Good shepherds under the Good Shepherd

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4th Sunday of Easter, Year A: May 14-15, 2011
Acts 2:14, 36-41; Ps 23; 1 Pet 2:20-25; John 10:1-10

In the pages of the Old Testament, leading up to Jesus, we often find shepherds and sheep spoken of. Sometimes these are literal shepherds taking care of literal sheep—a common enough experience in the Holy Land! But other times it is a figure of speech, where the flock is the People of Israel; and the shepherds are those who care for them.

Leaders like Joshua, the judges, King David, and later kings are either called shepherds or else described in a way that compares them to what shepherds do. And the place where we find this imagery most developed is in the prophets: when the Lord is denouncing the failure of those leaders to shepherd his People.

And what were these shepherds supposed to do? Through the Prophet Ezekiel [ch. 34] we hear that:

  • They were to pasture the sheep: to lead the people to the food and water—the nourishment—they needed to grow and thrive and find rest.
  • They were to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and bind up the injured.
  • They were to bring back those who strayed and seek those who got lost.
  • They were to gather them into one flock; treat them gently; and protect them from wild beasts.

But after the leaders’ failure to do these things, the Lord declares through Ezekiel: “I myself will look after and tend my sheep.” And through the Prophet Jeremiah [3:15]: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”

And we find these promises fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ. For he tells us, “I am the Good Shepherd … and I will lay down my life for the sheep.” “Unlike the thieves and robbers, who come only to steal and slaughter and destroy, I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” And St. Peter tells us in the second reading: You have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

Our Lord Jesus, true God and true man, is the Good Shepherd. And he has given us shepherds after his own heart. After his resurrection, when he restored St. Peter, after Peter had denied him three times, he urges Peter three times [John 21:15-17]: “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.” And St. Peter himself, later in this same first letter from which this second reading is taken, urges the priests of his time: “Tend the flock of God in your midst, not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it… And when the Chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.”

So it was in the first century; and so it is now, 2000 years later. The Good Shepherd, the Chief Shepherd, feeds and guides and protects us; and he does so especially through mere men, whom he has called and charged with the care of his flock, as pope and bishops, priests and deacons.

And so it is that, since 1963, the Popes have designated this “Good Shepherd Sunday” as also “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.” And so we ask him to keep calling these under-shepherds. As Christ himself urged us, using a different agricultural image [Matt 9:37-38]: “The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” We ask the Lord to keep calling these shepherds; and to give these men the grace to hear his call, and the courage and generosity to say yes.

For almost two years now, I have been a priest; for almost two years, I have been a junior shepherd, under the Chief Shepherd; and the part of his flock that I have been asked to care for and tend is this parish; it is you! You personally are Christ’s own special lamb; and he has asked me—another lamb—to help to take care of you for a little while.

And how am I going to do that? For we have heard that, as a shepherd, I am supposed to see that you are well fed and watered; strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and bind up the injured; bring back those who strayed and seek those that got lost; treat you gently; and protect you from wild beasts. But how will I ever do that? For whatever talents and skills and good personal qualities I may have, they are not enough to give you the nourishment and healing and guidance and protection that you need. How will I ever fulfill my duties as a shepherd? How will any priest? How will Cardinal Wuerl or Pope Benedict himself?

The only way is by continually bringing you to the Chief Shepherd, and bringing him to you. What I can never do, he can.

  • And so, through the sacred powers given in priestly ordination, I can feed you with his own Body and Blood;
  • I can give you his forgiveness and healing in the sacraments of Confession and the Anointing of the Sick;
  • I can proclaim to you his wisdom and love through his Word;
  • I can continually lead you to meet him in prayer and worship.

For this was where I was guided to do, especially during my first years of seminary formation. At that time, I was just becoming accustomed to meeting regularly with the priest who was my spiritual director—to talk about what was happening in my spiritual life. And so, as I lived day by day, I would start to think, even as events happened: “Ah, I should talk about this with Father.” But then, when I did, he would always say: “And have you prayed about it?” No, I hadn’t; I had just saved it to talk to him. Through his shepherding of me, the two came to be connected. Something would happen; I would think: “I should talk about this with—” and I would hear his voice, “Have you prayed about it?” And I would think: “Oh! I should—pray about this.” For that priest, that shepherd, was teaching me that it was Christ who I most needed to turn to, to speak to him, and learn to recognize his voice.

And so, as those years passed, I came to truly experience what Psalm 23 describes: Christ’s rest, his refreshment, his nourishment, his protection, his goodness, his kindness, his own very personal love. And my cup really did overflow, more than I could have ever imagined.

And so I hope that I can do the same thing as a shepherd here, in this portion of the flock. That, at every Mass,

  • you will meet, not me or the others here; but Christ, the Good Shepherd, made really present in our midst;
  • you will hear, not my voice, but his;
  • you will unite yourself with him in his one perfect sacrifice to the Father, made present on this altar;
  • you will recognize his Body and Blood that you receive from my hands;
  • you will receive his healing and protection and guidance;
  • that my ministry as junior shepherd will lead you to the true shepherd and guardian of your souls, who came so that you might have life and have it more abundantly.

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