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.