16th Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 19, 2015

A little over a week ago I went to Countryside Mall to pick up some clothes that had been altered for me. While the clerk was hanging my clothes on a hanger there was a huge commotion in the Mall. A child was screaming as if it was in desperate pain. The screaming grew louder and louder until the clerk and I saw its source. The screams emanated from a tiny little toddler being carried by its dad; the dad was as calm as the toddler was agitated. The store clerk looked at me, and said, “Yeah, I remember those days. Thank God, my kids are grown now.”

I had a good laugh with the store clerk, but I also acknowledged how much parents give of themselves for their children. Parents of young children, like the one in the Mall, routinely put up with all manner of indignities for the sake of their kids. This is the nature of leadership: it is a burden that people bear gladly for the sake of others.

The Scripture readings this Sunday depict this same image of leadership. The first reading is a promise that God’s People will have good and righteous leaders. It says, “See, days are coming when I will raise up a righteous branch for David; As king he shall reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land.” (Jeremiah 23:5) The Gospel describes the consequences of bad leadership. It says that the people in Jesus’ day “were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mark 6:34)

Although Catholics are given little choice about who serves as leaders of their church communities, it is still very valuable for us to reflect from time to time on Church leadership and Church leaders. You are probably aware that Pope Francis published an Encyclical letter on the topic of environmental issues. Encyclicals are letters intended to be circulated to the widest possible audience, and they can address a wide range of issues. Leo XIII’s Encyclical “Rerum novarum” was a social justice exhortation about the rights of laborers. Paul VI’s Encyclical “Humanae Vitae” dealt with moral issues regarding marriage and family life. Pope Francis’ “Laudato si” is, for the most part, about social justice issues, as well as some basic common sense.

If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend that you do so. It’s available on the Vatican website. Like his previous Encyclical, this one is long, and a bit rambling; it is, however, worth the read, even if you disagree with it completely. I don’t intend to talk about the content of the Encyclical today; rather, I’d like to talk about its author.

Some people have praised the Pope for addressing the serious environmental issues that arise as a result of human activity; others have not been so laudatory. One commentator for a cable news show called Pope Francis “the most dangerous person on the planet.” I agree with the assessment, but not for any reason that might be obvious to you.

Among the Pope’s musings he makes a sincere request for honest, rational public discussion about the issues of the environment, development and human impact on creation. (LS 14) Even if all of us were to disagree totally with everything else the Pope writes in “Laudato si,” all of us should fall on our knees every day and give thanks to God for a Pope who both advocates and values honest, open public discussion of major issues.

It is not the habit of Popes and Bishops to discuss major issues publicly, or to value the opinions and contributions of wider society. The Church could have avoided a great deal of tragedy and heartache in the past if things were different. Our governmental leaders do not always comply with the spirit of the law that requires public discussion and accountability regarding matters of public concern. Sadly, our Church is as dysfunctional as our society when it comes to issues of transparency, public discussion and the valuing of the opinions of those with little political significance.

Pope Francis might well be the most dangerous person of the planet today. He values the opinions of all people, and takes seriously the Lord’s command to be a righteous shepherd for God’s flock. The Pope has a position of great authority, and he has a powerful public voice, AND he advocates honest, rational discussion about major issues. This is truly dangerous talk because, if taken seriously, it could bring real accountability to the Church, remove partisanship from politics and require news media agencies to provide more information than entertainment. Can you imagine the consequences of this? I can, and it makes me grateful to God.