Jesus and the prophets spoke to the people of their times in ways that enabled the listeners to understand. They used examples and situations that were relevant. Growing up on a sheep farm, the numerous references to sheep struck me as particularly insightful. Many of my classes have heard stories of how sheep aren’t the brightest and how fitting I think that is in relation to humans. Yet for all the ways that sheep seem dim-witted, they have some great qualities that make them endearing.
Sheep are communal beings and generally move as an entire flock. It was rare that simply one sheep would slip through a defect in the fence. If one had escaped, it was likely that multiple had. I have several memories of trying to separate a couple of specific sheep out of the flock and their attempts to remain with the larger group. Yet their desire to be in communion with others, in their simple animal way, is something that is roughly mirrored in humans. Even as an introvert, I know I need to be in communion with others. I want to be alone at times and yet I find an intense joy in sharing life with others, too.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:1-5)
When the sheep would wander far out into the pasture, my dad would go to the gate with a couple of pails of corn, cup his hands to his mouth, and bellow, “Sheep!” It wasn’t really a unique call in terms of words used, but his voice was unique to the sheep. My brother could try to imitate it, but I remember going to the pasture on days I was responsible for chores and trying to yell in the deep pitch of my father. Generally, they were unconcerned. After calling and several enticing shakes of corn kernels in a bucket, they would lift their heads and begin to head in my direction. As soon as my dad calls, they start running in his direction, at near full speed. They know the shepherd’s voice.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own 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)
The word pastor literally means a helper or feeder of sheep. For years, I only referred to my priests as “Father.” And there is admittedly a beauty in that. I love the filial sense of love and respect that is found in the relationship between a priest and his people, a father and his children. Yet over the past couple years, I have found the term pastor increasingly meaningful. I used to equate it only with Protestant churches and their ministers. However, pastor means shepherd and I know the importance of the role of the shepherd.
In a world that is chaotic, the sheep need a shepherd to speak through the noise. For the past three years, I have had the great gift to be led by my parish priest, my pastor, Fr. John. He is a priest of my diocese, but I found myself quick to claim a closer association with him if possible. Not simply a fellow member of the diocese, he was my particular shepherd, the one leading my parish community.
I found myself reflecting on this pastoral leadership today because it was his final Mass as my pastor. While excited for the new priests coming to my parish tomorrow, I find myself wishing a fond farewell to my current shepherd. While our personal conversations have been fewer than I would have liked, I have learned and grown through his gifted preaching and his vibrant witness of a life spent encountering Christ.
His authentic humanity and the way he lays down his life and pride for the growth and life of his sheep is inspiring. When the wolf comes to torment the flock, Fr. John is unafraid of the darkness. It is not menacing because he knows the power of the light of Christ. He has experienced Christ’s light in his personal darkness and he knows that nothing is too dark for the Lord to pierce through. And I like to think that this witness has helped me encounter people where they are and be assured that God can work in each life, regardless of how dire the situation seems to be. Dry bones can be filled with new life and riches can be found in the center of our poverty.
Thank you, Fr. John, for leading your flock to the waters of life and calling us to follow the One who loves us perfectly.