So it’s 3 am and I’m up feeding the baby again. I pick up my laptop and check my email. There’s the daily readings waiting for me (thanks to The Daily Gospel online service). I guess I should read them since I’ll probably be pretty sleepy at mass in the morning, my mind will probably be wandering as usual, I’ll probably be distracted by the bad music and by the cuteness of my daughter, maybe I’ll even have to go out with a fussy baby Bella, though that hasn’t happened yet. In any case, I usually try to read the readings but frequently forget. Now I’ve got plenty of time and, gee, maybe God is trying to tell me something.
As I started to read for some reason I began to ponder Karen Hall’s recent questions. She’s troubled by the poor leadership in the Church. By the pope, the cardinals and bishops who don’t seem to be doing anything about bad priests, bad liturgy, about the pain of people who keep asking: How long, O Lord, must we suffer? And as I read it was eerie how all the readings kept talking to the point of the discussion that’s been raging at her blog and at Dom’s and elsewhere on the net.
I didn’t set out with an agenda. I just wanted to read the readings. But I guess because I was tired, I was more open to the voice of the Spirit than I usually am, because things just kept jumping out at me, I was moved to prayer and meditation. And so here is a very long ramble of my late night thoughts.
I didn�t set out to do so, but as I began to read the first reading, �Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD.� I began to pray for all those shepherds we have now who are leading the people of God astray. Cause it�s certain they need our prayers, all these priests and bishops who have not cared for their flocks but have driven them away and scattered them.
Seems to me I recall that she�s been engaged in praying for them too, especially for those Jesuits who have become bad shepherds. Because she believes that they are not beyond redepmption, that not all is lost. Rather than joining in the loud chorus of Jesuit haters, she rightly points out to those naysayers who condemn the whole order that through our prayers God can bring about renewal for the Jesuits; but that we need to pray.
So I was pondering this problem: why does God allow bad shepherds to arise and lead his flock? Isn�t he worried about all those lost sheep? It�s a problem I�ve long had with the Old Testament: what about all those people who lived and died never knowing God? Why did he choose some people, Israel, and not others? Doesn�t God love the Egyptians and the Caananites and all those other ancient peoples that Israel kept fighting?
And then, as I was pondering these questions and praying not only for the wicked shepherds but also for the lost sheep, I moved on to the psalm: The LORD is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. Wow, that�s a pretty good answer to my complaint. It may look to my human eyes that God doesn�t care for his sheep when he allows bad shepherds to lead them astray; but the psalm reminds me that indeed the Lord himself is our shepherd. He�s in control and he loves his sheep. So I have to trust that somehow he�s still shepherding those lost sheep. It may look to me like they are wandering lost in the wilderness but God has a plan for each one of them. Even though they walk in the dark valley, God is at their side. The Bible tells me so, and I gotta trust it. I�ve got to trust his word because it�s the truth. God doesn�t lie. He�s still setting his table for us every Sunday, nourishing us with his word and with his very body.
To flippantly paraphrase from The Wizard of Oz, pay no attention to the man on the altar. Instead, look to the man-God on the altar. Listen to his words. He is the light in the darkness. And that�s the wonderful thing about being Catholic. No matter how sinful the priest is, how terrible the liturgy is, we can still receive nourishment from the proclamation of the word (eeven if we have to plug our ears during the homily) and as long as the consecration is valid, the words are said and the deed is done, (even if it is done illicitly in glass chalices, or gracelessly in a wreckovated church to the accompaniment of liturgical dancers) as long as the form and the matter of the sacrament are valid, then Christ is present, body blood soul and divinity. Thanks be to God who is so good to us. Because our poor Protestant brothers and sisters are muddling along without even that.
And then I move on to the epistle. It�s St. Paul writing to the Ephesians, and usually I have a hard time with him when he starts talking about the law. How does that apply to me? It seems so first century. But tonight—this morning, rather�it�s clicking into place with the other readings. �But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ.� It is Christ who is our shepherd and his role is to gather all those scattered sheep of Israel, to bring them into the fold all those who have been led astray by the bad shepherds, the corrupt prophets and godless priests that Jeremiah is raging against. And what is more he is God�s answer to that whole problem I have with what about all those people who aren�t God�s chosen people. Because Jesus came to abolish the law, to break down the wall of enmity between the Jews and everyone else and to make them one body instead of two and to reconcile both to God.
Jesus is God�s answer to bad priests and faithless prophets. God knows that men are weak and that human shepherds are just as likely to lead their flocks astray as to lead them to safety. So he sends us his Son to gather us up and save us. I don�t know how he�s going to do it in our day and age when everything looks so dark to me. When I see so many of those human shepherds who seem like their stumbling around in the dark even worse than the flock they�re supposed to be leading. But God tells me over and over again that his ways are not my ways and they are so far beyond me I can�t understand them. Like Karen, I don�t understand. But I know that God is telling me here that he�s got it under control.
Sure, I�ve got my part to play, and I�m doing it now. I�m praying for those godless shepherds and I�m praying for all the sheep they�ve led astray. And that�s my job. That�s all I can do. After that, I�ve just got to trust that God who loves them much much more than I do and who is saddened much much more than I am by the whole situation will take care of them. �He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.� He�s preaching peace to me and I�ve got to either accept it or reject him.
If I lose my peace of mind over the scandal of bad priests and bishops, I have only to turn my eyes to the even greater scandal of the cross. That�s the answer. God can take the worst of human sinfulness and make it his greatest deed, the one that saves us. I don�t understand. I don�t understand how he does it, but there it is.
I don�t understand why God chose such a loser as St. Peter to lead his church. Surely there must have been a better choice. Surely he was joking when he called Peter the rock. Peter! He�s the guy who denied Jesus. Surely it�s a joke to call this guy a rock, to establish a church on such a weak foundation. But there it is. I don�t understand; but it seems to be how God works. That�s the answer I�d point people to when they question why the pope seems so ineffective. Well the Holy Spirit must have some plan to use this weak, ineffective human being. If he could use Peter, then he can use Joseph Ratzinger. He must have been the best choice for the job.
I don�t understand. But I believe. I believe in the Holy Spirit. And I believe in one, holy, Catholic and apostolic, Church. I don�t understand it. It sure doesn�t look like the church I�d design if I were God. I think I�d do a better job picking shepherds for my flock if I were God. I�d find some way to keep the bad seeds out or to get rid of them once it became apparent they were bad. But that�s not how it works evidently. I don�t understand; but I do believe.
And finally I come to the gospel. And it sure is a doozy. �When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.�
At the beginning of the passage it looks like Jesus doesn�t care. He and the apostles are going off to a deserted place to rest. What about all those poor suffering souls they are leaving behind? How dare they rest when there are sick people needing healing and sinners needing preaching to? Why is he abandoning them, all these people who are coming and going in great numbers, these people who have nothing to eat? Why is he setting such a bad example for the apostles? Doesn�t Jesus care?
And indeed the people follow Jesus and interrupt his plans for a peaceful retreat. �People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.� Well, it looks like Jesus� plan didn�t work. People were there waiting for him and the apostles when they got to their quiet retreat.
But maybe, Jesus, being God, knew that would happen, right? Maybe that was part of his plan all along. He knew that people were so hungry for leadership they�d not be content when the shepherd left them behind. They�d go out seeking him. They�d be waiting when he got there. No matter how far Jesus and the apostles run away to get some personal time, there are still sheep there hungry and needing to be tended.
I�m going to go out on a limb and make a speculation now. Maybe that�s part of God�s plan too. Maybe he goes away so they will have to follow. He allows them to get hungry so they will recognize that they need food. Maybe he�s like the parent letting go so the baby can learn to walk on her own. And yes, she�s going to fall; but that seems to be part of the process. No babies learn to walk without a few tumbles on the way.
And here�s where I get a bit radical in my speculation. Maybe he allows bad shepherds so that the sheep will have to work a little bit. Maybe it�s part of his prevention plan to keep us from being lukewarm. Maybe all these angry people who are raging about the state the Church is in now need those bad shepherds because otherwise they would be complacent about their faith. Maybe God allows bad liturgies to happen because then people have to drive further to find that more reverent parish or that Tridentine mass and it keeps them on their toes. Maybe he wants us riled up so we get off our butts and get to work, get involved in music ministry if we think the music is bad, get involved in a Bible study and read up on the Church�s teaching because Father isn�t doing his job.
Maybe it�s the lukewarm homilies at my parish that send me out on the web to find better ones. And maybe that way I�m paying attention whereas if the homily was good I might still drift off and miss what he�s trying to tell me.
If we�re angry, at least we�re hot, not lukewarm.
Dom likes to tell the story of his sister-in-law, a woman I�ve never met. She died of cancer when my niece Mary was very small. One day she told him that if cancer was what it took to get her to pay attention to God, then she accepted that. And, well, maybe it was. Maybe that�s what it took to get her to turn to God and ask for help. It seems pretty harsh to me. But then so does crucifixion.
Cathy�s story teaches me that God sometimes allows us to suffer because it�s the only way to get our attention. It doesn�t seem fair that Mary was left without a mother so that Cathy could get to heaven. Surely there must have been a way that didn�t involve a little girl losing her mother. But that�s the way God works. His ways are not our ways.
Anyway, I’m praying for Karen and for all who are troubled by the scandals in our Church. I pray that they may receive some of the same consolation and peace I’ve been given. And I pray for the shepherd who are leading people astray, for the godless priests and prophets who will be held accountable for their actions and for their lack of action. I pray that not a soul may be lost because of their actions but that all might be shepherded safely through this dark valley and find rest and refreshment at his table today and in eternal life.
Also I pray for peace in the Holy Land, as Pope Benedict has asked us to do today. Funny how the first psalm in Evening Prayer I for this Sunday is Psalm 122 and the antiphon is “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” Eerie how often the daily readings of both the office and the mass seem so appropriate. God is great like that.
I’ll end with a stanza from one of the hymns for Night Prayer that I like to read (I don’t know the tune.)
This world, my God, is held within your hand,
Though we forget your love and steadfast might
And in the changing day uncertain stand,
Disturbed by morning, and afraid of night.
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