Friday, April 27, 2012

Praying for the Shepherds we want, not the ones we deserve

Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B (Good Shepherd Sunday)

A friend alerted me to another episode of Church bashing that took place last week over public radio. This time the incident occurred in what is predominantly, though nominally and highly secularised, Catholic Ireland. Ray D’Arcy, a popular and influential Irish Radio presenter, who like many modern Irish of his generation a self-professed atheist, made this statement over his TodayFM show last week. He used the four-letter word, the ‘F’ word when speaking about the Catholic Church. In his assessment, the ‘Catholic Church, in many ways, has f… up this country.’ (Pardon the language)

D’Arcy claimed that he had used this expletive in his comment on the Church in reaction to comments made by Michelle Mulherin, a Catholic deputy of the Irish Parliament. The comments were made by this politician before the Dail (pronounced ‘Doyle’), the Irish Parliament, voted on draft legislation which would have permitted abortions to be carried out in Ireland under limited circumstances. Fortunately, the bill was rejected by a significant majority. In the opinion of Michelle Mulherin, one of the most vocal voices opposing the abortion bill, ‘fornication (sexual intercourse outside of marriage) (is the) most likely cause of unwanted pregnancies.” According to D’Arcy, the fact the Catholic politician had made this statement, which was not strange or unusual as it merely reflected Catholic teachings, and that the abortion bill was rejected had reminded him once again of the influence of the Church in that country. Apart from the Catholic hierarchy, members of the public and listeners wrote and called in to register their protests. Eventually, under pressure he offered an apology to the listeners for the language used but refused to offer any retraction or apology to the Catholic hierarchy.

‘What’ or rather ‘who’ was D’Arcy referring to when speaking of the ‘Catholic Church’ in his statement? Was he speaking of the Mystical Body of Christ, or the Spouse of the Divine Bridegroom? I believe that none of these terminology would have even entered the mind of any ordinary Catholic, what more that of an atheist. So, was he speaking of all the members of the Catholic Church? In his defense of his controversial statement he clarified the actual target of his virulent attack. According to him, it was not directed at the ordinary Catholic, his mother being one, but rather at the Catholic leadership, its hierarchy, its shepherds – in other words, the bishops, priests and religious.

Now many ordinary lay persons would sigh with relief that they were not the actual target of his attack. Alright, it appears that what had initially come across as a general Church-bashing that made no distinction between its members was just another incident of clergy-bashing. Phew …. So it’s not about you. Or was it? Many Catholics from the pew would have agreed that such attacks on the clergy was well-deserved in the aftermath of much publicised media expose and expensive payouts by the Catholic Church in respect of the many reported cases of child-abuse by the clergy and the subsequent cover-up. What people often do not realise is that the bulk of this frenzied clergy bashing is a reaction not so much to the skeletons in the Church’s closet as mentioned above but to the Church’s perceived stubbornness and unaccommodating stand to issues concerning family life and life in general – in other words, it concerns moral issues of life and death and marriage, issues that concerns all of us, the whole of humanity.

The situation, therefore, begs the question, ‘Does the Church or in this context, its shepherds, have a right to give moral direction and speak out against violations of human dignity and life in the light of the Church’s teachings?’ The answer must always be in the affirmative. The sinfulness of its members, even of its leadership, does not preclude the Church from exercising its pastoral and teaching role – the word ‘pastoral’ here, of course, refers to the ministry of being a shepherd. The ministry of shepherd is not only confined to the members of its flock but also to ‘others who are not part of the fold, but have been given’ to it by the Father. Thus, the pastoral ministry of the Church extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Church. As Jesus prophetically announces in today’s gospel: “These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

This, however, is not an attempt to offer an apologetic or pull the covers over the crimes of the perpetrators. Under no circumstances can we defend any wrongdoing by bishops and priests, especially when it is proven to be so. We must continue to demand justice and compassion to victims of clergy abuse. This is not optional. However, the demand for honesty, fairness, and perspective in the reporting of the Catholic Church abuse narrative is a separate matter altogether. In the past, a person was presumed innocent until proven guilty. Today, trial by media judges a person guilty and the suspicion of guilt remains long after the accused has been exonerated by the courts. Catholics have every right to defend the Church against wild, untrue, and unfair attacks against priests and bishops. More importantly, all Catholics have a right and duty to defend the Church and its shepherds. For want of a shepherd, the sheep will be scattered.

Perhaps, a great deal of this hatred against the institutional or hierarchical church stems from society’s attitude of being anti-establishment. The attacks against establishment is often seen as viewing it through the lenses or hermeneutics of suspicion. Every institution seems to have failed us; why not include the Church in our whole litany of complaints and disappointments? By placing the Church on the level of other establishments, we have merely reduced it to the level of a human institution. In light of man’s sins, grace for all purposes seems to have been obliterated. Today, Shepherds are being placed in bad light. In a certain way, many deserve it because for all the wrongs they have done. Because of this current scandal, God has given the entire church an opportunity to examine itself, to reform some of the disciplinary pastoral practices to safeguard the weak. The point does not denigrate from the fact that when we do see so much darkness, our world begins to close in and we can no longer see the light for what it is. People who are in depression are not able to see the light. Life loses its beauty and merely becomes functional. Thus for those who are caught up with the darkness of ecclesiastical scandal are often too blinded that they cannot see the Church as anything more than a human institution. Like human instutitons, it must tailor its message to public opinion rather than to act in a prophetic way that would challenge its people to repentance and belief and the world to change. Perhaps, there is a need to look at the Church in different light, and to see in her the Bride of Christ, the object of his love and His reason for His great sacrifice on the cross. In this new light, a light that can be blurred and sometimes even distorted by the shadows of its human sinfulness but never vanquished, we can see within her the many examples of good shepherds that have not abandoned nor betrayed their sheep. We can see within the Church, the Good Shepherd Himself acting through weak and inadequate servants and representatives. The stone rejected by the builders, by society, can still be chosen to become the cornerstone.

What reflection does Good Shepherd Sunday offer us? What must we do in the light of today’s celebrations? We need fresh eyes to look at the Church and at the institution of priests and bishops as shepherds of the Church. We must constantly make a distinction between human institutions and the mystery of the Church, which Christ has established and chosen to reach out to us through the sacraments. We must always remember that the Church is more than the total aggregate sum of its members. The Church is both divine and human. The Church is the Body of Christ, not just in a metaphorical sense but in an ontological sense. The Church continues to make present the Risen Christ to the world albeit through the poor and sometimes bad testimony of its members.

We need fresh eyes to look at our priest. It is easy to place the entire blame on our leaders whilst exonerating ourselves from ultimate responsibility. It is no wonder why most parishioners shy away from leadership positions. Who wants to be crucified? Right? We need to remember that when someone wishes to destroy the Church, you would first need to target its leaders – kill the shepherd and scatter the sheep. There is need to have a more nuanced view of priests. There are good priests and there are bad priests. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that there is always some good and some bad in each of us. We need to read the media with greater discernment as to whether it really exposes wrong doing where it is done, or whether it chooses to tar everyone with the same feathers without distinction. When you read that our bishop is making a trip to Rome at the same time as our Prime Minister’s visit to the Holy Father, one should not immediately conclude that there is some evil conspiracy or collusion. Juxtaposing a picture of Jesus with the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners does not make him one of them.

Looking at the Church and our shepherds with new eyes compels us to recommit ourselves to relate to them in a fresh way. We choose the path of prayer rather than the path of confrontation – we should always pray for our priests and bishops, for the leaders of the Church. Too often, we seek to address the issues of what we do not like through criticisms and condemnations, often done behind the backs of those who need to hear them. In a way we get the shepherds we deserve. Here, you might hear that I am advocating a confrontational attitude to take with regard to our shepherd. It is not altogether out of kilter to say that most of us would import the “political” model of our engagement into our relationship with our shepherds. The point I am trying to make is that unless you pray for your priests, you will never get the priest you desire. Criticisms rarely bring about what we want. We have never tried prayers for our shepherds and in that way, we get the shepherds we deserve.

Today, the Church calls for prayers for priestly vocations. Let us pray for priests who will follow after the heart of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Let us pray for priests who will be prepared to go the extra mile and lay down their lives for their sheep. Let us pray for priests who communicate God’s word to us and not just merely appease us with what we want to hear. Let us pray for our priests who will constantly reveal to us and remind us through their ministry that we are the beloved children of God, and so we are!

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