Much ink has been spilled over the centuries in attempts to describe the varied contours of effective leadership. Tremendous insights may be gleaned from a variety of sources—both sacred and secular. The question that several of our authors attempt to answer in this issue of The Sower is this: what is distinctive to the Catholic vision of leadership?
An image proposed by Pope Francis to catechists in September 2013 is particularly apropos. The Holy Father said to an audience hall full of catechists: “The heart of a catechist always beats with this systolic and diastolic movement: union with Christ—encounter with others.” The Holy Father then proceeded to unpack his analogy. The kerygma, the Good News, “is a gift that generates mission, that compels us to go beyond ourselves… And so it is: love attracts us and sends us; it draws us in and gives us to others. This tension marks the beating of the heart of the Christian.”[i] It is precisely these instincts in the one who is in Christ—to draw close to the Lord Jesus and consequently to spend one’s life in a missionary way—which have the potential to conform the Christian leader more closely to the Divine Exemplar.
The diastolic movement of the catechist’s heart draws one to rest in, to encounter, Christ the Lord. The person who lives a consciously sacramental life—learning how to actively cooperate with sacramental grace—comes to know and be responsive to the gift of the divine life which is present in the soul. This most intimate encounter with Christ in the deepest recesses of one’s being becomes the source for one’s life and mission. Blessed Columba Marmion eloquently describes the power of this divine wellspring, located in every person who lives in sanctifying grace: “Christ has willed and has merited that [the sacraments] be of sovereign efficacy, their excellence transcendent, their fruitfulness inexhaustible: these are signs charged with divine life.”[ii] This is objectively so, through the infinite kindness of Christ. It is the task of the true disciple—and certainly the Catholic leader—to consciously cooperate with the working of grace if the sacraments are to be, on the level of the person, inexhaustibly fruitful. St. Paul describes the splendor of this intimacy with God, which pervades the life of the Christian, using those ever-luminous words “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1: 27). Confidence in the mysterious reality of the indwelling of the divine life must lead to time spent with the Lord deepening this intimate communion. Time spent in prayer is, of course, a characteristic mark of the leader who is growing in sanctity, drawing his or her motivation and view of the world from the sure foundation of the divine encounter.
The systolic movement of the catechist’s heart propels a person outward, towards authentic encounter with others. This call to mission, to participation in the multiplicity of potential acts of evangelization, proceeds naturally from the reception of the divine life communicated in the sacraments. For Christians who draw on the infused virtues of faith, hope and charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, individual leadership styles become ultimately penetrated by the movement of kenosis, which is the pattern of Christ’s own self-emptying.[iii] Leadership becomes an experience of pouring oneself out, spending one’s life in the building up of the good, often accompanied by others who begin to share a desire for this way. The leader—by the grace of Christ—becomes Christ’s living image, bent at the knee, laying down his life in self-sacrificial love.
And yet, English historian Lord Acton’s adage “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems to scream itself from the daily news. We read of those in the high places of government, science and culture—and even, unfortunately, at times within the Church—who make choices, which are dominated by a self-serving modus operandi. The distinction is clear: the power of the disciple of Christ who leads originates in an altogether different source than the power that is exercised apart from God. The power of the Christian leader comes first not from doing, but from being in Christ. Drawing from the deep well of the divine life, which flourishes within the soul of the authentic disciple, the Christian leader becomes configured to the same Divine Master who said to His friends, after washing their feet, “for I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:15).
[i] Pope Francis, Address of Holy Father Francis to Participants in the Pilgrimage of Catechists on the Occasion of the Year of Faith and of the International Congress on Catechesis, September 27, 2013.
[ii] Blessed Columba Marmion, Christ, the Life of the Soul, Bethesda: Zaccheus Press, 2005, p. 98.
[iii] See Philippians 2:5-11.
This article was originally on page 4 of the printed issue.