The first reading from Wednesday of this week is a significant admonition for priests. Permit in this post for one priest to wonder aloud how this warning from the Lord might apply to us who are priests and shepherds today.
For you who read, who listening to the wonderings of one priest, please pray for priests, for we who have received much will also have much for which to account.
The passage from Ezekiel 34 is in bold blue, italic text, my own reflections are in plain black and bold text.
The word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, in these words prophesy to them to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep? You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured.
We who are priests owe a great deal to our people. They take great care of us, giving us a place to live, food, a salary, health insurance, retirement plans, and other benefits. They also pray for us and are supportive of so many parish activities we depend on and benefit from. Yes, they are so very good to us.
We who are priests therefore must surely be willing to serve them with love and devotion. And, while there are human limits to what we can do, and while it is important to get proper rest etc., we ought to embrace the truth of offering our lives in sacrificial love and service for them. In the Old Testament the priest and the victim (e.g. a lamb) were distinct. But in the New Testament, the priest and the victim are one in the same, for Jesus, our High Priest offered the sacrifice of his very self. And we who act in his person must also learn to offer ourselves sacrificially to our people.
Cardinal McCarrick, my Archbishop for six years, used to tell us priests, “If you don’t routinely go to bed tired, something is wrong.” It was his way of telling us to work hard for our people, and he often reminded us of the difficult lives they led.
So also, in this admonition the Lord, through Ezekiel warns his priests, and shepherds not merely to live off the people, not to use them, but to live for them; to give them a shepherd’s care, loving attention, the protection of prayer, the Sacraments, and the truth of God’s word. The Lord does not say the shepherds have no needs. They do indeed need the wool, milk and food the sheep can give, just as we priests need our people’s support. But in the end, we receive these gifts not for ourselves or as an end in themselves. But rather we receive them so as to be able to better serve our people.
Woe to priests who life selfishly off our people rather than sacrificially for them. Most priests I know work hard and do live this, but woe to those of us who fall back from our duties and look more to ourselves than to our people.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured.
Surely priests do at times tend to the physical weaknesses and illness of our people. But more usually our is a ministry to those who are spiritually weak, and injured by sins, whether their own, or the sins of others who have hurt them. How essential for us to lovingly reach out to those who are hurt, those who struggle with sin and the weaknesses due to sin and temptation.
Sacramental confession ought to be generously and conveniently supplied to God’s people. Early in my first pastorate I realized that the traditional Saturday afternoon confession time, was inconvenient for my people. So I instituted a policy of hearing confessions for a half an hour before every scheduled weekend Mass. Many other priests do the same. It is sometimes a burden on a Sunday to rush from Sunday school to confessions, and then right into the next Mass, but God’s people have wounds that need binding and the medicine of the sacraments.
Counseling and spiritual direction is also needed. Thank God I have a good staff that effectively manage the business and administrative details of parish life. This enables me to do a lot of counseling and spiritual direction for people each day.
But God’s people need care and we who are priests and shepherd ought to do everything we can to become more available and effective in healing the spiritual sickness of sin and helping to bind the wounds of those hurt by the human struggle with sin.
We do this first by seriously tending to our own wounds and submitting our own weakness and sin to others, (our spiritual directors and confessors) for healing. And, as we gain skill in self understanding and make our own journey, we can help others.
We must also do this by preaching charitably but clearly about the reality of sin and the need to repent. Many many Catholics are critical that their pulpits have been “silent” for years on many critical moral topics and that little moral guidance is given God’s people by the clergy. Hence we must commit to speaking the truth in love about sin, morality and the need for repentance. Otherwise we are likened to the absurdity of a doctor who never mentions disease and who merely shrugs when clearly sick people seek his help as to how to get better.
Woe to us if we are too busy to bind the wounds of sinners and bring healing love to those who struggle. We are like the pharisees of Old who simply wrote off “sinners” as the great unwashed. Jesus welcomed and ate with sinners. Yes, woe is us if we fall short in reaching out to sinners. Some of the Lord’s most severe warnings were reserved for the pharisees and other religious leaders who scorned sinners but little or nothing to teach them, help them or bind their wounds.
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost....
It seems clear that most Catholics today are strayed and lost. on 27% come to Mass at all, and even among them there are those who stray and have been deceived by the world, who have lost their way.
One of the greatest struggles of the modern priest is to know how or what to do with the overwhelming number of strayed and lost Catholics. Too many Catholic parishes have an evangelization program little better than opening the doors and hoping people come. We have to do better. We have to actively seek the lost and straying and call them home.
Yet, often overwhelmed with parish tasks and fewer in number, priests struggle to find the time for active and personal evangelization. Yet some things help:
- Wearing clerical attire when away from the parish, shopping, traveling, etc., and being approachable to those who seek answers and attention.
- Using opportunities like funerals and weddings (where many unchurched, and lapsed Catholics are in attendance) to call people home and to invite and summon them to a closer walk with God.
- Taking walks in the neighborhood and local park to greet people and engage them.
- Asking help from parishioners to specifically ask fallen away family members, to attend instruction programs and to return to Church.
-Asking group leaders to specifically reach out to members of their particular group who may have drifted, to return.
- Priests should also actively teach and engage his people in how to be better evangelizers. In the end, shepherds don’t have sheep, sheep have sheep.
But, however we do it, we priests must bring back the strayed and lost.
So they were scattered for the lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered and wandered over all the mountains and high hills; my sheep were scattered over the whole earth, with no one to look after them or to search for them.
I shudder to think of the immense losses the Church has suffered on the watch of we priests who live today. The flock is surely scattered. And while it is true that huge cultural waves have swept through western world and brought devastation, we who are leaders of God’s flock cannot escape any blame. The flock has been scattered on our watch. Vast numbers of our people have been deceived by innumerable errors and too often we have been silent, or, at best, an uncertain trumpet. Often our silence has been due to concerns with remaining popular and accepted. At other times it has been simple laziness in studying the cultural problems and developing a coherent and courageous response to errors. At still other times, it has been our own sin that has blinded us and caused uncertainty, even a cynicism toward the Scriptures and Church teachings.
Whatever the causes, cultural, or clerical, we who are leaders cannot escape significant responsibility for the lost and scattered quality of God’s people today. And neither can we blame the previous generation. We just have to get to work and trust that God will bless us.
I will save my sheep, ….For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep.
And in this is our sole hope, that despite every human weakness of priests, parents, educators and all Church leadership, the Lord God alone can overcome all this and will ultimately bring to perfection the flock who follow him in faith. And we who are priests, who feel so often overwhelmed, do well to remember that the Lord is the ultimate and true shepherd who can overcome our weakness and supply what is lacking. None of this excuses our laxity, it only shows God’s grace and mercy in spite of it.
Disclaimer: most brother priests I know are good, hardworking men. But it is also true that none of us are perfect men and the admonitions of this passage challenge all of us somehow.
Please pray for priests. Much has been given to us and much is rightly expected. Pray, pray, pray.
This video has a song that may not exactly fit for this sort of reflection, but the footage from Fishers of Men shows good priests in action: