reflections, updates and homilies from Deacon Mike Talbot inspired by the following words from my ordination: Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe and practice what you teach...
During vespers the other week we prayed, “Keep us safe from wolf and hireling.” It was heartening to pray for safety from hirelings. We need to be defended from them – perhaps even more than from wolves. After all, a genuine wolf is somewhat rare; hirelings are abundant. There are few men as wicked as Thomas Cromwell, but plenty as weak as Richard Rich. Further, the hireling’s weakness, cowardice, and greed give the wolf access to the flock. In military terms, the hireling is the wolf’s “force multiplier.”
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday and the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. In the Gospel (Jn 10:11-18) our Lord contrasts the shepherd and the hireling. That contrast helps to highlight certain requirements for the Church’s shepherds. It establishes something of a job description – and an examination of conscience – for priests.
The first duty a good shepherd is to sacrifice: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Now, we might hear that verse as just a statement of principle: A good shepherd ought to lay down his life for the sheep. Or: When times get difficult, he must lay down his life. All true, but the Lord means something more. He means that a good shepherd sacrifices habitually. Literally, he “is laying down his life for the sheep.” Sacrifice isn’t something a good shepherd does occasionally or might need to do someday. It is in the fabric of his life, as it was in Christ’s.
So, a good shepherd embraces the sacrifices of poverty, chastity, and obedience for the good of the sheep. He doesn’t resent or flee all the little inconveniences, aggravations, and disappointments of priestly life. Because he offers the Sacrifice of the Good Shepherd, he knows that his life likewise must be shaped by sacrifice.
The hireling, on the other hand, “works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.” He bristles at the little inconveniences and sacrifices asked of him and also at the hidden, unnoticed character of so much priestly work. He resents the burden of being set apart and the disciplines of poverty, chastity, and obedience. He’s in it for his own gain, to be recognized, appreciated, and – of course – compensated.
Second, a good shepherd protects the flock. The hireling flees. He “sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away.” The shepherd remains and keeps watch. For the shepherd in the fields, this means vigilance against the physical threat of animal predators that catch and scatter the flock. For the shepherd in the parish, this means vigilance against the spiritual threat of doctrinal errors that lead souls into so much sadness and division.
Third, a shepherd provides for the flock. Protection is not an end in itself. It serves the higher good of providing for the sheep. A shepherd protects so that he can provide. He knows that the flock of Christ must be nourished on its way to the Father’s house. And he knows what makes for true nourishment – that the Church’s doctrine, sacraments, and liturgy truly nourish the soul into eternal life.
The hireling, because he is inevitably also a worldling, gives as the world gives. His teaching and his liturgy follow the world’s lead, providing pablum and entertainment that might give a momentary boost but ultimately leave the flock hungry.
Fourth, after the example of our Lord, a good shepherd knows his sheep. “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me.” One factor that distinguishes a pastor of souls from a hireling, or a mere administrator is his relationship with his people. They are not clients or a constituency. They are children of God entrusted to his pastoral care. He is sent to them to be among them, to know them, and to share their hopes, joys, sorrows, and sufferings.
Fifth, generosity. The Good Shepherd Himself speaks of the freedom and therefore of the generosity with which He tends His flock: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.” He measures out his labors according to what the sheep need, not according to what his comfort requires. Saint Peter, perhaps remembering the Lord’s own words, exhorts his fellow elders, “Tend the flock of God in your midst, not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly.” (1 Pt 5:2).\
The sadness for the hireling is that he is trapped by his desire for comfort, affirmation, and profit. He cannot freely and generously give because he seeks only to gain. He measures out his labor not according to the flock’s needs but according to what it costs him. And his lack of generosity leads inevitably to a lack of joy.
I said that this list of requirements constitutes an examination of conscience for us priests. For that reason, it also provides some ideas on how and what to pray for priests. For a shepherd is always in danger of becoming a hireling. That’s the constant temptation – to be done with the sacrifices and labor, to seek self-fulfillment. Without deliberate effort otherwise, a shepherd will inevitably slouch into hireling status.
Pray that priests resist that temptation and strive instead to sacrifice generously in protecting and providing for the flock entrusted to them.