|St. Barnabas, "Son of Encouragement"|
St. Paul and his writings are a course in themselves on how to be a shepherd. In those letters, we discover the depths of Paul's love for his communities. We also see in them a man who is unafraid to challenge, correct, and teach. When a pastor loves his people, then he shouldn't be afraid to correct them, to teach them, and to challenge them. These things are an expression of his love; of his shepherd's heart. That doesn't mean "yell," but it does mean teaching with conviction. Not correcting, teaching, and challenging has left many parishes in a state of disarray. Recently, an Anglican minister that I knew said that they used to say, "Be a lion in the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional." That's a pretty good expression. In the pulpit we encourage in one way and in the confessional we encourage in a different way.
In the Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul encouraged and he instructed the Thessalonians that they too should encourage one another. "Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up" (1Thes 5:11). There is a temptation at times for pastors to encourage indiscriminately. "Everything is wonderful." But, true encouragement is related to truth. A person who is living in holiness and truth ought to be encouraged toward greater holiness and truth. The person who is not living a holy life or living in the truth ought to be encouraged to do so. Real encouragement might mean to encourage somebody to change.
Frankly, some parishes and religious orders have been encouraged right out of business. Even though they were heading completely down the wrong path, shepherds figured it was their first duty to smile and applaud. So, when the Liturgy became nutty, the shepherds just smiled and said what a good job they were doing. When the music became banal, people were encouraged to keep ploughing down the path of least resistance. It's almost been with reckless abandon that some parishes and religious communities have hurled themselves headlong into proven disastrous consequences. I'm not suggesting that the people were ill-intentioned. But, they were ill-served by their shepherds. When parishes and religious communities are drifting away from the Sacraments, the moral teachings of the Church, and from Liturgical norms, gentle correction is the right course of action--not effusive fawning.
But, there is also a great need for pastors to encourage the good things that are present in the life of a parish. The person who is struggling with sin but who confesses their sin over and over again? Encouragement. The person who is struggling to understand Church teachings but keeps asking questions? Encouragement. The person whose kids drive her crazy during Mass and she feels like everyone is staring at her? Encouragement. The person who knows that he should forgive the person who offended him, but is struggling to do so? Encouragement. The person who is struggling to be chaste? Encouragement. The person who has doubts? Encouragement. The people in difficult marriages or with difficult children? Encouragement. The person who shows up to Mass irregularly? Encouragement. The person who agonizes over past sins? Encouragement.
I often like to encourage the people who come to the Sunday evening Mass. You can tell that some of them (not all, but some) thought about skipping Mass today, but at the last minute they came. They need to be encouraged. When I see couples that I'm preparing for marriage at Mass, I try to encourage them. They are doing a good thing. I want them to keep coming. There are so many great things that people in the pews are doing and we who are their shepherds ought to encourage them. We just have to encourage correctly. The person going in the wrong direction ought to be encouraged towards the right direction.
Encouraging what is good is a particularly important part of being a pastor. Wherever there is virtue present, wherever there is a manifest sign of the Lord's presence in the lives of people, pastors ought to encourage it. Catholic parishes ought to be places of encouragement.
All of this came to mind because the other day, a young college student unknowingly encouraged me. Last year, he lived abroad and now he is back. In writing to somebody in the parish he said, "I've thought about it; after visiting every beautiful cathedral I could find in Europe, I think I love Mass at St. Mary's most of all." Yes, even priests need encouragement and benefit from it. This young man's words encouraged me greatly. And we not only are encouraged by words, but we are also encouraged by example. When I see this young man and many other college students at Mass, I am encouraged. When I see a small group of Anglicans who are making their way into the Catholic Church at Mass each Sunday, I am encouraged. When I see people coming and going daily from our Eucharistic Adoration Chapel, I am encouraged. When I see high school students at youth group, elderly couples helping each other into Mass, and young men from the parish answering the call to study for the priesthood, I am encouraged. Having dinner with parish families, grabbing a burger and a beer with a group of young husbands and fathers from the parish, and being part of the beautiful friendship of the Church are all encouraging to me.
As I've grown in the priesthood, I find myself learning to encourage more. I want to encourage not only my people, but also my brother priests for all the good that they do. And I've found myself more encouraged by their example. We all need to be encouraged. Not the encouragement that is false and phony. That's just awful. But, we need the encouragement that makes us want to keep growing in holiness of life. We owe it to one another to encourage one another. God gives us to each other in order that we might encourage one another towards Him. That's encouraging.