Do Good Leaders Abound in the Catholic Church?

Confusion of leadership and administration, as if they were synonyms, exacerbates a sense of crisis in the Catholic Church today. I believe that leadership has to do with excellence and with passionate and exemplary performance of a given role or task. Thus, leadership may be found in any profession or vocation within the Church, including those of teachers, scholars, writers, pastoral ministers, chaplains, whether they are celibate or married, men or women.

When we think about leadership, I suggest that it will be helpful to lower our expectations of administrators, not so much because of failures of bishops regarding sexual abuse cases or other matters, but because it is always unrealistic and inappropriate to expect administrators to carry, alone, the burden of leadership. This is as true for superiors in religious orders as it is for diocesan hierarchies, and for other levels and instances of administration, such as in Catholic schools, colleges, universities. It is extraordinarily wasteful of the talents of a broad range of people, when we proceed as if leadership could only exist ex officio, as if conferral of office created a leader, as if leadership were non-existent apart from administrative titles. Conferral of office may create an administrator; it does not create a leader. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., in his autobiography, "A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church," points out that "he learned firsthand that exercising leadership was not the same as having power, and that leadership cannot be given to one; it must be earned."

If I may add a personal note: Though I have some administrative experience, I have not held a full-time administrative post. I have never sought such a position because I believe that I am called to exercise leadership in other ways, ways at least as valuable for the service of the people of God. I believe that in my attitude toward administrative positions I am inspired by the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola. Perhaps one of the reasons why Ignatius is Saint Ignatius is his resolute insistence that Jesuits not seek appointment to offices such as bishop or pastor. Ignatius wanted Jesuits to avoid even the appearance of seeking after power; they were to exercise their ministry gratis, and to put helping others ahead of helping themselves to grow in riches and power and privileges.

Yet there have been and are some exemplary bishops. And St. Ignatius is not the only saint, and Rembert Weakland is not the only bishop, able to help us to see more clearly that leadership and administration are not synonyms. One bishop who "earned" the role of a leader, as Weakland would say, was Francis de Sales (1567-1622). The Council of Trent (1545-63) had identified preaching as the first duty of bishops -- that is, a pastoral rather than administrative task as the most important episcopal obligation. De Sales understood this very well and gained a wide reputation as an exemplary preacher. But his world-wide renown is due above all to his published writings, especially his book "Introduction to the Devout Life." The first edition appeared, in French, in 1609. Soon there were many editions and translations, and it has been in print ever since. It was written for lay people, and it has as its thesis the practical possibilities for persons of every walk of life to live an exemplary Christian life. I would argue that nowhere was Francis a more effective leader than through the writing of this book. When Vatican II (1962-65) honored and promoted the vocation of the laity, it helped to recover a tradition of valuing lay vocations and leadership, a tradition in which St. Francis de Sales played a major role, some four centuries ago.

De Sales is also remembered for his support for St. Jane de Chantal and her creation of a new religious order for women, the Visitation, an order intended to be more open to the world than cloistered orders had been. It was also be less penitential, in an era when many convents equated holiness with extremes of bodily mortification. Francis appreciated the talents of women and he demonstrated more than a little willingness to go the extra mile to help them put those talents to use, even though there were other bishops that criticized him and what they saw as his dangerous and unsuitable innovations.

Savoy, a small state in the Alps and in the shadow of Geneva, at the crossroads of France and Italy, was home for Francis de Sales. Religious and political tensions were many in his time. Francis was a voice for gentleness in an age when most voices were shrill and warfare, verbal and much worse, was never far off. One of his disciples was Jean-Pierre Camus (1584-1652), bishop in the neighboring diocese of Belley. Camus published more than 250 (250!) books in his lifetime, including volumes of his sermons, works of devotion and even novels. He could be called the Andrew Greeley of the 17th century. After 20 years as bishop, Camus resigned from his diocese in order to devote even more time to writing and publishing. He did not cling to administration, but had the clarity of vision and the freedom to see that he could do more good -- could be more of a leader -- as a writer than as an administrator.

To look for credible, viable, meaningful leadership among administrators only is to put on severely restrictive blinders and to miss the good news of competent, abundant leaders all around us. We need but to open our eyes and recognize them.

Fr. Thomas Worcester, S.J., Professor of History at the College of the Holy Cross, is the author of 'Seventeenth-Century Cultural Discourse: France and the Preaching of Bishop Camus' (1997 print edition; 2011 electronic version), and co-editor (with James Corkery, S.J.) of 'The Papacy since 1500: From Italian Prince to Universal Pastor' (2010).