This week’s column was written just prior to Good Shepherd Sunday, which, in the church’s liturgical calendar, was the Fourth Sunday of Easter. It also was designated as the “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.”
The catalyst for the column was a letter published in America magazine (the April 14 issue) in response to an earlier editorial entitled, “Lost Sheep” (which had appeared a month before). The editorial had commented on the recent Pew survey which disclosed that fully one-third of native-born U.S. Catholics have left the church. (This column also had commented on the Pew survey in an essay prepared for publication during the week of March 24, but written three weeks in advance of that date.)
The letter-writer, M. D. Ridge of Norfolk, Va., took issue with the America editorial for suggesting that many, and perhaps as many as half, of those Catholics who have left the church did so out of sheer apathy — “not because they do not believe,” the editorial had asserted, “but because they do not care.”
M. D. Ridge disagreed. “Many who took the Second Vatican Council seriously, and were empowered and inspired by it, now face a stampede back to the Council of Trent, along with a return to hyperclericalism and the arrogant diminishment of intelligent, committed laypeople at exactly the time when they are most needed.”
Parenthetically, one cannot deny the sense of demoralization experienced by many Catholics who were deeply committed to the renewal promoted by Vatican II and Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, only to see evidence of a return to preconciliar ways of thinking and of doing business.
Some Catholics, the writer continued, have found a home in another denomination. Others, however, “will always think of themselves as Catholic but choose not to subject themselves (or their checkbooks) to the control of those who do not have their best interests at heart.”
And then the punchline: “It is not the sheep who are lost.”
Because many Catholics still tend to identify their bishops with Christ, the Good Shepherd, and the church, in turn, with a sheepfold, Good Shepherd Sunday has too often become an occasion for theologically inexact exhortations to obey the hierarchy with the same commitment as one would obey Christ himself.
But the Good Shepherd in the prayers and readings for the day is Jesus Christ. And even those references are analogical, not literal.
Jesus was not, in fact, a shepherd. And his disciples were not sheep. Far from it. Most of his Apostles and many of his other disciples were martyred for their faith. They were not sheep being led to the slaughter, but adults freely and courageously accepting the consequences of their commitment to Christ.
When the opening prayer of the day’s liturgy referred to our following in faith “the call of the shepherd,” it is Christ alone, not the pope or the other bishops, who makes that call. It is the sound of his voice to which we “attune our minds,” and it is the path that he has shown us that we follow.
Even the Gospel itself acknowledges that when Jesus spoke of himself as a shepherd and a gatekeeper, he was using a “figure of speech” (John 10:6). Unfortunately, the Pharisees did not get the point. They “did not realize what he was trying to tell them.” So Jesus had to explain it to them.
To a large extent, the Pharisees’s problem also has been our problem. We interpret figures of speech — analogies, similes, metaphors — as if they are to be taken literally.
While there is surely a sense in which Jesus Christ is our Good Shepherd and we the flock that he tends and loves, the relationship is not literally that of a shepherd and his sheep.
When these analogies are taken literally and then broadly applied, it is assumed that the church’s shepherds alone know what is best for us, who are their sheep. Sheep do not ignore the sound of their shepherd’s voice. And if they did, they would find themselves marooned on the wrong side of the gate, with no one to care for them.
Never before in the entire history of the church have we had such a well-educated laity. And never before has the label “sheep” been so utterly inappropriate a designation for them.
Given the challenges the church faces today, those appointed to pastoral office need more than ever to possess and to manifest the qualities of leadership: the capacity to articulate a vision and a concomitant capacity to inspire others to pursue that vision in common.
Good Shepherd Sunday provides an annual reminder of these basic truths.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.