THE NEGLIGENT CATHOLIC HOMILIST
Used by permission of the author Tom Fath. Tom Fath is a writer in Lexington, Kentucky
Lost Shepherds, Vulnerable Sheep
Christianity is a dynamic, challenging, and difficult way of life. It is not a religion for the sheepish. Yet Our Lord and Savior more than once drew parallels between His followers and the four-footed woolly ruminants of the genus Ovis. "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep." "I have other sheep, that are not of this fold." "You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep." (Jn. 10:11,16,26) Speaking for myself, I am not aware of possessing any particularly sheepish characteristics. I ruminate - but only my thoughts, not my food. I eat greens, but never grass. I feel no need to be dipped or shorn. But trusting in Jesus' word, I acknowledge myself as one of His flock - and I wonder sometimes what Jesus means by referring to me as a sheep.
So when I saw a book by a professional sheep rancher recounting his sheep-raising experiences and reflecting on the 23rd Psalm ("The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want"), I read it eagerly. Philip Keller, a sheep rancher in East Africa, writes that he followed sheep-raising practices like those of the ancient Middle East, the very ones on which Jesus presumably drew for His divine imagery of shepherding. Reading Keller, I grasped the central fact about what it means to be a sheep and what it means to be a shepherd. Sheep need guidance, and shepherds need to give it. Sheep are ever prone to wandering away, just as Isaiah described the Hebrews, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have gone every one to his own way" (Isa. 53:5).
To keep his flock safe and fit, to lead them "in green pastures, beside safe waters, " Keller had to be endlessly and variously diligent. Some ponds that looked refreshing were brackish or toxic. Bushes with bright berries looked inviting to the sheep - but the berries were poisonous. Parasites on the skin had to be guarded against. Greener pastures always attracted the flock, and Keller had to know which fields had hidden sinkholes and sudden cliffs. Predators lurked to pick off those who wandered away to explore on their own. Keller had thousands of sheep, and he had to face the fact that not every sheep would make it where he was trying to lead them. But Keller was committed to the principle that no sheep would ever be lost through his neglect.
I couldn't help but think of our Catholic pastors and associate pastors ("pastor" is Latin for shepherd). They are commissioned by the Good Shepherd to see to our care and guidance: "Feed my lambs ... tend my sheep," the Risen Lord instructed Peter (Jn. 21:15-16). As I learned from Keller something about being a sheep, perhaps pastors might learn something about being real shepherds. First, they can vow, as he did, that not one of us will be lost through their neglect. Second, they can re-evaluate their shepherding techniques. They might decide to use the foremost spiritual shepherding technique of first-century Palestine. This supreme tool was employed effectively by the Good Shepherd Himself and by His forerunner John the Baptist. It is the voice of the preacher, and there is no tool like it: the human voice speaking truth, counseling wisdom, teaching with candor, compassion, and authority. John was a voice crying in the wilderness, said Jesus. And of Himself Jesus said, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (Jn. 10:27).
At every Mass, Sundays and weekdays, many of us give our shepherds our undivided attention when they rise to speak to us in a homily or sermon. Many of us are hanging on their every word, waiting to be told where to find the true path amid all the alluring dangers of this world. And what do they say?
Here, selected from a large collection, are snippets from recent homilies heard at Catholic Masses. To each I have given the response it seems to deserve.
Homilist: "What are you attracted to in a person, or in a church? Aren't you attracted to life! Not to a church that says you are going to hell if you do such and such, not to a church that's all tied up with rules and regulations, not to a church that's always preaching morality."
Response: Well, Father, if you preach to people that their morality is not a churchly concern, why should they come to church at all? After all, there's plenty of "life!" outside the church building. Does this explain the drop-off in Mass attendance? Are people staying away in droves not because you presume to preach to them about what's right and what's wrong - but because you don't?
Homilist: "It's Thanksgiving, and perhaps some of you parents are unhappy because your children are engaged in activities that you don't like. Well, I've got news for you, folks: There's no such thing as a perfect family. The Holy Family wasn't a perfect family! So just accept the fact that they are not perfect and sit down with them at the Thanksgiving table and reach out to them just as they are!"
Response: Okay, Father. But how can the parents be thankful when they notice their son sneaking outside to smoke a joint, or when he announces that he and his girlfriend have to get back to their apartment because they have "things" to do?
Homilist: "Early in the history of the Church, a conclave in Jerusalem concluded that Gentiles did not have to follow Jewish dietary law or be circumcised into Judaism before being accepted as Christians. That is the spirit that we Catholics should maintain today in relation to our Protestant brothers and sisters. We shouldn't try to force our Catholic traditions on them. We are both in the Christian family, and our traditions aren't any better than theirs."
Response: But, Father, the strongest Protestant tradition is the teaching that Catholicism is wrong and Protestantism is right. If you're saying I might as well go to the Protestant church near my house instead of making the trip to this Catholic Church, maybe I will. And if I go there and find that the Protestant preacher is saying what you're saying - that no church really has the true path - maybe I'll just stay home on Sundays and watch sports.
Homilist (at a funeral Mass for a man robbed and murdered): "I don't know why this happened. No one knows why this happened. Even Jesus doesn't know why this happened." Later in the homily, the priest addressed this injunction to the man's children: "You have your father's DNA, take your father's energy into the 21st century."
Response: So, Father, at this sad and solemn moment, when the bereaved need most acutely to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, they are given limp agnosticism, vague vitalism, and pop genetics - everything but Catholicism. You portray God as befuddled about His own creation, and you direct the grieving to place their hope not in the promise of eternal life with God but in their deoxyribonucleic acid.
These responses are not particularly docile, I know. They do not sound like those of a placid member of the flock. But that is because I do not hear in these homilies the authentic voice of my Shepherd. "The sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers." So said Jesus Jn 10:4-5). I do not hear these shepherds telling me of the many wrong roads, green looking pastures, attractive watering holes, and bright berries that endanger me. I need to hear that if I truly love our Lord, and if it is my avowed goal to be with God in Heaven, then there are some things I ought to do and some things I ought not to do. I need those things, the good and the bad, to be clearly named.
The homily is a crucial moment, a critical opportunity. There our shepherds have us, for ten or fifteen minutes once a week. The rest of the time the world has us in its grip. Our shepherds have only their words, their presence, and the authority delegated to them by Christ and His Church. The world has its goods and entertainments, its ads and images, its sparkling lights and seductive sounds, to grab our attention 24 hours a day. The world wants our loyalty, and to get it the world assiduously flatters us, telling us we're just fine the way we are, we're swell folks really, whose basic need is to get more money and spend more money and try new pleasures. The world, in other words, is determined to make us truly sheepish. It wants to turn us into a pleasure-addicted, self-admiring herd of utter conformists.
When our real shepherds rise during Mass to speak they should utter sharp words that will snap us out of the hypnotic spell cast by Madison Avenue's charmers and Hollywood's hirelings. But they rarely do. As in the examples above, they tend more and more these days to preach as Christian values the values of the world. Our shepherds have become not the culture-challengers they are called to be but (in Joel Balz's wonderful phrase) culture-coddlers. They seem to be zealous and energetic about blurring the differences between our faith and the surrounding culture. Shouldn't they instead highlight the crucial points of disjunction? How will we know the right road if our shepherds refuse to point it out? How will we know we are sinners if our priests don't tell us what sin is? And if we don't know we're sinners, why do we need a Savior?
The great enticements of this world are easily listed: first, materialism and consumerism; second, addictions (alcohol, drugs, money, sex); third, destructive sexual "freedoms" (fornication, cohabitation, divorce, abortion, pornography, homosexuality). In the past quarter-century or so of my worship life, I estimate that I have heard, at Sunday Masses and daily Masses, at my parish and elsewhere, 5,000 homilies preached by 150 different priests, and I do not recall even one homily addressing any of these topics. But we are all sinners, and many of us are sinning in just those ways. It is not good shepherding to let the sheep wander off and tag along with the world's herds of goats and swine. Jesus loved sinners so much that He took the courageous course of telling them of their sin in order to save them. But at Mass we don't hear the homilists addressing even the sins that we can legitimately infer are right before our eyes.
At any given Mass, by my estimation, about 90 percent of the congregation receive Communion. How many of these have properly prepared their souls to receive the Lord? For instance, how many of these recipients, married and unmarried, are practicing artificial birth control? We are told that the majority of Catholics practicing birth control think it is a matter of indifference, of purely personal choice. Have the clergy no better wisdom to offer them? How many are couples living together or sleeping together without being married? We are told that many Catholics are doing such things, apparently thinking that such things are matters of purely personal choice. The world spreads before us these greener-looking pastures. It is up to our shepherds to show us the treacherous sinkholes and sudden drop-offs.
The sheep cannot guide the shepherds. But we can bleat loudly and persistently, so that the shepherds become aware of our needs - our need for truth, for clarity, for repentance and reform. The world around us has lost entirely the sense of sin. The sins that permeate our society today are not called sins. They are called freedoms and alternative lifestyles. Even where a course of behavior is clearly deleterious to its practitioner, not to mention its effect on others, the person is seen not as the perpetrator of a sin but as the victim of a weakness or a circumstance. Since we're all victims of our weaknesses or circumstances, we are told we should develop more tolerance for our fellow victims. We are told, "You aren't God, you can't read hearts - so just love the person and let God settle the accounts." And while this admonition has a kernel of charity in it, it ignores our need to know whether particular actions are sinful, so as to avoid them. One message I rarely hear in homilies today is Our Lord's general admonition, "If you would be saved, repent of your sins." I'll mention just two areas of current moral crisis, things that are in the news every day but, in my experience, are never addressed from the pulpit: homosexuality and abortion.
The Church teaches, and has always taught, that homosexual acts represent grave depravity and are intrinsically disordered. Yet today many of our shepherds seem to have gone off the true path. They think that it is impossible (forget about grace!) for the homosexually inclined to live celibate lives; they believe that homosexual sexuality must express itself and that the Church should support rather than admonish its practitioners. It has been leaking out for years that these lost shepherds privately console and encourage people ensnared in homosexual activity not to worry about it because eventually sufficient pressure will be brought to bear on Rome to get the Church's teaching on homosexuality changed. In their public preaching they pointedly refrain from consoling and encouraging those with a homosexual orientation who are struggling to remain chaste.
As for abortion, the Church has taught since her inception that every procured abortion is a moral evil. No teaching could be clearer. Yet today some of our shepherds think this teaching much too rigid, and that the right or wrong of each abortion must be decided on the basis of the circumstances, the physical and mental state of the mother, the likelihood of good consequences, and so on. Shepherds who think like this know they cannot (yet) express this viewpoint in public, so they mislead some sheep in private conversations and mislead the rest of us in their public teaching by omission, by simply never addressing abortion in a homily even though it is a pervasive sin in our world. Are our shepherds being properly trained? According to many reports, inappropriate shepherding techniques are being taught by theologians and seminary instructors who have had their thinking influenced or captured by the propaganda of the world. When someone has the temerity to suggest that their altered teaching is not in accordance with the official and authoritative handbook for spiritual shepherds, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the dismissive response is that the Catechism is really only one reference book among many. Some of our shepherds-in-training are not being shown the right paths, and some of our older shepherds have lost their way.
Many sheep are being lost. Indeed, seventy to eighty percent of young adult Catholics stop practicing their faith after they move out into the world.
Do our shepherds grasp that the world is an unsafe place, where predators lurk who are bent on devouring the young and the weak of the flock? The world spends billions of dollars relentlessly pounding on our children around the clock with its propaganda. The priest has just a few minutes a week in which to alert them that the world's messages are contrary to the message of the Gospel.
We sheep, old and young, weak and strong, need guidance. We must pray for it, asking God to allow our shepherds to realize that charity itself demands that they lead us away from the toxic waters and poison berries of our culture. And we must tactfully challenge our shepherds to speak with the authentic voice of Our Lord, for the flock they guide is not theirs, but His.
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