Justice and Mercy: Characteristics of the Good Shepherd

The present world could well be compared to a pasture in which we find faithful lambs, lost sheep, ravenous wolves and even wolves disguised in sheep’s clothing. How should the true shepherd treat each one of these?

Of all the parables composed by the Divine Teacher, perhaps none sets out the criteria for those in a position of governance better than the parable of the Good Shepherd (cf. Jn 10:1-30). Here Our Lord presents himself as the true guide, support and father of a multitude of sheep who listen to His voice and follow Him.

Care for the flock, far from being a mere pastime or diversion, constitutes an office of great responsibility: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel, that feed themselves,” said God to Ezekiel (34:2). It is the shepherd’s task to strengthen the weak sheep and to traverse valleys and mountains to find the one that is lost, but without neglecting the strong ones, keeping the fold safe from the attack of wolves, especially since some dare to disguise themselves in sheep’s clothing (cf. Ez 34:16; Mt 7:15).

In this context, the shepherd cannot allow himself to be deceived, in the name of a spurious “mercy”, by the “naive” bleating of the animal that enters the fold as if it were a harmless lamb, hidden under the dingy guise of second-rate wool. How should we describe the Catholic who, overcoming innumerable obstacles, descends to the bottom of the abyss at his own peril, there lovingly gathers a cunning wolf in his arms, sets this fruit of his charitable apostolate loose in the sheepfold and, after a long and tender look at the new “lamb” in “fraternization” with the others, goes to rest on the laurels of such a brilliant achievement?

On the other hand, there is something else – perhaps more difficult – that the good shepherd needs to know: how to differentiate between these intruders and those sheep that, although straying, withdrawn, uncouth and dirty, are still sheep, and should not be driven out with blows, for they will only meet with death outside the fold.

How to proceed in such cases? Perhaps the eloquent example of St. Bernard of Clairvaux will shed some light on the matter. Even if he lived many centuries before us, he seems to shine out for all generations as a model of a good shepherd.

Schism in the Holy Church

Grave, precarious, obscure, but at the same time simple: this is how the paradoxical European situation looked in the 1130s.

Holy Church was shaken in its unity. Two prelates claimed to be popes. It is impossible to think of a situation of greater import and complexity, especially since the elections of both parties took place under ambiguous conditions and seemed irregular.

The city of Rome was in the hands of the Antipope Anacletus II. The real Pope, Innocent II, was forced to take temporary refuge in France, a nation that soon adhered to the Pontiff. England and Spain, among others, also remained faithful to the legitimate Successor of Peter.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that it involved not only the spiritual order, but also the temporal. The throne of the Holy Roman Empire was disputed between Lothar, legitimate heir and faithful to Innocent, and the Duke of Swabia, a follower of Anacletus. The Antipope also had the support of William X, Duke of Aquitaine, and Roger of Sicily, “the most competent military and political ruler of his time.”1

It is the shepherd’s task to strengthen the weak sheep and find the lost, but without neglecting the strong ones, guarding the flock from wolves
“The Good Shepherd”, by Marten van Cleve

Despite all of this, the solution proved to be very simple: while the faithful seemed to be lost “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36), everything was clear for one man. This figure, whose task it was to support Christ’s flock, carrying out a prophetic mission, was none other than St. Bernard.

Zeal in rescuing a lost sheep

Although the great nations had taken their sides regarding the Successor of Peter, they did not cease to suffer internal divisions, even if on a relatively smaller scale. Let us consider what was happening in the French city of Tours.

In 1133, when the Episcopal See was vacant, an ambitious deacon named Philip had himself elected for the rank of bishop and immediately ran to the Antipope, Anacletus II, to make his appointment official. Since many irregularities had occurred in this election, the clergy of Tours met again and chose a new successor.

It is moving to note the way in which St. Bernard, upon learning of the affair, chose to treat this insurgent, who happened to be a close friend of his. The Saint’s prophetic discernment allowed him to see in him not an obstinate wolf but a misguided sheep. We learn of this from a letter written by the Doctor Mellifluus to Philip, while the latter was still usurping the chair at Tours:

“I grieve for you, most beloved Philip. […] My grief is not worthy of mockery, but of compassion, for it is not born of flesh or blood, nor of the loss of passing things, but of yourself, Philip. I cannot express to you more explicitly the great cause of this pain: Philip is in danger.

“And when I say this, I am referring to the grave weeping of the Church, which in other times carried you in her womb and saw you sprout like a lily (cf. Hos 14:6), laden with heavenly gifts. […] But – oh! – ‘how the finest colour is changed’ (Lam 4:1). What a deep disappointment for the France that begot you and raised you!”2

The sin committed not only wounded the holy abbot, but offended and saddened first of all Our Lord Jesus Christ and, with Him, the Holy Church. However, the knowledge of the insult done to God may not be enough to convert a sinner. It is also necessary to remind him of the danger incurred by his soul:

“If you disdain all that I have said to you and pay no heed to motives, on my part I will not lose the fruit of this letter which is born of my love, but you shall answer for your contempt before the terrible tribunal of God.”3

Unfortunately, even this was not enough. St. Bernard, appointed papal legate to settle the matter at Tours, dismissed Philip from his post. The latter, cast down from the height to which he had undeservedly risen, went to complain to Anacletus, who swore him in as Archbishop of Taranto.

Through a prophetic mission, St. Bernard had the role of supporting Christ’s flock
St. Bernard of Clairvaux – Church dedicated to him in Frankfurt (Germany)

Shepherds who behave like wolves

Let us leave aside this stubborn character to consider a second case, from a few years earlier, in which St. Bernard showed a very different attitude towards another prelate, namely Gerard, Bishop of Angôuleme.

A man of rare qualities, he readily distinguished himself as a theologian, orator and writer. His intellectual abilities were, however, accompanied by great greed. His thirst for power had led him to obtain from Paschal II the post of papal legate in various regions of France, a dignity he retained during the reigns of the three subsequent Popes.

Once the schism had been introduced into the heart of the Church, the proud prelate also asked Innocent II for the post. The Pope, however, being aware of his unworthiness, refused the request. As a result, Gerard immediately joined Anacletus, receiving the desired position from the hands of the Antipope and becoming his staunch collaborator; moreover, he began to persecute those who remained faithful to the true Successor of Peter.

In 1132, St. Bernard was compelled to address a letter to the Bishops of Aquitaine denouncing Gerard’s crime. If we did not know the vigour of holy souls, we would not think it came from the Doctor Mellifluus:

“The enemy of the Cross of Christ – and I say this weeping – has the temerity to expel from their seats the saints who do not render homage to the beast, which ‘opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling’ (Rv 13:6). He wishes to raise one altar against another altar and is not ashamed to confuse the licit with the illicit. He tries to replace some abbots with others, and some bishops with other bishops, excluding Catholics in order to promote schismatics. […] He traverses land and sea to make a bishop who will become a son of hell, twice as guilty as himself (cf. Mt 23:15).”4

However, the impetus and the fury of these imprecations were not due to mere personal disagreements, but to the fact that he who should be a shepherd had become a wolf. In another letter, addressed to Godefroy de Loroux, a famous writer of the time, the holy abbot expresses his great indignation with these bad shepherds:

“That beast of the Apocalypse, to whom was given a blasphemous mouth and allowed to wage war against the consecrated (cf. Rv 13:5-7), sits in the chair of Peter, ‘as a lion prepared for the prey’ (Ps 16:12). Moreover, another beast howls shrilly beside you, ‘as a young lion dwelling in secret places’ (Ps 16:12). The one is fiercer and the other more cunning, but both are united together ‘against the Lord and His anointed’ (Ps 2:2).”5

Death of the two prelates

Two bishops, with equally sinful conduct, received different treatment from Bernard of Clairvaux. What was the end of these men upon whom the hand of a Saint rested, in one case to drive him away with violence and in the other to point the way back to the fold?

The Mellifluous Doctor had a long wait before seeing the prodigal son return to his father’s house from afar (cf. Lk 15:20). Only several years later, in 1139, did the winds of justice blow against that house built on sand (cf. Mt 7:26-27). When the unity of the Holy Church had been restored, Innocent called a Council and deposed all the prelates who had formerly supported Anacletus.

Deprived of the Diocese of Taranto and barred from exercising liturgical functions, Philip found refuge in the Cistercian cloister of Clairvaux, where he lived out his last years under the care and protection of St. Bernard. With a sincere heart, the penitent made profound amends and earned new benevolence from the Saint, who after a certain time wrote to the then-reigning Pope Eugene III, beseeching Philip’s total absolution:

“I have another matter which I do not mix with the others, because it touches and distresses me more than the others, and demands the most special insistence of my supplication. Our Philip had exalted himself and was humbled; but he humbled himself again and was not exalted, as if the Lord had not said both things (cf. Mt 23:12).”6

This request shows the extent of his esteem for a sheep that had allowed itself to be led back by the Good Shepherd. By this letter, the holy Abbot obtained for Philip permission to resume the exercise of his priestly ministry.

Gerard had the diametrically opposite fate; everything indicates that he died in disgrace in 1136 “without having shown the least sign of repentance.”7

St. Bernard: a bad shepherd?

If St. Bernard had shown the same kindness to Gerard that he did to Philip, would we not also find in him a contrite penitent? After all, mercy always saves… Was the Mellifluou Doctor wrong in his approach? Did his firm and pointed language come from a heart insensitive to dialogue and devoid of charity?

This is what seems to leap out at us as we contemplate these facts. However, in the very life of Our Lord we read that the rich young man, whom the Divine Master looked upon with love, refused the call to be an Apostle (cf. Mk 10:21-22). Blindly peace-seeking spirits would also be shocked to witness the divinely sweet lips of Jesus declaring, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”, “Whitewashed sepulchres,” “Serpents! Brood of vipers” (Mt 23:27, 33).

Our Lord said: “I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15). He is the model of how to treat both wolves and sheep, of how to know when to cast out the moneychangers and when to forgive the adulterous woman, to drive away an unrepentant sinner or to rescue one who can still be saved. If we take a closer look at St. Bernard’s approach, we can recognize that it was not arbitrary, but governed by this prophetic insight.

To be able to differentiate between stray sheep and threatening wolves, according to the example of St. Bernard, impartiality, patience and a profound interior life are needed
“The Good Shepherd”, by Thomas Cole – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville (AR)

An example to follow

However, the great problem underlying this one, the question that cannot be silenced is the one posed at the beginning of our article: how to differentiate between sheep that have gone astray and wolves that threaten the flock, so that we do not make mistakes?

Centuries after St. Bernard, the incomparable Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard – his spiritual son, in fact – delivered a eulogy which, we believe, sums up the main criteria for the good shepherding of souls.

According to Dom Chautard, on careful examination of the history of the Abbot of Clairvaux, “the attentive reader of his life will be able to see to what an extent the interior life had made this man-of-God selfless. He only fell back on strong measures when he had clear evidence that all other means were useless. Often, too, he varied between gentleness and strength. After having shown his great love for souls by avenging some principle with holy indignation and stern demands for remedies, reparation, guarantees, and promises, he would at once display the tenderness of a mother in the conversion of those whom his conscience had forced him to fight.”8

Therefore, it is necessary before all else to be impartial – never to be moved by personal dislikes or attachments, but always for the sake of God’s cause, with a pure intention that practically rules out the possibility of error. Any subordinate, moreover, easily perceives when self-love is or is not feeding the actions of the superior. Secondly, we must be patient: many fall because they are weak, not hypocrites.

This, however, can never lead to compromise with the principles of Catholic doctrine and morals. Mercy is not synonymous with complicity or negligence. The former characterizes shepherds of the sheep, the latter, those who cover up for the wolves. When it becomes necessary to adopt the tactic of firmness, there must not be a moment’s hesitation.

Finally, it is indispensable to nourish a deep interior life, which will always lead us to consult the Holy Spirit. In most cases, He will speak to us through the mouth of an experienced spiritual director, a Saint, or even a prophet like St. Bernard. 



1 LUDDY, Ailbe J. São Bernardo de Claraval. São Paulo: Cultor de Livros, 2016, p.276.

2 ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX. Carta 151. In: Obras Completas. 2.ed. Madrid: BAC, 2003, v.VII, p.535; 537.

3 Idem, p.537.

4 ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX. Carta 126, n.7. In: Obras Completas, op. cit., p.471. It should be noted that the followers of Anacletus were very hostile to the influence of St. Bernard, and would hardly accept the mildness of his mercy. Soon after the first mission of the Abbot of Clairvaux to the duchy of Aquitaine, the schismatics even destroyed the altar where he had offered the Holy Sacrifice (cf. LUDDY, op. cit., p.279).

5 ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX. Carta 125, n.1. In: Obras Completas, op. cit., p.459.

6 ST. BERNARD OF CLAIRVAUX. Carta 257, n.1. In: Obras Completas, op. cit., p.833.

7 LUDDY, op. cit., p.328.

8 CHAUTARD, OCSO, Jean-Baptiste. The Soul of the Apostolate. Charlotte (NC): TAN Books, 1974, p.135.



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