The Task of the Shepherd
Friday June 6, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Seventh Week of Easter
Reading (Acts 25:13b-21) Gospel (St. John 21:15-19)
In the Gospel today, we see three points that Our Lord requires of His shepherds. The first and the most important point is to love the Lord. “Peter, do you love Me?” Jesus asks him three times. But then the point that Jesus makes when Peter acknowledges his love for Our Lord is to feed the sheep, to tend the lambs. It is to take care of the people entrusted to him. Out of love for Jesus, Peter is to take care of the Mystical Body of Christ.
But it was not stopped just there. Peter, in this case, is made the chief shepherd, but even with that Peter is still one of the flock. And so at the end, Jesus says, “Follow Me.” Peter has to follow Him to Calvary and undergo his own crucifixion. But it is more than simply that one point of Peter following the Lord; Peter’s job is to lead the flock to Jesus. Out of love for Jesus, he is to bring to the Lord all of those who are part of Christ. And out of love for the people of God, He is to lead all of those who are on the road to Heaven. At the same time that he is to lead everyone to Christ, he is to make sure that he is following Christ. One cannot lead a person to Jesus unless that person [the one leading] is following Jesus. You can talk about Jesus, you can point the general direction to Jesus, but you cannot lead the people to Jesus unless you are following Him first.
In a homily that Saint Augustine gave some sixteen hundred years ago, he said, “With you, I am a Christian. For you, I am a bishop.” In other words, he has to follow Christ first. He is first and foremost a Christian person baptized into Christ and he is one of the sheep. But because of God’s Providence He made Saint Augustine a bishop, and He made him a bishop for the people. So he had both of these offices that he had to fill. He had to save first his own soul by following Christ, and then he would be responsible for saving the souls of others by leading them to Christ.
The office of the shepherd is to make sure that the sheep are fed, that they are brought into the green pastures, that they are led along the still waters as Our Lord requires in Psalm 23. But Jesus is the Chief Shepherd, and so all of the shepherds have to follow Christ. There is only one way that one will be willing to follow Christ – and that is to love Him. It is not enough just to have a belief in your head of Who Jesus is; you will never, ever go to the Cross if you are stuck in your head. The only way is to love. The only way that one is going to be willing to pour out one’s life for the sake of others is love. And so the Lord requires that His shepherds love Him, and He requires that they love the people entrusted to their care.
That is the task of the shepherd. It is a perilous one because one recognizes that for the Holy Father, for the bishops, for the priests, they are going to have to answer for all the souls entrusted to their care – how he shepherded them, how well he followed Christ. Was he willing to sacrifice himself for the sheep? It is not an easy task but it is an exalted one. It is to share in the very shepherding office of Jesus Christ Himself, Who is the Chief Shepherd.
With this in mind, it is necessary, obviously, as the sheep of the flock, that we pray for our shepherds because if we want to be led to Christ we need to make sure they are leading us that direction. We need to pray that they will love Christ and not the world. We need to pray that they are going to preach the truth, that they will be united to Christ themselves so they can unite us to Christ. If we do not pray for our shepherds, should we be surprised when they lead us out into the desert? We would be angry if they did, but we should not be surprised. As the sheep of the flock, we have our part to do. As the shepherds of the flock, we have a responsibility to lead the sheep entrusted to our care. That leading of the sheep is to lay down our lives as Jesus did. And that is possible only if three things are there: if we love Jesus Christ, if we love His people, and if we follow Him.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.