A Shepherd's Sacrifice by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
Jesus said: "I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 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. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father."
Pope St. Pius X received four priests in the apostolic palace one day and greeted each of them individually. The first introduced himself as a university professor. The second priest served on the faculty of a seminary. The third practiced canon law in his chancery. The fourth priest simply said, "Habeo curam animarum," which means, "I have the care of souls." In a very beautiful way, he was telling the pope that he was a parish priest and asked for his blessing.
Of the many titles of our Lord, perhaps the most consoling and reassuring is that of the Good Shepherd. He Himself claims that title (Jn 10:11). It effectively conveys His divine solicitude and concern for us. It should also foster in us a spirit of trust and confidence. Further, the image of the Good Shepherd provides a way for us to understand the pastors (shepherds) of the Church - priests who have the care of souls.
Christ gives a succinct definition of the Good Shepherd, and therefore of every priest: the Good Shepherd "lays down his life for the sheep" (Jn 10:11). Notice, he lays down his life. Not just his possessions, time, energy or talent - but his very life. Priestly service of Christ's flock cannot be a part-time job or a piece-meal giving. As the representative of the Good Shepherd, a priest must possess the willingness, and even the instinct, to sacrifice for his people. He must say with St. Paul: "I will most gladly spend and be spent for your soul" (2 Cor 12:15).
At the heart of a priest's sacrificial life, of course, is the Sacrifice of the Mass. He learns what it means to be a shepherd first from the Good Shepherd Who laid down His life for the sheep, from the Shepherd Who became the Lamb of sacrifice. And in offering the Mass a priest does more than just learn from the Good Shepherd. In the Mass the priest participates in - he becomes one with - the Shepherd's sacrifice of Himself. Only in union with Christ's sacrifice can the priest's sacrifice be understood or possible.
This sacrificial spirit has meaning also for the priest's union with his flock. he does not sacrifice as one who is apart, or aloof, or ignorant of their needs and sufferings. Certainly, as the shepherd the priest has the responsibility to lead, guide and correct the sheep. Nevertheless, he does not stand far off. Rather, he strives to have that same personal knowledge that characterizes Christ's care for the flock: "I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me" (Jn 10:14). By this intimate union with his people, the priest can better sacrifice for them.
Our Lord contrasts this sacrificial instinct of the shepherd with the cowardice of the hireling. "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" (Jn 10:12). The priest is not a hired hand. He is not a mere functionary or administrator. And if we regard him as such, or allow him to see himself that way, then we should not be surprised when he abandons the sheep or - worse - fleeces them.
One of Christian art's earliest depictions of our Lord is as a shepherd boy carrying a sheep on his shoulders. The image summarizes well the shepherd's sacrifice. He takes the sheep's burden as his own and spends himself in bringing the sheep to safety and green pasture. Catholics should expect and pray for the same from their priests - those shepherds of souls make the burdens of the flock their own and spend themselves in bringing the flock to salvation.
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