St. Augustine, reflecting on a text from Ezekiel, has some strong words for those who would be shepherds, be they bishops, priests, or deacons. Let’s examine two important observations he made during a longer sermon delivered to the priests and people of Hippo.
He begins with a lament over the failure of many shepherds to teach the truth:
After the Lord had shown what wicked shepherds esteem, he also spoke about what they neglect. The defects of the sheep are widespread. There are very few healthy and sound sheep, few that are solidly sustained by the food of truth, and few that enjoy the good pasture God gives them. But the wicked shepherds do not spare such sheep [from a sermon On Pastors by Saint Augustine, bishop (Sermo 46, 9: CCL 41, 535-536)].
St. Augustine speaks here of the fact that far too many are not “sustained by the food of truth.” The weak and unsound condition of the flock is evidence of neglect by the bishops, priests, and deacons of the Church. It is largely a failure to teach truth clearly and to rebuke error.
We are in the midst of one of the most shocking and rapid cultural meltdowns imaginable. We have seen the demise of marriage through divorce, cohabitation, contraception, and its very redefinition. Here are just a few other examples: more than 50 million abortions since the Roe v. Wade decision, sexual promiscuity, rampant single motherhood (and absent fathers), widespread sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults (including by clergy), sexual harassment, rampant pornography that is becoming ever baser, celebration of homosexual acts, and a sexual confusion that has led some to claim that there are more than 50 “genders” and that a male can make himself female (and vice versa) simply by declaring it to be so. Add to this the deepening toll of greed and gluttony as well as a dramatic falling away of religious practice. Fewer than one in four Catholics attend Mass weekly, down from more than three in four in the 1950s and before.
In the midst of this demise—in which, just when it seems it can’t get worse, it does—many pulpits are strangely silent, as are catechetical programs, and nominally-Catholic universities and colleges. It’s still business as usual even though most don’t come to Mass anymore to know that. You’d never know that there was a tsunami raging outside the doors.
The fault here lies first and foremost with the clergy, but it also extends to parents, catechists, and lay staff in parishes. Parents fail to educate their children in the faith, warn them of sin and error, and protect them from it as much as humanly possible. Most clergy and parish staff have few, if any, plan to deal with the onslaught. There is little in the way of vigorous sermons that speak to modern confusions. Catechesis does not address it. There are few focused bible studies, seminars, or lectures. Very little in the way of good literature is available in parish bookstores/libraries. Seldom are Catholics encouraged to read edifying Catholic books, watch Catholic programming, listen to Catholic podcasts, or make use of other good sources to refute modern errors.
Taking a moral stand is “controversial,” and too many Catholic leaders, both clergy and lay, are allergic to controversy. There is endless talk about being a “welcoming parish” but never the fuller development of that idea: all are welcome to come and hear the truth of Jesus Christ, repent of their sins, and thereby grow in holiness.
Listen to what St. Augustine says: “There are very few healthy and sound sheep, few that are sustained by the food of truth.” This is the fault of the shepherds. A good shepherd sees the wolf (of untruth and error) coming and drives him away, but a bad one sees the wolf and hides while it devours the flock. The bad shepherd fears controversy; he doesn’t want to risk his popularity or career. He hides, living off the fewer and fewer sheep who remain. We priests, bishops, and deacons need to take a good look at our ministries and honestly assess whether we are good or bad shepherds. Parents and other church leaders need to do the same. The flock is in terrible health, and we cannot simply blame others; this has happened on our watch. Even reasonably good bishops and pastors ought to ask what they can do to be better, what concrete plans they can implement. Parents and other leaders need to do the same.
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