I was recently thinking about Alfred, the indefatigable butler and co-conspirator of Bruce Wayne (aka Batman), as a model of priesthood.
Now that is a sentence I don't suspect you've read anywhere else, but bear with me.
What I've really been thinking about is servant leadership. What does servant leadership mean, and how does it apply to today's parishes?
One of my favorite papal titles, created by Pope St. Gregory the Great, is "Servant of the Servants of God."
I have often thought that that title describes all of us who are in any sense "professional Catholics": not only popes, but bishops, priests, ministry leaders, Catholic Charities employees, chancery secretaries and even Catholic publishers and editors.
Seeing ourselves as servants is a powerful antidote to the pride of position that can tempt so many of us.
But if all of us are servants, who are we serving?
In a word: You.
We are serving Catholics who go to Mass on Sunday and spend the other six days of the week out in the world. The real work of the Gospel is done in the cubicles and factory floors, in the households and schools, in the fast-food establishments and warehouses, in the bank offices and halls of government.
Now this can make some folks uncomfortable. It's as if sneaky Pope Gregory performed a bit of theological jujitsu and suddenly put the flock in the driver's seat and the shepherd in the back seat.
A colleague recently told me about her parish, where the pastor is forthrightly asserting his role as a servant leader. He tells his parishioners that his job is to serve and enable them to do the work of the Gospel in the world. Some of his parishioners, apparently, are getting a little irritated with him.
It's as if they want to tell the priest: "Hey, you're the guy with the collar and no wife and kids to worry about. You've got the fancy-pants education and can say a prayer at the drop of a hat. Don't try to palm your job off on me!"
But their pastor is exactly right, and not just because we are heading into a period of fewer priests who cannot possibly do all that their predecessors did when rectories and seminaries were full.
Catholics are meant to take their faith out into the world. This is the great insight of 20th century's many lay movements and the great teaching of the Second Vatican Council. Really, it is simply a rediscovery of Christ's mandate to all of us. He never said that while the shepherds were working themselves to spiritual and emotional burnout, the sheep were supposed to stay at home parked in a recliner and watching television.
We are the witnesses called to testify to Christ in our communities. We are the ones who invite others to come to Mass with us. We are the ones who visit the sick and the imprisoned, help the poor and love our neighbor. We are the ones transforming the world.
Our priests provide us with bread for that journey. They provide us with the sacramental supports we need to keep on track. They provide us with the teaching we need to better understand the faith. They keep us in union with the universal Church -- our bishops and our pope.
All of which brings us back to Alfred. It is Alfred who provides the support for Batman to do his work. Alfred gives him the talking-to when he needs it. Alfred models selfless dedication to something bigger than himself. And Alfred even explains what the big picture is on occasion. It is Batman who goes out and engages the world.
But if our priests (and bishops, and pope) are Alfred, that means we are the ones who are called to be superheroes.
Of course, in the language of the Church, superhero is translated as saint.
Greg Erlandson is president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.