Lectionary #107, Gospel Mark 6: 30-34
“I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the Lord” (Jer 23:4).
Together with many of the prophets of the Old Testament Jeremiah often uses images of shepherds and sheep to illustrate the inspired word he received from the Lord. This is only natural, since sheep herding was an essential part of life and culture in biblical times; everyone would have immediately identified with these images and so they conveyed their message effectively and vividly. The theme depicting God as a faithful shepherd continues in the responsorial Psalm, so widely known and loved, in which we pray together: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want” (Psalm 23:1).
In the gospel today the motif of the shepherd is also adopted by Jesus, who looks to the people of Israel as sheep entrusted to his care: “When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Going beyond this, in the gospel of John Jesus amplifies and transforms the shepherd image for us by teaching his disciples that he is “the Good Shepherd”, who will lay down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).
Here he reveals fully what it means to be a shepherd—to be willing to give up everything for the sheep. This can happen in a dramatic way, such as through an attack on the sheep by a predator—or in a more mundane way, through the shepherd’s daily exhaustion brought about by labor and constant vigilance.
Pope Francis caused a stir shortly after he began his Petrine ministry on Holy Thursday of 2013 by reminding priests that they must take on the “odor of the sheep”, living and working in the midst of their parishioners and not isolating themselves from the difficulties and realities that the faithful face. A few priests I know reacted to these words defensively, seeing Pope Francis’ remarks as evidence that he was not in touch with what they are already doing. Most priests however took his encouragement well, seeing these words as an opportunity to reflect on their own roles as shepherds of God’s people and discerning how they can more authentically resemble the Good Shepherd himself.
Much of my work as a priest takes place in a seminary, where I teach, serve as a formator and mentor, and also exercise an administrative capacity. Taking on the “odor of the sheep” in this situation means at least in part helping seminarians to recognize the challenges and questions that they face in their own journeys of faith, so that they will be able to identify with parishioners who confront similar difficulties, bringing the gospel to the Catholic faithful in a credible manner on account of having walked in the same shoes as many of those to whom they minister.
Earlier in the book of the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord spoke through the prophet, saying of the people of Israel: “I will give them shepherds after my own heart” (Jer 3:15). Let us pray that through the support of Catholics for their pastors and through the dedicated efforts of seminarians and priests on behalf of their parishioners, we may all move forward together in our pilgrimage of faith, shepherds and sheep alike following in the footsteps of the one Good Shepherd who lays down his life out of love for his sheep, and who takes it up again “so that they need no longer fear and tremble” (Jer 23:4) but may enjoy life eternal.
Father Edward M. Mazich, O.S.B.