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Shepherds in Sheep’s Clothing

Yes, I said the “sinner’s prayer” and committed my life to Christ, but, as a Protestant, I had a little more trouble committing myself to a church, which involved “coming under” the authority of a pastor. Even though all of the churches I associated with professed their belief in “Scripture alone” as their sole authority, in practice, they also emphasized the importance of submitting to the spiritual authority of a church and a pastor. Notice I said a church and a pastor-the idea being that I could just “pick one.” In fact, if I so desired, I could become a pastor, or start a church. All it took was going to Bible school. I could even start a Bible school and ordain others to the ministry as well! But clearly, an “authority” which I could choose or manufacture could not have God as its source.

Where, I wondered, was authentic God-given authority? Is graduation equivalent to ordination? How could I submit to the authority of a pastor when I didn’t know where he got his authority? It seemed to me that there was a growing problem in Protestantism of sheep in shepherd’s clothing, resulting in many flocks following the lead of other sheep.

I’ve found the reverse problem in the Catholic Church: Some shepherds seem to prefer sheep’s clothing.

When I returned to the Catholic Church, I discovered what I had been seeking: the authentic authority of Christ exercised among his people. Scripture tells us that Jesus sent the first apostles with his own authority. Did the apostles pass on the authority they received directly from Christ? Yes, indeed-without a break. Any honest historian will acknowledge that the bishops of the Catholic Church are the successors of the apostles. It’s a historical fact. Here, then, is the true line of ordination-that authority which is “of God.”

What a gift! The pastors of the Catholic Church-its bishops and priests-are the real shepherds of Christ, endowed with power from Christ to govern, teach, and sanctify those in their care. (In fact, “pastor” means “shepherd.”) But I’ve learned that sheep under the care of a reluctant or laissez-faire shepherd-authentic though he may be-can be in just as much spiritual danger as those led by other sheep in shepherd’s guise. In both cases, the flocks are, in reality, “like sheep without a shepherd” (emphasis added)-a sight that so moved the heart of Christ to compassion (cf. Mark 6:34).

Why would a true shepherd prefer, at times, to blend in with the sheep? I doubt it’s a conscious decision. I believe most priests and bishops are dedicated men who are striving to give their best to Christ and the people of God and are often under-appreciated. So we’re not looking to throw stones at the shepherds, but, rather, to encourage them to take up, with love and courage, the rod and staff entrusted to them by God. We the sheep desperately need our pastors to be shepherds.

Of course, the issues discussed here can also be useful to any entrusted with the responsibility of “shepherding” others, including parents and teachers.

Silence of the Shepherds

Bishop Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan writes, “The greatest failure of leadership is for the leader to be afraid to speak and act as a leader” (The Road of Hope, p. 192). The significance of these words is magnified when we realize they were written from a prison cell where the bishop spent 13 years under the Vietnamese Communist regime. Through messages put down on scraps of paper and smuggled to the outside, Bishop Van Thuan continued to shepherd his people. Nothing, it seemed, could silence him.

But that is not true of all shepherds. There are those who, while they believe what the Church teaches, are reluctant to enforce it-to exercise their mandate to govern (Catechism of the Catholic Church 894).

Whatever particular form this silence takes, it results in the sheep failing to receive the truth, and therefore being left open to error. Truth is food for the sheep. Without it they languish and often stray to other pastures in search of something satisfying. And error is poison.

Why would an otherwise good pastor restrain his power to speak and act? Here are a few possibilities:

Assumptions and Osmosis. There is a reason that Jesus calls us sheep and not, say, lions or cattle. Phillip Keller, an experienced shepherd, put it this way:

“Sheep do not ‘just take care of themselves’ as some might suppose. They require, more than any other livestock, endless attention and meticulous care” (A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, p. 20-21).

When you apply this maxim to the flocks of the Church, you realize that sheep can’t be expected to get it on their own. There must be vigorous teaching and guidance. Yet when I was growing up in the Church there was instead a great reliance upon assumptions and the power of osmosis. (Judging from the number of people of my generation who left the Church, I don’t think my experience was singular.)

Merely by your participation in certain activities it was assumed you knew and believed the Catholic faith. Overt explanation took a back seat to atmosphere. I went to Mass, but I don’t recall ever hearing a teaching on just what was happening in the liturgy. I knew we had a pope and bishops, but never heard that they were the successors of the first apostles. “Well, Catholics just know that don’t they?” No, they don’t. The faith doesn’t seep in by osmosis; those who truly believe it themselves must teach it with persevering clarity and conviction.

Since returning to the Church, I’ve become aware that the “assumptions and osmosis” mentality is alive and well in some RCIA programs. One convert I know sought out individual tutoring on the faith because her questions weren’t being covered in class, while another was actually being taught heresy of the radical-feminist variety. The parish pastors need to keep watch on these key areas and not just assume that all is going well because the people in charge are well-intentioned.

Avoiding the “A” Word. Another cause of the silence of the shepherds is the fear of authority-their own. Speaking at a worldwide retreat for priests, Sr. Briege McKenna encouraged them not to run from the authority which they have in Christ:

“There are two words that today are not accepted in the secular society and which often intimidate and make our priests and bishops afraid. When people today hear the word ‘authority,’ it is a bad word. But the authority that the Church was given is the authority of Christ. You as bishops and priests have to speak with conviction and confront what is wrong in the world. And you were given . . . the power to make Christ present in Word and Sacrament.”

“The authority of Christ” isn’t arrogance; it is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Exercised for the sheep’s sake, it acts as a protection against deceivers and disturbers of the faith. When shepherds refuse to use this authority, the sheep suffer in ways big and small. A leader’s toleration of dissent is often perceived as approval.

Ten years ago the pope and bishops of the world put together a magnificent catechism, but, from seminaries to CCD classes, many pastors allow it to be disregarded, with contrary teachings put forth instead. This leaves the average sheep in the field wondering who’s in charge and feeling that they must ever be on guard for wolves.

The exercise of the shepherd’s authority is a matter of justice. Christ, through his Church, has revealed what is true and right. Those in authority are to insure that this is upheld. If not, the fatter sheep (cf. Ezk. 34:21) push around the weaker in an effort to promote their personal agendas. If the father of the family or the teacher in a classroom refuses to set things right, the bullies rule. The same is true in the Church.

Misconceptions about Mercy. We often confuse pleasing people with loving them, just as we confuse condoning sin with being merciful.

Not long ago, an acquaintance spoke of the approaching marriage of her son, a Catholic who is divorced, to a Baptist girl. “We told the priest that he doesn’t want to go through getting an annulment, so they’re going to be married in the Baptist church, and he [the priest] said that was wonderful.” She was obviously pleased with her priest’s understanding. I was stunned. Unless this man’s prior union has been shown to be invalid then it must be presumed that this man is still married and would be committing adultery to marry another (cf. Luke 16:18).

Sadly, this is not an isolated instance. Why didn’t his pastor warn this young man of the danger to his soul? Could it be he felt he was being kind and didn’t want to make things difficult for the family? Yet isn’t it a false kindness which would rather see a soul in danger than face a potentially unpleasant confrontation? Have we forgotten that, according to the Church, it is truly an act of mercy to admonish the sinner and to instruct the uninformed?

Such misguided mercy also puts fellow sheep in an untenable position. If the shepherd says the grazing is fine, how can another sheep say that there’s poison in the pasture? If our priests confirm people in sin, how can anyone else’s warning be taken seriously?

Evangelized by the World. “The mission of the Church is to evangelize the world with gospel values. The world does not have a mission to evangelize the Church” (Sr. Briege McKenna, Miracles Do Happen, p. 94). True. But it is also true that we, the members of the Church, often let ourselves be “evangelized” by the world. When this happens to our shepherds, their witness to the gospel becomes-if not silenced-ineffective and a confusing disharmony of words and actions.

Evangelization of the Church by the world takes different forms, including compromise-“go along to get along,”; secularization-reliance on worldly ways instead of the power of God; and a loss of the sense of the holy.

People are deluged with the world. They come to Church, at least in part, to learn of the reality and power of the living God. And they need their pastors to take the lead in believing in it and relying upon it.

Even when they are sought for the good of the people, worldly concerns must not come first. Speaking to a priest who had made it his primary mission to bring material relief to his poor parishioners, one old man said, “Father, I don’t want to hurt you, but I have to tell you. You brought us a lot of good things. You have worked very hard, but you didn’t bring us Jesus and we need Jesus” (Miracles Do Happen, p. 78).

Shepherds who seek first the kingdom are living witnesses to the gospel.

Renewed By Prayer

So what’s the answer? For sheep and shepherds, I believe it begins with prayer.

Recently my father mentioned that he prays for priests every day. “So should I,” I thought. So should we all. Where would we be without our priests? No priests, no sacraments, no Eucharist. This article is not designed to put down priests, but to raise them up to the dignity Christ intended, and to show them how much we need them-not to be merely fellow sheep but true shepherds unafraid to lead.

A letter from Sr. Lucia (seer of Fatima) to her brother, a priest who had just become a superior, points the way. It was written in the 1971 when her brother was much distressed over the discontent among priests and religious. Sr. Lucia wrote:

“The principal error is that they have abandoned prayer; and thus they have gone away from God and without God everything is lacking in them . . . .

“What I recommend to you above all else is that you get close to the tabernacle and pray. In this you will find the light, the strength, and the grace that you can pass on to others. . . . For this reason they need more and more to pray . . . . Let time be lacking for everything else but never for prayer and you will experience the fact that after prayer you will accomplish a lot in a short period of time” (Fr. Robert Fox, The Intimate Life of Sister Lucia, p. 317-318).

Prayer, humility, gentleness and firmness, and an unwavering commitment to the truth: These make true shepherds of the Catholic Church, shepherds after Christ’s own heart.


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