Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 23:1-6
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 2:13-18
Gospel: According to St. Mark 6:30-34
One of the great biblical images is that of the relationship between sheep and shepherds. For us the image can have an impact on a spiritual and intellectual level, but not so much on an experiential level. Most of us have never seen a live sheep outside of a petting zoo, let alone tended sheep out in the pasture. So our experience is very different from those people who inhabit the stories of the Bible.
From what I can draw from the images in Scripture, and from the movie Babe, sheep are not the most intelligent of creatures. When I think of the Good Shepherd going after the lost sheep I always imagine Him returning to the original spot to find that none of the 99 sheep had the good sense to stay put. Sheep, quite simply, are a lot like us. Yet the Good Shepherd doesn’t get frustrated with us:
“His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd”
The history of the Church – better, the history of humanity – is filled with the continuous movements of people away from good shepherds. The story of the Old Testament is a continual ebb and flow of the Chosen People following a good shepherd and then being led astray only to be brought back by a new good shepherd. God never tires of sending shepherds to His sheep, even through several millennia of wanderings. In fact, He is so concerned that He sends the ultimate shepherd, the Good Shepherd, His Son, to guide us safely home.
After His time with us here on earth this Good Shepherd made sure that we were not like that vast crowd of whom St. Mark speaks. Beginning with St. Peter, we have had 266 men who have been given the task of shepherding Christ’s sheep. Many of these have been great men who led the Church with courage and conviction, yet some have been wolves in shepherd’s clothing. History shows us how hard it is to be a Catholic in such dark times, and how difficult it is to stay faithful to the Church’s teachings when those who have been called to be Vicars of Christ on earth ignore and willfully go against those same teachings.
I have lived in the papacies of six different popes. When I was born in 1959 Pope, now Saint, John XXIII was planning for the Second Vatican Council. He was succeeded by Pope, now Saint, Paul VI, who finished the Council and steered the Church through those tumultuous post-conciliar years. In 1978, known as the Year of the Three Popes, we saw the short reign of Pope, now Servant of God [Aside, “Servant of God” is the first stage towards canonization and sainthood.], John Paul I and then the lengthy pontificate of Pope, now Saint, John Paul II. Serving after him was Pope, now Pope Emeritus [Aside #2, “Emeritus” comes from the Latin and literally means “from merit” and is an honorific title most often used for retired university professors] Benedict XVI.
The first four of these popes are all either saints or are on their way to being declared saints, and Benedict gives every indication of being the next in line when it is his time to go home to the Father. How incredibly fortunate we are to have been living in times of such worthy inheritors of the title of Pontifex Maximus, or Greatest Pontiff (“Bridge-Builder”) – a title used in ancient Rome for the highest-ranking religious official. If we consider the role of the pope, then that title makes great sense. Among the main functions of the pope are to bridge the gap between us and God, between nature and grace, between the world and the Church.
Priests have always assumed the role of bridge-builder, no matter the culture or era, and today’s priests are no different. From Pope Francis on down through the hierarchy of cardinals, archbishops and bishops, parish priests, monks and members of religious orders the job title of pontifex remains as it has for millennia. Early in his time as pope, the present Pontifex Maximus warned his fellow priests of the danger that they will “gradually become intermediaries, managers” unless they strive to be bridge-builders between God and humanity who are “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”
For Francis that bridge is built upon Mercy, and God’s Mercy has been the focal point of every pronouncement of his pontificate. The Latin word for mercy is misericordia, which literally means “pity of the heart.”
“His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
This Christ-like misericordia is not only the focus of the teachings of Francis, but also the focus of the entire Gospel message. We are taught that not only priests, but all Christians worthy of the name, must take on the role of pontifex and build bridges upon the foundation of the Mercy of God. For, to follow any other call is to consign oneself to the sad state of being a lost sheep without a shepherd.