Sunday, January 15, 2012

What Is Shared Between Shepherds

When a priest is ordained to the priesthood, he is configured to Christ in a new way.  Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, he is united to Christ as Head and Shepherd of the Church.  At the same time, the individual priest is also called to become more conformed to Christ. Through our prayer, devotion, and way of living, we are always to strive to become ever more like Christ, the Good Shepherd.  Our way of life is to make Christ, the Good Shepherd present in the midst of the flock entrusted to our care.  The priest exists so that the people of today can encounter the Good Shepherd.  The more the priest places his head upon the heart of the Good Shepherd and explores the depths of that heart, the better able he is to make visible the presence of the Good Shepherd.

One of the unexpected benefits I have gained from blogging about the priesthood is a renewed appreciation for the solitude of priesthood.  Yes, I can blog about evangelization, confession, the Mass, Religious Education, parish finances, the scriptures etc.  And all of those things are part of parish priesthood and are wonderful.  But, the best blogposts about my experience of priesthood are the ones that I can never write.  They are encounters between this shepherd and the flock entrusted to his care and they concern the way in which this shepherd knows his sheep. 

Sometimes, the things that most move me as a priest are the subtle gestures that would go entirely unnoticed by others.  It is the squeeze of a hand coming out of Mass which communicates only to me, "Father, things are still difficult, but I'm trying to do better.  Thanks for your help."  It is the heart-wrenching confession when somebody lays bare their wounds and asks for mercy.  It is living in the midst of a people who have revealed to you all manner of weakness and sin and bearing witness to them that the Good Shepherd loves the wounded sheep.  It is when a young person who is not particularly near to the Faith strikes up an awkward conversation with me.  The subtext being, "I need something more in my life.  Will you help me?"  As often as they happen, they still surprise me.  In these ways, a shepherd comes to know his sheep and the sheep come to know not just the shepherd in their midst.  They come to know the Good Shepherd.

Part of the reason I began this blog is so that I could convey something of what it is like to be a parish priest;  in some way to convey what is in the heart of this priest.  But, there are many gestures, conversations, and moments of grace that will never make it to the blogosphere or even to private conversations.  Certainly they can be spoken of in generalized ways, but in their specificity, they belong to the intimate prayer of the shepherd with The Shepherd.  Not only do these encounters stir up in my heart a profound gratitude to Christ, but they also become the subject of pastoral growth.  I turn to the Good Shepherd and beg Him to teach me how to be a good shepherd to these persons.  They are not recorded on a blog, but are etched into the heart of the priest and visible only to Christ.

There are other professions that guard secrets.  But, at some point, the case file or the medical record is sealed, destroyed, or put into a cabinet.  But the knowledge that the priest has of his flock is brought to and entrusted to Christ.  These events do not terminate in some sealed envelope or even in the priest's grave.  They terminates in the eternal heart of Christ.  Even if over time the details are forgotten by the priest, they somehow shape his bond with Christ.  They are included in every Mass he offers.  They are continuously offered to Christ. 

There is definitely a suffering that comes with this.  But, it is not what most people would expect.  Often people ask if hearing about particular sins or not being able to talk about what you heard is a suffering.  I have not found that ever to be the case.  The suffering that I find in this exchange is probably what John Vianney meant when he said, "Were we fully to understand what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright but of love."  These exchanges between a priest and his people deepen the priest's understanding of what Christ has entrusted to him.  He comes to know more and more what it truly means to be united to the Good Shepherd.  And in this experience, the priest's heart is filled with a love that is far beyond his natural capacity.  Pastoral charity brings with it pastoral suffering.  But, this suffering is not something one would ever want to avoid.  It is the suffering of knowing that God has poured into our heart what we could never claim rightfully as our own.  The more a priest grows in the virtue of pastoral charity, the more he loves with the love of Christ.  The more we love with the love of Christ, the more we do what is far beyond our natural capacity.  It is this supernatural love poured into our hearts that overwhelms us and little by little brings us to the joyful death of union with the Good Shepherd, a death whereby we can claim with St. Paul, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."

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