Much of our public discourse these days is taken up with how our leaders, both civil and church, have failed in their respective duties. They have lost sight of how they are to promote the common good, and how they need to provide a positive example for others. Endless scandals by our politicians, and by our bishops and priests, have left us at times cynical and wondering if any of our leaders are motivated by anything more than self-interest. Anyone who has ever assumed any kind of leadership position knows that being in charge of others is no easy task. It is impossible to make everyone happy, and equally impossible to not periodically make some kind of errors in judgement. Our leaders are human, and are prone to the same human failings we all are. Sometimes our disappointment in those in authority comes from forgetting this simple fact. We need to appreciate that these men and women are responsible for making important and complex decisions, decisions that can weigh heavily upon one’s soul.
Mother Angeline, at an early age, assumed a position of leadership in her first religious community, the Little Sisters of the Poor. Only one year after she professed her final vows was Mother appointed superior of a home for the elderly in the Bronx, a home of 230 residents and 18 sisters. When Mother and her six companions left the Little Sisters to form a new community, she was chosen as the superior, and maintained the position of Mother General for almost 50 years.
For almost half a century, Mother oversaw the rapid growth of this new community, welcoming many young women to join her in this new apostolate, and building many new homes for the aged all over the country. As the community grew, and along with a demand for the kind of care for the aged that her sisters provided, Mother assumed more and more responsibilities. What started out as six sisters and a single home blossomed into hundreds of sisters with scores of facilities for the elderly. How could one not be overwhelmed by such a change ? However, as a leader, Mother looked to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, as a model. Even though her community might have expanded, she still wanted to maintain a personal relationship with all her sisters, just as Jesus does with us, his sheep. She wrote, “I think a superior should govern her sisters as she would wish to be governed. She should make herself the servant of all her religious.”
There is a tendency to think that people choose to be leaders if in doing so it somehow works to their advantage, if somehow they can arrive at some kind of personal or financial gain. Mother, on the other hand, believed quite the opposite: “I am not a superior to seek my pleasure, my consolation, my rest, my welfare, but to procure the consolation, rest, and welfare of those confided to me. I am obliged by my position to sacrifice my tastes, my satisfaction, my convenience, my interests, my life itself, if necessary for the salvation of my sisters.” Mother’s philosophy of leadership was simple: sacrifice. Those who wish to lead, or are chosen to lead, must be willing to take up their cross, and the crosses of those they are responsible for. They must lead by example, and be willing to suffer for “One who knows not how to suffer knows not how to govern.”
Certainly strong words, but words that more than ever need to be reflected upon by all, by those who lead and by those who follow.
Brother Bob Chiulli, O.Carm.