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The identity of the Priest, Part 3: Leadership

By Timothy Radcliffe - posted Wednesday, 13 November 2002

This is part 3 of Fr Timothy's essay about the morale of Catholic Priests. Click for parts one and two.

Much modern theological literature talks about the priest as leader. I must confess to unease with this. First of all because, as I said earlier, I think that it sits uneasily with the idea of service. How can one fit together being a servant and a leader of the people of God? This tension can confuse our relationships with those with whom we collaborate. They are delighted with the idea that the priest is there to serve and may be a bit surprised that this usually means telling them what to do!

More fundamentally the word suggests to me the world of business management. The leader is expected to be competent and decisive, not showing his weakness or hesitations, taking bold decisions. Above all leadership is usually evaluated in terms of success and achievement, the meeting of goals. But priesthood is not about success and achievement. We often find that we have not achieved much. If we think of ourselves as leaders, then we will probably feel that we are failures. And our people, who often live and work in the world of business management, if they are lucky enough to have a job, do not come to us hoping to find in the parish the same values that they live in the office. Yet the word has become very popular in the Church, even in religious life. I am always being asked how long I was 'in leadership'. I usually reply: 'Never until now.'


But Hebrews may offer us a vision of leadership which is priestly, and which can offer us a relationship to the people which is neither domineering nor will make us feel failures. Jesus is the pioneer of our faith,"who opened the new and living way through the curtain, "(10.20). He goes before us into the presence of God. Jesus leads by going ahead, taking the first step.

Our leadership is shown in being those who are prepared to take the first step: in reaching out to those who are excluded and marginalized, in offering and asking for forgiveness. In the parable of the prodigal son, reconciliation is achieved because both the younger son and the father take the first step in different ways. The son takes the first step of coming home, and when the father sees him in the distance, he takes the first step of going to meet him.

The Pope has shown us what this means in his outreach to the Orthodox, to Jews and Muslims, taking the risk of rejection. He has taken the first step in asking for forgiveness for the sins of the Church, despite opposition within the Vatican. That is leadership. So for us to be leaders does not require that we be omni competent, decisive people who tell everyone else what to do. It does require that we dare to take the first step in going before people, whether to welcome those who may not want us, to invite people to do more than they ever believed possible, to forgive and to ask forgiveness. This can be lonely. True leadership, in this sense, can lead us to the solitude of the cross.

Perhaps in the universal ethos of the market, our leadership will be in daring to let fall the mask of competence, to face our own limitations and failures, and not be afraid of them. We can go before in facing our fragility without fear. Leadership above all means taking the first step into vulnerability. True leadership gives us the utter joy and freedom of dropping the heavy masks of being knowledgeable, strong macho people who would have been highly paid executives if only the Lord called us to BP instead of the priesthood!

Parish as community

Another areas in which we may have to face failure and demoralization is in the creation of the parish community. When I met the Council of the National Conference of Priests, one priest shared his frustration because so often the parish was seen as a petrol station rather than a genuine community. People popped in for a quick Mass rather than to gather around the altar as the people of God. Parishes are not always the beautiful communities that we read about in books of theology. The parish liturgical team has prepared a rich feast but many people just want elevenses, before going home for the real celebration of Sunday lunch. This is not surprising. In the modern city the territorial parish does not build upon any natural sense of community. The priest may see the parish as his principal community, but most people would put the parish far down their list of places in which they belong, after their homes, football clubs, the schools of their children and the places they work. This can give the parish priest the feeling that he is a failure. He has failed to gather the people around the altar; he has failed to build a Eucharistic community.

It is not my task to look at the future of the territorial parish and consider alternatives. I just want to make a simple point, which is that any community that we try to build here is always going to be somewhat of a failure, because the Kingdom has not come. Every Christian community, whether it is a parish, a Dominican priory or the Legion of Mary, is a faulted and fractured symbol of the community that we long for, the Kingdom. If a parish were too successful, then we might make the mistake of thinking that the Kingdom had come and that the parish priest was the Messiah.


The archetypal gathering of the Christian community was at the Last Supper. And think what a dismal failure that community was: one of the disciples sold Jesus, another went on to deny him, and the rest ran away. Jesus failed to gather them into a community on that last night, so we should not be surprised if we do no better than he did.What Jesus did was to offer the sacrament of community, the sign of the Kingdom that was to come as a gift in its own good time. If the parish is not a greatened dynamic community, then this may not be a sign of our personal failure at all. Sometimes we can do no more than enact signs of what is to come.

When I was a young Dominican student at Oxford, I went to the chaplaincy to see Michael Hollings.Unfortunately he sent me away with a flea in my ear because he did not like religious! Years later I came to know and admire him. Everywhere he went he kept an open house, at Oxford, Southall and Bayswater. Once he caught a burglar in the act of robbery and invited him to stay for tea. I knew that I could never cope with that sort of life, but I admired it as a sign of the Kingdom. It was not the Kingdom, at least I hope not! But it was a sign of the Kingdom that embraces everyone. We cannot build that community ourselves only gesture towards it. It will come as a gift and surprise.

In March I was in Cairo, and I went to visit a part of the city which tourists rarely see, Mukatan. It is the city of the rubbish collectors. There are some 300,000 of them, and they are mostly Christians. They go out in the morning to collect the city's rubbish and bring it back to Mukatan to sort through and see what there is to sell or recycle. It is the filthiest, smelliest and most depressing place I have ever seen. The people seem half dead. Even the children playing football in the street move lethargically, like old men. Behind this awful place there are high cliffs of stone. And a Polish artist has given his whole life to covering them with images of Christ in glory. When the rubbish collectors come home on their donkey carts with their piles of stinking bags, they can see on the rocks the transfiguration of Christ, and his resurrection and ascension. These images proclaim that they are not just rubbish collectors but citizens of the Kingdom, destined for glory. They are kept alive by signs.

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This is part 3 of an edited version of a speech given at the National Conference of Priests at Digby Stuart College, Roehampton, London on 3 September 2002. Click for parts one, and two. Sourced through CathNews.

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About the Author

Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP is a Dominican friar of the English Province, and international leader of the Order from 1992 to 2001. His published writings include Sing a New Song: The Christian Vocation.

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