The Last Judgement, Stefan Lochner (c.1410–1451), c.1435; Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

Fr Neil’s homily for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 18 July 2021

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!

The context of these words, from the prophet Jeremiah¹, is the unfaithful priests of the Temple prior to the Exile. The accusations levelled at them is their disobedience to the precepts and commandments of the Lord their God. They had not followed the commandments and had taught the people the same way, ‘scattering the flock’. As a consequence they had abandoned the ways of God and walked the way of destruction and judgement.

Scripture tells us that those who are priests and teachers of the faith will be judged more harshly than those who are not². This harsher judgement is due to the influence of the life and teaching of the priest, which can either direct God’s people towards heaven or lead them to hell fire. The words of Jeremiah make for sober reading especially when God speaks of the unfaithful priests saying, “Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.”³

Dante, in his Inferno, gives us an elaborate image of what that judgement might be. He discovers a priest in the eighth circle of Hell who is guilty of having defrauded his parishioners and led them astray. The priest is covered head to foot in excrement, the fruits of his lies, and is constantly whipped by a demon to keep moving through the effluent. The eighth circle of Hell is second to last, showing how despicable and vile the priest’s actions have been.

Every priest must constantly, in fear and trembling before God, reflect on the decisions he makes and that which he teaches. He does so in order that he might be faithful to the ministry to which he has been called and to the Magisterium of the Church — for he handles the things of the God for the people of God.

When we stop reflecting on and seeking to be faithful to that which we have received and has been handed on by our forebears, then is the moment of greatest danger for the deacon, priest or prelate. Trying to engage the world by uncoupling ourselves from the faith, practices and wisdom of our Fathers, requires an alternative authoritative voice which inevitably is found in the spirit of the age. This worldly wisdom operates on the underlying assumption that the thought and practice of the historical Church is primitive, patriarchal and unenlightened. This “wisdom” tells us that the past is not the deposit of faith that reveals the divine eternal will of God, but a ball and chain from which we need to free ourselves.

The Magisterium isn’t static: as St John Henry Newman articulated, there is a rightful development of doctrine. However, that development must remain faithful to the teaching received and be in continuity with it. This rightful development is an exploration of the unfolding consequences of the particular belief. If any proposed development of doctrine or reform of liturgical practice is not firmly rooted in the faith received then it will inevitably run the way of innovation and be a rupture from the past. If we believe in the divinely-revealed eternal will of the Father, then that which was held holy by the Church in previous years cannot be seen as being unholy now.

The removal of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith from having an influence in the liturgical concerns of the Church is very worrying and threatens lex orandi, lex credendi, literally, “the law of prayer [is] the law of belief.”

The real danger of a priest or bishop not being grounded in the faith of our fathers is that it creates the worst form of clericalism. This modern clericalism tends to locate its authority and meaning in the self — the individual priest or bishop. The priest fails to be at the service of the Church and its liturgy because he believes that he knows better. He teaches and celebrates mass in a manner that corrects the “obvious errors” of this “outdated institution”. Any praise or respect shown feeds the ego rather than rightly being deferred to the office he holds. The priest becomes the entertainer in his attempt to feed the ego. Any criticism becomes personal rather than a rejection of Christ in whose person the priest or bishop is meant to stand.

If criticism is mistakenly seen as personal then how much greater is the danger that a response to criticism is not forgiveness and compassion but vengeance and spite? The people of God who hold the faith will find themselves being seen as a problem — or tolerated and patronised at best — and their Catholic devotions ridiculed as old-fashioned. The orthodox who insist that we need to listen to the voice of Tradition and the Magisterium will be marginalised or provoked into schism.

In practice those who reject the traditions and teachings of the fathers end up loathing the very institution that fed and nurtured them. Is it any wonder that God has such harsh words to say to the unfaithful priest?

How tempting it is for us to fall into despair fed by the understandable anger that we and others feel. Yet Jeremiah has the words of God’s promise that he will raise up a faithful priest and will shepherd his flock himself. While these words find their greatest fulfilment in Christ, the good Shepherd, they still carry a promise for us at this time of trial. God will not abandon his people and will raise up faithful shepherds to tend his flock. What is now will not remain.

Christ also tells his disciples to “Come away by yourself to a lonely place, and rest a while.”⁴ We need to hear these words to draw away from the clamour, noise and chaos so that we might rest a while in the presence of our Lord. It is here before our Lord that, in prayer, we can begin to reorientate ourselves, to put into perspective the damaging things done, and yet find our hope in that all things are held in God’s hands. Satan may have his hour but God will have the day.

‘Why art thou so heavy, O my soul? and why art thou so disquieted within me?
O put thy trust in God, for I will yet give him thanks, which is the help of my countenance, and my God.’⁵

¹ Jeremiah 23:1
² James 3:1
³ Jeremiah 23:2
⁴ Mark 6:31
⁵ Psalm 43:5–6

The editorial title is from Luke 12:32