The Holy Father is the shepherd of the universal Church. Every bishop is the shepherd of his diocese. Every parish priest is the shepherd of his parish. Parents are the shepherds of their children.
Being a shepherd is not easy; being a good shepherd is even more difficult. There are those pastures which have to be sought out; pastures where the grass is rich and nourishing. There are those sheep, so difficult to keep together, so difficult to keep on the right track. And then there are those wolves, so cunning, so persistent, and so pitiless.
A shepherd is rightly judged according to how much he will give of himself to lead the sheep to good pastures and to keep the sheep safe from dangers. A good shepherd is ready to give his life for his sheep.
Let’s say those words again: A good shepherd is ready to give his life …
Once, at a meeting of parishioners, we were sharing about love and how we express it. In the midst of the many comments being made it was suggested that love has a voracious appetite. This soon found general approval. Yes, love is always seeking to express itself – love is hungry to love.
Then the question was asked: What is the greatest expression of love? What is the point at which love must say: I can do nothing more than this?
Surprisingly the answer was a longish time coming. The question seemed to puzzle the little group, as though it were a trick question or as though it required an unexpected ‘clever’ answer. Even when one of the group eventually said ‘To give our life’, there was no immediate nod of understanding.
Perhaps we are not as aware of the implications of true love as we imagine, or as we should be. In my early days years ago it was common for us to have stories read during Religious Education class of courageous martyrs, men, women and children who happily gave their lives for the Faith, for their deep love of the Master.
And if giving one’s life was the furthest expression of love then all those lesser sufferings like – abstinence from sex before or outside of marriage, having more children than planned, or an illness and disability or dying a natural death rather than a chemically induced one or even coming to Mass every Sunday or to confession couple times a year– we had an immediate context in which we could see them as only partial expressions of perfect love.
In other words, if we are called to love to the point of death, how could we legitimately refuse to do the lesser? Or again, if we are not prepared to give our life for the beloved, why should we give anything?
In refusing to give our life we become the ‘hired man’ of today’s gospel: The hired man, since he is not the shepherd and the sheep do not belong to him, abandons the sheep and runs away as soon as he sees a wolf coming, and then the wolf attacks and scatters the sheep; this is because he is only a hired man and has no concern for the sheep.
To ‘give one’s life’ is not always a matter of a dramatic death as those suffered by the martyrs. The giving may be a slow ‘spending’, a white martyrdom over the course of many years. Parents are called to spend their lives for their children, priests for their people, marriage partners for one another, and all of us for Christ and his Church.
Nevertheless, when a shepherd refuses to give his life for the flock in his charge we may be sure that one, or many, or all of the sheep will suffer, if not actually forfeit their lives, though this, too, is possible. What, for example, are we to say about the number of abortions performed every year?
Many historians claim the Church flourished from 312 AD onwards because Constantine was converted and then approved Christianity as an official religion. Pope John Paul II, however, assures us that it was not Constantine’s approval but ‘the blood of the martyrs’ of the preceding centuries which brought this growth to the true Faith. Just as the Church herself was born of the blood of her founder, Jesus Christ, so it continues to thrive through the willingness of her members to spend themselves in her name.
We are members of the flock of Christ and he is our shepherd, indeed, our good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. But, as we have already seen, we, too, are shepherds. We are responsible for one another and especially for one another’s eternal destiny. If the Master calls us to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ then, surely, we are called also to shepherd one another as he has shepherded us.
Bishops must shepherd their diocese, priests must shepherd their parishes, parents must shepherd their children – and all of us must be prepared to lay down our life for our sheep.