Today, the 4th Sunday of Easter, is the familiar parable of the Good Shepherd. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
Growing up in a solid Catholic family and benefiting from Catholic schooling, I always had an image of shepherds as being kind, loving, patient, strong and self-sacrificing. And I also gathered that sheep can be rather stupid and foolish creatures (which may be a good symbol for us sometimes). Nevertheless, I always felt comfort in knowing that no matter what I did or how “far away” I wandered or what “wolf” came my way, I knew I had the unwavering support of the Divine Shepherd. His love can be seen in the unwavering love of a parent, sibling, a priest, doctor nurse, teacher or dear friend.
The care of a shepherd is like a mother’s love. One of the prime characteristics of motherhood is the courage to lay down your life for someone you love. The love is tender and yet can be fierce. It means teaching the difference between right and wrong. It means showing up, being present, caring, not expecting somebody else to handle it. It means compassion, knowing we are all in this together. It means supporting when necessary, encouragement when one is down, just always being there. When my mother died I had been happily married for 16 years with 2 children and yet I felt a deep loss of no longer having her to “come home” to. Throughout my life, she was my Good Shepherd. I knew I could go to her for anything. It was difficult at first but then I realized that I could continue this legacy of being a strong mother. I hope my sons know they can “come home” anytime they need to. I also know that I will do my utmost to protect them from the “wolf”. Of course, it is not just mothers who do this. It is anyone in a mothering role, a father, or a godmother, a grandmother. They are all Good Shepherds, who lay down their lives for those they love.
Pope Francis has also compared priests to good shepherds. He calls on priests who are entrusted with the care of others to look after their flock. He knows that it is a difficult life especially in our modern world. As a child growing up in the 50s, early 60s, I caught a glimpse of what life was like for a priest. My mother’s cousin was a priest and he would sometimes visit us on his vacation. However, he had to say Mass every day at that time. My sister and I would accompany him to the convent of Holy Cross Sisters where he would say Mass in their chapel. I thought, “What kind of vacation is this? You don’t even get to ‘not work’”. I admired him for his resiliency and personal sacrifice in his life as a priest. It gave me a respect for priests and their never-ending ‘work’. Bob Russell wrote, “A good shepherd sacrifices. A priest sacrifices time, money and energy for his parishioners. They see that he is there. Integrity and consistency represent essential virtues for priests. His ‘flock’ sees that he is there to weep with them when they weep and rejoice with them when they rejoice. They know he cares.”
Pope Francis also stated, “Let us be good sheep in the fold of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Our local parish is our sheepfold and our pastors are our shepherds. Hence, as the good sheep of the parish, parishioners are expected to a) hear and follow the voice of their shepherds through their homilies, counseling and advice,
b) receive the spiritual food that our pastors provide, by participation in Mass and receiving Holy Communion and c) cooperating with our pastors by encouraging them in their duties and praying for them.” There are many good shepherds in our world. May they, and we, look to the Good Shepherd for support and guidance especially during our difficult times.