Reading I (Jeremiah 23:1-6) Reading II (Ephesians 2:13-18)
Gospel (St. Mark 6:30-34)
In the first reading today from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, God says, Woe to the shepherds who have misled My people. God allowed bad shepherds to be raised up in ancient Israel because of the disobedience of the people. Yet, at the same time, the shepherds are responsible to the Lord for what it is that they have done. So we cannot suggest that because God allowed bad shepherds to be raised up that it was okay for the shepherds to lead the people astray. The task of the shepherd is to care for the sheep, to bring them to green pastures, to make sure they are well watered, to make sure they are cared for in a proper way. In a religious sense, what that means is that the shepherd’s task is to teach, to make sure the people are taught the truth. It is to provide for them the Sacraments so that they have Our Lord in Holy Communion, so that they have the Sacrament of Confession readily available to them so their souls can be purified. It is to make sure above all that the direction the people are being led is to Jesus Christ, the true Shepherd of all our souls.
On one level, one would think that this should be the easiest thing in the world. All you have to do is keep your eye on Jesus, walk that direction, and everybody should follow. The problem, however, for most shepherds is that the humanness gets in the way. That is, if we look around at all the various people in a parish, some people have the idea that they want one thing and some people have the idea that they want another thing, and the pastor gets caught in the middle. Wanting to take care of his people, sometimes he is not sure whether to say “yes” or “no” to certain things. And in the humanness of the man who happens to be the shepherd, it is easy to get caught into the trap of wanting to be everybody’s friend. A shepherd is not called to be a friend. The shepherd is called to love the sheep, certainly to be friendly in that way, as Jesus made very clear when He picked up the wandering sheep and put it on His shoulders. He did not drive the sheep. You have to go at the pace of the sheep without beating them, without driving them, without being too hard on them.
Yet, at the same time, as we see in the Gospel reading today, if the people do not have a shepherd, most of them will simply lay down and do nothing. So the shepherd has to continue to move the sheep forward; otherwise the sheep will destroy the grazing ground and they will not move on. The shepherd has to bring them into a new meadow, to the green grass where they will be able to graze; and then before it is completely destroyed, he needs to move them forward. But sheep being what they are, they do not always want to be moved forward; tragically, sometimes they want to move backwards. They want to go back to the meadow they used to be in because that always seemed a little bit greener than this one. “I like it the way it used to be,” we might say, “There’s an easier way than this. After all, if the next meadow to which the shepherd is taking us is up a mountain, it’s a lot easier just to stay down here at ground level. I don’t want to walk up the hill.” But the hill that each one of us has to walk is the hill of Calvary. We need to climb that hill. It is not an easy hill to climb, but Our Lord told us that it is when He is lifted up from the earth that He will draw us to Himself. So the task of the shepherd is to lead the people to Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is going to be found on the Mount of Calvary up on His Cross.
Now when we think about things in a human way, it is not always a pleasant thing to hear that we have to go to the Cross. For the shepherds to have to lead the people to the Cross is sometimes a heartbreaking thing. It is a whole lot easier on a human level to say, “I don’t want to do that.” But that is not an option for the shepherd. If the shepherd knows, for instance, that in the summertime the only place where there is going to be green grass for the sheep is up in the mountains, then he knows he needs to move the sheep up the mountain to the place where they will be able to be fed. Even though the sheep may not want to climb the mountain, even though they may want to stay where they are and just simply lie down and not move, the shepherd has to continually move them forward.
When we think about this again on the human level, the Lord, for whatever reason, has chosen for His Church to have human shepherds. He is the Good Shepherd, and He alone is The Shepherd; yet He has chosen other men to share in His shepherding task. It makes perfect sense on one level, and yet when we look at our own humanness it seems to make no sense at all. But this is the way He has chosen it to be. And because it is the way He has chosen it, the shepherds have been given a very heavy burden. On one level, it is very light because all they have to do is love the people. If they love the people, they want what is best for the people entrusted to their care. If they truly love the people of God, they are going to teach them the truth, they are going to lead them to Jesus Christ, and they will carry the cross in front of the flock and teach everyone else to carry the cross with them. But if they love themselves more than they love Christ and more than they love the people, then they are going to water down the truth, they are going to tell the people that they do not really need to carry the cross. They are going to tell the people that it is okay just to lie down where they are. “You don’t need to move forward. After all, look at all the world affords you, all the ease and comfort and pleasure and selfishness. It’s kind of fun. So go ahead and just keep doing what you’re doing. After all, you’re a nice person. You’re sincere. You don’t need to leave all of that behind so that you can go to the cross. Heaven Forbid! Jesus certainly wouldn’t want that, would He?” The Gospel of Health and Wealth that so many of these so-called Christians are preaching these days! “God wants you to be rich! He wants you to be at ease! He wants you to have comfort and wealth! He wants you to look out only for yourself!” That is not the Gospel that I have ever read. And I must say that I have searched the Gospel and tried to see if one could really make any kind of case for that. There are a couple of places in the Old Testament where one could pull something out that looks a little bit similar. There is absolutely nothing in the life of Jesus Christ that would suggest any of that.
Now when we think again of the task of the shepherd, 1600 years ago, Saint Augustine, when he was speaking to the people of Hippo, said, “With you I am a Christian, for you I am a bishop.” He recognized that he was one of the sheep, yet at the same time he was the shepherd. The word “shepherd” in Latin is pastor. It is the task of the pastor, of the shepherd, to be one of the sheep who is in the flock of Jesus Christ, and at the same time to walk ahead of the sheep and lead them to Jesus Christ. It is what the word “congregation” means – con greges – “with the sheep”. So it is the pastor with his sheep, leading them to the Lord. That means the shepherd must have his eyes focused solely on Jesus Christ, not merely on the sheep, because if one simply looks at the sheep, one is going to get caught up in wanting just to be a nice guy, wanting to be everybody’s buddy, wanting to fit in with everybody else. That is not what Jesus Christ has called the shepherds to. Those are the ones condemned in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel when God says, Woe to the shepherds who have shepherded themselves and not My sheep. He says that they have “taken the wool” and they have “consumed the milk” but they have not shepherded the sheep.
When we read the condemnation in the prophet Jeremiah in the first reading, when we hear those words from Ezekiel, and then when we look around at what has been going on in the Church for the last forty years, Our Lord is saying the exact same thing: Woe to the shepherds who have not shepherded the sheep, who have led them astray! At the same time, it is incumbent then that you must pray for your priests. They are called to lead you to the green pasture – which is the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ. They are called to lead you to life. And in many places the people have been led out into the desert where there is no meadow and there is no water. They have not been taught the truth and they do not know any different. It is not their fault. But we need good shepherds who are going to lead the flock.
Thanks be to God and to Our Blessed Lady that they have raised up our Holy Father. In the midst of all the decay that has happened over the last forty years, they have raised up our Holy Father who is not interested in what everybody thinks of him, but who is interested in preaching the truth, and who has now made over 100 trips around the world to preach the message to anyone who is willing to hear it. And the greatest news for us is that coming up are lots of young priests who are in line with Jesus Christ and with His Vicar on earth, the Holy Father. The young men that God is raising up want the truth and they want to lead the people to Christ. So there is great, great hope on the horizon. And there is only one explanation for this, and that is prayer. They were raised in situations like many of us where they were not taught the truth. They were sent, oftentimes, to seminaries where they were not taught the truth. Yet God is infusing the truth into them and they are zealous with love for God and for His people. The only explanation is prayer. They are men of prayer, but they are the fruit of your prayer, the people of God praying for good shepherds. The Lord Himself is the Shepherd, but He is the One raising up these men to be good shepherds to His people. They have learned from the example of the elderly priests who have been faithful, and now in their own turn they are preaching the Gospel in its fullness to the people of God, who are coming out of the desert and finding green pastures and restful waters and life for their souls.
Keep praying for your priests, and keep praying for new and good priests that are going to lead the people to God. That is our only hope. But for each one of us, we need to be very careful that we do not become complacent, that we do not just simply lie down and think that we have it made, because then we too will be sheep without a shepherd and we will be lost. Each one of us needs to continue to move forward, to progress to our Good Shepherd and with our Good Shepherd, with the one true Shepherd of our souls. Each one of us needs to be united with Jesus Christ in prayer and in the way we live our lives. We need to help our priests by constantly praying for them so that our priests in turn will be praying for us and will be living their lives for Jesus Christ and for the flock entrusted to their care and lead the people to Christ.
That is the task of a shepherd. God is raising up good shepherds in answer to the prayers of His people. So keep praying, keep up the work on your behalf, and in turn, God, Who is faithful, will raise up good shepherds to lead you safely home.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.