Monsignor Ronald Knox said: “The Catholic Church really does have to get on by hook or crook. That is, by the hook of the fisherman and the crook of the shepherd; and it is the hook that has to catch the convert and the crook that has to keep him.” As one of the great twentieth century apologists, Monsignor Knox was an expert at baiting the hook – presenting the faith in a clear, convincing and attractive manner. Himself an adult convert, he brought hundreds, perhaps thousands, into the Catholic Church. But toward the end of his life, he recognized the even greater importance of the “crook” so he devoted his final decade almost exclusively to pastoral care.
Today we acknowledge the work of the shepherd – first and foremost, Jesus himself. “I am the good shepherd.” (Jn 10:11) But also we recognize those who share his pastorate. Their number includes those in high positions like the pope and bishops, but also a myriad of humble souls. I think today of young moms who are the backbone of any parish. We are honoring and praying for them - and all mothers - in our novena of rosaries and Masses.
This year I want to narrow the focus just a bit - and reflect on the pastoral ministry of the parish priest. What I say will have applicability to moms, dads, teachers, coaches and all who undertake the task of shepherding.
A priest was once thinking about leaving parish ministry. He had become frustrated by the indifference, the conflict, the hassle – and, to be honest, was discouraged by his own weakness. He went to a monastery to think about it. Like many monasteries, it was in a rural setting. In the early morning, while vesting for Mass in front of a large window, a lone deer walked up, peered in and froze when it caught sight of the priest looking back. The animal’s liquid eyes seemed confused, sad. It reminded him that, beyond the folks giving him trouble, there are many "little people," people who usually stay in the background and they need him. He made a rededication and returned to his diocese.
Jesus compares us to sheep – not as flattering a comparison as the lone, beautiful deer. The deer, in spite of his plaintive eyes, can survive on his own. However, if a sheep gets separated from the flock and shepherd, you can measure its life expectancy in hours.
Recently I made a retreat to reflect on my time as pastor of Holy Family Parish and to consider the challenges ahead. I brought with me the results of the Archdiocesan Review of my six years as pastor. It was based on interviews and questionnaires given to various parishioners. The review gave me some good material for an examination of conscience – as well as some encouragement.
In addition, I had book, which Archbishop Brunett sent to all the priests - Seventy Times Seven. It gives moving accounts of how forgiveness transforms people’s lives. For myself – and I believe for most parish priests – forgiveness is the sine qua non for continuing in the pastoral ministry. First, recognizing my own daily need for God’s forgiveness and that of the people. And then trying to extend that forgiveness – including to those who don’t ask for it, don’t want it and don’t even buy the concept.
Often forgiveness does not involve words, but actions. There is a saying: Living well is the best revenge. It’s also true that the best forgiveness is pastoral care.
As a young priest, one of my parishioners hurt me deeply. He led the opposition to a program which meant a lot to me. Moreover, he was one of these guys who sensed your weak spot and did not hesitate to aim for it. Of course to hit such raw nerves his words had to contain some truth. I don’t think either of us wanted war, but both were too Scandinavian (or perhaps just too proud) to seek verbal reconciliation. I did the best I could to provide pastoral care of his family, including his dad and two high school age sons. At times I even went out of my way. Still, uneasiness continued between us. Some years later I returned to the parish for a funeral. That man was among the first to come forward with a smile and handshake.
Pastoral care holds the key to reconciliation in the Church. For those hurt by clergy sexual abuse, it will take much more than words to bring healing. Each of the victims represents hundreds of others who have been wounded in various ways. There is no quick fix, only what Jesus indicates today, “I will lay down my life for the sheep.”
From Archives: Jesus' Job Description (Fourth Easter, Year B, 2000)
Where Are the Shepherds? (Columbine Massacre)
1998 Good Shepherd (Alexander the Great, Graham Greene Power and Glory)
Mother's Day Homily 2002
2001 (Scott Hahn Hail, Holy Queen)
1999 "If You Love Me..."
1998 Honoring Mothers and Defending Children
Bulletin (Archdiocesan Review)
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Peterson Double-Murder Case Exposes Unborn Double Standard
Showdown for Salaries (Signs of Moderation, But Problems Remain)
Health Horoscopes, Semi-Robots and the Future of Genetics (Mapping of Human Genome Is Finished, But the Debates Go On)
IVF Leaving Ethics in the Dust (Frozen Embryos Generating a Host of New Legal Problems)
Sexual and Related Disorders
It's Not Your Mother's YWCA