“Anger and frustration do not give you permission to be uncharitable or disrespectful.”
This Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” While the Gospel for this Sunday changes year to year, it always centers on the important image of Christ as Shepherd.
This past Lent, I led a bible study on YouTube that focused on the imagery of shepherds in the Old and New Testament. (You can still find it here.) The message for shepherds throughout the Old and New Testament is clear: your task is to keep the flock together. Shepherds should protect the sheep and feed them. A straying sheep is a sheep in grave danger.
The worst thing that can happen to a flock – both a literal flock and a metaphorical one – is the scattering of sheep.
“Thus says the Lord God: Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”Ezekiel 34:1-6
Most of us are sheep. It is important for us to look at how we shepherd, too – shepherd our family or other people placed in our care. Are we good shepherds who care for those entrusted to us? We may be shepherds in some areas of our lives. But all of us are also sheep.
Our Responsiblity as Sheep
Stay in the flock. Why? Because there is safety in the flock. Good sheep cling to the shepherd and stay close to them. When you decide you know better than the shepherd, when you choose to follow your own whims or opinions, there is danger. The prophet Isaiah speaks of sin in this way: sheep choosing their own way.
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6).
Yes, at times, you may feel like a sheep without a shepherd. But stay in the flock. Pray for your shepherds, and stay in the flock.
God has always had strong words for shepherds. We must pray for them, that they have the wisdom, humility, and the courage necessary for true leadership. But don’t let yourself get distracted by trying to judge them, particularly when you are not privy to everything they are facing. We can remind them of their responsibility to emulate Christ the Shepherd, but we want to be careful to not listen to the temptation of the Devil to split the flock. The Devil wants nothing more than for you to leave the flock out of distrust of your shepherds.
Stay with the Eucharist. Stay where Jesus is. At the end of this life, Jesus will judge the shepherds. And he will also judge the sheep. Were we good sheep? That’s what you’ll be judged on.
Even if you feel like a sheep without a shepherd, even if you feel that your shepherd might not be following the Good Shepherd, do not let your anger and your wounds become uncharity.
Beware of Sins Against Charity
Anger and frustration do not give you permission to be uncharitable or disrespectful. Even as I type that, I know some may read it and dismiss it as a spineless thing to say. But charity is not weakness. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that no true virtue is possible without charity.
It is tempting to read Ezekiel 34 and begin to point fingers, to make accusations, to rise up in anger. I pose that instead, Ezekiel is a reminder for us to pray for our shepherds. Do not let your anger become uncharity. And beware of those who gather remnants around them by stoking dissension, masked under a false cloak of fidelity.
“What about Saint Catherine!” I can already hear people saying. “Catherine of Siena had strong words for bad shepherds!” Yes, she did. And perhaps the Lord is speaking to you in a mystical dialogue and giving you a message for the shepherds of today. If so, begin to dictate your letters to three scribes simultaneously and witness to the world through your virtuous life.
How to Emulate Catherine
It is not that we are not called to speak the truth. This does not mean that we simply sit back and accept bad behavior and abuse. The Catechism, quoting Canon Law, is quite clear on the laity’s identity as prophets: “In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons” (CCC 907, CIC, can. 212 § 3).
We have a right and even at times a duty. But do not ignore the second part: with reverence and consideration of the dignity of persons. Before we all decide to be Catherine of Siena, I think there is a real obligation to make sure our message is hers: guided by charity, imbued with charity, aimed at charity. Her letters are strong and fiery, always focused on Truth, but always respectful.
We find in her Dialogues that the Lord cautions her against judging even sinful priests. We are to pray for them, not judge them. The Lord told her:
“…[Because] of their virtue and because of their sacramental dignity you ought to love them. And you ought to hate the sins of those who live evil lives. But you may not for all that set yourselves up as their judges; this is not my will because they are my Christ’s, and you ought to love and reverence the authority I have given them.
You know well enough that if someone filthy or poorly dressed were to offer you a great treasure that would give you life, you would not disdain the bearer for love of the treasure, and the lord who had sent it, even though the bearer was ragged and filthy… You ought to despise and hate the ministers’ sins and try to dress them in the clothes of charity and holy prayer and wash away their filth with your tears.
Indeed, I have appointed them and given them to you to be angels on earth and suns, as I have told you. When they are less than that you ought to pray for them. But you are not to judge them. Leave the judging to me, and I, because of your prayers and my own desire, will be merciful to them.”
Pray and Stay
In our pain of feeling shepherd-less, it is easy to rush to judgment. It is easy to make accusations and call out failures. Before we judge, we should first pray. Then, unless you are Pope Francis reading this, you should probably thank God you were not chosen to be Pope. Unless you are a bishop, you should thank God you are not a bishop. Unless you are a priest, you should thank God that you were not called to shepherd. It is a complex and difficult job. Pray for our shepherds.
We like to talk about emulating St. Catherine when we have strong words in mind for our shepherds. We probably are less inclined to emulate Catherine’s fasts (mystically surviving only on Holy Communion for long stretches of time), the iron chain she wore around her waist, and her sleepless nights of prayer. Saint Catherine died out of love for the Church. Her extreme mortifications hastened her death, and her last two years she spent in Rome in extreme suffering, offering herself as a victim for the Church. Saint Catherine’s words did not heal the papacy and the Church. Her prayers did.
Pray for our shepherds. And stay in the flock.
Image credit: Photo by Pawan Sharma on Unsplash