Both Ordinary and Extraordinary
Fr John Marsland
President of Ushaw College, Durham, U.K

Reflection on the priest and the particular kind of leadership he exercises

In this Year for Priests I paradoxically lost one of my great inspirations in the priesthood. It was he who was parish priest in my first appointment. For seven years I worked with him as assistant priest. Sadly he died in January this year. He was on the point of retirement at the age of 77.

At his funeral I shared the huge sense of loss felt by the parishioners and listened time and again to the tributes paid to him with great love and affection. Someone opened a web-site on which messages could be posted. There were altogether 1,310 entries of heart warming appreciation from people whose lives he had touched in his priestly ministry.

Yes, on the one hand he was extraordinary but on the other hand he was an ordinary priest. This is the reality we live with, day-in day-out, as a priest an ordinary man being an extraordinary kind of person and doing an extraordinary kind of job.

Throughout his life and ministry a priest feels that struggle between his ordinariness and extraordinariness.

The extraordinary being is expressed as a sacrament, an outward sign, in the person of the priest, that, in Jesus Christ, God shepherds his people and continues to do so through his Body the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The priest's pastoral ministry is founded in the mystery of Jesus' death and Resurrection, it takes its character from the action of the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep and who comes so that they may have life in abundance (Jn 10:10). This act of personal self-giving is expressed fully in the Eucharist where the priest stands in the midst of the community to offer the unique sacrifice of Christ and reaffirm the pattern of his own ministry of serving rather than being served.

It is to this shepherd-like quality of Christ as Head of the Body that the priest is configured. Good shepherding means leading the way and it includes laying down my life in some way, putting all I have at God's disposal to be used for the good of his people.

In John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis on the formation of priests this laying down of one's life is expressed as "pastoral charity" which is "the internal principle, the force which animates and guides the spiritual life of the priest inasmuch as he is configured to Christ the Head and Shepherd" (n. 23), which differs from personal charity in that it embraces the communion of the Church and involves a commitment within and to the life of the community.

This sounds beautiful and it is but what does it mean in practice?

In the past seven years I have been privileged to have a job that took me round the world and in the course of it I met priests in all corners of the globe doing what this last paragraph stated.

A priest in Quito, Ecuador, with a parish of 100,000 people who has been the bedrock around which the community has organised its spiritual life and, flowing from that, its housing, its schools, its water system, its library, hospital, bank and churches; a priest in the Philippines who risks his life travelling around the deep southern area ministering to Christian and Muslim alike; a Franciscan priest in Southern India who walks the 400 sq miles of his parish on foot because few parishioners have cars and a diocesan priest in Mumbai who walks barefoot because few parishioners have shoes; a priest in Europe who has just lived through the closure of a well-loved Church with his parishioners and one in Africa who has just built a third new one; a priest in the Middle East sustaining the heart of a minority but dedicated Arabic-speaking Catholic community. The list could go on and on.

Time after time I met these ordinary men being something extraordinary. All over the world there are countless examples of men doing what they consider to be ordinary but which is in effect extraordinary. What happens is that their commitment to standing in the midst of the people to celebrate the Eucharist becomes seamlessly woven into a tapestry of daily and long-term self-giving.

If this interrelationship is missing we are left with either a purely cultic priesthood or a secular social priesthood. A purely cultic priesthood limited to sacristy and sanctuary, misses the link between the Last Supper, the Eucharistic words and actions, the washing of feet and Jesus' self-giving act of love on Calvary. A secular activity based on priesthood does not make this link either. It does not relate a priest's actions for the good of others to him being a significant representation of Christ and his love. "The priest is above all a servant of others and he must continually work at being a sign pointing to Christ" (Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis 2007, n. 23).

The extraordinary doing of a priest is expressed as a share in the Bishop's role of teaching, sanctifying and governing. Of these three the task of "governing" is the least appreciated and studied and yet it radically colours the other two. This word governance comes from the Latin word gubernare which means to steer or navigate a ship. It can be expressed as "leadership" but it is leadership of a particular kind and the style of governance or leadership which we exercise as priests has profound implications for our ministry and for the ministry of others.

Secular society and especially commercial enterprises have spent fortunes and endless time and energy on studying "leadership" because it is so crucial to the effectiveness of their operations. They have arrived at theories such as "transformational leadership" (Hackman, M. & John, C. [1991] Leadership, Waveland Press), whose five primary characteristics are:

  • Visionary able to communicate the overarching vision, goal and direction to followers and to reinforce the stated vision.
  • Empowering encouraging of the initiative, achievement, participation and involvement of followers.
  • Passionate motivating through the communication of a genuine love for both the task and for the people they work with.
  • Creative willing to experiment and innovate even at the risk of failure.
  • Interactive closely involved with followers and able to communicate well and organise meaning for them.

Robert K. Greenleaf who, independent of reflections on priesthood, coined the phrase servant-leader, offers a simple test as to whether our leadership has a servant characteristic: "Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants"? (Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader 1970). Just as we can learn from the secular world about skills and means of communication so there is something here to be learnt about leadership.

John Paul II, in one of his Wednesday Audiences, spoke of the priest as "leading the community entrusted to them to the full development of its spiritual and ecclesial life" (General Audience, 19 May 1993). This makes the focus of the priest's ministry the development and enablement of the gifts of others in the community. We cannot do this if we work with a mentality of working alone and simply doing lots of things for people. For a community to develop and remain strong the leader must work for and with people and for the development of leadership in others. The Holy Father goes on to describe the character of the priest's authority/ leadership: "The presbyter-pastor [i.e., shepherd] must exercise this authority by modelling himself on Christ the Good Shepherd, who did not impose it with external coercion but by forming the community through the interior action of his Spirit" (ibid.). This is surely an instruction to adopt a style of leadership which on the one hand does not abdicate responsibility or accountability it calls us to stand firm, to have a vision and accepts that someone is charged with the task of leading the community. On the other hand it urges us to adopt a style of leadership that gives life to a community of love and reminds us that we are responsible for "the organic functioning of the community" and are "to ensure that the various services, indispensable for the good of all, are carried out harmoniously" (ibid.).

This word "ensuring" that John Paul II uses is a key concept. It contains the idea of being responsible but indicates that this is about making sure something is done rather than doing it yourself. In this way "governance/ensuring" colours "sanctifying" and "teaching". It is not the priest's task to be the only one who sanctifies and teaches. It is his task to ensure that the people are taught and sanctified.

If we combine the two concepts of good-shepherd governance and pastoral charity then we have something akin to transformational leadership.

All this is a challenge to me on two levels: as a priest and as one responsible for the training of future priests. As priests we should be committed to develop the qualities and skills to be the best possible shepherds of God's people. In preparing future priests we should aim to form balanced, transformational, spiritual leaders who govern wisely whilst enabling the development of lay ministry in the community and supporting a Christian apostolate in society but remembering that we are ordinary men with an extraordinary calling.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 June 2010, page 11

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