Homily: A human and divine church, with good and bad shepherds

The following homily was giving by Father David Bonnar, editor of The Priest magazine and priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, on the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Over 33 years ago, when I was a young seminarian studying in Rome, I remember then Bishop of Pittsburgh, Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua, visiting Rome. He took us seminarians and priests living in Rome at that time out to dinner, and he said something that was not only memorable but prophetic. He said, “Gentlemen, we don’t send you to Rome for the education, because it is probably better in the States. No, we send you to Rome to be at the center of Christendom in the shadow of the dome of St. Peter. But let me tell you something. You are going to need a lot of faith because the closer you get to the Church, the more you will see how human it is.”

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy notes that the Church is “both human and divine, visible but endowed with invisible realities” (SC, No. 2). The Church, like any human family, is filled with good sheep and bad sheep. What is more, there are good shepherds and bad shepherds. The first reading today from the prophet Jeremiah casts the spotlight on the so called “bad shepherds.” Please note that this term “shepherd” could be applied not only to bishops, priests and deacons, but any leader in the Church.

According to Jeremiah there are three characteristics of the bad shepherd. First, they mislead, scatter the flock and drive them away. Instead of instilling and cultivating unity, they bring division by words and deeds or lack thereof and fall short in the mission of Jesus who came not only to bring life but also to affect unity. The second feature of the bad shepherd is that they simply do not care. If they care, it is only about themselves. The third feature of the bad shepherd is that they evoke fear in their people. Speaking on behalf of God, Jeremiah says, “I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble.”

It goes without saying that in the history of the Church there have been some not-so-good shepherds who have divided their flock, cared little and engendered fear rather than love. Perhaps the greatest manifestation of this in modern times that has come to light has been the sexual abuse of children and young people by those who work for the Church, causing unspeakable harm and hurt. Shortly after I was ordained 30 years ago, there was a scandal that hit the Diocese of Pittsburgh involving some shepherds. And now, 30 years later, we await a Grand Jury Report on sexual abuse in several dioceses of Pennsylvania, and we see from this morning’s newspaper that a retired cardinal can no longer present himself publicly because of substantiated allegations of sexual abuse. (Editor’s note: Archbishop Theodore McCarrick has since resigned from the College of Cardinals.) Although we all have worked hard to secure safe environments in our parishes for children and young people, the scars remain and much more healing needs to be done.

To anyone who has been hurt by this scourge in any way, victims, family members, parishioners and all those who work for the Church and aspire to live good and holy lives, I want to, on behalf of the Church that I deeply love, apologize and seek your forgiveness. What happened as a result of bad shepherds is not only an embarrassment for all of us who wear a Roman collar or deacon pin and espouse to be Catholic, but more than anything else it is a tragedy beyond words to the innocent lives that have been lost, damaged and forever changed. In my previous assignment working in Central Administration of the Diocese of Pittsburgh I met with victims, and the pain they endure is awful. They need our prayers and support. And they need to know that we are doing all that we can to ensure that this never happens again. That is why the Safe Environment Policy of the Diocese of Pittsburgh is critical. None of us are above it.

This painful story has broken my heart and no doubt yours as well, and it has brought me face to face with the humanness and sinfulness of the Church. Back in 2001, in the aftermath of what happened in Boston, the epicenter of this crisis that resulted in the formation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, I was devastated. It was so hard being a priest and wearing a collar in public. Two things saved me, though. First, I would celebrate Sunday Mass and listen to the faithful recite the Creed and draw new life every time I heard them say, “I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Their faith in a Church that was in such need of sanctification inspired me. The other thing was the simple confidence of my younger brother who said, “Dave, don’t ever be embarrassed to be a priest.”

My brothers and sisters, we are part of a Church that is both divine and human, graceful and sinful. St. Paul reminds us in the Letter to the Romans, “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” The same St. Paul in his Letter to the Galatians also said, “We must never grow weary of doing what is right.” And, we should never be embarrassed to be Catholic. We are family broken in many ways, but much like the light shines through the broken glass windows that surround us, God’s light shines through and triumphs through our brokenness.

Our beloved patron, Saint Bernard, in one of his sermons spoke of this human and divine reality of the Church and the paradox of having both good and bad qualities.  He described it this way, “O humility! O sublimity! Both tabernacle of cedar and sanctuary of God; earthly dwelling and celestial palace; house of clay and royal hall; body of death and temple of light; and at last both object of scorn to the proud and bride of Christ! She is black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, for even if the labor and pain of her long exile may have discolored her, yet heaven’s beauty has adorned her.”

May the Holy Eucharist we receive today empower us to embrace grace over sin, light over darkness. May that same Eucharist strengthen all of our shepherds, especially the Holy Father, bishops, priests and deacons, to unify their flock, care for their flock, and engender love and not fear. May they be good shepherds and not bad shepherds. May all who have been hurt in any way by bad shepherds or even good shepherds, find strength, healing and peace. Finally, may the Eucharist give us more faith as we draw ever closer to Jesus, and see more and more the humanness and brokenness of the Church.

Father David Bonnar is editor of The Priest magazine. For more, go to thepriest.com.