4th Sunday of Easter 2017
“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
We definitely live in a time when such language as was used by the first Vicar of Christ would be found unwelcoming and harsh. Poor Peter, as a British friend once quipped to me, “he just didn’t have a public school education.” We are told by many of our shepherds and theologians today that we Catholics must not try to convert others to the true faith and its grace filled sacraments by vigorously proclaiming and arguing for the truth, but we should only try to draw them by our personal example. That soft form of evangelization would not likely approve of Peter’s approach in the Book of Acts, where he calls for repentance for sins and conversion, and it definitely would rule out poor St. Stephen who sparred with the Jewish religious authorities and called them out for their resistance to the truth. An perhaps, even Jesus would be seen as out of line when he said that “All who came before me are thieves and robbers.” or when he called the Pharisees whited sepulchers” and told them they would die in their sins if they did not believe in Him. Whoa!
But then, we live in a religious environment today that places less and less value on truth – or doctrine – as such and more and more value on personal attitudes and qualities like sweetness and kindness and not offending anyone. But people who value the truth and see its proclamation and defense as a highest form of charity are willing to engage in rugged debate and a dialogue that places no false barriers to a truly open discussion on very divisive issues related to truth. Jesus never called Himself “the kindness” or “the unoffending,” but He definitively called Himself the Truth, and told us that His Truth would set us free.
Looking at today’s Gospel, we all affirm that Jesus is indeed the Good Shepherd, but that designation can in no way be understood properly if we separate it from his designation as the Truth, no more than we can understood his infinite charity if we take it out of the context of His truth. Is it true charity to leave people in the darkness of errors that profoundly affect their lives, or leave people without the sacraments of grace which can enrich their lives beyond measure? And yet today we have Catholic shepherds who say that we Catholics should not engage in a form of evangelization that argues and debates the truth, that tries openly to convert separated Christians who do not share our fullness of truth and/or our true sacraments of grace so as not to offend their religious sensibilities. Of what precise value, then, are the truths of our faith or the sacraments if they are not necessary in any sense for all mankind? If it doesn’t matter that non-Catholics are deprived of these great gifts, why should it matter to Catholics? Might not that conclusion account, at least partially, for the great decline of Catholics practicing their faith?
It’s interesting in this context to note that Jesus speaks about his sheep as following him because they hear his voice, and then they follow him. But what can that hearing mean in reality except that they hear his teaching. He didn’t say they follow him because they see his good example, but because they hear Him. St. Paul also said that faith comes through hearing and had much the same thing in mind, that is, hear the truth proclaimed. And where do we or anyone else hear Jesus today if not in the proclamation of the Gospels and the proclamation of the Church’s teaching doctrine?
And we must ask ourselves, living in our own “corrupt generation” (Peter) or “unbelieving and perverse generation” (Jesus in Mt. 17:17), just what is the greatest gift the Good Shepherd makes to us? Well it is right there in the last line of today’s Gospel, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” But what is this life Jesus the Good Shepherd speaks of here and in many other places? What does this abundant Life consist of if not what John speaks about in the opening of his Gospel twice: “and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (1:14) and again “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (1:17).
So the “abundance” of life Jesus speaks about in John 10:10, today’s Gospel, seems to fit the glory of Jesus, His abundance of Life, being the fact that he was “full” grace and truth. And of course, His truth comes trough the doctrine handed down by the Apostles and His Church and His grace comes through our sacraments Then, to confirm this interpretation of Jesus’ words, we also have the closing words of the First Eucharistic Prayer, where we pray, “Through whom you continue to make all these good things, O Lord; you sanctify them, fill them with life, bless them, and bestow them upon us. “Fill them with life” very much echoes the words of Jesus about coming to give us life in abundance.
Thus, the question naturally arises, if we truly believe that Jesus has come to give all of us a life of truth and grace in abundance, how can it be charitable either to soft-sell this fullness of Life by refusing to proclaim it forcefully in charity, or, as some leaders would even suggest, by encouraging non-Catholics simply to remain in their own religion rather than convert to Catholicism?
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who has chosen to remain with us till the end of time, close to us as an earthly shepherd is close to his sheep. He has laid down His human life for us that all might be given a share in His Divine Life, and he remains with us always as the Shepherd Guardian of our souls. He does this by working through His Church, that is, through the proclamation of the full riches of His teaching, His Truth, and by the administering of his Life giving grace through the Holy Sacraments of His Church. Is this all not worth a vigorous evangelization that proclaims and defends these great gifts as the patrimony intended for all mankind?
How consoling and important, then, is His promise to remain with us always since we now live in a time of great confusion, where many false ideologies have the voice of the media, and even religious voices to confuse us. These false voices can even come from within the Church, the Sheepfold in the parable. But we have confidence that somehow the flock will always possess the possibility of hearing His voice in the midst of the chaos which at times even infects the sheepfold. The sheep can hear his voice first of all, because His voice is heard through the teaching of His Apostles, which is preserved in the Scripture and Sacred Tradition of the Church. And, the sheep can also hear his voice when the Successors of the Apostles are united with the Successor of Peter and speak in His name. Then is fulfilled his words, “He who hears you, hears me.” Christ always gives his sheep the grace to hear His voice even in the midst of the turmoil of the sheep pen.
Yes, The Church always has a voice, and it is the voice of the Lord speaking through His Spirit and through His Bride. This voice is concretized in the voice of the Church’s shepherds, when they speak only what the Church and Spirit speak together, in complete unity. Jesus not only created the sheepfold, which is the Church, in which His sheep are safe from the wolves, but he also created many faithful shepherds through whom he will visibly teach, guide and protect his flock from the wolves. His Shepherds will speak with His voice, but only if they speak as one united in the Lord.
And it is truly most marvelously that even when the confusion among the Shepherds makes a unified voice difficult to hear, the flock, with the grace of the Spirit, can still discern the voice Christ in the Church through the ages, in the voice of Scripture and Tradition that helps identify the voice of Christ in the true shepherds. This happened even during the Arian heresy which misled many shepherds. It was the faithful laity and faithful bishops who heard the word of God and kept it. Even the Popes, while never Arians, failed to personally lead the resistance to this evil; it was the Egyptian bishop St. Athanasius who paid the price to resist this devastating heresy for the sake of the universal Church.
Faithful Catholics understand this truth, that ultimately their faith depends upon no single priest, or parent, or teacher, or even Bishop, and not even upon the Pope with His infallible teaching power, which in some ages he may or may not exercise in defending our faith. No, our faith depends ultimately upon Christ the Good Shepherd acting through His Church, that is, upon the faith of the whole Church united with Peter and His Successors. It is the whole Church in communion with the Spirit who is the ultimate voice of Christ, and because of the union of the Spirit, she cannot, as a whole, or through the Pope using his Supreme power, speak falsely about or for Christ. We say after the Our Father, “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church,” for it is the faith of the Church, through the ages that gives birth to our faith and supports it. She is the Bride who speaks for Christ, and her shepherds, including the Pope, are but her servants and His instruments, and for those reasons alone can they bring us His Truth, His Grace, His Mercy, His Life.
In short, the Good Shepherd’s voice can never be silenced, not even by unfaithful servants who betray Him, and their sacred calling. His voice is always heard above the din of this world’s evil, and even above the scandals that ravage His Church through the ages, because His Church is greater than all this evil. She is His Bride, whom He loved before the world was created, and His flock for whom He died on the Cross, that these sheep might be reborn from His death and resurrection. He will never abandon them, and that is why we will always hear His voice, if only we remain in the faith of the Church and believe in Him. We are never abandoned by our Good Shepherd.