judge, the economic power of a CEO, nor the military power of a general. The pope is not a king, a monarch, a dictator, a president nor a prime minister. A bishop is not the CEO of a business, a supreme court justice, nor a political leader. They are vicars of Christ on earth, commissioned to serve the people of God.
On September 15, 2021, on a flight from Bratislava, Slovakia, to Rome, Pope Francis urged bishops to act as pastors, not politicians. In responding to a question on how he would advise bishops to deal with the issue of granting communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians Pope Francis stated, “When the church defends a principle in an unpastoral manner, it acts on a political level. And this has always been the case, just look at the history. What must a pastor do? Be a pastor. Be a pastor and don’t go around condemning.” Furthermore, Francis added that as a pastor bishops must respond with God’s style which is one of “closeness, compassion, and tenderness.” This is also the style of Jesus and the Bible. “A pastor who does not know how to act with God’s style is slipping and does many things that are not pastoral.” He urged bishops to be more pastoral and move away from non-pastoral condemnations. Pope Francis concluded his remarks with the following statement, “But always this condemnation, condemnation. Enough with excommunications! Please let’s not make more excommunications. The poor people, they are children of God and they want and need our pastoral closeness. Then the pastor resolves things as the Spirit tells him.” (Gerard O’Connell, “Pope Francis: I have never denied Communion to anyone.” America, September 15, 2021).
On November 22, 2021, Pope Francis released a text that he called, “The Beatitudes of the Bishop.” Earlier on the same day Francis had presented cards listing these beatitudes to a group of 200 bishops at the opening session of the plenary assembly of the Italian bishops’ conference. The beatitudes are a call for bishops to serve and to dirty their hands, to wipe away tears, to work for justice, peace and reconciliation, to find goodness even in the worst situations, and to work to build fraternity in today’s world.
Here is the list of Pope Francis’ beatitudes for bishops.
1. Blessed is the bishop who makes poverty and sharing his lifestyle because with his witness he is building the kingdom of heaven.
2. Blessed is the bishop who does not fear to water his face with tears, so that in them can be mirrored the sorrows of the people, the labors [fatigue] of the priests, [and] who finds in the embrace of the one who suffers the consolation of God.
3. Blessed is the bishop who considers his ministry a service and not a power, making meekness his strength, giving to all the right of citizenship in his own heart, so as to inhabit the land promised to the meek.
4. Blessed is the bishop who does not close himself in the palaces of government, who does not become a bureaucrat more attentive to statistics than to faces, to procedures than to [people’s] stories, who seeks to fight at the side of people for the dream of the justice of God because the Lord, encountered in the silence of daily prayer, will be his nourishment.
5. Blessed is the bishop who has a heart for the misery of the world, who does not fear dirtying his hands with the mud of the human soul in order to find there the gold of God, who is not scandalized by the sin and fragility of the other because he is conscious of his own misery, because the look of the Risen Crucified One will be for him the seal of infinite pardon.
6. Blessed is the bishop who wards off duplicity of heart, who avoids every ambiguous dynamic, who dreams good even in the midst of evil, because he will be able to enjoy the face of God, tracking it down in every puddle of the city of people.
7. Blessed is the bishop that works for peace, who accompanies the paths of reconciliation, who sows in the heart of the presbyterate the seed of communion, who accompanies a divided society on the pathway of reconciliation, who takes by hand every man and every woman of good will in order to build fraternity: God will recognize him as his son.
8. Blessed is the bishop who for the Gospel does not fear to go against the tide, making his face “hard” like that of Christ heading to Jerusalem, without letting himself be held back by misunderstandings and by obstacles because he knows that the Kingdom of God advances in contradiction to the world. (Gerard O’Connell, “Pope Francis Shares 8 Beatitudes for Bishops, Giving a model for the 21st Century Pastor,” America Magazine, November 22, 2021)
These beatitudes offer a portrait of how bishops should exercise Jesus’ authority of service in the 21st century.
John R. Connolly
December 16, 2021