“So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” Hebrews 4:14-16
Today’s gospel is about leadership and how Jesus prepared his apostles and disciples for their mission. I want to speak about some of the things I’ve learned about leadership in the last few months, and more directly, how Pope Francis has employed his “servant leadership” for the benefit of the Church and the world.
For the past several years, I’ve taught a course on leadership and communication. The course deals with how to create and sustain a powerful and effective public presence. Typically, I ask my students to evaluate leaders with several criteria: the importance of informing others, preparing your constituents for the next goal or task, valuing individuals in the group, and mediating conflicts that inevitably arise.
Resilience is another critical factor of an effective leader and a virtue that I’d like to explore with you.
Over the years, I’ve been benefited from friends, like Frank Barrett, who teaches leadership studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. Back in May, I was invited to Frank’s class, comprised of thirty mostly military women and men. This was a highly engaged group and impressive individuals with high personal character and role models. Most of them had come into the course having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, where their skills of leadership have already been tested.
The session’s central theme focused on a Harvard University “case study” about the 1996 expedition of Mount Everest. You may recall the episode where experienced Sherpa guides brought both expert climbers as well as rookie “tourists” to the “top of the world.” This expedition is also the subject of the book “Into Thin Air” by John Krakauer, an IMAX documentary film, and a more recent narrative film “Everest,” with actor Jake Gyllenhaal.
The class session focused on teamwork and how leaders and teams sometimes make a difficult decision in almost impossible, life challenging situations. Few of us would even consider such a dangerous climb like Everest, so at one point, Professor Barrett asked us to discuss this question: “What is your personal Mount Everest? How did you adjust your expectations to the genuine reality of your climb? How did you rely on the experience and trust of your team leader? And the members of your close friends or team members?
In a sense, today’s gospel is about Jesus and his disciples and how they adapted their mission in the face of the strenuous life challenging events ahead. Recall that of the twelve apostles, only John the Evangelist would not come to a violent martyrs’ death.
Another friend of mine, Jim Berta, has direct involvement with the training of Navy SEALs, among the most celebrated of the “Special Forces” in our Armed Services who are called upon to do daring military missions.
In July, I was with Jim at the Navy Base on Coronado Island, San Diego, California, the SEALs train headquarters. Jim, a former SEAL himself, now in his retirement, is an instructor of the recruits. The training regime is so rigorous many of the men are eliminated.
One of the chief hazards is the swimming and diving tank, where men with the underwater breathing gear, face the dangerous conditions of wartime operations. We could see how each candidate coped from the windows below the swimming tank during these complicated underwater maneuvers.
Want comes to my mind or anyone watching these training routines. Each person has a high sense of calling as well as a highly fostered sense of “unit cohesion” to their fellow sailors.
The key is resilience, how to cope and come through. Frankly, most of us would be flummoxed or out of sorts when we have a “bad hair day,” or in my case, a “bad beard day.” Not these guys, from what I observed.
Author Eric Greitens, a retired Navy SEAL, in his new book “Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life,” provides his lessons about living through tough patches in life. In letters to Zack Walker, the author deals with a range of topics, including battle fatigue, the loss of comrades, and mostly how war shatters lives.
“Resilience is the virtue that enables people to move through hardship and become better. No one escapes pain, fear, and suffering. Yet from pain can come wisdom, from fear can come courage, from suffering can come strength, if we have the virtue of Resilience.”
At another point, he adds:
“(However) fear does not automatically lead to courage. An injury does not necessarily lead to insight. Hardship will not automatically make us better. (In fact) pain can break us or make us wiser. Suffering can destroy us or make us stronger. Fear can cripple us or make us more courageous.”
“It is Resilience that makes a difference. You cannot bounce back from hardship. You can only move through it.”
Most of all, Jesus was imparting to his disciples the power of the soul to value ones’ contribution in service toward the shared mission, despite the hardships, requiring adjustment to new people, circumstances, and cultures. It is a form of Resilience that would not merely help them bounce back, but rather to move through it, even into harm’s way and death.
I had the opportunity to work on behalf of the USCCB during the time of the pope’s visit as a “media expert” to assist the significant press/media covering the pope’s visit. I was behind the scenes in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia. In particular, I was watching in television control rooms monitoring the various activities of the pope, the Masses, speeches, and sermons.
And while I was busy doing my job, sometimes I missed moments that you may have witnessed on television. However, from time to time, I would look at the large screen monitors to see some significant moments.
First of all, I watched the youngsters outside the Vatican nuncio’s residence stand in line behind the linked barriers, waiting patiently until the pope stepped out of the doorway. Then he went directly to these third and fourth graders. All of whom were washed in Washington’s morning sunlight, and there was an unusual glow from the pope and the kids. One young boy dropped papers in his hand, and the pope stooped down and picked them up and gave them back to the boy. There were embraces, photos taken, and great personal warmth that I will remember fondly.
A second scene came just moments after the pope’s formal reception at the White House. Here the pope in the “popemobile” proceeded back to the Vatican embassy by way of Pennsylvania Avenue. It reminded me of General Douglas MacArthur’s return from World War II and the victory parades that marked the wars overseas. The crowds who came out to see Pope Francis rivaled the victory parades and the presidential inaugurations in a genuine outpouring of affection for him.
As I watched the television monitors before the pope’s speech to the Joint Session of Congress, you can see the behind the scenes line up of the officials accompanying the pope to the House Chamber. Then with the Speaker of the House and the Vice President presiding, the Sargent at Arms announced: “Mr. Speaker, the Pope of the Holy See.” Somehow the term “pope of the Holy See” didn’t quite fit, but I guess they adopted the idea that the president’s name is not used when introduced at the “State of the Union” address.
So for the first time, a pope had the opportunity to address our Congress and their distinguished guests. In the TV control room, we wondered whether subtitles at the bottom of the screen might help the viewing audience. Instead, we opted for no subtitles; consequently, everyone had an equal chance to listen ever so carefully to Pope Francis and his message, in a language less familiar to him but in a speech that he had most carefully prepared for us.
Here’s one very brief passage of that speech, and sometimes, all of us must give ample time for reading and re-reading his essential message to the American people and their elected representatives.
Pope Francis states:
“Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities, which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves.
In a word, if we want security, let us give protection; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.”
“The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”
Saint Timothy’s, Morro Bay, CA