Sometimes when we hear of shepherds in scripture or think of Jesus as a good shepherd we get an image of a sort of wimpy man quietly petting sheep. Certainly being a shepherd entails a certain gentleness and patience, but these aspects are not wimpy, nor do they show the whole picture. Shepherds in Bible times faced incredible dangers in caring for their sheep, putting their own lives at risk by battling wild animals such as wolves and lions who threatened the flock. David was just such a shepherd (1 Samuel 17:34–35). In order to be good shepherds, they had to be willing to lay down their lives for the sheep. Jesus declared that He is our Shepherd and demonstrated it by giving His life for us. Throughout the New Testament we learn that the Lord is our Shepherd in two ways. First, as the Good Shepherd, He laid down His life for His sheep and, second, His sheep know His voice and follow Him (John 10:11, 14).
It should not surprise us that the 12 men the Good Shepherd entrusted with the care of His flock all laid down their lives too. Even St John suffered a martyrdom as he was exiled to the island of Patmos. Our Lord has not stopped calling other men to be shepherds and to lay down their lives for the eternal safety of the sheep. To be a priest is not about what the man does, it is who he is. In the Priestly ordination the bishop lays his hands upon the man’s head calling down the Holy Spirit to change the man’s soul to be conformed to Christ the High Priest. Then the man’s hands are anointed, they are consecrated to God. This is why the Priestly posture of prayer for the ordained priest is to raise his hands, or to place his hands over something, such as happens right before the consecration of the gifts at Mass, and why the priest is able to touch the host with his hands. The priest is still a man who sins and also needs the help of brother priests and the Sacraments. Yet Christ works through him in a powerful way because the man’s soul is now changed and conformed to Christ in a particular way. The priest is described as an “alter christus”, another Christ. Even the priest who commits the most terrible sins is still a priest forever. He will be judged as a priest and how pleased the Devil is when he can drag a priest down. The whole flock is affected. On the flip side how wonderful a gift is a good, holy, faithful, courageous priest. Saint John Vianney said leave a parish without a pastor for 20 years and they will end up worshipping beasts.
Being a shepherd is not a very glamorous job in the eyes of the world. Our Lord continues to call men to lay down their lives and follow His call to become priests. A priest is not an overworked and underpaid religious social worker. A priest doesn’t sit around the rectory all week waiting to do a little work on the weekend. A priest is a man called and set apart by Christ to lay down his life for the sheep.
In some areas of the world where there is no priest, the faithful suffer greatly. They gather in the church, place a stole on the altar, and pray the prayers from the missal, but there is simply silence when they arrive at the words of consecration, which they cannot utter of course. That silence is broken by weeping. Sometimes they gather at the tomb of their priest and pray and weep because they long to have the sacramental help that can only be brought by a priest. Without the priest we do not have the Eucharist, nor do we have forgiveness of sins in the confessional!
We must pray for and encourage vocations. If there are any men here who have not committed to a way of life such as marriage or vowed religious life, seriously consider this possibility. Families must encourage the young men in their midst to consider this, and to support that man in his vocation. Priests do not fall from trees—Father Dave and myself both came from families! We both try to be good priests, but neither of us is perfect by any means. Families, encourage vocations to the priesthood and be generous, and remember that our Lord calls imperfect men to be priests. Despite the Apostles’ weaknesses and failures, our Lord called them to be the first bishops of the Church.
There is a lot of fear of commitment these days. The fruit of this is that we are never able to make a decision and we spend our lives sitting on the fence. This is not living—this is hiding. We cannot be afraid of entrusting ourselves to somebody who died so we can live forever. Making a commitment to God is the greatest and most heroic rebellion against the lies of the devil because it is a clear act of trust in God. We need men who are not afraid to lay down their lives, who are not afraid to entrust their lives to the Good Shepherd so that they can carry out His work in a particular way and help to save souls. We need men who love God and the Catholic Church and whose witness point us to the reality that life under the guidance and protection of the Good Shepherd is the safest way.
Like sheep, we, too, need a shepherd. We are spiritually blind and lost in sin. This is why Jesus spoke of the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4–6). He is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us. He searches for us when we are lost, to save us and to show us the way to eternal life (Luke 19:10). We tend to be like sheep, consumed with worry and fear, following after one another. By not following or listening to the Shepherd’s voice (John 10:27), we can easily be led astray by others to our own destruction. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, warns those who do not believe and listen to Him: “I did tell you, but you do not believe . . . you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” (John 10:25–28).