On June 2, I had the privilege of ordaining Taylor Leffler, Patrick Moser and Padraic Stack to the sacred priesthood. The following is taken from my homily at the ordination Mass.
If I were to ask any of you to name your favorite Psalm, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it is Psalm 23, which begins: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” And now that I mention it, I am sure it is one that is familiar to us all. On our own, we might come up with a variety of ways of describing God. These descriptions, correct or not, tend to shape our faith and our prayer. We might picture God as a powerful king, a tyrannical master, a disinterested super-intelligence, an angry parent. Left to ourselves we probably would not imagine this: The Lord God Almighty as a shepherd.
And what an extraordinary shepherd he is: The psalmist tells us that his care is refreshing, reviving, protecting, consoling. He provides a banquet, an overflowing cup, unending goodness and mercy.
No, we might never dare to know God this way – that is why we call this revelation. God wants to be sure we have this picture of him. Having heard it, this image of God may only have remained a pious hope for us struggling members of the Lord’s flock, if all we had was Psalm 23, as consoling as it is.
But the Father’s plan, his revelation, is even more bountiful, more provident. He has looked upon his human flock with such tender love that he sent his Son. And so we wouldn’t miss the point, Jesus tells us clearly in John 10: I am the Good Shepherd.
In these few verses of John’s Gospel just proclaimed for us, we have a beautiful summary of the effect of sin and of God’s plan for redemption. The evil one prowls among the flock of God like a wolf. His plan is to instill fear and confusion, to corner individuals, to isolate them from the flock where they cannot survive.
The hired man, the worldly leader, is no real shepherd; in the face of this danger and scattering, he thinks first of himself. His heart is not in his work. The Divine Shepherd gathers the flock, even the troublesome ones. He lays down his life for the integrity, the unity, of those entrusted to his care. Jesus puts a human face on the image of the Good Shepherd. He reveals the plan of the Father, and his own saving mission, to be communion. He gives his life to accomplish the will of the Father, that there be one flock, one shepherd.
Patrick, Taylor, Padraic – you are called to participate in this mission of Jesus, to proclaim and to bring about communion in our time, in this local church.
We have learned to call Jesus by many titles: He is king, high priest, teacher. He calls himself the Good Shepherd. As he shares his priesthood with you, he is entrusting you with the care of the flock for which he has laid down his life. The Good Shepherd wants to be known by his flock, to be more to people than a pious image. He invites you to put a human face on the Father’s tender plan for our salvation.
Patrick, Taylor and Padraic, Jesus depends on you so much, and has so much confidence in you, as you are animated by the Holy Spirit, that he configures you to himself in your person, your being. You will not only have the privilege of teaching about God’s plan to shepherd his people in Jesus, you will be a living sacrament, a personal manifestation of the Good Shepherd, sharing his power to reconcile and effect communion.
It is no wonder that priests consider the privilege of celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation and the Eucharistic liturgy as central to their priestly ministry, among many privileges. These are climactic moments, we might say, in the shepherd’s work to counteract the efforts of the evil one to isolate and scatter. You will love these moments, too, I’m confident. And you are well prepared to celebrate Mass and hear confessions according to the church’s tradition.
These days we are aware that the flock doesn’t necessarily “flock” to confession or to Mass. In fact, the majority of those who claim to be part of the church are not found there regularly, not to mention those with no apparent faith. The Lord is their shepherd too, and so are you. It is fair to ask why anyone would risk confessing his or her sins, why one would set aside their own needs and wants, to come to table prepared by the Good Shepherd, when they don’t even know that we have a shepherd – or if they believe the lie that he is not good.
So much of your priestly shepherding, in terms of time, energy, emotion, prayer, will be done outside of climactic sacramental moments. The Eucharistic liturgy, we know, is the source and summit of our life in Christ. We need someone to encourage us, not goad us, up toward the summit on ordinary days. We need someone to shepherd us in living both the communion and the commission that are at the heart of the Eucharist.
So we need you to be good shepherds, even for the troublesome and the lost – especially for them. Many are isolated and afraid, trying to survive on pathways that do not lead to life. There should be your shepherd’s field, your mission field, on most days. The Lord sends you to be a shepherd after his heart, as the psalmist describes, refreshing, reviving, protecting, consoling.
The Lord doesn’t want you to be isolated or afraid yourselves. He will give you many friends and companions, clergy and lay, who also share in his saving work. Jesus himself will be with you. He is your shepherd, too. Put all your trust in him. As people sense that you trust in the Good Shepherd, they will be encouraged to listen to him, to follow him.
May his goodness and mercy follow you all your life long. And after a fruitful ministry may you dwell – may we all be together – in the Lord’s house forever.
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