Sunday, May 07, 2006

"The Service of Unity"

This morning, in ordaining his second class of new priests as Pope, Benedict XVI offered a strong, rich and soaring meditation for his homily, focusing not just on what priesthood is, but also what it isn't.

Here's the Whispers translation. It isn't perfect, but you'll have the gist.

And, just so you know, despite the lacking translation you see below, this is probably the best Benedict homily I've yet seen, and I'll probably memorize and quote snippets of it for the rest of my life.

That said, happy reading....


In this hour at which you, dear friends, through the Sacrament of Priestly Ordination, take your introduction as shepherds in the service of the great Pastor Jesus Christ, it is the Lord himself who speaks to us in the Gospel of favorable service of the flock of God. The image of the shepherd is a long-held one. In the ancient East, kings designated themselves as the shepherds of their people. In the Old Testament Moses and David, before being called to become heads and shepherds of the People of God, were effectively shepherds of flocks. In the travails of the period of the exile, in the face of the downfall of the shepherds of Israel -- that is, of the political and religious leaders -- Ezekiel traced the image of God himself as the Shepherd of his people: " As a shepherd tends his flock… so I will tend my sheep and rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark" (Ez 34:12). Now, Jesus announces that this hour has arrived: He himself is the Good Shepherd in whom God takes care of his creature, man, calling human beings to himself and guiding them to the true pasture. St Peter, to whom the risen Lord gave the charge of tending his sheep, of becoming the shepherd for Him and with Him, classifies Jesus as the "archipomen" -- the archpastor, and by this seeks to say that he can be shepherd of the flock of Jesus Christ only by means of Him and in the most intimate communion with Him. It's this that expresses itself in the Sacrament of Ordination: the priest becomes totally inserted in Christ as, going forth from Him and working in His sight, he develops in communion with Him the service of the one Pastor, Jesus, in whom God, from man, desires to be our Shepherd.

The Gospel of this Sunday is only one part of the grand discourse of Jesus on the shepherds. In this piece, the Lord tells us three things about the true pastor: he gives his own life for his sheep; he knows them and they know him; he is at the service of unity. Before reflecting on these three essential characteristics of being shepherds, it'll be useful to briefly remember the previous part of the discourse on the shepherds in which Jesus, before designating himself as the Shepherd, says to our surprise: "I am the gate" (Jn 10:7). He is the one who must be entered in the service of the shepherd. Jesus places in a very clear way – one which stands out – this root condition, affirming that “He who ascends another way is a thief and a robber” (Jn 10:1). The word “ascend” [“salire”] evokes the image of someone who goes up into a closed-off place, climbing, to where he wouldn’t be able to legitimately arrive. To “ascend” – this can be seen also as the image of careerism, of the attempt of arriving “on high,” of procuring for oneself a position by means of the Church: to serve oneself, not to serve. It is the image of the man who, through the priesthood, wishes to make himself important, to become a personage; the image of him who has in his sights his own exaltation and not the humble service of Jesus Christ. The only legitimate ascent toward the ministry of the shepherd, however, is the Cross. This is the gate. To not personally desire to become something, but instead that we be for the other, for Christ, and so by means of Him and with Him be for men the One they seek, that He may lead them along the path of life. The priesthood is entered by the Sacrament – which means precisely this: by the total donation of myself to Christ, that He may make use of me; that I may serve Him and follow His call, and that these must be in contrast with my desires of self-realization and esteem. To enter through the gate, who is Christ, means to know and love him always ever-more, to unite our will to his and that our work becomes one and the same as his. Dear friends, for this intention we pray always, we wish to pledge ourselves to this, that this Christ may grow in us, that our union with Him becomes always more profound, so that through us the same Christ may be with the one who grazes.

Let us look closer now at the three fundamental affirmations of Jesus on the good shepherd. The first, which with great force pervades his whole discourse on the shepherds, says: the shepherd gives his life for the sheep. The mystery of the Cross is at the center of the service of Jesus as shepherd: it is the true great service which He renders to all of us. He gives himself. For this, with good reason, at the center of the priestly life stands the holy Eucharist, in which the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross remains continually present among us. And going forth from this we learn also what it means to celebrate the Eucharist in a fitting way: it is to encounter the Lord who, for us, stripped himself of his divine glory, leaving himself humbled to the point of his death on a cross and so giving himself to us all. The daily Eucharist is very important for the priest, in which he exhibits this mystery always; always anew he places his own hands in the hands of God experiencing at the same time the joy of knowing that He is present, welcomes me, lifts me and carries me always. The Eucharist must become for us a school of life, in which we learn to give our own life. Life is not something given solely in the moment of death and not only in the mode of martyrdom. We must give it day by day. It is necessary to learn day by day that I do not possess my life for myself. Day by day, I must learn to abandon myself; to put myself at the disposition of that thing for which He, the Lord, needs me for at that moment, even if there are other things which seem nicer-looking and important. To give life, not take it. And so that we may have the experience of freedom. That freedom gives of ourselves, the vastness of being. And so, in being useful, our life becomes important and beautiful. Only he who gives his life, finds it.

As the second thing, the Lord tells us: “I know my sheep, and my sheep know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (Jn 10:14-15). They are two apparently different relationships of all the many which are found linked one to the other: the relationship between Jesus and the Father and the relationship between Jesus and the men and women entrusted to Him. But both relationships go together in their own way, as men, so the story tells, parted from God and are in search of Him. When they welcome that one speaks only his own name and takes him from being alone, they intuit that it cannot be the one for whom they are looking. When, however, the voice of the Father resounds in a person, the door is opened for the relationship which man awaits. So it also must be in our case. Above all and in our summons we must live the relationship with Christ and by means of him with the Father; only then can we truly understand men, that they may tell of having found the true shepherd. Obviously, in the words of Jesus is also a recounting of all the charges of pastoral practice, of going after men and women, going to find them, of being open to their needs and their questions. Obviously the practical knowledge is fundamental, realizing the people entrusted to me, and obviously it’s important to understand this “knowing” in the biblical sense: it is not a real knowing without love, without an interior relationship, without a profound reception of the other. The shepherd cannot content himself simply by knowing names and dates. His knowing also must always be a knowing with his heart. This is only feasible, however, if the Lord has opened our heart; our knowing doesn’t bind people to our private selves, to our own little heart, but instead allows them to feel the heart of Jesus, the heart of the Lord. It must be a knowing with the heart of Jesus and oriented toward him, a knowing which doesn’t bind man to me, but guides him toward Jesus, so allowing him to be free and open. That this may be given to us, let us pray anew to the Lord.

Finally, the Lord speaks to us of the service of unity entrusted to the shepherd: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold; these also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd” (Jn 10:16). John repeats the same thing after the decision of the Sanhedrin to kill Jesus, when Caiaphas says that it would be better that only one should die for the people rather than the entire nation perish. John remembers in this a prophetic word and adds: “Jesus was going to die for the nation and not for the nation alone, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (11:52). The relation between the Cross and unity is revealed; that unity is paid for with the Cross. Above all however emerges the universal horizon of the work of Jesus. If Ezekiel in his prophecy on the shepherd had in mind the restoration of the unity among the dispersed tribes of Israel (cf. Ez 34:22-24), now is found the unification of all the sons of God, of humanity – of the Church of the Jews and of the Pagans. The mission of Jesus pertains to the whole of humanity, and for this to the Church is given a responsibility for all humanity, that it may come to know God, the God who, for us all, was made man in Jesus Christ, who suffered, died, and is risen. The Church must not content itself of the ranking of those who have reached it by a certain point. It cannot rest itself comfortably in the limits of its own environment. It is charged with a universal solicitude, which must be the worry of all. This great charge is one we must “translate” in our own respective missions. Obviously a priest, a shepherd of souls, must above all worry himself with them all, who believe and live with the Church, who seek in it’s the way of life and who of their part, as living stones, build up the Church and so build and sustain it together with the priest. Still, we must always remember anew – as the Lord says – to go out “along the highways and the hedgerows” (Lk 14:23) to carry the call of God to his banquet also to those men and women who until now have not felt it, or who have not been internally touched by it. The service of unity has many forms. It is also always a part of the imperative for the internal unity of the Church, so that, over all its diversities and limits, it may be a sign of the presence of God in the world, where only he could create such a unity.

The early Church found in the sculpture of its time the figure of the shepherd who carries a sheep on his shoulders. Maybe these images were part of the idyllic dream of the country life which fascinated society then. But for Christians this figure, with all naturalness, became the image of Him who journeyed to find the lost sheep: humanity; the image of Him who follows us through our deserts and our confusions; the image of Him who took took on his shoulders the lost sheep, that is humanity, and brought it home. It became the image of the true Shepherd, Jesus Christ. To Him we entrust each other. To Him we entrust you, dear friends, especially in this hour, that He may guide and carry you all your days; that he may help you to become, by means of Him and through Him, good shepherds of his flock. Amen!

AP/Plinio Lepri
PHOTO 2: Pool/Giuseppe Giglia