Shepherding 101


My official title here at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church is pastor, as in shepherd—one who herds sheep. And shepherding is hard work, if that is what I’m supposed to be doing. Now I can not claim to know what it’s really like to herd actual sheep. The shepherding I do is clearly not that. Besides, my gear is all wrong. I don’t socialize with shepherds who herd actual sheep. What I do is something else altogether. So I googled “famous shepherds,” and every single name on the list was from the Old Testament. Now King David and Moses are the most famous shepherds on the list. And both had been at one point in their lives real herders of actual sheep. Yet David as king, and Moses as deliverer of slaves into freedom were shepherds in a different sense as well. And they are both better remembered for that other sense of shepherding as king and as deliverer of slaves rather than as herders of actual sheep. I bet the herding of actual sheep didn’t even take up more than a sentence in their Facebook profiles.

And then I googled “famous pastors.” After scrolling 300 names, I noticed not one person on the list was Catholic. The list did include 6 women. Most were American, of course. A few are long dead. And most are better known for other things than for being a pastor. They were actors, authors, composers, musicians, song writers, politicians, theologians, journalists, motivational speakers, founders of multimillion-dollar churches and church ministries, philanthropists, television and radio broadcasters, televangelists, pacifists, and even one director of pornographic films—makes you wonder. So although my job title says pastor, I have to add that I am not a herder of actual sheep. Nor am I the kind of pastor who ends up on a list of famous pastors. But I am in good company. Jesus Christ was not mentioned on either list.

celebrity-pastor

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd. Elsewhere he calls himself the Good Shepherd, but not in this particular passage. Here he just speaks of his sheep, which says he is a shepherd. But for the purposes of full disclosure, he did also refer to himself in a previous chapter as the sheep gate, or the entrance to the sheep pen. But we’re not even touching that, and I did not google “famous sheep gates.”

What Jesus says of his sheep speaks to us the kind of shepherd he styles himself to be. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.” We can agree that a shepherd must have care of persons or things regarded as sheep. Clearly, Jesus was referring to his followers, his disciples. They know his voice; he knows them, and they follow him. He gives them eternal life. No one can take them from him. The Good Shepherd and his sheep share an intimate bond. Pastors like myself are shepherds only because we want to bring people to Jesus. None of us can ever take his place. I believe pastors are also his sheep, disciples like the rest, disciples given care of other disciples. There is none like Jesus who alone is Shepherd and Pastor.

shepherd feet

And I am not kidding when I tell you being shepherd is hard work. Jesus the Good Shepherd says he knows his sheep. Of about 7 billion people in the world today, Christians number about 2.18 billion in over 200 countries, and Catholics are about half or 1.2 billion. I’m sure Jesus meant to include all Christians all over the world through 2000 years of the church’s history. The Population Reference Bureau estimates about 107 billion people have lived in the last 50,000 years. How many of these were Christian, your guess is as good as mine. I wouldn’t even know where to start. Now closer to home, I can say I know a few Christians in my care, and even a few others unofficially. But that is still less than half of registered St. John parishioners, which at last count numbered about 2000 individuals. If the same people come to church every weekend, there are still about 1200 parishioners we do not see. And if you always come in and leave by the door in the wing, the door to 11th Street, or through the sacristy, there’s a good chance I may have never met you, or even know who you are. And some I will not meet until they’re lying in a hospital bed, and a few only after they have died. Clearly, I am not a shepherd like Jesus. I do not know my sheep like Jesus does. And I must say, many of you are not making my job any easier.

Jesus the Good Shepherd calls each of us by name. We follow him. It doesn’t bother me that some parishioners will never regard me as their pastor. But I would be the first to remind everyone that Jesus alone is our shepherd. And we are encouraged to develop a personal relationship with Jesus, not with the pastor, the bishop, or the pope. Besides, I only know a handful of you by name, and you get no prize for your trouble.

Pope Francis

Jesus the Good Shepherd gives his sheep eternal life; they shall not perish. And no one can take them out of his hand. I guess if I did my job right, I would be assisting the Good Shepherd by sharing the very life of God, mostly through the celebration of the sacraments which are excellent avenues for God’s grace. If I were a more effective instrument of God’s mercy and compassion, if I was always ever kind, welcoming, and loving, if I never send anyone away frustrated, angry, or discouraged, I would indeed be a bearer of God’s life to others. But since I am nowhere near to being added to any list of “famous pastors” or “effective pastors” or “excellent pastors,” I suppose my efforts will fall short in helping Jesus with this task of shepherding his disciples.

This is why I said I was above all simply one of the Good Shepherd’s sheep, a disciple like yourselves, a disciple given the care of other disciples. So I suggest we are all sheep in the care of one another, disciples given the care of our fellow disciples. That makes us some kind of shepherd and pastor to one another. I will always have trouble learning everyone’s name, but all of us can get to know everyone’s name—Do you know who you’re sitting next to? Are you still strangers? And we can reach out and welcome and show kindness to one another. We will extend to one another a wonderful experience of the life of God when we forgive those who offend us, and pray with our fellow believers, and invite others to celebrate with us as a church family. I am not authorized to give you a title, but many of you are already effectively functioning as shepherds and pastors to one another, as parents and grandparents, educators and catechists, healthcare and community service providers, siblings, friends, volunteers, and Christians who live out the message of the gospel in your own lives everyday.

Jesus alone is our Good Shepherd. But we bring him and his good news to one another. We could be so much more still if we embrace our role willingly, joyfully, mercifully. We can all be shepherds and pastors to one another after Jesus’ own heart.

caring

Rolo B Castillo © 2016