Have you ever visited the Holy Land? I am told those who have are forever changed. Having visited the sacred sites where Jesus walked, as recounted in sacred Scripture, their prayer becomes so much richer. The Gospels become more alive.
Although I never have had the fortune of visiting the Holy Land, I have had a special experience that made a popular biblical image become so much more real. On a few occasions I have had the opportunity to visit and pray at a sheep farm. The most recent visit came a few years ago as part of a day of recollection with the newly installed parish pastoral council.
It is uncommon in our present day for us to see shepherds and sheep interacting on our streets or in our neighborhoods; we typically have to settle for images found in art or in the numerous references in Scripture.
And yet, this pastoral image handed down is so vital for us priests in our life and ministry. It is just as important for our people as they aspire to be faithful members of the Church. As a result, a visit to the sheep farm enabled me to dig deeper not only into this beautiful imagery but also into the identity of shepherds and sheep.
One of the first things I discovered about sheep is that they are hungry and thirsty. Is it any wonder Jesus commanded Simon Peter to “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17)? When they eat, sheep ruminate on their food by chewing it again and again. In the same way, sheep of God’s flock are encouraged to ruminate on his word.
Sheep also need to be led. The voice and the staff of the shepherd are key instruments of leadership. The sheep know the voice and recognize the staff. They are lost without the shepherd. Jesus’ description of the crowd in Matthew 9:36 takes on a whole new meaning for me now as he describes them as being “like sheep without a shepherd.” It is hard to envision sheep without a shepherd, not to mention a parish without a priest.
Another takeaway from my time with the sheep is the realization that they are, at times, utterly dependent on the shepherd. In one instance, I witnessed the shepherd calling the sheep down the hill. All but one came. There was one that remained alone on the hill due to sickness. The shepherd walked up the hill and carried the ewe down, just as Jesus left the 99 in search of the one lost sheep (Lk 15:1-7). How many of, and how frequently, the People of God depend upon us priests as shepherds to feed and lead them. What is more, we as priests are given the same instructions as the Twelve to “go rather to the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt 10:6).
The final impression from being at the sheep farm was the smell of the sheep. There is a distinct odor they emit that is not always pleasant. The shepherd walks amid this mess and becomes very familiar with the smell. Do we as priests know the smell of our sheep?
This month, with the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday. This is an opportune time for us to prayerfully consider this intimate relationship between a shepherd and his sheep. While there is always a part of us as priests that will be like sheep that need to be led and fed, the grace of ordination calls us to be shepherds as well. This is both a graced privilege and a great responsibility as we hear from Scripture. “Tend the flock of God in your midst, not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples of the flock. And when the chief Shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pt 5:2-4).
FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 13 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. To share your thoughts on this column or any others, follow The Priest on Twitter @PriestMagazine and like us on Facebook.