Leadership in Pandemic Times: The Power of Memory to Sustain

If ever there were a time to look to those who have endured long-term hardship to access their skills, now would be it.  As a nation, we are young and inexperienced when it comes to facing something like Covid-19.  We don’t have an ancient memory, and as a forward looking culture, we are not fond of or skilled in history or reflection.  Now may be the time to re-consider that as we find our way through the current pandemic.  Social distancing, self-quarantining, hoarding, regional lockdowns, cancellations galore…none of these are part of our experience.  What’s a church leader to do?

Tevye said it best: “Tradition!” [1]  And the Hebrew people have a tradition, carried forward in the liturgy, of a type of remembering that has sustained them throughout their difficult history.  It is the same kind of remembering we do in every Eucharist.  We call it anamnesis and it’s a particular type of remembering, where we bring the past to the present so that, in connecting to it, we participate in it and are influenced by it now.

But, what are leaders actually remembering when practicing anamnesis?  Past instances where they acted with courage.  Why?  So that they can bring those situations to the present, access their emotions and their actions and draw from them as they select a path today.  That kind of remembering builds courage for action in new situations.  In this kind of anamnesis, leaders recall they have faced situations needing courage before, they have been successful in coming up with responses, and they can trust the same will happen now.  That surely fuels courage:  the ability to act despite risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure.

Courageous leaders spend some time mining their history for these stories long before the crisis erupts.  They do this with journals, in conversation with colleagues and trusted friends, and with loved ones.  They remember those moments of trial and triumph, of failure that built fortitude.  Both kind of memories are gold mines of wisdom that, when brought to the present, fuel the courage to face the current situation with reasoned choice rather than rash reaction.

But, what if you’ve no stories like this to remember?  What if you’re a new leader or have not been successful with courage?  All is not lost.  Other people’s stories of courage can provide a similar kind of experience of remembering.  For Roman Catholics, we have the courageous stories of biblical characters and the Saints from which to draw.  And of course, we have the courage of Jesus Christ to reflect upon.  How did He face His mission with single-hearted, focused devotion?  What stories and practices sustained Him?  What did He do in the face of injustice, opposition, and crisis?  This kind of anamnesis is animated by the gift of the Holy Spirit:  the gift of courage/fortitude.  Seeking courage will open up the graces of the tradition for you.

Combine the two practices:  searching your own history/tradition and that of Christianity/Roman Catholicism yields a treasury from which courage can flow.  Anamnesis:  a remembering intended to bring the past to the present so that the present is influenced.  It’s a skill courageous leaders need to develop.  It’s a skill we need in these pandemic times:  times unfamiliar to us, but not unfamiliar to men and women who have gone before us.



[1]  For those of you too young to recognize this reference, Tevye is a main character in the play “Fiddler on the Roof.”  He’s a faithful Jew who knows that embedded in his Jewish traditions are many notions that sustain a people.  He sings of it during the show in a song entitled “Tradition!”


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As I write this, it’s just under a month until the first phase of the Church’s Synod on the process of synodality is to begin.