If God Does Not Intervene: Fourth Sunday of Easter (A)

The readings for this Fourth Sunday of Easter (A) look at the sheep and the active work of their shepherd.

  • Acts 2: Peter preaches and 3000 are converted
  • Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd…I shall dwell in the house of the Lord…
  • 1 Peter 2: By his wounds you have been healed. For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned…
  • John 10: Jesus is the true shepherd, and the gate, and leads out to pasture

Michael Barber has an excellent study on this week’s readings, but the thing that especially spoke to me when I re-read that this year is (emphasis mine):

3,000 were added to their number. The number of converts won through Peter’s sermon is not insignificant. However, to understand the imagery one must take a step back and understand the larger backdrop of the sermon itself.

In Acts 2, the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost is understood in terms reminiscent of the giving of the Law at Sinai in Exodus. In Acts 2, the coming of the Spirit is associated with a great sound, namely, mighty wind (Acts 2:2). This evokes the miraculous sound of a “loud trumpet blast” heard by Israel at Sinai (Ex. 19:16). Acts 2 also describes the Spirit’s coming in terms of a vision of tongues of fire (Acts 2:3), imagery also reminiscent of Sinai (cf. Ex. 19:18). In addition, there is the appearance of miraculous speech in Acts 2; everyone understands the apostles in their own language (cf. Acts 2:4). This has a parallel in Exodus 19 as well; God speaks to Moses “in thunder” (Ex. 19:19).

Of course, after Israel received the law, Israel fell into the sin of idolatry. Moses commanded that the idolaters be executed. How many were executed? 3,000 (cf. Ex. 32:28). The same number of people who convert at the coming of the Spirit (cf. Acts 2:41).

We see this pattern again, notably in the 16th century.

The Church in Europe was in shambles after the laity and clergy alike rebelled against scandals both real and manufactured. Millions left the faith, and millions more left the Church, while retaining many good elements of the faith. Despite faithful efforts even in the face of (racist?) opposition from the Spanish in the Americas, evangelism largely failed. Bishop Zumárraga despairingly told some of the missionaries,

“If God does not intervene to provide an instant remedy, this land is on the verge of being lost forever…”

On Saturday, December 9, 1531, the Lord intervened by sending his own mother to Juan Diego. Eight years after Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared, almost nine million of the indigenous peoples of the Americas had converted to the faith. The number of the faithful lost to the various Protestant rebellions and attempts at reformation were more than matched by those converted to the faith as a result of Our Lady’s appearance.

Interestingly, Our Lady identified herself as being “of Guadalupe.”

Although maligned in modern times, Christopher Columbus was a faithful Christian, and tertiary Franciscan, with admirable devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe (Castile, Spain), and it was to that monastery of our Lady of Guadalupe he went to give thanks upon his safe return. The monastery was richly blessed as a result. Columbus certainly had economic motives (the path to the Orient, as it was called at the time, was highly dangerous as a result of Moslem terrorists), but his greatest motive was evangelization. Columbus was, furthermore, accompanied by Bernat Boil, most likely of the monastery in Montserrat (Spain), and who reportedly led the crew in singing Salve Regina in the presence of an image of a Black Madonna. Among the Marian names Columbus gave the Caribbean islands are Santa Maria de Montserrate, and Santa Maria de Guadalupe.

Both Our Lady of Guadalupe (Spain), and Our Lady of Montserrat (Spain) are Black Madonnas associated with Marian apparitions and oppression at the hands of invading Muslim hordes. It was a dark-skinned virgin of Guadalupe that Columbus and his men asked for protection and patronage. It was a dark-skinned virgin of Guadalupe who painted a self-portrait upon Juan Diego’s tilma. Oh, and let’s not forget Columbus’s ships: la Pinta (painting), la Niña (young maiden), and Santa Maria de la Inmaculada Concepcion (Holy Mary of the Immaculate Conception)…

So… my point, other than that some historical facts beggar the imagination, leaving one forced to seriously consider there may be a God at the helm?

We also face invading Muslim hordes. We also live in a period where the church is in shambles. Our church has been rocked by scandals real and manufactured. We fail to evangelize. Our children reject life and the laws of the church, choosing to abort, to contracept, and to reject God’s plans with regards to marriage and sexuality. We have half the Catholic elementary schools we had in 1965, and they serve one quarter the number of students. We have fewer and fewer parishes, and yet struggle to have a priest for each. Our Seminaries are largely empty:

“From 1913 to the peak enrollment in 1966, seminary enrollment increased nearly seven-fold, from 6100 to over 48000—an average increase of nearly 800 students each year, or 1.6 percent per year relative to the high water mark. These numbers include both major seminaries and minor (high school) seminaries (the tallies are taken from the US Catholic Directory for each year.) The increase in the total number of ordained priests was comparable. Across the first six decades of the twentieth century in the US, there was only one significant dip in seminary enrollment and this was during the Great Depression which was followed by a leveling off during World War II. However, by 1968, a mere two years after the peak, US seminary enrollment had declined an astounding 17 percent, and in the following four years, enrollments had declined another 30 percent. A veritable wildfire had swept through the seminaries. Only eight years from the peak, enrollments had declined 60 percent from the high point. But the decline did not subside even by the mid-1970s. From 1974 to 1985, the enrollment declined to just over 11,000, making for 77 percent decline in 18 years, yielding an enrollment level not seen since 1925.”
After Asceticism (p24-25)

And… some charts, one from each end of the liberal/conservative spectrum, as a tl;dr.

Number of Seminarians
1900 – 9,000
1910 – 16,000
1920 – 16,000
1930 – 25,000
1940 – 41,000
1950 – 50,000
1960 – 48,000
1970 – 29,000
1980 – 15,000
1990 – 5,000
2000 – 4,000
Graduate-level Seminarians (USA)
1965 – 8,325
1970 – 6,602
1975 – 5,279
1980 – 4,197
1985 – 4,063
1990 – 3,658
1995 – 3,172
2000 – 3,474
2005 – 3,308
2010 – 3,483
2016 – 3,520
By some estimates, the United States is approaching 500,000 fewer priests than normal linear growth since 1900 would have suggested. (David L Sonnier, analyzing Kenneth C. Jones’s Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church Since Vatican II)


Europe is no better, and although there are some small signs of hope, largely in the southern hemisphere, and globally where traditionalist groups are blooming, but, by and large it seems safe to say, at least for the United States of America:

“If God does not intervene to provide an instant remedy, this land is on the verge of being lost forever…”


Saint Augustine, in reflecting on this gospel, says

What is this, shall go in and out? To enter into the Church by Christ the Door, is a very good thing, but to go out of the Church is not. Going in must refer to inward cogitation; going out to outward action; as in the Psalm, Man goes forth to his work.

It is beyond time that we engage wholeheartedly in the work of evangelism. I am convinced it will be too little, and too late, but also that God may yet have mercy upon us, and provide an instant remedy. Jesus is the good shepherd, and it is he who offers healing, return, and good pastures.

Come, Lord Jesus, we are sheep who have gone astray, and who have followed other voices. Come, and call us back to you. Our Lady, mother of our Lord, pray for us.

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