“There will be one flock and one Shepherd.”
Some people, even some Christians, wonder whether being a Christian really matters and whether having a Church and a priest and people going to Mass every Sunday really makes any actual difference in the world. I admit that I occasionally have those doubts myself. But then I think of the flocks of sheep that I have known without a shepherd.
You see, I once saw an actual flock of sheep without a shepherd. It was in the Rupununi in South America. I don’t know how it had happened, but a group of sheep had run wild on the open savannahs in the dry season. And they were in terrible condition – the Rupununi is not good sheep country. They were thin, scrawny and sick – obviously they didn’t know where to go to get enough grass and water. Their coats were matted and unsheared and far too heavy for them in the hot sun. And they were full of fear. Nobody could go near them; nobody could lead them. Nobody could protect them from the dogs and the jaguars. And over the few months they were around, they gradually got fewer and fewer in number until – all too soon - there were none left. I come from a family of sheep farmers – and it broke my heart.
Then a few months after that I had to go on a medical trip into another area – a long way from the Christian villages where I mostly worked. And I was shocked at how the people were living. Nearly all of the men were drunk – all the time! Nearly all the women were sad and depressed. Nearly all the children were malnourished and sick. Never have I seen – before or since – such desolation in an Amerindian area. I was shocked!
And for several days, I simply could not understand what had happened. Finally, quite by accident, I asked the right question: “Where is the Church?”
I was actually only asking the way – but it was a more profound question than I realised. They showed me an old building – the mud walls falling in; the thatched roof rotten and eaten away; the door held up only by the padlock that kept the people out.
“What happened?!!” I asked, in shock.
“Ah”, they said, “we used to have a pastor here. All the village people came to service. It was a good village then. People co-operated. People didn’t get drunk. People didn’t fight. Men didn’t beat their wives. It was a good village then.”
“So what happened?” I asked again.
“He went away to the Coast; got a better job; more money.”
For most of the rest of the day I thought about that Pastor. Some of the time, I felt angry. How could he leave his people. Like the hired hand, he had run away and left the people to the wolves. How could he do that?
Other times, I felt sympathetic. Maybe he had a wife and family to support and he needed the money to provide for them – to give them a better education and a better way of life. Charity begins at home. But, however I tried to explain it to myself, it was terrible to see a flock of sheep without a shepherd.
But then, I thought, how easy it is to condemn the sin in other people that we don’t even notice in ourselves – the splinter in his eye and the plank in our own. The Church is not just a pastor or a priest. And it doesn’t all fall apart if the pastor or the priest goes away. The Church is all of us. We are all shepherds of one another.
Which of us has not at some point betrayed the flock?
Which of us is without Sin?
Which of us has always been faithful to our Christian commitment?
Which of us has not failed to speak the Word of God to people for fear of embarrassment?
Which of us has not betrayed the people of God, just as that pastor did? And perhaps even without his reasons?
Let us pray for all of us for the grace to be good shepherds of His People. Because if you ever do see sheep without a shepherd, you will see that it makes a difference.
Let us pray to be that difference.
And let us profess our Faith in the Good Shepherd of us all.
Paul O'Reilly SJ