The first reading from today (Wednesday of the 20th week of the year) is a significant admonition for priests. In this post, permit this priest to wonder how this warning from the Lord might apply to priests and shepherds today.
You who read these wonderings: please pray for priests, because we who have received much will also have much for which to account.
The passage from Ezekiel 34 is in bold, blue italics; my reflections are in bold, black 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. They give us a place to live, food, a salary, health insurance, retirement plans, and other benefits. They also pray for us and are supportive of parish activities upon which we depend and from which we benefit. Yes, they are so very good to us!
We must be willing to serve our people with love and devotion. While there are human limits to what we can do, we ought to embrace the truth of offering our lives in sacrificial love and service. 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 and the same: Jesus, our High Priest, offered the sacrifice of His very self. 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, “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; he often reminded us of the difficult lives they led.
In this passage, the Lord (through Ezekiel) warns His priests not merely to live off the people or to use them, but to live for them, to give them a shepherd’s care by providing loving attention, the protection of prayer, the sacraments, and the truth of God’s Word. The Lord does not say that shepherds have no needs; they do indeed need the wool, milk, and food the sheep can give, just as we priests need the support of our people. But in the end, we receive these gifts not for ourselves or as an end in themselves, but rather so that we can better serve our people.
Woe to priests who live selfishly off the people rather than sacrificially for them. Most priests I know work hard and do live this, but woe to those who fall back from this duty.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured.
Priests surely do at times tend to the physical weaknesses and illness of the people, but more typically we minister those who are spiritually weak and injured by sin (their own or those of others who have hurt them). It is essential for us to reach out lovingly to those who are hurt, or who struggle with sin and weakness due to 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 many. I decided to institute a policy of hearing confessions for half an hour before every weekend Mass. I know many other priests do the same. While it is sometimes a burden for me to rush from Sunday school to confessions and then right into the next Mass, God’s people have wounds that need binding and the medicine of the sacraments.
Counseling and spiritual direction are also needed. Thank God I have a staff of good people that effectively manage the business and administrative details of the parish. This enables me to do a lot of counseling and spiritual direction for people each day.
God’s people need care, and we who are priests and shepherds ought to do everything we can to be available and effective in healing the spiritual sickness of sin and in 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 weaknesses and sins to others (our spiritual directors and confessors) for healing. As we gain skill in self-understanding and as we make our own journey, we are better equipped to help others.
We must also do this by preaching charitably but clearly about the reality of sin and the need to repent. Many Catholics are critical of the fact that their pulpits have been “silent” for years on many critical moral topics and that little moral guidance is given to God’s people by the clergy. We must commit to speaking the truth in love about sin, morality, and the need for repentance. Otherwise, we are like a doctor who never mentions disease and who merely shrugs when obviously sick people seek his help in getting better.
Woe to us if we are too busy to bind the wounds of sinners and bring healing love to those who struggle. If we do this, we are like the Pharisees of old who simply wrote off sinners as “the great unwashed.” Jesus welcomed and ate with sinners. Woe to us if we do not reach out to sinners. Some of the Lord’s most severe warnings were reserved for the Pharisees and other religious leaders who scorned sinners but did little or nothing to teach them, to help them, or to bind their wounds.
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost.
Many Catholics today have strayed and are lost. Only about a quarter come to Mass at all, and even among those who do attend, there are some have been deceived by the world and have lost their way.
One of the greatest struggles of the modern priest is knowing what to do about the overwhelming number of strayed and lost Catholics. Too many Catholic parishes have an evangelization program that amounts to little more than opening the doors and hoping people come. We have to do better. We must actively seek out the lost and call them home.
Overwhelmed with parish tasks due to dwindling numbers, priests struggle to find the time for active and personal evangelization. Here are some things that can help:
– Wearing clerical attire when away from the parish (shopping, traveling, etc.), concentrating on appearing approachable to those who seek answers and attention.
– Using opportunities such as funerals and weddings (at which many unchurched and lapsed Catholics are in attendance) to call people home and to invite them to a closer walk with God.
– Taking walks in the neighborhood and in local parks, greeting people and engaging them while doing so.
– Asking for help from parishioners in encouraging their fallen away family members to attend instructional programs and to return to Church.
– Asking group leaders to specifically reach out to members of their particular group who may have drifted, encouraging them to return.
– Actively teaching parishioners how to be better evangelizers. In the end, shepherds don’t have sheep; sheep have sheep.
Regardless of how 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 us 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 blame. Vast numbers of our people have been deceived by innumerable errors; too often we have been silent, or at best an uncertain voice. Often our silence has been due to concerns with remaining popular and accepted. At other times it has been simple laziness—not wanting to take the time and expend the effort necessary to study the cultural problems and develop 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 cynicism) about the Scriptures and Church teachings.
Whatever the causes, we who are leaders cannot escape significant responsibility for the lost and scattered quality of God’s people today; 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.
In this is our sole hope: that despite the weaknesses of priests, parents, educators, and all Church leaders, the Lord God alone can overcome all this and will ultimately bring to perfection the flock who follow Him in faith. 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 laxity; it only shows God’s grace and mercy in spite of it.
Disclaimer: Most priests I know are good, hardworking men. But none of us is perfect and the admonitions of this passage challenge all of us in some way.
Please pray for priests. Much has been given to us and thus much is rightly expected from us. 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: