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The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep

April 24, 2015
Father Joseph Previtali

The figure of the Good Shepherd has captivated the Christian imagination from the earliest days of the church. The most ancient image of our Lord Jesus in the catacombs of Rome is a depiction of Him, at once heroic and tranquil, as the shepherd carrying the sheep on his shoulders. We love intuitively the security and peace that come from being in the care of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

In our Gospel this Sunday, our Lord speaks to us of bad shepherds, hirelings, who flee when the wolf comes because they work for pay and not for love. These bad shepherds are shepherds because they love themselves. Their love for the sheep is relative to their own well-being. As long as the good of the sheep is to their advantage, they will take care of the sheep. But when the shepherd and the sheep are threatened with mortal danger, the bad shepherd leaves the sheep to be scattered and devoured by enemies.

The Good Shepherd is not like this. This is what causes the church to rejoice in him! He lays down his life for the sheep. He dies for them. He sacrifices his own comfort, security, and temporal well-being so that the sheep do not suffer harm. He even seems to have a love for the sheep that is mysterious, that is greater than the goodness of the sheep themselves. Indeed, as the Scriptures teach us, while the sheep had gone astray, while we were yet sinners, the Good Shepherd still loved us first.

On Good Shepherd Sunday, the church especially meditates on the glory and dignity and responsibility of the holy priesthood of Jesus Christ. She prays for her priests and she prays for more priests. She prays that all priests – present and future – will exercise their ministry according to the heart of the Good Shepherd. She prays that her priests will love the sheep enough to die for them, to lay down their lives for them, especially when the wolf comes. She prays especially that her priests will be renewed in their love for Almighty God, which love alone mysteriously allows them to love so generously the sheep, who belong to him.

The church prays for priests this Sunday because she knows also that it is possible for priests to be bad shepherds, hirelings or wolves, who lead the sheep astray, causing them to be scattered and devoured by sin. She knows with great sadness that it is possible that her priests will flee when danger comes, that they will love themselves rather than God and the sheep, that they will seek comfort and success and acceptance by the world rather than suffer the persecution that comes from being a faithful shepherd.

On Good Shepherd Sunday and always, therefore, we must pray for priests. We pray for their flourishing in the love of God, in whom they delight and find refuge. We pray that they will love God and us enough to tell us the truth, even when it is difficult or unpopular. We pray that they will seek only the glory of God and the salvation of souls, having no care for their own temporal well-being. We pray that all priests will be good shepherds after the heart of the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.

He is the risen Lord who has taken up his life again, who has conquered sin and death forever! He desires with great desire to sanctify his priests with a special love! Good Shepherd, make all priests holy in your truth and love; keep them close to you, so that they will speak only with your beautiful voice, which your sheep know so well, that there may be only one flock and one shepherd.

Father Previtali is parochial vicar at Our Lady of the Pillar Parish, Half Moon Bay.

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