‘Wail, shepherds, and cry…’: An ancient Jewish prophet speaks to today’s Catholic Church
January 15, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – “Wail, ye shepherds, and cry; and wallow yourselves in the dust, ye leaders of the flock: for the days of your slaughter are fully come. And I will break you in pieces, and ye shall fall like a precious vessel” (Jer 25:34-35).
For some time, I have been reading the book of Jeremiah slowly and prayerfully. Although I have read it before, never have the prophet’s words resonated so powerfully. The reason is simple: Jeremiah, though he lived over 2,500 years ago, speaks to our contemporary situation as pointedly as if he were alive and writing today.
Jeremiah is a mighty example of how “the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two-edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb 4:12). As Jeremiah himself says: “Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29).
Nor should we be surprised at this. The Old Testament is not just about the Israelites. Since the Church is the new Israel (cf. Gal 6:16), the Old Testament is also about us, insofar as we are faithful or unfaithful to the new covenant made in the Blood of the Lamb, the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, and inasmuch as we obey or disobey His commandments (Jn 14:15; 1 Jn 2:4).
So the basic pattern we see etched into almost every page of the Old Testament—fidelity to the covenant ends in God’s blessing and support, infidelity in His curses and wrath—remains valid until the end of human history. In fact, is anything more obvious than that the Catholic Church today is experiencing just those curses that always accompany infidelity, abuse of trust, abuse of power, and the violence done to our theological, spiritual, cultural, and liturgical patrimony? God is faithful to His promises, and His promises include not only blessings but punishments. He guarantees that for sin, there will always be punishment, even as He guarantees with the price of the precious Blood of Jesus that there will always be salvation for those who repent of their sins.
The harsh prophecies of Jeremiah, like the consoling prophecies of Isaiah, are fulfilled again and again down through the ages in the Church founded by Christ. We in the 21st century happen to be living in a time in which the evil of churchmen, of the wolves in sheeps’ clothing, seems vastly to outweigh the good; when “the Israel of God,” that is, the Church (cf. Gal 6:16), seems hell-bent on turning its back to the Lord and the religion He has revealed; when the people have been lured into the worship of false gods and carried away captive by a pagan empire; when the once-beautiful vineyard of Catholicism has been devastated, ravaged by wild beasts, reduced to wild disarray. “Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trodden my portion under foot, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They have made it a desolation; it mourneth unto me, being desolate; the whole land is made desolate” (Jer 12:10–11).
What, according to Jeremiah, is the problem? “The shepherds are become brutish, and have not inquired of the Lord: therefore they have not prospered, and all their flocks are scattered” (Jer 10:21). In a word, the fault is worldliness, accommodation to the mentality of the world. Hallowed ascetical practices by which Catholics sought to thwart the disordered concupiscence of the flesh—fasting, abstinence, vigils, kneeling, and other bodily penances—were chucked out the window that John XXIII innocently “opened up” at Vatican II. The result would not have been difficult to predict, for shepherd and flock alike. Instead of aspiring towards heaven, shepherds allowed themselves to become immersed in the things of the world and of the flesh.
Worldliness necessarily chokes off prayer, liturgy, the glorification of God and a life of strict discipline and virtue. No spiritual prosperity can result from such infidelity; the flock are scattered into disbelief and dismay. “Woe unto the shepherds that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the Lord. … Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them; behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings” (Jer 23:1–2).
The prophet clearly indicates that this profane or mundane mentality cannot help invading the very sanctuary of the Church, as we have seen in a thousand ways. The shepherds have abused their own positions of authority, flexing muscles of power: “Their course is evil, and their might is not right; for both prophet and priest are profane; yea, in my house have I found their wickedness, saith the Lord. Wherefore their way shall be unto them as slippery places in the darkness: they shall be driven on, and fall therein; for I will bring evil upon them, even the year of their visitation” (Jer 23:10–12). The moment of divine visitation is coming for each shepherd, one by one—whether it be initiated by civil courts or ecclesiastical courts, whether it occurs on the stage of this world or only on the day of death, before “the dread judgment seat of Christ” (in the words of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy).
As Bronwen Catherine McShea shows in a brilliant article in the January 2019 issue of First Things, the past two centuries have seen a centralization of ecclesiastical power in the hands of bishops and the pope, like nothing ever before seen in the history of the Catholic Church. Prior to this turn towards unification, concentration, and exclusivity, the Church was far more diversified in its “power base”: the laity, primarily in its princes, aristocrats, and guilds, and the clergy in their cathedral chapters and associations, co-determined the manner in which the Church was governed, the policies that were implemented, the decisions that were reached. Now, we suffer under a regime in which there is no effective check on the absolute authority of the shepherds. If they are saintly, we can breathe a sigh of relief and give thanks. But if they become corrupted—and especially when the pope and the papal curia become corrupted—laity and lower clergy have no earthly recourse, no way to prevent or escape the rape and pillage.
To the extent that this is true, we know that we have recourse to God alone, and we must therefore beg Him all the more, with earnest pleas and tears, to rescue His people from abusive shepherds. He will heed our prayers, He will rescue us in due season. Once again, God speaks to us through Jeremiah: “I myself will fight against you,” He says to His unfaithful ones, “with an outstretched hand and with a strong arm, even in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation” (Jer 21:5). We do not know the day or the hour, but we can be certain that He will fight against the shepherds who provoke Him to wrath.
Is this the only message we find in Jeremiah—one of gloom and doom, so to speak? No, not at all. For this prophet as for every prophet in Sacred Scripture, the final word is one of hope. Speaking of His own people, the Lord says: “Behold, I will bring it health and cure, and I will cure them; and I will reveal unto them abundance of peace and truth. And I will cause the captivity of Judah and the captivity of Israel to return, and will build them, as at the first” (Jer 33:6–7).
The gates of hell shall never prevail, not now, nor at any time in the future—but the Word of the Lord shall prevail over a rock that has dared to set itself up in rivalry to the Rock, Jesus Christ.