What is Jesus to you? You will often hear Jesus is your Savior, Messiah, God, Lord, friend, and a host of other titles. All of these are great titles. The propers for the Second Sunday of Easter would like you to consider another way to view Christ. This day is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”, due to the meditation on Christ’s discourse on being the Good Shepherd that we hear in both the Gospel and Communion verses. Yet what is a good Shepherd? Given the crisis of leadership we face throughout the ranks of the Church today, we should be thankful the Mass gives us several qualities to consider.
The first aspect of a good shepherd is that he lifts up the faithful, as stated in the Collect. Normally when we think of leadership, we think of how good they are with budgets, how well they perform in front of a camera, how popular they are, etc. These qualities are good. Yet they aren’t what the Church tells us a spiritual leader should be. Rather, we should ask the question: what is the leader doing to helping Christians be better Christians? I don’t think we Catholics have really come to terms with this aspect of leadership. The reason the sex abuse crisis was so damaging long-term is because Church leadership (from priest upward) failed to lift up those victims. Not only did they fail to lift them up, they degraded them, stripped them of their dignity, all for the purpose of lifting themselves up in the things of this world. We also see a lack of this when we talk about prelates who tell their parishioners more or less what they want to hear, watering down the truths of the Gospel in the name of a false “mercy.” Lying to people isn’t going to lift them up.
The second quality of a good shepherd is that of suffering. Often we treat leadership as a cushy perk to celebrate. From the beginning pages of the Old Testament, God has warned against this mentality. The shepherd of sheep puts in long hours and seldom gets any credit. When Samuel was looking over candidates for the next King of Israel, David was too busy tending to his flock to worry about some ceremony involving politics. When Christ puts you in a position of leadership, you walk the same path he did: the path of suffering. You suffer at the hands of persecutors, but you also suffer at the fact you are but one individual who cannot do everything. Nobody expects you to do everything, but they do expect you to feel and be affected by the injustice that comes with that inability to act. How often do we drown out that impulse to suffer along with those deprived of justice, whether in the Church or in society? Christ wants us out of our comfort zones, and with that in mind Pope Francis rightly called for a “shepherd to smell like the flock.” He wasn’t calling so much for a bishop who rubber stamps whatever his flock believes, but for a bishop near to his people and impacted by their sufferings and injustices.
A third thing to reflect on is that the flock knows the voice of a good shepherd. Due to mass media, most of us know who the pope is. How many of us could pick out our bishop on the streets, without his miter? If he said something, how many of us are aware of it? Even if we know our priests, how many of them really impact their congregation when they speak. Most priests are “good men”, but how many of them lead lives of such holiness they inspire their congregation to lead similar lives of holiness?
A final aspect of the shepherd is that he goes out after the sheep. This has been a huge point of the pontificate of Pope Francis. Indeed, he has used this image, of a shepherd going after the sheep, to describe the papacy’s primary purpose. A shepherd who only leads the flock when things are going well is not a shepherd. It is only when sheep need direction or go astray does the shepherd prove his quality. How often have our churches emptied, or Catholics felt exiled from their own parish, and people sat and did nothing? Even worse, how often was that celebrated that those people were gone so they wouldn’t be burdened? I will always remember a story of the Church I was married at. Someone had asked the priest why he didn’t kick out those who were viewed to be extremists or, in their words, “looney nutbags.” The priest responded that looney nutbags needed the sacraments and a shepherd as well, probably a lot more than those making the complaints did. I note this story only because experience tells us such priests are rare in the world today. Few have that spirit of reaching out to everyone.
Our separated brethren would respond that none of this matters; we have Jesus, who is all of these things. They are correct in a sense. No matter how bad priests, bishops, or popes may be, Christ is still our shepherd, and will always be our shepherd. Yet these things matter because Christ makes himself known through the work of others. How can we experience the love of Jesus as a shepherd when the earthly examples aren’t showing those qualities? How can others know Christ as a shepherd when we don’t display these qualities? Most importantly, how can we demand of leadership what we are unwilling to do ourselves?
In the aftermath of Easter and the Resurrection, Mother Church wants us to think about these things. We have life in our souls only because Christ did these things. People will only come to know God if we do these things, and by we, I mean every member of the Church, from the pew sitter to the blogger to the columnist, to the priest, bishop, cardinal and yes, even pope. We’ve been given a great opportunity due to the fact Christ has risen from the dead, and we receive an even greater opportunity to practice these virtues because of the Eucharist, that “healing blessing” that the Secret describes. May we use that healing blessing to be good shepherds, and demand good shepherds in our Church.