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A Chair, a Shepherd, a Servant

February 22, 2013

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.

In today’s reflection in the monthly devotional Give Us This Day, Fr. Eugene Hensell of St. Meinrad Archabbey writes,

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.”

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18 Comments
  1. Julia Smucker permalink*
    February 23, 2013 12:45 am

    Just came across this great little editorial in America, which begins by citing Pope Benedict’s appreciation for Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Book of Consideration.”

    The current supreme pontiff has called Bernard’s work “required reading for every pope.” Benedict has also said that one passage in particular enjoys a special meaning for him: “Let emperors and others who have not been afraid to be worshipped as divine enjoy that opinion,” Bernard writes to his pope. “As for yourself, consider that you bear the title of ‘supreme’ not absolutely, but relatively.” Pope Benedict takes this passage to mean that a pope should remember that he “is not the successor of Emperor Constantine but rather the successor of a fisherman.”

    Amen!

  2. February 23, 2013 7:46 am

    A wonderful and much needed reminder!

  3. Ronald King permalink
    February 23, 2013 10:19 am

    Julia, This is where I have a problem with the Church as an institution. It seems to me that to be a successor of Christ is to be a successor to the greatest Lover the world has ever known which is partially addressed in today’s readings in Matthew 5:43-48. The fulfillment of His Love is the Cross. In my perspective, which is formed through the influence of education and experience in the area of human development based on interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics and then re-formulated through the unwanted infusion of God’s Love, the position which is known as Pope seems to have been mutated towards an intellectual expression of Christ rather than the sacrificial life of Christ. Christ died for those who hated Him. If He did not die for them everything He taught and every miracle He performed would have been meaningless. Human beings, in general, will mimic the behaviors, attitudes and beliefs of those they admire. As a consequence, the expression of our Faith is limited to the actions and words of our leaders who have conformed to the human construction of an institution which is fragmented and limited in its ability to Love and serve as Christ desires.
    I will briefly describe and repeat what I wrote to Pope Benedict around 2007 after his controversial talk about Islam. At that time I asked him if he would lead us on a pilgrimage to Darfur to care for the suffering of innocent refugees in an effort to love and act as Jesus did. It would also influence humanity to see how we are expected to sacrifice if the leader of the world’s most visible and influential Church were to be such an example. About a month later I received a letter from his representative in DC telling me that the Pope had read my letter of conversion and my concern for those suffering in Darfur and that he had the same concern. The letter stated that I should read his first encyclical God Is Love. He offered prayers for those suffering in Darfur and for my family and me. This is an example of the source of my disappointment with our hierarchy and the influence they have on how it limits the unity and expression of our most beautiful faith.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      February 23, 2013 12:07 pm

      Ronald, I am in basic agreement with your sentiments on what it means to be the vicar of Christ, but I do not believe this important pastoral and kenotic sensitivity is incompatible with the institutional or intellectual life of the Church. Once again, it’s a both/and. And a good reason to pray for the cardinals, as they have a lot to consider in choosing our next servant of the servants.

      • Ronald King permalink
        February 24, 2013 2:45 pm

        I agree.

    • February 25, 2013 2:41 pm

      But Ronald, isn’t the Pope as the Vicar of Christ not the “successor of Christ,” but the successor of Peter? Peter, whose cluelessness and unfaithfulness I need not relate, was chosen by Christ in spite of his human failings (which continued even after Pentecost). And so it is not that the pope and other leaders have “conformed to the human construction of an institution which is fragmented and limited,” but that they are merely members of such an institution which is human and fallible. And yet, we have faith that it was instituted by Christ and inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, and this includes the office of the papacy. Even it seemed to me that the hierarchy was a net evil, I would not quit my faith in it.

      • Ronald King permalink
        February 26, 2013 9:48 am

        Sam, Yes I used successor of Christ. My bad. It is the combination of my faith in Christ Who instituted the position occupied by the Popes along with what I have learned about human behavior which influences my expectations and beliefs about the Church’s possible role in healing the violence of fear and hate which seems to dominate human relationships.

  4. Subsistent permalink
    February 23, 2013 1:32 pm

    Having just now read a papal nuncio’s description of Pope Benedict’s coat of arms (linked to by Rocco Palmo’s *Whispers in the Loggia* a day or so ago), I’m struck by Benedict’s tradition-breaking addition there of a pallium, standing for a pope’s responsibility as — precisely — shepherd of the flock to which our Lord entrusted him.
    BTW, I think it’s “neat”, “cool” — you know w’t I’m sayin’? — that the books (as on *Jesus of Nazareth*) which Benedict has written and commercially published during his papacy mean that he’s been financially self-supporting (or the equivalent). Not that I don’t agree with St. Paul that one who (full-time) preaches the Gospel should be able to “live by the Gospel” — but after all, even Paul earned at least part of his living as a tent-maker, right?

  5. Mark VA permalink
    February 23, 2013 8:01 pm

    Ronald King:

    While I wholeheartedly sympathize with your general sentiment, I can’t share your opinion that “… the position which is known as Pope seems to have been mutated towards an intellectual expression of Christ rather than the sacrificial life of Christ.”

    If you consider the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, it would not be unreasonable to conclude that it was, in a very real sense, a sacrificial and an intellectual pilgrimage to the world:

    wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pastoral_visits_of_Pope_John_Paul_II_outside_Italy

    He went to geographical and intellectual places that were, and were not, particularly welcoming or safe, and wanted to go to places that would not admit him (Russia, for example). If the world can’t come to the Vicar of Christ, then he will go to the world. However, not every pope will be able to sustain this kind of pilgrimage, for a variety of reasons, such as age, health, individual psychology – in the long term, we need to accept this.

    You also wrote that your perspective on this is “… formed through the influence of education and experience in the area of human development based on interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics and then re-formulated through the unwanted infusion of God’s Love…”

    To a reader like me, there seems to be enough unresolved tension in this phrase to make one wonder if perhaps it is your perception of this subject that is still evolving. Notice that you used the word “unwanted”, rather than “unexpected”.

    Enough said. Overall, I think Julia’s response is right on the money.

    • Ronald King permalink
      February 24, 2013 10:34 am

      Mark, you stated, “To a reader like me, there seems to be enough unresolved tension in this phrase to make one wonder if perhaps it is your perception of this subject that is still evolving. Notice that you used the word “unwanted”, rather than “unexpected”.”
      I agree, I should have used unexpected also. I also think that JP II had a powerful influence in the world and in our faith throughout his life. I did not realize this until the anniversary of his death in 2006 when I watched a CNN report commemorating his life and death. I had returned to our faith Easter of 2005. I was also privileged to have been told of a miracle attributed to him on the day of his death by a person who I know quite well and who has a lot of animosity towards the Church due to the revelations of child abuse and cover-up along with other issues of significant distress.
      You are correct in perceiving that I have “unresolved tension” and that my perception “is still evolving”. It is difficult for me to be concise in a comment about the dynamics which form my perceptions. For me, being touched by God’s Love I have experienced the passion of love and pain more intensely than ever before in my life. The joy of Love has healed many of my inter and intrapersonal conflicts but Love has seemed to open me to experience the pain of suffering everyday all around me and it is in that suffering I can sense the darkness and heaviness which burdens those who live with it. Here all I do is throw out for consideration what comes to mind as I read these well thought out posts and comments. I know that I do not love and sacrifice as Christ would want because I am too connected to what I know. So I project that on to whoever is in power and express what I have come to understand about what it means to give up everything in order to be a follower of Christ. We have saints who have done that and we need a pope who will do that.

      • Mark VA permalink
        February 24, 2013 8:45 pm

        Ronald King:

        I’m humbled by your response. To be touched by God’s love in this life is the highest privilege a human being can hope for – wouldn’t that alone be worth a million of unresolved tensions? This also puts you in a position, perhaps even under a duty, to be of help to others.

        Allow me to muse a little on a tangent – I’m starting to change my view of Vox Nova, mainly due to these types of interactions. Being a Traditionalist Catholic, I’m generally on high alert about all sorts of things (a trait, perhaps a quirk, many of us share), yet, this site has proven itself to be a place where the ground of conversation can lift itself higher. Job well done, Vox Nova.

        If you also served espresso…

        • Julia Smucker permalink*
          February 24, 2013 10:51 pm

          Thank you for this, Mark. It’s truly touching.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink
          February 25, 2013 7:55 am

          Actually, we do serve espresso. You just have to come to Harford during my office hours to get it. :-)

        • Ronald King permalink
          February 25, 2013 7:58 am

          Mark, I am also humbled by your response. This is a wonderful meeting even though I must make my own coffee:)

        • Brian Martin permalink
          February 26, 2013 1:30 pm

          Mark, I’ll second your comments about Vox Nova. It is one of the few sites I visit literally on a daily basis…because of the conversation that takes place. Even when strongly disagreeing, people are generally respectful….and thoughtful in their commenting.

  6. Ross permalink
    February 25, 2013 7:05 am

    I find this article very relevant, especially the point that a pope should remember that he “is not the successor of Emperor Constantine but rather the successor of a fisherman” since. Today, I’ve come to the conclusion that concepts of “Papal Monarchs” and “Princes of the Church” are finished. I live in a small diocese in Scotland called Paisley, at the moment we have no Bishop. Our Cardinal Keith O’Brien just resigned this morning following yet another scandal http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-21572724 And in a few days we will have no Pope for a period either. Despite my love for the Church and our Priests, I can’t help thinking that this is not really a bad thing, considering how awful our leaders have been in recent times. When I think about what our Church will look like in the future I am reminded of this excellent (prophetic) Vox Nova post concerning Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder’s Jeremianic ecclesiology. In particular the shift from the Davidic monarchy to life in exile which the people of God had to endure https://vox-nova.com/2012/03/13/a-church-in-exile/ Most importantly this section… “Yoder’s reading of Jeremiah, the Jewish communal life in the exile took on a few key characteristics, characteristics which he believes the post-Christendom Church should emulate… Local cells of the Jewish community, called synagogues, were formed wherever ten households were present. No hierarchical recognition or initiative was needed or desired.”

    • Kerberos permalink
      February 27, 2013 1:29 am

      This seems appropriate, both to your post, & to the article:

      http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/02/26/58277/

      I’m in the Archdiocese of Edinburgh & St. Andrews – at least Paisley has a bishop :) We won’t have one for a good few months. STM Glasgow needs a cardinal again, so that one archdiocese or the other will have one.

      “”Local cells of the Jewish community, called synagogues, were formed wherever ten households were present. No hierarchical recognition or initiative was needed or desired.””

      ## When is Rome ever going to allow anything resembling that ? Evangelicals do it all the time – and a good thing too. But Rome ? If only.

  7. Kerberos permalink
    February 27, 2013 1:38 am

    @Brian Martin:

    “It is one of the few sites I visit literally on a daily basis…because of the conversation that takes place. Even when strongly disagreeing, people are generally respectful….and thoughtful in their commenting.”

    ## STM that the site is apt to be rather cliquey – if I could think of a kinder expression, I’d use it. It is certainly thoughtful.

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