In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is remembered for having spoken to a group of presbyters (elders or ministers) at Miletus as he prepared to depart from them. His speech is significant, not just for its candor and concern about what might lay ahead, but for the relevance it seems to bear today. He warns of the dangers of what we might anachronistically refer to as ecclesiastical leadership and the power that can and will eventually lure some people away from the purpose and goal of their ministry and calling. He names this misuse of power in several ways: (a) through the perversion of truth so as to gain one’s own followers; (b) through the desire — in contrast to Paul’s experience — for gold and other property; and (c) through the lack of willingness to serve others and help the week.
“Keep watch over yourselves and over the whole flock
of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you overseers,
in which you tend the Church of God
that he acquired with his own Blood.
I know that after my departure savage wolves will come among you,
and they will not spare the flock.
And from your own group, men will come forward perverting the truth
to draw the disciples away after them.
So be vigilant and remember that for three years, night and day,
I unceasingly admonished each of you with tears.
And now I commend you to God
and to that gracious word of his that can build you up
and give you the inheritance among all who are consecrated.
I have never wanted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing.
You know well that these very hands
have served my needs and my companions.
In every way I have shown you that by hard work of that sort
we must help the weak,
and keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus who himself said,
‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
Paul’s advice goes directly to those responsible for the community entrusted to their care and guidance. His advice is to return always to the Word of God, to the message of the Gospel or Good News of Christ, to follow in the footprints of the one whose name they will come to bear.
The pertinence of this passage is striking given another text today, this time from the Washington Post titled, “Cardinal Dolan and America’s Troubled Catholic Church.” It is clearly an unfavorable reflection on the status of the USCCB president’s tenure, offering four “strikes” against his leadership: (1) the apparent rift or division between the USCCB and the American Sisters; (2) the lack of correction to bishops and laypeople who spoke out in partisan, discriminatory, and inappropriate ways; (3) the disaster that was the ‘Fortnight for Freedom’; and (4) the “undercutting” of the USCCB’s policy on the Ryan budget by offering contradictory support after the conference came out against it.
It’s clear that these are primarily political concerns or at least disappointments regarding or critiques about the ostensible political activism of Cardinal Dolan and his confreres. The short article begins with a lede about Dolan’s new personal spokesperson, a former Palin campaign staff member.
Nevertheless, whether one agrees with Anthony Stevens-Arroyo on these points or not, the challenges he raises here offer us something of a modern echo of St. Paul’s warning to the Christian leaders of his time: be careful that you are doing the right thing for the right reasons.
At the heart of both sets of concerns stands the relationship ecclesiastical leaders have to other Christians. In other words, the concerns are centered on the exercise of power.
Power in these instances is deployed for good or ill, for personal gain or for justice and empowerment, for social change or for the perpetuation of an unbalanced status quo. Power is always and everywhere ambiguously present within these sets of relations, so it’s not really possible to say with clarity that this person or that person is exercising it in this or that exclusive way. Nevertheless, Paul’s concern and Stevens-Arroyo’s critique should both cause us to pause and reflect on what the point of ecclesiastical leadership really is.
The point is made clear in today’s Gospel from John when Jesus is remembered, according to his departing discourse, to reveal that God’s will is unity of all people. This does not mean hegemony or uniformity. Unity amid diversity is a mark of authentic catholicity and that which ecclesiastical leaders — presbyters or bishops — are called to promote and to protect.
When unity amid diversity, and the maintenance of both, is sacrificed for political power, attention, money, or the like, then what Paul had warned about comes true: savage wolves have come among us and the ministry of the Word is sacrificed for personal gain.