The Psalmist’s rod and staff are traditionally used images to convey the fact that the faithful will invariably need unpleasant correction. As the shepherd uses the rod and the staff in a way which is not pleasant to the sheep but keeps them away from harm or sudden death, the spiritual shepherd must at times use his spiritual rod and staff to make clear to his sheep that they are headed in the wrong direction and a correction of course is needed. This kind of correction is unpleasant – more so in modern times, where more and more people think that they are the creators of their own moral coördinates – but is nevertheless necessary and salutary.
For too long, we have been led to believe that the good shepherd is the one who is popular among the sheep; the one whom the sheep consider a frightfully nice chap, a smiling tolerant inclusive fellow and, in short, a pleasant bloke all around. For too long, our spiritual shepherds have tried to be our friends rather than our guides, have thought that we would naturally grow out of all our shortcomings instead of charitably but clearly pointing out to them and have in general tried to avoid every occasion of making themselves, well, less popular. The first result of such a shepherd’s behaviour is that many of his sheep start to die; the second, that more and more sheep start to question whether they need a shepherd at all; the third, that an increasing number of sheep lose the sense of why the shepherd was there in the first place other than to entertain them with platitudes abundantly available everywhere.
Thankfully, all this slowly begins to change. As the post-Vatican II (and post Sixty-Eight) generation of priests slowly retires and a new generation of more orthodox priests begins to fill the pulpits, a clear tendency to a more assertive style of spiritual guidance is frequently noticed. The rod and the staff are coming back. You can see here that the Holy Father himself insists on the point.
The Holy Father’s words are particularly important, because they come at a time when the push toward tolerance at all costs is particularly strong within the secularised West; strong, in fact, to the point that such an “inclusiveness” seems to have become the new religion, the moral absolute and the ethical compass of a growing number of secular – or simply not properly instructed – individuals.
We need more of these assertive shepherds. We need more Fulton Sheens and less Roger Mahonys. We want our shepherd to use his rod and his staff to help us to grow instead spoiling us rotten so that he may be popular and have an easy life.