Strong Words from St. Augustine to those Who Would Be Shepherds

St. Augustine, reflecting on a text from Ezekiel, has some strong words for those who would be shepherds, be they bishops, priests, or deacons. Let’s examine two important observations he made during a longer sermon delivered to the priests and people of Hippo.

He begins with a lament over the failure of many shepherds to teach the truth:

After the Lord had shown what wicked shepherds esteem, he also spoke about what they neglect. The defects of the sheep are widespread. There are very few healthy and sound sheep, few that are solidly sustained by the food of truth, and few that enjoy the good pasture God gives them. But the wicked shepherds do not spare such sheep [from a sermon On Pastors by Saint Augustine, bishop (Sermo 46, 9: CCL 41, 535-536)].

St. Augustine speaks here of the fact that far too many are not “sustained by the food of truth.” The weak and unsound condition of the flock is evidence of neglect by the bishops, priests, and deacons of the Church. It is largely a failure to teach truth clearly and to rebuke error.

We are in the midst of one of the most shocking and rapid cultural meltdowns imaginable. We have seen the demise of marriage through divorce, cohabitation, contraception, and its very redefinition. Here are just a few other examples: more than 50 million abortions since the Roe v. Wade decision, sexual promiscuity, rampant single motherhood (and absent fathers), widespread sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults (including by clergy), sexual harassment, rampant pornography that is becoming ever baser, celebration of homosexual acts, and a sexual confusion that has led some to claim that there are more than 50 “genders” and that a male can make himself female (and vice versa) simply by declaring it to be so. Add to this the deepening toll of greed and gluttony as well as a dramatic falling away of religious practice. Fewer than one in four Catholics attend Mass weekly, down from more than three in four in the 1950s and before.

In the midst of this demise—in which, just when it seems it can’t get worse, it does—many pulpits are strangely silent, as are catechetical programs, and nominally-Catholic universities and colleges. It’s still business as usual even though most don’t come to Mass anymore to know that. You’d never know that there was a tsunami raging outside the doors.

The fault here lies first and foremost with the clergy, but it also extends to parents, catechists, and lay staff in parishes. Parents fail to educate their children in the faith, warn them of sin and error, and protect them from it as much as humanly possible. Most clergy and parish staff have few, if any, plan to deal with the onslaught. There is little in the way of vigorous sermons that speak to modern confusions. Catechesis does not address it. There are few focused bible studies, seminars, or lectures. Very little in the way of good literature is available in parish bookstores/libraries. Seldom are Catholics encouraged to read edifying Catholic books, watch Catholic programming, listen to Catholic podcasts, or make use of other good sources to refute modern errors.

Taking a moral stand is “controversial,” and too many Catholic leaders, both clergy and lay, are allergic to controversy. There is endless talk about being a “welcoming parish” but never the fuller development of that idea: all are welcome to come and hear the truth of Jesus Christ, repent of their sins, and thereby grow in holiness.

Listen to what St. Augustine says: “There are very few healthy and sound sheep, few that are sustained by the food of truth.” This is the fault of the shepherds. A good shepherd sees the wolf (of untruth and error) coming and drives him away, but a bad one sees the wolf and hides while it devours the flock. The bad shepherd fears controversy; he doesn’t want to risk his popularity or career. He hides, living off the fewer and fewer sheep who remain. We priests, bishops, and deacons need to take a good look at our ministries and honestly assess whether we are good or bad shepherds. Parents and other church leaders need to do the same. The flock is in terrible health, and we cannot simply blame others; this has happened on our watch. Even reasonably good bishops and pastors ought to ask what they can do to be better, what concrete plans they can implement. Parents and other leaders need to do the same.

St. Augustine next turns his concern to a matter even more shocking than neglect: shepherds who actually attack the strong sheep who remain:

It is not enough that they neglect those that are ill and weak, those that go astray and are lost. They even try, so far as it is in their power, to kill the strong and healthy. Yet such sheep live; yes, by God’s mercy they live [Ibid].

There is a frustrating and hurtful dynamic today among many bishops and other clergy to excoriate the very Catholics who have stayed with us through thick and thin, who still come to Mass and believe the doctrines. Too easily they are dismissed as being troublemakers, extreme, and overly rigid. Little attention is given to their concerns even when the matters involve serious doctrinal issues, liturgical abuses, or outright malfeasance. If such Catholics receive any reply at all from bishops or pastoral leaders, it is often terse and stern.

Meanwhile, much effort is expended by Church leaders seeking to placate dissenters and others who oppose us but who often show little or no intent to repent or to be converted. Prominent Catholics, including politicians and even clerics, publicly dissent from Church teaching and are seldom rebuked. But let a young priest say a Mass ad orientem, chant too much Latin, or warn particular Catholics not to approach Communion, and he is often quickly rebuked—even removed. Lay Catholics too are often selectively rebuked. Traditional Catholics are often scolded and their concerns dismissed; dissenting Catholics and others like them are treated with great tolerance and seldom rebuked. They are even honored in our universities and other public settings.

It is obvious that this causes great grief among the faithful who have tried to remain loyal during this maelstrom. At times this grief manifests as anger. While that anger is sometimes misdirected, we in the clergy ought not to so quickly forget that many of them have darned good reasons to be angry. Collectively, we have too often scorned them and/or dismissed their concerns. The Church they love is in shambles, and it has happened on our watch. Yet, as St. Augustine observes, we turn on them as if to kill them, to kill the little hope they have left. This is not only wrong, it is foolish; they make up the larger part of the few who still do come to Mass, and their children attend our shrinking schools. Though our flock is sorely diminished, we turn on them, our own. It is a strange and sad dynamic.

One can only hope that the recent and ongoing sexual abuse scandal will humble us clergy and make us more grateful for the strong faith that God has given this remnant to see beyond our sins and foolishness and still find Christ. They are still here, often in spite of us. As St. Augustine observes, “Yet such sheep live; yes, by God’s mercy they live.”

Yes, these are strong words from St. Augustine. Reaching back to the time of Ezekiel, whose text St. Augustine is commenting upon, the problem of bad shepherds seems a consistent one. Please pray for us shepherds. Much has been given to us; much depends upon us, and much is expected of us. We will face judgment one day. May our ministry not condemn us.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Strong Words from St. Augustine to those Who Would Be Shepherds

The Punishment of Complete Loss and What It Says to Us

The Burning of Jerusalem, Circle of Juan de la Corte

In the Office of Readings, we are currently reading from the prophet Ezekiel. Sunday’s reading warns of the possibility that moral conditions in the world can get so awful, even among the people of God, that He must take the strongest and most severe of measures.

Ezekiel experienced the coming disaster upon Israel very personally as a last warning to the people.

Thus the word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, by a sudden blow I am taking away from you the delight of your eyes …. That evening my wife died (Ez 24:15, 17).

Ezekiel wrote in the period just before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. The loss of his wife was a portent of the coming disaster. God instructed Ezekiel not to mourn, but to turn to the people and say,

Thus the word of the Lord came to me: Say to the house of Israel: Thus says the Lord God: I will now desecrate my sanctuary, the stronghold of your pride, the delight of your eyes, the desire of your soul. The sons and daughters you left behind shall fall by the sword. Ezekiel shall be a sign for you: all that he did you shall do when it happens. … you shall rot away because of your sins and groan one to another.

As for you, son of man (Ezekiel) truly, on the day I take away from them their bulwark, their glorious joy, the delight of their eyes, the desire of their soul, and the pride of their hearts, their sons and daughters …. Thus you shall be a sign to them, and they shall know that I am the Lord (Ezekiel 24, selected verses).

The terrible and tragic moment for Judah came in 587 B.C. The Babylonians utterly destroyed Jerusalem. The Temple was burned and the Ark of the Covenant was lost, never again to be found (until its fulfillment in the Blessed Mother Mary). One could not imagine a more unlikely or complete destruction. Why would God allow His glorious Temple to fall at the hands of an unbelieving nation?

But God is not egocentric. He does not need buildings or holy cities to show His power. His most central work is to fashion a holy people and to draw each of us to holiness.

The terrible state of affairs of ancient Israel and Judah is well documented by the prophets. God’s own people had become depraved in many ways. There was idolatry, injustice, promiscuity, and a tendency to imitate the nations around them. Further they had become incorrigible. God often described them has having necks of iron and foreheads of brass. He called them a rebellious house. On top of all this, they made the presumption that God would never destroy His own temple or allow Jerusalem to fall.

There comes a time when warnings and minor punishments are no longer effective; only the most severe and widespread of losses will purge the evil. Surely this is evident in the smoking ruins of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Those who survived were taken to live in exile.

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps (Ps 137:1-2).

We should not delude ourselves into thinking that such a terrible event could only occur in the ancient world. We must consider that our condition can become so debased, so corrupted, that the only solution is the most severe of punishments, one so onerous that we cannot possibly return to our former ways, one that levels the very sources of our pride and sin.

Today, we kill shocking numbers of children in the womb; no amount of preaching or teaching of medical truth seems capable of ending this shedding of innocent blood. Our families are collapsing; we are suffering the ravages of our sexual sins. In our greed we cannot seem to control our spending or ever say no to ourselves. We are saddling future generations with insurmountable debt. No matter the warnings, we cannot or will not stop. There is desperate confusion and silence even in the Church, where one would hope for clarity and words of sanity. Corruptio optimi pessima (The corruption of the best is the worst thing). Believers are silent, weak, and divided, while the wicked and secular are fierce, committed, and focused.

All the while, in our affluence, we cannot imagine that a crushing end might come. Yet God said to the ancient, affluent city of Laodicea,

You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see (Revelation 3:17-18).

It becomes hard to see how God might bring us to conversion without the severest of blows.

Nevertheless, do not wish for this. Continue to pray for conversion! The alternative is almost too awful to imagine. Most of us are too comfortable to endure what might come. Saints, sinners, and everyone in between will suffer. Ezekiel was the first to suffer in the collapse of his times, even though he was one who tried to listen and warn.

The message of this week’s meditation in the Office of Readings is clear: Pray, pray, pray. Be sober that God will not hesitate to inflict severe blows if necessary, so that He might at least save some, a remnant.