Cardinal to Harvard students: You need to be courageous

Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, March 17, 2016. Credit: Alexey Gotovskyi/CNA.
Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, March 17, 2016. Credit: Alexey Gotovskyi/CNA.

.- This week Cardinal George Pell sat down with some 20 students from Harvard visiting Rome, with the goal of challenging them to both set firm ideals and to work hard to achieve them – something the Church can help with by providing a basic framework for moral leadership.

In a March 14 interview with CNA ahead of his speech, Cardinal Pell said the main point he would make to the students is “that they need a cause. They need a set of principles that they accept and follow and that they will be prepared to make sacrifices for.”

He stressed the importance of conveying the message that as future leaders “they need to be courageous and they need to be persevering. And if they can be strategists, take a long-term view, so much the better.”

Cardinal Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, spoke just before giving his speech on Principled Leadership to a group of 20 people who are among Harvard University’s graduating class of 2017 and who traveled to Rome for a four-day “Harvard Vatican Leadership Summit.”

A student-led initiative, the event was held at the Pontifical Lateran University and hosted students from various backgrounds at Harvard, including the business, law, divinity, medical, and dental schools.

In addition to Cardinal Pell, other key figures participants have met with during the summit include Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin; Vatican Secretary for Relations with the States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher; Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Integral Human Development; and Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

In his comments to CNA, Cardinal Pell outlined the key principles that ought to guide business and economic decisions, saying that no matter what, “you must be aware of the common good.”

“Think of the whole of society, not just the shareholders, not just the workers in the small group,” he said. “Have some real understanding of what justice is. Have a special sensitivity for those who are less fortunate, those who are poor.”

One of the most important things to have a constant awareness of is our responsibility toward future generations, he said, cautioning that one modern danger is that “people know more and more about less and less.”

An advantage of the Catholic Church in this regard, he said, is that it can help provide “a general scheme” into which specific principles, causes, and points of view can fit.

However, he stressed that despite the Church’s role in providing this scheme for various fields, particularly economics and business, it is above all a religious institution, and as such doesn’t embrace any one system in particular.

Reflecting on criticisms Pope Francis has at times voiced in reference to the current global market system, the cardinal stressed that the Pope “is a religious leader, he is not an economist.”

The Church, he said, “does not espouse socialism, much less communism or Nazism or the free market. It announces general principles and says this fits or that doesn't fit.”

“We should listen very seriously to everything the Pope says on economics,” he said, but emphasized that as Christians, we listen to him because “he is the successor of Peter, he teaches us things religious.”

In this sense the Pope is applying Gospel standards to the economic situation, Cardinal Pell said, adding that if he himself were to speak out on the topic, people wouldn’t necessarily need to take notes on the economic aspect, “but if I preach the Gospel, I hope people listen.”

Since not all of the students participating in the summit are Catholic, the cardinal voiced his hope that they would walk away with at least a better idea of the Church’s social doctrine.

He brought a compendium of the social doctrine of the Church for each of the participants, because it is “a coherent exposition on many, many important topics,” including “right and wrong, natural law, subsidiarity, the common good and different types of justice.”

The Catholic Church is “one of the few organizations that has an over-arching system of thought to make people think,” he said, explaining that “it is logical and coherent, it's an impressive piece of work.”

Cardinal Pell praised the idea of summit as unique, and “exactly what a Catholic university needs to be doing.”

“I think the Christian perspective brings flourishing, brings life, makes good societies, brings happiness, development,” he said. So to have a group of students from a university such as Harvard is “a wonderful thing. I think it'll be good for them and it'll be good for us.”

Okendo Lewis, a student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government who spent part of his childhood in Milan, was the one who initially thought of the summit and made it happen with the help of Mary Ann Glendon, who was a US Ambassador to the Holy See during the George W. Bush administration and who now teaches at Harvard Law School.

In comments to CNA, Lewis said part of why he wanted to offer students a Vatican perspective on leadership is because “there seems to be a crisis in leadership” throughout the world, “and Pope Francis very much speaks to many who are trying to figure out how to lead in these difficult times.”

“I definitely wanted this next generation of leaders, whether they’re in business or in medicine or in law, to learn from the wisdom of the Pope, but also the city and the Church, which has had two thousand years of experience,” he said.

Lewis said he initially had doubts about whether or not people would come, since it was already late when they started to advertise the trip. However, they received over 180 applications, and had to narrow it down to 20 spots.

“I think that speaks to the power of the Catholic Church and the interest there is in Pope Francis. So people were actually very enthusiastic to be here,” he said.

Lewis voiced his hope that the summit would become an annual event. This year’s theme of “How to Answer the Call to Serve” fits into what most of the university’s students hope to accomplish, he said, explaining that “they’re trying to figure out how to leverage their education and their studies to help meet the needs of society, how can they be student leaders.”

“So my hope is that this will become an annual tradition so that students across Harvard and hopefully across the United States, can come to Rome and learn from so many of the institutions here where there’s the pontifical universities, there are dicasteries, and certainly the Pope himself.”

Kiernan Schmidt, a student at Harvard Business School, told CNA he wanted to participate not only because of his Irish and Catholic background, but also because the idea of “how morality plays into the decisions we make” as leaders in various fields.

“The idea of examining how morality guides our leadership styles was really the main impetus,” he said, adding that Pope Francis’ challenge for global leaders “to reexamine what we’re doing for each other and how we think of ourselves as leaders” was also a key factor.

What had impacted Schmidt so far in the meetings they had with Vatican officials was “hearing humility from almost every level of leadership that we've met with.”

Another point of particular interest was gaining “a profound understanding that traditions and conditions in local Churches can be very different from what you hear in Rome.”

“I think that that adjusting of leadership and tactics in how we approach problems can be very different in the cultural context,” he said, noting that in their meeting with Archbishop Gallagher, the prelate told them that he not only explains Rome to the local Churches of where he goes, but he also “explains the local Churches to Rome.”

This “two-way dialogue” in the Church, Schmidt said, “was something that felt very new, very refreshing and very modern and also very true to the words we hear from Pope Francis, you know, approaching problems with humility and seeking to talk one to one.”

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