Sunday, April 25, 2021



“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A hired man sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away and the wolf catches and scatters them.

John 10:11-18

This Sunday is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” or “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.” Normally, you are used to having priests stand here and preach at you about what you sheep need to do or quit doing. Today, I am going to take the focus off the sheep and put it on the shepherds: what we shepherds need to do or quit doing! Second, you are used to hearing today about the need for more priests. I am going to talk to you about the need for better priests. I have been a priest myself for over 50 years, I have been a Vocation Director, I have taught in the seminary and I have spoken for a week at a time to thousands of bishops and priests in nine countries. I have an advanced degree in Parish Revitalization. I have listened to hundreds and hundreds of “fallen away Catholics.” I know the turf of which I speak so brace yourselves and buckle your seatbelts!

One of the most serious problems facing Catholicism today is the quality of its spiritual leadership in the face of deteriorating communal values and religious practice. It is no longer good enough for us priests to simply be priests as a noun, we have to be able to priest as a verb By that I mean we can never be satisfied with simply being designated spiritual leaders, we must strive with God's grace, to become real spiritual leaders. A fancy title just doesn’t cut the cake anymore! We simply have to be more of who we say we are!

I define "spiritual leadership" as the ability to influence people - through invitation, persuasion, example and the skillful use of the Church's rituals - to move from where they are to where God wants them to be. 

We surely know today that organized religion has lost its power to impose unquestioned rules on the behavior of its members. This turn of events frustrates many priests, leaving them with a propensity to blame the laity for their lack of faith and the culture for its "secularism" and "moral relativity" in increasingly shrill denouncements.

No amount of ranting and raving, however, about how we ought to be listened to will fix this. The fact of the matter is, that in a society where "a consumer" is a primary self-definition, we religious leaders have to not only know what the truth is and believe it ourselves, we also have to be able to sell that truth to others. We have to be able to convince people to see it, accept it and live it. We need to be more than "right." We need to be "convincing" as well. 

What is needed are priests who are capable of telling people about the love of God in language that no longer sounds hackneyed and archaic, but in convincing language that resonates with authority and conviction. It is not good enough for us shepherds to believe that "grass is good" and "water is necessary," we have to be able find it and to lead our people to it - sometimes in a barren spiritual landscape.  We shepherds need to be what John Paul II called "incarnations of the Good Shepherd's love."

When I was a young boy, I remember going to the circus once. The details are fuzzy, but I do remember one clown in particular. He pulled a banana out of his pocket and peeled in ever so ceremoniously. When he had pulled back the peeling completely, he took the banana and threw it away and began to eat the peeling.

Even though I thought that was funny as a child, I did not understand till much later why it was so funny. It was actually a commentary on human nature. It seems that we shepherds are forever focusing on the container rather than the treasure it holds - to paraphrase St. Paul a bit! 

Surely, most of us already know that organized religion has lost its power to impose unquestioned rules on the behavior of its members. No amount of ranting and raving from us about how we ought to be listened to, and no amount of new editions of the rulebooks, will fix this. Such fits are simply counter-productive, and the church is up to its ears in new rulebooks already. We must get better at our ability to influence people to move from where they are to where God wants them to be!   

Instead of blaming ourselves for our lack of skills of persuasion, and a lack of dynamism in the Church’s own pastoral structures for evangelization in changing the cultural climate, we persist in our propensity to blame the laity for their lack of faith and the culture for its “secularism” and “moral relativism.”  We might just need to shut up and put up!

Instead of blaming others, the better approach might just be for us to start owning the fact that the real problem may be our own styles, mistakes and inability to influence others - though invitation, persuasion, personal example and the skillful use of the Church's rituals. Pope Benedict has said on a couple of occasions that, even for him, it was easier to define the truth than it is to persuade people to accept it and live it out. Instead of looking around for a solution, maybe we should look within. Designated spiritual leaders need to become real spiritual leaders. In a society in which being a consumer is a primary self-definition, the priest and deacon must be good and good at it. Today he has to know how to hustle, to be innovative, to be a self-starter, to spark imagination, to sell, to move from a vision to the details of execution. The People of God already know that God wants them to become holy. The problem is that many of them don’t know how to become holy and many of us don't know how to lead them to it!  But that’s our job - to help you to exercise faithfully and fully your call to holiness in your own vocations.   

In this area, the Church has a problem – a problem that has become abundantly clear to me as a former pastor, multiple times, and from teaching in a seminary. Seminaries and even deacon formation programs have always done a good job with personal spiritual formation, but they are still not doing such a great job forming priests-to-be and deacons-to-be in the skills of being effective spiritual leaders of communities. Graduates leave the seminary and deacon formation programs having been the recipients of personal spiritual formation, but without much training in how to lead the spiritual formation of a community. This problem is being exacerbated by the fact that newly ordained priests are becoming pastors of multiple parishes immediately after ordination and deacons are being given greater leadership roles within parishes.  It is not enough, according to our mission and ministry, for a parish priest tor deacon to be personally holy; he also needs to have the skills to lead others to holiness. It is not good enough for us to be champions of the "truth," we must have the ability to lead others to the "truth." As I used to my deacon class every year, their goal is not just to be sure that the golden light of holiness shines from their rectories. Their goal is to be sure that the golden light of holiness shines from every home in their parishes! Instead of wasting time trying to convince people how holy we are, we need to be able to show our people how holy they are!  

Last of all, priests my age and older have, no doubt, already discovered the sobering fact that handing over the administrative duties of the parish to others does not mean that all of a sudden we are possessed with extraordinary spiritual leadership skills. It is much easier to balance a budget and build a parish hall than it is to inspire a congregation to move to a deeper level of discipleship!  

Let's don't just pray for more shepherds, let's pray for shepherds that are more effective

















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