John 10:11
Jesus said: I am the good shepherd.
I would contend he is the ONLY shepherd! So, what am I? I am a sheepdog. Let me explain. There are two primary types of sheepdogs.
The first type is the Old English Sheepdog. It is about as big as a sheep and has long hair that makes it less intimidating to the sheep. There were old cartoons with one of these types of sheepdogs and his nemesis a coyote. The sheepdog would always win by punching the coyote in the face. I know, violent, but it was just a cartoon.
The point is that these large sheepdogs had the job of going out into the middle of the flock when the flock was resting and these dogs would watch out for predators. If they were able to chase the predator away, that was their job. If the predator was too big, their job was to bark for the shepherd to come and defend the sheep.
Let me describe the other kind before I go on to compare my work as a priest to a sheepdog. This other kind of sheepdog is much smaller and runs very fast. One type of this kind of sheepdog is called a Border Collie. It’s job is to run around the sheep to get them moving where the shepherd wants them to go. The shepherd lets the Collie know where he wants them to go by hand signals or whistles or some other method that the dog can understand.
Now, why do I say I am a sheepdog? Let me take a look at both of them, again starting with the big shaggy dog. My job as a priest is to defend the church and the members of the church. There are predators who want to destroy the spiritual life of people in the church. My job is to speak loudly about those kinds of predators or predatory thoughts and to speak about what is genuine, true, holy, and able to keep people in the church thinking about their future in heaven. And, if people do not listen, I have to be ready to turn to Jesus in prayer, fasting, and pleading that people will understand and come to the holiness that God wants for them.
How is a priest like a Border Collie? I have to keep my eyes and ears open to where God wants the church to go. I have to know with confidence how God wants to lead his people. I then have the responsibility to keep as many of the flock of Jesus as I can headed in the right direction.
But there is more to this analogy. If the sheepdog does not receive his sustenance from the shepherd, he may be inclined to turn on the sheep. After all, dogs are carnivores. In recent decades we have all heard of priests who have failed to lead the church into holiness and have instead only served themselves and hurt members of the flock.
I believe the reason why they have acted so badly is because they took their eyes off of the shepherd. By their actions they proved that they no longer sought holiness for themselves. So, how could they possibly pursue holiness for the people of God? And they use the people of God for their own ends.
Another point is that the church teaches there are three sacraments that cause an ontological change in the person receiving the sacrament. The first two everyone is supposed to receive: Baptism and Confirmation. The other sacrament with an ontological change is Ordination. A man once he is ordained is no longer the same thing he was prior to his ordination.
Maybe you have heard me say this: with baptism and confirmation we are no longer human beings, but sacred beings. Unfortunately, I do not have a way to describe the change that happens with ordination other than to connect it with a Latin phrase: in persona Christi. In the person of Christ.
There are some differences between a deacon who is called “in the person of Christ, the servant” and a priest who is called “in the person of Christ, the head”. And, of course, a bishop is the fullness of the priesthood, so he is in the person of Christ, the head in a more complete way than even a priest.
Yet I am still intrigued by yet another part of this analogy. Both sheep and sheepdog are owned by the shepherd. Both need to turn to the shepherd for their sustenance. I know in some cultures that dogs are considered… bad animals. In other cultures, they are highly prized. In our day, some priests have given a “bad example” and have left people wondering whether the priesthood is worth it. But there are also good and holy priests (and I pray that I am – and will remain – one of those kinds of priests).
As I said, I do not consider myself shepherd as much as I consider myself a sheepdog. I do not consider this a denigration of what God has called me to be for the church of today. I am reminded of a quote from Saint Augustine: “with you I am a Christian, for you I am a bishop.”
It would be wrong to try to say that there is no difference between priests and laity… or deacons and laity… and certainly between bishops and laity. But we are all part of the church of Jesus Christ, part of the family of Christ. Though we have different responsibilities, we all serve the Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for his sheep… and his sheepdogs.
This is also considered the weekend to pray for vocations. Because the gospel speaks of the Good Shepherd, and there is a need for… Do I say shepherds are sheepdogs? I ask for your prayers for more vocations… for all bishops… for me and my brother priests… and for all my brother deacons – especially those who will be ordained this coming Saturday for our archdiocese, including one for this Parish: soon-to-be-Deacon: Ramon Contreras. Please… Pray for us as we pray for you.