May 1, 2020

Christ the Cornerstone

We need good shepherds now more than ever

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose; beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul” (Ps 23:1-3).

In the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Jn 10:1-10), which is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus speaks about pastoral ministry. More specifically, he talks about the characteristics necessary to be a pastor bonus (good shepherd).

This particular reading from St. John’s Gospel introduces the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the one whom the sheep follow because he is familiar to them and they recognize his voice.

“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers” (Jn 10:1-5).

This passage underscores the importance of personal knowledge. Those who wish to be good bishops, priests, deacons or pastoral leaders must know their people and, even more importantly, our people must know us; they must recognize our voices in order to distinguish them from the strange and misleading voices they hear every day.

Recent popes have stressed the fundamental importance of a personal encounter with Jesus to a vibrant, faith-filled experience of Christian discipleship. Unless we know Jesus personally, it is extremely difficult to love or serve him. Unless we know the mind and heart of Jesus, we cannot see his face in our brothers and sisters (especially “the least of these,” the poor and vulnerable). A good pastor knows his people, and they attend to him because they recognize his voice.

What does it require of us pastors to know our people and for them to recognize our voices? In a large archdiocese covering 39 counties, or even in a mid-sized or large parish, it’s not possible to know everyone by name. That’s no excuse. The Good Shepherd knows his people. He knows their hopes and fears. He recognizes their struggles, and he shares their joy.

A good pastor cannot be isolated from God’s people even when we are required by law, and as an expression of pastoral charity, to stay in and to maintain “social distancing.” As Pope Francis says often, especially in times of crisis, Church leaders must be attentive to their people. Just as the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (Jn 10:11), our prayers and our concerns must always be focused outward toward both the spiritual and temporal needs of the people of God whom we are called to serve.

Good Shepherd Sunday is also known as Vocations Sunday. This is most appropriate because our parishes, our archdiocese and our Church universal has a critical need for bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated religious and lay people who can be good shepherds for God’s people. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how important it is for the voices of pastoral leaders to be heard and recognized, especially in times of crisis.

Pope Francis has clearly been a good shepherd for troubled times. His voice has been heard all across the globe as he prays for, and with, all God’s people. But the Holy Father is by no means a lone voice. The voices of bishops and pastors are being broadcast and livestreamed in all regions of the globe to bring Mass and the Church’s prayers and devotions to people who are unable to come to them. This is a powerful example of the way pastoral leadership and missionary discipleship should be exercised. Instead of waiting for people to come to Church, the Church goes out to them, searching for the lost sheep and gathering them up with open and loving arms.

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, let’s pray for Pope Francis and all our pastors. Let’s help them come to know us better so that we can recognize their voices and see in them the face of Jesus. Let’s also pray for vocations to the ordained ministry, to consecrated life and to the many diverse forms of lay leadership.

We need good, holy pastors more than ever these days. May Jesus the Good Shepherd inspire us all by his words and example to give up our lives for the sheep. †

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