Some years ago, Peter Steinfels, the then religion editor for the New York Times, reported a story about a family in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe who was suing the Archdiocese over comments made by a priest at the funeral of their beloved relative. Evidently, at the funeral service, the priest, who describes himself as a “tell it like it is” type of person, decided to “tell it like it is” about the gentleman he was burying. Somewhat lax in his Catholic practice, the overzealous priest in his homily pointed out in apparently stark terms, the gentleman’s shortcomings as a Catholic and, as the family maintains, though the priest denies, indicated in rather graphic terms the fact that he doubted whether the deceased had a chance to make it into heaven! So much for pastoral prudence and tact!
My sisters and brothers, God’s holy word that is set before us this Sunday, speaks to us of the challenging role that a shepherd in the midst of God’s people takes upon himself as that shepherd is called to lead God’s people with a sense of profound responsibility and in the name of the Lord. All of us are keenly aware of what can happen when a shepherd in the community fails to lead with integrity and personal holiness. These past fifteen years have been a moment of profound crisis for us as members of the Catholic Church here in the United States. The crimes of a small number of our shepherds who have lost sight of their calling and have tragically victimized the most vulnerable members of our Catholic community, our children, remains a perpetual wake up call for all who are entrusted with roles of leadership in our Church. That wake up call, however, goes particularly to the heart of the responsibility of priests and bishops in our Church – to us who are entrusted with that responsibility, as Jeremiah reminds us, never to scatter the sheep but rather to insure that no one need ever fear and tremble or be lost or missing. This historic crisis has understandably impacted the credibility of those who in the past where often automatically invested with the trust and confidence of God’s people. As I often tell first time pastors as they take up their new ministries, that trust and confidence must now be earned– it is not given solely by virtue of office.
Indeed, the role of the shepherd in the Church today, challenged by the negligence and sins of a few, remains as it always has been in the Church – to seek out the lost and to open doors of hope for the hopeless. In today’s Gospel of Mark, we are reminded that on seeing the vast crowd before him, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them, “for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things”.
In the course of the 44 years of my priesthood, there are those graced moments that bring home both the privilege and blessing of being shepherd to God’s people. Some years ago, I presided at the wedding celebration of a recent graduate from the Air Force Academy and his lovely bride. During the course of Matt’s faith journey, as his pastor I was privileged to give him his first communion, celebrate his first reconciliation, stand by his side at his confirmation and now preside at the moment when he would give his heart in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony to his beloved. As I stood before this wonderful couple, I was keenly aware of the daily privilege and responsibility the Lord has entrusted to me and every priest, to lead, guide, bless, comfort, bring hope and consolation to a world that in many respects can appear like a dark valley that must be traversed alone and in fear.
My friends, as our theology so beautifully articulates, the sacramentality of Holy Orders is never an end in itself for the priest. We are never to be the focus of the wonders of God’s gracious presence in our world. A sacrament always involves an outward sign that becomes the doorway to God’s holy presence. As fragile earthen vessels, we are called to let’s God’s goodness, his graciousness shine through us so that the Lord alone be the one who is praised and thanked – we are merely his servants.
As we gather again on this Lord’s Day and to feast at the Eucharistic Table, to enter into this sacred action that shapes our lives by the one whose holy presence we are privileged to receive, as both sheep and shepherds, let us give thanks for the abiding presence of the Lord whose heart was moved to pity – but who never leaves us abandoned or alone. The shepherd is still with us….standing by our side as we walk in the dark valley – reminding us that we need never fear – for the rod and staff of his abiding presence will give us the courage we need to begin shaping a new chapter in a Church that is ever ancient and ever new.