What does it mean to be “pastoral”?

 The term “pastoral” comes from the Latin, pastor, meaning “shepherd,” and thus refers to the work and concern of the shepherd for his sheep.


In the current ecclesiastical jargon, what is the meaning of the word “pastoral”?  The term was frequently used to describe Pope John Paul I during his very short reign.  He was said to be a “pastoral” pope, presumably because he was close to his people in Venice, and in his first diocese, Vittorio Veneto.  The term also seemed to stand in opposition to “curial,” since he had never been a part of the Roman Curia, nor had he been a Vatican diplomat, such as his four predecessors, Paul VI, John XXIII, Pius XI, and Pius XII.

Again, in the sad weeks between the sudden death of John Paul I, and the election of Blessed John Paul II, much was said and written about the need for a “pastoral” Pope.  When certain journalists, theologians and ecclesiastics stress the need for a “pastoral” Pope, what do they really mean?

The term “pastoral” comes from the Latin, pastor, meaning “shepherd,” and thus refers to the work and concern of the shepherd for his sheep.  Jesus referred to himself as “the Good Shepherd,” and to those who believe in him, as his “sheep,” so the terminology is founded on the very words of Christ.  Timothy and Titus, 1 and 2, are known as the “pastoral epistles since they present a series of practical directives for the proper pastoral care of the Christian communities at Ephesus and Crete.  “Pastoral theology” includes everything connected with the priestly ministry to the faithful; it is a practical science which tries to apply the revealed truths of our faith, and the directives of the Magisterium, to the problems of daily living.  Thus, the pastoral priest, according to this understanding, is a practical man who instructs and helps his people lead a fully Christian life so that they can finally attain eternal salvation.

Jesus is the supreme shepherd of the flock (Church) who has a threefold office: prophet (teacher), priest (sanctifier) and king (ruler).  Pope, bishop, and priest, all share in that threefold office, and so continue it in history.  Traditionally, the duties of a pastor have been enumerated in terms of those three functions: (1) to instruct the faithful in the truths of revelation and Christian doctrine; (2) to sanctify the people by administering the sacraments; and, ( 3) to rule, or lead, them in things pertaining to faith and the Church.

In this sense, every pope is pastoral, though each will tend to emphasize one function more than another.  When journalists and theologians call for a “pastoral” pope, they are not, in my opinion, primarily referring to the functions described above.  The word “pastoral” has taken on a new, unexpressed meaning.  The new meaning is often related to the ideas contained in words like “permissiveness,” “pragmatism” and “relativism.”  We hear calls for a “pastoral solution” to some problem.  What does that mean?  Sadly, it often means either bypassing ,or going against, Church teaching and Church law “for the good of the faithful.”

I maintain that disobedience to the Magisterium, and rejection of Church teaching (e.g., on the ordination of women), can never be for the good of the people and, therefore, is no “pastoral” solution, no matter how often, or by whom, it is said to be “pastoral.”  We welcome and revere the pope, bishop, or priest who is truly pastoral in the sense of Jesus Christ. But, we should be on our guard against incorrect uses of that good word, “pastoral,”  by some journalists and theologians.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.


  1. Good to see Father Baker, my old boss, going strong. Yes, give us a true pastor, like the saint of today, St. John Damascene.