Studies show that leaders who are recognized and admired by their followers are often reluctant leaders. History is replete with examples: King George VI of the United Kingdom, Mahatma Gandhi of India, Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Calcutta, Pedro Arrupe, Pope Francis.
In the Bible, some reluctant leaders include Moses, Isaiah, Paul and, in this Sunday’s Gospel, Peter.
We can glean from the story of Peter’s call some of the key elements not just of a reluctant leader, but a successful one. First is the reluctance itself. Second is the dedication and devotion to the mission. Third is the paradox of humility—in the words of Paul, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
(1 Corinthians 10: 12)
The reluctance of a leader first appears as a denial or an outright rejection of the “call.” This is part of the pattern of the prophetic call in scripture. In today’s first reading, Isaiah first deems himself unworthy and objects. This is evident, too, in the call of Moses.
This denial is an authentic sense of unworthiness that is self-effacing. It’s not from false modesty or, worse, out of a deliberate plan to mislead others to gain advantage.
Apropos, the authentic reluctant leader does not angle for the role or position. Thus, when it is thrust upon him/her, there is unbelief, coupled with the authentic sense of unworthiness that leads to the reluctance.
The transition comes when the conversation between the “missioner” and the reluctant leader assumes an interior intimacy, where the process of the leader’s self-awareness, with the assurance of the missioner, deepens into self-acceptance.
This process vis-à-vis the mission at hand leads to a “yes.” This yes is one of dedication to the work and devotion to the missioner.
This dedication to the mission and the attendant work is what Ignatius describes as “totus ad laborem,” giving oneself totally to the work. The devotion is to the one who sends or missions, and thus one is devoted to, i.e., rooted and grounded in, the person and love of the missioner.
This “lack of ambition” and the shift to dedication and devotion are clear in the story of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the 28th superior general of the Society of Jesus, whose cause for beatification and canonization was formally started with a Mass in Rome on Feb. 5.
Father Arrupe went to Japan in 1938 as a missionary and saw himself spending the rest of his life there.
But his real mission came three decades later, in 1965, when he became superior general—something he never set out to achieve.
Nevertheless, he immediately got to work with edifying dedication to his new mission, understanding its significance in the context of Vatican II. Some consider Arrupe as the second founder of the Society of Jesus, leading it through one of the most challenging periods of the Church and renewing the Ignatian charism in this context.
Arrupe once said: “See with the eyes of Christ, go wherever the need is greatest, serve the faith and promote justice as best you can, and you will find God!”
Such was his dedication to his mission as leader, a dedication that came from his devotion to Christ and the Ignatian charism to find God in all things.
The paradox of humility came at his journey’s end. After a decade and a half of inspired leadership, he spent the last years of his life in silence, physically helpless after a debilitating stroke.
Two years or so after he fell ill, he managed to communicate in his valedictory these words that made him larger than life, at his most helpless state:
“More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference: The initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.”
Thus, Arrupe completes the third element of a reluctant leader: “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Peter, who in today’s Gospel follows the process of the prophetic call, completes the process by humbly accepting his imperfection, his betrayal of Christ and his imperfect love.
With these words he dedicates himself to his work and expresses his devotion to the Risen Lord: “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” (John 21: 17)
The paradox of humility leads Peter back to where he started. One early morning, coming from a whole night of unsuccessful fishing, he encounters Christ, now the Risen Lord, and Peter becomes not simply a fisher of men, but the leader who is “presiding in love” to feed and care for the flock.
Postscript: I share Arrupe’s story to help advance his cause for beatification and canonization. Please pray for this intention. —CONTRIBUTED