We call today “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because the Gospel always describes Jesus in this beautiful image. It is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, on which we pray for those called to be our shepherds, and for those already ordained to continue the pastoral ministry.
A Shepherd who dies for his sheep?
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a real shepherd—I’ve seen many on my trips to the Holy Land. I can’t imagine that any of them would actually die in place of their scruffy sheep, though. After all, what good is a dead shepherd for the rest of the sheep?
This is what distinguishes the Lord Jesus Christ from any other god or religious leader, his readiness to die. The Greek gods found men amusing, and the Asian gods are benevolent to men, but only the Christian God dies for men. As St. Augustine wrote in a Christmas homily: “You would have entered death eternally, had he not entered life temporally. You would have perished, had he not come.” Jesus is a shepherd who has come precisely to die, to die in our place: “I will lay down my life for them,” he says. This is not reasonable, and Christ’s love for each of us, his sheep, is above and beyond reason. But “this is why the father loves me, that I lay my life down, in order to take it up again.” This death is not to end in failure after all, and no one who suffers or dies with Him does so uselessly. In Christ, death has become an act of love and a means of abundant life.
Catholics believe Christ gives this charism of the shepherd, this pastoral office, to men. We call them bishops and priests; we call them “father,” and so they are, because they beget spiritual life through their own spiritual death. A shepherd knows the voice of his sheep, and he even “smells like the sheep,” but a Christ-like shepherd dies for his sheep. He can do that without flinching because he knows that the Divine Shepherd is looking after him. The martyrs heard a voice calling them to green pastures beyond this world. Your priests too must be ready to witness to this voice with their lives, for the good of the Church he founded. And we can only do that through a consistent and sacrificial prayer life, by which we hear and know the voice of God. “In the silence of the heart God speaks.” The crisis of the priesthood is simply a crisis of prayer.
We priests are tempted to be worldly like everyone else, to see nothing greater in life than bodily health and sufficient wealth. The priesthood, in particular the celibate priesthood, calls a man to think beyond these worldly parameters. We must pray for our priests, and encourage them to know the voice of God, which is not like any voice he will hear on earth. I’ve often heard lay folk, trying to be sympathetic, say to me: “Father, I wish priests could be married.” This is not helpful to our vocations! We must pray and work for the heroic sanctity, the perfect conformity to Christ, of our priests. They must be so much more than mere “spiritual leaders” or moral examples.
Peter, the priest, witnesses unto death
Peter, the chief shepherd on earth after Christ had ascended, preached powerfully after receiving the Holy Spirit: “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven
given to the human race, by which we are to be saved.” But Peter didn’t just preach this with words. He was crucified and his body tossed into a shallow grave on the Vatican hill 30 years after Jesus himself gave his life for his sheep. Your priests must preach, yes, and they must pray, yes, and that prayer and preaching must prepare them to be crucified, to die in place of the good people entrusted to their care. Let us not be naïve about secular attacks on our Church and on our priests. Our own archbishop is regularly denounced in the media for leading his sheep to the Gospel. These attacks will only intensify as the world becomes less tolerant of Jesus Christ and his disciples.
Most of your priests and bishops will not die martyrs’ deaths, but they must be ready. And for that, we turn to Our Lady, who was ready to take her Son’s place on Calvary, who met him first after his resurrection, and who reigns with him now in heaven. Our Lady, blessed mother of all priests and mother of us all, Star of our Troubled Seas, pray for us.