Every year at about this time we read St. Augustine’s sermon “On Pastors” in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. As you know, priests are required to read the Divine Office daily; St. Augustine’s sermon extends over the better part of two weeks. It amounts to a stern warning for priests who too easily live off the sheep instead of shepherding them rightly.
There are tender moments in the sermon as well. At one point, commenting on a passage from Ezekiel rebuking bad shepherds (You have consumed the milk of the sheep and clothed yourself in their wool (Ez 34:3)), Augustine turns to the lay people present and says,
Clothing can well be taken to mean honor, since it covers nakedness. For every man without exception is weak. And who is any man placed over you except someone just like yourself? Your pastor is in the flesh; he eats, sleeps, and awakens; he was born and is going to die. In himself he is, when you think of it, simply a man. But it is true that you make him something more by giving him honor; it is as if you were covering what is weak.
Consider the nature of clothing that the Apostle Paul received from God’s good people. He said, “You have received me like an angel of God ….” Indeed, great honor was shown to him.
St. Augustine then turns back to the priests with an admonition.
But did [Paul] then spare sinners because of that honor, perhaps out of fear that it would be refused and that he would receive less praise when he gave blame? Had he done so, he would be among those shepherds who feed themselves and not the sheep. He would then say to himself: “What has this to do with me? Let everyone do what he will; my sustenance is safe, and my honor too. I have enough milk and wool, so let each one do as he likes.” … In recalling how they treated him, the Apostle does not want to appear forgetful of the honor they did him. Therefore, he gives testimony that they received him like an angel of God … Yet he still comes to the sheep that is ill, to the one that is diseased, to cut the wound and not to spare the diseased part. He says: “Have I then become your enemy by preaching the truth?” He took from the milk of the sheep, as I mentioned a short time ago, and he was clothed with their wool, but he did not neglect his sheep. He did not seek what was his but what was Christ’s.
Pray for priests. We live in times when many priests have been trained or led to think that the goal of our ministry is to affirm people and make them feel welcome. There is a place for affirmation and welcoming, but the goal of our ministry is the salvation of souls. At times, this requires that we say and do difficult things, things that anger people and cause us to be ridiculed and denounced by many in the surrounding culture. As St. Augustine says, though, the treatment of wounds requires not just the oil that soothes, but also the wine that stings as it debrides and decontaminates.
What would one think of a doctor who spent most of his time making sure that his waiting room was pleasant and the examination rooms cheerful, but expended little effort studying disease and doing what was necessary to bring his patients back to good health? Proper medical care often requires strong medicines and painful surgeries. Further, doctors must often share difficult information with patients and/or give strong admonitions that lifestyle changes must be made. Pleasant examination rooms and a good bedside manner are all well and good, but providing medical care is the primary objective. A doctor who does not speak the truth to his patients because he wants to keep them happy is guilty of malpractice; he has maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum.
It is no less the case with priests who avoid conflict or difficulty in order to preserve their honor. They have allowed a lesser thing to eclipse a greater thing. Pleasantries and affirmation too easily overshadow the truth, which is what sets us free even if it is sometimes strong medicine.
As St. Augustine mercifully reminds, priests are human. No one likes conflict; all other things being equal, avoiding unnecessary conflict is a good thing. Avoiding conflict at the expense of the truth, though, is a false peace, a temporary peace. The darkness, baseness, and ferocity of our times testifies against the idea of “going along to get along.” A false peace cannot endure. Our silence and the false tolerance of relativism is, in the end, tyranny.
The concern about silent pulpits on the key moral issues of our day is too widespread to be discredited as a minority view. Despite our human weakness, we who are priests must summon the courage to speak and teach more clearly and consistently than is currently evident. True shepherds can do no less.
I am reminded of a text by St. Basil, which I believe serves as a fitting postscript to my own poorer reflections on this topic:
Men in authority are afraid to speak, for those who have reached power by human interest are the slaves of those to whom they owe their advancement. And now the very vindication of orthodoxy is looked upon in some quarters as an opportunity for mutual attack; and men conceal their private ill-will and pretend that their hostility is all for the sake of the truth. All the while unbelievers laugh; men of weak faith are shaken; faith is uncertain; souls are drenched in ignorance, because adulterators of the Word imitate the truth.
The better ones of the laity shun the churches as schools of impiety and lift their hands in the deserts with sighs and tears to their Lord in heaven. The faith of the Fathers we have received; that faith we know is stamped with the marks of the Apostles; to that faith we assent, as well as to all that in the past was canonically and lawfully promulgated (Saint Basil in Ep. 92, 2).