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Archive for April 22nd, 2013

Cloisters Museum, New York

Cloisters Museum, New York

The Good Shepherd

There’s something wonderfully appealing about the Good Shepherd.  Of course that figure has its roots in the Old Testament and the Psalms, and there they speak of the lord as a shepherd who leads the flock to green pastures and still waters.  But on a more visceral level it all harks back to simpler and gentler times.  It speaks of the security that comes from a good shepherd who protects the sheep from any and all dangers.

When Jesus spoke of himself as the good shepherd he summoned up all those bucolic images, and so powerful was that image that it became the model for ministry in the Church.  Early portraits of Jesus show him as a young man, with a lamb stretched across his shoulders; and out of that evolved the image of the bishop carrying the standard equipment of any and all shepherds — the staff.  Those later shepherds too would lay down their lives for their sheep, and through the centuries many have done so.  In the meantime, the staff served to remind those who held it that their position in the community was to embody a different kind of authority.  They were not to lord it over others, as the gentiles did.  Rather, they were to guide and to serve.  They were to follow in the steps of Jesus and themselves be good shepherds.

Saint Benedict, Monte Cassino

Saint Benedict, Monte Cassino

Through the centuries the analogy of the good shepherd has held up pretty well, especially when shepherds have taken their pastoral duties seriously.  Still, it’s fair to say that there are a few inherent weaknesses to be found in this image, when carried to the extreme.  For one thing, in a real-life pasture I don’t imagine that the sheep love their shepherd all that much.  But he certainly is a better alternative than the wolf.  And as for sheep-dogs, I suspect there is no love lost between them and the sheep.  After all, to the sheep those dogs look suspiciously like wolves.  That may explain why the sheep give those dogs such a wide berth.  They are not there to please the dogs, after all.

It would be a delicious temptation to get sidetracked into the misuse of power throughout the history of the Church.  After all, staffs long ago evolved into gem-encrusted croziers, and in the hands of some bishops and abbots and abbesses they became pretty intimidating weapons.  Rather, it might be better to consider the symbiotic relationship that should exist between shepherd and sheep.  If the shepherd is negligent, the sheep suffer, just like in a real pasture.  And if the sheep wander off and scatter, as can happen in any congregation, then the shepherd has proven he really isn’t much of a shepherd.  Apart from each other, neither shepherd nor sheep are going to be all that successful.  Together, they build a relationship in which everyone is nourished and flourishes.

Saint Benedict, Subiaco

Saint Benedict, Subiaco

I’m also aware of the need for maturity among both shepherds and sheep.  For the moment I’ll leave the shepherds to themselves and focus instead on the sheep.  If sheep start to believe that it’s only the shepherd that matters in the relationship, then they forget what the whole enterprise is about.  The shepherd has not come to make them dumb and docile. He has come to lead them to green pastures where they will flourish and grow.  It is their responsibility to eat, to grow fleece, and to produce lambs and cheese and chops.  In doing so they serve to build up the flock, as well as the shepherd.

In his Rule Saint Benedict writes that the abbot is believed to hold the place of Christ in the monastic community.  For that reason he carries a staff, which he uses symbolically in service to the welfare of the monks.  Ironically, he exists for the monks, and not the other way around.  But it is the monks who have the task of responding to his leadership.  They are to flourish in the community that they themselves create, along with the abbot.  And if  they don’t create the community, no one will do it for them.

Saint Benedict, Saint Paul's Outside the Walls

Saint Benedict, Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls

Pope Francis has created not a few stirrings in the Church already, but I was heartened by his decision to carry the staff that Pope Paul VI once carried.  At the top of it is the figure of the crucified Christ.  Whatever else this may say to people, it suggests to me that his ministry is about preaching Christ crucified.  It’s also a reminder that he is called to be a good shepherd.

I hope that I and the rest of us can respond to this symbolic language in kind.  Our lives are about Christ crucified; and we need to act in the belief that Jesus really is the good shepherd who lays down his life for us, his sheep.  As sheep, however, our job is not to be dumb or docile.  Too much is expected of me and you.  Jesus leads us to green pastures.  And in the pastures of our homes and churches he calls us to flourish and to create his Church.  No pastor, and no one else, can do that for us.

Saint Lambert of Liege, Cloisters Museum, New York

Saint Lambert of Liege, Cloisters Museum, New York

Notes

+On April 16th I was in San Francisco, CA, where I attended several meetings with the president of Saint John’s University, Michael Hemesath.

+On April 18th I visited Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, with Saint John’s University alumnus Glen Hentges.  Glen serves as the chair of the board of directors of the school.

+On April 19th it snowed almost another foot at Saint John’s.  No pictures, please.

+On April 19th I attended Saint John’s Day, an annual event that gathers benefactors of the University.  This year the Abbey and University bestowed on Fr. Richard Frechette, CP, the Pax Christi Award.  It honored his many years of service in Haiti.

Saint Lawrence presents the Poor. Cloisters Museum, New York

Saint Lawrence presents the Poor. Cloisters Museum, New York

+For my personal reading I am nearly finished with David McCullough’s The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  In his tradition, it is a very long book.  But like  his other tomes, it is wonderfully engaging — even if you are not an engineer.

+On Sunday April 28th at 3 pm, my confrere Fr. Bob Koopmann will perform a recital entitled Music: A Pathway to God.  He will play at Saint Vincent Ferrer Church in New York (located at 869 Lexington Avenue — at 66th Street.)  He will present works by Rachmaninoff, Franck, and Brahms, in addition to his own sacred improvisations.  I encourage readers of this blog to attend — if you happen to be in the neighborhood!

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