Pastoral. Perhaps no other word of the last fifty-five years better defines the Church’s western approach to proclaiming the Gospel, catechizing the faithful, dispensing the Sacred Mysteries or initiating Her missionary activities. Christ commanded his apostles to go “therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20), but today the Church demands that it be done pastorally.
The word pastoral is quite beautiful and evocative, coming from the Latin word pastor, meaning shepherd. We hear God speaking to the abandoned people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah “et dabo vobis pastores iuxta cor meum et pascent vos scientia et doctrina” (3:15) (“and I will give you pastors according to my own heart, and they shall feed you with knowledge and doctrine”). Later in St. John’s Gospel (10) Christ presents Himself as the Good Shepherd, the Bonus Pastor, who “lays down his life for his sheep (vs. 15). This image of Christ as the Good Shepherd constitutes the supreme model for all pastors, clerical or (in a broader and unordained sense) lay—anyone leading others into the Sheepfold of the Church. It is, therefore, crucial to understand the various nuances of pastor, or shepherd.
Shepherd. The word brings to mind the picture of a young man like that of the future King David, big and strong, a youth ruddy and beautiful to behold, and of a comely face (1 Samuel 16:12). No one ever captured the image quite like Michelangelo, whose David resembles a Greek god, not because he spent an inordinate amount of time at the gym but because he engaged in physically demanding work. The terminus and goal of his strength was not to incarnate the GQ model but to protect and defend his sheep, those for whom he was a pastor. He would fight to the death if necessary.
There is a softer, more playful side to the image of the shepherd. We think of the shepherd and his pipe, playing to his sheep, watching their joyful banter, laughing at their silly antics, wondering at their stupidity or simply enjoying time with the lambs.
Perhaps, too, the music and poetry of the Romantic period have shaped our view of the shepherd and his life. For example the strains of Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony evoke an Elysian paradise, an idillic place where any shepherd might hope to find himself whiling away his days in freedom listening to birdsong and eating rustic French baguettes and crumbly cheeses. This makes for a wonderful evening at the symphony, but lends itself less to fact than fiction, more to fancy than reality.
The truth is that shepherds occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder, carrying out a smelly, dirty job with little pay and no recognition… and no friends. Modern western man might yearn for the quiet, pastoral life, but Covidtide has taught him that isolation and fish stink after three days. Then there are the sheep—smelly, dirty and rather stupid little creatures that constantly have to be lead here and there and who offer no thanksgiving in return. They stray from the fold at every chance. So where, pray tell, is this subject going?
During a recent conversation, the mother of a few of my choristers, the redoubtable and Pickwickian Mrs. Werth, noted that throughout her entire life priests and religious, not to mention the vast majority of laity, have affirmed and reaffirmed that bringing the Church back to a place of orthodoxy must be done with great pastoral care, usually over the course of years or decades, if not a century. Regardless of the fact that souls are being lost because because they know nothing of Christ, His Church or His teachings, pastors (in both the clerical and non-clerical sense of the word) claimed that we must proceed slowly and pastorally so as not to drive souls away from the Church (i.e., don’t preach the Gospel for fear they won’t accept it). Then entered Covidtide and Mrs. Werth wryly observed that all our pastoral sensitivities flew the Barque of Peter as if it were on fire and capsizing. In reality shepherds finally got down to shepherding—at least as far as Covid19. The Church jettisoned any Romantic notion of shepherding and got back to David dispatching Goliath.
In the face of a possible public health crisis Masses were systematically closed down and the Sacred Liturgy expunged of its extraneous elements, regardless of whether people would leave the Church or stay, and everyone from top to bottom eagerly awaited the latest directives in an effort to keep people safe and healthy. In the face of Covid19, the Church has in fact become truly pastoral. Like the shepherds of yore, the Church’s shepherds have gone out of their way to ensure that every form of this possibly fatal contagion is kept as far away as possible from the faithful in order “that they might not perish, but have…life.” The Church discovered both means and method to effectively spread Her message.
The point here is not to debate the Church’s response to Covid19, but to juxtapose Her response over the last two months to possible physical death to that of Her response over the last five decades to certain spiritual death.
We felt compelled to spread the word on Covid19… even when some didn’t want to hear it. We should do the same with the Gospel. We catechized the faithful on Covid19 via homilies, videos, articles, books, leaflets, etc. We should do the same with the teachings of Faith. We celebrated (and continue to celebrate) the Sacred Liturgy in such a way that everyone knew that we as a Church believed fully in the threat of Covid19 and its ill effects and we were ready to do whatever it took to save lives. We should treat sin the same way we have treated Covid19. In many places now the faithful are turned away from Holy Communion for publicly failing to live up to the Church’s teachings on Covid19 safety (i.e. not wearing masks). We should do the same when Catholics publicly live contrary to the teachings of Christ. Weddings have been stopped or postponed until couples are able to marry according to Church and societal doctrines for clean living. Perhaps we should take the same care to insure couples are ready to enter sacramentally into marriage. This is how we should shepherd the flock, the People of God.
I pray that those of us who are shepherds in some way, weather as bishops, priests or human fathers, are willing to examine our lives and ask if we haven’t been guided in the past by a romanticized pastoralism, which has resulted in some sort of ecclesiastical version of the self-help movement. I fear that the Four Last Things (death, judgement, Heaven or Hell) haven’t been at the forefront of our minds and hearts in a very long time and that in practice we have ceased to believe that Christ called each of us to glory, to His Glory, with the Father and the Son, with Mary and all the angels and saints, our real family—the Mystical Body of Christ—the true Sheepfold. The wolves have broken down the fence and found their way in to the Church and it is high time we leave the French baguettes and cheese behind and take up the rock and sling shot and feed the people once again on the solid food of “knowledge and doctrine.”