Don’t worry, as a Catholic bishop, this isn’t something I’ve forgotten to confess! I’m honouring the loving devotion of George and Florence, both over 100- years-old. Pope Francis has sent them a message blessing the anniversary of their marriage, which began one Christmas 80 years ago in our Diocese of Leeds.
Their daughter, now in her seventies, cares for both parents and husband with patience and humour. In 19 years, she’s taken just 11 days off. Virtue, we’re told, is its own reward.
I haven’t identified this ordinary yet extraordinary family because none of them seeks any reward, nor wants any fuss as they quietly lead their lives.
They quietly lead. Isn’t leadership supposed to be something loud and attention seeking? Over the year, leaders of political parties, industry and nations have, frankly, shouted at us – and shouted each other down, on-air and online.
The leadership of Jesus Christ isn’t about winners and successes triumphing over losers and failures. True leadership is the display of virtue – so any of us, whatever our age, background or circumstances can be leaders. The classic film It’s a Wonderful Life usually appears somewhere in the festive TV schedules. The main character, George Bailey, is having a mid-life crisis and believes his modest, small-town existence makes him a failure. It takes an angel to convince him that his family and business life has actually been one of quiet, virtuous, leadership. Without him, the lives of others would have been harder, sadder, lonelier or even cut short.
The film is a Christmas TV tear-jerker, but no less so than the story of that first Christmas: a baby born to a couple who would soon be refugees, dependent on the generosity of a pub landlord who has no other rooms available; laid in a manger, surrounded by rough shepherds and the smell of the sheep. Later, wise men arrive with gold and precious gifts and get down on their knees to worship this frail new-born. Who are the leaders and who the followers in that stable scene: the successes and the failures?
The Infant King lived to wear a crown – but of thorns, not gold. Far from a media-savvy miracle-worker with ‘A’-list celebrity followers, his friends were tax-collectors and prostitutes: the outcasts of the day. Virtue isn’t being ‘holier than thou’ and although virtues are based on Faith, Hope and Love, Christians don’t have a monopoly. Virtue is a ‘transferable skill’. No formal qualifications or exams needed. We can make a start by just wanting and trying to develop the habit of Virtue to make our lives and those of others better. That’s the essence of the Virtue of Justice right there: fair and honourable behaviour towards others.
We’re exercising the Virtue of Temperance when we choose not to be swayed by greed, consumerism or extremism. Prudence is the Virtue that comes to the fore when we use common sense and good judgment, listening to reasoned argument and rejecting bigotry; or giving the benefit-of-the-doubt, rather than taking offence where none is meant.
In our Catholic schools, we are pioneering a new education for leadership initiative with Virtue at its heart. It presents opportunities for all young people to develop leadership skills.
One national resource that started here in the Diocese of Leeds is called ‘The Wednesday Word’, which children can bring home from school to lead their parents to a better understanding of the next Sunday’s Gospel.
Children can display leadership through action, too. Recently, in Leeds Cathedral, I was privileged to say the first ever Mass for the junior arm of the Catholic social action charity, SVP. These seven to 11-year-olds are called the ‘Mini Vinnies’ as the charity takes as its model the non-judgmental generosity of St Vincent de Paul toward the poor and alienated. Their motto is to SEE where there is someone in need; THINK about how best to meet that need; and then (with parents’ or teachers’ help) actually DO something about it.
Most politicians would say they were similarly motivated. As we remember the family of the late Jo Cox MP, facing their first Christmas without her, from all accounts it was that desire to serve which she held dear, and which cost her dearly.
The courage she had – not forgetting that displayed by her constituent and our parishioner, Bernard Kenny – to persevere for good whatever the personal cost: that defines the Virtue of Fortitude.
We don’t have to hold public office or perform heroic acts. Whether an innkeeper in first-century Bethlehem, a fictional film protagonist, or real-life centenarians George and Florence, celebrating more than 100 Christmases and 80 Wedding Anniversaries, we can all make a difference through what we see, think and do – without shouting about it.
Welcoming a stranger as a friend; listening; speaking words of comfort or encouragement; a loving hug. Quiet, everyday acts of kindness reveal virtue and leadership just as much as leading a company, a country – or even a Church.
Every blessing for an ordinary, extraordinary Christmas.
The Right Reverend Marcus Stock is the Bishop of Leeds.