Editor’s note: The following is based upon Bishop Barry C. Knestout’s homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 12, 2018.
I recently heard a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk by Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL, in which he spoke about a leadership concept called Extreme Ownership.
He spoke about war as an incredible and brutal teacher whose lessons are not forgotten. In war, he said, one is forced to see humanity at its absolute worst, and one is blessed to see humanity in its most glorious moments.
Willink learned a most impactful lesson in the spring 2006 in Ramadi, Iraq, where terrorists ruled the streets. One day, multiple units that included friendly Iraqi troops and U.S. Marines and Navy SEALS were in a battle. The fog of war rolled in. With it came confusion, chaos, gunfire, screaming men, blood and death.
Through a series of mistakes, poor judgment and bad luck, the firefight broke out, not between them and the enemy, but between friendly troops. It was, Willink noted, “fratricide, the mortal sin of combat.”
Word of what happened made it up the chain of command. Someone needed to be held accountable and fired. As he prepared his debriefing, Willink saw there was plenty of blame to go around; he could incriminate so many of his men. Yet, he struggled to find the answer.
Then, right before his debriefing, the answer hit him. Only one person was to blame for what had occurred. He knew exactly who that was.
He walked into the debriefing room along with his men and commanding officers. He stood up and asked one question: “Whose fault was this?”
One after another raised his hand and took blame for what happened. After each one spoke, Willink replied, “No! It wasn’t your fault.” After the last one spoke, he replied, “No! It wasn’t your fault. There was only one person at fault, one to blame!” That person was himself.
He was the commander, the senior man; he was responsible for everything that happens, “everything!” That admission, he said, hurt. It hurt his ego and pride to take the blame. But he knew, in order to maintain his integrity as a leader, he had to take control of his ego and take responsibility — and not let his ego and pride control him.
As the briefing continued, Willink described his plan to ensure the tragedy never happened again.
He did not get fired. His commanding officers, who expected excuses and finger pointing, because he took responsibility, trusted him even more. His men respected him more, because they knew he would never shirk his responsibility, and never pass the burden of command onto them.
Willink concluded: Unlike a team where no one takes ownership of the problems, and therefore the problems never get resolved, with the SEALS, everyone took ownership of the mistakes and the problems.
“When a team takes ownership of problems, they get solved!” he said. “This is true on the battlefield, in business, in life.” It is also true in the Church.
Willink advised all who were listening not to hide, not to let their pride keep them from the truth. Take ownership — all the good and bad, all the mistakes, shortfalls and problems, as well as the solutions to get them solved.
“Take ownership of the mission, and lead,” he said.
Our Church is in a battle. We are experiencing the fog of war. This is a spiritual battle for eternal life and the good of souls. The instruments of the battle are the destructive weapons of vice, sin, pride, denial and even ideology.
In this spiritual battle there are casualties. There are those who succumb to discouragement, anger, resentment, cynicism, and despair. This is why the Church needs to be, as Pope Francis has said, a field hospital.
At every age, God’s people, all of us, in some way fail to live up to the challenge of discipleship. We easily give in to expediency and spiritual laziness.
Every time we see someone fall short of the virtue they are capable of, and we do not try to assist them in reaching their full potential, we contribute to the culture of denial and failure. Every time we don’t act with courage, we contribute to the culture of denial and failure. Every time we don’t speak up when we see something that seems out of place or out of order, we contribute to the culture of denial and failure.
We contribute to an environment that does not take sin seriously and an environment that does not call one another to holiness and virtue.
Every time we respond to the failures of those around us only by pointing fingers and proclaiming judgment, but do not see how we might have contributed to the problem, we stoke attitudes of anger, resentment and bitterness, and contribute to the problems rather than to their resolution.
But if we exercise Extreme Ownership then we will be slow to lay blame and quick to accept responsibility; then we might be able to make progress in overcoming ingrained sins. It is the accountability we profess when we pray in the Penitential Rite, “what we have done and what we have failed to do.”
The path to eternity is a path like Christ — of Extreme Ownership of our weakness and sin. This can help us to see more clearly our need for God’s grace and accept God’s gift of life for us. It is the only way we can repair the damage done by sin.
As we hear in John’s Gospel (6:41-51), Christ is the bread of life; he is what sustains us and gives us courage. He gives an example of sacrifice, which feeds us. He gives us the example of what Jocko Willink called Extreme Ownership. Jesus, though pure and innocent, accepts ownership of us and responsibility for our sins.
He carries the crosses we produce — crosses that would otherwise crush us. He takes those crosses and restores us undeservedly to life. He is our hope and our bread, our sustainability in times of discouragement, confusion and loss.
With poor leadership and scandal in the Church, everyone — the lay faithful, clergy and, yes, bishops — have every reason to be angry, upset and discouraged.
For us bishops, what has been reported about Church leadership in recent weeks is a call to embrace Extreme Ownership, no matter how challenging we find it. The only route through this newest revelation of failure is for us to take responsibility for the harm we have caused, reflect on how we may have contributed to an environment that allowed it to happen, learn why these issues were not addressed, and commit — individually and as a body — to preventing this from happening again.
Christ is the only person who can lead us to true holiness, a perfectly just and good man who willingly bears the burden for us. We are all sinners and in need of God’s grace. The path to eternal life is the admission of sin, weakness and stupidity, in word and action, and asking for the grace of forgiveness, renewal and the wisdom to grow in holiness.
Please, join me in praying for that grace.