Saturday, February 4, 2017
Suffer the Flock
God had provided shepherds for His people. There were various teachers of the law (Rabbis, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees), there was the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. There was the Hasmonean King Herod. All, though, largely failed in the shepherding of the flock. There was nothing new in this, In Ezekiel 34:1-16, God speaks to the shepherds of Israel, the kings and priests, who have failed to shepherd the people and now have left them ripe for destruction. They pastured themselves and not those entrusted to their care. Because sheep hunger, they will seek food. If the shepherd isn't leading them, they will go elsewhere. In departing from the flock, they become prey for whatever predator lurks about.
St. Peter reminds us that , "Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour." (I Peter 5:5) Just prior, St Peter writes to the presbyters, " Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock." (I Peter 5:2-3)
As God draws His shepherds here and now from among human beings, the same concupiscence that challenges any of us, challenges them as well. Nonetheless, by virtue of the change given them at ordination, they are given the grace to be more closely configured to Christ. The impetus for them to model triumph over concupiscence is imperative. Furthermore, being given such grace, we are the shepherd of the flock assigned to us, by a bishop, but ultimately by God. Those placed in our care do not belong to us, but to God. When we lose a sheep, we don't lose our sheep...we lose one of His. We have the duty to be sure what is fed to our flock is the food the Good Shepherd who have them have eat. How we execute our shepherding will help or hinder the other men called to shepherd. It will either inspire others to listen to the call of vocation, or it will drive them away.
However the role of shepherd is not contained to the ordained; it shared by those who are given that job within the context of the family, also known as the domestic Church: parents and spouses. I speak particularly to husbands here. While you wife has a primary role of leading you closer to Christ, you are the shepherd in your home. You are given the responsibility to leading your spouse and your children closer to Christ. This is not your wife's responsibility, it is yours. She has responsibilities of her own, she should not need to shoulder yours as well. The flock given to you is not your own. It is God's first. As stated above, when you drive off a sheep, you lose not a member of your flock, you lose a member of His flock.
Some sheep will stray despite our best efforts. This we cannot help so much. But the sheep that wander because they were never taught good pastures from plague filled dumpsters are on us. The sheep that flee because of our neglect or abuse are on us as well. The sheep that are left in ignorance for lack of competent instruction are on us as well. The sheep we taught to eat in the plague filled dumpsters are on us. When what we fed is largely indiscernible from the message of the world, we poison our own flocks. We don't merely let them wander, we slay them! When we become more concerned about what we can get out of the sheep and not what we give to the sheep, we become the shepherds that Ezekiel warns will face the wrath of God. We become the abusers of His children.
The good shepherds
When Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, He isn't saying that He is a good person who happens to be a shepherd, but shepherd who good at being a shepherd. We know this in that the text, originally written in Greek, uses the word kalos (good at) instead of agathos (good quality) in reference to Jesus as shepherd. We men , both clergy and married, are called to good at being shepherds.
There are many good shepherds out there. There are many good deacons, priests, and bishops that actively tend to the good of their flock. These get their hands dirty in being among the flock. They also embrace prayer and mortifications for the good of their flock. They are cautious in being sure that the pastures are teeming with truth, are abundant with grace, and lead to the Kingdom of Heaven. They are liberal in the access they afford the flock to the pastures of the sacraments. They do not see the flock as an impediment to their joy, but as a cause for joy. They correct with charity, teach with truth, and tend to the dying and sick with care. They are ferocious in their protection of the flock and place themselves in between the flock and that which would prey on them.
There are many good dads and husbands out there as well. They, too, see their wife and children as their joy and not an impediment to joy. They too embrace prayer and mortifications for those in their care. They too are diligent about the pastures in which their charges feed. They too place themselves permanently between their flock and those who would prey on them. They too make sure their flock is feed regularly in the pastures of the sacraments. They also correct with charity and teach with truth. These priests and husbands/fathers are real men who courageously receive that mantle of shepherd, living up to the promises made on the days of their ordinations and/or weddings.
The Bad and the Ugly
However, we must deal with the reality that not all men , both ordained and not, live up to such high standards. In fact, it could be argued most are not. I say this because of the societal breakdown we see, of the careening into oblivion of the Church in our country and in the western world. So very many of those thrust into shepherding roles were never taught to be shepherds. Like a cancer, this disease has spread rapidly. So intense is the disease that many men stay overgrown boys and flee from the possibility of shepherding. When the key role of training shepherds has been left for the wolves to instruct, it cannot be any surprise that both family life and parish life struggle the way they do.
Too often the role of shepherd is fled from because to be a true shepherd requires a heroic degree of selflessness. It mush easier to seek self satisfaction than to live for others. It is easier to simulate commitment than it is live committed to something other than one's self. It is easier to fatten oneself than to feed another. It is easier to manipulate than it is to love. The grace of the sacraments of Holy Orders or Marriage can be tossed aside like rubbish by the weak man who finds the rigors of such sacraments too hard.
These shepherds become cowards at best and wolves at worst. Some are so self absorbed they don't notice the wolf picking off their flock. Some are so timid they feign helplessness in protecting their flock from the wolves. Some are so narcissistic that they invite they wolves in. Some become wolves themselves, ripping apart their flocks, raining down abuse of every kind to sate their own lusts and greeds. The damage these shepherds do is immense. It is not enough that they fail to teach those in their care how to become shepherds in their own turn, they teach them to be wolves!
In their sloth they restrict the sacraments, seeing them as impediments to avenues of self gratification. In their negligence, they farm out their shepherding duties to anyone and everyone, wolf or not, and then blame these surrogates for the outcome of the sheep. In their cowardice, they slink away from the duty to stand between their charges and the predators, having the gall to blame the sheep for their own destruction. To these bad shepherds, Ezekiel promises a harsh outcome!
Even if the majority of the shepherds fail, the Lord never leaves His sheep without hope. That said, men, we must dust off the juvenile selfishness of this world and stand up and live up to the sacramental call of our promises so that we may teach the next generation to embrace their own sacramental call as the Good Shepherd would have them live. We must lead, not with the force of tyranny, but with the diligent care of a shepherd. That means we come last. Yes, WE come last. We shepherd in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd! He lays down His life for all of us. So motivated is He by love. So motivated are we to be as well. We are not to see those placed in our care as impediments but as avenues by which we prove our manly valor and strength. We endure for them, we pray for them, we make sure what is fed them is worthy of who we serve. We love them.
I do not believe that our culture and church in this country is so far gone that we cannot turn it around. By the grace of God, it can be turned around. For this to happen, though, men...we will need to be men. That requires more than a chiseled physique or a high paying job. It requires more than being the guy women want and men want to be like...it goes beyond any external quality and plunges into the depths of who we are. It requires a deep relationship with the Good Shepherd Himself. We cannot model what we do not have. It is a juvenile attitude to believe we do not need God or if we do, we become His master. We have bought into a devilish (literally) trap that religion is for the weak and unsophisticated. It's time for us to man up and be the shepherds we were graced to be through the sacraments. It's difficult to be sure. But those placed in our care deserve our effort because they are God's before they are ours. The sheep should not suffer because of our negligence or abuse; no, they should thrive because we are the shepherds God has appointed us to be! Let us be shepherds who are good at being shepherds!