July 18, 2015

Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 19, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

(Click here for today’s readings)

The heart of Jesus, we are told, was moved with pity for the crowd, “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” There are various ways for such a situation to occur.

Nowadays, the obvious and literal case described in the Gospel is found when there are simply no shepherds to tend to the sheep. One thinks immediately of mission lands where one or two missionaries travel almost constantly in hopes of visiting each community two or three times a year. We can forget that in many parts of our own country, less than 150 years ago, that was the reality as well, with many rural areas served by “circuit priests.”

Many dioceses seem to be reverting to that condition. In the Archdiocese of Boston, for example, there were so many priests 50 years ago that none of them could reasonably expect to be named a pastor before his 25th anniversary of ordination, if ever. Today, even after having to merge and close parishes, the Cardinal does not have a single “spare” priest that he can move from one place to another without creating a void.

The case described in the first reading is, unfortunately, not without its counterpart today. “Shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock” have perhaps always been among us, but the spotlight has been on them for a couple of decades, and rightly so. I am reminded of a series of scenarios presented in the book of Deuteronomy, each concluding: “Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.” I pray that the publicity surrounding abusive priests will accomplish that goal.

Let me make one thing clear, however. An “unpopular shepherd” is not necessarily a “wicked shepherd.” In fact, if you look at the history of the clergy abuse scandals, most of the abusers were very popular.

Pope Francis is generally more popular than his predecessor was. That is mostly a matter of personality and style, and can’t be helped. And just as Pope John XXIII was called “Good Pope John,” without implying anything negative about Piux XII, so we need to know that what we like or dislike in any shepherd is only that and nothing more. It says more about us than about him.

Who knows? Perhaps there are a few “perfect” priests in the world. Most have made truly awful mistakes at one time or another, and some seem not to care about the negative impact they may have on their parishioners. But I am also aware of priests who, simply because people didn’t like them, or disagreed with a decision they made, have been maligned most abominably.

This too is an evil that should be purged from our midst. Otherwise it creates yet another kind of situation of “sheep without a shepherd,” in which the shepherd is rejected by the sheep. Just last year, a powerful and complex film, Calvary, depicted a priest in Ireland who has to deal with the indifference, mockery, animosity and even hatred and threats of the people he is there to serve. It is very painful to watch.

The ideal shepherd is of course the one described in the 23rd Psalm. He refreshes, guides along right paths, encourages, feeds, comforts, gives a sense of security. That shepherd is the Lord, who is the model for all shepherds.

St. Paul uses very different language to express the same reality. He says that Jesus is “our peace,” and that he “broke down the dividing wall of enmity.” In this context a “wicked shepherd” would be one that is divisive and a “good shepherd” would be a reconciler, a peacemaker.

In one of the weekday Gospels this past week, Jesus told his apostles, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” But this comes at the end of a long discourse in which Jesus makes it clear what he expects of his apostles. Their responsibility is great. I often think we priests will have a lot to answer for.

A couple of notes to conclude. First, the “shepherds” condemned by the prophet Jeremiah were what we could today call leaders of “Church and State.” In the world of the Old Testament, there was no such distinction. Shepherds were all those whose responsibility was to guide and protect God’s people, whether Kings or Priests. This is especially true of David. In Psalm 78 we read that God “chose David his servant, took him from the sheepfold. From tending sheep God brought him, to shepherd Jacob, his people, Israel, his heritage. He shepherded them with a pure heart; with skilled hands he guided them.”

Second, although I have spoken of shepherds in the sense of ordained clergy, we absolutely must recognize that there are very many other shepherds in the Church, women and men, laity and religious, who are often in a better position than clergy to “guide and protect.” Some are or have been very visible, like Mother Teresa, others work quietly in the background. Either way, the “flock” would be lost without them.

The shepherding ministry, whether lay or ordained, is beautiful, even noble. All who are called to it are rightly expected to carry it out faithfully and lovingly, after the manner of the 23rd Psalm.

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