Archbishop Fisher OP on being a shepherd...

​Homily for Good Shepherd Sunday, Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B, 
St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, 26th April 2015

Before conferring Confirmation, I like where possible to visit the children in a parish, introduce myself and playfully interrogate them on what they understand about the sacrament they are soon to receive. On one occasion, on my way into one of our primary schools, a tiny-tot saw I was unusually dressed and asked what I was. "I'm the bishop," I explained, to which he responded quick-as-a-flash, "Are you a chess piece?"

Often on such occasions I bring props, including my mitre and crozier, to help explain what on earth I am. When I ask the children what my pastoral staff is, I am reminded how very old I seem to them, as some suggest it's my walking stick. Usually, however, some smart kid identifies it a shepherd's staff. When one now-retired auxiliary bishop asked why he had one of those, a child answered "Because you are Little Bow Peep!"

Well, in case you are wondering, I'm not! But I am a shepherd in some sense. What might the stick say about that? For drovers the crooked end is used for catching straying sheep around the neck, especially those caught in a hard place and lifting them to safety; the pointed finial, on the other hand, is used to goad reluctant sheep in the right direction; and the rod in between is a solid support useful in fights with wolves, dingoes and robbers.

When a bishop carries such an item, it is a reminder of his pastoral office:
that it is his responsibility to encourage people in the right direction,
to goad the spiritually lazy,
to draw back those who stray,
o defend all from spiritual attack and to be their strong support.

A bishop normally uses the crozier only in his own diocese, as it is about the relationship he has to a particular flock.

It is interesting that the shepherd's crook caught on as the symbol for bishops rather than, say, a fishing rod or net - fishing is, after all, another New Testament metaphor for apostolate; or a rod or whip - after all, the Greek work ἐðßóêïðïò refers to the overseer who keeps the labourers working; or keys, since bishops share with the Pope the role of unlocking the mysteries, binding and losing by teaching and judging. No, bishops carry a shepherd's crook, to evoke the image of Christ the Good Shepherd.

What might we say about this way of imaging Christ and those who act on His behalf? In today's Gospel (Jn 10:11-18) John contrasts the shepherd with the hireling. The hired man is just doing a job and gives it up if the work is too arduous or risky. The shepherd, on the other hand, is invested in the sheep: he knows them (and they know him), he cares about them. What's more, the employee decides whether he wants to do this work and on what terms; but for the appointed shepherd it is a calling. Though he has to decide whether to respond or not, he doesn't make the call or set the terms. As Jesus explains today, in freely laying down His life, He is responding in love to "the command of my Father". We pick our jobs but our vocations pick us.

What else does our pastoral allegory reveal? The shepherd is supposed to put the good of his flock first, to make their unity, direction and flourishing his priority. This is why people are so disappointed with the misconduct of some clergy and the failure of supervision by some leaders: we are appalled by the evil done to the victims, and doubly appalled that it was done by guys with such a sacred trust. Some say the Catholic clergy have received disproportionate scrutiny in these matters compared to others; that the Catholic laity have had their noses rubbed in this again and again when it was none of their fault; that most of this is ugly history from decades ago and that we've cleaned up our act in the meantime. While I understand this frustration, nonetheless I accpt that we must hear the anger in our community at our failings as a Church, repent with all our hearts, learn all we can from this, do all we can to bring justice, compassion and healing to victims, and ensure such things are never repeated. We must ensuring that the sheep, and especially the lambs, are 100% safe from wolves in shepherds' clothing. That people are appalled by failures in this area is as it should be; indeed, it is the community acting as a crook, lifting the Church out of trouble, and as a crozier point, goading the Church forward in the right direction. 

The shepherds of the Church - bishops and clergy - must be images of the Good Shepherd. Easter celebrates that Christ laid down His life for His sheep, as He's said He would; that He did indeed put Himself last and His flock first. In the process He changed what it meant to belong to His flock. We are not just dumb followers anymore, ready to be fleeced or butchered at the owner's convenience: no, we have become the sheep Jesus loves, the beloved, and that is very different to the usual relationship between farmer and herd. We have become the sheep with whom He shares the Resurrection, immortals like Him, with dignity and destiny. And in becoming our Easter Shepherd Jesus has changed not only what it means to be one of His sheep but also what it means to be one of His shepherds. For a bishop or priest to be a Good Shepherd, a shepherd like him, is to be ready to give his all for his people, as Christ did.

Of course, all the priestly people of God share in the dignity and destiny of sheep and shepherds. But we need wise, compassionate, self-sacrificing, holy priests to hook and prod, defend and strengthen us. On this World Day of Prayer for Vocations I say: yes, I am sickened and ashamed and, on behalf of the Church of Sydney, I repent of the failures of some of our pastors; but I also want to acknowledge that the great majority of our clergy are generous, God-loving, flock-loving men, who would never dream of abusing their office or their little ones. At the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday our priests renewed their priestly promises, declaring that they are resolved to be more closely conformed to Christ, denying self and joyfully embracing once more their calling: to be faithful stewards of the mysteries, authentic teachers of sacred doctrine, pastors moved only by a zeal for the souls. Then I asked our lay people present:

As for you, dearest sons and daughters, pray for your priests, 
that the Lord may pour out his gifts abundantly upon them, and keep them faithful as ministers of Christ, the High Priest, so that they may lead you to Him,
who is the source of salvation.
Finally I asked our lay people to 
Pray also for me, that I may be faithful to the apostolic office 
entrusted to me in my lowliness 
and that in your midst I may be made day by day
a living and more perfect image of Christ, the Priest, 
the Good Shepherd, the Teacher and Servant of all.

Dare I ask you again, dear friends, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, to pray for your pastors? Pray also that the Church is graced with a new generation of happy and holy priests who will rebuild the trust our priests deserve and the confidence our people deserve, who will take our Church forward with Christ and with you in the decades ahead!

Word after Communion for Good Shepherd Sunday, Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B, 
St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, 26th April 2015

Today we have celebrated Good Shepherd Sunday and the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Please keep praying for vocations to the priesthood and to all Christian states of life. To our young people I say: ask yourselves whether your own temperament, gifts and ideals might well be put to such service. Open your hearts to that possibility in prayer and sacrament, seeking God's will for you and the courage to pursue it. Do not be afraid to give your lives to Christ: He is the one who knows your deepest hopes and dreams and desires - and He wants to give you a joyful and abundant life. Pray for the grace to know and love and serve Him best in this life, that you may draw many to be with Him in the next!

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