By Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz, D.D.
Last weekend throughout the Catholic world marked Good Shepherd Sunday at the turning point in the Easter Season. The 23rd psalm is one of the beloved pieces in the psalter in praise of God’s shepherding of his people.
Jesus embraced this image as the cornerstone to portray his mission in our world. In fact, the earliest surviving fresco of Jesus was discovered in the catacombs in the 2nd century depicting the Lord as the Good Shepherd. In last Sunday’s Gospel from John the Lord proclaimed: “I am the Good Shepherd. A Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired hand, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd and I know mine and mine know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sheep. (John 10:11-15)
As the Lord shepherds us, He commands that we shepherd with His mind and heart, washing one another’s feet (13, 1ff) and loving one another. (13:34) This standard, first and foremost, is intended for his disciples in all walks of life, but it can be a cornerstone for all who exercise authority, in the home, in society on every level, and, of course, in the church.
Within most groups of people we know there are good shepherds; there are hired hands, and there are wolves. This is true of the clergy, police officers, teachers, parents, healthcare workers, etc. Many genuinely care and lay down their lives for the sheep. Others are working for the paycheck or biding their time, and some are wolves.
Consider the tragic events surrounding the death of George Floyd at the hands of Derrick Chauvin and other officers. They have degraded the badge and the reputation of many in law enforcement who are good shepherds. One reporter opined that there was a look of indifference on the face of former officer Chauvin, devoid of empathy or remorse. Pope Francis often rails against the pernicious virus of indifference. “Amid a culture of indifference which not infrequently turns ruthless, our style of life should be devout, filled with empathy and mercy.” All who lay down their lives to protect the citizenry from the criminal element who have no regard for life or decency, are owed a debt of gratitude. Those in law enforcement who are just collecting a check and biding time must see the urgency of becoming good shepherds. Those who are wolves must be removed.
From the title of Pope Francis’ latest Apostolic Exhortation, Fraternity and Social Friendship, a conversion of mind and heart that breaks down the walls of racism, and indifference to the plight of people’s suffering is humankind’s best hope. There are parallels in the ranks of the clergy and in every profession. In the sexual abuse crisis in the church it became apparent that there were wolves among the many good shepherds. The good news is that this hidden corruption has been brought into the light of the Gospel and the demands of justice, and genuine conversion and change are transforming the church. The Good Shepherds continue to serve well. Those who may feel like hired hands working for a paycheck are called to stir into a flame the gift they received at ordination. All known wolves are removed.
During this year of St. Joseph we recall the words of Pope Francis who describes the foster father of Jesus’ assent to the Angel Gabriel as a total gift of self in service to Mary, his betrothed, to the Christ child, and to God’s plan of salvation. This silent saint is an outstanding model of a good shepherd. The Christ child was the Good Shepherd who laid down his life as pure gift for the salvation of the world. In turn, we are God’s children now and the gift of self finds its source in our identity as God’s sons and daughters, members of his Son’s body and temples of the Holy Spirit. This is the cornerstone over and against pervasive violence, hatred and indifference.
May the words of the 23rd psalm resonate in our minds and hearts: “The Lord is my Shepherd there is nothing I shall want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose … He prepares a table before me; he anoints my head with oil, my cup overflows. Only goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall live dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”