by Leon Suprenant
As I watch our growing community of deacons in the archdiocese, I’m especially edified when I see them engaged in pastoral ministry, whether it’s working in prisons, tending to the sick or dying, or ministering to young families.
Not surprisingly, the church asks us to put an emphasis on the men’s pastoral formation in preparing them for ministry as deacons. And so, throughout their five years of formation, the deacon candidates receive a steady dose of pastoral training and experience. They even take a course specifically on pastoral theology shortly before ordination.
While I think all would agree that it’s important to be “pastoral,” sometimes we use fancy words like that without a clear understanding of what they mean.
“Pastoral” comes from the Latin noun “pastor,” which means “shepherd.” In short, it refers to the work and concern of the shepherd for his sheep. Jesus referred to himself as “the good shepherd” and to us as his “sheep,” so the term is founded on the very words of Christ.
The term “pastoral” especially applies to bishops and priests, to whom the church has entrusted the “pastoral” care of an entire diocese or parish, respectively. But all the faithful are called to be the eyes, voice, back, hands and feet of Christ in the world.
And the term especially applies to deacons who, acting in the person of Christ the Servant, identify the needs of the sheep and then marshal the church’s material and spiritual resources to meet those “pastoral” needs.
Christians follow the biblical model of Moses, whose call to serve God’s people entailed his becoming “an associate in [God’s] compassion” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2575).
So, really, pastoral theology approaches Christian doctrine with a view to its application to the church’s activity in the world. The goal of this activity is always the promotion of holiness, but we begin by meeting people where they are and tending to their wounds. Yes, we all need, as Pope Francis would say, to smell like the sheep.
This understanding avoids two extreme approaches to “pastoral” care. On the one hand, pastoral care that is not informed by doctrine becomes mere social work, whereas pastoral care that seemingly ignores human needs often fails to stir the human heart.
We’re living in a time marked by relativism and the tendency to pit truth and doctrine (“conservatives”) against love and mercy (“liberals”). Pastoral theology addresses these signs of the times.
As Christ’s associates in ministry, deacons cannot be agents of the unity for which Our Lord prayed and offered his life if they allow themselves to align with either of these opposing camps.
We stress to our deacons that they must always witness to truth and charity if they are to be authentic, “pastoral” ambassadors of the mercy of Christ.