Good Shepherd Sunday
I call them each by name.
On this Sunday, called Good Shepherd Sunday, Holy Mother Church places before our eyes the image of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Shepherd of all the faithful. It is to St John the Evangelist that we owe today’s beautiful and consoling lesson, which is the heart of the tenth chapter of his Gospel.
The chapter contains reference to five kinds of people: The sheep, the Shepherd, thieves, robbers, hirelings. We are, of course, the sheep, the ones in need of being led, guided, protected, brought safely into the eternal pastures for which we are destined. Our Risen Saviour is the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd. Note that the Greek word used by Our Lord to qualify Himself has no exact equivalent in our language. It signifies beautiful, noble, eminently good, and it includes in itself at once all the elements of ideal perfection. One is reminded here of the portrait St Ignatius paints of Him in the meditation on Two Standards, where the Lord is “standing in a lowly place, His appearance beautiful and attractive”. The Good Shepherd is truly someone you want to be with, the loss of whom would be unbearable and irreparable. The Lord tells us a number of things about Himself in this chapter. In so doing, He tells us the qualities of shepherd and sheep alike. Let us now treat of two.
We are told that the Good Shepherd calls each of his sheep by name (10:3). Each sheep, each soul, is unique, irreplaceable, endowed with a unique dignity and destined to a unique place in the kingdom of God here below which is the Church, and in the eternal kingdom of God in Heaven. The call by name is indicative of a vocation, of being set apart, of being invited into the very life of the Blessed Trinity.
The sheep know their master’s voice. Every shepherd knows this. When the shepherd calls his sheep, they come running, but this they will not do for a stranger; they will run from him. The true disciple of Our Lord knows His voice. He knows that distinctive trait of the Divine Word that reaches us either through Holy Scripture, the teaching of the Church, or personal inspiration. But that acknowledgement of the true shepherd must go hand in hand with attentiveness to not letting oneself be fooled and deceived. For there are many enemies out there. The Lord refers to them as thieves and robbers, who seek only to steal, to kill, and to destroy.
The sheep, if it wants to avoid death, must remain with the Shepherd and the other sheep, for a sheep out on his own will be quickly devoured by the wolf. What does it mean to remain with the shepherd and to be attentive to his voice? It means precisely remaining within the sheepfold of the true Church. It means reading, praying, meditating on the Sacred Scriptures with the guidance of those who have been mandated to preach the faith and who do so in continuity with the apostolic tradition, avoiding all vain novelties which serve only to unsettle the sheep and lead them away from the life-giving pastures. It means spending time each day listening with the ear of the heart to that inner voice of God, spurring us on to avoid sin, to practice virtue, to open our hearts to those in need. It means having enough humility to know that it is not for nothing that the Lord compared us to sheep, that most senseless of animals that is in constant need of protection from the shepherd if it is not to go astray and be destroyed. It means turning to Him at every moment of day and night, in joy and sorrow, on sunny days and rainy days, in times of plenty and times of need, conscious and certain that if we humbly acknowledge our need for His grace, if we consistently ask for it, it will be there for us.
The second quality of the Good Shepherd we could reflect upon this morning is that He lays down his life for His sheep (10:11). Astounding pronouncement that! A shepherd that is ready to die for his sheep! And yet, that is precisely what He has done. Such was the contemplation of Holy Week, watching with tender emotion to what extremes our Good Shepherd has gone to save His sheep.
This teaching also informs us of the qualities of every man who, in the Church, is called to be a shepherd, a pastor. First of all, he must be called. “No man takes this honour to himself, but he who is called by God as Aaron was”, as we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hb 5:4). If he is not called, and nevertheless presumes to undertake to guide souls, he is the thief and robber Our Lord refers to; he enters not by the door, which is Christ, but seeks to jump over the fence and invade the flock which is not his. History is sadly replete with individuals who have passed themselves off for shepherds, and yet, had no mandate from the Prince of Shepherds who has given us a Church and an apostolic hierarchy by which to know who is truly our shepherd.
But being called is not enough. As St Paul tells the Corinthians, one must also be faithful (cf. 1 Cor 4:2…). If a shepherd is not faithful, if he does not feed the sheep with the true doctrine of Christ and the Church, then he is a hireling, working for wages. Such individuals, sadly, have also been numerous in the history of the Church, and this from the very start. St Paul, when singling out Timothy for a mission to the Philippians, wrote: “I have no man so of the same mind, who with sincere affection, is solicitous for you; for all seek the things that are their own, not the things that are Jesus Christ’s” (Ph 2:20-21). And what is most sad, is that under such pastors as care for themselves more than for their sheep – who abandon a post or neglect a duty in which sacrifice of ease, danger to health, or loss of life is the price to be paid for the salvation of souls – the sheep meet with no better fate than that which threatens when the fold is stealthily entered by the thief, or violently broken into by the robber. For when the hireling betrays his trust by flight or by a timorous silence, the wolf “catches and scatters” the flock, that is he seizes some of the sheep and kills them, and he disperses the rest. The wolf represents such as in matters of faith or morals, attack the precious and life-giving treasure of divine teaching. They are heretics, those who tell the faithful that the teaching of the Church is optional, that they are to decide for themselves which moral code they will follow. They are all instruments of the devil who “was a murderer from the beginning” (Jn 8:44), and who, “as a roaring lion, goeth about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pt 5:8).
It was precisely to inspire true pastors with the spirit of their vocation and to encourage them in their arduous task that the first Pope, St Peter himself, wrote: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking care of it, not by constraint but willingly, according to God: not for filthy lucre’s sake but voluntarily: Neither as lording it over the clergy but being made a pattern of the flock from the heart. And when the prince of pastors shall appear, you shall receive a never fading crown of glory” (1 Pt 5:2-4).
My dear Friends, as we contemplate today the words of Our Blessed Lord, let us ask Him for the grace to be faithful. Let us intercede for our shepherds that they be not hirelings, running off before the wolves. Let us pray that they will have the grace of courage, of that apostolic parrhesia, or boldness, which characterises the true apostle, and by which he stands up to the wolves who seek to invade the flock or infiltrate it, and who, armed with the pointed end of his pastoral staff, wards off all attacks of the enemy, even at his own personal expense. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
May we all be reminded, when things are hard, when we meet with contradiction and criticism, of the example He has given us: Christ suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow his steps. Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth. Who, when he was reviled, did not revile: when he suffered, he threatened not, but delivered himself to him that judged him unjustly. Who his own self bore our sins in his body upon the tree: that we, being dead to sins, should live to justice: by whose stripes you were healed. For you were as sheep going astray: but you are now converted to the shepherd and bishop of your souls (1 Pt 2:21-25).