What kind of leader do we want? Certainly a good question here in the midst of an election year with the presidential nominations dominating the news cycle. It is always a good question for the Church. I have lived during the pontificates of seven popes and in my lifetime we have certainly had a wide variety of types and styles of leaders. In our history, we have had 266 of popes. We have had some spectacularly amazing leaders, saints in the making, and we have had some spectacularly horrific leaders, who would have been quite at home in Game of Thrones (so I hear, I actually haven’t seen it…). All took up the Keys of Peter, with the same job description given Peter: feed my sheep; tend my lambs. The Pope is the most visible of leaders in the Church, but not the only ones with that same job description. The simple mandate, “feed my sheep; tend my lambs” applies to priests, pastors, parents, principals, police, and anyone who would lead – anyone who would answer the call to minister in the Holy Name of Jesus.
The Catholic priest and writer, Henri Nouwen, reflected on such things in his book In the Name of Jesus. In reflecting on leadership, ministry, and our life vocation, Nouwen thought about the story of Jesus’ temptations in the desert and today’s gospel when Peter is restored to ministry and tasked with being shepherd.
Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant, to turn stones into bread, to be the answer the question that people think they have. If the people are hungry then exercise the control and efficiency of your position to address the perceived needs. That will be sure to keep anyone relevant and successful. But, Jesus didn’t ask Peter, his successor, “Who is going to take you seriously?” “What are your metrics?” or “When will you deliver some results?” Instead, in the gospel this week, Jesus asks not once but three times, “Do you love me?” Jesus will leave the desert temptations and take that message of love into his world as he entered the very margins of life among the poor, the outcast, the broken, the despised, and lonely.
This is why Nouwen proposes that good and faithful leaders are those who dare to claim their irrelevance and enter into the margins of life, bringing the light of Jesus to them as one of them. Do you know the papal motto of Pope Francis? It is Miserando atque Eligendo – lowly, but chosen. I like that, but the literal Latin is perhaps more revealing: by having mercy, by choosing him. Relevant or merciful? Our choice says something about how we would lead and be led.
Jesus’s second temptation was to do something spectacular – jump from the Temple rooftop and have angels catch you. Can you imagine what a sound byte that would be? Imagine the hits, retweets, likes, and followers that would garner. Then take the event and turn it into a personal branding, a tagline, a poster, and measure the ratings. But then, Jesus did not come to meet our expectations of spectacular. He did spectacular out there on the margins by healing the sick; raising the dead; restoring hearing, sight, and mobility; and giving people a desire to belong to the community of mercy and love.
The leadership of Church (and our world) needs to be focused on service, not spectacular. Think about what Peter is being invited into. Peter will be a shepherd who nourishes, gathers, rescues, restores, and needs the community as much as it needs him. Peter will be one called to teach, preach, govern, and minister so that we see in his ministry the call to belong to Jesus, to belong to the people of God. This applies to priests, pastors, parents, principals, police, and anyone who would lead.
On the high mountaintop Jesus is tempted with power. It is the same view from the White House, St. Peter’s Basilica, the top of the corporation, or the head of the table. Jesus walked away from that temptation – but we can’t say the same for the rest of us. One the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders and followers constantly gave in to the temptation of power — political, military, economic, or moral and spiritual — even though we continue to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are. As Nowen observed: “it seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”
And we come to our gospel with the same temptation: relevance, spectacular, and power. The gospel is a series of invitation: to cast the nets, to come have breakfast, and, most importantly to be restored. Three times Peter is asked the core question of ministry, leadership, discipleship, and the way in which we choose to walk in this world: “Do you love me?” Three times Peter replied, “Yes, Lord” And then three times Jesus responded, “feed my sheep.” Despite all his failings, his sins, his ambitions, and his weaknesses, Peter is restored to God – and made pastor and leader – and told exactly what kind of leader to be: “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
This is Jesus’s last word on mature leadership with Peter before commanding him to “follow me.” He tells Peter that he must be willing to be led to a place and with people not so relevant, to an unspectacular life, and a place where power is abandoned in favor of love. All of this so that people will know the relevance of God, His spectacular Mercy, and the power of His unending Love. This is leadership in service.
Pope, priests, pastors, parents, principals, police, and anyone who would minister and serve – young or old, we are called to stretch our hands, be dressed by God, and be led Miserando atque Eligendo – lowly, but chosen; by having mercy, by choosing him. Amen.