I serve on the national board of the National Association Of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU). Over the last four days we were back in Washington, D.C., trying to sort out how best to navigate our way in private higher education through the turbulent waters of dramatic political change in our nation.
On the plane late last night, on my way back to Seattle, I became intensely absorbed in George Weigel’s brand-new book The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. This is Weigel’s follow-up to his great biography of the pope called Witness to Hope, one of the important books in my life.
And somehow my reflections on what is happening in our nation’s capital seemed to come together with new thoughts about the life and leadership and teaching of Pope John Paul II.
Late in his life, John Paul delivered a homily on the fishing story in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. This is where Jesus calls on his disciples to “put out into the deep.” After a whole night of fishing with nothing but frustrating results, Jesus tells these able fishermen that fishing in the shallows is the wrong place to fish. You must “put out into the deep” — that’s where the big catch lies.
For John Paul, Weigel says, “the Church of the third millennium could not rest in the shallows of institutional maintenance” alone. That would be like fishing in the shallow waters. He understood, with tremendous and tenacious insight, that he should invest his energies in more important matters.
With the huge problems of our world swirling all around us, we too must focus on the things that really matter. We must go deeper. We must let go of the shallow issues of our own organizations and institutions. We should call on our political leaders to break free from the gridlock of sometimes shallow ideological standoff. For all of us, to focus on ourselves as leaders or politicians is a focus in the wrong place. The problems we face are too great. There’s no time to be fishing in the shallows.
The pope encourages us all as Christians not to “settle for a life of mediocrity.” We cannot settle for lives “marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity.” No, we must “put out into the deep.” We must think as boldly as we can. We must be strong voices for another way of living together in the human community, even when the odds seem against us.
The pope was frail and filled with pain by this time. At this moment too he was absorbing the horrifying scandals of priestly abuse of children and the equally disturbing inadequate response of the church to these egregious violations of human dignity.
And then 9/11 exploded on the world scene. The pope worried, as Weigel says, “that the attacks had created a new and very dangerous situation. He was concerned that the West had been culturally weakened since the eruptions of the sixties: postmodernist skepticism, indeed insouciance, about the human capacity to know the truth of anything.” He was deeply worried that the West was “unprepared spiritually.”
And so it was, from this frail pope, with all of these dark and dangerous beginnings of the 21st century swirling around, that in August 2002, during the last of his dramatic travels to his native Poland, he said that our need for God’s mercy comes “from the depth of hearts filled with suffering, apprehension, and uncertainty.” And furthermore, it is in just this kind of moment in our lives and in our world that we yearn “for an infallible source of hope.”
For me, and for the pope, putting out into the deep requires looking first to Christ, “Christ considered in his historical features and in his mystery,” as the pope often said. Living in the “mystery” of the gospel, and at the same time living into the history of our lives and our world as Jesus lived in his, perhaps especially in times of suffering and uncertainty — this is what it means to “put out into the deep.”
Somehow on the plane last night I felt a renewed sense of conviction for my own life and leadership and the university I serve to “put out into the deep.” Somehow I hope we can all think hard on what this means for our own lives, for our institutions, and for our world.