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Doug Koop

Advice to a Pope

Ever-timely words from Bernard of Clairvaux.

On the first anniversary of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI will no doubt be taking stock. Most observers would agree that this new pope has gotten off to a good start. He carries himself with a comfortable air of confidence and self-assurance, mixed with a gentleness that has won over some of his critics. But he is human, and if in the dark watches of the night he wonders how any papal incumbent can faithfully serve God with authority and humility in proper measure, it's a fair bet that a small volume by a long-dead Cistercian lies close to hand on his bedside table.

Benedict would not be the first pope to find understanding—comfort, guidance, admonition and instruction—in a text by the 12th-century contemplative St. Bernard of Clairvaux entitled Five Books on Consideration: Advice to a Pope. Coping with the demands of high office and the venality of courtiers is a timeless scourge. "Today," Bernard asks, "is it not rather ambition than devotion that wears down the doorsteps of the Apostles?" Is it much different now?

Every tested leader acquires painful knowledge of how difficult it is to manage time efficiently, to discern and establish proper priorities, decide wisely, delegate appropriately and implement sensible action with skill, fortitude and grace. And leaders of all sorts must inevitably deal with people—dolts, disciples, and usurpers whose interference or indifference can drive even the most serene to livid distraction. Temporal leadership becomes even more complex when the spiritual dimension is in play. All the allures of money and power are just as real, but the conscience is supposed to more refined, the common good a more prominent objective and the spiritual welfare of humanity a primary concern.

A striking feature of Pope John Paul II's long papacy was the man's remarkable ability to demonstrate spiritual leadership even as he wielded papal power. I found it strangely fitting that the weekend he died I happened to be praying at a retreat ...

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