True leadership8 Mar 2021
Church leaders need courage and faith to build creative ways of reaching those on the margins.
I once visited a wonderful Catholic charity in Central America. They had built from scratch an extensive set of programs for poor children and families.
In the course of conversations with the founder, Fr Larry, it became clear they had a large financial deficit looming. They already ran on the smell of an oily rag as it was. When asked questions Larry wasn’t prone to gilding the lily. He told it straight. Worse still, he couldn’t find any younger religious priest willing to take on the arduous long hours and huge responsibilities involved in the demanding centre in a rough part of a rough city.
He also had a monumentally unhelpful ‘head office’ breathing down his neck, demanding all sorts of reporting and ‘reviews’.
A little daunted just listening to his challenges, I asked him what he was planning to do about it all, and the octogenarian priest smiled and gestured to his little chapel and, speaking on behalf of his large community, said, ‘What we’ve always done – pray!’ He went on, ‘The last thing we want here is for the hand-wringers and the bean-counters to tell us what we need! They desperately want what they call a “safe pair of hands” down here but we don’t do safe.’ Larry’s holy fire in the belly has always stayed with me. The centre is still running. His prayers were answered – again.
I’ve been blessed to meet similar people to Larry, doing God’s work around the world. What they all have in common is an active belief in God’s providence and a visceral practice of living that belief out.
They almost always tell me of a common experience of being hampered and scoffed at by people in and outside the Church for not ‘being sensible’ – that is, conforming.
I’m a fan, at least more than Fr Larry was, of using the best of business culture and tools to create and measure impact for social good. In fact, I wish the Church could make the move to grasp more opportunities to evangelise business people, but never at the cost of mission and identity as Christian disciples; nor at the cost of becoming a tired and bloated Church devoid of entrepreneurial appetite. And the first mission of the disciple of the Nazarene is to pray and trust in Him. Everything must come second.
As Catholic ministries, to avoid being reduced to risk-averse and hidebound bureaucracies, we need to place ourselves ‘on our knees’ seeking guidance. What we can’t allow is a practical atheism or a crypto-Pelagianism to dictate what we can or should do.
Fr Larry’s ‘hand-wringers’ will always prefer a ‘safe pair of hands’ to run things, but if there’s one thing true right now it’s that a ‘safe pair of hands’ is the last thing the Church in Australia needs. On that point I want to be on Larry’s side of history.
We need leaders with boldness and creativity of the kind that makes, encourages, and enables the kind of loving magnanimity that reaches to the margins, and is willing to be crucified with the poor.
We need more people like Fr Larry or, at the least, we need to get out of their way. As usual, and as Pope Francis never tires of reminding us, true leadership emanates from the margins.
The Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (formerly the Apostleship of Prayer) is an international movement, helping Christians live out their desire to serve God with their whole lives and their whole selves. Join the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network at www.clicktopray.org.
This article first appeared in Madonna magazine autumn 2021 edition.