On April 8, 2005 I sat in front of my television along with millions around the world and millions in Rome itself and watched as Pope John Paul II, servant of God, was laid to rest after an amazing life and an historic pontificate. The funeral Mass was beautiful and a testament to this globe-trotting pope but what was also a testament to John Paul II’s pontificate was the variety of people present. I remember thinking this time and again as the cameras scanned the vast crowd packed into St. Peter’s square and beyond – young and old were present, rich and poor as well as world leaders and humble religious brothers and sisters. Another notable group present were leaders representing the world’s religions – not only all strips of Christians but Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others. A few times the cameras focused in on this group and I thought how characteristic this representation was of the late Pope’s work to reach out to all people of goodwill and also how very “catholic and truly christian”.
God said, “Let us make man in our image, to our likeness. Let them rule over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, over the cattle, over the wild animals, and over all creeping things that crawl along the ground. So God created man in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
From the very first chapter of Sacred Scripture we have this amazing truth – all men and women – throughout the world and throughout time – are made in the image and likeness of God. As the story of the Scriptures continues though we learn of the fall and we see its effects in the history of humanity and the human person – the image and likeness of God is lost and covered over but not fundamentally destroyed, not totally obliterated. The revelation of the Christ is God’s answer to the fall and its consequences. Through Christ all creation is saved and restored – a salvation which we could never achieve on our own.
This fundamental anthropological understanding of the image of God present in each and every person is what was so catholic and truly christian about the representation of the world’s religious traditions at Pope John Paul II’s funeral Mass. It is this basic understanding of the human person that allows the Catholic Church to reach out and to acknowledge what is good and true in all the world’s religions and all the world’s peoples while at the same time holding on to and proclaiming the unique and full revelation of salvation found in Jesus Christ alone.
Before a person is a Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, agnostic or atheist he or she is someone made in God’s image. Before someone is solely a potential consumer or client to be won over he or she is someone made in God’s image. Before a person is just another statistic in a social/political issue he or she is someone made in God’s image. Before someone is just another soul needing to be saved he or she is someone made in God’s image.
Our Christian faith proclaims that through our baptisms the image of God present within the human person is fully restored by God’s grace and that also through a lifetime of faith choices on our part (responding to and saying “yes” to God’s grace) the likeness of God itself can be regained. These truths of the Christian faith are not things to gloat in and hold over the heads of non-Christians but sacred responsibilities to live out in sincerity and humility. (Responsibilities which, I believe, we Christians will be held accountable for before the judgement seat of Christ.) Further, these truths carry consequences; two of which directly influence our take on leadership:
1. Christian leadership respects the image of God within each person and seeks to acknowledge and call forth that image.
2. Christian leadership allows no room for manipulation in any form.
When Paul arrived in Athens to began his preaching he proclaimed,
Athenian citizens, I note that in every way you are very religious. As I walked around looking at your shrines, I even discovered and altar with this inscription: “To an unknown God.” Now, what you worship as unknown, I intend to make known to you. (Acts 17:22-23)
Paul began by showing respect. He not only acknowledged the honest religious desire that was present within the Athenian (Gentile) community; he also proclaimed that desire to be fundamentally good. Through the revelation of Christ and the Lord’s proclamation of the universality of the Kingdom of God, Paul was the first to put two and two together and recognize the image of God in all people – now Gentiles are coheirs with the Jews. Paul, here and throughout his entire ministry, witnesses for us respect for the image of God within each and every person.
We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor. 4:2)
The acknowledgement of the image of God within each person, if it is to be authentic, demands not just a superficial respect given toward the other person but also a fearless evaluation of our own actions and methods and, if need be, a change and conversion in our approach toward others. When the image of God is recognized there is no room for manipulation in any form. Paul did not just proclaim the word of God to others but, most importantly, let the word of God search and purify his own soul and then he acted out of that truth. “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways..,” writes the apostle. True leadership resists and renounces manipulation in all forms.
Passages for further reflection: