May 3, 2020
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 23: 1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6
1 Peter 2:20b-25
God’s providence has brought us back to the public celebration of Mass on this fourth Sunday of Easter, known also as Good Shepherd Sunday. This year, Good Shepherd Sunday falls on the first Sunday of May, the month dedicated to our Blessed Mother. We continue to seek her protection especially for those people who are most vulnerable to the effects of this virus and those people who are most liable to suffering severely adverse economic effects to their households. The Mother of God protects her children and leads us to her Son who prompts us to renew our dedication to honoring her as our mother in the order of grace.
It is noteworthy that the Gospel that the Church has selected for today’s celebration of Good Shepherd Sunday is taken from the Gospel of John but stops short of continuing in the Gospel to those words of our Lord, “I am the Good Shepherd.” In our Gospel reading for today Jesus identifies Himself as the Sheep Gate. He identifies Himself as the Sheep Gate before He identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd. Christ is both the entryway into eternal life and the Kingdom and the guide and protector — the Shepherd — for His flock on the way to the green and lush pastures.
Priests are configured at ordination to Christ as Head and Shepherd of the Church but not configured to Christ as the Sheep Gate. The pastoral ministry of a priest must point always to Christ as the center and entry of the Kingdom of God and not to the priest himself as the center and entry into the Kingdom. The priesthood is not a personality cult, nor is it a career. The priest’s ministry as a pastor is one of configuration and not only imitation of Christ. It is being a pastor as Christ has ordained him to be and not simply doing what Christ directs him to do.
The priest gives his voice to Christ whenever the priest prays the words of consecration: “This is my body; this is my blood.” Or again, “I absolve you from your sins.” This fact indicates that the priest’s human character ought to be humble and virtuous so as not to become an obstacle for the faithful to encounter Jesus Christ in the priest’s life and ministry. The more that a priest strives to live with God’s grace in conformity with the demands of the Gospel; the more clearly his life and witness can become transparent for people to see Christ through him. The priest’s life and ministry are instrumental for Christ to use, as Christ desires to shepherd and to nourish His flock.
It is precisely these links between Christ the one High Priest and the priestly ministry of our individual priests that we can have hope and courage during these dark and difficult times. These men, body and soul, have been configured to Christ the Good Shepherd, as conduits for sacrificial and fruitful love living among us to offer us the Gospel and the sacraments. They have done so during these most recent times with a calculated risk to their health while being mindful of their responsibility to protect the health of their parishioners, especially the most vulnerable.
I say all of that knowing so very well the fragility of the human vessel into which God has chosen to pour these priceless treasures of configuration and the grace of the sacrament of Holy Orders. I am aware of treasures of priesthood being poured into earthen vessels whenever I look in the mirror. This prompts me to commend myself and my priests through prayer and sacrifice to God’s mercy and to the protection of our Blessed Mother. I ask you to pray fervently for our priests who have placed themselves at your service and spiritual protection for the love of Christ especially as they have done so during these past several weeks.
One frequently overlooked aspect of a priest’s configuration to Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church, is the experience of suffering referenced in our second reading from the First Letter of Peter. He writes, “If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in His footsteps.”
Part of the vocation of priesthood is to suffer with the Church and to suffer for the Church. Priests suffer with the Church whenever they are called upon to minister to the sick and dying through administering the sacraments of Anointing of the Sick and Viaticum. Priests have most recently suffered with the Church with the distances placed upon us by this pandemic and our social response to it. We have missed being physically present to the faithful and we have heard your frustration and authentic desire for the public celebration of the Eucharist and regularly scheduled Confessions as the only sure means for hope. Priests suffer with the Church when we listen compassionately to the grieving and to the afflicted and can only offer our faith and our presence. To be compassionate means to “suffer with.” Priests suffer with their parishioners in their illnesses both spiritual and physical. It is this suffering that informs the prayer life of a priest when he prays his Liturgy of the Hours on behalf of the Church.
Priests suffer for the Church whenever we preach the fullness of the demands of Christ’s Gospel requiring our conversion. These are the parts of the Gospel that are frequently not popular in this age, or in any age in the history of this fallen world. Priests are entrusted with the ministry of preaching and witnessing to the truth in love, especially when they are called to preach what is not popular and what does not conform to the dominant culture that exalts pleasure over joy, convenience over commitment, and selfish excuses over right reason. The priest is called to courageously shepherd at the risk of personal rejection when he is providing the reliable and spiritual food that is the selfless teaching of Christ who came in obedience to the Father to serve and not to be served.
The world, the flesh, and the devil offer their own means of satiating appetites. The food they offer may be real, it may be pleasant, it may be convenient, it is very likely to be stolen, but in any case it never lasts, it fails to nourish us, and ultimately it will poison us. To be made whole and to be truly nourished, we need to come to the Shepherd who is Christ and to enter through His Gate and only there can we be well fed. It is the priest’s responsibility in his configuration to Christ the Good Shepherd to ensure through his fidelity to his vocation, and by attentively walking among the sheep, to lead them where they can be truly nourished sacramentally, theologically, and morally as Christ lovingly intends for each of us. At times, this can bring to the faithful priest a great deal of scorn, calumny, and rejection by those who prefer a different and easier way than that provided by Christ. It is the truth that Christ can neither deceive nor be deceived; if the interior promptings we receive are calling us to cut corners on the Commandments, to ignore the precepts of the Church, or to place ourselves first before others, we can be confident that the voice offering us those promptings — no matter how sweet and reasonable it may sound — is not that of the Good Shepherd but that of a cunning thief and murderer.
Clearly there is required a constant renewal of commitment on the part of priests to remain faithful to our vocations. It is also incumbent upon the faithful to spend time in prayer and study learning to recognize and to obey the voice of the one True Shepherd. This also includes the responsibility on our parts to pray for priestly vocations and to encourage our young men to be attentive to this vocation of priesthood as a real possibility in their lives. Priestly vocations will be more plentiful in our diocese if we ask specifically for them and if we provide the clarity of the Gospel that offers the simultaneous demands and rewards of the priestly vocation configured to Christ, Head and Shepherd of the Church. A young man who is called to the priesthood hears His call from Christ alone but through the instruments of his family, his priests, and his local parish. We, both priests and the faithful laity, can only learn to recognize the voice of the True and Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, by spending time with Him, reflecting on His words in the Gospel, and through prayer and meditation in His Real Presence.