Driving around Florida last week, I mused on this upcoming Sunday, “Good Shepherd Sunday.” I wondered about this column, my homily, and other things along the way. I am assigned as “pastor” of the parish – a shepherd of sorts – and I wonder what the sheep think of all this. I sometimes joke that 25% of the people think I am “OK,” another quarter think I am less than OK on the job, another part have no opinion, and the final 25% think I am Fr. Andrew.
I was not a young man when I was ordained. I had served as an officer on nuclear submarines, worked in the private sector, started companies, sold companies, and all the while was active as a lay volunteer in many ministries in parish life. All of which left a mark, an impression of what it means to lead.
I left all of that aside for just a while (so I thought) to become a lay missioner. I served for a little more than three years in the slums of Nairobi in ministry to the young, old, sick, dying, healthy, and all the things that make up parish life. Many things were the same; so much was different. I was the missionary. I was expected to lead. But things were different there. In the Navy or in business I was expected to lead from the front. As this missionary shepherd among the poor in Eastern Africa, I found myself following the sheep – through their days and nights, joys and sorrows, and their life close to the edge of disaster. Life for me was changed. Borrowing from Pope Francis’ lexicon, I came home with the smell of sheep upon me.
I returned home to the United States, joined the Franciscan friars, and took up the life of poverty, chastity, and obedience as a way of following Christ in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi. Along the way – burdened or aided by my experience of life and ministry (you can decide) – I entered seminary. A lifetime of experience in parishes, sitting in pews, and volunteering – of seeing and listening to priests, talking with parishioners, and living in the world – all that comes along with you. You don’t leave it at the door. I found myself considering other seminarians from the frame of that experience: “Would I want this man to be my pastor? To be my shepherd?” I have to say that for the majority of men (including myself) I met along the way, the answer was, “Yes…eventually.” We all grow into our roles and our vocations. We are all ordained with rough edges, human weaknesses, and a host of human foibles. The question is will we let ourselves be formed into priests by the people we serve and, more importantly, by the fullness of the presence of God in our ministry. The bigger question for those who would celebrate the Sacred Liturgy – priest and lay person alike – is will we let the presence of God in all its forms shape us to be His servants? Or will we insist on shaping it to our sense of how things are in the world?
On Holy Thursday, a day that begins the three holiest days of the Church liturgical year, the Gospel is the Last Supper account where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. When finished, Jesus says, “I have given you a model to follow…” While the Holy Thursday Mass, in part, celebrates the priesthood, in a larger way it celebrates what we, who call ourselves “Christian,” are called to do, be, and lead in the world. If the Good Shepherd, the Christ, our Divine Pastor does this for us, how can we not try to follow and be pastors in our own lives as priests, parents, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers?
Perhaps we are burdened by our own experiences of “being in charge,” which resist Jesus’ words, “I have given you a model to follow…” This was the Divine Shepherd teaching his would-be shepherds. These days our “Good Shepherd,” Pope Francis washes the feet of the imprisoned, men and women, Christian and others. There is a pattern of what it means to be pastor or shepherd in your role in life.
In our own way and time, we are all pastors, hopefully good shepherds. How would we know if we were indeed good pastors? Maybe it is as simple as looking back on our lives and asking if we served, if we washed feet, if we have the smell of sheep upon us. When I look back on my life as leader in the Navy and business, I wish I had “washed a few more feet.” Perhaps not as literally as Jesus, but in a way that served others, consistent with Jesus’ model.
What do I think of this role as pastor/shepherd? We all bring our lives and experience with us in fulfilling our roles of leadership in all parts of our lives. It is easy to lead in the way the world expects. It requires a good deal of intentionality to hold up Jesus’ model. We all begin with rough edges, human weaknesses, and a host of human foibles. We begin by washing someone’s feet. And be we priest or parent, butcher or baker, we eventually become the good shepherd in someone’s life – by the grace of God. That is the hope I carry for you and me.