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Brigadier general or archbishop: can't wear both hats

"Which one of you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the 99 in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices." --Luke 15:3

It is said the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is the oldest in church history. It may be the most powerful. Through that imagery we continue to hold to the notion of our bishops as shepherds, loving caretakers of their flocks.

The story of the lost sheep, and the imagery of the loving shepherd who sees in every sheep infinite need and opportunity, moves us deeply and gets to the heart of the Christian psyche. It is deeply ingrained in our Catholicism. So we do not expect, nor can we ever fully integrate in our Christian spirituality, a divisive shepherd, one who instead of tending to the entire flock limits his concern and picks and chooses among the sheep.

Yet recently this has become a frequent Catholic experience.

A deeply troubling example is the news (NCR, Feb. 21) of San Salvador Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle's recent decision to accept the rank of army brigadier general in the Salvadoran armed forces.

Consider for a moment the incalculable trauma this act has had on those Salvadorans -- and other Catholics in the wider Catholic family -- still reeling from the painful memories of civil war and the slayings of their former archbishop, Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran Jesuits, the four U.S. women missioners and the tens of thousands of other seemingly nameless souls brutally executed at the hands of the Salvadoran military and its death squads.

Sáenz Lacalle has defended his appointment in the Salvadoran military, saying it is something "normal within the Catholic church." It is not. Nor should it ever be considered normal. Jesus was -- and remains -- the norm.

Sáenz has been apostolic administrator of the country's military ordinariate since July 1993. The rank of brigadier general is the highest the military can bestow on him. To accept it can only mean unimaginable ignorance and insensitivity -- or worse: deliberate exclusionary choice.

The image of the Good Shepherd has lasted 2,000 years. It has survived Catholicism's darkest days. It will survive the archbishop's unfortunate mistake and dubious honor. This we can tell our children.

Brigadier General Sáenz Lacalle may officially be archbishop of San Salvador. However, he appears to have given up the opportunity to be viewed as shepherd of his flock.

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 1997