On guard against ourselves: The problems of aging leadership

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 23, 2016

One of the reasons Saint John Paul II was so remarkably popular was because he was a comparatively young man when he was elected Pope. He was just 58 years of age, which in our day falls some years shy of being elderly. Fifty-eight may well be the new forty-five. In any case, while he had many characteristics which drew the world to him, one of them was the combination of Catholic wisdom with the youthful energy he brought to the papacy.

I think about this frequently as I age. I have seen too many examples of older apostolic leaders slipping into a rut, forever fighting the battles of their youth, using the mechanisms of their youth. They may sense neither the concerns nor the methods of a new generation. A case in point for myself is the knowledge that CatholicCulture.org will never exploit the potential of social media under my leadership. At age 68, I see many benefits to social media, but I also see its downside as a rather narcissistic time-waster, and I have very little personal interest. Yes, we have a social media presence, but our staff does not put much time and energy into maximizing its possibilities. Those in the generation which follows me take its use for granted, and find it much easier to get the best out of it.

The same relative inflexibility can have much more important side-effects. It can, for example, cause us to harp on the issues that seemed paramount a generation ago, continuing to analyze them in categories that are well past their sell-by date. I like to think, of course, that I am still fairly perceptive and even intellectually nimble. But my children (strong Catholics all, thanks be to God) frequently notice fresh aspects of a problem before I do. I learned by arguing with them in their teens that I should let them stretch me when it became obvious that I did not have a compelling reason for my position. But the youngest is now twenty-six, and regular arguments no longer nourish my intellectual life.

Prayer is, I believe, a great source of intellectual freshness; no, it is the great source. But prayer ought also to improve self-awareness. It should enable us to perceive when it is time to pass the baton.

Analysis of Church Problems

I noticed this issue in another form a couple of weeks ago, when Phil Lawler and I were writing about renewal. Both of us were, to some degree, harping on the lessons we learned in the early portions of our adult lives. It is even quite possible that the main differences in emphasis between the two of us in that discussion can be chalked up not to intellectual nimbleness but to the fact that Phil has to put up with the Church in Boston (which is not notable for its spiritual health) while I get to enjoy the Church in Arlington (which, relatively speaking, is notable for its spiritual health). This may partially explain why my assessments tended to be a little more upbeat than his!

No place is perfect, of course, and with prayer, an effort to keep informed, and an almost congenital aversion to ruts, I think we still do a reasonably good job—good enough, at least, that whatever you may think by now, this is not my letter of resignation. But there is an upside to everything, and the upside of wondering about this downside is that it opens another useful perspective on what makes bishops tick, including the Bishop of Rome.

John Paul II was born in 1920 in Poland, about six months before my mother. His character was forged in suffering at the hands of Nazis and Communists. Benedict XVI was born just seven years later in Germany, forged also under the shadow of Nazism but also profoundly affected by Modernism.

But Pope Francis pushes the time-frame forward almost ten more years, having been born in December of 1936. He would have been nine in 1945 and 29 in 1965. The questions raised in the 1960s would have played a much greater role in his formation, including the ways these questions played out in liberation theology. None of this proves anything. But it is at least interesting that neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI ever sounded remotely like they were formed in the 1960s. Yet Pope Francis sounds that way much of the time.

Is it possible that Pope Francis, elected at age 76 and now 79, is still to some extent fighting the old battles in the old ways? When he looks at the Church, does he see it as more hidebound and formulaic than it really is—more like it was when he was in his twenties, when everything had to be “just so”? For me, by contrast, that Church is only a vague childhood memory; I was forged in the horrors that emerged fully between 1965 and 1975. I turned 29 twelve years after Pope Francis, in 1977. By then I was helping to found Christendom College, trying desperately to escape the Great Flood.

Influences Are Not Controls

Within limits, I think, it is possible to gain insight from such generational considerations. But considering the spiritual growth of those who pray, and the uniqueness of each human person, we can only push those insights so far. Just this past Sunday, preaching on Our Lord’s comments about the number who would be saved (Luke 13:22-30), Pope Francis emphasized that we must enter by the narrow door, which is Christ Himself:

Why is it narrow? It is a narrow door not because it is oppressive—no, but because it asks us to restrict and limit our pride and our fear, to open ourselves with humble and trusting heart to Him, recognizing ourselves as sinners, in need of his forgiveness.

This, clearly, is not a 1960s homily. At Rutgers in 1968, attending Mass provided by the Catholic campus ministry, I was force-fed theology according to the book of Peter, Paul and Mary. I was asked to believe that “the answer is blowing in the wind.” Sometimes our leaders can surprise us. With prayer, humility, work and responsibility we can limit the damage done by our tendency to lock our perceptions in at age 25 or so. Influences need not become controls. But there will be influences.

The great Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc wrote a very interesting book on a similar theme, entitled Survivals and New Arrivals. He argued just what I have been discussing, that the older generation tends to fixate on the “survivals”—the dreams and problems of its halcyon days—not infrequently missing the writing on the wall, that is, the growing significance of the “new arrivals” with which the rising generation will one day have to contend.

Unlike Chesterton, who died at age 60, sharp as a tack to the end, Belloc lived until 83, much-diminished in his later years. Like these two writers and like Pope Francis, all of us are at times leaders, and here is one more danger of which we must be aware. The good Catholic is always on guard, first of all, against himself.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wcbeckman51 - Sep. 10, 2016 8:12 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Jeff. This is one of the best things I've read in years. Each day the question comes to me anew, "who do you say that I am?"

  • Posted by: bnewman - Aug. 30, 2016 1:46 PM ET USA

    Very interesting Jeff and so true. I finally got your point.

  • Posted by: seewig - Aug. 23, 2016 11:56 PM ET USA

    If I understand you correctly: We older guys get into a rut and tend to see the world as we grew in understanding and to maturity (wisdom?) and form the same point of view, and “judge” our secular and religious environment with the same “old” yard stick. I am not so sure there is anything negative to that end. But frequently changing and adjusting to a more “modern” and constantly changing world seems to be the illness of our times in the senior group, as we give up our hard earned principles

  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Aug. 23, 2016 10:03 PM ET USA

    Yup! Jousting at the windmills of our mind diverts our attention from the present moment. "Western" culture is not Christian. Even casserole Christianity has lost its appeal. First, foremost and finally deliberate discipleship needs to be embraced -- personally. The notion that we already belong to THE communion of saints via Baptism anchors me. St. Pius X's motto sticks in my mind. The example of saints thrills me; leading people to have a relationship with Jesus requires me to have that 1st.