May 13, 2011

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Finding the Good Shepherd, the paschal light of hope, in darkness

(Listen to the archbishop read this column)

(Editor’s note: While Archbishop Buechlein continues to recover from a stroke, we offer some reprints of his various columns for your enrichment. The following column is from the April 27, 2007, issue of The Criterion.)

We refer to the fourth Sunday of Easter as Good Shepherd Sunday.

The Gospel features Jesus’ imagery of shepherding. It is instructive to think about shepherding in the Near East. The imagery Jesus used is helpful not only for us priests; the imagery easily translates for parenting and Christian leadership of any kind.

To this day, shepherds in the Near East live simply. They travel light, toting a bag made of animal skins in which they carry food—some bread, dried fruit, olives and cheese.

And, as we remember from the story about David and Goliath, a shepherd carries a sling—for protection and for hunting, and it is useful for calling back stray sheep. A shepherd also carries a staff, the shepherd’s crook. With it, he can catch and pull back sheep that are beginning to stray. He can also lean on the staff as he makes his way through rough terrain.

In many countries, sheep are raised in order to be slaughtered for food. In the Near East, for the most part, sheep are raised mostly for wool, for the making of clothing and other materials of wool. And so, most of the sheep are with a shepherd for many years. Thus, they get to know the shepherd well and the shepherd knows his sheep. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice.

Because of the danger of the terrain, a shepherd walks out front and leads the sheep on their way to new pasture. Often, when necessary to ford a stream or some other treacherous spot, the sheep are reluctant to follow. In such cases, the shepherd will carry a baby lamb across on his shoulders and thus the mother sheep and others follow.

These details about shepherding in the Near East help to fill in our reflection about the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. (They also suggest features that might apply for parenting.)

Our closest contact with the Good Shepherd is in the Eucharist and holy Communion. A favorite story exemplifies the treasure that is ours at every Mass.

A few years ago, a holy man of courageous faith died of cancer in Rome. Cardinal Francis Xavier Van Thuan had been imprisoned in North Vietnam for 13 years, nine years in solitary confinement.

After his release and exile from Vietnam, the cardinal had been asked often, “Were you able to celebrate Holy Mass [in prison]?”

He said: “When I was arrested, I had to leave immediately with empty hands. The next day, I was permitted to write to my people in order to ask for the most necessary things like clothes, toothpaste and the like. I wrote, ‘Please send me a little wine as medicine for my stomach ache.’ ” His people understood.

“They sent me a small bottle of wine for Mass with a label that read, ‘medicine for stomach aches.’ They also sent some hosts, which they hid in a flashlight.

“The police asked me, ‘You have stomach aches?’


“ ‘Here’s some medicine for you.’

“I will never be able to express my great joy! Every day, with three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of my hand, I would celebrate Mass. This was my altar, and this was my cathedral!

“It was true medicine for soul and body. Each time I celebrated Mass, I had the opportunity to extend my hands and nail myself to the cross with Jesus, to drink with him the bitter chalice.

“Each day in reciting the words of consecration, I confirmed with all my heart and soul a new pact, an eternal pact between Jesus and me through his blood mixed with mine. Those were the most beautiful Masses of my life!” (Van Thuan, Testimony of Hope, Pauline Books, 2000, p. 131).

In the dark of night, the cardinal would distribute Communion to the Catholics who were with him, and he made a tabernacle out of a discarded cigarette pack.

He said, “The Eucharist became for me and other Christians a hidden and encouraging presence in the midst of all our difficulties” (Ibid., p. 132).

“In this way, the darkness of the prison became a paschal light. … The prison was transformed into a school of catechesis. Catholics baptized fellow prisoners and became godparents of their companions” (Ibid., p. 133).

Maybe being in prison can make one appreciate more easily the love of the Good Shepherd and the Eucharist that embodies his love.

There are other ways of being in prison—the slavery of sin, the darkness of illness or of fear, deep sadness at the loss of a loved one or the heartbreak of betrayal by someone we love.

In this real world, we can find the Good Shepherd, the paschal light of hope in the darkness. †

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