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The Priest: A Shepherd After the Heart of Christ

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 priest" (Ibid.).

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!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009