16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
July 17, 2021
Last week, I had the joy and privilege of ordaining and installing the new Bishop of Wilmington, Bishop William Edward Koenig. Bishop Koenig succeeds Bishop Malooly, a native son of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, who ably led the Diocese of Wilmington for the past thirteen years. All those gathered in St. Elizabeth Church last Tuesday thanked Bishop Malooly with thunderous applause and with a standing ovation. At the same time, they welcomed their new shepherd with great joy and enthusiasm as he pledged to serve them to the best of his ability and in the fullness of God’s grace.
Yes, there was a lot of joy in that church, packed as it was to the rafters! Everyone, including some 30 bishops in attendance, were happy to be together, happy to see one another, happy to worship together, happy to unite in praising God. Part of the joy, unmistakably, was a sense of post-COVID relief, but the greater part of our joy was an abiding sense of gratitude to the Holy Spirit for raising up a new shepherd to serve that local church, a diocese which comprises the State of Delaware and nine counties of Maryland, including the Eastern Shore. The ordination of Bishop Koenig reminded every bishop, myself included, of the awe-inspiring responsibility that the Lord and the Church have entrusted to us. As I ordained him, I also asked God to help me to be a good shepherd, after the mind and heart of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
Bad and Good Shepherds
As it happens, today’s Scripture readings are about shepherds, both bad and good. In the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah utters an oracle on behalf of God condemning shepherds, who by their infidelity and selfishness, scatter the flock of God and cause untold spiritual harm among the very people they were to lead in truth and in love. Every true shepherd understands clearly the weakness of his humanity, and thus every true shepherd is first of all an ardent member of the flock of God who confesses his sins and asks the Lord for mercy and forgiveness. Yet, in the long history of the Church, including our own times, there have been corrupt shepherds who did indeed scandalize and scatter the flock. One of the Twelve Apostles, Judas, betrayed Jesus, and some successors of the Apostles have also betrayed Jesus and God’s holy people.
Through Jeremiah, however, God promised himself to shepherd his people and fulfilled that promise by sending his Son into the world as our Good Shepherd. God further promised through Jeremiah that he would raise up faithful shepherds to gather, guide, guard, and love his people with constancy and integrity. When people tell me they are praying for me as their bishop, I am deeply consoled. When people ask me what I want them to pray for, high on my list is that God would raise up and sustain worthy shepherds – bishops and priests, after the mind and heart of Jesus, our Shepherd and Savior.
In the Gospel, we meet the Lord Jesus forming his Apostles as shepherds. As we recall, in last week’s Gospel, Jesus had sent out the Apostles in pairs to preach the Good News, to heal the sick, and to expel unclean spirits. After they returned, he invited them to rest for a while, in an out-of-the-way place. It was as if he invited them to make a retreat, to be refreshed spiritually & physically. Even though people were milling about looking for Jesus and his Apostles, nonetheless, the Lord encouraged his disciples to rest and pray – to spend time in his presence; to learn from him who is ‘meek and humble of heart.’ Soon enough, Jesus and his Apostles re-entered the fray and encountered the crowds. Jesus, we read, took pity on them, for they “were like sheep without a shepherd”. The lesson is clear: anyone involved in church ministry, ordained or lay, must make the time to pray, quietly and reflectively, in the Presence of the Lord, there to be refreshed and to absorb something of Good Shepherd’s wisdom and love. Unless we do so, we deplete ourselves and soon give in to discouragement.
The Best of Shepherds
In fact, the Lord invites of all of us – whether ordained, consecrated, or lay faithful to come away with him, to rest and to pray, and to be formed by him for whatever roles of leadership and service we exercise in the Church. One simple way we can do this is to spend a few moments now reflecting on Psalm 23, our Responsorial Psalm, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. Let us allow Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to speak to us in the words of this Psalm.
First, if we have the Lord as the shepherd of our souls, there is nothing more that we could ever want. The beautiful prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Suscipe, captures what this means: “Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me.” In a world where we are enslaved by our wants and needs, what freedom and joy when we entrust ourselves to the Lord wholly and entirely! The Psalm speaks of a shepherd who leads us to ‘green pastures’ and to ‘still waters’. Isn’t it the Lord who offers us the verdant pastures of his love? . . . . . . the Lord who nourishes and leads us to the waters of Baptism by which we share in the new life he won for us? Thus do our souls find rest, refreshment, and restoration – peace the world cannot give! Jesus is the Shepherd who guides us in the ways of righteousness, leading us to align our desires and our choices with his truth and love, prompting us to seek salvation and joy in “no other Name” except his own. When we are in the dark valley, passing through times of trouble and danger, the Good Shepherd does not abandon us but walks with us, protecting and guiding us. When we face a crisis, whatever it is, we feel alone, as if no one understands or cares, yet Jesus never leaves our side but walks with us, even when we don’t recognize him, enabling us to pass from the cares of this world to the joys of the world to come.
Moreover, this Shepherd sets a table before us, in the sight of all, friend and foe alike, and here we readily see in this Psalm a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. For Jesus our Shepherd leads us, while still on earth, to the heavenly Table, the Table of the Eucharist, where we partake of the Banquet of His Sacrifice, his own Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, the Bread of Life and the Cup of Redemption. The Shepherd does not obtain the food he gives us from elsewhere. No, he loves us so much that he feeds us with his own Flesh and Blood! So too, does Jesus anoint our heads with oil, the oil of gladness, the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation, surrounding us, as St. Ambrose said, with “the fragrance of the Resurrection”. Thus, Jesus nourishes and strengthens us to follow him all the days of our life.
At length when our lives draw to a close, the love of the Shepherd does not cease, but bridges the chasm between time and eternity. Jesus guides us, leads us, even carries us across the border into eternal life, so that we may dwell in his presence for endless days of joy beyond compare.
Dear friends, let us give thanks to God the Father for giving us Jesus as our Shepherd who knows us and loves us and leads us in the ways of everlasting life. May the Holy Spirit enable each of us to follow in the footsteps of this Shepherd, and may God bless us and keep us always in his love!