How the Good Shepherd Shepherds Us, Fourth Sunday of Easter (A), April 17, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
April 17, 2005
Acts 2:14, 36-41; 1Pet2:20-25; Jn 10:1-10

1) The Fourth Sunday of Easter each year is called Good Shepherd Sunday, because on this day the Church focuses on the 10th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel, in which Jesus reveals the relationship he has with each of his faithful followers. Jesus says about himself: “I am the Good Shepherd.” And his faithful followers, with the words of today’s responsorial psalm, joyfully respond: “The Lord is my shepherd. I want, I lack, for nothing!” We mark this fact in the heart of the Easter Season each year, because it is the heart of our Easter joy: with the Risen Lord Jesus as our Shepherd, we truly have it all!

2) As our Good Shepherd, Jesus does three things:

a. He feeds his flock — He “prepares a table for us in the midst of our foes.” Jesus feeds us in every way. He feeds us materially each day as he “gives us today our daily bread” (Mt 6:11). He feeds our souls with his word, for “not on bread alone does man live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). He feeds us, ultimately, on his own body and blood in the Eucharist, the food of everlasting life.

b. He guides his flock — Jesus “leads us in right paths for [his] names’ sake.” He leads us “besides the refreshing waters” of baptism. He guides us toward the “verdant pastures” of heaven. He tells us he “calls his own sheep by name and he leads them out. … He goes ahead of them and they follow him.” Jesus takes each of us personally to himself, but then he leads us on a journey, a true adventure. That pilgrimage is what life is about. He doesn’t merely tell us about this life, he doesn’t just tells us where we need to go, but he leads us by example. Our discipleship is following where he has led. St. Peter talks about this in the second reading: “Christ left you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”

c. He protects his flock — Jesus tells us very clearly that there are “thieves and marauders” who are seeking to fleece, milk, kill, cook and consume us. Against those who come “only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus sets himself as our protection, as the gate to the sheepfold so that, essentially, in order to get to us they first need to go through Him. To protect us, not only was he willing to die for us, but did die for us. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. …. No one takes it from me. … I lay it down of my own accord, in order to take it up again.” This is why we can act on his words, “Be not afraid!” — which he says nine times in the Gospel — because he himself will protect us from everything that can eternally harm us, provided that we stay in his fold. Thus we can say with trust and confidence, as we pray in today’s Psalm, “Even though I walk in the darkest valley — and some of us have been in that dark valley! — I fear no evil, for he is at my side, with his rod and his staff to comfort me.”

3) Jesus continues to feed, guide and protect us, but does it for the most part by taking some of his sheep and making them effective shepherds. He takes disciples and makes them apostles and guardians.

4) We see this first in the papacy, upon which not just Catholics but people throughout the world are now focused. After the Resurrection, when Jesus appeared to the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus asked Peter, the first pope, three times: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these?” Jesus was querying whether Peter loved him more than anything and everything else, because the Lord wanted that love to be the distinctive mark of his earthly vicar. Three times Peter responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” After each response, Jesus gave him a commission, a commission that would be the bedrock of the papal ministry. The first commission was, “Feed my lambs,” telling him in particular to take care of Christ’s young people. The second was “Tend my sheep.” The third was “Feed my sheep.” Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was entrusting the care and nourishment of his flock, young and old, to the loving solicitude of an earthly vicar. They would always remain Christ’s sheep — feed MY lambs, tend MY sheep — but they would be guided by a sheep like themselves whom Christ would choose, appoint, ordain and help to be a shepherd after his own loving heart.

5) Christ established the distinctive mark of the Pope’s love for Christ “more than” anything else in the commission to FEED Christ’s flock — because in feeding them he is also guiding them and protecting them. The Popes feed us certainly through the sacraments, in which they give us the Good Shepherd’s own life inside. But in a very particular way they feed us with the nourishment of God’s word and the application of that word to concrete circumstances today. This is very well shown architecturally in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, where the Cardinals will be assembling tomorrow morning for a Mass before heading to the Sistine Chapel to prayerfully discern the one to whom God wants to entrust the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 16:19). At the back of the basilica, there is the beautiful alabaster dove of the Holy Spirit over a huge bronze chair. That chair is a symbol of the Pope’s teaching authority. (In the ancient world, teachers always taught sitting down, and hence the chair became a symbol of their authority just like a bench or a gavel is a symbol of a judge’s authority today). The Holy Spirit hovers above the chair as a sign that the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity “guides the Church into all truth” and prevents the Pope from ever making a mistake in teaching what we have to believe (faith) or do (morals) to please God and enter into his life and love. The key link, though, is the bas relief sculpted onto the back of the chair: It is an image of Peter’s feeding Christ’s flock. The connection among the images is clear. The Pope feeds Christ’s flock and lambs above all by TEACHING, where he is the echo of the voice of the Good Shepherd in our own day. In listening to the Pope teach us, we are listening to Christ. That’s why Christ, in sending out Peter and the first apostles, told them, “Whoever hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16). If we are Christ’s good sheep, if we know and recognize Christ’s voice, we will be as docile to the teaching of the Holy Father as we wound want to be to Christ.

6) How well Pope John Paul II fulfilled the ministry of feeding Christ’s sheep through teaching! He spent his entire pontificate feeding Christ’s young lambs and the Good Shepherd’s entire flock with so much nourishment. He has left us more teaching in writing than any other pope in history, and all of us need to continue to digest it. As an image and vicar of the Good Shepherd, he was such a strong and unwavering voice pointing out to us all the “thieves and marauders” trying to hurt us or lead us astray. He pointed out the lies of atheistic communism. He pointed out the lies of modern consumeristic materialism, hedonism, and exaggerated individualism. He preached to us about the great gift of our faith, of the Eucharist, of the sacrament of confession. More than anything else, he pointed us to Christ, the Good Shepherd, who is the answer to the question of what it means to be a human person. Christ, as he incessantly taught, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme vocation clear, and that man cannot discover himself except in loving others as Christ has loved us. We pray, as the Cardinals prepare to assemble tomorrow to pass on the Good Shepherd’s staff to one of their number, that they might be docile to the Holy Spirit and choose the one who will do so for Christ most effectively.

7) The question for us, though, is whether we have been good sheep with respect to Christ the Good Shepherd’s working through his earthly vicar. Good sheep, as Christ tells us, “hear my voice” and “follow me.” Jesus asserts that his sheep “do not listen to the voice of strangers, but flee from them” and pay no heed to the seductive lies of “thieves or bandits.” We can ask ourselves in conscience whether we have been listening to Christ the Good Shepherd’s voice through the Holy Father, or whether we have been turning the dial to the frequencies of those from whom we should be fleeing. There’s one way to find out: When the Holy Father teaches on a controversial issue — e.g., on the inability of the Church to ordain women as priests, on abortion, same-sex marriage, in-vitro fertilization, embryonic stem cell research, sex before or outside of marriage, euthanasia, the death penalty, the conditions for a just war — do we listen to him and follow him, or do we think that his voice is really just another opinion in the modern cacophony of ideas? When the Pope speaks definitively on an issue of faith and morals, he is speaking for Christ. I wonder sometimes how well Catholics in the U.S. understand this. When I see the polls of American Catholics that say that almost everyone “admired” Pope John Paul II, but a “majority” disagreed with his teachings, I wonder whether the same Americans would say that the “admire” Jesus Christ but that they disagree with HIS teachings. But that’s, in fact, what they ARE saying. We listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice and follow him to the extent that we receive the nourishment he gives us through the teaching of the office of love which is the papacy.

8 ) But Christ didn’t want to leave his ministry of shepherding his flock to his earthly vicar alone. The next Pope, after all, will be entrusted with caring not just for Christ’s fold of 1.1 billion sheep, but will have solicitude for all those for whom Christ died, which is everyone in the whole world. He obviously needs help. Just like an earthly shepherd eventually trains his sons and daughters to assist him in shepherding his sheep, so Jesus the Good Shepherd has given the pope effective collaborators. That is the mission of bishops, and with them priests. The very term “pastor” means “shepherd,” and every pastor, every priest, every bishop is called to fulfill this mission. We mark this weekend “The World Day of Prayer for Priestly Vocations.” Priests are the ones who tend Christ’s lambs and sheep in folds spread through the globe, nourishing them with Christ himself. Christ cares for his sheep whenever he baptizes through them, when he leads them to the refreshing waters. Whenever they forgive sins in his name, Christ the Good Shepherd carries that one lost sheep on his shoulders back to his fold and heaven rejoices more for that one found sheep than for the other 99 (Lk 15:3-7). Whenever they anoint, Christ, the divine physician, tends his sheep spiritually and physically when they are ill and near death. Through them, Christ unites young couples in love as he allows them share in his power to give new life. Through his priests, Christ strengthens his flock with the gift of his own spirit. Through them he prepares a banquet in which he is the principal course. And through them he continues to teach, whenever the priest teaches in union with revelation and the teaching authority of the Holy Father. To say that a priest acts in persona Christi means that the priest acts in the person of the Good Shepherd. The priesthood is the most obvious and principal means by which the Good Shepherd feeds, leads and protects his beloved flock.

9) It is obvious that there is need for priestly vocations in our country and in our diocese. Many are proposing various solutions. Since it is theologically impossible to ordain women as priests, the most common proposal is to ordain married men. But this hasn’t solved a vocations crisis among the Orthodox Churches which have married priests, or among evangelical Protestants, who likewise have married clergy. I think ordaining married men would be very unwise. If we want to have a priesthood resembling the love of the Good Shepherd, who himself was celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, we need to challenge men to a love of Christ above all other loves: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than anything else?” In a heterosexual man, celibacy for the sake of the kingdom o is a great sacrifice — the sacrifice of the great blessing of married love and a family — but it’s a sacrifice made out of love for Someone worth every sacrifice: God himself. That sacrifice can become the beginning of a healthy habit of the willingness to sacrifice everything out of love for God, in imitation of the Good Shepherd, who laid down his own life in sacrifice for his beloved flock.

10) The real solution to the problem is to recognize that we don’t really have a “vocations” crisis — because that would imply that God is no longer “calling” unmarried men to be priests — but that we have a HEARING crisis. God is still calling, but many have not been listening; the phone has been busy or off the hook. The way to fix the shortage is, as a church as a whole, to attune ourselves much better to the voice of the Good Shepherd. The more families structure their lives on hearing God in prayer at home, the easier it will be for young boys and men whom God is calling to hear that call. The more parishes pray together and live the faith — the more they hang on God’s word, the more they come to adore his body and blood and to receive it, the longer the lines become at the confessional — the easier it will be for a young man to see how important the priesthood is and to ask himself whether the Good Shepherd may be calling him by name to become a priest after his own heart. The whole Church, and our parish, needs to take more seriously the fact that God is calling some of our boys to be his priests, and all of us need to respond to that call with greater enthusiasm.

11) I think back to the context in which Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, heard his calling to be a priest. He had been taught how to be a good disciple at his home, where he learned how to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. He learned from them how to sacrifice out of love for others. He was a talented and bright young boy. Priests, even the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, tried to persuade him to think about becoming a priest, but he always thought that the Lord wanted him to become an actor. Then something happened. All but two of the priests in his local parish were rounded up and sent to the concentration camp. That left a hole, especially in terms of youth work, and a tailor named Jan Tyranowski stepped into the vacuum to work with young people. He taught them to pray the Rosary and established a living rosary. He started to introduce the young men to the writings of the great saints on prayer. And something happened in the heart of Karol Wojtyla. He started to ask himself whether God needed him more as an apostle than an actor, and he heard within his inner sanctuary a call from God to follow him as a priest. He said yes, entered the secret seminary in the Cardinal’s basement, and we know the rest of the story. Who could have guessed the plans God had for that young aspiring actor, who had experienced so much suffering in his family — he was eight when his mother died, twelve when his only brother died, and twenty-two when his dad died — and so much hardship in his nation? Who knows what would have happened had there not been a priest shortage due to the Nazi’s evil massacre of young clergy, and had not a devout Catholic tailor stepped up to the plate and taught Karol and many other young men — several of whom also became priests — how to pray more as men and listen to God’s voice in prayer?

12) The Lord may very well have similar plans here in our parish. We have, after all, given our nation a Catholic president. One day, who knows, we may give the Church an American pope. But we should all hope to give God many Catholic priests. In order to do that, we need to learn from Jan Tyranowski and work together, as the shortage of priests becomes more acute, to pass on the faith to our young people, to pass on the treasure of the Rosary, of the art of prayer, and set the example so that they might always love God first in their lives. The more they love God the more they will love God’s plans and God’s will, and from that context, they will be more attentive to saying yes to God’s will for them.

13) I think back to the time I was a young boy. I asked God for the vocation to be a priest when I was just four, after I realized that the priest had to be the luckiest person in the world, capable of giving the world GOD in Holy Communion. But I easily could have been distracted by the world, as so many of my friends were. I give thanks — now! — that I had parents who practiced the faith and that we always prayed the Rosary at home. I give thanks that I was exposed to good priests, many of whom became family friends. But perhaps the single greatest influence on supporting my vocation were the legions of mainly “old women” — they all seemed old to me then, even though now, I realize that they were all QUITE YOUNG! — who used to come up to me at the end of Masses that I attended or served as an altar boy and tell me, “I’m praying for you that you may one day be a good priest!,” or “I hope you have a priestly vocation!” or “Do you think that God might be calling you to be a priest?” They conveyed to me, in very human terms, how important the priesthood was and their persistent encouragement planted very deep seeds. I couldn’t encourage more the “old men” and “old women” of this parish to pray, ask and encourage the young men of our parish in the same way that those at St. Michael’s in Lowell did. You just never know what plans God might have for the ones you encourage. Little did St. Andrew know that when he introduced his brother Peter to Christ, that Christ would make him the rock on whom he would build his Church (Mt 16:18 ). Little did Jan Tyranowski know that the young actor he helped to pray would become Christ’s 264th vicar. Little do we know the future of the ones the Lord puts within our grasp, and it might be our encouragement that God uses to give the world a future priest who will anoint us on our deathbed, who may even become a great saint or a future successor of St. Peter. But it all starts with our becoming the echo of the Good Shepherd who continually turns to young people and says, “Come, follow me!”

14) Jesus is the Good Shepherd who will never leave his flock untended. He continues to feed, lead and protect us, through the popes whom he entrusts with the mission to tend and feed his lambs and flock. He continues to nourish, guide and defend us through the priests he makes pastors after his own heart. After we have just listened to the Good Shepherd’s voice speaking to us in the Gospel, as we prepare now to receive his body and blood, we ask him to make us extremely grateful for the “table he has prepared for us” and for the priesthood that uniquely makes this great banquet of life possible. And we ask him to make us ever more attentive to his voice speaking to us through the Church, so that we might know how to follow him, through his popes and priests, all the way to the verdant pastures of heaven.

Praised be Jesus Christ!