“If anyone wishes to be first, he or she shall be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9:36).
If asked to give the chain of command in the Catholic church, most Catholics, especially the laity, will describe a pyramid with the pope at the top, cardinals and bishops next, then priests, brothers and sisters, and finally, as the large base of the pyramid, the laity. But if we listen to Jesus' message to his Apostles in today’s Gospel reading, we would get a different picture. The pyramid would be turned upside down, with those in authority at the bottom, carrying the weight of the church in service. The hierarchy exists only to serve the members of church.
Pope Francis presided over the installation of 19 new cardinals this week in Rome. It is the highest office in the Church next to the pope himself, but Francis was quick to point out that the candidates were not being promoted as much as asked to take on additional responsibilities in serving the People of God.
Likewise, the pope’s emphasis on greeting children in every public setting is also an imitation of Jesus addressing the Apostle’s ambitions for high office by placing a child in their midst and telling them that those who aspire to greatness must become as humble as little children. Like Jesus' lesson to his followers, Pope Francis' example with children sets the expectation that those in church leadership must do everything in their power to protect children from harm, for in receiving them we receive Christ.
For an adult to grasp this reversal of human need for importance and status is like turning our lives upside down. Self-importance and lording it over others has no place in the church. Every disciple is called to practice “downward mobility” and to be eager to serve others rather than be served. Easier said than done, but an inescapable part of following Jesus, Lord of all who humbled himself out of love for us.