April 21 is the Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year C, Cycle I).
Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalm 100:1-3, 5; Revelation 7:9, 14-17; John 10:27-30
This Sunday is Good Shepherd Sunday — in which we recall Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
But we have also been blessed with some pretty good shepherds as popes, recently, too. Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI have given us great insights into how the Church’s shepherds imitate the true Good Shepherd.
Pope Francis, in his Holy Thursday homily, put it in a memorable way, when he called for priests to be like shepherds who smell like their sheep.
He talked about two different kinds of priests. He called the first kind of priest “the manager, [who] ‘has already received his reward’; and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, become sad priests, lose heart and become in some sense collectors of antiques or novelties.”
The other kind of priests are not mere managers, but “shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep,’ shepherds in the midst of their flock, fishers of men. True enough, the so-called crisis of priestly identity threatens us all and adds to the broader cultural crisis; but if we can resist its onslaught, we will be able to put out in the name of the Lord and cast our nets.”
So Francis says a true shepherd lives with his sheep — accompanies them on their journey and knows them.
As Jesus put it in today’s Gospel, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, shows that Paul and Barnabas were shepherds modeled after the original Shepherd in the way the Holy Father recommends. They lived among the flocks they were reaching and won converts among the Gentiles — and drew the wrath of persecutors, who chased them out of the country.
But the Good Shepherd doesn’t just accompany his flock on earth — he also leads his sheep in a higher life elsewhere.
Pope Benedict XVI gave this vision of the shepherd in his 2007 encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope). He says that Jesus is the Good Shepherd not just through his life with us, but through his death with us.
“The true Shepherd is one who knows even the path that passes through the valley of death,” wrote Benedict, “one who walks with me even on the path of final solitude, where no one can accompany me, guiding me through: He himself has walked this path, he has descended into the kingdom of death, he has conquered death, and he has returned to accompany us now and to give us the certainty that, together with him, we can find a way through.”
The Shepherd doesn’t just show us the way through life: He shows us the way through death. We see this aspect of the Good Shepherd in today’s second reading. There, John describes how the Good Shepherd leads us even in heaven.
“For the Lamb, who is in the center of the throne, will shepherd them,” John writes, “and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Ironically, this passage also shows that we are not far from that earthly shepherd after all. Jesus doesn’t just smell like his sheep: He looks like a lamb.
That is the ultimate expression of our Good Shepherd. He is not just above us, prodding us with a stick, but he is among us. We are the flock of God; our Shepherd is the Lamb of God. We have nothing to fear.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.