Every once in a while, my uncle in Galway, Ireland, would refer to a particular type of priest as a “boy-o”: “yeah, he was a real boy-o.” After many visits to his farm and endless badgering, my uncle finally told me what he meant, reluctant though he was to say anything disrespectful of “the priests.”
A boy-o was the kind of priest who, if he saw that you had two fine geese, would say, “That’s a fine goose you have there,” and expect the other to be delivered to his door on the morrow. A boy-o always made you feel like an imposition, so burdensome were his tasks. A boy-o came to be served rather than to serve. A boy-o could cause people to fear and tremble in their pews, if they ever entertained an idea other than his own. A boy-o could divide a parish, humiliate a sinner, and even make you wonder about God.
My uncle was a truly gracious and uncomplaining gentleman, but a boy-o seemed to get under his skin. It was a good thing he did not have the temperament of Jeremiah. “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock ... you have driven them away.” Jeremiah rebukes the shepherds who care more for themselves than their people. God will regather the flock and bring them back with new shepherds who will teach them not to fear and tremble.
Our own days have been marked by reports of shepherds who have abused our young. The headlines sadden and outrage. But lesser sins of the shepherds are known as well. Some Catholics have felt lost after leaving the confessionals of the past. Others have had their rosaries ridiculed, their piety chided, their childhood beliefs passed off as superstition. Mature and gifted laity have reported the strange experience of being treated like children or—in the case of women—like nonentities. Others have found their faith tried by perfunctory Eucharists, meandering homilies, and gripes about money.
Mere instances—not prevalent, I hope—but reminder enough that Jeremiah speaks to our day. Shepherding is a daunting and treacherous task, not only for church leaders, but for all parents and every giver of care.
Lest we get disheartened, the manner of Christ is instructive. He is gentle with his bunglers: “Come by yourselves to an out-of-the-way place and rest a little.” And he is compassionate toward the people. “He pitied them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them at great length.”
Let them never forget, those who are shepherds, what the teaching is all about, what the message means, what the church is for, what life amounts to:
It is he who is our peace, and who made us one by breaking down the barrier of hostility that kept us apart. In his own flesh he abolished the law with its commands and precepts, to create in himself one new man from us who had been two, and to make peace, reconciling both of us to God in one body through the cross which put enmity to death. (Second Reading)
He was not a boy-o.