Amid the Flock
At the ordination of a priest, after the ritual laying on of hands, the ordaining bishop anoints the priest’s hands with Sacred Chrism, the perfumed oil also used to anoint those receiving baptism and confirmation. You have probably seen ministers dab a little oil with their thumb on the foreheads of those being baptized or confirmed. Me, I like to pour. When it comes to ritual symbols, I prefer to interpret the instruction more broadly. I know a more generous action is also a more impressive sign. So when we use water, I like to use a lot of water. When we use incense, I like to use a lot of incense. When we give praise to God and our hearts swell in song, I like to have a full orchestra and sing all the verses. I know that can get a bit expensive. So I limit my expansiveness to water, incense, oil, and all the verses. But if we can afford it, it will be impressive.
Now as at baptism and confirmation, the Holy Spirit confers upon the priest at ordination an indelible mark upon the soul. We believe this lofty truth—that the Holy Spirit confers an indelible mark—such that by this fact alone we believe ordination sets the priest apart from everyone else. People do tend to make a big deal of it. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But when couples get married, they might make a big deal of it for a day. Eventually the illusion fades, and life returns to normal after the honeymoon. It’s not so for priests, I must say. The illusion will go on for years. And I saw how it shifted attention away from the more foundational sacraments of baptism and confirmation. At baptism God raised us to a more exalted dignity than we ever had. Ordination builds on God’s gift of baptism. Still we like to create our own pecking order, preferring titles and academic degrees, being made to think they actually raise our public standing.
In choosing the apostles, Jesus honored twelve above all his other disciples to be his closest companions. And to them he gave a generous share of his own ministry, the power to drive out evil spirits, to preach repentance, and to heal the sick. But then he also taught them that the first among them must be their servant. And at the last supper he washed their feet, instructing them to wash each other’s feet.
In a homily in 2016 on the vocation of a priest, Pope Francis said, “A shepherd after the heart of God has a heart sufficiently free to set aside his own concerns. He does not live by calculating his gains or how long he has worked: he is not an accountant of the Spirit, but a Good Samaritan who seeks out those in need. … For the flock he is a shepherd, not an inspector, and he devotes himself to the mission not fifty or sixty percent, but with all he has. … In seeking, he finds, and he finds because he takes risks. He does not stop when disappointed and he does not yield to weariness. Indeed, he is stubborn in doing good, anointed with the divine obstinacy that loses sight of no one. … Not only does he keep his doors open, but he also goes to seek out those who no longer wish to enter them.” Clearly, this is not a life of ease or privilege or status. And anyone who embraces the priestly ministry with anything less in mind is sorely misled, and it will be to him a source of great misery, frustration, and discouragement.
The prophet Jeremiah gives voice to God’s complaints against shepherds who lack a true commitment to their calling. “You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them.” Being himself a true shepherd to his people, God desires partners and collaborators who share his deep and abiding love for them.
St. Paul elaborates on the crucial role of Jesus Christ as mediator between God and the human family. He alone is that shepherd after the Father’s own heart. “For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity … that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross.” The divisiveness we experience today across various strands of daily life makes us yearn for a simpler time, a more civil time, when our unity as a nation was of greater importance than the partisan issues that divide us. In Jesus Christ we can come to know peace because he broke down the wall that divided us one from another, “for through him we have access in one Spirit to the Father.” And it will take leaders with the heart of a true shepherd, who break down dividing walls and reconcile opposing factions with God, “putting that enmity to death,” who will bring true peace. Throughout human history there will be courageous and selfless shepherds who will attempt the impossible. They will suffer for their efforts, but they will keep trying despite their meager successes.
What some shepherds sometimes forget is that it is Jesus who called them to be partners and collaborators with him. In the gospel of John he said, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last.” Priests along with all the baptized who labor to advance the Kingdom of God are not self-appointed messiahs, free agents, and lone rangers. We do not choose and send ourselves. So any task we engage in is determined first and foremost by God. We need to be attentive to the Holy Spirit. We need to listen for God’s voice and discern God’s will. And when our ego and selfishness get in the way, we become obstacles to God’s design. When that happens, God will find a way to choose and send others in our place.
Now when the apostles returned to Jesus after doing the work that he had sent them to do, Jesus invited them to “come away … and rest a while.” All who work hard know that they do need to get away and rest occasionally. And that goes for priests and all who work for the church as well. But we know emergencies will happen, and will interrupt our days off and vacations. We will make an effort to be flexible, and do our best to accommodate the needs of others. But we need to be patient with one another, and face these challenges together. Jesus showed flexibility such that as they were going off to be by themselves, his heart was moved with pity at the sight of the crowd, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. And without missing a beat, he interrupted their day off, and patiently, compassionately, and lovingly went back to work.
I will be taking some time away in the coming weeks myself. And I trust my staff, and all other fellow partners and collaborators in the work of the Kingdom of God will do their utmost to assist anyone in need. But I will need you to work with them, as patiently, compassionately, and lovingly as you can.
Some years ago, I overheard a parent tell their child, “If you don’t behave in church, I’ll send you to Father.” I was stunned. I am not the bogeyman! That doesn’t help us give young people a very positive image of priests and the church. Besides, when you say things like that, who are you really punishing? In different capacities, we all share in Jesus’ work as shepherd of God’s flock. We pray for a heart like his to do the work he sends us to do, and we assist each other with patience, compassion, and love.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
Jeremiah 23: 2
Ephesians 2: 14-16
Ephesians 2: 18
John 15: 16
Mark 6: 31