The heart of the shepherd in the hearts of our priests
A reflection on the readings for the principal service for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.
Christ’s heart yearns for our friendship
Today St Mark gives us one of the most amazing phrases in his entire Gospel. When Our Lord Jesus Christ gets off the boat and sees the crowd, St Mark tells us: “His heart was moved…”
Jesus has a human heart — He took one on purpose: so that He could be close to us. He truly cares for us; He feels our needs and struggles even more deeply than we feel them ourselves. And He continually reaches out to be our leader, to be our light, and to be our strength. When we accept these gifts, He is pleased, truly gratified. But when we reject them, He is hurt, truly stung by our ingratitude.
This is the lesson of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which has, through the centuries, confided its sorrows to certain chosen souls, like St Gertrude and St Margaret Mary Alacoque. When we are dealing with Jesus Christ we are not dealing with an idea, a concept, a philosophical “unmoved mover,” as Aristotle described God.
In Christ, God has become man, someone just like us; in heaven, this very moment, He exists as a man, body and soul, and He is “preparing a place” for us in heaven (John 14:2).
Through the Holy Spirit and the Church, he extends his friendship to us, trying to draw us more fully into the indescribable joys of his own divine life, so that someday, when the time is right, we may enjoy that place he is preparing for us in heaven. We all know this, but how deeply do we believe it?
Not deeply enough; that’s why the Church constantly reminds us that God urgently desires our friendship.
Every human being desires to live in communion with God; only those who find Christ get to live out that communion in the form of a real, human friendship.
God becomes a shepherd
This is what God is talking about in today’s Old Testament reading
He’s complaining about the priests and leaders of Israel in the Old Testament. Their whole mission, their whole purpose in life was to communicate to God’s people this passionate, real interest that God has in our lives. But those priests and leaders were so self-centered that they failed in their mission. They plundered and scandalized the people they were called to protect and serve. And it made God mad!
“You have not cared for my sheep,” He says: “but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.”
God is not indifferent to these self-centered priests, because he cares about his people.
He cares so much, in fact, that he finds a radical solution.
If He can’t depend on these priests and leaders, who keep rebelling against him, He will do the job himself:
“I myself will gather the remnants of my flock… I will raise up a righteous shoot to David, a king who will reign and govern wisely.”
This is a prophecy about Jesus Christ – God himself come to dwell among us and reveal the incredible depths of God’s mercy and concern for us. And then God goes on to promise that He will also appoint new shepherds who are dependable. These are the priests of the New Testament, charged with administering the sacraments.
Even if these priests fall into selfishness, mediocrity, or even sinful rebellion, the sacraments will still stand.
Even if a New Testament priest is in mortal sin, God still sends his grace to this people through the sacraments that that priest celebrates.
As Pope Benedict XVI put it:
the efficacy of the ministry is independent of the holiness of the minister.Benedict XVI, Letter to Priests, 16 June 2009
It is also explained in the Article 26 of the Articles of Religion,
26. Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.Articles of Religion, https://www.ireland.anglican.org/our-faith/39-articles-of-religion
Of course, that’s no excuse for us priests to be mediocre and sinful, but God’s faithfulness doesn’t depend on our faithfulness.
So, in spite of themselves, priests of Jesus Christ are, through God’s providence and power, dependable channels through which God continues to pour out his saving grace.
That’s how much He cares for each one of us.
Strengthening the priesthood
We would not have these sacraments at our disposal without another sacrament — that of the priesthood. The priesthood is not just a sacrament for priests — on the contrary: it is a gift for the whole Church, and so the whole Church should feel responsible for it, and appreciate it, and try to understand it. There are at least two things each one of us can do to help strengthen the priesthood throughout the Church.
First, we can pray for our priests.
Our Lord turned some very rough and very normal fishermen into the Twelve Apostles, men who were faithful to their mission up to the point of giving their lives for it. If He did that with the Twelve, He can do it with today’s priests too — and we can help with our prayers.
Second, we can pray for God to call more young men to the priesthood.
In today’s Gospel we heard how Christ’s heart was moved at seeing the crowds, who were “like sheep without a shepherd.”
That is a good description of popular culture in our society today, which often reveres celebrities who are models of self-indulgence more than self-sacrifice. We need more reminders in this world that there is another way to live, another purpose beyond satisfying our basic instincts.
Priests are meant to be those reminders; we should all ask God to give the world more of them.
As we receive the bread of life from our Good Shepherd in the Eucharist, let’s thank Him for not giving up on us, and let’s promise that we will do our part to keep His plans moving forward.
Psalms 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6