Ego Sum Pastor bonus - but the hireling flieth.
(Foreward: This article is somewhat lengthier than others, yet it is of great importance to dwell upon the truths contained within the liturgical texts and their import for our current situation.)
Ego Sum Pastor bonus.
The love of Christ knows no bounds, for He came to lay down His life for us in order that we might have life in Him. In the epistle and Gospel for todays’ Mass we gain an insight into the Divine love and learn of the signs of the true, faithful pastors. Christ also teaches us to be on guard for the hirelings, or the unfaithful shepherds, and this is of particular importance in this time of spiritual crisis. We are still in the midst of a joyful Easter-tide, joyfully celebrating the triumph of Christ over the cross. There can be no better time then, to have before us the texts which describe the love He had for us - a love which moved Him to such a death. St. Peter recounts that Christ:
did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth; Who, when he was reviled, did not revile: when he suffered, he threatened not: but delivered himself to him that judged him unjustly; Who his own self bore our sins in his body upon the tree: that we, being dead to sins, should live to justice: by whose stripes you were healed. (1 Peter 2:21-24)
Such is the indescribable love of God, upon which the saints and mystics have written many beautiful words and have yet still failed to adequately describe such perfection. Such is the un-fathomable love of God, who repaid our sins and offences with this most perfect act of sacrifice. It can be all too easy to become disconnected from the truth of the cross, especially when we see the image so often. How often can we pass a crucifix by whilst making but a brief mental note of the figure transfixed there. Again, if we stop and gaze at Christ hanging on the cross, it is often rare that we really comprehend what our eyes are seeing, as we tend to take such an image for granted.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep”. (John 10:11) Yet there is no pleasant pastoral scene here, with a happy shepherd peacefully watching over a flock in some beautiful pasture. Hanging upon the cross is the form of the Good Shepherd, who loves His flock to the point of death. His body is beaten, bruised and bloodied, yet this is welcomed by Him out of love for us. His flesh is torn and falling off and his blood steadily dripping from His many wounds. Christ is the Good Shepherd who knows the dangers facing His flock and who took upon Himself the awful price of our salvation.
This is the image of the true Shepherd, which is presented before us every time we behold the cross. Each time we gaze at the crucifix we must always remember that we are gazing at the most profound act of love, which showed Itself in the most cruel torments and death. “I am the good shepherd; and I know mine, and mine know me”. (John 10:14) When we thus behold the cross we do indeed know Christ, for we cannot know Him without knowing the cross. We know Him since He has died for love of us, giving us the path to eternal life and a share in His Divine life. How can we mistake such a Shepherd, for who can even dare to pretend to such perfect love and such selfless sacrifice, except God?
The faithful shepherds.
Let us then read the lives of the early popes and bishops of the Church, who suffered persecutions and martyrdoms for the sake of Christ and the Church. We can recall the many missionaries to distant lands who also endured such torments and often death for spreading the faith. In this country, we have only to turn to those great martyr priests of the Protestant revolution to see the actions of true shepherds. They who risked their lives just by coming back into England in order to minister to the faithful, were on fire with zeal for God and for His flock which He had entrusted to them. For priests, such as St. Edmund Campion or Robert Southwell, the care of their flock meant only one thing - to imitate Christ in His care for us in all things, even unto martyrdom. St. Peter’s epistle for today contains the words “Who his own self bore our sins in his body upon the tree: that we, being dead to sins, should live to justice: by whose stripes you were healed”. (1 Peter 2:24) Just as Christ took upon Himself our sins even under death, so He calls His disciples and faithful shepherds to minister unto the faithful in like manner. Christ, the faithful Shepherd, endured stripes and death in order to liberate us and He calls upon those who come after Him to love Him and His sheep in this way.
The mark of the Shepherd and His faithful shepherds is one of giving life for the sheep: “the good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep”. (John 10:11) Whilst this has often not been necessary for priests or bishops at certain periods in history, it is a call to which they must be always ready to respond. If the shepherds are not called upon to respond with their lives in a bloody martyrdom, they must be prepared to give themselves in other ways, perhaps enduring injustice or public derision. It is a call to which we, the faithful, must also be ready to respond to, should we be called upon to profess the faith at the price of our lives.
The shepherd tends to his flock out of love and for a reason, namely in order to protect them from the evils that beset them. But he differs from a mere hireling in that the hireling has no love for the sheep, nor indeed for the shepherd. He loves not the work which he performs. Christ warns us of the danger of the hireling who will not stay by his sheep. Whilst Christ eagerly endures the cruelest of deaths for us, the hirelings cannot abide such a thought and flee at the earliest opportunity: “the hireling flieth, because he is a hireling: and he hath no care for the sheep”. (John 10:13) Yet the hirelings do not merely flee, for the Gospel mentions that they “seeth the wolf coming” and thus escape before the danger has even properly arrived. (10:12) When the hireling has abandoned the flock, the sheep are left defenceless and at the mercy of the wolves.
For the unfaithful shepherd, the hireling, not only has no care for the task of caring for the sheep, but has no care for the sheep themselves. His primary concern is for himself and his preservation. Such is the way with all hirelings who are not the shepherd, according to the words of the Gospel. For it is only the true Shepherd and those who follow Him who are able to protect the flock with the love and selfless care which is necessary. Beware the hirelings who care neither for their task nor for the faithful sheep.
We have mentioned the Protestant revolution in reference to the faithful shepherds, but we can do so also with regard to the bishops and priests who threw away their shepherds’ crooks and became hirelings. Out of the English clergy, only St. John Fisher opposed King Henry VIII in his wanton abandonment of the faith and its tenets. The unjust monarch seemingly so commanded the fear of those former shepherds as to move them to abandon their charge and flee from the protection of the flock. The faithful members of the Church, who were under the care of these hirelings, were left without protection or leadership by their former shepherds.
So also we can observe such a similiar occurrence in present day China. Whilst many priests and bishops have endured persecution for adhering to the faith and ministering to the faithful,(1) many others have seen the approach of the wolf and chosen the easier path.(2) The actions of the unfaithful hirelings have resulted in great trials for the faithful shepherds as well as for the faithful flock. Persecution of the Church in China has increased ever since the Vatican signed a deal with the Chinese authorities, described as a move which betrayed the Church in China.(3) The hirelings have disregarded the words of Pope Pius XI who warned against the dangers of subordinating religion and God to the state.(4)
A virus that breeds hirelings.
Would that we could leave such a thought here without further treatment. Yet that papal warning is one which has been sadly disregarded all across the world by those called to be faithful shepherds, but who have instead become fearful hirelings. The pope issued his thanks to those “who have persisted in their Christian duty and in the defence of God’s rights in the teeth of an aggressive paganism”. (5) Unfortunately Pius XI could not issue such thanks again today to the majority of the shepherds. In the time of this current virus, we find ourselves separated from the churches. Faithful priests have been left without a flock to minister to and are thus frustrated in the exercise of their Divine vocation. Such priests ardently wish to hear confessions, administer Holy Communion and celebrate public Masses, yet are prohibited from doing so. Countless numbers of the faithful are deprived of the sacraments, the very life blood of the Catholic life. These faithful priests do indeed deserve the words of praise which come from Pius XI, since their zeal has remained undiminished in the face of aggressive paganism, no matter how that paganism is dress up.
But what of the shepherds - have they abandoned the flock? The true shepherds are Christ-like and do not fear the things of this world. In England, the bishops conference decreed on the 18th March that all public masses must cease as of the evening of 20th March. (6) Such a decision was enacted before the civil authorities forbade mass gatherings and ordered the nation wide lockdown, effective from the evening of 23rd March. Surely such a decision by our shepherds strikes us as very similiar to that described in the Gospel? Are these not the actions of hirelings, who instead of seeking to enable the faithful to avail of the sacraments as much as possible, have chosen to place earthly, temporal goods above those of the spiritual?
No, these are not the actions of faithful and courageous shepherds, intent on guarding the faithful and preserving the truths of the faith, but rather the actions of hirelings who “hath no care for the sheep”. (John 10:13) Yet perhaps this seems harsh, for the bishops of England and Wales only prohibited public Masses a few days before the national lockdown came into force. One might argue - what do those few days really matter?
The first answer which we must make to this is that such an action shows to the faithful that their shepherds do not care enough about spiritual welfare to try and provide for their sheep when the wolf is on the prowl. They also demonstrated this fact to the secular governments, proving to the state that the Catholic hierarchy would quietly accept all the sacrifices, unjust sacrifices, which were asked of them. But most importantly, these hirelings denied the faithful of their spiritual nourishment, which is more important even than bodily health, and denied the faithful clergy a way of ministering to their congregations and fulfilling their vocation. In this earthly life our first consideration must be to God and to those matters which pertain to our salvation. To this end, the promulgation and availability of the sacraments and the various aspects of the Church’s life are never to be considered secondary to any temporal good.
The decision taken by the Catholic Bishops’ conference of England and Wales to ban all public acts of worship, is seemingly in direct violation of Canon 455 of the Code of Canon Law, which states: “A conference of bishops can only issue general decrees in cases where universal law has prescribed it or a special mandate of the Apostolic See has established it either motu proprio or at the request of the conference itself”. (7) Dr. Caridi, a prominent canonist, clarifies that there is no such prescription in universal law which can permit the bishops to ban public Mass. (8) Nor has there been any mention of a special Apostolic mandate prohibiting public acts of worship. Whilst the current canon law of 1983 makes no mention of any permission for the banning of Masses, it does however contain a directive relating to the duty of a bishop: “he is to endeavour constantly that the Christian faithful entrusted to his care grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments and that they understand and live the paschal mystery”. (9) The Code also stipulates that the faithful have the right to receive the spiritual fruits of the Church, particularly the “word of God and the sacraments”. (10)
It light of the Ecclesial ban of public acts of worship, no matter the motive behind it, the bishops are reneging on their canonical duty to constantly ensure that the flock in their care are able to advance in the spiritual life. (As stipulated in Canon #387). It is also the duty of the bishops to lead by example and to move their flock to the practice of the virtues by their own holy lives. However, the message which they have proclaimed to the faithful during this time, is that there are (apparently) times when we can make excuses for abandoning the first and foremost duty of the Church and place the spiritual life on pause whilst we cater to lesser needs. Hence, the directive issued by the bishops of England and Wales, prohibiting public acts of worship, was an abject rejection of their call to be faithful shepherds. It was in violation of canon law and proved to the state that the Catholic Church would prefer to put aside the spiritual life and well being of the country instead of making a stand for the fundamental right and duty of the Church - namely the public worship of God.
Such strong words, so unfamiliar or even unpleasant to the constitution of many Catholics of this land, are not without considerable ecclesial backing. There are a number of authoritative shepherds and teachers who have issued statements affirming the great need of the sacraments during this time. Bishop Schneider refers to the words of St. John’s Gospel for today in issuing the following statement: “If a priest observes in a reasonable manner all the necessary health precautions and uses discretion, he has not to obey the directives of his bishop or the government to suspend Mass for the faithful”.(11) Another canonist, Philip Gray, declared that regarding the public suspension of masses by the bishops, “I do not believe such a directive is legitimate”.(12) He further stated that those true shepherds who seek to be in faithful imitation of Christ would find suitable ways to permit the faithful safe access to the sacraments: “there are reasonable measures that a bishop can put in place to allow all the sacraments to continue. That is what Christ would expect of us. These are the ordinary means of salvation”.(13) Cardinal Burke also issued a statement regarding the current global situation, in which he taught that: “it is essential for us, at all times and above all in times of crisis, to have access to our churches and chapels, to the Sacraments, and to public devotions and prayers”. (14)
Petition the hirelings to become shepherds.
What then should be our response to such an unjust denial of our access to the sacraments? In those places where state law has demanded the closure of churches it is no longer merely the bishops who have forced the faithful away from the altar. Nevertheless it is vital to petition the shepherds to call for a re-opening of the churches and to enable a more ready access to the Mass and the sacraments. Indeed, it is our canonical duty as the faithful and members of the mystical body of the Church, to make known to our shepherds our spiritual needs:
The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires…they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful. (15)
The shepherds must not be left in any doubt about the critical need that their flock has of returning to the sacraments. In a time of crisis, the people of God must be able to turn to Him more than ever, particularly through the celebration of the Mass. The bishops must lead by example and, supported by the prayers and petitions of the faithful, must lobby the government to allow for the free practice of religion and the celebration of Mass. Indeed, no temporal government ever has the right to prohibit the Church from the practice of the worship of God, nor is any such law just.
The bishops must be reminded of the truth which Cardinal Burke proclaims: “We bishops and priests…We need to insist that the regulations of the State, also for the good of the State, recognize the distinct importance of places of worship, especially in time of national and international crisis”. (16)
For those places which have not been subject to a governmental closure of the churches, such petitioning of the bishops is even more crucial. These shepherds must be convinced of the great spiritual error of their closure of the churches and the deeper need the faithful have of spiritual health and sustenance. The primary duty of the shepherds of the flock of Christ is not the physical, temporal health of her members, but their eternal and spiritual salvation. There exists no greater good, nor is there any alternative fulfillment of their vocation, than to teach the truth and lead the faithful to Heaven through the public life of the Church in Her glorious sacraments.
I end this lengthy article with a reference to the Gospel of Matthew. “For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it”. (Matthew 16:25) We, the faithful, are not called to be rash in the face of some possible virus, nor are we deciding to ignore any medical advice. Yet, we must exercise our primary duty of worshiping God, particularly through the holy sacrifice of the Mass. We must also exercise our duty of calling upon our bishops to be faithful shepherds in imitation of Christ and to end the unjust closure of our Churches. Furthermore, we must lobby and petition the governmental ministers, as well as the bishops, to acknowledge the unique dignity of the Church and the vital importance of opening Her doors for public worship.
Viva Christo Rey - Long Live Christ the King!
- https://www.cecc.gov/publications/annual-reports/2019-annual-report “Freedom of Religion”
- Pope Pius XI, Mit Brenender Sorge, http://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_14031937_mit-brennender-sorge.html, paragraph 8-13.
- Mit Brenender Sorge, 13.
- Code of Canon Law 1983 #455.
- Canon #387.
- Canon #213.
- Philip Gray JCL, Lay Witness, Vol 38, No 2 - Pastoral Remedies in Time of Crisis, stjosephcanonlaw.com.
- Canon #212.