A homily for Good Shepherd Sunday (Easter 4-A) from Vienna

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.


  1. That is an awesome homily, Father Anthony! We must always bear in mind that the true voice that the people know and trust is the “vox populi, vox Dei.” Thank God that among the many blind and abusive priests and hierarchs there are still a few who realize that the vox populi has ALREADY SPOKEN on issues as varied as marriage equality and reproductive choice. This homily has it exactly right that any priest speaking a different message now is leading his or her flock wildly astray, probably out of a raw craving for sexual power and exploitation.

  2. Hmm. The vox populi has also, in the past, been noted for its staunch approval of things like:

    1. Xenophobia
    2. Materialism
    3. Racism
    4. Sexism
    5. Utilitarian / consequentialist ethics

    Et cet.

    Human beings share a common tendency to objectify other human beings. Some (particularly Western Christians) would tend to call that original sin, but there are many ways to describe it.

    Vox populi is only reliably the vox Dei in a utopian (i.e., “no where”) world where humanity is already transformed by theosis. I am not aware that anyone in this sphere is completely living in such a world, but I am open to news reports.

    One cannot credibly assume the vox populi always reliably channels the vox Dei. The Holy Spirit is not magical, and does not annihilate a broken human nature magically.

    Which is not to say the vox populi is meaningless. It’s just to say that the VPVD proverb either says too much or too little.

  3. Good one, Karl. Your post reminds me of Sam Houston’s warning to Texas secessionists in as war loomed:

    “the Vox Populi is not always the voice of God. For when demagogues and selfish political leaders succeed in arousing public prejudice and stilling the voice of reason, then on every hand an be heard the popular cry: ‘Crucify Him, Crucify Him!’ The Vox Populi then becomes the voice of the devil.”

  4. George – please look at your quote and connect the dots to what this preacher is saying.

    Houston himself states: “….when demagogues and selfish political leaders succeed in arousing public prejudice and stilling reason……”

    It starts with a tiny core that assumes they are the vox dei.

    Karl – we also have the vox populi (per the church) who encouraged and approved both of the dogmas on Mary – not sure what that says or if it is even accurate.

    1. Bill

      We don’t even have a way to discern the vox populi as Catholics. At all points along the spectra of perspectives, it is easier to identify an Us and a Them. Bishops are not the only ones who do this; so do we.

      One fulcrum of metanoia is coming to a deep understanding of how we ourselves, in our spiritual blindspots, often replicate (either positively or inversely) the very things of which we complain in Them Over There, and that our solutions to what They Are Doing Wrong often deepen the problem despite our best intentions.

      Real change always starts within ourselves, not within Them. And, the moment we think we can move onto changing Them, it’s usually a sign we have more work to do within.

      That’s not a recipe for quietism, but merely to disarm grandiosity.

      1. Karl makes important points. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. We’re at a point – let’s be honest – where trust has broken down almost completely and entirely between bishops and their people, between bishops and theologians, and probably other diads as well. Everyone assumes the worst of the other and impugns the worst possible motives. By attacking the bishops, we’re just perpetuating the cycle, and we’re equally responsible for its toxicity.

        How to build up trust again? I hope this doesn’t sound like blaming the “other side,” but I don’t think it’s realistic to hope for a return to blind obedience or unquestioned submission to authority. Ain’t gonna happen. I don’t think the long, arduous, demanding process of repairing mutual trust can really begin in earnest until there are structural changes allowing for geniune listening and mutual accountability. But alas, since this suggestion has been ignored now for about 45 years, the frustration builds and the outrage at bishops keeps growing.

        I wonder whether increased personal contacts between the people involved – getting to know each other as people, and socializing in relaxed, unofficial settings – could do anyanything to dissolve the deep mutual mistrust, even while we’re still burdened with our currently unworkable structures. I don’t know.


      2. Fr Ruff

        Thank you for getting it.

        Can I suggest that something that might seem tangential but that, as Benedictines, you and your Benedictine brothers and sisters might offer some reflections on the hard kind of love that is required with stability?

        The reason I ask is, for those of us out in the unstable Catholic world, we tend to migrate to places where we feel more “at home” (about which feeling, I would suspect, Benedictines might offer some cautions).

        The givenness of a real family – be it of the biological or vowed kind – is that no one leaves (well, at least as a feature, rather than as a bug). No one is kicked out in an ultimate fashion (ditto). The stability of the relationship is a crucible that permits the pain of hard work, et cet.

        Most of us love the idea that we have tons of choices. But the disciples asked the Lord: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” They realized how often choice is a distracting illusion.

        Perhaps if we understood, in a deeper way, how much we are stuck with each other, we might learn to not see it as being stuck with each other?

        Perhaps you understand where I am going with this better than I do. Or someone else will. But it’s where I’ve sensed some of this needs to go.

        Certainly, part of it is allowing certain expectations (which are, in recovery-speak, pre-meditated resentments) to die, so that something more vital might live.

  5. Karl – good points and yes, I get it but frustration, etc. makes the task difficult. What I refuse to do is to allow the famous quote – “all it takes for evil to grow is for good people to do nothing.” I do think we know what the vox populi is; and I do think we can discern when we have a vox dei (as expressed by many); so, we may just have to agree to disagree on that point.

    This means making an effort to analyze, learn, and discover the truth (not wait for others to do it for me). It means reaching out and engaging those who want to engage. Use twelve step language and programs every day in my job…..not sure your analogy is the best one here. Agree that one can knee jerk to an us-them mentality especially if the them are bishops (but, geez, they make it so easy). Real change starts within ourselves – let’s just say that my take on this is to study, speak my mind; and not be afraid of what a pastor, bishop, etc. may think. On a personal level, I am more than willing to meet and build a relationship – and have tried and succeeded at times. Over the years, I have grown accustomed to a lack of response, passivity, rejection because of my past, or just downright avoidance because I do not pay them lip service. Have also seen many friends just throw in the towel and leave, escape, grow passive convincing themselves they no longer care.

    Fr. Komonchak repeatedly says that we need to realize the the pope, curia, bishops are not the church – we are and we need to act, live, and believe from that starting point. He is a big advocate of not allowing the hierarchy to have more power than they really have.

    I was, at one time, a believer in the common ground project of Cardinal Bernandin…..probably should re-open that approach.

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