What does it take to be a good shepherd?
I just got back from a 10-day trip to Jordan, and you see shepherds everywhere. They are part of the life in that corner of the world. The Bedouins who tend the sheep slumber on hillsides under tents; they stand watch in large empty fields while the sheep graze on weeds and dust and sand. A few times on our trip, our bus had to come to a dead stop in the middle of the highway, while a shepherd led his flock from one side of the road to the other.
One afternoon, the leader of our tour invited us to get out and chat with the young shepherd watching his sheep. His name was Mohammed. He was in his early 20s, shy. Our guide asked him in Arabic how long he’d been a shepherd.
“Four years,” he said.
And how does he like it?
He thought for a moment and smiled and answered.
Our guide translated: “It’s alright, he says, but it’s boring.”
I don’t think it’s that exciting for the sheep, either. They aren’t pure lambs with “fleece as white as snow.” The ones we saw had fleece as white as mud—hardly the ideal you might imagine from the nursery rhyme.
But you might still wonder: what does it take to be a good shepherd? I was curious to find out and did a little Googling.
A few months ago, Catholic News Service profiled a shepherd in Italy named Fabrizio Innocenzi who oversees about 60 sheep in the hills of Roviano, 40 miles east of Rome.
He said that sheep actually need a shepherd, because they have no natural hierarchy, no leader of the flock.
The sheep learn to trust the shepherd, Innocenzi said, as “they hear and understand the voice, the smell, the behavior of the person who is looking after them every day.
He said a shepherd needs to be someone who is “in tune with nature, decisive” and willing to bear the long hours, inclement weather, hard work and sacrifice—and do it out of devotion to his flock.
A good shepherd, he said, should “not be afraid of anything.”
Doesn’t that describe Christ? But in the gospel we just heard, Jesus takes it even further.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus says. “A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
This Easter season, with the fragrance of Easter flowers still in the air and alleluias on our lips, we cannot forget the hard dead wood of Calvary. We cannot forget how this good shepherd laid down his life for us. And he didn’t do it because we had “fleece as white as snow.” Far from it. We are as muddy and as ordinary and as unclean as those sheep I saw in Jordan. We aren’t always beautiful.
But the Good Shepherd who is Christ loves us anyway.
And he calls on us to love one another the same way. And this may be our greatest challenge.
If we are to be imitators of Christ, we must be willing to be more than sheep. We must also be shepherds—good shepherds to each other and good shepherds of our faith. We must be unafraid, devoted, steadfast.
We need to protect each other from the wolves.
We need to support those who are frail…nurture those who are weak…lead back those who are lost…comfort those who are afraid…love those who are covered with dust from the journey.
This is what a good shepherd does.
This is what Christ has done for us.
This is what we must do for each other.
This Sunday, we mark not only Good Shepherd Sunday, but also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations—at a moment when the need is greater than ever for more to answer the call to serve and be shepherds.
I think of that shepherd I saw leading his flock over fields, across roads. Every vocation is in some way a journey. It is a pilgrimage. Pope Francis made that point in his message for today, describing vocation as a kind of “exodus.”
“Never be afraid to go out from yourselves and begin the journey!,” he wrote. “The Gospel is the message which brings freedom to our lives; it transforms them and makes them all the more beautiful. How wonderful it is to be surprised by God’s call, to embrace his word, and to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, in adoration of the divine mystery and in generous service to our neighbours! Your life will become richer and more joyful each day!”
That is the vocational journey. And I can’t help but wonder: is someone here today being called to make this journey as a priest, a deacon, or a religious? Think about it. Pray about it. Carry that question with you as you receive the Eucharist.
As we mark Good Shepherd Sunday let us pray for all vocations—and the vocation each of us has as a Catholic Christian and a person of faith. Let us reflect on what our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, has shown us and taught us—and the example he has given us.
How can we follow his example?
How can we be servant leaders—people of compassion and conviction, people of mercy, sacrifice, and tenderness?
How can we lay down our lives for one another?