Leaders for the next generation

Our Patron, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, Archbishop of Sydney, had the following words for Catholic student leaders during the recent US election campaign:

Archbishop_FisherEveryone here today will be aware of the continuing battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as each vies for the Presidency of the United States of America. The nightly news, the internet reports and the televised debates have something of the Gothic horror feel of Halloween trick-or-treating, or the recent “creepy clowns” phenomenon. There have been plenty of jokes at the expense of the two candidates: the memes comparing Mrs Clinton to Yzma from Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove and indicating that she is one of the most unlikable candidates in American history; and various cartoons and comedy skits by people clearly unsure whether to laugh or cry at the misogyny, racism, arrogance and plain randomness, that emerges every time Mr Trump opens his mouth.

One theme that has been particularly common in both comedy and commentary, however, is that there’s no real difference between the two candidates, with one meme superimposing the well-known ‘Crying Jordan’ face onto both Trump and Clinton during the presidential debate. There is every indication that people are unhappy with the choices offered as leadership material for the approaching U.S. election; and that, more generally, there is deep disillusionment with the whole class of leaders and the system which brings them to the top.

There are signs of a similar disappointment throughout much of the democratic world, with voters turning against the major parties that have traditionally competed for the middle ground. Young people approaching their first experience of balloting should be full of idealism and hope about politics. But there is every indication that many young people, including perhaps some of you here today, feel some of the same cynicism about politics that has become commonplace amongst their elders. You might, like many voters, think that most politicians are in it simply for themselves and their friends; or that they are completely out of touch with the real concerns of most people; or that the system is so broken that even good-willed politicians end up pawns of party machines or of the interests that fund them or of the media that threaten them; or that politics is now so driven by the 24/7 news cycle, the opinion polls and the view to the next election that principles are cast aside and it’s all spin. Such reactions are commonplace today and they suggest that many of those offered to us as ‘leaders’ are not the leaders we need…

How, my young friends, will you be different? The ancient Greek philosopher Plato once said that the ideal leader would be recognised as such by others and rather than taking power for himself would have to be forced to his neighbours to assume leadership (Republic, VII, 520). This is exactly what happened with many of the great leaders of the early Christian Church: when they saw signs that they were about to be made Bishop they would flee into the desert or to some cave or beg their contemporaries to let them be; their neighbours would then have to kidnap them and bring them, sometimes in chains, to the Cathedral to be ordained Bishop and to lead the local community. Some of this may have been a kind of spiritual theatre but it underlined the insight that the true leader is someone who says ‘I don’t want power, but I do want to help’. A modern parable of this is found in Bruce Willis’ character, John McClane, in the fourth Die Hard film, who exclaims, “You know what you get for being a hero? Nothin’.” He explains to his offsider that he only does what he does because it has to be done and there’s no one else to do it.

Here I think John speaks to a conflict in us all. Every human being, and certainly every Christian, experiences the tension between the desire for an easy life, on the one hand, and the duty to do the good but hard thing, on the other. What makes John McClane a hero, what makes him leadership material, is not that he stops the bad guy and saves the day – though he does; it’s that at almost every step along the way he has good reason to go no further; but at each step he looks around, sees no-one else taking that next step that needs to be taken, and so takes it for them. He hasn’t got superhuman powers; he isn’t looking for glory or fame; he certainly doesn’t want to be shot at, exhausted, wounded and in pain. But he knows that what is right is often the very opposite of what is comfortable; and he’s prepared to make the sacrifice if needs be. Like an Olympian, he “throws off everything that hinders him, and keeps running steadily in the race he had started.” (Heb 12:1-4)

This same willingness to make the good of others your good, this same determination to work for the benefit of all, is exactly what I hope marks each of you, student leaders of the Catholic schools of Sydney. In the year ahead your faith, ideals, and leadership will be tested at times by anxieties and busyness. Though you are unlikely to be dragged into leadership in chains like John Chrysostom or to have to dodge bullets like John McClane, yet you will most likely face some challenges of leadership. So you must keep cultivating good character, practising good habits of thought, prayer and action, focusing on your ideals and the service of God and others. That will set you up not just for a good 2017 but for the best life beyond. In due course I hope some of you will be spouses and parents, priests or religious, teachers or other professionals, all people with a sense of purpose, mission, even heroism; in due course, I say, but that course starts now. An abiding love of the holy Scriptures, Mass on Sundays (at least), the Sacrament of Mercy that is Reconciliation, regular engagement in works of mercy (of social justice and charity) even, and perhaps especially, when you think you are too busy, mindfulness of the ‘poor’ in your own school such as the less popular, gifted or fortunate students – these are opportunities for goodness and for character development. They make your school a kind of gym for the soul.

As leaders of today you will be tested, and I’m confident you will pass with flying colours. And that is what will set you up for being the kinds of leaders our families, professions, academies, industries, arts and sciences, and even our parliaments, need for tomorrow. I know we’re in good hands. God bless you all!

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