Sunday, February 21, 2016

On Shepherding on the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter

Saint Peter, whose cathedra we celebrate, calls himself three things: a witness to the sufferings of Christ, a sharer in the glory to be revealed and a fellow presbyter.  Then Peter sets out to strengthen we fellow shepherds by teaching us how to tend the flock of God.

The young shepherd, crook in hand, would tell you how to govern those sheep.  If the sheep does not move, you whack it on the backside with the broadside of your staff.  If the sheep wanders too far away, you grab it around the neck with the crook.  In other words, the shepherd boy out in the pasture usually governs by brute adolescent force.

Sadly, some priests shepherd in the same way.  Detecting ignorance, they sit upon their royal thrones and preach “the truth,” with a big capitol "T," and with equal measures of bombast, condescension and infallible conviction.  Seeing sloth, they look down their long noses at the poor wretches and exhort them to the industry with which they themselves have been naturally endowed and pray earnestly that the poor may be given the grace to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and become half the man which the shepherds on the thrones knows themselves to be.

This is the priest who mounts his pulpit like a tank, who wields his sermon like a weapon.

This is the pastor who rules his flock like a medieval warlord, answering every ignorance with his ineffable pronouncements.

This is the young and rough shepherd boy, governing by constraint.  

But, as the aging Saint Peter has learned, mostly the hard way, such a way of governing does not work.  The louder you yell, the quicker the sheep run away.  The more full of yourself you seem, the less they will listen.  Severity, condescension and pomposity seldom do anything more than reveal you as the narcissist, leading a flock which will not follow.

No, here’s how you tend a flock: ‘with sincerity, willingly and with gentle compassion…clothed with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bearing with one another; forgiving every grievance, as  the Lord has forgiven you. Clothed in love, the bond of perfection. (Cf. Colossians 3:12-14)

Such shepherding is not offered for what the shepherd can get out of it.  You don’t become a shepherd for the pay.  As a priest I have never made more money than any one of my staff, including the housekeeper.  I will never own my own house and I will never make the decision where I work.  I do it for the love of the sheep and the Chief Shepherd who has placed his flock in my care.

Nor do I care for this flock by lording it over them, but by the example I give.  It is shepherding by example. There’s that old saw: preach always and use words when necessary.  Preach by the example of your life.  

Gentleness, kindness and loving example.  Like Saint Peter and the Lord he followed to the Cross.