Being Pastoral

On occasion I experience a physical reaction to certain words. Usually it's a reaction of disgust. Does this ever happen to you? Am I the only one? I'm not talking about stupid, overused terms like, "game changer." Nor am I talking about terms that are mere annoyances. I'm talking about terms that cause wailing and gnashing of teeth. Maybe I'm being a little melodramatic? Maybe. Maybe I'm just hypersensitive to words. Maybe. But regardless, there are some terms that, when carelessly tossed about, make me so very, very angry.

This only happens to me when a good term is taken on a Spring Break road-trip to South Padre Island and goes all sorts of bad. It's the abuse of good terms that I find to be crazy-making. I'm guessing there's something like this in any profession. I don't know. In my experience, however, there are a lot of these poor abused terms. But, in my corner of human affairs the saddest of these abused terms is: pastoral.

Normally it's a great word. And, even though Jony Ive hates skeuomorphic design it seems that Jesus loves it. You see, this is the analogy that our Lord chose to describe the way sacred ministers would care for his people. It's no mistake that the image of the Good Shepherd is what most people envision when the term pastoral is used. Those responsible for governance in the Church are supposed to be like shepherds over a flock. Christ himself reemphasizes this image during the three–fold repentance of Peter in John 21:15-19.

The abuse of this term happens when people don't respect the analogy. They import things that don't fit or remove things that do. For instance, one trendy way of doing ministry is based on client-centered therapy. In this model, the minister isn't seen as a resource or expert that the client is consulting. Rather, the client is the expert and the minister "walks"with the client on his journey. The popular scriptural example abused for this model is the story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35. But, I very much doubt that there are any successful shepherds who simply "walk" with their sheep. Heck, even in this example Christ instructs the troubled disciples.

Instead, if we want to know what being pastoral is all about we need to look at what a shepherd actually does. Yes, he walks with his sheep. But, he doesn't simply walk beside them. He guides them. Sometimes he guides them gently. He calls to them and they come. But, sometimes the sheep are obstinate and he must use a little force. The force isn't to hurt the sheep, it's to save them. If a sheep gets lost it not only puts itself in jeopardy but it puts the whole flock in jeopardy. If the sheep want to eat the wrong things, the shepherd must abruptly and definitively stop them. Also, a shepherd may need to defend his sheep against the wolves. A shepherd leads his flock from point A to point B. He is not led by the flock. Being pastoral necessarily involves being both compassionate and understanding while still being able to correct and discipline.

This is the crux of the matter. People use the term pastoral to express an agenda. The agenda is the repudiation of the role of those who participate in Holy Orders for the purpose of governing the Church. It's an imposition of modern (and definitely American) notions of freedom and equality on the Church. But, this leadership role is intrinsic to the cleric's place in the Church. Clergy govern, the rest of us (me included) are governed.

I think the breakdown between the proper relationship between clergy and laity finds is root in the vice of pride. On the part of those laymen who rebel against being governed the vice is obvious. But, it may not be so clear how pride is at the root of the clerical side of this breakdown. Let me briefly explain.

Pride is the vice of not knowing one's place before God and among men. Hopefully, we all know that we're as nothing before the infinite majesty of God. The problem, however, may be that we sometimes lose sight of our place in the human community. So, to know that you are smart isn't prideful. It's prideful to think that you are smarter than you are or to pretend that you are not as smart as you are. To not recognize ones station, achievements, or talents is a subtile form of pride. I believe this is what's at work when clergy don't properly act according to their obligation to govern the flock of Jesus Christ.

Added to the vice of pride may be a lack of courage. We all want to be accepted. It's natural. But, who do we want to be accepted by? What must we compromise in order to be accepted by those we value? Who do we value? If our order of loves is out of wack we can easily lose sight of what (truth) and who (God) is most important. If we're afraid that making tough decisions will drive people away or cause them to not invite us to fancy parties, we really should reassess our order of loves. If I'm a cleric and I don't want to protect Christ's sheep from external hazards and even the sheep themselves, then I'm a poor shepherd.

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None of what I'm saying is permission for a cleric to be a jerk. On the contrary, a shepherd who truly loves his sheep will only be concerned with their proper care. A mean shepherd is also a bad shepherd. But, making tough decisions like enforcing canon 915 or enforcing proper liturgical rubrics, for example, aren't mean. They truly are acts of love. If a good pastor didn't love his flock he would let them do whatever they pleased. It isn't clericalism for a cleric to fully manifest his role of governance in the Church. On the contrary, it's simply following the will of the God who established that Church. How could a cleric act otherwise.

It's a tough balance. Anyone can let their ego get in the way of their work. It happens to everyone. But, like everything else in life, we ought not make decisions out of fear. Fear of one's ego getting in the way of governing the flock ought not cause a cleric to avoid his responsibilities. He should seek the Lord, the Good Shepherd, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, to discover how best to assign both praise and blame. He must learn to use both the carrot and the stick with a steady yet loving hand.

It's rough being the enforcer. It's why those who are charged with this sacred duty must be rooted in prayer. They have an intimate relationship with the Lord so they can model him in their own role of governance. Also, we who are governed should pray ardently for our ecclesiastical superiors. We should desire good leaders who are strong when we are unruly and stiff-necked. We should desire leaders who are stalwart defenders of the faith in every way. They should be models of Christ in every aspect, not simply those aspects which we find convenient.

So, please, let's stop using the word pastoral to mean a weak approach to difficult issues. Let's start using the word as it was meant to be used. Let's recognize that being pastoral means governing according to the truth of divine and natural revelation as interpreted by the Magisterium and safeguarded by Holy Mother Church. Let's recognize that being pastoral is not always nice, but that it's always kind. Most importantly, we should never forget that being authentically pastoral requires a great amount of courage and humility in the face of spiritual dangers. Pray, then, for our pastors that the Lord will fortify their hearts so they can lead us all, by the sure path, into the Kingdom of Heaven.