Pray Tell reader Peter Planyavsky, my former organ teacher from Vienna, sends in this homily for publication. It was preached this past Sunday in St. Ursula’s Church in Vienna, where liturgical music students of the Conservatory for Music and the Performing Arts provide musical leadership each Sunday. – awr
Sisters and brothers:
This image of the Good Shepherd is to be enjoyed with caution – above all in a culture that hardly knows anything anymore about the life of shepherds. In such a setting, misunderstandings are preprogrammed. And in a religious community such as the Roman Catholic Church, where models of vocation, theologies of ministry, and church structures are based on this image, such misunderstandings and misinterpretations are especially weighty and serious.
In my numerous travels afar through out-of-the-way regions of southeastern Europe and the East, very often I have had the opportunity to observe real shepherds in their work and to converse with them. From this I have learned many interesting things. The most important: normally a shepherd doesn’t walk in front of the flock, but always behind it.
This represents a certain contradiction to the Gospel, for the Gospel speaks of a shepherd who walks in front of his flock. But in reality this actually occurs in only one situation: in the extreme desert, where animals in the flock are clearly dependent upon the received wisdom of their shepherds in order to reach sources of water. But after all, the desert is not the normal place for a flock. For this reason I tend to attribute the biblical image of the shepherd out in front of his flock exclusively to the person of Jesus. It is problematic to transfer it to other persons. The Christian is to be oriented only toward Jesus.
In fact, the Roman Catholic Church in particular is in constant danger of placing its officials in the place of the one Good Shepherd and behaving as if the church belonged to them. They want to regulate things and walk out in front. They determine authoritatively where the herd is to go. They believe to know best what is good for the flock and what isn’t. They even determine the pace of the flock’s movement. And who would dispute that church officials have preferred to put on the brakes in recent years, and have preferred to live with the fact that impatient “sheep” run away from the flock, rather than that they prod on the sluggish and the delayers? – But this simply isn’t the way shepherds operate.
My real-life shepherds have taught me something quite different: They have assured me that, as a rule, their animals themselves have the best sense for where the good meadows are. Their animals normally hold themselves to the available waterways and amble alongside them. In this way, one can easily keep ones bearings for finding things. So the task of the shepherd does not consist at all in determining the path for the flock. As a rule the shepherds call out merely to make sure that the flock doesn’t wander too far astray.
My shepherds have assured me that the most difficult part, in fact, is dealing with slow animals: those who are not capable of keeping up, perhaps because they are ill or wounded. Such ones often have to be taken aside. But those who do not want to stay with the flock because they would rather be satisfied with older pastures – every so often they need a good kick in the rear. For every good shepherd knows that a flock has to keep in movement. It may not stay too long in the same place, because otherwise it eats its own waste and gets sick from it.
This could mean so much for our church! For example, in the constant necessity for change and new initiatives, and in dealing with tension between reform-oriented and tradition-loving forces! Or what would it necessarily mean for a healthy self-consciousness of the so-called “laity” if the shepherds of our church didn’t attribute the best “nose” for good nourishment to themselves, but to their flock! – But it is precisely such trust which I see lacking all too often. Instead, the impression of growing estrangement predominates.
Estrangement! How foreign to this are the words of the Gospel passage: “They (the sheep of the flock) will not follow a stranger, but they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” And further: “Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.” – Do these words at the end of the Gospel describe the true current state of the Roman Catholic Church? Is not the movement of running away long since happening? And for reasons which the Gospel itself describes! – Do not many people leave our church because they no longer hear the voice of the one Good Shepherd in the voice of their church leaders? Because they – on the contrary! – have had to experience some of their alleged shepherds instead as thieves who came not to care for them, but rather to exploit them – including sexually – and to appease their craving for power? And certainly many people also run away because those who claim for themselves the office of shepherd as successors of the apostles still seem not to have understood the image of the shepherd and the flock, or have not wanted to understand it.
On today, of all days, our church celebrates the “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.” Indeed, against this backdrop, such prayer is particularly important and good. But those praying should not pester God. The hard of hearing and the slow learners are elsewhere.
Fr. Markus Schlagnitweit has been chaplain to the Catholic Young People in Higher Education (Katholische Hochschulgemeinde) of Linz and university chaplain since 1997. He is chair of the Corporate Responsibility Interface Center, member of the Austrian Commission “IUSTITIA ET PAX,” member of the European Commission of the Austrian bishops’ conference, member of the working group for political affairs in the general secretariat of the Austrian bishops’ conference, member of the Austrian Catholic Action conference, ethics advisor for the “Don Bosco Ethik fructus omnibus-Fonds,” investments and ethics advisor for the Kepler EthikAktein-/EthikRenten-Fonds, and investments advisor for Valida Mitarbeitervorsorfe. He was ordained a priest in 1989.