16th Sunday of the Year
I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the LORD.
The prophet Jeremiah is a very heroic figure who suffered tremendously in fulfilling his vocation as God’s spokesman to His people. He was an isolated figure among the many who shepherded Israel, a true prophet among false leaders of the people, and he was persecuted for his fidelity to the Word of God, for his refusal to join with the false shepherds who were misleading and scattering the flock of Israel, as we see in today’s first reading: Woe to the Shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture says the Lord. He lived through the destruction of the kingdom and Jerusalem and the great deportation of the Israelites to Babylon in 587 BC. He was sent by God who compassionately willed to warn His people of its impending destruction, which will be a divine punishment for its falling away from God and following false shepherds. For his own compassionate truthfulness Jeremiah suffered rejection as traitor, constant persecution and imprisonment. But the false shepherds, the degenerate kings, lying prophets and decadent priests could not make him cease to speak the truth God had sent him to speak.
The compassion of God is major theme in all three of today’s readings. In the Gospel, Jesus shows compassion on the Apostles who are tired, calling them to a retreat in a deserted place. Then he turns and shows compassion on the crowds who are like sheep without a shepherd and he begins to teach them the truth that will change their lives. This same compassion is shown in the first reading from Jeremiah where, Israel is said to be not simply without true shepherds but is actually being misled by false shepherds, and God promises that he personally will gather the remnant surviving the false shepherds and will provide true shepherds to protect them and remove their fear of destruction. Man needs two things to flourish as man, love (especially compassion) and truth, and Yahweh promises them both. Paul likewise speaks of this compassion as he announces the fulfillment of those ancient promises in the person of Jesus Christ, the true Shepherd who gathers not only the children of Israel, but the gentiles as well into a bond of peace, both being reconciled to God and to each other in the Lord Jesus. Truth and love are the critical goods that unite men with God and with each other in a true bond of peace.
Now, the role of the prophet, then, is to speak the Truth to God’s people, that is to speak God’s Word which is truth. The true prophet understands that only God’s truth can save the people from self-deception and self-destruction. The false shepherd uses the lie to deceive and manipulate God’s people for his own ends, and the false shepherds thereby scatted the flock: “woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock…” .The rejection of truth, of God’s truth, causes only disunity and scattering of the flock. That is why the truth is so critical for the personal and social well-being of the human person. The false shepherds of Israel mislead God’s flock to the point where they not only worshiped false gods and followed the ways of the pagans rather than the commandments of Moses, but they went to the ultimate extreme of actually imitating the abominations of their pagan neighbors by offering in human sacrifice their own children to false gods in the Valley of Gehenna, which thereby became a synonym for Hell itself.
But as we see in the readings, God promised to take over the shepherding of His flock Himself in the future, I myself will gather the remnant of my flock, and to send a Shepherd/Messiah, the righteous shoot of David, to pasture His people, and he will be called “the Lord Our Justice.” We see the Good Shepherd who will fulfill the promise that God Himself will shepherd his remnant in Today’s Gospel. Notice the critical function of the true Shepherd is to teach the truth so that the flock may be one, one in the Truth that is God, and thus be secure in their unity. So Jesus pities them and begins to teach them at great length. For this teaching, like Jeremiah, he is rejected by the false shepherds of Israel, persecuted and finally, unlike Jeremiah, He is put to death.
This is the ultimate fate of proclaiming Truth to the world. Now the most egregious example of the misleading, and thus the scattering, of the flock in our age has been the rejection of the teaching of the Church on today’s great moral questions like contraception and abortion and divorce. The watershed came in the late 60’s when so many shepherds abandoned the Church’s constant teaching on the question of artificial contraception, and misled the flock by telling them that they no longer had to obey this moral teaching if they found it unacceptable. But of course once you establish that principle on one moral matter, the teaching of the Church on all moral matters becomes open to question and rejection. Why limit it just this one issue? Surely the logic of dissent is that if the Church has been wrong on this one moral issue for two thousand years, why should any of her teaching be taken as a moral absolute, and thus we have seen the growing acceptance by Catholics of abortion, divorce and remarriage, euthanasia, whatever moral laws are found difficult to follow in the contemporary world.
Today we are moving back in the right direction by our chief shepherds. The fact is that there is only one shepherd of the flock, Jesus Christ, and thus there is only once voice we can follow on matters of faith and morals, His voice. The Church was given a guarantee by the Holy Spirit for teaching dogmatic and moral truth. Without unity in these truths the flock is left disunified, scattered and vulnerable, for the truth alone can set us free from the manipulators, and make us one flock protected by the one Shepherd. There is only one voice when it comes to proclaiming the Truth, or the Church simply cannot claim Christ as its sole shepherd. That is why Christ has guaranteed that his voice can always be heard, by vesting his authoritative teaching power in the Apostles alone, under the supreme leadership of Peter and His Successors. To the Apostles alone he said, “he who hears you, hears me.” To the Apostles alone he said he who rejects you rejects me, and Him who sent me.” To Peter alone, at the last supper did he says ” I have prayed for thee, that thy faith may never fail. You in turn must strengthen your brothers.”
When Pope Paul proclaimed Humane Vitae, 44 years ago this Wednesday, he simply reaffirmed the same truth that had been spoken by the whole Church for the previous two thousand years. His voice was the voice of Peter confirming His brothers in the truth about the divine law regarding the divine plan for the generation of human life. For simply reiterating that constant truth, he, like Jeremiah, and like His Divine Master, was vilely attacked and abused by the enemies of truth, and he suffered greatly when he saw the false shepherds speaking with a contrary voice, and misleading the flock of Christ, and thereby dividing the Church, and scattering the flock.
Jeremiah was seen as a failure in his lifetime, but when his prophecy was seen to come true, he became one of the great and honored personages in the Old Testament. Likewise Paul VI was seen as a failure in his lifetime, with large numbers of Catholics abandoning the Church over the teaching on artificial birth control. But like Jeremiah, the prophetic nature of his teaching in Humanae Vitae can now be seen more clearly just thirty years later.
After reaffirming the Church’s constant teaching rejecting artificial forms of birth control, the Pope, toward the end of the encyclical, asked us to reflect on some of the consequences that inevitably follow from the acceptance of artificial means of birth control by our society. For instance, “how wide and easy a road would thus be opened up towards conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality.” In the last forty four years we have a seen a radical change in our society’s sexual mores among youth and married people. We have witnessed a shocking lowering of sexual morality in our entertainment and in society. We seen the gradual separation of sex from marriage, the reduction of sex for many to mere pleasure seeking, a dramatic increase of out of marriage births and of conjugal infidelity, made all the easier by these means. And we have seen the ultimate consequence of all these changes in the plague of broken marriages that threatens the very future of our society today. When people begin to take an honest look at the role contraception has had in all these areas, the Church and Paul VI will be seen as the prophetic voice of Christ in our day once again.
The Pope also spoke these prophetic words: warning us, that due to contraception, in the area of their intimacy, men “may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment…” The plague of pornography, the abandonment of women by their husbands, the growing physical abuse of women, especially the increase of rape, all of this should lead us once again to consider the way contraception, as the Pope predicted, has contributed to this loss of respect for women in their homes and private lives in our day, at the very time when women are gaining respect in the workplace and elsewhere in our society.
Thirdly, the Pope warned that governments would inevitably try to force these means of family limitation on people, and today we see this happening, not only in places like China, but in our own governments aid programs that try to force poorer nations to accept contraception as a condition for receiving loans and other forms of economic aid. There are those in the present world of politics, in both parties, that think contraception should be a governmental priority and that Catholics should be forced to pay for what many of them consider a moral perversion.
What the Pope did not foresee was how the contraceptive mentality would take such a hold in many nations, that they would soon be facing a demographic problem of the opposite kind than was predicted back in the 60’s, the precipitous decline of birth rates that leaves many countries, and most all European countries facing a declining population that threatens their economic future and even their cultural identity.
The Teaching of the Catholic Church on these matters has made the Church’s Magisterium, to say the least, very unpopular in our world and subject to constant ridicule and criticism. But like Jeremiah, the Church knows that on matters of the moral law, she possesses the unchangeable truth, and that the truth alone can set men free from political and economic manipulation and self-destruction. Thus in fidelity to her divine Master she continues to proclaim her doctrine on marriage and human sexuality regardless of how many choose to reject her teaching, how many are scattered from her, because they choose to follow false prophets.
In the end, the Church knows that this truth will win out, if only by the recognition of the destructive consequences of its rejection; and like Jesus she has pity on the vast crowds who are now like sheep without a shepherd, who are being misled and manipulated by false shepherds, and so she teaches them at great length the truth that alone can set them free. In time, Truth will triumph once again, and God’s people will return to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. Whether popular or not, only the Word of God can anchor man’s life in this world to truth, and only the truth can set us free and protect the gifts of life and love.