A couple of people asked me for a copy of yesterday’s homily. I am therefore posting it here today:
As a child there hung in my bedroom an image of Christ the Good Shepherd. I liked it a lot though it dripped with sentimentality. It was that image of gentle Jesus meek and mild, skin scrubbed clean, beard neatly trimmed, as he clutched an impossibly white lamb to his breast. A healthy devotional image but one devoid of any authenticity. So it is not an image for today when we contemplate a Gospel passage in which Jesus cries out for authenticity- for the laying down of life in the service of God. Far better that we focus on reality- the filthy sheep and shepherds of the ancient Middle East. Which leads to a lovely quote from Pope Francis who suggested clergy today must keep about themselves the stink of the sheep. Whatever did he mean?
The church needs true shepherds. Priests and bishops not divorced from reality, like my picture, but rooted in truth and close to their people. That they might guide the Church into the future. Clergy who put God first, others second and self last. That is what the church in every age needs, but what she often gets, alas, is hirelings. Those who profess a love of Christ but who, in reality, put personal comfort and political ambition ahead of the Gospel. How priesthood is diminished when this happens! We might consider, most obviously, those wicked men who hid behind their collars and abuses young people in their care. And those cowards who covered up the truth at the cost of other victims.
Those are the most obvious examples of hirelings. But there are others, better hidden but also dangerous. I speak of clergy who uphold a liberalising agenda. Whose voice ever calls for greater synthesis with the prevailing culture. The issues change from one generation to the next but the thrust of their argument is constant. A voice which pleads for change that the church may be more relevant. These men would shepherd God’s people but not at personal cost. They want a Christianity in vogue with modern attitudes not a faith that might challenge the world. Are these not hirelings? Those who look like shepherds, who should be shepherds, but whose teaching, in truth, leads away from the historic faith towards greater acceptance of the worlds philosophy?
Learning to differentiate between authentic shepherds and hirelings becomes a crucial skill. Because even those in high office, actually especially those in high office, are often tempted in this regard. And who can blame them? It is not easy being a bishop. You spend time with influential powerful people and there is much pressure to conform. Furthermore you have much to lose- the place at high table, the praise of elites! Which is why, sadly, many bishops come to value compromise over clarity. And, in the very worst cases, they can become obstacles to the Gospel and not conduits of it. Men of the institution not men of God. Which is why bishops need our prayers daily. And it is why they must be held to account and reminded that they are to be shepherds of truth not politicians.
We need authentic witnesses not false teachers. The chilling photograph of German bishops giving Hitler a salute reminds us of this fact. As does the reformation in England when most every bishop capitulated to the crown, hid in palaces and shared the plunder as martyrs were put to the sword. The exception, of course, was St. John Fisher. The BBC drama Wolf Hall might have delighted in portraying him a villain. But that was a wicked lie. In truth he was a hero. The one shepherd surrounded by hirelings who spoke truth to power and witnessed to Christ with his life.
It is in times of crisis, when the wolf comes as the Gospel puts it, when we often learn who is the true shepherd and who is the hireling. In times of comfort it is hard to tell. And today we are again living through a time of crisis as the modernist heresy challenges our faith. And so it was that during the last Synod on the family we heard two very different voices emerging. Some Cardinals were passionate in their defence of the faith of the ages. But others seemed more passionate about the teachings of this fallen world concerning marriage and family life. There were those who upheld the Gospel and those who would have us believe that mercy calls us to abandon it’s teaching. We must champion and support those who are faithful and challenge those who no longer speak for Christ in the world. We must pray that the voice of the shepherd triumphs!
From bishops to priests. The problem remains. How many clergy refuse to speak out on contentious issues? How many shy away from controversy running the church as a social club not preaching the faith in its fulness? I do not point a finger without being aware of my own shortcomings in this regard. One of my favourite writers is Fulton-Sheen. He said people do not need priests who are regular guys but those who are examples of holiness. That calls me short. Too often I am just a regular guy at the rugby club or in church or at the Black Horse. I have much to do in my own spiritual life lest I become a hireling not a shepherd. It is all well and good talking the talk but we who profess the faith must also walk the walk. And it is here many of us fall by the wayside. But read today’s Gospel and see how Jesus calls us to be faithful. He yearns for authenticity. The living out of a vocation not the doing of a job.
Authenticity; that is what we must strive for though each is a broken vessel. But take comfort- we do not rely on ourselves but on him. And all he wants is for us to desire to change- to lay down our lives that he might reform them. And so from priests to people. What of you? Are you an authentic witness? Do you shine forth with Easter joy. Or, like me, is there room for improvement when it comes to true discipleship?
Back to Fulton Sheen. He said behave as you believe or you will soon believe as you behave. We ought to be celebrating Easter fully. But how can Western Christians do so when, during the last Century we have, in so many places, sold out to secular culture? The faith handed to us by saints and martyrs has been watered down and damaged by accommodation to the world. So we do rejoice but it is muted. We do rejoice but there are many missing from the celebration. And so todays Gospel arrives us a challenge within our rejoicing. He laid down his life for us- will we now lay down our lives for him? So let me ask. If you were arrested for being Christian would there be evidence to convict you? Do your beliefs stem from Christ or the spirit of this age? What are you to be this coming year- a shepherd or a hireling?