What does it mean to be pastoral? It is one of those words that is bandied about by people discussing all things Christian, but its meaning seems very fluid. The word stems from the understanding that Christian ministers were to be like shepherds, in particular like the Good Shepherd, so we should look to Him for guidance when it comes to its meaning. Jesus describes the Good Shepherd in John 10:
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out: A good pastor knows the people who make up his parish. This includes those who are at Mass every Sunday, but also includes the many more who do not. He should be very well acquainted with those who are homebound and in nursing homes. He should also know the families and extended families of the church “regulars,” who perhaps are not as attached to the parish. He is concerned about all the individuals in the parish and willing to leave the ninety-nine in order to save one who is lost.
He is also a leader. He draws people to take part in things that will increase their spiritual growth and also to reach out to others. He is a moral force in their lives, helping them to confront the challenges of modern life and acting as a counterbalance to the errors of much of the popular culture. For example, he should not shirk from proclaiming the Gospel as it relates to modern challenges to the sanctity of life and to marriage.
The sheep follow him because they know his voice: He speaks the truth and people trust him to do so. He speaks in the voice of the Church, with confidence, and it is with confidence that people receive it. Jesus says,
Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.
I’m sure many if not most young men who aspire to the priesthood do so with the intent of being good shepherds. Some are merely the hired hands. Others, unfortunately, are themselves sheep, and sometimes wolves, in shepherd’s clothing. But as we see from the words of Christ, this is not something new.
Tomorrow, I will pick up where I started today… what does it mean to be pastoral? If a pastor is modeled on the Good Shepherd, can being “pastoral” mean anything less?