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Issue Date:  October 19, 2007

From the Editor's Desk

Revered elders owed respect

You will read in this issue of NCR a story about the controversial decision by the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., to keep Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu from speaking on its campus. That decision was reconsidered, and kudos must go to the leadership of the university for having the courage to listen to the collective wisdom of the community and acknowledge the unfortunate mistake. I speak as a former college president and I know from experience the balancing act educational leaders face in guarding the ideals and public face of their institutions. It’s not easy. (See story)

Yet we cannot ignore the reality that the initial decision to not invite Archbishop Tutu was jarring and caused quite a stir. We sensed that something was wrong. How can a man whose name is synonymous with nonviolence, peace and reconciliation all over the world be considered too risky to have on a program at a major Catholic university? It is one thing to be cautious about a speaker’s controversial views; it’s quite another matter to refuse access to a globally recognized senior statesman and prophetic figure who has undeniably devoted his entire life to the protection of the least privileged among us.

I must admit that personally I was quite distressed by this decision. In my role as publisher of NCR, I could only lament what I saw as another example in a long line of decisions by authority figures under pressure who decide for everyone which voices may be heard. Or in this case, not heard.

Read and decide for yourself the merits of this particular case. I want to focus instead on another angle in this story -- the role of elders within the Christian community and the respect due them.

What example do we set for young seekers when we publicly fail to show respect to someone like Archbishop Tutu, or others who, by virtue of their age, life experience, and courage on behalf of the poor and oppressed, have earned the role of community elders? Who would question that Archbishop Tutu holds such a revered status within the Christian community for his lifelong commitment to social justice?

The biblical profile of a community elder presumes a wisdom that comes from experience and age, though this may not always mean chronological age or senior citizen status. Elders are those who have demonstrated that they are grounded in tradition and have been tested by fire in upholding it. The New Testament refers often to those members of the community who can be called upon to pray and to speak in difficult times. They are the leaders whom, when it is their turn to speak to the community, everyone listens to attentively and with due respect.

Elders are honored because their hearts are imbued with wisdom, which is their gift to the community. Because they have stood in the breach, faced controversy, been tested by suffering, they are given pride of place, special regard for their experience in guiding, nourishing and protecting the Gospel tradition as it engages life’s complex questions and problems.

In the Catholic community, we have unfortunately tied the role of elder to the present-day structure of ordination and give little attention to the historical meaning of the word. It’s an important idea and a necessary facet for understanding the full nature of Christian community. We need such individuals to stay the course and help alert us to the radical demands of the Gospel.

We weaken our communities and the search for wisdom when we ignore the value of deep-lived experience and give equal weight to any and all points of view. Intellectual capacity without the virtues that come through the test of time produces leaders without prudence, judiciousness, insight and common sense.

A college or university campus serves the young well when it surrounds them with community elders, those among administrators, faculty and advisers who can speak to the tradition and to the lessons of life. More important than endowed chairs and well-equipped libraries and classroom buildings, this is the “well of wisdom” we must find.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a revered elder of the Christian community. We may not all agree with his every opinion, but he deserves our respect. Thank you, Fr. Dennis Dease, president of the University of St. Thomas, for listening to the voices of both protest and wisdom in the community, and, in the end, exercising the leadership that allowed wisdom to prevail.

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-- Sr. Rita Larivee, SSA

National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2007

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