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Where have all the Shepherds gone?


"Where's Father John?"

Where have all the Shepherds gone? (with apologies to Pete Seeger)

As so often happens when I’m preparing a post, current events break into the flow of my thoughts and somehow find their way into the post. Last week was no exception. I was preparing my homily for the fourth Sunday of Easter, knowing that the gospel text is always taken from the tenth chapter of John’s gospel – the Good Shepherd text. I had also been doing some background reading on the Morris affair, referring to the forced resignation of Bishop William Morris from the diocese of Toowoomba, Queensland (plenty of information here). As always, I can’t help analysing the impact such events have on the life of the Church. That the resignation took place on 2nd May, yep, just one day after the beatification ceremony of Pope John Paul II was not lost on those who follow closely such matters. Pope Benedict must have had a surge of warm feelings – as a result of the beatification of his predecessor – that led him to order this resignation. Nuff said about him; let’s talk about shepherds.

The shepherd image is a very potent one, not only in the Bible, but also in the life of the Church. It finds its way into words such as “pastor” or “pastoral” (Latin pastor = shepherd). Although the word occurs several times in Scripture, two texts in particular stand out. They are Ezekiel 34 and John 10 (I will be citing some relevant sections from these two texts further down). In the Catholic tradition (as well as in the Orthodox Churches) there is a direct link between the symbol of the shepherd, and the Church’s ordained ministers: bishops, priests and, to a lesser extent, deacons. Rightly or wrongly, the terms ‘shepherd’ and ‘ordained minister’ have become so intertwined that it would seem impossible to use the shepherd-symbol if not in the context of ordained ministry. If not synonymous, they have become coterminous. As if to stress this point, there’s that symbol within a symbol – the bishop’s crosier – which, for all the gold, intricate patterns and semi-precious stones, represents a shepherd’s crook.

Where have all the brains gone?

It behoves us to cast a glance at the subject of shepherding as it is so central to the life of a sacramental church such as ours. Unsurprisingly, many of the problems facing the Church now are intrinsically linked to a malaise in the ordained ministry, that all-male clerical caste that is the Church hierarchy. When Vatican II opened wide the Church’s windows to the world, and encouraged the laity to rediscover their common, shared priesthood, the clerical caste went down like a sick man. First there was the exodus of priests, and then, when Pope John Paul II tried to stop the haemorrhage and rein in the clergy, this sick man’s condition only worsened. There was a total stifling of dissent or creativity; a centralisation of power in the hands of a few dicasteries in Rome; a weakening of the college of bishops in favour of a more autocratic papacy; and then there was the Soviet-styled “Nyet!” to married priests, women priests, and openly gay priests. The pomp and pageantry, and the emphasis on a cultic priesthood (set apart from the flock) only acted as a cover for the rot just below the surface. A failed theology of sexuality, used among other things to scapegoat LGBT folk and to control the laity, showed its true colours in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis and the attempts to cover it up.

Is it just me who thinks that what we have witnessed over the last three decades – a hierarchy increasingly out of touch with reality – is at the root of the problems we’re facing today? Why has it become so important to cultivate the image of a stiff, remote clergy, obsessed with rules and rubrics, tridentine pageantry, and all the other trappings of a caste separated from the People of God? The sartorial tastes say it all; it’s not only the Devil who wears Prada!

"Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the vainest of us all?"

In the OT book of the prophet Ezekiel (34:1-16), we come across these words:

2… Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.

Anyone reading the above text would remark that this text could very well be used to describe the present state of affairs. What is upsetting is that the pastoral dimension of the priesthood is sorely lacking in many respects. It is not simply the LGBT community that is being sidelined. The role of women in the Church is also a big issue, with more than half the Church’s membership (not a minority group) denied the possibility to answer to a call to the ordained ministry. As Bishop Morris and others have found out, even the mere suggestion of a discussion on the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood is verboten. Whilst it’s ok for the hierarchy to protect paedophiles for years, and cover up their tracks, those who have the temerity to state their views on such issues as women priests aren’t so lucky. The Vatican hierarchy has succeeded in snuffing out not only its finest minds but also some of the Church’s most pastorally sensitive and creative characters.

Where have all the sheep gone?


"Hey, don't leave me behind!"

Needless to say, such actions have big repercussions. Various religious commentators have signalled the tragic situation where Catholics are leaving the Church in droves; Europe is already a lost cause, whilst in the US as much as a third of the membership left the Church in the last decades, and Latin America seems to be heading in the same direction. Even traditionally Catholic countries like Ireland, Spain, Belgium and Poland haven’t been spared. Do you think that the Vatican has looked deeply into the true reasons for this exodus? I think not.

Now, if only the self-serving Monsignori, who fleece the flock to pander to the rich and mighty, were to meditate on the text by Ezekiel, and the following gospel excerpt, perhaps they’d begin to see the light:

2 The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep. 3 The watchman opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was telling them.  7 Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10)

Where has all the money gone?

Do our “high clergy” realise that, whilst they squander the Church’s resources to accommodate special-interest groups within the Church (privileged reactionary movements) and outside (specific political entities and business interests), their flock is moving to other pastures, or perhaps lost altogether?  Who does the Catholic Church hope to convince by siphoning off church funds (read: money collected from the faithful) to back anti-gay legislation and initiatives, such as is happening the United States at present? Just because a bishop goes around with a crosier that doesn’t mean that his flock is listening to his message. The statistics are there for all to see. A majority of Catholics do not follow Church teaching on a number of issues, or at least disagree (if not always openly) with the Vatican’s stand.  Not to put a fine point on it, but the Catholic flock do not recognise the voice of their shepherds because these so-called shepherds are at best incompetent hirelings, or at worst, strangers, thieves and wolves. Lest I be accused of generalizing here, I choose not to give specific names but I’m sure that the Catholic faithful can fill in with the names of a number of Cardinals, bishops and priests. These false shepherds prefer to save their doctrine (in other words, their face) than save their sheep. Their vicious attack on the LGBT community is one such example, albeit an important one. Thankfully, the current is moving in the opposite direction as more and more Catholics discover for themselves that queer folk are just like everyone else.

Oh, when will they ever learn?

My fear is that, for all this ranting, Peter’s successor will continue to steer the boat in the direction it has taken thus far. As things stand now, nothing less than a miracle can save the day. That, or another massive upheaval resulting in yet another split within the Church. So much for the ecumenical talk. Why not try using Band-Aid to heal this rift?

(NOTE: I have cross-posted this from my blog, “Queering the Church“, but it not in fact my work, but was written by my colleague, Bart, a gay Catholic priest.)

Suggested reading

Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II(Jason Berry & Gerald Renner)

From Inquisition to Freedom (edited by Paul Collins)

A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church: Memoirs of a Catholic Archbishop(Rembert G Weakland OSB)

The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism(Mark D Jordan)

Gay Catholic Priests and Clerical Sexual Misconduct: Breaking the Silence (editors: Donald L Boisvert & Robert E Goss)

The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A Reflection on the Priest’s Crisis of Soul (Donald B Cozzens)

Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood(George B Wilson SJ)

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson)

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