Sermon on the second Sunday after Easter

by a Dominican friar

“The good Shepherd giveth his life for his sheep.”

Most of the Sunday gospels begin with the words, “Jesus said to the disciples”, or “to the crowds”. This gospel is unusual: it begins, “Jesus said to the pharisees”. Why is this? It is because this parable of the Good Shepherd, at the start of the tenth chapter of St John’s gospel, continues the dispute with the pharisees that took place after the healing of the man born blind in the previous chapter. After that miracle, St John explained that the pharisees had already decided that whoever confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be “put out of the synagogue”, or, so to say, “excommunicated”. Our Lord therefore tells this parable to reassure His followers that the true Church of God will soon no longer be the synagogue, but rather will be the Church where He Himself is the chief Shepherd, and where all other shepherds enter through Him as through a door, that is, they confess Him to be the Son of God.

This great change, by which the synagogue gave way to the Church, took place at the hour when the Good Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep, that is, on the Cross. When He died on the Cross, the old Law, the Law of Moses, died also. From that moment, God’s people no longer consists of those who were descended from the patriarch Jacob by bodily descent, but of those who are incorporated into the Son of God by baptism.  

The Good Shepherd, then, Our Lord Jesus Christ, founded the Church by giving His life for the sheep. But it is the mark of every good shepherd that in some way he gives his life for the sheep. Why is this? In the case of a literal shepherd of literal sheep, it would seem foolish to do so, since one human life is worth more than any number of sheep. Even if a human shepherd comes to feel some affection for his sheep, in reality he pursues his work as a shepherd for his own good, in order to earn his living. But with the shepherd of spiritual sheep, that is, of Christ’s faithful, it must not be so. No one should take up the office of shepherd of souls as a way of earning a living. He must take up this office, rather, from divine charity, in imitation of Christ, who, as St John says, “having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end”. It is the mark of charity that it loves to the end. This is why every good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Our Lord gave us the example of this, as I have said, by His sacrifice on the Cross. And at every holy Mass, He gives us the same example. How does He do this? He does it, first, by renewing and perpetuating His sacrifice in a sacramental manner, by the consecration of His body and blood. Though He does not die again, He really offers His life to His Father for us, at every Mass, as if to say, “My Father, if it were necessary, I would be willing to die again for these, My sheep.” In another way, He sets us the example of surrendering Himself for the sheep by offering Himself to us in Holy Communion. Although our translation of the gospel says, “the good shepherd gives his life for his sheep”, the Latin literally says, “he gives his soul for his sheep”. So, Our Lord, in Holy Communion, does this very thing: He gives to us His soul, animating His human body, and united to His divinity. The charity of His holy soul enters us to nourish our charity; the light of His soul enters us to enlighten our minds.

St Augustine remarks that no one other than Christ is ever called the “Door”, since there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. By contrast, the title of “shepherd”, even of “good shepherd”, is communicated to other men. So, St Augustine writes: “The rulers of the Church, if they are her sons and not hirelings, are shepherds.” Hence many bishops, down the centuries, have literally given their lives for the sheep. In this country, perhaps the most famous example is St Thomas Becket, also called St Thomas of Canterbury, whose feast we keep during the octave of Christmas. In more recent times we might think, for example, of the Romanian bishops killed by the Communists, in the middle of the twentieth century, and now beatified. These were all good shepherds who gave their lives for the flock of God which was entrusted to them.   

No bishop, of course, has the strength to do this from himself. He can do it only by reason of the divine charity which is within him, and insofar as he is a member of Christ. In this sense, says St Augustine, there is always only one good Shepherd. “If they who gave their lives are members of Christ”, wrote St Augustine, “one and the same Christ did it always. He was able to do it without them; they were not able to do it without Him.”

It has often been said that the crisis in the Church today is a crisis of bishops. Now, it is always easy to place a responsibility upon other people and not upon oneself. And certainly, every Catholic does well to say to himself or to herself, “the Church would be in a better condition if I were better than I am”. St Catherine of Siena, holy though she was, used sincerely to say that her faults were the cause of all the sorrows of the Church. And ultimately, it is those who love most who are most powerful in the Church, since they have most power over the heart of Christ, the supreme Shepherd.

Nevertheless, despite all this, I believe that it is true to say that the crisis in the Church is above all a crisis of bishops. It is not that none of them would be willing to give their lives for their sheep, if there were a clear choice between denying the faith and suffering death. Perhaps there are many who would be willing to do this: I hope so. It is rather that there are so few, so very few, who are willing to teach the truth and condemn error with the necessary vigour. St Augustine gives the example of a bishop who is afraid to condemn the sin of adultery in a member of his flock. The bishop of Hippo addresses himself to such a bishop in these terms:

“See, the wolf has seized a sheep by the throat; the devil has enticed a man into adultery. The sinner must be excommunicated. But if he is excommunicated, he will be an enemy, he will plot, he will do as much harm as he can. For this reason, you are silent, you do not censure. You have seen the wolf coming, and fled. Your body has stood still, but your mind has fled.”

For a bishop, who is, as St Augustine says, “a ruler of the Church”, it is not enough to preserve the true faith in his heart, or even to communicate it to small groups of like-minded persons. He must, as St Paul says, declare it “in season and out of season”, that is, whether or not it is acceptable to those around him. Even if he thinks that other Catholics will plot against him, or that he will be deposed, for speaking the truth publicly, he must continue to do so, since otherwise “his mind has fled”.

I am not thinking of bishops who are clearly enemies of the truth. I am thinking of those who believe the truth, but do not have the firmness of mind to apply it, in their teaching and governing. They would like to act as Catholic bishops, but they allow themselves to be intimidated by the world or by other bishops. So, even if they condemn some errors, they do so in an abstract way, without daring to mention names. They disapprove of wolves in theory, but in practice they do not warn the sheep when wolves are inside the fold. What is the reason for this sad state of affairs? I cannot help thinking that the deep cause of it is the abandonment by almost all bishops of the Latin church of the Mass that was handed down for so many centuries, and which unites us in an organic way to the apostles. Once a bishop has cut this link with the past, he is no longer, it seems to me, as convinced as he needs to be, of the truth which has come to us from the apostles; he no longer has a sufficient horror of heresy. I know that some bishops say “the old Mass” from time to time, or have made churches available for its celebration. This is good. But Sunday by Sunday, feast-day by feast-day, in their cathedrals or in the parishes which they come to inspect, this is not what they give to their people. Instead, they put before them a Mass which was composed to be a rupture with the past, and to be more acceptable to Protestants. Their predecessors were wrong to do this, and it is now time for them, their successors, to correct this mistake. Only thus will they fully act as Catholic bishops. Our Lord is the good Shepherd. We know that in the end, He will put right all disorders in His Church. But He wishes to do this through His brother shepherds, the bishops. They must have no fear: or rather, they must have only one fear – to fail to correspond to His will. Our task is to pray that such shepherds may be given to us. Through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and of all our holy bishop-martyrs, may our Lord grant us this mercy, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost lives and reigns for ever and ever.