Gospel reflection for April 30, 2023, Fourth Sunday of Easter
Father Koch: One shepherd is truly the Good Shepherd
The Fourth Sunday of Easter focuses on the Good Shepherd. This reminds us of the intimate relationship between us and Jesus. This image of a shepherd abides in the Church today. The head of a parish is a “pastor,” Latin for “shepherd.” The bishop is the chief shepherd of the diocese and carries a crozier, or shepherd’s staff, as one of the signs of his office. The idea of the high priesthood and sanhedrin of the Jewish world as shepherds, was prominent at the time of Jesus, though many had abrogated their responsibility for their own benefit. Jesus abides with us as the good shepherd, even when we feel abandoned by our shepherds.
As Catholics today we have lost a deep sense of connection with the local Church and an identity with a parish and with a diocese. We shop parishes as we do grocery stores, picking the one that offers the best of what it is we want. In a sense we choose our pastor -- the shepherd -- instead of trusting the pastor who has been sent to us. Everything about our lives has become mobile, as we identify much less with our affiliation to anything outside of our preferred sports team or college mascot. In a sense the sheep are choosing the shepherd because they feel less connected to or nourished by their shepherds.
The rejection of shepherds leads many outside of the Church all together. Some affiliate with other Christian communions, while prefer to be their own way entirely, abandoning any association with formal religion or religious faith at all.
To what extent does the post-modern person prefer to be his or her own shepherd instead of relying on the wisdom and guidance of others?
It is true that many of us have been hurt. We have seen the downfall of many of our shepherds, which then leaves those who remain necessarily suspect. There are other voices out there that actively work against the Church -- from without and sadly, even from within. These voices prefer to not only be their own shepherds but feel as though they are better and more qualified to be shepherds than are those who have been chosen and ordained for this ministry.
The shepherd himself often gets overlooked in this discussion. Even the shepherds need a shepherd. Priests rely on their bishop for wisdom and guidance. The bishops, presumably seek the guidance and wisdom of one another as well. Ultimately, of course, we all cast our eye to the Holy Father -- the Chief Shepherd of the Church -- for a more definitive and clear sense of living the life of faithful disciples in the modern world.
Yet, no one gets more criticism or suffers more vituperation than does Pope Francis, and certainly Pope Benedict XVI before him. Those whose vitriol against the Church is vapid yet boisterous, now make unsubstantiated accusations about St. John Paul II and other shepherds of the Church.
We don’t want shepherds -- yet we do,
No matter who we are, we seek a voice outside of our own head.
Jesus invites us to be his sheep. Yet, he knows well that many -- perhaps even most -- will ultimately reject him as a shepherd. Following Jesus, just like following any shepherd, is difficult. While in the long run every shepherd will let us down, or disappoint us, Jesus never does. His words, his miracles, his Paschal sacrifice, his Resurrection from the dead, all serve to show us the path to life eternal and offer us the wisdom we need to be faithful and to navigate this life to the next.
Unfortunately, the Church he left behind is still human. Once all of us recognize our own sinfulness we can honestly accept the sinfulness of others and learn to recognize the wisdom of our shepherds in the midst of their own brokenness, as together we walk the path of discipleship. It is the voice of Jesus we all long to hear -- we cannot allow the noise in our heads, our own arrogance, or refusal to acknowledge that we need a shepherd to get in our way.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.