Papal biographer (and WPI contributor) Austen Ivereigh was in Rome for the consistory and the meeting of Cardinals at the end of August. It was also recently announced that he has been selected as a member of the drafting committee of the Document for the Continental Stage (the preparatory document) to be used during the synod. (Congratulations, Austen!)
Because I am working on several projects right now, including an article that I am in the process of finishing. It’s unclear whether I will be able to pull it all off tonight. But I don’t want to leave you without something worthwhile to read. And I just read something much better than anything I can put together in the next hour or two. In light of Francis’s message, the reorganization of the Roman Curia, and the meeting of Cardinals, Austen has written a profound and insightful reflection on servant leadership in the Church.
I have no idea if Francis had in mind Yves Congar’s pungent little book Power and Poverty in the Church, first published in English in 1964, but this was a good text to look at during the meeting of cardinals. For in it Congar shows Jesus teaching his disciples that their ministry has nothing to do with any merit on their part, but is the power of God flowing from him out through them. Hence Francis’s message to the cardinals as he opened the meeting: to be a cardinal was not a privilege but a responsibility, one that called for a “style that witnesses to the Gospel.” The power handed to the Church—as Jesus showed by ultimate example—is given not to dominate, nor to exact service, but to serve the needs of others, to seek their salvation.
God, who is love, is the source of that power of service, and Jesus’s followers take part in it: the mission of loving service cascades, as it were, from the Father to the incarnate Son, and from Jesus to the apostles and the whole Church. Thus, St. Paul was adamant that his apostolic authority had nothing to do with any ability or merit on his part, but on the spiritual gifts he had received (not earned); and that his ambition was to be like Jesus, who did not grab for himself the rights conferred by “equality with God” but served and died as a slave, raised and given glory by the Father.
Jesus, in short, overturned the concept of authority, and it was time for the Church to get back to the Gospel understanding. In Augustine’s formula, the power in the Church is ministerium rather than potestas. The authority is real, as is the power it grants: to cast out devils, to teach about God, to bind and loose, and so on. But, firstly, it is always vicarious—that is, it is a participation in a power that comes from God. The proper response of ministers is therefore humility, for they are merely vessels of this authority, not its source. Secondly, as Francis said in his inaugural homily as pope: “Let us never forget that authentic power is service and that the pope, too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the cross.” The “authentic” power conferred on St. Peter is a power to serve: “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.” As Congar puts it, the faithful “are our masters, since we are their servants,” for “their welfare must decide how our effort shall be applied.”
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.