Sheep That Go Astray

Author: Father Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M. Cap.


Sheep That Go Astray

Gospel Commentary for 4th Sunday of Easter

By Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap


This is Good Shepherd Sunday, but this time we are not going to focus our attention on the Good Shepherd, but on his antagonist.

Who is the person who is defined as the “thief,” the “stranger”? Jesus is thinking in the first place of the false prophets and the pseudo-messiahs of his time who posed as emissaries of God and liberators of the people, but who in reality did nothing but send the people to die for them. Today these “strangers” who do not enter in through the gate, but who sneak into the sheepfold, who “steal” the sheep and “kill” them, are fanatic visionaries, or astute profiteers, who speculate on the good faith and naivety of the people. I am referring to the founders and leaders of the religious sects that are springing up around the world.

When we speak of sects, we must be careful not to put everything on the same level. Protestant evangelicals and Pentecostals, for example, apart from isolated groups, are not sects. For years the Catholic Church has maintained an official dialogue with them, something that it would never do with sects.

The true sects can be recognized by certain characteristics. First of all, in regard to their creed, they do not share essential points with the Christian faith, such as the divinity of Christ and the Trinity; or rather they mix foreign and incompatible elements with Christian doctrines — re-incarnation, for example. In regard to methods, they are literally “sheep stealers” in the sense that they try to take the faithful away from their Church of origin, to make them followers of their sect.

They are also often aggressive and polemical. They invariably spend more time accusing and criticizing the Church, Mary and, in general, everything Catholic, rather than proposing their own positive ideas. They are the antipodes of the Gospel of Jesus, which is love, sweetness, respect for the freedom of others. Gospel love is absent from the sects.

Jesus has given us a sure criterion for recognizing them: “Beware,” he said, “of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but who underneath are rapacious wolves. By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). And the most common fruits of sects are divided families, fanaticism, and apocalyptic expectations of the end of the world, which are regularly contradicted by the facts.

There is another kind of religious sect, born outside the Christian world, generally imported from the East. Unlike those we have been talking about, they are not aggressive. Indeed, they present themselves “in the clothing of lambs,” preaching love for all, for nature, the quest for the deep self. They are often syncretistic ensembles, that is, they weave together elements from various religions, as is the case with the New Age.

The great spiritual damage that is caused to those who allow themselves to be convinced by these new messiahs is that they lose Jesus Christ, and with him that “life in abundance” that he came to bring. Some of these sects are also dangerous for mental health and public order. The recurrent cases of subjugation and group suicides show us where the fanaticism of some sect leaders can carry people.

When we speak about sects we must also say a “mea culpa.” People often end up in sects in search of the human warmth and support of a community that they did not find in their parish.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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