Priests: Shepherds after Christ’s own heart

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: July 19, 2009
Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-16; Mark 6:30-34

The world keeps looking for a shepherd. This is true on an individual level, where self-help books continue to be popular; and people may look to different talk show hosts or, more recently, seek out “life coaches.” And it is all true on a collective level. In the United States we see this every four years, during the presidential campaign: for in the president, far more than in other public offices, Americans look for a shepherd. And every four years, I find myself thinking of what I read in Plato’s Republic in college classes—because, in this longer dialogue written about 2500 years ago, Plato captured very well the challenges that every nation faces when it seeks a good leader, a good shepherd.

In Book 1 of the Republic, Plato has Socrates and the other characters discussing many things. And the conversation turns to the question of where they might find a good ruler to govern one of their city-states; and they even compare to a shepherd caring for a flock of sheep. They know that many a ruler has simply exploited his country to increase his own riches, power, and pleasure—like a shepherd who just uses the sheep for his own benefit. And of course no nation wants that. Instead, they want to find a leader who has the knowledge and skill to lead it well, and the selflessness to really work for its own benefit—like a shepherd who works for the good of the sheep; like the horse trainer they have spoken about, who works for the good of the horse, training it to become the best horse it can be.

But where is such a ruler to be found? Plato’s characters say that anyone who has that ability will say “no thanks; I would rather devote my energies to helping myself and my family, to managing my business.” And so there is the Catch-22 of the beginning of Plato’s Republic: anyone who could rule well doesn’t want to; whereas anyone who wants to probably intends to exploit the nation for his own gain.

Every four years, the presidential candidates try to convince us that they are different: that they really are the good shepherd that we have been looking for. Every four years the inexperienced believe them; but the experienced know that it is only a matter of time before the new president’s mistakes begin to pile up, and he turns out not to be so wise after all; and the corruption scandals of his administration begin to appear, and we see that they were still hoping to exploit their offices for their own benefit. So we are back to Plato’s question: Where do you find a good shepherd?

Throughout the Old Testament, we see references to flocks of sheep and their shepherds, often literally, because these were quite common in their society. And we also see the same analogy made of the ruler as shepherd. At several points, someone observes that the People of Israel appear, at that moment, like sheep without a shepherd—the same phrase found in today’s Gospel reading. And what do they mean? If we examine the different Old Testament passages, we see that without a shepherd, sheep

  • Lose their unity and become scattered from each other;
  • Don’t know where to go and wander aimlessly;
  • Don’t know where to find good pastures and become hungry;
  • And are vulnerable to attacks by predators.
  • If one gets injured, there is no one to bind up its wounds.
  • And if one gets separated from all the others, there is no one to search for it, and all of these dangers become even more pronounced for that one stray sheep.

Whereas a shepherd

  • Gathers the sheep into one flock;
  • Knows where the sheep need to go, and guides them there;
  • Knows where good pastures are, and feeds them;
  • Defends the flock against predators;
  • Binds up their wounds;
  • And searches for the lost sheep and brings it back to safety.

Many times we see the People of Israel described as the flock belonging to the Lord. And who was its shepherd? A few times, the Lord himself is identified as the shepherd. One of those times is the well-known Psalm 23, which is today’s psalm, and we hear the psalmist describe how he has experienced the Lord himself fulfilling the duties of a shepherd.

But most of the time, the shepherds of Israel are those human leaders that the Lord has chosen to care for his flock. And so Moses is called a shepherd of Israel, and his successor, and King David several times. And then in the words of the prophets we hear several times that the shepherds are not doing their job. In today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah says that the shepherds have not cared for the Lord’s sheep. They have misled them and scattered them and driven them away. Even worse is the critique found in Ezekiel: not only have they neglected to care for the sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves by eating the sheep!

Again and again in the prophets, the Lord promised that he would make this situation right: that he himself would step in and carry out the duties of a shepherd, gathering the remnant and bringing them back to their meadow. But he also promised: “I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them.” Or, as we read earlier in the book of Jeremiah [3:15]: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart.”

So: where do you find good shepherds? Plato spent a lot of time in the Republic working out his famous, or infamous, plan for how the difficulties he had identified might be overcome. He proposed a special class called the Guardians—who would of course be highly trained and educated to lead. But in order to overcome those temptations to exploit the people, he described a rigid communal existence for them, so that they would propagate children and raise them all communally; they could not have their own property or their own families. But why would anyone agree to live in such a difficult way? Plato gave different answers to this, but the main one was: lie to them. He said that they should be told a myth about how different people were made from different metals, and they were made from silver and gold, and so they were fated to live this difficult life. Hardly anyone has ever thought this Guardians idea would work; and, personally, I don’t think that Plato thought it would either. He was probably saying that these problems he had observed could never be overcome.

But what Plato could not foresee was that God himself would become the shepherd. He could not foresee that all those promises made through the prophets would be fulfilled in the Incarnation: when God the Son emptied himself to become man; and that Jesus Christ would be the Good Shepherd that Israel had been waiting for, for so long. He gathered and guided the flock; he fed and protected it; he healed their wounds and sought out the lost. And he raised the office of shepherd to a whole new level when he said [John 10:11], “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Wow! When had this ever been part of the shepherd’s job description? But Jesus was the Great Shepherd of the Sheep [Heb 13:20]: by his death he showed the depth of his love, and gave new life to his sheep.

And that is not the end of the story. He was preparing shepherds after his own heart, to serve under him, the Chief Shepherd, as St. Peter tells us in his first epistle [1 Pet 5:1-4]. And in this Year for Priests, which Pope Benedict began a month ago, we should consider how Christ has given the Church priests as shepherds, under him as Chief Shepherd. And we can consider in parallel with what we read in the Gospels about him and his disciples.

  • We read that he called the twelve disciples by name; and today he still calls young men to become priests, if they will hear and answer that call.
  • We see that he called the disciples to spend years with him, traveling with him and learning from him. And today seminarians spend 6-8 years in seminary, in prayer and in study, at the feet of Jesus.
  • We see that he gave the disciples what we might call “ministry experience”—as in today’s gospel, they are returning from a mission journey of preaching and healing. And today’s seminarians are also given many kinds of ministry experiences.
  • And finally we poured out his Holy Spirit upon his disciples and changed their souls, so that they might be able to exercise a sacred power, to shepherd his flock with his own supernatural gifts. And today, in ordination, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon priests and their souls are changed for the same reason.

Now we cannot ignore the fact that Judas, one of Christ’s own disciples, betrayed him; and there have been some priests who have neglected the care of their flock or even, God forbid, fed themselves by consuming the sheep. But for every Judas, there were eleven more apostles who lived out their calling faithfully; many more priests who have devoted themselves to being shepherds with true chastity, obedience, and simplicity of life. And like the Chief Shepherd, they have laid down their lives for their sheep.

How does the priest act as shepherd? The Holy Father has pointed to St. John Vianney, a faithful French parish priest of the 1800s, as a model for priests: his death was 150 years ago this year, which is why the Year for Priests is this year. And he quotes something St. John Vianney wrote about priests as shepherds:

“Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [through committing mortal sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest.”

This is how priests act as shepherds for each of us. These are the shepherds the world has been looking for. In his love, Christ the Good Shepherd has given us shepherds after his own heart.

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Published in: on July 19, 2009 at 6:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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