The Shepherd

I came upon a novel by Joseph Girzone, a former priest. Titled The Shepherd, it is about a man who becomes bishop and begins to reform his diocese, aided by a man called Joshua, who is suspiciously like Jesus Christ.

Never before had I seen anything by Girzone on lists of “Catholic books you must read before you die,” so I didn’t have very high expectations. He wrote a very successful series of books, all with the same Jesus character named Joshua. The Shepherd is part of that series, but I don’t have much intention of reading the rest of the series, and here’s why.

The writing was idealistic and unrealistic. The book was published in 1990, so things may have changed since, but I don’t think it is realistic to expect the bishop to be able to visit with parishioners as readily as the bishop in this book does. Today you have to get through his secretary and fight for a space on his busy schedule. I’m not sure if the bishop speaks to the pope as often as the bishop does in the novel. Bishops probably have to get through an army of administrative staff before speaking with him, but again, I could be wrong.

The book goes through a lot of what the bishop does (a lot of “tell” rather than “show”), and none of it appears to go wrong at any point. The bishop’s radical changes (more on this later) do make a lot of people angry, but when he speaks with them, they calm down and understand his reasoning behind the changes. In short, the bishop seems to be a “Mary Sue” character who gets what he wants with little opposition or conflict.

Now, about those radical changes… in the first half of the book, the bishop proposes married priests, female priests, reception of the Eucharist for non-Catholics, and a greater emphasis on social justice. He has great disdain for what he considers to be inflexible traditional practices. No wonder traditional Catholics do not recommend this book! The fictional pope, however, is on board with many of the changes that the bishop proposes to make, so in a way, this book seems almost prophetic. I can totally imagine Pope Francis as the pope character here.

The prevailing message of the book seems to be toward love and mercy. In the case of a priest who falls in love with a woman, the bishop’s solution is that the priest should be allowed to have both: his vocation to the priesthood and the woman’s love. So he asks the pope if this particular priest’s vow of celibacy can be renounced. (And the pope actually agrees to this.)

The reality is that you can’t have it both ways. When you become a priest, you choose one vocation (the celibate priesthood) while forsaking another (married life, partnership with a spouse). Same as when you get married: you choose your spouse while forsaking all other possible spouses and all other possible vocations. Vocations require sacrifice; when you choose one thing, you sacrifice the other. Isn’t that what Jesus did? Did he not sacrifice his life for us? He did not have to do that. He had free will, just like any other human being. We are supposed to model Jesus in our vocation, whatever that may be, and that involves sacrifice.

Another thing that bothered me about the book was the idea that non-Catholics should be allowed (and even encouraged) to receive the Eucharist at Catholic Mass. I understand the spirit behind wanting to make that change: being hospitable to others and making them feel included. But it makes no sense to allow people to receive when they may not understand exactly what (actually Who) they are receiving. If they desire to receive that much, and if they understand the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist and desire to follow it, they should become Catholic, because they are going against their own religion if they are basically Catholic in all but name, and if their own religion does not believe in the Real Presence. Not all religions are equal; if they are, then what is the point of following just one religion? Why not take bits and pieces of religions you like and create your own?

I know I’m opening a can of worms with all those questions, but that was what immediately came to mind as I read the book. The only other comment I have about the book was that it wasn’t good writing; it was more of a platform for the author’s feelings on what should be changed in the Church. He would have been better off writing a nonfiction piece.

How to Fix the Church

The Catholic Church is messed up. We are dealing with the sex abuse crisis, the financial abuse crisis, people who call themselves Catholic but don’t know or follow the Church’s teachings, all the Pachamama drama that went down during the recent Amazon synod, and a host of other issues.

Some of the “traditional” Catholics are saying that these bad fruits are growing from the seed of the Novus Ordo Mass (AKA the form of the Mass that has been done since Vatican II in the 1960s). They believe that the faith has been weakened because of the lack of reverence that has come about since Latin became abandoned. “Progressive” Catholics believe that the “old ways” represent a lack of mercy and an overabundance of judgment.

This finger pointing seems to be an excuse to justify a variety of sins. I’ve said on here before that it is easy to pick out “obvious” sins like the sexual ones. It is harder to tell when someone’s great sin is pride. Ultimately, God is the judge. Our job is to seek him in all things and to purify ourselves so we want nothing more than to be with him for all eternity. Much of what we think is helpful is actually counterproductive, like writing blog posts like this one or arguing on social media.*

What are Catholics supposed to do? At this point, it needs to be a lot less “armchair politics” and social media/blog time wasting and a lot more direct works of mercy, like volunteering, donating, praying, or sitting in front of Jesus during Adoration. The more we fill our time with productive work for God and others, the less time we have to fill our minds with judgment and news of everything that is going wrong. This approach would work regardless of whether you consider yourself a “traditional” or “progressive” Catholic.

*This might be my last blog post on this subject. The more I sit here ranting about the problem, the more I become part of the problem and the less time I have to help solve it, which brings to mind this quote:

She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it).

Lewis Carroll

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

I was flipping channels on the radio while driving home from work a few days ago, and I came upon what must have been a contemporary Christian music station. A few of the lyrics from the song that was playing stuck out in my mind:

All I know is I’m not home yet
This is not where I belong

“Where I Belong” – Building 429

It reminded me of a few times when I was younger, when I said, in sadness or frustration, “I want to go home!” even when I was sitting in my house. What I meant by that must have been “I want to get out of here” or “I want to go somewhere else,” but perhaps my subconscious mind desired heaven, a place where none of the sadness or frustrations of the world exist.

The lyrics also made me think of older people in nursing homes or hospices who say they want to “go home,” but they’re not talking about any home they had on earth.

Maybe instead of (or in addition to) memento mori, we could think of something like “remember your true home.” (Wish I could translate that into Latin.)

We’re not comfortable on earth because it is not truly home for us, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to make ourselves comfortable and avoid any kind of pain or discomfort.

This also reminds me of when my husband and I attended the childbirth class before our son was born. I read or heard something like, “Women in the Western world are not used to pain in the way women in developing countries are. That’s why there are more elective C-sections in the United States than there used to be.”*

That made me feel guilty for some reason. We are quite spoiled. There are so many conveniences and perks in our coddled lives that we take them all for granted. Air conditioning, heat, indoor plumbing, medications for a myriad of painful health conditions, computers, ovens, stoves, dishwashers, washing machines, cars… so much to make our lives easier, and we still complain.

Were we born to be creatures of comfort? Were we born to suffer? A loving God would not want us to suffer, but I am not sure he would want us to become spoiled whiners and complainers either.

Faithful Catholics in the past would flagellate themselves for their sins, take vows of silence, and sometimes attempt to survive on just the Eucharist alone. Now our idea of penance in modern times is to take a social media fast or avoid eating meat on one day of the week. Is any of it “enough” for God? Is he happy with what we are doing?

I don’t think we do these things to make God happy, because he doesn’t take joy in our suffering. We do these things to make ourselves more pure and to strengthen ourselves for the final battle (which may be death or a literal battle, if we do end up living in the end of days).

So the real question is this: What will truly strengthen us, not just bring us comfort? Maybe if we get used to living with minor inconveniences like avoiding meat or perhaps taking cold showers instead of hot ones, we will be ready to face greater inconveniences and even pain. But choose your penances carefully, because an appropriate sacrifice for one person may not be appropriate for someone else.

That brings another question to mind: Are all offerings of suffering or penance equal in God’s eyes? I’m thinking of the story from Genesis where Cain and Abel offer sacrifices to God, but Abel’s is superior to Cain’s. If I’m remembering correctly, that was because Abel offered the “firstlings of his flock,” which is inherently better because you’re supposed to give God the best that you have. Abel just gave the “fruit of the ground,” which could have been any old fruit. (Or maybe God doesn’t like kiwis???)

I’m not sure that translates to the suffering issue; how can one give God his “best” suffering? The only thing I can think of is what I said earlier: the sacrifice or “suffering” has to be done for the right reason—to bring one closer to God.

*In my opinion, having a C-section would have been worse than giving birth the “natural” way. And I believe the facts state that in most cases, a C-section is actually more dangerous than letting nature take its course. But if the doctor had recommended that a C-section was the safer way to go for me, I would have done it.