This weekend, we are celebrating the graduation of 30 delightful and spirited young men and women from the eighth grade of our parish school. They come in all kinds of sizes, shapes, backgrounds, colors and personalities. They have many wonderful gifts and talents given them by God, which they have been developing for these past 8t to 10 years in our school in order to move on to the next stage of their human development. We (especially I) shall miss them in our Friday morning full-school Masses and their volunteer services on campus and beyond. But I hope and pray to see most of them on the weekends in church, as long as they and their parents properly and faithfully exercise their Catholic-Christian duties and responsibilities as parents and leaders.
It was failure to exercise just such a responsibility as a “called follower of Christ” that caused Judas to fall from grace and consequently to lose his faith and his life. But, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles this past week, the Apostles decided to move on and select another disciple to take his place. We celebrated his feastday this past week. As you may recall, St. Matthias was the Apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot who had betrayed the Lord and had fallen from his privileged place of being one of the original Twelve, and we honor him in a stained glass window near the main entrance to our church. The account of choosing him comes just two verses after the conclusion of the account of the Ascension, which opens up the Acts of the Apostles. This was one of the first actions undertaken by the leaders of the early Church following the departure of Jesus from their earthly company. Although it took place before the official birthday of the Church(on Pentecost), it nevertheless is an important episode on which to reflect, as it gives us some helpful insights into discipleship and leadership. These insights are every bit as relevant today as they were nearly two thousand years ago.
One point that stands out in this account of the process of filling the vacancy in the Twelve is the requirement that the candidate had to be one who had accompanied the rest of the Apostles in following Jesus, and had to have been a witness to His Resurrection. This is important because it shows that in order to be a leader, one must first be a follower. This is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian disciple, that we understand that we are all, first and foremost, followers of Jesus. Not all are called to leadership, but all, without exception, are called to be followers. For those of us who are in positions of leadership, it is helpful to be reminded of this so that we can give our leadership the proper focus. It is not an easy task; just ask our school principal, Mrs. Delgado. I was called to leadership as a priest some forty-eight years ago this past Wednesday.
There is a certain danger of being a leader in that we can be tempted to want to think as though we call all the shots and that only we can set the direction. While not dismissing the important contributions that a leader makes in directing, the Catholic leader must always be attentive and obedient to the promptings of the Lord, who is the one who is ultimately in charge. This means having the humility to accept the Lord’s will over our own, trusting that He knows better than we do. This is demonstrated in a very clear way as we see Peter, the leader of the Apostles, stepping up to begin the process of selecting the next Apostle. Two individuals were chosen, but we notice how Peter does not presume to abuse the authority given to him by God, and so he asks for guidance from the true leader by praying in the following words: “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen.” In this example, Peter is showing his role as a leader, but at the same time, submitting himself as a follower in order to ensure that God’s will is the one that is being fulfilled, and not his own.
By being consciously aware of our primary role as a follower, we, who are in a role of leadership, are able to be of greater service to the people that we lead. Consequently, we have to resist the temptations that come from that other “Level of Happiness” which can cause us to become overly focused on ourselves and our own ideas. We are freed to let the attention and glory be directed to the One who is the ultimate leader. And if we are truly open to His will, we can be assured that He will always guide us to have our decisions and actions directed toward those higher levels of happiness, for they are at the heart of His command to love God and love our neighbor.
This style of leadership should also instill trust and confidence in those who are not in positions of leadership, for it makes clear to them that their obedience to their leaders is in alignment with the will of God and not just a servile submission to authority. Jesus makes this point clear in the Gospel when He tells His disciples: “I no longer call you slaves…I have called you friends” (John 15:15). We are much more likely to follow when we feel as though we are being treated as friends, with our good and the good of all at the heart of that leadership. When we keep our focus on following Christ, even when it means being led by another human being, we have great confidence that He will indeed provide for that good.
So, we constantly have to renew our commitment, regardless of our position, to being followers of Christ. Our commitment began at Baptism, calling us to obedience to God’s will, and our dedicated discipleship will enable us to do whatever it is that the Lord has called us, be it large or small. By deciding to follow His lead in all things, we can be assured that we are on a journey of excellence in which we seek, above all else, to be good stewards of the gifts that He has given to us, making use of them for building up God’s Kingdom here (in the local Church) and in the Church throughout the world.
We congratulate all our graduates and their parents who sacrificed so much to put these young men and women through Catholic school. Now let’s see how meaningful this Catholicism really is as it runs its course!