GOOD SHEPHERDS AND SHEEPDOGS: PROVIDING THE LIGHT CHRIST’S TRUTH AND THE WARMTH OF HIS CHARITY TO HIS PEOPLE
Homily, Ordinations to Priesthood And Diaconate
For Dominican Friars; May 30, 2015, St. Dominic Church
Readings: Jer 1:4-9; Rom 12:4-8; Jn 10:11-16
At the shrine of Our Lady of Rosary in this church there is depicted the scene of St. Dominic and St. Catherine, and at Our Lady’s feet a little dog with a torch in its mouth. I sometimes enjoy musing on the origin of this image of the dog with the torch in its mouth which, according to the tradition, was revealed to Dominic’s mother in a dream she had before he was born. It was recounted by Jordan of Saxony in a biography written before saint’s canonization: she saw the child under the form of a dog, holding in his jaws a flaming torch and setting fire to the world. Jordan explains that this signified what an illustrious preacher Dominic would be, for by the barking of sacred wisdom he would awaken souls from the slumber of sin and pour out upon the entire world the fire which our Lord Jesus came on earth to kindle.
Some suggest that the idea of using a dog to symbolize members of your order is due to the play on words, “Domini canes” (watch-dogs of the Lord) for “Dominicanus”. A learned Dominican (Pierre Mandonnet), however, has pointed out that the idea of comparing preachers with dogs goes back at least as far as Gregory the Great. The great 13th century Dominican biblical commentator, Hugh of St. Cher, enumerates the reasons why the Preacher is called a watch-dog: “On account of his barking, his keenness of scent, his healing tongue, his continual hunger, his fidelity to his master, his hatred of wolves, his guarding of the flock, his hunting, his reserving for his master what he takes in the hunt, his thirst for blood, because it is the tongue that feels thirst.” (So, the play on words still fits!)
This underscores how central the ministry of teaching is for the ordained, deacons and priests alike. In our own day Msgr. Ronald Knox used this same image in an amusing way in one of his talks to school girls on the Creed:
The shepherd doesn’t run after the sheep when they get straying; he shouts to his dog, and the dog runs after them, barking at them in a very rude way. When you see a sheep-dog do that, it ought to remind you of my sermons; you should think of the clergy yapping at you and saying, ‘You ought to do this’, and ‘You mustn’t do that’; they do it because they are acting under the Shepherd’s orders. I don’t say the clergy don’t sometimes enjoy it; but then, I dare say the sheep-dog enjoys it. The point is that the clergy, like sheep-dogs, aren’t just making up rules for you; they are telling you what the Shepherd wants you to do, the Shepherd who owns you [CSM 61].
Perhaps instead of picturing the dog barking, we would do better to see preaching like a burning torch, providing light and warmth to God’s people.
Light of Truth
Teaching the full truth of Christ, as handed down to us through his Church, has indeed become one of the most demanding duties of priests in our own age. In the face of opposition, rejection and even hostility, he is called follow his Master’s example of laying down his life for his friends, a duty he must fulfill out of pastoral charity, understanding the beauty of the Church’s teaching and knowing that this is what will make his people free.
This will not always be pleasant. To proclaim the full truth of Christ will at times – perhaps nowadays, often – be inconvenient and unpopular. But as St. Thomas reminds us in his teaching about humility, Jesus himself gave us the example: “[O]ur Lord, in order to remove an obstacle to our spiritual welfare, showed by [his] example of humility that outward exaltation is to be despised.” At times the priest will be required to, like St. Paul, pour out his life for Christ “like a libation.”
However, as demanding as this is of priestly ministry today, it does not really get to the heart of the matter. The commandment our Lord gave to his apostles the night before he died is the ultimate commandment, ultimate because it identifies who the priest is: the one who, with his Lord, lays down his life for his Church. The tendency is to identify who the priest is by what he does: the priest is the one who celebrates the sacraments of Eucharist, Penance and Anointing of the Sick. He prepares people for the sacraments and celebrates the sacraments for them. He coordinates the various ministries in the parish. The problem is, though, that this makes the Priesthood look like simply one job among many others in the Church, requiring nothing more than learning a certain set of skills in order to take on the role and fulfill the corresponding duties. How easy it is to slip into this way of thinking in a world stripped of any sensitivity to the sacramental reality of life, that is, the truth that God reveals hidden, spiritual reality through visible, temporal symbols, even the symbol of our very bodies.
Warmth of Charity
To focus on what the priest does, then, stays at the surface. What he does will only be beneficial for his people if it flows from who he is.
The identity of the priest is that of Jesus Christ, as exemplified in the Last Supper. He began that evening by washing the feet of his disciples, to teach by example the primacy of charity. Charity, of course, is love in action: not an idea, not a feeling, but the gift of self. In this day and age, there is no hiding the faults of priests; indeed, it seems every little slip up is exposed in the national media. But pastoral experience shows, over and over again, that people will readily forgive their priest whatever foibles and shortcomings he may have if they know that he really loves them, loves them with agape love: that he is there when they need him, he is present, attentive, compassionate – in short, a friend.
In Pastores dabo vobis St. John Paul II describes how a leader is truly a servant: by pastoral charity. He explains that Jesus presents himself as the Good Shepherd because “[h]is whole life is a continual manifestation of his ‘pastoral charity’” (n. 22). Jesus lives out this pastoral charity through the compassion he shows to the crowds, feeding them spiritually and physically, healing them, teaching them, and, ultimately, offering his life for them through his death and Resurrection – literally laying down his life for them. This pastoral charity of Jesus gives to the priest the very meaning and definition of his identity: “By virtue of their consecration, priests are configured to Jesus the Good Shepherd and are called to imitate and to live out his own pastoral charity” (n. 22).
Charity is love in action, the practical, concrete ways that love is lived out and realized. For the priest, the highest expression of this kind of love in his vocation is his pastoral charity, which John Paul defines as “the virtue by which we imitate Christ in his self-giving and service.” He says that pastoral charity “is not just what we do, but our gift of self, which manifests Christ’s love for his flock. Pastoral charity determines our way of thinking and acting, our way of relating to people. It makes special demands on us” (n. 23; emphasis added).
This brings into everyday reality those “special demands” that pastoral charity places on him. That is, it doesn’t simply remain at the level of theory, but is played out in very real, concrete ways for the sake of his own personal holiness, so that he can then in turn sanctify his people. It is one’s vocation that brings the demands of love down into the concrete.
Perhaps the prophet Jeremiah already foresaw this at the time of his call, and therefore is why he was resistant to that call. He tried to find excuses to get out of it – he doesn’t know how to speak, he’s too young, and all that. But in the end he can’t fight it; as with everyone else, God put that vocation in his heart at the very first moment of his existence, and to turn away from it would be to violate his very identity, no matter how high the price. And for Jeremiah, that was a very, very high price.
So it is with the priest: the priest whose Priesthood has become a job has turned his back on his vocation, he has become the “hired man, who is not a shepherd” whom our Lord describes in the Gospel, who “works for pay and has no concern for the sheep”; he does not see the sheep as his own, and when he “sees a wolf coming [he] leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them.” This can happen easily, even imperceptibly. Yet, it is precisely when those special demands seem overwhelming that the priest is given the opportunity to grow in holiness so that he may in turn sanctify his people: when tempted to become stingy with his time and affection and selective in what he does, to instead be generous; when tempted to refuse to suffer for the sake of the Gospel, to instead bear that suffering patiently and even cheerfully, in whatever form of suffering that might take, whether ridicule or loss of popularity or just simply inconvenience.
When the priest seizes such trials as opportunities for growth in holiness, he resists the temptation to function as just a hired hand and instead comes to know his people, in imitation of the Good Shepherd, laying down his life for his people. He lives the call of pastoral charity: charity is love, and love means presence. When you love someone, the most important, most delightful, thing is simply to be with them.
With the energy and zeal of a sheepdog, the priest shines the light of Christ’s truth on the people entrusted to him through his preaching and teaching, and he comforts them with the warmth of Christ’s charity through his pastoral presence and attentiveness.
This Friday the Church will celebrate the Memorial of St. Boniface, the eighth century Apostle of Germany who, in imitation of the Good Shepherd, literally laid down his life for his sheep. In the Office of Readings of the Divine Office for that day, we will read words from a letter of his just as fitting for us today as when he wrote them 1300 years ago. It is fitting, then, to conclude our reflections here with these words of his:
Let us be neither dogs that do not bark nor silent onlookers nor paid servants who run away before the wolf. Instead let us be careful shepherds watching over Christ’s flock. Let us preach the whole of God’s plan to the powerful and the humble, to rich and to poor, to men of every rank and age, as far as God gives us the strength, in season and out of season.