Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
James and John exhibit their typical boldness in the Gospel this weekend. At first glance, their request to sit at the right and left of Jesus in His kingdom may seem to be motivated by a desire for position or prestige. But if we read carefully, we see that they make this request out of love for Jesus. Remember, these same disciples were outraged that Jesus was rejected by the Samaritan town and wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume the place (cf. Luke 9:54). Seeing Jesus rejected causes them great offense and pain. James and John love Jesus and have a profound faith in His promise of eternal life. In their great zeal, they do not understand what they are asking, and so our Lord explains that their salvation and place in the Kingdom will come through suffering like His, through the conformity of their lives to His. Hearing this, the other Apostles are upset because they interpret the request as one for prestige, privilege, and power, instead of as it is genuinely intended (though with a lack of understanding). And so Jesus teaches the true meaning of power. Power, greatness, authority, are not to be wielded for their own sake, nor are they to be lorded over others. Rather, power and authority exist for service. “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).
Power and authority present a great challenge and temptation if we lack a proper Christian understanding of how they are to be used. Jesus tells us that authority or power is not to be lorded over others, but rather placed at their service. His intention and desire is that in the Church, “power” be used, not in a worldly way, but for the good of the whole community. The true power of the Church is sacramental, that is, it brings God’s true power to bear on the world, the power that sanctifies, blesses, inspires, heals, and saves. Sometimes authority or power must be exercised to correct behavior or clarify teaching. This is not authority for the sake of authority, but for the sake of truth. For example, a math teacher who allows students to believe that 2+2=5 fails to exercise legitimate power and authority that should lead to truth. A parent who allows their child to throw rocks at the neighbor’s child fails to exercise legitimate power and authority that should lead to right behavior (and safety!). A priest or pastor who remains silent, refusing to speak about important issues or questions fails to exercise the legitimate power and authority that should lead to the salvation of his community. Jesus undoubtedly gives power and authority to the Apostles. But this power and authority is not for their sake, but for the salvation of the whole Church, for those who are powerless and in need.
The existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that the “will to power” was the driving force operative in all people and institutions. For him, the will to power inspired in people the desire for prestige and high position. This philosophical outlook colors the way in which we, today, interpret power and authority. We tend to view it in secular terms, which leads many to worship the false idol of political power. In an ecclesial context, this understanding can lead people to view leadership roles (such as bishop and priest) as the highest goal of the Catholic, or as the only way to have influence. This attitude did not originate with Nietzsche, of course, as we can see it present throughout history in various ways both secular and religious. Jesus teaches an understanding of power and authority that is directly opposed to the will to power. Especially within the Church, all power, all authority must be exercised only for the sanctification, guidance, and service of the whole community. The priesthood, episcopacy, and even papacy are not offices to be served, but are rather offices that exist to proclaim the love and mercy of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life for the salvation of the world.