Since the earliest days in the catacombs, no image of Our Lord has appealed more powerfully to the Christian imagination than that of the shepherd – the good and gentle shepherd who guards and guides his sheep and eventually gives his life for them. To the Jews, this is also an image loaded with significance. From Moses feeding his flock when he came across the burning bush to David tending his sheep in the wilderness and the Prophet Ezekiel upbraiding the leaders of the Jewish people under the image of faithless shepherds who neglected their duties, the Old Testament is full of shepherds and shepherding. “The Lord is my shepherd, therefore shall I lack nothing” (Ps 22.1) is one of the most popular verses in the Psalms for both Christians and Jews, and it establishes the idea of a divine shepherd. When Our Lord identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd, and even calls Himself the gate of the sheepfold, (Jn 10) the implication is that He is not just one in a line of shepherds. The Good Shepherd is no mere divine employee: this Shepherd is God Himself.
We, meanwhile, are not just some faceless flock. Our Shepherd calls each one of us by name. His gaze penetrates to the most hidden corners of our hearts. He knows our needs better than we can ever know them ourselves. We have a shepherd who is tireless in His efforts to bring us back into the sheepfold whenever we look like straying. The pastures where He leads us are the freshest and richest, and nutritious beyond imagination. He not only guides us with a steady hand, but He speaks to us, whispering to our hearts through the voice of the conscience. But the Good Shepherd does not leave us subject to the uncertainty of interior voices. Our wellbeing is far too important to Him for that, and His methods are always perfectly suited to our needs. He has therefore appointed the different offices of His Church’s hierarchy to participate in the shepherding of His flock. To Peter and his successors as popes He has given the office of chief shepherd on earth, with overall responsibility for the welfare of the flock and for ensuring the continuity of the Deposit of Faith entrusted to the Apostles. To the bishops in communion with the Supreme Pontiff He has given the task of teaching the flock and guarding the sheep from the spiritual wolves that threaten their destruction. As for the feeding of His flock, He has commissioned His priests with the administering of the Blessed Sacrament.
We should be grateful that, down the ages, the Church has been blessed with countless dedicated and holy pastors – many of whom have given their lives for the flocks when it came to the crunch. At this very moment there are valiant shepherds enduring persecution and imprisonment in places like China and parts of the Middle East. The wolves that we must face today are many and varied. In some places the flock is hounded by communist police. In our own part of the world the threat comes more from the ever-extending tentacles of crackpot ideologies, and heresies which threaten to contaminate the life-saving milk of Catholic doctrine with deadly poison.
This means that we need always to pray that God will bless His Church with good shepherds – bishops and priests who would shed their blood rather than compromise on any truth of the Gospel. Such conscientious pastors are never to be taken for granted. Our Lord warned us that there would also be time-servers who pocket the stipends and pile their plates with vol au vents at wedding receptions but who draw the line at wolves. In recent times the Church has been blessed with a succession of clean-living popes, but the antics of some of those who filled St Peter’s shoes in the age of our Holy Father St Philip Neri would be enough to churn the stomach of a grown man. No-one in those days subscribed to the curious and modern superstitious view that popes are hand-picked by the Holy Ghost. Everyone knew only too well that popes were elected by fallible cardinals, whose fallen human nature made them as much susceptible to browbeating and bribery in highly politicised conclaves as they were to the promptings of the Paraclete. In such an environment we can be confident that the election of a great saint like Pope Pius V was the fruit of much prayer and fasting by Catholics who loved their Church and never gave up hope, even in an era of such rank corruption.
As well as praying for good shepherds, we sheep must constantly examine our own consciences. “My sheep know me and they listen to my voice,” says Our Lord. His sheep are not the ones who traipse around the valleys looking for a shepherd who will tell them what they want to hear. Errant sheep are free to seek out errant shepherds if they so wish. No doubt, if we set our hearts on it, we could all track down a desiccated clerical beatnik who would tell us that it’s ok for young couples to go to bed together before marriage, or that God isn’t going to mind if we receive Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin. The trouble is that while the people-pleasing shepherds might seem to make life easier in the short term, their way is ultimately disastrous, and when the Good Shepherd returns on the Day of Judgment then the hirelings along with the sheep who have sought them out risk being counted with the goats and excluded from the Fold of the Redeemer for eternity.
Our Lord’s sheep are those who always listen for His voice, and follow Him to His choice of pasture. They are the sheep that live on everything that comes from His hand, by way of teaching and sacraments. The good shepherds, meanwhile are those who accompany us and patiently help us to discern God’s will in our lives, sparing no effort to make the truths of the Faith accessible to us, and never dismissing those truths as irrelevant or too hard for modern life. The Good Shepherd reaches out His arms to lift us out of the mire of sin. He does not leave us there with the empty assurance that all is well.
On Good Shepherd Sunday, please be sure to pray for vocations to the priesthood. Pray each and every day for your priests, bishops and Pope. Pray that, for all of us, there will be a decrease in the hireling spirit and a marked increase in the shepherding spirit, so that the Good Shepherd will recognize us as His own when He returns in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Fr Julian Large