Following the Good Shepherd 

When I taught our grade school children as a parish priest way back when, I used to spend a good chunk of time with the eighth-graders on the “names of Jesus.” I used to tell them that, if we understood all the titles given Jesus, we were well on our way to better understand and appreciate His mystery and message.

So, I’d spend a lot of classes on the Holy Name of Jesus itself, and also on His other beautiful titles: Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, Christ, Messiah, “the resurrection and the life,” “the way, the truth, and the life,” “the bread of heaven,’’ Savior, Redeemer, Lord, Lamb of God . . .

Each of these names, I proposed, were also acts of faith.

The one that most captivated them—no surprise to me, since I, too, was hypnotized by it—was “the Good Shepherd.”

Jesus as the Good Shepherd has to be one of the most magnetic names given our Lord, wouldn’t you agree?

A good case could be made that, after the “Our Father,” Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” is the most popular prayer there is.

I bring this up with last Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday, still fresh in our minds.

The poetic image of Jesus, a strong, tender, good shepherd, tending to us, His flock, keeping us together in the fold, leading us to clean water and lush pastures, protecting us from cliffs, briars, and wolves, searching out the ones who stay or fall behind, is very consoling.

Just to pray Psalm 23, or read the gospel passages where Jesus tells us He is indeed our Good Shepherd, can bring solace and calm to the patient in the ICU bed, or even the family at the funeral parlor.

Now, pardon me, please, for spoiling this soothing scenario, but, if Christ is the Good Shepherd, guess who are the sheep? You and I! And, honestly that’s not the most flattering image!

Sheep look innocent, pure, cuddly and docile, but, ask any farmer, they are some of the stupidest animals around!

The lambs have a tendency to go off on their own, for instance, figuring they know better than the shepherd, and usually end up stuck in a thicket or in the jaws of a wolf.

If some slick poacher comes up to them and whispers niceties, the dumb sheep follow him, and, of course, end up on a plate covered with mint jelly.

Sheep think they are smart, and like to wander off independently, figuring that, on their own, away from the shepherd and the flock, they’ll discover freedom and happiness.

And they learn the hard way that, apart from the shepherd and the fold, there awaits cliffs, sticker bushes, wolves and butcher blocks.

Sound familiar? We are like sheep, aren’t we? We are often coaxed into thinking we really don’t need the teachings of Jesus the Shepherd or His Church as our fold. So, we wander; we assert our autonomy; we know better; we drift away; we experiment. We might like the Shepherd but we’d rather not be part of His flock. And, as those in the pasture will tell you, if you see a lamb all alone, you won’t see it long, because the lamb will soon be dead.

We think we’re smart but we’re dumb. Real freedom, security, happiness and verdant pastures come only in sticking with the Good Shepherd and His flock.

Today the “smart” voices tell us that we can get along fine without the Good Shepherd and His Fold, the Church. Some, even in the Church, tell us that the voice of the Shepherd and the embrace of the Church are oppressive, autocratic, outmoded. The real shepherd to follow, they will whisper or write, is your conscience, even when it is at odds with what the Good Shepherd has told us in the Bible, His revelation, in tradition, in the wisdom of the ages, in Natural Law, all faithfully handed on by the Magisterium of His Church.

Granted, they are half-right: conscience is the supreme shepherd, as Blessed John Henry Newman taught, but, of course, a conscience properly formed. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1792), which means a conscience properly formed, in obedience to the Good Shepherd and His Fold, the Church.

Good news: Christ is our Good Shepherd!

Unflattering news: We are the sheep!

Good news again: We admit we’re sheep, not all that smart, which means we stick ever more closely to Him as one of His flock, the Church, because therein is the greatest wisdom of all!