On Being “Pastoral”
The gospel account of Christ as the "good shepherd" is proclaimed in the Traditional Roman Mass on the Second Sunday After Easter, which occurs today this year. Most Catholics of the Roman Rite who celebrate the "ordinary form" of the Mass will hear it next Sunday, where it occurs on the Fourth Sunday of (or Third Sunday After) Easter. Don't ask me why.
At that time, Jesus said to his disciples: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father." (John 10:11-18)
We use the term “pastor” for our parish priest. The term itself is derived from the Latin word for "shepherd." Most Catholics use the term "pastoral" to describe the priest's degree of accommodation. To give an example: “Father Billy Bob takes a pastoral approach with couples wanting to marry, which is why they can live together before exchanging vows, and let their conscience (unguided, we are led to believe) determine whether to use birth control.”
But does that reflect what the word means?
The French writer François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, himself no friend of Mother Church, nonetheless attached some significance to an objective idea of Truth: “If you would converse with me, you must first define your terms.” Radical progressives do not understand this, and so use words to mean whatever they want. For example, if there being only two genders does not satisfy one's requirements (that would be "male" and "female"), then one is compelled to appease the socially enlightened, by dismissing the limitations of biology and adding more "genders" to the list, which is confusing in a society where not everybody is sufficiently acclimated to progressive lines of thought. If we are to explain ourselves to one another, short of drawing a picture for someone, words are all we have, and their meaning must stand on its own. If we understand the word "pastor" by its original, objective meaning, to be "pastoral" is to act in the manner of a shepherd. What does a good shepherd do that a bad one does not?
Let's see that quotation again, the part given emphasis above.
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep.”
So then, a good shepherd risks his life to save his sheep from harm, while a bad shepherd leaves them to fend for themselves in the face of harm.
What kind of harm do we mean? Obviously, spiritual harm. An engaged couple is not being done any favor, if Father Billy Bob winks at their living arrangement. Marriage is what we call a "sacrament of the living," which means it must be entered into while in a state of grace, or we defile it. If all Father wants is to be a nice guy, he will be like the mercenary and leave Dick and Jane to their own devices. But if his goal is to keep them from spiritual harm, he will beg to differ.
To be honest, some priests can be real jerks about this. Many of them know this, and are afraid to be perceived that way. Why do they have to be? A recent article in Homiletic and Pastoral Review discusses how to help couples who cohabitate before marriage. While the author has good intentions, he doesn't go far enough, and actually falls short of a genuine remedy, which makes it harder for the parish priest not to come off as a jerk.
In a city like Washington, where many couples do not have the support of family within their locality, one party or the other would be hard pressed to break a lease on a rented apartment, just to satisfy what could be dismissed as a procedural requirement. This is one of the casualties of our uprootedness, where we lack any sense of a familial home, and a parish is less a spiritual home than it is the setting for a personality cult (a problem made worse by the wave of closings and mergers of otherwise viable parishes to replenish the bishop's legal slush fund, to say nothing of "Mass facing the people" -- but that's another story). If we were who we pretended to be, none of the more vulnerable among us would be left to the wolves. Can one party or the other in an impending marriage rent a room for a few lousy months from an "empty nester," a couple whose children are gone, but who are known by the pastor to be of good character, and can even serve as mentors?
It is at times like this, where all the yakkity-yak about "ministering" to people is put to the test, and is one of many reasons why we fail.
Our conclusion, then, is that to be "pastoral" has less to do with appeasement and keeping the peace, and more to do with protecting others from danger, to the point of giving one's life. And yet, it also means that no man charged with knowing his sheep can really stand alone.
After all, even a good shepherd needs a well-bred pair of Border Collies to help keep the flock together, don't you think?
Or don't you?