Halving the Shepherd: What Our Clergy Can Learn From St. Martin of Tours

On the morning of the Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours, I passed through wide revolving doors and into opulence; a high-rise waterfront hotel in an elegant part of shot-and-beer Baltimore. The location was the meeting point for coffee with a friend; I’m of the Motel 6 set, an heirloom of frugality passed down from my father. 

I immediately saw a priest talking to a friend in the chic lobby; then a few other priests came into view. Then there was a bishop. 

Ah. it’s that time of the year when bishops gather. 

Legend has it that this Martin of Tours, when he was a young Roman soldier, encountered a thinly-layered beggar on a bitterly cold morning. He drew his sword, cut his military cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night, as Martin dreamed, he saw Jesus dressed in the portion of the cloak in which he’d covered the beggar. “Martin, who is still but a catechumen,” Jesus said within the mist of the dream. “has covered me with his robe.”

When I learned that Martin was a catechumen on the day of his magnanimous cloak-halving, sludgy tidewaters of irony and awareness covered me. Often overlooked within this Church wintertime in the West is the vanishing catechumen – the unbaptized soul preparing for entrance into the faith. One must wonder what goes on in his mind today. 

The awakening to the immense damage of 2018 has not arrived for most bishops; this somnambulism has been extended. Facts are facts: Through firsthand accounts, it was revealed that many dozens of bishops were completely aware of Mr. McCarrick’s heaping buckets of sin — and did nothing about it. And it was revealed that the Vatican, too, was under no illusions. This man had risen to the highest echelons in the world — a Catholic power broker whose backroom impurity and influence stretched like a black aura — with Rome fully alert to it all.

Catholic souls, many millions of them, have been gutted. 

In Baltimore today, the catechumen certainly would have seen few Martin of Tours — a future bishop of Gaul — halving his cloak in the manner of bishops halving unconscionable hotel accommodations. Today, he does not see bishops halving their salaries, halving their chanceries into more appropriate rectory-like settings, halving (or eliminating) honorariums, halving their time spent in leisure and comfort.  

Although it is well past halving time, staggeringly, it is not happening.

Moments after I departed the hotel, bishops listened to the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, tell them their commitment to evangelization was the measure of their communion with Pope Francis. Then those stale watchwords spilled into the opening session — accompaniment, the (still?) new evangelization, mission, and attentiveness to pastoral priorities, especially in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium. Absent were declarations addressing their role — to die as one must die for the laity.  Undefined was this mission. Is the mission still the mission — to guard souls and lead them to heaven?

Christianity did not take birth and spread from palaces. Palaces were just where Christ-like witnesses were led to be tried and mocked in front of the hoards that wanted them dead. Christ understood this. Christianity steamrolled into the world, not through youth summits and ecological synods, but through men like Paul who was whipped, beaten with rods, stoned, ship-wrecked, left for dead, imprisoned, and who, alas, was decapitated. 

How many Sauls are in Baltimore on this day — willing to convert (from Saul) and die (as Paul) by means of a throbbing desire to draw unbelievers close to Christ’s Sacred Heart? What bishops possess a willingness to halve their lives in their untiring pursuit of shaping and forming the lonely heart of today’s catechumen? What bishop will show this catechumen, through the demonstration of the holiness of his life, what a martyr must do in a post-Christian world? Who will confront this growing zeitgeist that decapitates statues of saints and sets fire to Our Blessed Mother in the streets — with not a finger of protest from passers-by?

The once-zig-zagging, long line of aspiring catechumens has sought other pastures — and who knows where they are lining up. Has this once-strong line of Catholic catechumenal heirlooms been lost primarily due to what seems a demonic stripe of softness and comfortability – on full display once again this week in Baltimore?

Christ gave all — this halving must start now. Until it begins, American Church leadership will ring as inauthentic in the eyes of potential Martins. 

I imagine residing in the soul of any faith-filled bishop is an understanding of the need for sackcloth and ashes; a time now for Church-wide reparation. Living within the soul of this bishop is his untiring pursuit of holiness, carved from devoted prayer, sacrifice and real shepherding. He has an impulse to die because his raison d’etre is to keep his flock. Bishops-turned-saints raised the bar because they lay their head on to the chopping block. Long lines of well-formed catechumens (who will eventually lead the Church back to grace) will begin to form because in this bishop he will see the image of Christ suffocating on the cross out of his victimhood. 

This catechumen will understand that his crown in heaven will be forged by the contours and degree of his sacrifice — because strong bishops and priests demonstrated it to him by their lives.

I listened to a homily the other day by a priest who works seven days a week. He made a plea to his parishioners; he requested they stop telling him that “he looked tired” or “that he was working too hard” or “that he needed to slow down.”

“Stop it. You’re minimizing my offering,” he said with emotion. “Don’t you get it — when you tell me to ease up on my vocation you’re taking away my spiritual fatherhood; you’re taking away my identity. You minimize the pouring out of myself as a priest as a libation. I want to give myself freely to you; as a father, I want to give you everything.”

This priest knows the words of Ven. Fulton Sheen: “When the shepherd is lazy, the sheep are hungry; when he sleeps, they are lost; when he is corrupt, they grow sick; when he is unfaithful, they lose their judgment,” Sheen said. “If the shepherd is not willing to be a victim for his sheep, the wolves come and devour them.”

This priest also understands that until the sweat equity of shepherding replaces and completely nullifies the meaning of modern Church watchwords, synods and summits, that the Church will continue on her crucified path. He knows the dire need for more St. Martins, half-robed.

image: nikolpetr / Shutterstock.com

Avatar photo


Kevin Wells is a former Major League Baseball writer, Catholic speaker, and author of Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz (Ignatius Press). His best-selling book The Priests We Need to Save the Church was published by Sophia Institute Press in 2019.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage