Shepherds, Good and Bad
Fourth Sunday of Easter. Fr Robert Pollock preaches on the great responsibility of the pastors of the Church.
The fourth Sunday of Easter is known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’; in a narrow understanding this refers to vocations to the priesthood, but in a wider sense it encompasses the whole apostolic and pastoral mission of the Church.
The Good Shepherd is one of the best-known and best loved of the images in the New Testament. It has its roots deep in salvation history: David, the boy shepherd, was chosen to be king of Israel; he was the anointed leader of the people of God, to guide and lead them towards God and his kingdom.
Our Lord speaks very solemnly of shepherds and pastors in the first part of chapter ten of Saint John’s Gospel. The young Church in its ministry of preaching and teaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God had perhaps encountered difficulties in its pastoral ministry; what is true and what is false teaching – or, in the gospel idiom, how do you distinguish between the true and the false voices? Where there are many voices there is great danger of confusion. Great concern for the people of God is expressed in this passage; if the people are misled, if they are persuaded by a false voice, they could be prevented from attaining the Kingdom of God.
This concern was expressed also in last Sunday’s Gospel, when Our Lord appeared again to the Twelve after his rising again from the dead. The passage ends with a dialogue between Our Lord and Peter. Peter was asked three times, ‘Do you love me?’; each time Peter replied ‘Lord, you know that I love you’, and each time he received the reply ‘Feed my lambs, feed my sheep’.
Peter, and one can understand here that the other apostles were included, was given a solemn command to lead, guide and nourish the people of God. Last Sunday’s Gospel was also about the large catch of fish, and about eating; Jesus prepared fish and bread and invited them to eat, this reminds us that the shepherd leads his flock to where they can eat, grow and develop; great trust is placed on the shepherd; he will never mislead them. He bears great responsibilities.
The Apostles would also remember the last time they were with Jesus before his death, when they were with him on Holy Thursday, in the upper room for the last supper and the first Eucharist; he fed them, they were in communion with him, united. They would also, however, remember their subsequent behaviour, because Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, and the apostles abandoned him. When Peter was asked three times if he loved him, he would have remembered that he denied him three times. There were flaws and frailties in the embryonic Church.
Flaws and frailties on a huge scale were seen in the case of the horrendous paedophile scandals which emerged recently, which shocked the Church and the wider community; pastors – priests and bishops who had accepted the call to be shepherds and pastors – had betrayed the trust placed in them.
This is a great scandal, skandalon in the New Testament use of the word: an obstacle, an impediment which prevents the people of God from walking in the way of God, towards God. This betrayal is very wide and very deep; instead of being led and guided towards God and the kingdom, many among the people of God have been violated, their persons and humanity scarred, in some cases destroyed. The wounds inflicted have been very great, and many have abandoned the Church perhaps for ever. In many cases the damage will never be repaired.
When Pope Saint Gregory the Great was elected Bishop of Rome, he shrank from what he called ‘this intolerable burden’. But he did accept, and became a great pastor. We now know that some who undertook the great responsibility of pastoral care were quite unworthy, that they betrayed the command given to Peter and the apostles to guide, lead, teach and cherish.