Authority? Yes, but …

In his first synodal reflection, Dr John Wijngaards reflects on the topic of Christ’s idea of authority.

There was a time in the Netherlands when priests from local parishes were expected to give catechism classes in Catholic high schools.

I recall the agony suffered by a colleague of mine who had just been ordained for the diocese of s’-Hertogenbosch. He had been appointed to the parish of Mill, a large predominantly Catholic village in the province of Brabant.

I too served in that parish for a few weeks to stand in for a priest who was on holidays. That is why I could witness his struggles first hand. It was the end of summer 1962.

We cycled together to the high school to give religious instruction. We taught in adjoining classrooms. If I remember well, level two students were entrusted to him, level three to me.

As I addressed the students, some at the back kept talking to each other. I banged my fist on the teacher’s lectern and shouted at them. They immediately fell in line. But soon I heard loud noises from my colleague’s classroom. There was laughing, and I heard crashes.

So I temporarily left my own classroom and looked through a side window at what was going on next door. Chaos! Students standing on their seats shouting at each other and throwing books. My colleague standing helpless at his lectern in front of the class, raising his arms but to no effect. Believe me, it is true!

When I saw the principal running up from his office to restore order I quickly went back to my own classroom. At the end of my teaching session I met the principal who told me the other priest had already returned to the presbytery.

“What went wrong?”, I asked. “Well”, he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Your friend does not have what it takes. He does not take charge. He is not a natural leader. The boys sense that and take advantage.”

Leadership, natural and commissioned

It is useful to reflect on the relationship between our personality and our authority. Sociology tells us that any community or group tends to be guided by so-called ‘natural leaders’. These are persons who possess the qualities required to inspire and lead others.

Among such qualities we may reckon: the ability to maintain good human relations; a special talent in the skills demanded by the group; maturity of character; and a sense of responsibility. Whereas others may try to command respect in vain, natural leaders will spontaneously be recognised and accepted by the group.

Without any doubt Jesus himself was a natural leader. But he acted because he had been commissioned. He proclaimed a message on the strength of authority given him. Contemporaries noted he was not talking like their scribes. “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you…” (Matthew 5,

He knew himself assigned to his task by God. Jesus’ authority manifested itself also in his miraculous cures and in his power to forgive sins. Confronted with the priests in the temple, Jesus insisted on possessing authority to drive out the merchants. Jesus sent his apostles into the whole world in the awareness: “To me has been given all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28,18).

But what about the apostles? Were they chosen by Jesus because they had social qualities conducive to make them accepted as natural leaders?

We know that Jesus selected the apostles very carefully. Before calling the twelve, Jesus prayed the whole night. He chose only those “whom he himself selected”. Studying the gospels, we find plenty of indications to show that Jesus did not only select them on a spiritual basis, but also with an eye on their natural talents.

Some degree of natural leadership was undoubtedly presupposed in Jesus’ selection of the apostles. But the authority Jesus gave may not be judged as an extension of such natural dispositions. Jesus gave something startlingly new and entirely different.

The kind of authority Jesus gave

There can be no doubt that, in the history of the Church, the apostles’ successors often got things wrong in their exercise of authority. Church governance needs to be reformed. However, in doing so the true authority of Church leaders should not be lost or minimised. This requires careful scrutiny.


When we discuss the nature of authority in the Church, should we not ask ourselves: what did Jesus have in mind? Does the way the Church is governed in our own days correspond to what Jesus wanted?

Dr John Wijngaards is a Catholic scripture scholar and founded the Wijngaards
Institute for Catholic Research in 1983.

Published by arrangement with the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

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