On true “pastoral” care

You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.

This saying, as we know, illustrates in symbolic terms another common adage: “you can’t please everybody”. We can even extend the metaphor and say that other ingredients need to be shredded, sliced, and diced to complete the dish. Going further– everything must be put to fire before they come together.

Seemingly negative experiences are part and parcel of life’s triumphs, and no victory is ever won without some struggle. The same is true of the Christian message: the road to salvation is the way of the Cross. There is a modern tendency to reduce Jesus Christ to a simple preacher of the good, as a man who unconditionally accepts every and any behavior, excising from his doctrine any reference to sin, judgment, and damnation. This is justified by a need for a “pastoral approach”, as if reference to “sin” and “judgment” is somehow “unpastoral”. Of course, such a tendency does no justice to Christ nor to the true sense of being “pastoral”.

“Pastor” is the Latin word for “shepherd”, and there are many who insist on the image of Christ the Good Shepherd as the icon of modern tolerance and “pastoral” mercy; but for the people of the ancient Mediterranean basin who heard the Christian message almost two thousand years ago, their understanding of a “good shepherd” is not as lovey-dovey as we moderns may think.

Shepherding was a dangerous job in ancient times. Flocks would graze and travel over large distances in the wild, where they were subject to preadators (both human and beast) as well as to the elements. The shepherd needed to keep his flock together in order to best guarantee its safety. If a sheep were to stray, not knowing the dangers of the wilderness, it would surely be eaten by wolves, killed by the weather, or die of hunger and thirst. This is why the shepherd’s staff has a crooked end– to quickly hook any straying sheep back into the fold. For the would-be wanderers, being dragged by the neck back into the fold was obviously not a pleasant experience.

Images of Christ the Good Shepherd often show Jesus carrying a lost lamb on his shoulders back to the flock, though there is no explicit reference to this in Scripture. Yet Christian iconographers did not break the sense of the biblical image. In older times, when shepherding was far more common, the underlying idea behind the image was apparent. A shepherd carried a lost sheep on his shoulders because he would break its legs in order to teach it not to wander.

Certain depictions even show a bandaged leg on the sheep. Christ, as the Good Shepherd, will also “break our legs”, only to bandage and heal us, teaching us not to separate ourselves from his flock. Jesus smites, then he cures. He judges, then he forgives. He dies, then is raised. Salvation comes through suffering, and very often, hearing the truth hurts before we finally accept it.

Let nobody fall into the mistake of thinking that being “pastorally sensitive”, that being a good shepherd, involves toleration or acceptance of the inherently and objectively wrong. In these days, there is some anticipation that the upcoming Synod of Bishops, which will focus on family issues, will permit divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist, against the perennial doctrine of the Catholic Church on the indissolubility of marriage, including the teaching of soon-to-be-Saint John Paul II. In what perilous times do we live when even a Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church seems to want to subject Christ’s own teaching on marriage to the winds of a misguided “pastoral sensitivity”! How many true pastors today are willing to “break the legs” of their own flocks in order to teach them the Truth of Jesus Christ?

On the other side of the coin, there are those who argue for “pastoral” approaches so that weak-spined pastors will tolerate their behavior. For example, there are certains priests who have distributed the Eucharist to politicians who publically and manifestly support the “right” to destroy unborn life, under the guise of being “pastoral” and “non-discriminatory”. Yet, as we have seen, the Gospel is in fact discriminatory– it discriminates the evil from the good. Some of those in manifest public sin want to “have their cake and eat it too”– to participate in the sacraments while publically defaming the Church’s doctrine– making their own desires their ultimate criteria, and not the Gospel.

When the Psalmist says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” he enunciates the attitude of the true man of faith. He no longer desires to wander from the flock, for the Lord has led him to verdant pastures. He knows that following his own selfish desires means leaving the banquet of the Lord, and that if he leaves, he will only return– with broken legs– on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd.

“You can’t please everybody”; Jesus, the Good Shepherd, alludes to this in the Gospel. He foretells the division of families and houses wrought by his ministry (Luke 12:49-53), and thus at the Final Judgment he will separate the saved from the damned. This is the essence of the truly pastoral: to unabashedly preach the truth and to correct those in error. This is the way of Christ, who had no problem driving the moneychangers from the Temple with a whip, and who preached the truth although it led to his rejection and death on a Cross. “Pastoral” does not mean negotiating the truths of faith, even if the faith doesn’t please everybody.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs;
You ain’t a good shepherd if you don’t break some legs.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply