Holy Week 2017 began with a horrifying reminder of suffering and hate. Palm Sunday witnessed massacre and martyrdom in Egypt, as two suicide bombers struck Coptic churches in two cities — Tanta, in the Nile Delta in northern Egypt, and Alexandria — killing more than 40 people and injuring at least 100 more. The explosion in Alexandria took place at the gates of the Mar Markas Church. The leader of the Coptic Church, Tawadros II, was in Mar Markas at the time, but he was unharmed. On Easter Wednesday, gunmen killed at least one police officer near the beloved St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the violence and celebrated the pain and loss of life.
Pope Francis responded swiftly to the attack, telling the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square for Palm Sunday, “To my dear brother, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, to the Coptic Church and to all the dear Egyptian nation, I express my deepest condolences. I pray for the dead and the injured, and I am close in spirit to their families and the entire community. May the Lord transform the hearts of the people who are sowing terror, violence and death, and also the hearts of those trafficking weapons.”
As Pope Francis was preparing for a potentially perilous journey to Egypt April 28-29, he used his traditional Easter message and blessing urbi et orbi (“to the city of Rome and to the world”) to touch upon a few of the corners of the globe where there is particular misery and need. He spoke of the people of South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, “who endure continuing hostilities, aggravated by the grave famine affecting certain parts of Africa”; Latin America, troubled “by political and social tensions that in some cases have resulted in violence”; Europe, “experiencing moments of crisis and difficulty, especially due to high unemployment, particularly among young people”; and Ukraine, “still beset by conflict and bloodshed.”
He expressed particular concern for the Middle East, above all the “population in Syria — the beloved and martyred Syria — prey to a war that continues to sow horror and death.” The Pope prayed for peace across “the entire Middle East, beginning with the Holy Land, as well as in Iraq and Yemen.”
Again on Easter Monday, the Pope urged prayer for all of the Christian communities who are persecuted and oppressed throughout the world, noting how they give a particularly courageous witness to the Risen Christ.
This theme will remain central during the papal trip to Egypt, where Pope Francis no doubt will exhort the rulers of the country to defend the Christian population that historically has been a pillar of Egyptian life. The trip presents an opportunity for Francis to speak directly to the Muslim world, and included in his itinerary is a meeting with the leaders of Al-Azhar University, one of the foremost centers of Islamic studies.
To the Egyptian people, Francis’ message is one of peace and hope. But to persecuted Christians, the Pope stands in the place of a shepherd reminding us all, as he did in his Easter homily, that in the midst of suffering, conflict and violence that results from sin, “God himself, our shepherd, has come in search of us.”
The poignant image of the Good Shepherd is close to the heart of Pope Francis. The pectoral cross that he wears every day bears the image of Our Lord with the lost sheep upon his shoulders.
The Shepherd, notes Francis, is, first, one who seeks.
And second, the Shepherd is one who gives truly of himself for his sheep, even unto death.
In the Gospel of Luke (15:4), we hear Our Lord teach, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the 99 in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?”
A true shepherd knows his sheep and they know him (John 10), and he is always concerned for their welfare, going out into the wilderness to find the lost ones. A shepherd carries with him a strong staff to ward off the predators, and he goes into the pits and the valleys to find the lost. If a shepherd does this, how much more does Christ — the Good Shepherd — do for us?
“In every age,” the Holy Father declares, “the Risen Shepherd tirelessly seeks us, his brothers and sisters, wandering in the deserts of this world. With the marks of the Passion — the wounds of his merciful love — he draws us to follow him on his way, the way of life. Today, too, he places upon his shoulders so many of our brothers and sisters crushed by evil in all its varied forms.”
Christ, our Good Shepherd, searched for the lost, but he also gave utterly of himself, even unto death. “To save us,” Francis said at Easter, “he lowered himself even to accepting death on the cross. Today we can proclaim: ‘The Good Shepherd has risen, who laid down his life for his sheep and willingly died for his flock, Alleluia’” (Roman Missal, IV Sunday of Easter, Communion antiphon). The Good Shepherd is more than an image, a metaphor and even a parable. He is our hope.
John (10:14-15) writes, “A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.”
During this Easter season, though we see a world full of suffering and doubt, we know that our Shepherd is searching for us, that he rejoices when even one of us returns to the flock, and that he will never stop looking for us. But as his sheep, we rejoice, too, and never give up hoping that the lost will be found and that the whole flock will find the glorious fields Christ promises. “I am the gate,” Christ tells us. “Whoever enters through me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.” When so many are lost and the pasture seems far away in the darkness, the words of our Shepherd can strengthen us.
Pray for the suffering Christians in the world, and pray for our Holy Father: that his journey to Egypt is a safe and blessed one. Pray, also, that his words of peace and hope — the promise of the Good Shepherd — will be heard and embraced by all people, most so in the tortured region of the Middle East.