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Church Turned Upside Down: Leadership Lessons from Mardi Gras

This coming Tuesday, the Mardi Gras or Carnival season comes to an end and gives way to Lent, completing the transition away from the Christmas festal cycle to that of Easter. I recently had the chance to speak with someone living and working in New Orleans who described to me the various parades there and the variety of people from around the city who participated in them, a far cry from debauched stereotypes about the festival. This fascinating conversation served as a reminder to me that Carnival’s symbols and traditions—unofficial to the liturgical calendar but deeply rooted in Catholic tradition—might help us to think anew about the significance and meaning of leadership in the church.

The two names by which the feast is known—translated “fat Tuesday” or “goodbye to meat,” respectively—both reflect the significance of food to its celebration. Depending where you are, various kinds of desserts will figure in—ranging from the cinnamon-flavored, creamy “king cake” of French-influenced regions, to various forms of doughnuts like beignets and paczki. Indeed, the very history of doughnuts is closely tied up with Mardi Gras. These preoccupations reflect the significance of the body—bodily enjoyment before the onset of bodily deprivation through fasting – to Catholicism.

Parades and festivals of fools further the celebration by incorporating the whole body with singing, dancing, parading and theatrical performances. In many places, these celebrations traditionally included “boy king” and “boy bishop” ceremonies—with a child stepping into the role temporarily and with much pomp and circumstance—that symbolically inverted the social order. In so doing, they made an important point: however important a king or bishop might appear, any pretense they make about their significance is and ought to be subject to mockery as they are human like the rest of us and subject to the same fate. While on some level these ceremonies served to reaffirm the social order even as they leveled it, they contained and very publicly displayed important truths about its relative significance. These ceremonies notably declined as the “divine right of kings” became more prevalent, and the embattled Catholic Church of the last few centuries has afforded less irreverence in portrayals of its leadership.

In some ways, Mardi Gras is symbolic of a cultural Catholicism—what theologian Karl Rahner called a “people’s church”—that is rapidly passing away thanks to secularization. Most of the traditionally Catholic countries where its celebration is most noted have indeed rapidly secularized (or in the case of many Latin American countries, witnessed a rise of Evangelicalism). Yet the inversions of hierarchies offered by this feast have insights for us today.

Many of the challenges we face in the church today owe to the clerical and hierarchical culture that became more prevalent after the Council of Trent with the institution of seminaries and more regimented life for diocesan clergy. This situation was exacerbated both by the 19th and 20th century centralization of church governance and the further culture of respect for authority fostered in the English-speaking lands (notably for Catholics in Ireland) during the Victorian era. (Saint!) Thomas More’s satirical Utopia—where the priests were very holy because very few—gave way to a more self-serious vision of the priesthood and episcopacy that has damaged the church significantly. The sexual abuse scandal cannot be blamed solely on this, but it was certainly exacerbated by it—any class of people who set themselves apart in this way, protected from the consequences of their actions, are by human nature practically guaranteed to engage in severe abuse of power.

The boy bishop ceremony encapsulates a skepticism toward authority and its bearers that is sorely needed today (along with other reforms about who can exercise that authority). Attempts to revive a “high” vision of the priesthood have resulted in cadres of young priests insensitive to the needs of the faithful and hostile to the magisterium of Pope Francis. Meanwhile, a large number of men called (on the phone) to the episcopate decline it, and those who accept it still struggle with finding “the smell of the sheep.” The spirit of Mardi Gras ought to inform our perspectives on these matters. Pope Francis has famously remarked on the temptation of many Christians toward lives like Lent without an Easter, but perhaps we also ought to beware of Lent without a Carnival. The extravagance and mockery of Mardi Gras and the simplicity espoused by the “pact of the catacombs” during Vatican II are two sides of the same coin: a view of leadership aware of its own limitations and geared to service rather than power.

So, as you enjoy your Mardi Gras pastries—whether from your local doughnut shop, Polish bakery, or Cajun restaurant—consider carrying the spirit of Mardi Gras forward. If you aspire to leadership in the church or your station in life (particularly if you are from a dominant group), remember first and foremost that it is not about you. Tolerating, and indeed encouraging, some levity about your role will serve your own good and that of those you lead. You might even, as they say in New Orleans Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler.

Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.


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