Shortly after we moved to New Orleans in 2012, I went to daily Mass at a church in Metairie sometime in June. I don’t recall which parish anymore. The Mass was celebrated by a visiting priest who was covering while the Pastor was out of town. He seemed to be in his 80’s. He celebrated the Mass with great attentiveness and devotion, and his homily was dynamite. He spoke in a slow and paced way that served well to enhance his natural gravitas. I hung on every word, panting for the next. He made a few remarkable points that I jotted down later in my journal. Here’s a sampling:
The Gospel today was about sheep, wolves and good/bad fruits. This was the line he focused on: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.” He told the people what a good Pastor they have (he has known him for many years), and asked us to pray for him as he bears the heavy burden of leadership and faces many temptations. He mentioned that in his many years (around 40) as pastor, he came to appreciate the challenges of leadership, including keeping the many wolves at bay.
He said something like:
“When I was first ordained, I was idealistic — which is good, we need ideals — and imagined that my greatest joys as a priest would be celebrating sacraments, spending many hours in prayer for my people and preaching on all the theology I had learned in seminary. But I soon discovered, by watching the pastor I served under, that what the parish really demanded was a good shepherd who watched over the welfare of the sheep with great diligence. He was to make sure the sheep were properly fed and kept together; that the strays were pursued; that the pastures were kept green and lush; that the water was accessible and clean; that the gates were secure and guarded; that wolves were caught and expelled; that the weak, wounded or stray sheep were tended to.
But most importantly, my pastor would say to me you have to get to know your sheep well. Let them know you so they know your voice, give them reason to trust you because they know you love them enough to offer your life, your time, your patience, your prayer for them every day. Cheerfully. Uncomplainingly. One meeting at a time. My pastor taught me by example to love the bricks-and-mortar work of running a parish as much as celebrating Mass. To see them as really one thing. Because they are both Jesus’ work. My first pastor was a wonderful preacher and Confessor, adored celebrating Holy Mass, but he believed all priestly duties were ways of loving the sheep and loving the Shepherd. And the less pleasurable you found this or that, he’d say, the more love you could show.”
What a homily! So magnificent! Just before I begin my Seminary work! I know well from experience it is so easy for a priest — especially younger guys — to see the administrative, governing, leadership, stewardship aspects of priesthood as distractions from the really holy work of sacraments and preaching or relational one-on-one ministry. While there has to always be a balance and a priority, I believe firmly that the work of presiding over the parish’s good order, over “temporalities,” over committees and building projects, settling conflicts, etc., is a great(est) inbuilt asceticism for the priest, a robust means of death-to-self for the good of others. It very often lacks the “cash value” delights of sacraments and preaching and relational ministry. Which makes the munus regendi [the priestly office of leadership] uniquely powerful in the priest’s own sanctification. It’s the divine chiseling munus. A means of allowing Christ the Servant, who ceaselessly governs and presides over and administers the Church from heaven — still with the cooperation of His Apostles! — to be forged in the priest’s heart.
It’s instructive that the word “administration” comes from the Latin words, ad “to/toward” + ministrare “serve.” It’s a privileged way of being “turned toward” God’s people in service. As in, “which will be given up for you…”, “poured out for you…” Leadership, administration, stewardship keeps your eyes fixed on the welfare of others, the common good, allowing the Potter to shape in you the figure of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who governs with selfless love from the cross both the grateful and the ungrateful.
I remember when Bishop [a retired bishop of a diocese] once said to me: “[After becoming bishop], every day my desk was piled with bad news, complaints, crises, decisions that must be made. Rarely good news. I used to think at first that this was going to be a terrible obstacle to my exercising spiritual fatherhood, making me into a CEO. But once in spiritual direction during my annual 8-day retreat, my director challenged me: ‘If you can’t find Christ in the battle wounds of His Body that land on your desk, you won’t ever find the real Christ anywhere else you search.’ I resolved that day to allow Christ to open every letter, answer every call, preside at every meeting in me. It made all the difference.”
How little did I know that only a few months after writing this, I would be asked to give up my primary role as a member of the teaching faculty and take on the administrative role of Academic Dean. Testing my enthusiasm for this truth! I will certainly be judged by Him on how well I embraced the noble burden. Thanks be to God, His mercy endures forever. My only hope.
Thanks be to God for all of those who bear the noble burden of leadership in the church, in the home and in the world. May their labors, carried out with joy and diligence, lead them to holiness and bring much good to all those they serve.