Beloved: I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and the one who has a share in the glory to be revealed. Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
This was the first reading from today’s Mass on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. Taken, appropriately, from Peter’s first epistle (5:1-4), it gives us a glimpse of Peter’s own approach to leadership. It’s with good reason that one of the roles ascribed to the papal office is that of the servant of the servants of God.
The celebrant at the Mass I attended began his homily by mentioning what was surely on all of our minds: Pope Benedict’s surprising resignation and the upcoming conclave of cardinals. “Yes – pray for the cardinals!” I freely admit, I’ve been as caught up in the drama of speculations on the papabili as any other ecclesial nerd, but I was glad to be reminded that, while it may be tempting to see the conclave as a rerun of November’s election, it is markedly different from a bid for the White House. It’s not about politicking or campaigning, the homilist said, but about a chair – perhaps a three-legged camping chair that a shepherd might use while tending his flock. As this priest often does, he ended the homily by bringing our attention back to the Eucharist: here at the altar of his dying and rising, Christ reminds us what this thing we call Church is all about.
My daily readings today have contained reminders of the same. Bishop Robert Morneau, who has written this year’s Lenten reflections for the annual publication Not by Bread Alone, underscores St. Peter’s sense of servant leadership, saying,
Simon Peter was called to lead. As the Vicar of Christ, he would be given keys, the power to open and close. This power and authority was to be put at the service of others. No lording it over anyone. This servant leadership was for the building up of the church, the Body of Christ. This leadership was given for the sake of the kingdom.
Peter is the kind of rock that most of us can relate to. He is a rock made out of the human condition and not from granite. His life will be rocky, so much so that he will deny Jesus three times at the very moment Jesus needs him most. Still, in the end, his faith will win out. As the Acts of the Apostles testifies, Peter becomes an exemplary leader. It is fitting that the reading from the First Letter of Peter today is a gentle and pastoral instruction on how to be an effective minister and teacher in the Church. It follows the instruction that Jesus gave Peter at the end of John’s Gospel: “Feed my sheep.”
As Jesus taught and Peter learned, it is all about the imitation of Christ. It is still all about the imitation of Christ.
St. Peter, intercede for our church, that your next successor may follow your example as you yourself learned to follow the example of your teacher and Lord, “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”