By Fr. Saturnino Dias
Every year, August 4, we celebrate the feast of St. John Mary Vianney, the patron saint of priests serving as pastors. We also celebrate Pastors’ Day in the parishes to appreciate the good work our priests do in the Parishes of our Archdiocese.
For us priests, it is also an opportunity to reflect on our call as pastors, evaluate our response to that call and re-dedicate ourselves with renewed vigor. It is with this in mind that right in the beginning of the new pastoral year, I wish to place a series of reflections on “Good Pastor” for consideration of my brother priests, hoping that they will be helpful to widen and improve their actual image of pastor and their response to their unique call.
I hope they will be helpful to others too, including lay people, in the measure they are able to appropriate the image of the Good Pastor in the tasks assigned to them by divine Providence and respond to various situations accordingly.
Our evaluation of a good Pastor is often linked with the animating socio-cultural and religious activities organized in the Parish and the opportunities these provide for fellowship and bonding or also with the kind of relationship one is able to establish with the Parish Priest, individually and/or collectively.
This is important and necessary but not enough, for fellowship and bonding or the friendly relationship will remain excellent socializing factors if they don’t lead the faithful towards their spiritual growth as witnesses of Christ, individually and as a community. The various activities should be the spontaneous external expression of their faith seen through them (cf Jas 2: 14-17).
In fact, we must always keep in mind that the socio-cultural and religious activities of the Parish are all in function of evangelization or proclamation of the Good News. As Pope Saint Paul VI taught in Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN), “evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new.
The purpose of evangelization is, therefore, precisely this interior change because the Church evangelizes when she seeks to convert, solely through the divine power of the message she proclaims, both the personal and collective consciences of people, the activities in which they engage, and the lives and concrete milieu which are theirs.” (EN 18, emphasis is mine) Therefore, the interior change which occurs through the divine power of the message, the Good News is the most important element of evangelization. The human aspect, though important and necessary, is only instrumental.
Describing the characteristics of the Good Shepherd, in Jn 10:14, Jesus tells us that he is the Good Shepherd. Jn 10 depicts the actual scenario of shepherding in Israel to make us understand the message Jesus conveys stating that he is the Good Shepherd. A look into these characteristics and the underlying message should encourage us to emulate and follow Him in shepherding the flock entrusted to us.
The first six verses of Jn 10 are general description of any “true shepherd”: a true shepherd enters by the gate, the gate keeper recognizes him and opens the gate; the sheep too recognize his voice, he calls each of his sheep by name and leads them out for pasture; when all his sheep are out, he goes before them and the sheep follow him for they know his voice, they will not follow the stranger because they don’t recognize his voice.
Jesus speaks of the ‘true shepherd’ distinguishing him from the thief, robber, stranger, hired hand or any other person who is not the shepherd and to whom the sheep do not belong. These naturally are not concerned about the good of the sheep but seek their own good only. Their concern is their pay. But the true shepherd is concerned about the good of the sheep. Jesus then speaks about the “Good Shepherd” who obviously excels the true shepherd. The good shepherd is not only concerned about the good of the sheep, he gives life to the sheep and gives it abundantly (v.10) and is ready to give his own life to protect the sheep (v.11).
This idea is expressed powerfully by his statement that he is the gate/door of the sheepfold. To understand what Jesus wanted to convey by the image of gate/door we need to be aware of the existential ground reality of the sheepfold Jesus is referring to. The word gate or door has a very special meaning here. There were two kinds of sheepfolds among the Jews. There were the communal sheepfolds in the villages where all the village flocks were sheltered when they returned home at night.
These folds were protected by a strong door of which only the guardian of the door held the key. Jesus referred to them in verses 2 and 3. However, when the sheep were out on the hills in the warm season and did not return at night to the village, they were collected into sheepfolds on the hillside. These were open spaces enclosed by a wall. In them there was an opening by which the sheep came in and went out. But there was no door of any kind. Hence, at night the shepherd himself lay down across the opening and no sheep could get out or in except over his body. Thus, practically the shepherd was the door/gate. And since the sheep could not get out or in, except over his body, the shepherd could follow the moves of the sheep even when he was sleeping at night and identify the sheep because even in sleep he was attuned to the sheep.
Like the mother who sleeps with the baby is all the time tuned to the moves of the child and wakes up to the slightest sign of uneasiness on the part of the child, the good shepherd is all the time concerned about the wellbeing of the sheep. That is what Jesus meant when he said: I am the door. That is why Jesus could say: Whoever enters through me will be saved; he will go in and out freely and find food. Other words, the sheep need not worry at all. The shepherd takes care of everything, their food as well as their overall wellbeing. He considers that as his responsibility because he has come that they may have life, life in all its fullness. (v. 10)
He knows them very intimately, as intimately as the Father knows him and he knows the Father. For this reason he gives his life for his sheep (vv. 14-15). Jesus was sent by the Father as the Apostle (Missionary) of his love. He is the First Missionary of love of the Father. As Good Shepherd he took utmost care of the sheep, he filled them with divine life, nurtured them, he went in search of those who went astray and after finding them he lovingly embraced them, lifting them on his shoulders he brought them back to the fold. To do this, he embraced the cross and gave up his life on the cross.
And his Mission goes beyond. Jesus adds: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. These I have to lead as well, and they shall listen to my voice. Then there will be one flock since there is one Shepherd.” (v.16). This manifests the missionary concern of the Good Shepherd to reach out to all and bring the whole humanity into the loving embrace of the Father. These characteristics of the Good Shepherd must be seen in the life of those who are appointed pastors or consider themselves as pastors. All our pastors and those equivalent to them are invited to emulate the Good Shepherd/Pastor and be good pastors themselves in his footsteps.
(Father Saturnino Dias is a Goa diocesan and a former executive secretary of the Office of Evangelization under the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.)