Today is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday”, for the Gospel reflects Jesus’ pastoral title of Good Shepherd. But if Jesus is the Shepherd, that means we are the sheep… and what exactly does that entail?
Generally, calling people “sheep” is not a compliment. Such a moniker implies that a person or group is unable to fend for themselves, easily persuaded, or unthinking in slavish obedience. As Americans we prize independence – how can we be thought of as sheep? I want to look at it in two ways.
First, regarding our Catholic Faith. Our faith is not a blind faith – the Scholastics (saints and scholars from medieval Christian universities) had a wonderful saying: Fides quaerens intellectum – “faith seeking understanding”. We believe the Faith, so that we might understand the Faith. We are not told to believe blindly, but in our believing, we are encouraged to seek out the solid, logical reasons for the Truth. So although we are sheep, we are not dumb animals when it comes to the Faith – we must continue to deepen our own understanding of the Gospel.
Yet as we seek the Truth, we must do so from a place of humility. There is a vast difference between “I don’t believe” and “I don’t understand” – the former comes from a place of pride, while the latter comes from a place of humility. I cannot say that I completely understand why the Church teaches everything She does, or why Jesus did and said everything in the Gospels, but I accept and believe them simply because I know that Jesus does not lie, and that He established His Church as the infallible bulwark of Truth on this earth. So in this sense, I must be a sheep insofar as I must follow the Lord in humility, recognizing that I do not possess knowledge of all mysteries which are too deep for my limited mind to understand.
A second sense of being a sheep is in regards to the leaders of our Catholic Faith – the priests, bishops, and Holy Father. What should our attitude be towards them, as our Shepherds? The 1983 Code of Canon Law (the official laws of the Catholic Church) are very clear on this issue, in Canon 212:
“Conscious of their own responsibility, the Christian faithful are bound to follow with Christian obedience those things which the sacred pastors, inasmuch as they represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith or establish as rulers of the Church.”
The canon goes on to say:
“The Christian faithful are free to make known to the pastors of the Church their needs, especially spiritual ones, and their desires. According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.”
That sounds quite technical, but it’s actually a pretty clear understanding of how we are to be sheep in the Flock of the Lord. We are bound to be obedient to the Shepherds that God has placed over us, insofar as they are teachers of the Lord and authentically hand on the Catholic Faith. At the same time, we are not blindly following our Shepherds, since we have the right and the duty to speak up regarding our spiritual needs – but always with respect and humility.
In the past many years, there have been a number of lay-run internet websites that have spoken very critically of the Pope and Bishops. While they may have some valid points, one must question whether these websites have been motivated by genuine charity, or by a misplaced scandal-mongering. It seems that some websites revel in the failings of bishops and love to publish damning articles and videos, which serve only to gain more popularity for the websites themselves without effecting any real change.
To me, this is quite antithetical to the love and respect that we owe our Shepherds. Yes, there have been moral, pastoral, and theological failures among the hierarchy – without a doubt. But while we have the duty to prudently speak up about those failures, we also have a duty to love them, pray for them, and work for unity among the Flock of the Lord. Any author, blogger, or website that makes a profit solely from spreading scandal is acting not like a sheep but like a wolf, who wants to scatter, divide, and devour the sheep by taking down the shepherds. There are times when speech is necessary – but then there are many more times when silence, prayer, and fasting are far more effective.
In sum, take pride in being a sheep! It is good to be taught; it is good to be led. We pray that the Church and its leaders may always teach us the Truth, and that they may always lead us to holiness. A true member of the Flock of the Lord will love the Church, sacrifice for Her, and work for Her constant purification – the purification that begins in our own souls through our repentance and cooperation with grace!