Pope Francis recently commented that church leaders should be pastors not politicians (when facing hot topic issues). On other occasions, he has reminded Catholics that we, like Jesus, are to engage in society, i.e., to be political. It is a balance that is difficult for some of us to establish and maintain.
To be pastoral means to be intimately engaged with God; it doesn’t mean to be engaged intimately with political ideology. Pastoral style is savvy, courageous, and empathic. One who is pastoral cultivates a high EQ so that he can better read situations and adjust objective standards of response to fit various circumstances. To be pastoral means to know oneself as God’s emissary, be convinced of the Gospel, and surrender to the mystery of one’s call. Pastoral leaders keep Christ as their first mentor and role-model; they have a strong spiritual life that includes prayer and familiarity with Sacred Scripture. They listen more than they talk—or listen so that they can talk with greater legitimacy. Their role is primarily to serve and empower others, and they draw life from those they serve. Like good shepherds, they nourish their flock. They don’t condemn the one that wanders but seek to lovingly enfold him or her once again.
Ordained clergy who take to the pulpits and internet in October of general election years to condemn and berate a presidential candidate, or who leverage the sacraments as weapons rather than as grace, exemplify being more political than pastoral. Meanwhile, those that engage in society year-round in efforts to create a better world for future generations illustrate being more pastoral than political. One such priest is Gregory Boyle, S. J., who has worked with gangs in Los Angeles for decades, helping young people gain a sense of belonging, work their way out of poverty, and make wise choices for a hope-filled future. He offers a good distinction between political and pastoral and is a model for maintaining balance as a church leader. He once stated that the political “condemn and demonize while (the pastoral) stand with the demonized so that the demonization stops. Those who are pastoral walk with people on the outer fringes of the circle of compassion so that the circle of compassion can expand. The pastoral dwell on the margins so that the margins will disappear, and they fight for the disposable so that people stop being disposed of.” His message is profound—mostly because he lives it.
Whether the issue is immigration, abortion, vaccinations, gangs, or refusing communion to those who hold a view in opposition to objective church teachings, we need, first and foremost, to be pastors not politicians. Fortunately, there are lots of shepherds throughout the world, like Father Gregory Boyle, who give us good examples to follow.