First Word: “Father, Forgive Them, For They Know Not What They Do.”

The Shepherds Fail to Protect the Flock

Diego Velázquez, “Christ Crucified” (detail), c. 1632
Diego Velázquez, “Christ Crucified” (detail), c. 1632 (photo: Public Domain)

Editor’s Note: The Seven Last Words, taped at EWTN April 11, will be broadcast on Good Friday at 5 p.m. Eastern, hosted by Father Raymond J. de Souza.

The Scandals in the Church and
the Scandal of the Cross
“Father, forgive them,
for they know not what they do.”
“Today you will be with me
in paradise.”
“Woman, behold your Son.
Behold your Mother.”
“My God, my God,
why have you forsaken me?”
“I thirst.”
“Father, into your hands
I commend my spirit.”
“It is finished.

The first word from the cross is puzzling. Forgiveness is not puzzling, because we know that Jesus has come for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus speaks about that at the Last Supper. The Precious Blood is shed for “the forgiveness of sins.”

But why does He say, “for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)?

Certainly he was not crucified by accident. The plot against him was well planned and executed. The Sanhedrin knowingly convicted him of making himself equal to God, the sin of blasphemy. Caiphas had declared that it was “better for one man to die for the people.” Certainly Pontius Pilate knew that he was innocent; the Roman governor even went so far as to ostentatiously wash his hands of responsibility.

So what did they not know?

Perhaps they did not know the extent of what they were doing, what the meaning of this particular execution was, what really what was at stake. What the Sanhedrin did not know, what Pilate did not know, was that to solve a relatively lesser problem, they were doing something much worse.

So much anger this past year has been directed toward the bishops of the Church, who, in the face of the evil of priestly abuse, were negligent or worse, covered it up. Do we not see the dynamic of Good Friday returning here? Did not the Sanhedrin and Pilate fear the “disturbance” that they concluded that Jesus was bringing? Did they not desire to keep matters calm, to keep things quiet, even at the cost of not doing justice? Even at the cost of sacrificing the innocent?

Those bishops who sought to keep matters quiet, to preserve a certain superficial tranquility in the household of faith, to maintain a good appearance for the Church, did not know that they were in fact doing something much worse.

In 2002, St. John Paul II addressed the American cardinals, telling them, “Now you must ensure that where sin increased, grace will all the more abound (Romans 5:20). So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.”

For too long, the desire to avoid disruption was greater than the desire for holiness in the priesthood, for holiness in the Church. The shepherds did not know that they were sowing the seeds of a greater evil, a greater trauma, a greater suffering.

At the conclusion of the Year for Priests in June 2010, Pope Benedict spoke of how the shepherds must not be afraid to govern: “The Church too must use the shepherd’s rod, the rod with which he protects the faith against those who falsify it, against currents which lead the flock astray. The use of the rod can actually be a service of love. Today we can see that it has nothing to do with love when conduct unworthy of the priestly life is tolerated.”

The failure of the shepherds has caused shock, even bewilderment, in the flock. But the Church knows well this danger. Every September, for two weeks in the Liturgy of the Hours, all clerics are obliged to read from Ezekiel 34 and the fearsome commentary of St. Augustine on wicked shepherds.

Consider those words from Ezekiel now, prophesied so long ago; true then, and true now:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, thus says the Lord God: Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the wild beasts (Ezekiel 34:1-4).

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Glory be to the Father …