Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Good Shepherds Die

In the Gospels, Jesus reminds his disciples that they would be hated because of Him.   And, Jesus tells them that they will be blessed because of it.  We have to be cautious, however, that we do not put the cart before the donkey.  In other words, sometimes, I've met people who presume because everyone hates them, that qualifies them as a good Christian.  Sometimes, people hate us, not because we are Christian, but because we are simply pompous, arrogant, rude, selfish or whatever.  Ultimately, what defines us as Christians is not how others look at us.  What defines us as a Christian is our union with Christ.

Similarly, in the Gospels Jesus says that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  All priests are thus called to lay down their lives in imitation of Jesus.  But, we too must be on guard against the cheap imitation.  In some ways, the increasing demands upon priests can be a cheap substitution for a true offering of one's life.  We who are shepherds have to be certain that when we give up our life, we are doing so for the sake of the flock and in imitation of Christ.  There are subtle forms of imitation that definitely will take our life, but are not authentic pastoral charity.  Not every dead shepherd is a good shepherd.  Some are just dead shepherds!  The good shepherd is the one who dies in union with Christ for the sake of the sheep.

I recently read a quote by Pope John XXIII on promoting priestly vocations.  This is what he said:

"Finally, may priests be careful not to give themselves totally to activism and exterior works of their ministry. By acting with such imprudent behavior, by slowly impoverishing the soul, one is incapable of working for the good of the parish and of the diocese. This also causes grave detriment to the vocations to the priesthood. For how will young men understand the seriousness of the priestly office if they do not see in priests an example of perfection which they may want to imitate?
For which priests must remember, in order to give example of perfect behavior, that the most important activities in their mission are: [1] to offer the Sacrifice of the Altar worthily; [2] to announce the word of God; [3] to give the Sacraments; [4] to be near the infirm, particularly the dying; [5] to teach the faith to the ignorant. All the rest that is not pertinent to these activities must be put aside or, at most, tolerated."

One of the ways that a shepherd needs to learn to die properly is to be willing to forgo things that are not essential to his mission.  From a worldly perspective, the things Blessed John XXIII lists above are not particularly glamorous and they often require saying, "no" to other things that appear in the eyes of the world to be more important.  Pastors of parishes know that much of our life is taken up with all sorts of things that are not always helpful to the Mission.  Well, at least this pastor knows that much of his time is sometimes given over to things that are not primary to the Mission.  Not that these things are bad.  In fact, many of them are very good things.  But, if they require an activism on the part of the priest that impoverishes his soul, then Blessed John XXIII says that they make the priest incapable of working for the good of the flock.  So, these things cause the priest to die--but not to die like a good shepherd.  This type of death leaves the flock still in danger.  The priest has to be on guard against this activism which can arise from the culture, the common mentality, from parishioners, the chancery, and the priest's own ego. 

We are approaching what I think is going to be a magnificent period in the life of the Church--the Year of Faith.  Learning to die like a good shepherd requires faith.  It requires the priest to believe if he offers the Mass worthily, announces the Word of God faithfully, gives the Sacraments zealously, cares for the dying generously, and teaches the faith ardently, that Christ will provide all other things too.  It takes Faith to do things that seem on the appearance level to be a waste of valuable time. 

The other day, Pope Benedict spoke about a recent scandal in the Vatican where private letters of his were stolen and published.  Benedict said, "The events of recent days involving the Curia and my collaborators have brought sadness to my heart. However, I have never lost my firm certainty that, despite the weakness of man, despite difficulties and trials, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and the Lord will ensure she never lacks the help she needs to support her on her journey."

One of the things that most strikes me about Pope Benedict is his indomitable joy.  He acts with confidence and with decisiveness because he has a healthy sense that, while his mission is of the utmost importance, the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit.  Benedict sees himself in the context of the whole history of the Church.  His job is to do the little he can in this particular moment.  His demeanor always strikes me as one who is caught up in the joy of his mission and in the joy of knowing that he will labor in the vineyard until another takes his place. 

Benedict is a fantastic model for priests and bishops.  He exemplifies pastoral maturity and a joyful faith.  Not every financial matter will be solved.  Not every building will be fixed. Not every dissatisfied parishioner will be made happy.  Not everyone will like you.  Not every committee will be successful.  Not every program will be well attended.  Not every meeting is necessary. Not every issue will always get addressed.  Not every correction will always be made.  Pope Benedict XVI provides to us a beautiful example of a true shepherd.  He joyfully carries out the mission entrusted to him all the while knowing that it all won't get done.

If the shepherd lives in such a way as to make extrinsic things the mark of success, he will die not for the sake of the sheep but for the sake of a worldly view of the Church.  If, however, the shepherd dies to this worldly view of the priesthood and gives himself over primarily to what is essential, then he will have died like a good shepherd should . . . for the sake of the sheep.

1 comment:

  1. Incredible posting, David. So beautifully said. I needed to hear that today. Thank you!

    Brian Smith