By Fr. William Beaudin, OFM
WAPPINGERS FALLS, NY - Francis gives us a model of leadership, a model that is deeply rooted in the gospel and utterly consistent with our profession to follow in the footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ. Francis calls upon those who would lead the friars minor, first and foremost, to BE friars minor: to be lesser brothers, humble brothers, servant siblings. Francis never speaks of those who hold positions of authority in the brotherhood as “superiors,” “abbots” or “priors.” Indeed, in chapter 6 of the Earlier Rule, he expressly forbids the use of those terms. The leaders of the fraternity are simply “ministers and servants,” brothers who never forget that their Lord came not to be served, but to serve, and to humbly wash the feet of his disciples. On those rare occasions when Francis does add a parental dimension to the leader’s fundamentally fraternal role, he never refers to him as the father of the brothers but, rather, as a mother who, like our Sister Mother Earth, sustains and governs by creating the proper conditions for human flourishing. Francis himself adopts this maternal role in his Letter to Br. Leo when he writes: “I speak to you, my son, as a mother.” And then notice what Francis does and what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t issue orders. He doesn’t tell Leo how to run his own life. He says: “In whatever way it seems best to you to please the Lord God and to follow His footprints and His poverty, do this with the blessing of God and my obedience.” What Francis does issue is a standing invitation to his brother: “If you believe it necessary for the well-being of your soul, or to find comfort, and you wish to come to me, Leo, then come,” he says. By emphasizing the fraternal and maternal aspects of leadership, Francis was consciously turning away from the notion of authority as "power over" people and was returning, instead, to a gospel understanding of leadership as humble and hospitable service.
So much for the Franciscan model of leadership. What are its challenges in these, the first decades of the 21st century? Needless to say, my answer to this question is circumscribed by my very limited experience as well as by my predilection for the idiosyncratic, if not the totally bizarre.
It seems to me that the challenges facing Franciscan leaders today can neatly be divided between those that come from within the leader himself and those that come from outside him, and that the latter category can be somewhat less neatly divided between those challenges that come from the brothers in the fraternity, from our social and cultural context, and from the current state of our Church.
(1) Challenges to a Franciscan style of leadership that come from within the leader himself:
The first internal obstacle to being a Franciscan servant leader is gross insecurity. Toward the end of chapter 7 of St. Matthew’s gospel, the chapter whose verses we heard in this morning’s mass, Jesus contrasts those who build their houses on rock and those who build their houses on sand. In the setting of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is contrasting those who accept his authoritative teaching on God’s law with those who follow the opinions of the rabbis. But I’d like to remove the image from its biblical context for a moment and suggest that a Franciscan leader needs to build the house of his self-worth on the rock-solid foundation of God’s overwhelming and enduring love for him, and NOT on the shifting sands of other people’s opinions of him. If, in his own mind, a friar leader is only as good as his rec room reviews, or if his worth can only be measured by the size of his office or the length of his title, then he will constantly be currying the favor of his bosses and seeking the approval of his brothers. He will incessantly ask the late Ed Koch’s persistent question: How am I doing? Am I doing a good job? Do you like what I’m doing? Aren’t I doing great and aren’t I terrific? The insecure leader, regardless of his job performance and regardless of his best intentions, is ultimately focused on himself, and instead of serving his brothers, his brothers end up serving him, his fragile ego and his insatiable need for affirmation.
A second internal obstacle to Franciscan leadership is self-delusion. I am overly fond of certain expressions, one of my favorites is the proverb: “Self-awareness is the rarest of gifts.” Few people are totally in touch with the bounty of their gifts, the penury of their short suits, or the precise nature of their motives. But if a Franciscan leader doesn’t have at least some sense of what he brings to his office by way of strengths and weaknesses, then he won’t have a clue how best to serve his brothers, nor will he know how desperately he needs their complementary talents and insights for the proper governance of our life together. He will mistakenly believe that he has to know it all and do it all, at which point he will have ceased to be the servant of his brothers and will have become that most tedious and laughable of leaders: the father-knows-best who always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room.
In the Franciscan lexicon, there is a word for the kind of self-awareness and self-assessment that is a potent antidote to the insecurity and cluelessness I’m talking about, and that word is humility. Some think of humility as a code-word for low self-esteem. Others think of it as a synonym for false modesty. But St. Francis understood humility to be a sober and stable sense of oneself. Franciscan humility could be defined as: honest self-awareness rooted in God's love. In his 19th Admonition, Francis writes: "Blessed is the servant who esteems himself no better when he is praised and exalted by people than when he is considered worthless, simple, and despicable; for what a man is before God, that he is and nothing more. That last phrase is the key line: “what a man is before God, that he is and nothing more.” Francis forgot to add: “and nothing less.”
A third internal obstacle to fraternal, servant leadership is perfectionism. Let me state the obvious: the friars do not constitute a perfect society. I learned this shocking truth on the second day of postulancy. Now, you might be thinking to yourself: what took him so long? I was hurrying out the back door of the friary when an older friar, a major in the Air Force and a major pain in the ass, was coming the other way. When I raced past him with a curt “hey,” he said, “Listen, you little bastard. If you ever speak to me that way again, I’ll deck you.” Perhaps, I was being overly sensitive, but in that moment, I detected a certain disconnect between that friar’s threat to do me bodily harm and the words of our holy father, St. Francis, when he said: “If a mother loves and cares for her son according to the flesh, how much more diligently must someone love and care for his brother according to the Spirit!”
Anyone who has been around this outfit for more than 24 hours knows how grossly imperfect we are, and anyone who has sat around a Provincial Council table for more than 24 minutes knows that we are not just imperfect; we are an incredibly fragile group of men. Such fragility demands great delicacy, compassion, patience and understanding if it is to be handled with fraternal care, something the sledge hammer of perfectionism is ill-equipped to accomplish. A truly Franciscan leader could do far worse than be guided by Blessed John XXIII’s wise counsel: “see everything, change a little, overlook a lot.” This maxim is hardly a recipe for managerial perfection, but it is sage advice for a “minister and servant” of the fraternity.
So much for the challenges to Franciscan leadership that come from within the friar leader. Now, for those that come from without.
(2) Challenges to a Franciscan style of leadership that come from outside the friar leader:
a. Those that come from our brothers in the fraternity
For the past year or so, at regional gatherings of your brothers in Holy Name Province, yours truly and his duly elected fellow councilors have been playing the role of the bad news bears. It has been our job (and here I’m quoting Sr. Meg Guider’s felicitous turn of phrase) to “disabuse our brothers of dearly held falsehoods.” We’ve been the myth-busters who had to break the news to the brethren that the days of wine and roses are over. The province of 1967 that was 994 friars strong, 3 % of whom were over the age of 70, has been whittled down to slightly over 300 friars, half of whom are over 70. At the same time that traditional sources of income have dwindled, the cost of caring for the sick, aged and retired friars has mushroomed. No doubt, Fr. John O’Connor isn’t the only provincial in the United States who routinely peruses depressing statistics, grim actuarial studies and less than encouraging financial reports.
As the golden age of expansion gives way to the tin era of downsizing and diminishment, some of the friars would like their leaders to be something other than their servant-brothers. They want them to be their magicians and saviors. They want them to be wizards who miraculously make the pain go away. They want them to spare the friars the tough choices that need to be made in the face of declining human and financial resources. They want them to shield the brothers from the harsh reality that the society in which we live as an evangelical brotherhood has changed; that the place of religion and denominational affiliation within that society has changed; that family life and family size have changed; that the pool of possible religious vocations has changed and shrunk dramatically; that the Church has changed (but please don’t tell the Vatican); and that, by virtue of aging, gravity and Sister Death, our provinces have changed.
It’s an oxymoron to say that we elect leaders to lead. We choose them with the hope that they will “have a vision,” “be creative,” “do something different,” “think outside the box” and enact all the other clichés for blazing a brand new trail to a bright blue future. Certainly, the leaders we pick will need to confront our provinces’ respective challenges with all the creativity, all the wisdom and all the daring they can muster. But they also need to resist the bait of those friars who want them to be messiahs, to be something other than humble, limited, servant-siblings who seek to discern with their brothers, and not instead of their brothers, a viable path forward.
Related to the issue of diminishing resources and the denial it seems to engender, is one of the biggest questions facing Franciscan leaders today: how do we care for our aged and infirm brothers without losing our evangelical thrust? In one sense, this challenge is nothing new. It has been with us since the earliest days of the brotherhood. Consider chapter 10 of the Earlier Rule which, like the rest of that remarkable document, is the fruit of a decade’s worth of experience in living the fraternal life. The chapter begins: “If any of the brothers falls ill, wherever he may be, let the other brothers not leave him behind unless one of the brothers, or even several of them, if necessary, is designated to serve him as they would wish to be served themselves.” Now, please note both the explicit and implicit messages contained in that passage. The explicit message is: some of the brothers will get sick sometimes, and it is the responsibility of the other friars to care for their sick brothers either personally or by proxy. But the hypothetical situation of a sick brother’s being left behind implies that the other brothers keep moving. The momentum of the fraternity’s evangelical mission doesn’t stop for the sick.
So, our leaders need to ask themselves: how do we tend to the needs of our aged and infirm friars whose number keeps growing and the cost of whose health care keeps rising, and still direct the lion’s share of our limited resources of money, manpower and time to the work of evangelization? How do we stay behind with the sick, and be brothers and servants to them while, simultaneously, being brothers and servants to the hale and the hearty at the vanguard of our mission? This, it seems to me, is one of the greatest challenges facing Franciscan leadership today.
b. Challenges that come from our society and culture
As my beloved confrere and fellow provincial councilor, Joe Nangle, will tell you, trenchant social analysis is hardly the sharpest tool in my skill set. While Joe was down in Peru promoting the theory and practice of liberation theology, I was up in Boston complaining that my gin gimlet was insufficiently chilled. What can I say? This is not the stuff of which prophets, seers and sages, let alone martyrs, are made.
Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that a major if not the major cultural challenge facing Franciscan leaders today is secularism. A few years ago, the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, penned an 800-page book set in miniscule type and entitled, A Secular Age. Like Moby Dick, it is a classic that’s badly in need of an editor. But, for all its frequent digressions and far-flung peregrinations, Taylor’s weighty tome is a magisterial analysis of how we got to where we are in the Western World. Taylor sets out to answer the question: how is it that, at the time of St. Francis say, it was virtually impossible NOT to be a believer, while today atheism, agnosticism or a vague, ill-defined, non-ecclesial spirituality seem to be the default positions in Europe and, increasingly, in North America? What happened in those intervening centuries—socially, politically, religiously, economically—that caused this sea change? If you want to feel like you have actually, personally slogged your way through every last one of those eight hundred years, I suggest you read the book. But suffice it to say that for all the benefits which liberal democracy and free-market capitalism have bequeathed to us, they have had a devastating effect on the religious commonwealth. Now, faith is no longer the air we breathe or the glue that binds the body politic together. The rhythms of religious practice no longer mark the passage of time in civil society. Belief itself has become one option among many, and whatever external form that belief or unbelief may take, is—like the apps on your i-phone or the apples in your fruit bowl, purely a matter of personal taste.
How is secularism a challenge to Franciscan leadership? Well, it certainly has a profound effect on the size of our provinces for the foreseeable future. While the sex abuse crisis in the Church has hardly been a boon to our vocation directors, I think we deceive ourselves if we think that the recruitment picture will markedly improve once the crisis is behind us. In a secular age bereft of the social and cultural supports to committed faith, the pool of young men who are willing to forgo a lifetime of reversible choices for the sake of the one, irreversible choice of living “in obedience, without anything of one’s own, and in chastity” will, I suspect, remain shallow. And secularism has and will continue to have a no less dramatic and deleterious effect on our traditional sources of financial support. When Michael Bloomberg was asked if he would be willing to donate to the renovation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, since it was a landmark building and a major tourist attraction in his city, the billionaire mayor said no. He said he would contribute to education and to social outreach programs, but he would not contribute to the renovation of a church building. Of course, Michael Bloomberg is a secular Jew, but I doubt his response would have been any different had he been a secular Catholic. It is the secularism, and not the denominational affiliation, that will more and more direct the charitable largesse of our contemporaries. And that will have a huge impact on how our leaders provide for and minister to the legitimate needs of their brothers.
But just as secularism is a challenge for Franciscan leadership, it is also an evangelical opportunity, if only we view it through the lens of chapter 16 of the Earlier Rule. For, whether we like it or not, all of us are “living among the Saracens and other unbelievers.” We are no longer embraced by the protective arms of Christendom. Increasingly, we are becoming resident aliens in our own culture. As Giacomo Bini once noted, whether our Franciscan life is significant in this new context or merely curious will largely depend on the quality of our fraternal witness and on our ability to engage the wider culture in meaningful conversation. The job of Franciscan leaders vis-à-vis our secular age isn’t to flee from the clutches of the big, bad world and gather their brothers into a hermetically sealed cloister; that is the luxury of abbots. The job of Franciscan leaders isn’t to condemn the world and consign it to the fiery depths of Gehenna; that is the luxury of the doomsday prophets who vent their spleens on the religious airwaves. A Franciscan leader’s job is to help his brothers adopt and adapt the strategy put forth by Francis himself in his chapter on the missions: “The brothers . . . can live spiritually among the Saracens and nonbelievers in two ways. One way is not to engage in arguments or disputes but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake and to acknowledge that they are Christian. The other way is to announce the word of God, when they see it pleases the Lord in order that unbelievers may believe.” Secularism affords us the graced opportunity to become true friars minor, lesser brothers, Franciscan ministers who are humble, unarmed, undefended, on no particular crusade, but who are authentic witnesses to the vitality of the gospel, the joy of life in Christ and the promise of God’s just and peaceable reign.
The other cultural challenge to Franciscan leadership I want to mention this morning is more subtle than secularism. It is our society’s equation of leadership with power, and power with the trappings of perks and privileges. As we are reminded several times in History of the World, Part 1, by a bewigged and besotted Mel Brooks: “It’s good to be the king.” We take it as a matter of course that the person at the top of the organizational flow chart has the grandest office, the biggest desk, the largest salary, the most expansive expense account and the most extensive staff, not to mention the most coveted parking space. Of course, none of this squares with Francis’s understanding of leadership. As we know, Francis equated leadership not with power and perks but with humility and selfless service after the example of Christ who stripped himself of privilege. Francis insisted that the friars scrupulously avoid even the appearance of pre-eminence. No one was to be called “prior,” and those who were the “ministers and servants of the other brothers” were to consider themselves no more exalted than domestic help.
But our cultural models of leadership are cut from very different cloth than the fabric of the gospel from which Francis spun his ideal, and those models can be insidious and seductive. It takes a conscious asceticism on the part of a Franciscan leader to resist the allure of executive privilege and extraordinary compensation—whether overt or occult. Such asceticism is essential, however, because the minute I believe that my brothers owe me for my service to them, or that I deserve more than they do because I have a title and they don’t, or that somehow the friary I share with them is more my house than theirs—at that moment I have betrayed the only titles that should really matter in my life—Christian and friar minor.
c. Challenges that come from our church
Finally (and you’re probably saying to yourself, “thank you, Jesus”), we come to the last challenge to Franciscan leadership that I wish to mention this morning. I suspect I’m not alone here in finding the strong restorationist tide currently flowing through the baptismal fonts of Holy Mother Church somewhat disconcerting, if not downright depressing. Those of us who received our ministerial training back in the late 60s and 70s were once of the opinion that dogmatism and triumphalism, authoritarianism and patriarchy, pastoral rigidity and theological ossification were rapidly falling into desuetude along with buskins, birettas and buggia bearers. How wrong we were! They are in the ascendancy today who long for the glory days of Pius XII; who, in the name of Jesus, regularly indulge their blessed rage for order and their craven lust for certitude; and who delight in ecclesiastical fashion shows that would seem over the top even by the baroque standards of Frederico Fellini. It is we who were weaned on the wellsprings of the Second Vatican Council who may very well be going the way of the dodo bird. You know there’s something amiss when the leadership of one diocesan seminary was recently criticized by church authorities for teaching a servant model of ministry, supposedly at the expense of the “ontological change” that transforms the ordained into an “alter Christus.” Of course, if a priest really were an “alter Christus” he would be a servant, wouldn’t he? but that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the seminary’s silk-swathed critics.
I’m reminded of a homily I heard some years ago at a friar’s 25th anniversary of ordination. The preacher of that sermon had many gifts, but theological subtlety wasn’t one of them nor, for that matter, was preaching. At some point in his homily he said: “Power literally drips from the hands of a priest.” Now, I suppose one could argue that power metaphorically drips from the hands of a priest, but if anything is literally dripping from those hands, I’m moving to the other communion line! Of course, if priestly power drips from anyone’s hands, those hands belong to the high priest, Jesus Christ. And his power is a most peculiar kind of power. It is the power that relinquished power, the power that took the form of an obedient slave. It is the power of the “Most High” who became “Most Low,” the power of the “Almighty” who became powerless and vulnerable, the power of the One who is “all our riches” yet who became poor for our sake. In short, it is the power of kenosis, the power of humble, self-effacing, self-emptying love. That is the power whose humble instruments the Church’s ministers are meant to be, but, as I suggested, this seems to be increasingly a minority opinion, although I am happy and hopeful to say that Pope Francis is a card-carrying member of that minority.
So what do we do? How do Franciscan leaders respond to the swelling ranks of mitered eminences and their lacy-surpliced acolytes who think that the Church went to hell in a hand basket the day we did away with the maniple? I can think of several ways NOT to respond: with public condemnations of the hierarchy, with self-serving talk of being or becoming an alternative church, with Gnostic claims that we are somehow better than everyone else. Why are these responses unacceptable? Because they betray our vocation as lesser brothers. Because they further divide a church in which we are called to be ministers of reconciliation. Because they are so blatantly and profoundly un-Franciscan. Francis never set himself over against the institutional, hierarchical church. Instead, he made the deliberate choice to remain “always submissive and subject at the feet of the same Holy Church and steadfast in the Catholic Faith.” ( Later Rule, 12:4) He did so not because he was blind to the Church’s faults, but because, in his view, those who rejected the Church in the name of Jesus violated the logic of his Incarnation. The humble love of the humble God reveals itself in humble forms: a manger, a cross, simple elements like bread and wine, a disfigured leper, a sinful priest, a blowhard bishop, a blemished institution. In and through the humble flesh of a poor 1st century Galilean Jew, in and through the humble flesh of the community which, however imperfectly, struggles to follow in his footprints, in and through the humble forms of that community’s self-defining moments, particularly its Eucharist, in and through that community’s humble and sometimes bumbling pastoral ministers--in and through them all, the humble God reveals Himself in humility, offers Himself, gives Himself away to all who are open to the gift and who are themselves humble enough to accept it. The glory of the Lord is manifest not in a perfect Church we can all be proud of, but in the willingness of divine love to abase itself, to empty itself of glory, and to abide in and work through the inglorious institution of that grossly imperfect Church we sometimes find embarrassing.
Franciscan leaders, both within the fraternity and beyond it, both within the Church and in society at large, have a common vocation: to be credible witnesses to the humility of God. And they cannot be such witnesses if they are arrogant in their opposition to arrogance, or power-hungry in their critique of power, or divisive in the name of love. It seems to me that the best response of Franciscan leaders to the resurgent clericalism in the Church today is to shun the role of hierarch and its attendant trappings within the fraternity, and to foster inclusion, collaboration and lay empowerment in the Christian communities they serve. And if, by doing so, they manage to create within the Church spiritual oases where the humility, hospitality and compassion of God are celebrated and embodied, then they will have followed the death-bed wish of St. Francis: they will have done what was theirs to do.
Thank you for your kind attention and your always generous hospitality. As it has been for the past 30 years of my friar life, it’s been a privilege and a pleasure to be with you this morning. May God bless your province, this chapter and the brothers you elect to walk with you along the humble path of fraternal love.