Real Christ-like Compassion, Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B), July 23, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
16th Sunday of OT, Year B
July 23, 2006
Jer 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mk 6:30-34

1) The Lord says through the prophet Jeremiah in today’s first reading that the Lord will not allow bad shepherds to destroy his flock. “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock … and I will bring them back to their fold.” We see the Lord Jesus fulfill this prophecy in today’s Gospel. Jesus saw a great crowd and had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a Shepherd, like little leaguers without a coach, like soldiers with no sergeants or officers. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, sprang into action and brought these lost sheep back to the fold. Moreover, he had promised in Jeremiah’s prophecy that he would “raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them.” The first wave of these new shepherds were the apostles, whom Jesus was forming first by sending them out with his message and his authority — as we saw in last week’s Gospel — and then by taking them away with him, so that they might tell him all they had done and taught and so that he could give them the rest they needed to return to serve that fold. When Jesus was coming to shore with them, and saw the vast crowd hungering for a shepherd, he continued his formation of the apostles to be real shepherds, by showing them what real divine compassion is all about. St. Mark tells us that “He had compassion for them and [therefore] began to teach them many things.”

2) The first gesture of his compassion toward the crowd was to TEACH them. Jesus had come down from heaven to teach us the truth about God, the truth about God’s love for us, and therefore the deep truth about who we are and whom we’re called to be. To teach the truth in love is one of the greatest acts of mercy. Without the truth, one remains blind and lost. This is one of the most important purposes of the Church and the Shepherds who act in the name of the Lord.

3) At St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, this truth is depicted very powerfully in art. At the very back of the basilica, one of the most famous pieces in art history is found, done by the great sculptor Bernini. It’s called the “Altar of the Chair” and it was so beautiful and influential that art historians say it launched the baroque era. At the top of the altar, there is the brilliant translucent image of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove surrounded by angels. The Holy Spirit is descending upon a huge bronze chair which houses what in the 16th century was believed to be the actual chair on which St. Peter used to teach the people of Rome. (Much like today when the judge gives his authoritative rulings from the “bench,” in the ancient world, kings, magistrates, rulers used to teach and give formal pronouncements seated on a chair, which became a symbol of their authority.) Peter’s chair was the symbol of the teaching authority of the Church and particularly of the Popes, the successors of St. Peter, who are Christ’s vicars on earth. The most formal teachings of the Church were called “ex cathedra,” meaning literally from the chair. The Holy Spirit is descending upon the chair to depict that, according to Christ’s promise, the Holy Spirit teaches the Church everything, leads us into the whole truth and reminds us of everything Christ has taught (Jn 14:26; Jn 16:13). Sculpted onto the back-rest of the Chair, however, is what is most relevant to today’s Gospel: it’s a depiction of Peter’s feeding Christ’s sheep. This is a reference to the end of St. John’s Gospel, when Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (Jn 21:15-17). After Peter three times had replied in the affirmative, Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep.” Peter’s love for Christ, his obedience to caring for and feeding Christ’s sheep, is seen above all, therefore, in his TEACHING the truth of Christ authoritatively in his name.

4) Just as Christ, the Good Shepherd, looked with compassion on the crowd and taught them, so the Church’s compassion for the crowd is to teach them this truth as well, the truth that sets them free, the truth that helps them become more and more like Christ, who is the Truth incarnate. Our compassion for those in need must involve this element of teaching. To “instruct the ignorant,” is one of the spiritual works of mercy that the Church has carried out from the beginning. It has inspired those in the Church to pass on the truth of Christ, by founding Catholic schools and universities, by doing catechesis, by RCIA, by talking one on one with friends, by leavening the “marketplace of ideas” with the truth that comes from Christ. Today, in the face of so many people in our culture who are lost, who don’t know the purpose of their lives, who often go from one pleasure to the next so as not to confront the most fundamental questions of existence, who don’t know the difference between right and wrong, who do not even realize that there is a heaven and a hell not to mention what actions could land them in either place — in the face of so many people who are indeed like sheep without a shepherd, THE GREAT ACT OF COMPASSION THAT THE LORD WANTS FROM US IS TO TEACH THEM ABOUT HIM.

5) But we cannot give what we don’t have. In order for us to be able to give the truth of Christ to others, we first have to know Christ and what he teaches us, and through living that truth come to abide in Him who is the truth. Just as the Good Shepherd goes in search of his sheep, so good sheep must go in search or the Good Shepherd. For us to be capable of bringing Christ to family members and friends, we need first to bring ourselves to Him, to spend time with Him, to be fed by Him so that we can in turn feed others. That’s why the first part of today’s Gospel is so important. In his formation of the apostles to be good shepherds of others, he first needed to teach them how to be good sheep. “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” They were so busy feeding others that they themselves had no leisure even to eat. This, of course, applied to material food, but also it applies to spiritual food; sometimes we can be so busy doing various good deeds that we can fail to seek nourishment ourselves. Eventually we will run out of gas. To be able to feed others, we first need to be fed. We, too, need to heed the Lord’s command to “come away to a deserted place a rest a while.” This, of course, refers to prayer — daily mental prayer, prayerful participation in the Mass, an annual retreats — when we go away with the Lord, give him our full and undivided attention, and allow him to refresh us. But, in line with the second half of today’s Gospel, I’d like to focus on the call the Lord gives us to away with Him for sacred study.

6) For us to be effective in carrying out Christ’s compassion for the world, we need to know the truths of the faith very well. And since — except in the case of a few rare saints — God does not give this knowledge by infusion, we need, like the first disciples, to go away with the Master to learn. He taught them over the course of three years, as he interpreted for them the Old Testament and gave them live the new. How does he teach us? First, he educates us through Sacred Scripture, particularly the Gospels and the writings of his first apostles. He teaches us through the Catechism of the Catholic Church, written for adults in the 1990s, which is the summary of everything the Catholic Church he founded and sent the Holy Spirit to guide believes. He teaches us through the successors of St. Peter, who in their various homilies, encyclicals and other documents, apply the truths of the faith to modern questions and problems. But recent surveys have shown that very few Catholics, including those who are very faithful, study their faith. One recent poll showed that only three percent of Catholics who come to Mass faithful every Sunday ever read the Bible on their own. I think the percentage of those who have studied the catechism or read a papal encyclical in the last few years is much lower. While most American Catholics would never be satisfied with merely an elementary school education in math or reading, many do not seem to be troubled at all if their education in the faith stopped in the eighth or tenth grade with Confirmation. When “adult issues” come up — like whether it is moral to have recourse to in-vitro fertilization, or to stop nutrition or hydration for a terminally ill loved one, or to conduct embryonic stem cell research, or to support same sex unions, or to do unnecessary work on a Sunday, or to marry someone who is divorced, or to obtain a vasectomy — many adult Catholics do not know what the Church teaches; after all, these issues are not normally taught in fifth or sixth grade CCD. When friends confronting similar situations are lost and confused and ask for their advice, while they can extend a certain sympathy, they cannot extend Christ’s compassion, because they do not know Christ’s teachings well enough to do so. They can give their “honest opinions,” but often these opinions are formed more by popular culture than by the Gospel. Rather than imparting the truth, they — despite their good intentions — often pass on a popular falsehood. On other occasions, even when they know what Christ’s teaching is, they do not know it well enough to be able to answer common objections; as a result, lest they embarrass themselves and the Church, they often stay silent. Their friends and family, who are searchers without a guide, end up remaining lost.

7) That’s why this weekend Christ wants to get us all to make a commitment to study our faith hard and well, so that we may be able to love others as he loved us, by passing onto others ALL OF THE TRUTHS he has passed on to us, in Sacred Scripture, in the oral tradition of the Church, in his continuing to teach us through the apostles and their successors, inspired by the Holy Spirit. There are so many great resources today for adult Catholics wanting to know their faith better — so many good books, websites, videos and audio tapes. But sometimes when we look at the vast variety, we don’t know where to start. That’s why I’d like to ask you to study three things, each of them at least once a week: first, the Bible, beginning with the Gospels; second, the Catechism, beginning with the simplified new Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is done with questions and answers; and third, some Catholic newspaper or magazine, like the Anchor, which I edit for the Diocese. With these three sources, you’d have one foot in the fonts of the faith, and the other in daily events, and become equipped by the Good Shepherd and those he has sent throughout time to shepherd us in his name, to be able to apply the truths of Christ to modern events.

8 ) In proposing to you the call of the Lord to sacred study, I’m not asking you to do anything I myself do not do. For the next twelve days, as I do every year, I am heading away with the Lord for my annual continuing education course. Together with a few dozen other priests from across the country, I will participate in some intense days of study in bioethics, marriage preparation, recent Church documents, the background for liturgical changes, spiritual direction, prayer, Sacred Scripture, preaching and the apostolate, end of life issues, and much more. This is so key not merely to my being able to serve you compassionately with the truth of Christ, but also so that I may simply become a better disciple alongside of you in our earthly pilgrimage. Some might wonder why a priest with degrees from the Vatican would need to take two weeks out to study the faith, but the truth is that the faith is an inexhaustible treasure. None of us , with our finite minds, can ever know it fully. There’s always so much more to learn. Even Pope Benedict is on vacation this week studying, in the hopes that he might pass along the fruits of his contemplation to us in a future encyclical or book. I ask you to pray for me, that I may return having put on more fully the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16), to pass on to you his thoughts, his truths, which will set you free.

9) Today, Jesus the Good Shepherd, has looked on us with compassion and has taught us through Sacred Scripture. With the Lord as our shepherd, as we sing in today’s famous psalm, we want for nothing, we have it all. He has brought us here, to the fruitful, verdant pastures of his home, to give us repose. Through the truth he imparts to us, he leads us in right paths for his name’s sake. And now he’s about to set a table before us, where he plans to feed us with his body and blood. As we prepare to receive him, we ask him to give us a hunger for the truth he wants to impart to us and to have us share with others, so that we, living the truth with them, may come to dwell in His House forevermore.