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Church Talk: The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep

Friday 26 April 2024 | Written by Supplied | Published in Church Talk, Features


Church Talk: The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep
The good shepherd, Jesus said, “lays down his life for his sheep”. Today’s Catholic/ 24042403

The imagery of shepherding has become so much part of the Christian mind that it becomes almost invisible, writes Bishop Paul Donoghue of the Catholic Church.

Tomorrow, the 27th of April I will have the privilege of consecrating the coadjutor bishop for the Diocese of Rarotonga. Traditionally, bishops claim apostolic succession, a direct historical lineage dating back to the original Twelve Apostles or Saint Paul. The bishops are by doctrine understood as those who possess the full priesthood given by Jesus Christ, and therefore may ordain other clergy, including other bishops.

It is necessary that I explain some words I have used as they are new to most in the Cook Islands. Why am I using the word coadjutor? Because I have not been asked to retire as the Bishop of the diocese. Bishop elect Reynaldo Getalado will first assist me until Pope Francis asks me to retire. When this happens automatically the coadjutor bishop has the right of succession.  This is not unusual in that Bishop Reynaldo has had no experience of the Cook Islands. He needs time to familiarise himself with the people of the Cook Islands and the ministries that the church is involved in such as the administration of St. Joseph’s Catholic Primary School and Nukutere College.

I admit that the naming of the diocese as that of Rarotonga confuses as you would expect it to be the Cook Islands. The tradition in the Catholic Church is that the diocese is named after the place where the cathedral church is situated. So we speak of the diocese of Suva not Fiji; the diocese of Papeete, not Tahiti. I am aware some people think I am only the bishop of Rarotonga and not the whole of the Cook Islands because of the name.

If I were to die in the Cook Islands and if my official church lineage were read, I would anticipate that you would be there for two hours as my ecclesial line would be traced back to one of the apostles or St. Paul. This proves that as a bishop I am a successor of an apostle. That I am genuine.

Bishop as a Priest, Prophet and King

The bishop, acting as a successor of the apostles, is truly a representative of Christ and a sign of unity both within the diocesan church and with the church universal. Each bishop must fulfil the three-fold office of Priest, Prophet, and King with its duties of sanctifying, teaching, and ruling. The bishop as “the steward of the grace of the supreme priesthood” must sanctify his people through the offering of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. As a teacher, the bishop must preach the Gospel, teach as a real witness to the divine and Catholic truth, and oversee catechetical programmes within the diocese.

Patterned after Jesus, the Good Shepherd, bishops must also govern “by their counsels, exhortations, and example, but over and above that also by the authority and sacred power which indeed they exercise exclusively for the spiritual development of their flock in truth and holiness, keeping in mind that he who is great should become as the lesser, and he who is the leader as the servant”. Always mindful of his call to service like a shepherd caring for his flock, the bishop must care for the needs of the faithful entrusted to his care, extend himself even to those who no longer practice their religion, and act with charity towards those Christians of other denominations and those of other religions.

I am the good shepherd

Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason 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 of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:11-18)

Shepherds did not have sheepdogs in Jesus’ time. They didn’t need them, because sheep would followtheir shepherd of their own free will. Jesus called himself a shepherd: the People of God are not to be driven by fear but led freely by love. In the early centuries the figure of Jesus as a shepherd was a favourite one, and the earliest representation of him shows him as the good shepherd.

Shepherds were humble folk. If Jesus had been born in the inn at Bethlehem rather than in the stable, the shepherds would not have been allowed in to visit him; this was the first signal of his accessibility. The Word became flesh, he said, so that God would be accessibleto us in Jesus.

Difference between a good and bad shepherd

The good shepherd, Jesus said, “lays down his life for his sheep”. Who were the bad shepherds, then? Not the literal shepherds, the simple men on the hillside looking after their sheep. Not these, but the ‘shepherds of the people’, the leaders. In the Old Testament the term was applied to kings, royal officers, the elders, all who had any kind of authority. In nearly all Scriptural passages such ‘shepherds’ were being faulted for neglecting their responsibilities to the ‘flock’, the people. In Ezekiel 34, for example, they are being severely reprimanded for neglecting “the weak, the sick, the wounded, the strayed, the lost”, for fattening themselves instead of tending to the needs of the flock. It is in contrast to these and to the religious authorities that Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. On every page of the gospel, we find him seeking out these marginalised people: public sinners, lepers, Samaritans, the sick, the tormented ... He stood up to the authorities for their sake, he defied the systems that made them outcasts, he laid down his life rather than turn his back on them and “kow-tow” to the authorities.

The imagery of shepherding has become so much part of the Christian mind that it becomes almost invisible. The words ‘pastor’ and ‘pastoral’ come from the Latin for shepherd. A bishop’s crozier is really a sort of stylish shepherd’s stick. Those ancient shepherds carried a stick not to beat and prod their sheep but to beat off any wild animals that threatened the sheep.

In the scripture passage quoted, mention of the shepherd’s death seems very sudden and unexpected. At first this seems a very high ideal to have to live. However, we see it lived out daily in the married state. Mothers and fathers often lay down their lives for their children. We appreciate it when we see it witnessed by politicians and our traditional leaders, the ariki. In fact, all Christians are challenged to lay down their lives if necessary for others. The cross of Christ is not an ornament to hang on the wall but a pattern of Christian life.