“Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate.”
We have many different images of Jesus with which we are familiar. We see Christ the King, our Lord’s sacred heart, and the Divine Mercy. But the most common image of our Lord used by the first Christians was Christ the Good Shepherd. This is the image we find in the catacombs and the first churches. And this is how we celebrate our risen Lord today, as the Good Shepherd on this Good Shepherd Sunday.
We especially remember Christ as our Good Shepherd during the Easter season that we continue to celebrate. In the Communion antiphon we will hear today: “The Good Shepherd has risen, Who laid down His life for His sheep and willingly died for His flock, alleluia.” Once again, the Lord assures us that He will never abandon us, and that He has made the ultimate sacrifice and come back from the dead to bring us life. He has laid down His life and taken it up again. He continues to lead and guide us as our Risen Shepherd.
Our Lord says something odd today, though. “The sheep follow [the Good Shepherd], 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.” That the sheep have such a relationship with their shepherd is beautiful, but I am not sure that it is particularly comforting. You see, the sheep have no choice but to behave thusly. They are irrational creatures. They do not choose to follow their shepherd – they just do.
We, unlike the sheep are rational creatures with a free will. We must choose to attune our voices to that of the Good Shepherd so that we will continue choose to follow Him. Because we have free will, and because we experience the consequences of original sin, we are tempted to listen to false voices – the voices of the thieves and robbers whom our Lord mentions – and we often do.
Over the past few weeks, we have been particularly exposed to the voices of these false shepherds. We have been exposed to the voice of despair, which tempts us to lose hope in the midst of this crisis. We have also heard the voice of temptations towards false hopes, like the false hope of technology, the false hope of over-digitizing our lives.
Many companies have been offering free access to tools that we might otherwise never have used to help us make it through this time (and, I am sure, hoping to recruit some new long-term clients for the future). I know that I have really enjoyed using videoconferencing, exploring all the tools possible for digital communication, continuing to work with groups like our Next Generation Parish envisioning team, and making videos for our religious education program and to continue communicating with you.
But while we want to use all the tools at our disposal to continue preaching the Gospel, educating and forming youth and adults, and bringing hope and compassion to all, as I told you at the beginning of the pandemic, we must remain firm in the conviction that this is not normal! We are not meant for a digital life! This is a false hope because it is inhumane. We were meant for so much more than this. God made us with bodies that are meant to bring compassion, healing, and love through the sense of just or just by their physical presence. The human person is not a virtual reality, and even more importantly, God is not a virtual reality. In the Incarnation, Jesus Christ has real human flesh and blood, which He desires to share with us in the Most Holy Eucharist to transform not only our minds but our bodies and souls as well.
Worse yet, other profiteers have offered other free content, content that can never be used for the good of human flourishing even in moderation, hoping to catch more people in their web of addiction. This is the voice of a stranger masquerading as the shepherd, offering hope that is only an illusion and brings only despair.
Other false shepherds have brought division to communities that ought to stand united in the face of crisis. This division that the pandemic has brought to the forefront of society in new ways seems ready to worsen even more. In the coming weeks, as more individual freedom is allowed, different choices will be made by individuals, businesses, local governments, and yes, even churches. We should not read these choices through a partisan political lens. If we ask you to wear a face covering, it does not mean we are taking a political stance. We should not let the voices of the false shepherds of division drive us father apart because of the different prudential judgments that people are legitimately allowed to make. We must avoid hysteria, accusations, and judgementalism.
The Evil One – because we know that he is behind these false voices as the deceiver of the faithful – has not been content to use the pandemic to sow division in civil society. He has also used it to increase division in the Body of Christ, the Church. There have been accusations that bishops have suspended the public celebration of Mass out of cowardice or concern only for their own safety, or that they have caved to religious persecution on the part of the State.
I do not intend to evaluate the truthfulness of these claims here and now. (I do have opinions about them and am happy to discuss them with you, but I will not force my opinions on you from the pulpit.) But the 24 news cycle and the pervasive influence of social networking has led to a very dangerous consequence: the idea that everyone needs to have a stated opinion on every issue. We certainly have the right to disagree, but we should do so with respect for the sacred office that a bishop holds as a successor to the Apostles, endowed with the grace of orders, by which the Lord assists him in governing the Church. We must pray for the gifts of patience and understanding as the Church works carefully to balance so many different needs and concerns.
When the wolf attacks the sheep, it begins by separating the sheep from the flock. When the sheep remain united, they are safe, but when the wolf succeeds at breaking up the flock it is then that the sheep are vulnerable. Likewise, when we allow the Evil One to introduce suspicion and enmity into the Body of Christ, we become vulnerable to the voices of the false shepherds and lose our spiritual attunement to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
“A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Do not listen to the voice of the thieves. Instead, listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd. Stay connected to the Catholic faith through sources that build up instead of tear down, because negativity leads to despair.
Train your ear to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd through maintaining a daily disciple of prayer, and by making God’s holy Word a greater part of your life.
The Lord has come so that you might have life and have it more abundantly. Continue celebrating that wonderful gift of life with which the Lord has blessed you. His gifts are abundant beyond measure and His light has the power to shatter every darkness of despair.
Lastly, this Good Shepherd Sunday is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, as we entreat the Lord to send us more good shepherds – priests after His own heart. In these weeks, we have seen the hunger for the Eucharist that fills the hearts of the faithful. We have been reminded of our great need to be nourished by Christ’s holy Body and Blood. And consequently, we know our need of the priesthood of Jesus Christ, through which Christ continues to shepherd our souls.
Young men, we need you! People are starving for the spiritual food of the Eucharist! Without this great gift of Christ’s Body and Blood their souls are vulnerable to spiritual attack and at risk of spiritual starvation. Could you be the future good shepherds the Lord wants to use to feed them? Could He be calling you to a heroic life of laying down your own life for the flock?
My brothers and sisters, the Good Shepherd is risen! He has laid down His life for you, His sheep, and has risen from the dead to bring you the new and abundant life for which you long. Pray, then, that we may soon resume the sacramental life of the Church, that all will be kept safe, that pastors of souls will govern and guide their flocks well, and that more young men will listen to the Lord’s call to be the next generation of good shepherds who lay down their lives for Christ’s flock.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen
IV Sunday of Easter, A.D. MMXX