The Leadership Void; we need St. Benedict

Deacon Greg sent this my way, noting, “this is extraordinary, and the piece mentions you, too!”

Such a star, I am!

What is “extraordinary” is the lengthy post Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley put up in his blog, addressing the criticism he has received for presiding (in a very minimalist way, it must be said) at the Funeral Mass of Sen. Ted Kennedy.

For the record, I wasn’t one of those suggesting Kennedy should not have a Catholic funeral; my gripe was with the sanctification of the man by some, especially in the press, not with the rest of it. I assumed Kennedy had made a sincere confession, received absolution and -as I wrote here– I expected that he and I might rub elbows in purgatory, someday (assuming that I am blessed enough to go there, and that the place is not divided between the monied swells and the poor slobs, as I suspect it is not). Kennedy’s funeral, by my lights, was his Bishop’s business.

O’Malley’s piece is long and difficult to excerpt well; his measured words will greatly please some and never satisfy others, and I urge you to take the time to read all of it.

What was more striking to me than O’Malley’s statement was that it comes right on the heels of Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino’s resignation. There is a very real sense that Martino was pushed out of his office, having made himself unwelcome among many of the more liberal Catholics (and a few conservative ones, too) with his abrasive style. Now, here comes Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a simple Capuchin and the mildest of men, facing the wrath of the more conservative Catholics.

It seems like the whole world is at war; everyone is angry about something. The conservatives are beating up O’Malley, the progressives are beating up Martino. Both of these men have a hand in their beatings, because of their styles of leadership. Martino was too abrasive, too undiplomatic – he stepped on too many toes; he was completely unnuanced and had a true bull-in-a-china-shop approach. He was half Scary John the Baptist and half Peter-with-the-ear-slicing sword.

O’Malley on the other hand -whose work to repair the trust and standing of the church after the heartbreaking revelations of a systemic cover-up of abuse should never be shrugged off- can sometimes seem a bit too mild, a little too nuanced and diplomatic and angelic.

Both of these men are exemplary priests who work with devotion to Christ and fealty to the See of Peter, but for some the Bellicose Bishop is too much Justice without Mercy, and the Consoling Cardinal too much Mercy without Justice.

Well, thank God for Jesus who is both Justice and Mercy, and who will sort it all out in the end, but in the meantime, we should perhaps consider that these brouhahas between bishops and their flocks are also being played out in our secular politics, in our schools and communities – everywhere we look, leaders are under attack by people who expect something more from them than they are getting.

Just as there is an art to good politics, there is also an art to good leadership, and it has nothing to do with money, education, connections, breeding or any of that. Good leadership has to do with being very clear about your position and your expectations, like Bishop Martino, but without assaulting the dignity and pride of another. Good leadership takes a broad view, like Cardinal O’Malley, but without creating anxiety about where a leader’s priorities lie.

And all of this is true whether we are talking church or state, fishing club or commune. The dearth of real leadership, worldwide, (and the willful distortion of it in some cases) is contributing to an over-all feeling of things falling apart and centers not holding.

In his Holy Rule, St. Benedict tells what is needed in an Abbot -the leader of a monastery- and what Benedict wrote in the 7th Century can be well-used by everyone in a position of authority; the parent, the CEO, the Bishop, the teacher, the parish priest, the President. This wisdom applies to all:

Let him who is to be appointed be chosen because of the merit of his life and because of his learning, even though in the community he may be lowest in rank. . . . Let him who has been appointed Abbot always bear in mind what a burden he has taken on himself, and to whom he will have to give an account of his stewardship; and let him know that it behooves him rather to serve his brethren than to lord it over them. He must, therefore, be well versed in the Divine Law, that he may know whence to bring forth new things and old; he must be chaste, sober, merciful; and always exalt mercy above judgment that he himself may find mercy. Let him love the brethren whilst he hates their vices. And in the very correction of the brethren let him act prudently and not go to excess, lest, seeking too vigorously to cleanse off the rust, he may break the vessel. Let him ever keep his own frailty before his eyes and remember that the bruised reed must not be broken. By this we do not mean that he should suffer vices to grow up, but that he could cut them off prudently and with charity, according as he shall see that it is best for each, as we have said; and let him seek rather to be loved than to be feared.

Some will see O’Malley in this and in truth, I do too -but O’Malley should perhaps have written his piece before the funeral, and with fewer awestruck-sounding descriptives which cannot help but tempt some of his angry flock into thinking that he was too ga-ga over the earthly Kennedy glamor to fully instruct in future glory.

Writes Holy Father Benedict:

Let [the Abbot] not be turbulent and overanxious, overexacting and headstrong, jealous and prone to suspicion, for otherwise he will never have rest. In his commands themselves, whether they concern God or the world, let him be prudent and considerate. Let him be discreet and moderate in the tasks which he imposes, bearing in mind the discretion of holy Jacob when he said: “If I cause my flock to be overdriven, they will all die in one day.” Taking, then, this and other models of discretion, the mother of virtue, let him so temper all things that the strong may still find something they will do with zeal, and the weak may not be disheartened.

In this verse we see the weaknesses of both Martino, who failed the meek, and O’Malley who perhaps insufficiently inspired the strong.

Martino and O’Malley are both good men, faithful priests the church may be proud of. Both have gifts, and both have done positive -even exceptional- things while in office. Cardinal Sean was instrumental in getting the stories and victims of sexual abuse into the presence of Pope Benedict XVI. Martino, less elegant, took a very head-on and unshuttered view of issues in this diocese, which from one perspective might be seen as downright heroic. These are components, though, and not the fullness of exemplary leadership. Whole people must be considered, and whole issues. Optimism is key. And so is a bit of humility.

…let consideration be had of infirmities. Accordingly, when one requires less, let him give thanks to God and be not distressed; when, however, one requires more, let him be humbled at his infirmity, and not grow arrogant because of the charity shown him. Thus all members shall be in peace.

We live in very rough and tumultuous times, and we are all climbing over each other’s backs, demanding conformity of thought in the secular world and conformity of behavior in the religious. Almost none of us are capable of doing the things we demand of others. Therefore, it is all the more important that our leadership be capable of transcending the mudpuddles into which we’ve thrown ourselves. In terms of the state, our elected leadership is too busy flinging mud (or wallowing in it) to actually lead. In terms of church, we do have leadership, and some of it is very good, and much of it is not-half-bad.

But some of our leadership – still too much of it – is artless and uncomfortable, afraid of being unambiguous for fear of seeming gruff, or incapable of talking tough when a little toughness might clear things up.

I think much of the difficulty in our parenting, our ministering, our community leading, our politicking, has to do with the notions of relativism and truthiness; society has been fed-and-overfed on the notion that there are “many” truths, that every perspective is not simply a perspective but a “truth,” inarguable, valid, personal and worth dying for. It has made everyone so reluctant to fearlessly say, “no, this is true. This is reality.”

There is a story about Pope Benedict that I like very much, and recounted here:

[Writer] Günter Grass, in his memoirs, recalls an encounter with the young Joseph Ratzinger while both were held in an American prisoner-of-war camp in 1945. The young Grass, a Nazi who had been proud to serve in the Waffen-SS, was taken aback by this soft-spoken, gentle young Catholic. Unlike God, the future pope played dice, quoting St. Augustine in the original while he did so; he even dreamt in Latin. His only desire was to return to the seminary from which he had been drafted. “I said, there are many truths,” wrote Grass. “He said, there is only one.” (Daniel Johnson, New York Sun, September 18, 2006)

Unambiguous, but kind;
down-to-earth, yet fixed on a transcendent and larger view.

It isn’t just for popes. We need to cultivate leadership in ourselves and our children, or we will never stop bickering and nothing will end well. If we have only the choice of Martino’s way or O’Malleys, I would probably choose O’Malley’s, and say “err on the side of mercy,” and let God do the Justice part.

UPDATE: Puts her finger on another reason for leadership voids – we’re content on being sold on images, alone. One of her commenters made a brilliant observation about leadership that I won’t recount here – go read; it is a huge insight into leadership.

Oblates, Tertiaries and Professed Lay People

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