There was much sweet talk about shepherds and sheep as we celebrated Good Shepherd Sunday on 3rd May 2020 in a strange new Covid-19 world of isolation and social distancing. However, as always, we continued the clerical charade of praying for restricted vocations even though we know there is an abundance of talented people in every parish capable of gathering us in the name of Jesus and revealing Sacred Presence.
It seems like an insult to God’s Providence and our intelligence as Catholics to persist in demanding vocations to a limited male only priesthood under the duress of enforced celibacy. Most parents and priests in the developed world are clearly not encouraging young men into that patriarchal system. Apart from the growing cohort of lay people who have studied theology, pastoral care and related disciplines, we are aware of learned nuns who took Vatican II very seriously and are already available as teachers, pastoral workers, musicians, spiritual guides and chaplains. The clerics, who alone set the script for our liturgy, must be aware that there is a majority consensus of Irish Catholic people who value Mass and Parish Community and are now convinced that the priest/parish servant leader can be male or female, married or single.
Tragically, the shepherds are deaf or refuse to respect and listen to their flock. Priests and people are concerned about the Eucharistic Famine over many decades in various countries as well as the awful injustice of excessive demands now being visited on a diminishing cohort of overburdened and elderly priests. All this injustice could be remedied if the shepherds listened to the sheep and applied common sense. Sadly, Rome is very slow to concede that reform is needed and, unwittingly, obedient men become “dogs in the manger” withholding sustenance from those in need. Jesus wept. Woman at the well and Mary of Magdala pray for us!
Talking of shepherds and sheep, my father chose not to be a shepherd since he was respectful and wary of those deceptive and woolly creatures. He ruled out sheep as one element of our small mixed farming venture on the Ox Mountains in 1950’s Sligo. He regarded sheep as “cute hoors” even though they present as timid and deferential. He knew that sheep are single-minded and expert in breaking through all fences in pursuit of further sustenance. Their trespass could always lead to trouble with neighbours. However, many people regard sheep as stupid and lacking in education. Some regard sheep as silly creatures with no competence, conscience, or wisdom despite receipt of many Sacraments. Others hope that Covid-19 will panic the wandering sheep back into the fold and that they will forget about all the abuse issues and refusal to reform.
Many people today have seen television pictures showing sheep being rounded up by dogs and shepherds. An elite caste of shepherds alone have maps, answers, education, authority and power. No shepherdesses need ever apply even though the insulting charade of praying for limited vocations speaks of a critical shortage of male shepherds prepared to submit to mandatory celibacy. Is it any wonder that many adults and younger people have walked away from the sheep treatment, entrenched clericalism, lack of real power sharing, Roman intransigence and the danger for practising Catholics of collusion in abuse, misogyny and homophobia.? A vaccine for the global and virulent patriarchal virus is urgently needed. The core Good News of Jesus Christ is a treasure. However, the patriarchal packaging and lack of reform in regard to so many lesser issues, clerical opinions, systems and structures remains problematic for many people.
Such thoughts whirled through my mind on Good Shepherd Sunday. I listened to a number of webcam offerings as well as the RTE1 Sunday Mass with Bishop Cullinane. All the clerics adhered to their control group script about men only and enforced celibacy for priests. Copious words rolled forth as always into the strange silence of the sheep and the ongoing absence of healthy challenge, discussion or dialogue. Those intelligent and holy men seemed to be tone deaf in a medieval pastoral setting as they parroted on about shepherds and sheep in modern Ireland 2020.
I think that there are lots of alternative words and concepts which could be used more meaningfully today e.g. servant leader, influencer, inspirer, animator, coordinator of parish services, moderator, facilitator, Christian community leader for shepherd and People of God or Friends of Jesus instead of sheep. You have many better words. There were plenty of shepherds and sheep in the Holy Lands in the time of Jesus. They are not as plentiful today. The world has moved on and words carry new meanings and nuances. The words sheep and shepherds carry all kinds of negative overtones in the wake of all the abuse reports over the past decades. We are ashamed that we acted like sheep while cruelty, oppression and abuse was perpetrated on women and children during our watch.
Irish Catholic people are now aware that in past years obedient bishops/good shepherds colluded in Roman cover up of clerical child abuse and pontifical secrecy to preserve the institution rather than the children. Irish Catholics know that Rome today will only appoint as good shepherds those men prepared to forever uphold the clerical line on contraception, homophobia and a steadfast refusal to ever grant equality and justice to women in the governance, teaching office and ministry of the Catholic Church. Excellent whistle-blower priests, nuns and bishops have been denounced as bad shepherds and then abused and blackguarded by the Roman Control group. BAA! BAA! BAA!
As a believer, I want the treasure within the core Good News of Jesus Christ to be accessible and available to all in good times and in bad within the Catholic Church. Failure to listen humbly to the consensus of the faithful and to reform makes the above ideal very difficult.
Serious problems with autocratic systems, entrenched clericalism, misogyny and patriarchal entitlement remain blocking access to rich fare. God’s Revelation did not end with the Book of Revelation two thousand years ago. God is among us today and is being revealed in all of Creation. The Minister of Word and the Eucharistic Leader together with the People of God should be able to proclaim/present/articulate nourishing Word of God in language/concepts/facts/ideas/stories/narrative that make sense to people today.
Deafness or inability to listen, dialogue and change is not helpful in that project. Deliberate resistance and denial of modern realities is also negative. Literal words and concepts from the folk memory, local agendas and oral traditions at the base of the Bible need to be translated into modern categories while fully aware of meanings today. There is a need for new language, stories and narrative centred around the best of modern knowledge in presentation of the Good News and Project.
All believers can play their part in building up the Kingdom of God. Pope Francis is right to promote open discussion and synods as long as there is listening, consensus and real change. There is a great need for honest conversation and robust dialogue in every parish and diocese leading to consensus and change in Vatican III as soon as possible. We Catholics are honest people. Let us speak out for reform in the Catholic Church using every modern means available to us.