I have friends who sold their home on Capitol Hill, bought some sheep from somewhere in the Midwest, and moved to a farm in the Willapa Hills to make cheese. I asked their oldest son whom I baptized how he liked being a shepherd. He thought for a moment and answered, “It’s alright, he says, but it’s boring.”
“What does it take to be a good shepherd?” I asked his father. He said that sheep actually need a shepherd, because they have no natural hierarchy, no leader of the flock. The sheep learn to trust the shepherd, Stephen said, as “they hear and understand the voice, the smell, the behavior of the person who is looking after them every day.”
He said a shepherd needs to be someone who is “in tune with nature, decisive” and willing to bear the long hours, inclement weather, hard work and sacrifice – and do it out of devotion to his flock. A good shepherd, he said, should “not be afraid of anything.” Doesn’t that describe Christ? But in the gospel we just heard, Jesus takes it even further. “I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
This Easter season, with the fragrance of Easter flowers still in the air and alleluias on our lips, we cannot forget the hard-dead wood of Calvary. We cannot forget how this good shepherd laid down his life for us. And he didn’t do it because we’re saints. Far from it. We are as muddy and as ordinary and as unclean as those sheep I saw in Lewis County. We aren’t always beautiful.
But the Good Shepherd who is Christ loves us anyway. And he calls on us to love one another the same way. And this may be our greatest challenge. If we are to be imitators of Christ, we must be willing to be more than sheep. We must also be shepherds – good shepherds to each other and good shepherds of our faith. We must be unafraid, devoted, steadfast.
We need to support those who are frail… nurture those who are weak… lead back those who are lost… comfort those who are afraid… love those who are covered with dust from the journey. This is what a good shepherd does. This is what Christ has done for us. This is what we must do for each other.
This Sunday, we mark not only Good Shepherd Sunday, but also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Every vocation is in some way a journey. It is a pilgrimage. And I can’t help but wonder: is someone here today being called to take my place someday as pastor? Think about it. Pray about it. Let us pray for all vocations – and the vocation each of us has as a Catholic Christian and a person of faith.
Let us reflect on what our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, has shown us and taught us – and the example he has given us. How can we follow his example? How can we be servant leaders – people of compassion and conviction, people of mercy, sacrifice, and tenderness? How can we lay down our lives for one another?
Paul A. Magnano