Sermons

Sunday, Oct. 18: Twenty-Ninth Sunday

“So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” Hebrews 4:14-16

NotreDameToday’s gospel is about leadership and how Jesus prepared his apostles and disciples for their mission. I’d like 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 persuasive and effective public presence. Typically, I ask my own students to evaluate leadership with a number of criteria such as the importance of informing others, preparing your constituents for the next goal or task, valuing individuals in the group, and how to mediate conflicts that inevitably arise.

Resilience is another key 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 highly engaged group and impressive individuals of great personal character, role models if you will. Most of them had come into the course having served in Iraq and Afghanistan where their skills of leadership have already been tested.

The central theme of the session 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 “tourist” to the “top of the world.” This expedition is also the subject of the book “Into Thin Air” by John Krakaur, 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 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 consider this question: “What is your personal Mount Everest? How did you adjust your expectations to the genuine reality of your personal 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 face of the difficult life challenging events ahead. Recall that of the twelve apostles, only John the Evangelist would not come to a violent martyrs’ death.

This brings me to another experience with a friend of mine, Jim Berta who over many years 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 where the SEALs train. Jim as a former SEAL himself, now in his retirement is an instructor of the new 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 these men are placed with the underwater breathing gear, and then instructors attempt to disarm them, causing the perilous conditions of wartime operations. From windows below the swimming tank we could see how each candidate coped during these difficult underwater maneuvers.

How they cope and why they want to do this at all — comes to mind for anyone watching these training routines. Clearly, each person has a very high sense of calling as well as a highly fostered sense of “unit cohesion” to their fellow sailors.

The key here 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 own lessons about living through tough patches in life. Along with fellow SEAL, Zack Walker, there is a series of letters and reflections about how to deal with the stresses after battle, the loss of comrades, as well as the physical loss of limbs and lives shattered by war.

Greitens has some important insights, and writes:

“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. 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 the difference. You cannot bounce back from hardship. You can only move through it.”

Most of all, Jesus was imparting to his disciples that his was not a leadership that would give them powers over others, rather an internal power of the soul to value ones’ own contribution in service toward the common mission, despite the hardships, requiring adjustment to new people, circumstances and cultures. A form of resilience that would not simply help them to bounce back, rather to move through it, even into harm’s way and death.

This brings me to a second theme, namely the “servant leadership” of Pope Francis at the time of his visit to the United States.

I had the lucky opportunity of working on behalf of the USCCB during the time of the pope’s visit as a “media expert” in order to assist the major press/media covering the pope’s visit. I was behind the scenes in Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. And, in particular, I was watching from television control rooms monitoring the various activities of the pope, the Masses, speeches and homilies.

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 really 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 that moment when 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 a special 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 “pope mobile” proceeded back to the Vatican embassy by way of Pennsylvania Avenue. It reminded me of General Douglas MacArthur’s return from the World War II and the victory parades that marked then end of 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.

A third time 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 had adapted the idea that the president’s name is not used when being 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 sometime all of us must give ample time for reading and re-reading his important 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 security; 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.”

8 thoughts on “Sunday, Oct. 18: Twenty-Ninth Sunday

    • Ed — Thanks for your post, but most of all — your resilience with teaching and guidance for our Saint Mary’s students over so many years.
      Mike R

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  1. yes thanks Mike! I also preach on this including the question: can we as Christians be “ambitious”? I proposed that yes we can! And that Saint Paul exhorts us to be ambitious BUT “for the higher gifts”. And I cannot think of any
    higher gift” than love as expressed in mercy and compassion. Blessings!

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    • Sal — Thanks for your comment about St. Paul’s telling us of the “higher gifts.” You have several of those gifts yourself, in your friendship and ministry. Mike R

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  2. Dear Fr. Mike:

    I always read your blogs, but thought his was one of the best.

    I am retired now, but worked as a family therapist for many years. I was interested in what helped children be resilient in the face of early trauma and loss. One of the factors that made a difference according to the research was the presence of a caring and supportive adult in their lives. It didn’t have to be a parent.

    I was also interested in what you said about hardship. In this past Sunday’s New York Times “Opinion section” there was an article about the effects of adversity on people. It suggested that when people who have suffered respond with compassion to others, it may have to do with their compassion helping them to “regain their footing.” Whatever increases your bonds with others makes you more resilient.

    Carol (from 7:30 mass)

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    • Carol — Thanks for your kind remarks and most especially how to best support people when dealing with hardship. This is the important work of ours both in ministry and family therapy. I’ll check out the article in the NYT Opinion.

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  3. Fr. Mike, thank you for the excellent homily. I especially like the resilience message which brought to mind the many difficulties & struggles one encounters on the road of life.

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