Servant Leadership

"Whoever exalts himself himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt 23:12).

In today's second reading, St. Paul exults in the success of his pastoral and preaching mission to the community he founded at Thessalonika. He describes his affection and care of the community as like the care of a nursing mother, a gentle, self-sacrificing attention that did not spare any effort or cost to him personally. Their response in faith to his gift of service created a beloved community. They not only heard the gospel preached, but also had it modeled in Paul's servant leadership.

We need this uplifting model as we face a very different message in the other two readings. The Prophet Malachi records God's severe warning to those who functioned as priests and leaders in Israel. Because of their high calling and great responsibility, their failure to be exemplars of the Law entrusted to them for the community would bring a curse on them. False instruction and misdirection of the people who relied on them was particularly blameworthy. They did not keep the law themselves, and they kept others from grasping its beauty and effectiveness as a path to love. 

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus unleashes a torrent of criticism on the scribes and Pharisees for putting on a great show of piety and self importance, seeking titles and honors for their roles as legal experts and moral exemplars. In their pride and arrogance, they piled laws on the backs of ordinary believers, but did nothing to show them how to fulfill them, thus leaving people in a state of despair at ever pleasing God.  

Jesus' perspective came from his closeness to people and his compassion for their daily struggles. Who were these leaders who not only did not lead but obscured the purpose of the Law, which was to reveal God's love and make it more accessible to everyone? He explodes with indignation at anyone purporting to represent God while in fact distorting and blocking access to God's mercy.  

Pope Francis has challenged all clergy and religious to be servants. HIs example and his frequent criticism of priests and bishops who are enamored of their own importance or who use their authority to burden the faithful has not been well received by some in the hierarchy.  Yet what he pope is proposing is not just an alternative style of leadership in the church, but the only way to imitate Christ, who insisted on humble service for his disciples as the essence of their ministry to reveal God's unconditional love. 

What Paul experienced in Thessalonika is what all priests and pastoral leaders know to be the joy of the Gospel. Why seek the role of pastor only to diminish the rewards of genuine community and the deep mutual affection that grows between people and priests who give themselves wholeheartedly to the needs of their church family? St. Paul and Pope Francis share the same message: This is what the Gospel looks like. This is what real community feels like. Ths is why the church exists.