All of us remember the children’s game, “follow the leader.” The object of the game centers on following one child designated as “the leader” who would guide a group through a series of actions and adventures that each other would faithfully imitate. The originality and creativity of the leader adds to the enjoyment of the game as each follower completes the course. I have come to wonder what kinds of lessons that this game intended to teach.
On Presidents’ Day weekend, our country particularly holds up two men who held the highest office in the land—the Presidency of the United States. One, of course, is George Washington. The stories which I learned as a boy remain with me: his leadership in the Revolutionary War; his willingness to serve as the first President of our country coupled to his willingness to step down when his terms were concluded; but especially (for my young mind) his desire to tell the truth in the cherry tree incident (though its historicity is questioned). Abraham Lincoln captures the pages of history for such acts as his leadership in the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and his eloquent though short Gettysburg Address. Yet what also sticks prominently in my mind is his characterization as “Honest Abe.” As a boy, I remembered how both leaders were celebrated for the value that they placed upon telling the truth. For the youngest among us, perhaps that was the virtue most highly emphasized. This enabled them to be people to be trusted and worthy to be followed. That remains true.
In the coming week, February 21-24, Pope Francis will hold a summit with the presidents of all Catholic bishops’ conferences to discuss the prevention of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. The question of honesty and trustworthiness should hold center stage in this gathering as well. Those who wear the mantle of leadership must do so with an unambiguous fidelity to the following of Christ.
Servant leadership stands at the center of any real claim to authority. Perhaps the clearest example of this for the Christian heart rests in the example of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. I keep coming back to it:
So when he had washed their feet [and] put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messengergreater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.
It seems easy to speak about washing feet and even to do so symbolically, but the truth lies in a different place. One must be empowered by those who are led and be proved willing to guide with virtue and humility. I pray for the leadership of good women and men for my country and my Church.