The Fourth Sunday of the Easter Season is always known as Good Shepherd Sunday. We have already been reminded of Jesus’ Divine Mercy. Last week we came to know Jesus in the breaking of the bread at a small village called Emmaus. And today we hear about how the Risen Lord will continue to take care of us. The Good Shepherd also reminds of us of our redemption and reconciliation. We all remember that St. Peter denied Jesus three times in the courtyard at the
house of Caiaphas, the high priest. We sometimes forget that after the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter, three times if he loves him. After Peter answers ‘yes’ Jesus tells him to “Feed my Lambs.” “ Tend my Sheep.” “Feed my sheep.” Peter is forgiven and given the great commission to watch over the Church from that time on.
Peter travels far and wide talking to anyone who will listen to him about the wonders of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Telling them that we are like sheep gone astray, away from the flock. Through the wounds of Christ we are healed and called to return to the good shepherd, the guardian of our souls. Peter ends up in Rome. Remember, Jesus had called him the Rock. “And so
I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Peter becomes the first leader of the Church in Rome, and we call him the first “pope.” Since that time we have had 266 popes, who have shepherded the Church.
Perhaps there are one or two among us who remember Pope St. John XXIII who guided our church through the difficulties of the post-World War II era and then that of the of the 1960’s. He is the one who said “Let us open the windows of the church and let in the fresh air.” The first words spoken about calling the Second Vatican Council.
After John XXIII came Pope Paul VI. He continued to make the church more relevant in world society through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Gaudium et Spes was the last of the 16 documents of Vatican II to be issued. The title means “The Joys and the Hopes: The Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (1965).”
The central theme of the document is the establishment of those social conditions that can help safeguard three related values: (1) the dignity of the human person, (2) the common good, and (3) the unity of mankind.
Change is hard, but if there is one thing that is constant in the Church it is change.
Pope John Paul I was only pope for 33 days and yet was known as “the smiling Pope” and a kind shepherd of the people. Pope St. John Paul II is the Pope most of us remember. He watched over the flock of the Church for more than 26 years, followed by Pope Benedict for eight years, followed by Francis who has been our shepherd for 10 years.
We come to know our shepherds by what they do and say and Pope Francis has praised the shepherds that came before him. Pope Francis said on the 100th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s birth: “Let us pray to him today that he may give all of us — especially shepherds of the Church —the grace of prayer, the grace of closeness and the grace of justice-mercy, mercy-justice.” In his homily, Pope Francis said that just as the Lord visited His people because He loved them, “today we can say that 100 years ago the Lord visited His people — He sent a man, He prepared him to be a bishop and to guide the Church” as a shepherd.
Pope Francis said there were three things that made St. John Paul II such a good shepherd: his intense dedication to prayer; his closeness to the people; and his love for God’s merciful justice. St. John Paul II was close to the people, going out, traveling across the world to find them and be close to them. Francis noted that a priest who is not close to his people is not a shepherd.
Pope Francis said: “…the greatest love St. John Paul II had was his love of justice — social justice, justice for the people, justice that could eliminate wars, a justice that was complete, which is why he was a man of mercy,” “because justice and mercy go together. … They cannot be separated, they are together: justice is justice, mercy is mercy, but one cannot be found without the other.”
When Speaking of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis described him as a grandfatherly figure and “the contemplative of the Vatican;” he said their relationship gave him strength. “When I hear him speak, I become strong. I hear this story of the Church.” “Every time I go to visit him I feel like that; I take his hand and get him to talk. He speaks little, slowly, but with the same depth, as
always — because Benedict’s problem is his knees, not his head,” In 2016 Pope Emeritus Benedict, speaking publicly for the second time after his resignation, said Pope Francis’ “goodness is a place in which I feel protected.”
Speaking to Francis and a group of cardinals on the 65th anniversary of his priestly ordination, the pope emeritus said: “Thank you, Holy Father — your goodness, from the first day of your election, every day of my life here moves me interiorly, brings me inwardly more than the Vatican Gardens.”
Benedict said he saw “a new joy” in Pope Francis’ pontificate, a papal reign that has “no contradictions” with his own.
Pope Francis is not above being a stern shepherd. As he himself has been criticized for moving forward with reforms in the Church. He follows his predecessors by trying to shepherd the Church in a world that continues to spin in the wrong direction: society is beginning to think only of itself and not of the most poor and vulnerable among us. Those whose lives are ignored as they flee from war and hunger and violence, turn to the Church, looking for the protection of a Good Shepherd.
Pope Francis has said, even the Church, at times has not been able to give these things to people in need when they turn to her. Being in solidarity with others is to bear the other’s burdens, and “how many burdens there are in a person’s life: illness, lack of work, loneliness, pain! And how many other trials that require the proximity and love of our brothers and sisters!” he said. Everyone in the community must “bear each other’s difficulties,” because everyone has the same temptations, “that is, our jealousies, prejudices, hypocrisies and resentments” and the temptation to seek out “a rigid set of precepts” as the solution, he said.
Each Pope that the Lord has chosen for us to be our shepherd has been a shepherd in the way the Holy Spirit has led them. Some people do not like what these shepherds have to say, and think they are wrong about the things they say. But we have no choice. Our Shepherds are chosen by the Holy Spirit. They are our Shepherds and as uncomfortable as it might sound, we are the sheep, the flock
that they shepherd. We must never think that God has chosen wrongly those who lead and guide the Church. This is to doubt the will and wisdom of God. This is what leads us into the sins of pride, arrogance and despair. Perhaps Francis said it the best. When priests put on our simple chasuble, it
might well make us feel, upon our shoulders and in our hearts, the burdens and the faces of our faithful people, our saints and martyrs who are numerous in these times. But, instead of being shepherds offended by “the odor of the sheep, I ask you: be shepherds, who smell like your sheep, make it real, as shepherds among your flock”
In truth,” The Lord is my Shepherd.” We hear his voice and he calls us by name. He calls all shepherds to watch over their flocks. And how blessed we are that Pope Francis and those who have come before him have followed through with the command Jesus gave to St. Peter: “Feed my Lambs and tend my sheep.”