One word is clearly repeated several times in today's first
reading and once in today's gospel account: the word
"shepherd." For us who live in this opening decade of the
twenty-first century, marked as it is by so much technology,
that word "shepherd" may sound strange and lacking in
meaning. We may read about shepherds or even see them in
movies and DVDs, but most of us have probably never met a
real live shepherd.
Yet, the word "shepherd" and, even more, the reality which
that word conveys are very much woven into the
Judaeo-Christian Scriptures and continue to hold a central
place in the tradition of the Church. In both the Old and New
Testaments, God describes Himself as a shepherd and we His
people as the sheep of His flock. Those whom He sends to care
for us are likewise called shepherds.
Within this context, I invite us to reflect on one specific
kind of shepherd whom God sends us: the priest. And I do this
because on June 19th, one month ago, Pope Benedict XVI
inaugurated a "Year for Priests" as a way to mark the 150th
anniversary of the death of Saint John Mary Vianney, the
patron of parish priests worldwide, and as an invitation to
priests to rediscover their vocation, mission and deep union
with Christ and to Catholic laity to rediscover what a gift
the priesthood is for all our lives.
Christ clearly calls Himself the Good Shepherd; just read
again chapter 10 of Saint John's Gospel. He appointed the
Twelve Apostles to be shepherds in His place. Bishops are the
successors of the Apostles and priests are their closest
co-workers. So truly, the priest is intended to be a shepherd
after the Heart of Christ.
Indeed, the priest is chosen, called and consecrated to be a
unique living sign of God's love revealed in His Son the Good
Shepherd. Saint John Mary Vianney often said: "The priesthood
is the love of the heart of Jesus" (cf. Catechism of the
Catholic Church, 1589). This love of the Good Shepherd, which
must mark the life and ministry of each priest, was described
in our hearing today when the gospel account told us: "when
[Jesus] disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was
moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a
shepherd; and he began to teach them." Yes, the heart of the
Good Shepherd was moved with love for the people. Every
priest's heart must likewise be similarly moved, unlike the
shepherds described by the prophet Jeremiah in today's first
reading, who misled and scattered the flock.
Saint John Mary Vianney put this so beautifully: "A good
shepherd, a pastor after God's heart, is the greatest
treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one
of the most precious gifts of divine mercy" (cf. Letter of
Pope Benedict XVI on the Year for Priests). How is the priest
a treasure and a gift of divine mercy? By making present
among the people to whom he is sent Jesus the Good Shepherd
and His three-fold function of sanctifying, teaching and
giving pastoral care.
A good shepherd feeds and nourishes the flock. As Psalm 23
reminds us, the Lord our Shepherd leads us to verdant
pastures and refreshing waters. The priest, as the shepherd
making present Jesus the Good Shepherd, does this through the
function of sanctifying, that is, helping us to become holy,
especially through the sacraments, and, above all, in the
Eucharist, wherein Christ is our heavenly food and drink.
Every sacramental celebration affirms the fact that the
priest is shepherding us after the Heart of Jesus. Saint John
Mary Vianney explained this fact this way: "Without the
Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put
him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your
soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds
your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest.
Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last
time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the
A good shepherd protects the flock and defends it from
anything harmful or dangerous. The priest, as the shepherd
making present Jesus the Good Shepherd, does this through the
function of teaching as well as by preaching and catechizing.
As one priest wrote some years ago, "
hear in our
human words, in our fumbling, miserable, colorless and often
repetitious words, the holy, blessed and powerful word of
God, the word that brings God Himself and His eternal life
into our midst
" (Karl Rahner, The Priesthood).
A good shepherd spends his life caring for the sheep,
sometimes even giving up his life for them; he goes in search
of the lost sheep and carries it back on his shoulders. The
priest as the shepherd making present Jesus the Good Shepherd
does this through the function of giving pastoral care. He
gives his life in service to his people, present among them,
available to them, caring for them in their various needs.
Given the complexity of our modern society, the priest does
this, not only by himself, but also through the collaboration
of others, like deacons, religious men and women, and
faithful lay persons. I can never come back to this church
and this parish without remembering and being inspired by
Monsignor John F.X. Quinn, who was pastor here from the 1920s
to the 1970s. He was a faithful, kind, loving, good shepherd
to us! He lived what Saint John Mary Vianney said: "A priest
is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you" (cf.
Letter of Pope Benedict XVI on the Year for Priests).
Yes, the priest is God's gift to us, the living sign of the
love of the heart of Jesus. To be sure, we priests are human,
sharing in the same human condition all of us experience.
Because we are human, we too are limited, we too sometimes
fail, and we too sin. We honestly admit and deeply deplore
the infidelity of some priests. But, surely, deep in the
heart of every priest who seeks to be faithful, there is his
daily plea: "Make me holy and make my parish holy," thus
echoing Saint John Mary Vianney's prayer: "[Lord], grant me
the conversion of my parish: I am willing to suffer whatever
you wish for my entire life" (Ibid.).
Yes, pray for us your priests. Support us with your prayer,
your compassion, your forgiveness - the very gifts you wish
to receive from us. As one priest put it, "My people, we can
only beg you: pray for us, have patience with us, carry us,
accept God's word and His holy mysteries from us and enable
us to be for you
real shepherds. Amen."
I add one final request: pray for and encourage vocations to
the priesthood - from this parish! I close with this personal
witness: I know a lot more about being a priest now than I
did almost forty-four years ago on December 18, 1965, the way
married people know a lot more about being married years
later than on their wedding day. But, knowing all that I
know, I'd be a priest all over again - in a heartbeat!