Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What should be held bound?

Last week the Detroit Archdiocese announced recommendations to close 9 parishes and merge 39 of 60 other parishes into 21 parishes.  The Detroit Archdiocese undertook a similar effort about 20 years ago, closing and merging dozens of parishes.  Detroit is not unique.  Many dioceses and archdioceses, including mine, have undertaken similar efforts.  The result has been larger, more centralized parishes – many in suburbs - and a reduced percentage of inner-city parishes. 

Every time I hear of such undertakings, I am confused.  Here’s why.  Jesus commissioned the eleven disciples to, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (MT 28:19).”  He also said that a good shepherd will leave the flock to go after even a single sheep, and rejoice over that one (MT 18:12-14).    

Since my childhood, those passages conjure mental images of shepherds relentlessly dispersing outwardly so as to expand the flock.  I envision shepherds doing whatever it takes to ensure inclusivity and completeness, retaining all sheep. 

Those passages would seem to suggest that Jesus called shepherds to movement, not the sheep.  Expect sheep to be sheep; go find them and make it easy for them.  Don’t expect them to find you.  And when you find them, care for them.

In direct contrast, parish closings and mergers conjure a mental picture with reversed directional flow and, somewhat, role swapping between shepherds and sheep.  If shepherds believe the flock is too small, they move away from their sheep – a far cry from leaving the ninety-nine sheep majority to rejoice over reaching the one outlier.   Then, the shepherds’ actions cause the sheep to go looking for their shepherds as though the shepherds are the lost ones.  Instead of shepherds moving outwardly, sheep must move inwardly.  Should we then be surprised shepherds, behaving the opposite of Jesus’ directives, tend a shrinking flock? 

I have heard multiple conservative, orthodox priests and laypeople say that the Church is purifying its ranks with an objective to shrink the flock.  They want a flock with only “highest quality” sheep.  Thus, perhaps such people rejoice at the smaller flock, expecting that only the “right kind” of sheep will exert the effort to find shepherds.  However, does God rejoice in the smaller flock?  Does God rejoice in excluding rather than including?

The Detroit Archdiocese’s recommendations were made by a panel that examined parish membership and finances.  If the Church were a corporation making decisions to maximize financial profits, this might make sense.  But, the Church is supposed to use a very different set of decision-making criteria.  Therefore, this confuses me too.  Flocks that struggle financially often have economically challenged sheep – sheep least financially positioned to afford the expense of tracking down a shepherd.  Often their financial circumstances introduce other life challenges that would make easy access to a shepherd very comforting. 

Furthermore, shepherds are supposed to feed their sheep.  In the Catholic Church the Eucharist is a key part of this nourishment.  But sheep in financially challenged flocks often are the working poor with less job schedule flexibility.  Thus, in addition to the personal financial impact these sheep endure by traveling to find their shepherds, reduced Mass schedules also impact their ability to be fed.  Conversely the sheep of economic means can afford to travel to find shepherds and often have flexible job situations.  Yet it seems that shepherds move their flocks catering more to feed the economically blessed sheep rather than the impoverished sheep.  Jesus’ teachings in the gospel cause me to assume good shepherds would do the opposite.

But, even if shepherds left parishes open with abundant Mass options, they still seem to make the sheep jump through hoops before they will feed them.  They lock the Blessed Sacrament (Jesus) in the tabernacle, hiding him from the sheep.  They introduce awkward stilted language in the Mass.  They declare some sheep unworthy of being fed.   

Eventually those shepherds and their groupies who desire a shrunken flock succeed in both driving off wounded sheep, and in inflicting wounds upon other sheep, subsequently driving them away as well.  Does God rejoice in paring the flock based upon humans’ judgment? 

I imagine the ultra-orthodox crowd might counter that Peter was given the keys to the Kingdom and instructed, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (MT 16:19).”  Perhaps they feel this statement by Jesus gives shepherds free reign to judge and dismiss people.  Only sheep on their “A” list should get into heaven. 

But the prophet Ezekiel gives us some indication of what God wants “bound”.  I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest.  The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, and the sick I will heal (Ez 34:15-16).  It would seem that Jesus, one in being with God (“consubstantial” for those who only speak the New English Translation), expected Peter to bind the wounds of the broken, not judge and dismiss them. 

If shepherds bind the broken on Earth, they will deliver to God all the sheep, even the broken ones.  However, if shepherds judge and dismiss “inferior” sheep, binding them to manufactured laws, they will deliver God a ragged fraction of the flock entrusted to them.

Do parish closings, excommunications, censures, and inaccessibility to the Sacrament bind the broken so as to ensure they will be bound in heaven?   

Are church leaders behaving more as shepherds or corporate executives?

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