by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
When visiting our schools, sometimes a student will ask the question: “How do you become a bishop?” My initial response is often: “That is a good question. I wish I knew.”
In September of 1984 (37 years ago), I was appointed the priest pro-life coordinator for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Each October, the Archdiocese of St. Louis sponsors an annual pro-life convention. The keynote speaker for the 1984 convention was Mother Angelica, the foundress of EWTN.
I still remember the theme of Mother Angelica’s address to the convention. First of all, she acknowledged that she was completely unqualified to launch a television station, much less network. In 1984, EWTN was still in its infancy, but was already having a huge impact.
Mother Angelica confessed that she took great comfort from the examples of Peter and the other apostles. They, too, were woefully unqualified for the mission Jesus entrusted to them — to make disciples of all nations.
From a human a resource analytic view, they were not the “dream team” to launch and guide the early church. Yet, with God’s grace, they led a movement that changed the world in a relatively short time.
In one of our recent Sunday Gospels (Mk 10: 35-45), St. Mark describes James and John approaching Jesus with an incredibly bold request. With audacity, they asked Our Lord to do whatever they might request. Essentially, the brothers Zebedee were asking Jesus to sign a blank check by promising to give them whatever they wanted.
Instead, Our Lord asked them to specify their request. They responded, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.”
Jesus responded by telling them that they were clueless about the implications of their request. Then, Our Lord asked them a question: “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” With no idea of what they were signing up for, they responded: “We can!”
Jesus informed them that they will indeed drink from his cup and share in his baptism; however, sitting at his right and left is not something that Jesus can promise to them.
When the other 10 apostles learned what John and James sought, they became angry. Truth be told, they were jealous that the brothers Zebedee beat them to the punch. They wanted the places of honor next to Jesus.
Jesus seizes this teachable moment to instruct all of the apostles on Christian Leadership 101. Jesus pointed out that they are thinking like the secular leaders of their time, who attempted to impress on their followers their authority and exert their power.
Jesus counsels them: “It shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” Our Lord shared that his mission was not to be served but rather to serve and give his life for their ransom.
Jesus chose those with no earthly credentials to lead his church at its inception. I am living proof that Our Lord continues to prefer that the successors of the apostles (bishops) remain unlikely leadership candidates from a worldly point view.
St. Paul, perhaps, says it best in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Consider your own calling, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were something, so that no human being might boast before God” (1 Cor 1: 26-30).
Our Lord likes to choose those who appear unqualified to make it obvious that his kingdom is not being built by human ingenuity. Whatever good is being accomplished is the result of God working through weak human vessels.
Jesus came into his glory on Calvary. Those who had the places of “honor” at his right and left were the two convicted criminals crucified alongside Our Lord. One of the criminals mocked Jesus, but the other (known in Christian tradition as Dismas) acknowledged his own guilt and the justice of his execution.
Dismas humbly acknowledged Jesus as the Christ by asking Our Lord to remember him when Jesus entered into his kingdom. Dismas became the first canonized saint with the assurance of Jesus: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
John was the only apostle present at the foot of the cross with Mary and some of the other female disciples. By accompanying Jesus during his passion and crucifixion, John indeed drank of Our Lord’s cup of suffering.
Judas betrayed Our Lord. Peter denied knowing Jesus. The other nine disciples, including John’s brother, abandoned Our Lord. James, however, eventually drank from Our Lord’s cup, being the first apostle to be martyred.
For each of us to follow Jesus requires that we follow him along the path of servant love. Jesus does not promise his disciples an easy or problem-free life. Our Lord counsels us that if we are going to follow him, then we must accompany him to Calvary. We, too, must take up the cross.
However, Jesus also promises his disciples that he will be with us as we strive to follow him on the pathways of servant love, as well as sharing in his cross.
At moments of adversity and suffering, if we persevere in our faith, we will become powerful witnesses of Christian hope. Our hope cannot be based on our own wisdom or abilities but rather in the fidelity of Jesus to his promise to be with his disciples in every circumstance.
It is when we surrender to God’s will above everything else that Jesus can do amazing things through our lives. Our Lord can use us to found a television and radio network, become a successor of his apostles, witness to heroic love in Christian marriage and parenthood, and become salt and light transforming the world with the joy of the Gospel of Jesus.
Jesus can make each of us a change agent for a darkened and despairing world.
Are you willing to drink from the cup of Jesus and share in his baptism? If so, Our Lord has some amazing and exciting plans for each of us!