“When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter,“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”Jesus said,“Feed my lambs.”Again Jesus said,“Simon son of John, do you love me?”He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”Jesus said,“Take care of my sheep.”The third time he said to him,“Simon son of John, do you love me?”Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time,“Do you love me?”He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”Jesus said,“Feed my sheep.”
Here Jesus approached Peter with this question after he had been fed. Practically speaking everyone is best on a full stomach, but metaphorically Jesus’s presence, and time with Him was complete nourishment, time for Peter to revisit and have greater introspection on Who this Man was that shared his company, his attentiveness, and growing affection. Peter was fed before He was asked about how he loved Christ. To me this is not accidental or even unintended. Only when we are nourished by the Lord’s love, when our priests are fed and nourished deeply before the Lord, can they offer the sheep anything to eat. The abundance they can give comes from the primacy of their undivided love for Christ. It is intended to be the most important. It is emphasized by Christ three times, yes, as reparation for Peter’s denial of Christ, but this repetitive question is the ongoing one that must face the priest daily.
If we love Christ, and we love the Church then it is to our priests we should offer the most attentiveness of our prayer, of fasting, reverence, and of honest help, even in the spiritual sense, to help keep them fed. The job of the "lay-man" becomes utilizing their gifts and pursuit of sanctity to help the Church thrive by allowing the priest to be a better Christ.
And in priestly formation and preparing men for the priesthood it becomes most essential too, to help deepen this experience of love of God, to uphold the inward preparation as vital to the life of the Shepherd, for only from this depth can they be fed, and can they feed perpetually.
The witness of a reverent, holy man of God, who lives the priesthood authentically, the Priesthood of Christ, with integrity, and sacrifice, and holy love, transforms souls, and gathers the scattered in a way like no program, no app, no new series can. The tragedy of what has gone on in some seminaries is exposing a very core problem. While naturally the anger seems to be at the harm that was caused by these men, if we love Christ, and we love the Church, we would see the importance of preserving Christ’s priesthood as it was intended, not seeking to destroy it. Which seems, at moments to be what is happening in response and angst that we are currently facing. The priesthood is Christ's and it remains pure as Christ's to the measure that we keep it His.
That some live like they are their own, is not the reality of an error in Christ, but the fault of consenting to sin, the reality of superficial love of Christ. Because to one who loves much, then obedience is a sweet burden.
“Feed My Sheep” has seemed to become the most important and the most primary. Of course, this is essential, people in the pews, people knowing Christ, bills paid, diocese’ thriving. But the sheep and flock are only as good as their Shepherd. And the Shepherd is only as good as his love for Christ. And the Church first and foremost is for salvation, and the food we need to eat is Christ.
So as the Bishops and priests and the Church at large in North America fumble around trying to make amends for the horror caused by the evil that has seeped through the cracks, there has seemed to be little mention of upholding the priesthood of Christ. The focus is on making reparation for evil, which is undoubtedly necessary, but more emphasis on Christ and keeping the priesthood holy will lead one to help reform the deeper problem much more thoroughly. Because in looking to the priest we will arrive at the sacredness of the Eucharist, the necessity of Christ, there present! We will stare it's absence from the life of the Church in the face, and we will begin to recognize that in being obsessed with "retaining people" we have made a performance out of what is most holy. We have made a "star" out of the priest who no longer, at large, thinks looking to Christ is the deepest need, but rather it is to keep people "happy" and present. It is diluted. Slowly sin trickles in.
Where there is lack of transforming love for Christ there is disobedience, there is moral apathy, and complete disregard for good.
There are subtle ways we have begun to starve our priests, with an over-attentiveness to business, failing to walk with them in the early years of their vocation, closely, being sensitive to their spiritual needs and the opportunities that they must have in order to thrive and be fed, This obviously must come from them to some degree, and from their own love of God, but it is not easy, nor is it something that is always the case. The formation years expose young men to a very confined fraternity, companionship, rigor, and routine that aids balance and helps navigate things, even in the spiritual sense. Frequent opportunity for spiritual direction, confession etc. It is laid out for them, it is necessary that this continues to keep them nourished and close to the love of Christ.
The current climate of the Church at the core exposes the starving Shepherd. We know how to get to the peripheries it seems, but do we know how to preserve the centrality of Christ in the Church? We are called, in my opinion to look deeper here. It is time to look at ongoing formation more deeply and severely. Even when we gather priests, from what I've most heard, it is always centralized on going out, building up the Church, while this is a valid part of the priestly labour, there is evidently more need to focus on the interior, the spiritual life and ordering this in the life of the priest. It is more than numbers in pews.
Look what the Lord did with His first disciples...thousands of followers followed a few holy men, by their love, their obedience, they gathered. And so it will be with us. Or otherwise what we gather is only another form of scattered and lost sheep, under the guise of holiness with a diluted discipleship, compromising the Truth of Christ’s Church.
“Do You love me?”
Nothing more will suffice to live the fullness of life in Christ. Give me a poor Church an empty Church, over a Church filled to the brim empty of God.