April 15, 2008
In 1920, during the aftermath of World War I, a soldier was digging a trench near the modern town of Salhiyé in Syria. Accidentally, he discovered the site of the ancient town of Dura-Europos. From under the dust of history, there came to light one of the earliest Christian house churches in use at the very time that Christians were being persecuted elsewhere in the Roman Empire. In the baptistery of this house church, there was an early 3rd century image of the Good Shepherd that some scholars say is the most ancient.
In antiquity, the image of shepherd was used at times to designate those who had political power over their people. King Hammurabi of Babylon used the title of shepherd to refer to himself. And Homer used the title for Greek chiefs. The image of shepherd was also used in ancient Israel. The author of Psalm 78 tells us that, when God chose David to be king of Israel, he
took him from the sheepfolds, called him from tending ewes with lambs to shepherd his people Jacob and Israel his heritage...” (vv.70-1).
Not every ruler in Israel was a good leader. The prophet Ezekiel excoriates the false shepherds of Israel who place their own interests over those whom they are called to serve. God not only calls these leaders to judgment, but he promises that he will be the one to shepherd his people. God will rescue those that are scattered. He will bandage the wounded, look for the lost and make the weak strong. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God promises that he himself “will be a true shepherd to them” (Ez 34:16).
To accomplish this work of uniting his people, God says, “
I mean to raise up one shepherd, my servant David and to put him in charge of them…and he will pasture them and be their shepherd” (Ez 34:23). Therefore, despite the many bad leaders that Israel experienced in her history, she still looked forward to the ideal ruler, a son of David, who would shepherd God’s people.
In John 10, Jesus tells us that he is the shepherd that Israel expected. As the true Son of David, he comes to rule God’s people in justice. Again and again, he calls himself the Good Shepherd, because, unlike the false shepherds of Israel, he gives his own life for his sheep (vv. 11, 15, 17, 18). But there is more.
Jesus is the Son of God Incarnate. He brings to fulfillment the words of Ezekiel in a way that the listeners of Ezekiel’s day could not imagine. In Christ, God himself is present shepherding his people and calling them to unity. Jesus leads us through dark valleys and paths unknown until we enter green pastures (cf. Ps 23). As a shepherd cares for his flock, Jesus cares for us, loves us, protects us and guides us throughout our life and brings us to God.
Those who belong to Jesus the Good Shepherd form one Church, one flock. The Church is not a mere gathering of people who share the same convictions or strive for the same ideals. As those called out of the world, the Church (εκκλησια) comprises those who are bound together as one body (1 Cor 12). In the members of this one body, the Church, the Triune God dwells in each and makes them one.
The Church is the
communio of each baptized person with the Father through Christ in the Spirit. It is the
communio of all who are fellow-sharers in the divine nature. “The faithful are
one because, in the Spirit, they are in
communion with the Son and, in him, share in his
communion with the Father…” (Pope John Paul II,
Ut Unum Sint, 9).
Christ, who formed his Church as a
communio, did not leave his followers without the means to remain one. Christ instituted the Twelve to lead his Church. “He constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them"
(Lumen Gentium, 19). The Good Shepherd conferred on Peter the task of keeping the Church united as one flock, as one
communio of truth and life.
When Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah and Son of the Living God at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus said to Peter, “
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church” (Mt 16:18). Peter was to have a foundational role in the life of the Church. At the Last Supper, Jesus already knew that the Evil One would scatter his flock. Because of the role Jesus was giving Peter, he told him, “
I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32). Finally, after the Resurrection, Jesus solemnly commissioned Peter with his special role of shepherding the whole Church when he told him three times on the shore of Tiberias, “
Feed my lambs” (Jn 21:15-17).
This pastoral office belongs to the Church's very foundation. It continues in every age. Thus, in the mystery of God’s providence for the unity of the Church, the Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, "is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful" (
Lumen Gentium, 22, 2).
Despite their office, some popes, such as John XII (937-964), the Borgia Alexander VI (1492-1503) and the Medici Clement VII (1523-1534), were no saints. Throughout her history, the Church has had to endure about ten corrupt popes. However, there have been 78 popes canonized and 9 beatified. In recent times, the face of the papacy has shown with the light of great holiness in Pius XII (1939-1958), John XXIII (1958-1963), Paul VI (1963-1978), John Paul I (1978), and John Paul II (1978-2005).
History can record the abuses of power, weakness and sins of individual men who have been the successors of Peter. But our faith as Catholics does not rest in man, but in Jesus the Good Shepherd who never abandons us. Despite the serious crises that have disturbed the Church, the Church has held on to the faith handed on by the Apostles. She has preserved all the elements and gifts that God wished the Church to have as his instrument of salvation for the world. The Lord is faithful to his promise to Peter and guides his Church by the power of the Holy Spirit. No human weakness can destroy what God intends.
How blessed we are these days to welcome among us Pope Benedict XVI. He comes as Successor to Peter, as visible head of the Church and the Vicar of Christ on earth. He comes “to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition. Yes, Christ is the face of God present among us. Through him, our lives reach fullness, and together, both as individuals and peoples, we can become a family united by fraternal love, according to the eternal plan of God the Father” (Pope Benedict XVI in his video message to the United States, April 8, 2008). The words and personal witness of our Holy Father is a sign of the love of God who raises up for us a good shepherd for our times.