The Temptation When Feeling Shepherd-less


“Do not let your anger and your wounds become uncharity.”


Feeling Shepherd-less 

A few years ago, probably after something surfaced with the McCarrick scandal, I distinctly remember a moment in prayer when struggling with feelings of being shepherd-less. Many of you can relate, I am sure. In my prayer and struggle, I was trying to find consolation in thinking of the many good priests I knew who were trying to shepherd us well. Suddenly, I had what I assumed was a brilliant idea. “I know! If we could just get a group of good priests together, we can do our own thing. We can form our own little community, our own little faithful remnant; we don’t need the Roman bureaucracy…”

It did not take long for my thoughts to sink from my head, to my heart, back to my head. What was I saying? In my hurt and pain, I was… Martin Luther.

How often I judge people like Martin Luther without appreciating what he was living through. Of course, I am not condoning schism, heresy, or apostasy. But Luther was living through a time in the Church where there was rampant abuse and bad catechesis. The argument can be made that what we are living through pales in comparison. Yet faced with scandal and sin, I had the real thought of “cutting and running,” masked under a false cloak of fidelity.

Yes, at times, you may feel like a sheep without a shepherd. However, that does not excuse schism. It does not even excuse hatred or sins against charity. Do not let your anger and your wounds become uncharity.

Beware of Sins Against Charity

Anger and frustration do not give you permission to be uncharitable or disrespectful. Even as I type that, I know some may read it and dismiss it as a spineless thing to say. But charity is not weakness. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that no true virtue is possible without charity.

As we read in the Gospel this Sunday, Jesus Christ is grieved when He sees His sheep without a shepherd. The prophet Jeremiah has strong, condemnatory words for shepherds who fail to care for the sheep – those who get fat and rich on their abuse of the flock. It is tempting to hear these readings and begin to point fingers, to make accusations, to rise up in anger. I pose that instead, this a call for us to pray for the shepherds who have been placed over us. Do not let your anger become uncharity. In addition, beware of those who gather remnants around them by stoking dissension, masked under a false cloak of fidelity.

“What about Saint Catherine!” I can already hear people saying. “Catherine of Siena had strong words for bad shepherds!” Yes, she did. And perhaps the Lord is speaking to you in a mystical dialogue and giving you a message for the shepherds of today. If so, begin to dictate your letters to three scribes simultaneously and witness to the world through your virtuous life.

How to Emulate Catherine

It is not that we are not called to speak the truth. This does not mean that we simply sit back and accept bad behavior and abuse. The Catechism, quoting Canon Law, is quite clear on the laity’s identity as prophets: “In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons” (CCC 907, CIC, can. 212 § 3). 

We have a right and even at times a duty. But it comes with a responsibility. Do not ignore the second part: we must do so with reverence and consideration of the dignity of persons. Before we all decide to be Catherine of Siena, I think there is a real obligation to make sure our message is hers: guided by charity, imbued with charity, aimed at charity. Her letters are strong and fiery, always focused on Truth, but always respectful and charitable. 

We find in her Dialogues that the Lord cautions her against judging even sinful priests. We are to pray for them, not judge them. The Lord told her:

“…[Because] of their virtue and because of their sacramental dignity you ought to love them. And you ought to hate the sins of those who live evil lives. But you may not for all that set yourselves up as their judges; this is not my will because they are my Christ’s, and you ought to love and reverence the authority I have given them.

You know well enough that if someone filthy or poorly dressed were to offer you a great treasure that would give you life, you would not disdain the bearer for love of the treasure, and the lord who had sent it, even though the bearer was ragged and filthy… You ought to despise and hate the ministers’ sins and try to dress them in the clothes of charity and holy prayer and wash away their filth with your tears.

Indeed, I have appointed them and given them to you to be angels on earth and suns, as I have told you. When they are less than that you ought to pray for them. But you are not to judge them. Leave the judging to me, and I, because of your prayers and my own desire, will be merciful to them.” 

In our pain of feeling shepherd-less, it is easy to rush to judgment. It is easy to make accusations and call out failures. Yet before we judge, we should first pray. Then, unless you are Pope Francis reading this, you should probably thank God you were not chosen to be Pope. Unless you are a bishop, you should thank God you are not a bishop. Unless you are a priest, you should thank God that you were not called to shepherd the Church. It is a complex and difficult job. Pray for our shepherds.

We like to talk about emulating St. Catherine when we have strong words in mind for our shepherds. We probably are less inclined to emulate Catherine’s fasts (mystically surviving only on Holy Communion for long stretches of time), the iron chain she wore around her waist, and her sleepless nights of prayer. Saint Catherine died out of love for the Church. Her extreme mortifications hastened her death, and her last two years she spent in Rome in extreme suffering, offering herself as a victim for the Church. This is not a call to do the same, but we cannot understand Catherine’s writings without knowing her spirituality.

Catherine’s words did not heal the papacy and the Church. Her prayers did.

When we feel like sheep without a shepherd, let us not follow Luther’s actions, but Catherine’s prayer.

St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us.


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About the Author

Joannie Watson

Joan Watson was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, but college and graduate school took her to Virginia, Ohio, and Rome. After graduating from Christendom College with a B.A. in History and Franciscan University with a M.A. in Theology, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee to be part of the explosion of Catholic culture in the middle of the Bible Belt.

She has been blessed to work for Dr. Scott Hahn at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia at Aquinas College, and the Diocese of Nashville. She is currently a full-time Catholic speaker and writer. She also serves as the Associate Editor of Integrated Catholic Life.

When she’s not testing the culinary exploits of new restaurants or catching up on the latest BBC miniseries, she’s FaceTiming with her nine nephews and nieces and enjoying her role as coolest aunt. She likes gelato, bourbon, and the color orange.

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