I was in Columbus, Ohio earlier this week, visiting the Pontifical College Josephinum, the seminary where we send a number of our seminarians and my alma mater, for the annual Rector’s Dinner, a fundraiser for the seminary. My classmate, Fr. John Eckert, and I were asked to speak at the dinner about our first two years in the priesthood. It was great to be back; to see old friends and teachers and the place where I spent six years of my life discerning, and preparing for, the priesthood.
While I was there, I went to one of the chapels to make my Holy Hour and I spent some time in prayer with this weekend’s Gospel. And I think it was a grace of God that I happened to be where I was when I read the Gospel.
Today Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. And time and time again in today’s Gospel, Jesus reiterates the essence of his mission as the Good Shepherd. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says. “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus lays down his life for us. And I was amazed how many times Jesus repeats this in today’s Gospel. He says it four more times: “I will lay down my life for the sheep.” “This is why the Father loves me, because 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.” “I have the power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.”
As I read this words again and again, “I lay down my life” I was reminded of my ordination. Specifically, the moment when I laid face-down in front of the altar. It’s the very last thing a candidate does before he is ordained. And as he does so, all gathered pray the litany of the Saints, humbly asking for the intercession of all the great Saints of the Church on behalf of this candidate for Holy Orders. This is the moment, the one to be ordained, lays down his life in imitation of Christ the Good Shepherd.
In his book Gift and Mystery, Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote about this prostration at his own ordination: The Pope wrote, “The one about to receive Holy Orders prostrates himself completely and rests his forehead on the church floor, indicating in this his complete willingness to undertake the ministry being entrusted to him. That rite has deeply marked my priestly life.”
And as I read these words of the Gospel, it occurred to me, the very place where I laid down my life was just a few feet away in the main chapel at the Josephinum where I was ordained a deacon. So I walked over to the main chapel to spend some time in prayer at the place where my life was literally changed forever.
Shortly after I walked into the chapel, my classmate, Fr. John Eckert coincidentally walked in. I say coincidentally because the two of us were ordained deacons together on the same day on that very spot. The two of us laid down our lives together on that day and there we were together again. And to make the moment an even greater coincidence, Fr. John reminded me of something I had forgotten: “It was three years ago this week,” he said. “Three years ago this Thursday that we were ordained deacons.”
I have to tell you a quick story about Fr. John on that day. Fr. John is an emotional guy. He really wears his emotions on his sleeve. And as he prostrated himself on the chapel floor, he started sobbing heavily. He cried and cried. I could hear him weeping next to me. And as he got up, he literally left a puddle of tears on the floor. However, it wasn’t until I looked over at him that I realized, he wasn’t just sobbing from his eyes, but from his nose as well. That day, Monsignor Mike Heintz, from the Cathedral in South Bend nicknamed him “Snots.”
Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd and he does not restrict that identity to himself alone. He passes it on to Peter when he has breakfast with him on the shore after his Resurrection. Jesus asks Simon Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Three times, Peter answers “Yes.” And Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs... tend my sheep... Feed my sheep.”
What a great joy it is, today, to exercise this ministry of Good Shepherd handed on to us by Jesus Christ and to feed his sheep: those making their First Holy Communion this weekend and next.
And what a great joy it is, to follow Christ’s commandment, to tend the sheep of his flock. To provide for the flock through the Sacraments: as I mentioned to offer the Eucharist, to forgive sins, to anoint the sick, to baptize, to witness marriages. To defend the flock, as Jesus commands, against the threat of wolves. Both the external wolves of outside threats to the Church and internal threats as well: of our own error and our straying from the faith. And to guide the flock by teaching and preaching the whole truth of the faith given to us by Jesus Christ and his Church. To preach the truth not only when it is convenient, but also when it is challenging. To preach not only the truth which make us feel good, but also the truth which is sometimes difficult and hard.
I ask for your prayers that we priests always exercise this ministry of Good Shepherd motivated solely by the love of Christ for you. In his inaugural homily as Pope, Benedict XVI noted that “In the Ancient Near East, it was customary for kings to style themselves shepherds of their people.” This was a cynical image of their power. Jesus reveals himself as the Good Shepherd by the laying down of his life. “It is not power,” the Pope says, “but love that redeems us!” “Feeding means loving, and loving also means being ready to suffer. Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God’s truth, of God’s word.”
Finally, I especially want any young men gathered here today, who think God may be calling them one day to the priesthood to know that the priesthood is the greatest life I could possibly imagine. It isn’t always easy. Nothing of great value ever is. But I cannot imagine a life more fulfilling or joy-filled. And I want to you, my brothers in sisters in Christ to know, that you are most definitely worth laying down one’s life for.