Shepherding the Flock
We must be attuned to how our people are hurting
Retreats can be so rich and insightful. Back in May of this year I did my annual retreat at a retreat center 50 miles north of Pittsburgh. I have used this center for my retreat frequently because not only are the accommodations satisfactory, but also the complex is located on a farm where there are cattle, sheep, fields and trails. I love getting out each day and walking and praying with nature. The silence and the beauty of the outdoors become an annual rest stop for my soul.
Even though most retreats only last five days, there are elements from those prayerful days that transcend that time. The retreat may be over, but God continues to speak. Insights, messages, inspirations and questions continue to emerge and unfold. While these revelations are often subtle, through the fruit of prayer they can become poignant and powerful.
Ever since I left the retreat center this time there is an image that I cannot get out of my mind. It continues to emerge in my prayer. And most of all, this image catches my heart.
I am fascinated by sheep. Perhaps it is because I have visited a sheep farm a handful of times to observe what a shepherd does. A shepherd, of course, leads, feeds and protects the sheep. It has been equally inspiring observing the sheep. They are totally dependent on the shepherd. They typically stay together. And there is something to be said about the term “sheepish.” I have found sheep to be afraid of their own shadow.
One early evening I was near the sheep barn, and I watched as the sheep were grazing in the field. A worker was outside of the fence and began to throw large pieces of grass on the inside. The sheep gathered to snack on the green stuff.
The sheep were of all shapes and sizes. Some were still nursing from their moms. As I watched them graze and roam through the field I was struck by one of the sheep. This ewe had four legs but was only using three of them. Essentially it was hopping all around. It appeared as though one of the legs was wounded so badly that it could not bear any weight. The animal did everything it could to fit in and keep on moving.
As I continued my gaze I could not take my eyes off of that ewe. What is more, my heart could not stop aching about what I saw. I felt so bad for this animal. Then I began placing this into the realm of prayer. I found myself thinking about my own sheep entrusted to me in my two parishes. I began wondering about how many of them are hurting in some way but are doing their best to keep on walking and believing even amid their hurt. How many of these hurt sheep have I failed to see?
The retreat, most especially the encounter with the sheep, continues to be eye-opening and heart-wrenching. I wanted so much to help that sheep. I even tracked down one of the farmers the next day and shared my concern. He told me that he thought it was an issue with a hoof, but it was determined not to be that. Then he told me that the sheep were going to auction the following week. My heart became shattered. I realize that they are only animals, but it really opened my eyes and heart to the hurt and vulnerability of the sheep. They, of course, had no idea of their fate. But I did. They would be sold and split apart. How sad!
Brothers, I think there is a lot of hurt among the sheep within our flocks. In fact, I believe everyone is hurting in some way; some just hide it better than others. There are the typical hurts that come with parish life. But there are also the bigger ones such as clergy sexual abuse, failed leadership and the closing, merging and consolidation of parishes. As shepherds we need to be attuned to these sheep and acknowledge the hurts without being dismissive or defensive. In the face of our own hurts, we need to count on God’s grace to help us be wounded healers. Above all, we must never stop going on our annual retreat!
FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 15 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. To share your thoughts on this column or any others, follow The Priest on Twitter @PriestMagazine and like us on Facebook.