Reflection on the priest and the particular kind of leadership he
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
Throughout his life and ministry a
priest feels that struggle between his ordinariness and
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
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. 
Leadership, Waveland Press), whose five primary
able to communicate the overarching vision, goal and direction to
followers and to reinforce the stated vision.
encouraging of the initiative, achievement, participation and
involvement of followers.
motivating through the communication of a genuine love for both the
task and for the people they work with.
willing to experiment and innovate even at the risk of failure.
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
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