The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost they say that they are not ours. “ Why do you want us? Why do you seek us?” they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out. “If I am straying”, he says, “if I am lost, why do you want me?” You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you. You have been lost, I wish to find you. “But I wish to stray”, he says: “I wish to be lost”.Can one describe the dilemma of the priest today any more accurately than St Augustine did? We find ourselves bound to the preaching of a way of life that is alien to so many of those around us, and we find that society frequently asks us to collude in the privitization of the moral life. We're told that the message we proclaim isn't relevant to the modern world, and that people should be allowed pursue their own way of life without reference to the morality we proclaim. We should, we are told, allow people to have their own 'private' lives and to not be judgemental.
So you wish to stray and be lost? How much better that I do not also wish this. Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome. But I listen to the Apostle who says: Preach the word; insist upon it, welcome and unwelcome. Welcome to whom? Unwelcome to whom? By all means welcome to those who desire it; unwelcome to those who do not. However unwelcome, I dare to say: “You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this”. For the one whom I fear does not wish this. And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. Shall I fear you rather than him? Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgement seat of Christ.
It's a tempting option... to stay on the level of 'spirituality' and people's 'personal relationship with God', but Augustine will not have it so. His words are a powerful corrective to the lassitude which threatens the life and ministry of the priest. He insists that many souls are wandering and that even if they protest that they're not lost, or that they wish to be lost, we still have our duty. We have been given a responsability, and it is out of love of Christ and out neighbour and a healthy fear for our souls that we are asked to step away from the consensus of society and to continue to speak of sin, knowing that we cannot tell of the relationship between God and men without acknowledging that the conseqences of that relationship affect every dimension of human life. To speak of forgiveness and mercy is a nonsense if we do not also speak about sin.
I wish that some of our secular critics could read a little of what Augustine has to say - his words today also serve as our very up to date apologia. We're not here to judge or condemn or to make people feel uncomfortable for the sake of making them uncomfortable. We'd much rather not to have to do that. We are striving to be shepherds and the sheep are free to heed our call or not. However, we could not live with ourselves if we were silent, if we allowed the flock to wander. At least show us the same indulgence you give to climate-change activists...