The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally called “Good Shepherd” Sunday. This is a very powerful image that demands constant attention.
It is easy for us, when confronted with this image, to become aware of our shepherds: the Pope, our bishop, perhaps even our pastor. Unfortunately this can evoke both good feelings and bad feelings. It is easy to be critical. There is a steady barrage of critics of Pope Francis and both his style and content of teaching. The same is true of many bishops and pastors. There are always those who want more, those who want less, and those who want the shepherd to affirm them and then to criticize their critics.
We don’t get it that way. A shepherd, while commissioned first to protect the flock, doesn’t and shouldn’t just give us what we want. A shepherd is called not only to protect but to prod, encourage, and to move along. Sheep that stay in one place slowly die of starvation as they deplete the food sources around them. Sheep who have a shepherd that allows them to do just what they want can place themselves in unwitting danger. A sheep who thinks itself smarter or more cunning or wiser than the shepherd can find itself lost and struggling against predators and the elements.
The path that a shepherd leads the sheep along is not always a straight one, with broad vistas and rich vegetation. The route from one verdant field to another can be rocky and treacherous. Some of the sheep will become edgy and perhaps a bit tepid along the way. They desire to go back to where they were because they are uncertain as to where they are going.
A shepherd, a good shepherd, should always have detractors: perhaps even more detractors than those who stand in the cheering section.
Likely the principal vision of a shepherd, as put forward by Pope Francis in a homily delivered last June 22, is “to be passionate, zealous.” The Pope continued: “He cannot be a true shepherd without this fire,”
We see that fire in Pope Francis, and we see that fire in our own Bishop O’Connell. We also catch glimpses of that fire in other bishops as well. We hope that we see this fire in our pastors and the priests who minister to us in our parishes.
A weak shepherd, one who stands uncertain and afraid, will have a hard time winning the confidence of his sheep. This is true for those who would lead and protect sheep as they traverse the rocky terrain of the Judean wilderness and for those who lead and protect the sheep from the cathedra of a diocese.
Jesus uses the image of a shepherd, not because they are timid and weak but because they are bold and courageous. While the shepherds at the time of Jesus were among the lowest classes of Jewish society, they had very demanding jobs, as they were charged with protecting a valuable property that was not their own.
We might liken this analogy to that of a security guard. There was a strong outcry against a sheriff deputy at the Parkland School shooting who chose not to enter the school and face the gunman, remaining instead outside. We expected him to act as a good shepherd, to enter the building and protect the students.
This is what Jesus demands of us – of our shepherds – to be faithful and courageous, passionate and zealous.
We are called to support, pray for, and love our shepherds. It isn’t easy to be a shepherd in the midst of a generation that pays little heed to voices of authority and is reticent at any point, to seek the advice and counsel of the institutional church.
May our shepherds, modeled after Jesus himself, continue to lead us along the craggy path to the verdant pastures of eternal life.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.