Faith Alive

Catholic News Service

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    In a Nutshell

    It can seem as though Christianity makes an assumption when it comes to shepherds, namely that we and our contemporaries know something about the needs of sheep. Shepherds, after all, are mentioned somewhat frequently in the church's worship.

    Are we expected to relate in rewarding ways to the lives and work of shepherds? In the end, one can assume, there must be something shepherds do that merits reflection and contemplation.



    Modern shepherds in the world

    By David Gibson
    Catholic News Service

    Few citizens of 21st-century megacities know much about caring for sheep. When they look for work, they don't scan the help-wanted ads for jobs herding sheep.

    What do sheepherders actually do? Do they work during the day or at night, or both? Are they penalized if a sheep is lost or killed? What challenges does sheepherding entail?

    It can seem as though Christianity makes an assumption when it comes to shepherds, namely that we and our contemporaries know something about the needs of sheep. Shepherds, after all, are mentioned somewhat frequently in the church's worship.

    Are we expected to relate in rewarding ways to the lives and work of shepherds? In the end, one can assume, there must be something shepherds do that merits reflection and contemplation.

    Allow me, then, to reintroduce a few of the shepherds best known among Christians, with the goal of asking whether we ever do what they do.

    The shepherds who stunningly reappear annually in the church's liturgy at Christmas, surrounded by angels announcing the birth of Jesus, were "living in the fields," according to Luke's Gospel. If that sounds a little uncomfortable, the Gospel adds that they were "keeping the night watch over their flock" (2:8).

    Their night watch rings a bell for me. Did you ever keep a night watch with a newborn infant who seemed to need you at every moment? If so, you know what real fatigue, commitment and love feel like.

    The same is true of filling in at night for a friend who is the primary caregiver for a sick, aged parent, but who right now needs not so much to be "cared about" as to be "cared for." She has gone far too long without any respite.

    Shepherding also comes into view in the Christian community whenever the parable of the lost sheep is proclaimed (Lk 15:1-8). The well-known figure central to this parable has 100 sheep but loses one. What does he do? He searches for the lost sheep until he finds it.

    Upon finding the lost sheep, he hoists it onto "his shoulders with great joy." Then he invites friends and neighbors to celebrate with him.

    The image of a shepherd bearing a sheep on his shoulders became popular in the church's early centuries. It was depicted frequently in the Roman catacombs, the underground burial places for early Christians.

    For today's Christians, this is the image of someone who is happily ready to bear others' burdens, to serve without being served and to invest his or her finest strengths in supporting and caring for them.

    The most compelling image of a shepherd in the Gospels may be the one found in Chapter 10 of the Gospel of John. He is called the Good Shepherd, and he clearly is a life-giver.

    The Good Shepherd wants his "sheep" to "have life and have it more abundantly." He says, "I will lay down my life for the sheep" (10:10-11; 15).

    Christians relate rather naturally to a shepherd who gives life to others. Moreover, I think there is a sense among Christians that it is not only possible for them to share life with others but that they ought to try to do this.

    The question is: How is life given or shared?

    A good shepherd shares life by sacrificing for others. It is a unique role, undoubtedly.

    Still, it is not unusual for us to be called on to share life by sacrificing time or perhaps surrendering a goal that now seems barely significant in light of someone else's very important need. Families do this quite often.

    Sacrificing for others is one way to share life. Doing what one can to give birth to hope in a suffering person and to give rise to a new appreciation for life is another way.

    We may not know fully how life is shared by us with others, just as we do not know fully how God shares his life with us. Think, though, of a couple who fall in love.

    Part of what makes this couple happy is their sense that life is shared between them through the trust they place in each other, through their unconditional love and through the depth of their mutual understanding.

    Certainly, what people in love want for each other is "to have life and have it more abundantly." They are committed to each other's well-being.

    The Good Shepherd who gives his life for others and the shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders generally are accepted in the Christian community as images of Christ. Furthermore, discussions of leadership in the church tend to focus strongly on these images of a shepherd.

    There are leaders of many kinds in the church, however, and every Christian has the vocation to live as Christ, the shepherd, lived.

    The gifts of the Good Shepherd are a treasure, but the treasure is not private. Aren't his gifts of life, care and support meant to be passed on by us to others?


    Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.



    A shepherd's duty is to respond to all

    By Mike Nelson
    Catholic News Service

    In John 10:4, Jesus tells us that a sheep knows his master's voice and responds accordingly. That should tell us as much, if not more, about the shepherd as it does about the sheep.

    Most of us are called to be shepherds of some sort. Take the workplace, for example. There are all kinds of leaders, or shepherds. I have worked for some good leaders and a couple who are best not to mention at all. Those who were good leaders -- those whose voices I would respond most willingly and enthusiastically to -- were those who genuinely cared about the individuals in their charge.

    That doesn't mean a leader does whatever his "sheep" want him to do. A shepherd's sheep, for example, might be just as happy lounging in the barn all day long or perfectly content hanging out in the pasture.

    Not being any sort of sheep whisperer, I wouldn't know, but I suspect that sheep instinctively obey their shepherd because they sense the shepherd has their safety and welfare uppermost in mind.

    That is the sort of workplace leader I've tried to be, when called upon -- one who cared, above all else, about the personal welfare of his staff (most of whom had personalities far more complex than sheep). Yes, there were goals that we all strived to achieve, but to me those were secondary to keeping my people (at least reasonably) happy.

    Some would say that's not a very smart way to run things or a very admirable trait in a leader. In the working world, you can get into trouble if you let personal feelings get in the way of the good of the business.

    My reply is that a leader who shows care and concern for his charges' welfare while keeping everyone aware of and dedicated to fulfilling the institutional goal and purpose (what many today call the mission) is more likely to draw support and loyalty, and better results, from those he leads.

    And when we talk about mission, it might be worth considering what sort of worthwhile mission does not take into account the welfare of those employed to fulfill it?

    But Jesus further suggests (in Luke 15: 4-7) that a good shepherd not only is concerned for each member of the flock but will search high and low to find the one that is lost or gone astray.

    I recall vividly the opening address of Encuentro 2000 in Los Angeles by Vietnamese Archbishop (later Cardinal) Francois-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, then president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, alluding to this very point.

    "Jesus," the archbishop smiled, "is no good at math. He thinks one equals 99, perhaps even more."

    That's an interesting concept for those who lead -- whether they lead a team, a classroom, a department, a corporation, a family or a ministry. What about that one who goes astray? Do we forget about him? Cut our losses and move on?

    We shouldn't accept that thinking. We can't accept that some people are not worth the trouble, that some should be written off, left behind and ultimately forgotten. I don't believe God works that way, and we shouldn't either.

    Everyone has value, everyone has God-given life and dignity -- and a good shepherd, in any capacity in the church, knows this.

    A good shepherd, Jesus says, does not give up on those who are lost and strayed, whether in body or in spirit. A good shepherd searches, endlessly if necessary, in hope that the lost will be found, or will return. And when the lost are found, a good shepherd rejoices.

    That does not mean he loves the rest of his flock any less -- something the prodigal son's brother no doubt struggled to accept. A good shepherd has love enough for everyone. That is why those of us who truly know his voice believe, and follow.


    Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.



    The shepherd: the Bible's preferred example of leadership

    By Marcellino D'Ambrosio
    Catholic News Service

    In ancient times, those in authority led privileged lives. Kings lived in sumptuous palaces, had harems and compelled others to fight for them.

    But when it was time for Israel to get a king, God wanted to teach his people about leadership of a different kind. Saul, the first king of Israel, followed the self-serving example of pagan leaders. But in the midst of his doomed reign, God sent Samuel to anoint a new king. It is significant that the boy who was chosen, David, was a shepherd.

    Sheep are vulnerable, slow-footed creatures. This makes them "easy pickins" for a variety of predators. They need protection, guidance and, of course, food and drink. That's where a shepherd comes in. He keeps them together as a group so that strays aren't picked off by wolves or poachers. If an enemy should attack the flock, the shepherd defends it.

    David was a good shepherd who put his life on the line when bears and lions attacked his flock as well as when the Lord's flock was challenged by Goliath (1 Sm 17:32-37). That's why the shepherd is the Bible's preferred image for a king and priest.

    Biblical leadership is not about privilege but about sacrificial service. The sheep don't protect the shepherd; the shepherd protects the sheep.

    David was willing to lay down his life for his sheep. But it was the Son of David who actually did so. Jesus gave himself to save his sheep from Satan, the thief who comes with all sorts of promises but whose real objective is to "steal and slaughter and destroy" (Jn 10:10).

    But there is another aspect of the biblical ideal of a shepherd: a good shepherd knows where water and food are abundant, and he leads the flock through arid, barren country to get there.

    In one of my first visits to the Holy Land, I learned about sheep and why the patriarchs herded them through the wilderness. Unlike cows and horses, sheep can survive on just about anything, even scraggly clumps of weeds, scorched brown by the sun.

    But Jesus is a good shepherd. He is not content to see his sheep survive. He wants us to thrive. He takes pleasure in robust sheep, not scrawny ones.

    The pastures to which he leads us are verdant (Ps 23:2), not scorched and brown. The sacraments (especially the Eucharist), the word of God, and the lives and writings of saints, popes and mystics -- these are some of the rich and varied nourishment he provides.

    He spreads out a table, a true feast, before us, not lunch in a brown bag. He doesn't ration our nourishment.

    The Good Shepherd did not poor out the last drop of his blood so that we could drag ourselves through life and barely make heaven in the end. Rather, he says, "I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (Jn 10:10).


    D'Ambrosio writes from Texas. He is co-founder of Crossroads Productions, an apostolate of Catholic renewal and evangelization.



    Food for Thought

    In 2007, in America magazine, Jesuit Father Daniel J. Harrington wrote not just about the duty of a shepherd but also about the role and duty of the "flock."

    Our relationship with the Good Shepherd is "individual and communal," he wrote. We all hear his call. We belong to him.

    "That makes us important," Father Harrington said.

    The early church fathers grew that flock and our modern-day shepherds continue in that role today, sometimes with a larger and more socially diverse flock.

    "An analogous challenge facing the church in the 21st century is to develop more perfectly into a world church that respects, embraces and nurtures all those who have heeded the call of the Good Shepherd," Father Harrington said.


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Faith Alive is a service from Catholic News Service (CNS). CNS, the oldest and largest religious news service in the world, is a leading source of news for Catholic print and electronic media across the globe. With bureaus in Washington and Rome, as well as a global correspondent network, CNS since 1920 has set the standard in Catholic journalism.

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