I think that there are some who may be tempted to think that there were times when everything within the Church went smoothly and when the external climate towards the Church was happy and favourable. For many, times were better in the past.
I have developed a healthy scepticism towards what are so often looked on as the better times of the past. Very often those alleged good times do not stand up to scrutiny. Very often those who decry the present, compared to the past, often miss out on the fact the roots of today’s crisis grew out from that very past they feel they can praise so much. We need to learn to discern as to what we mean by good times and what we mean by bad times for the Church. We should remember the words of the Gospel reading of Saturday last: “God knows your hearts, for what is highly thought of by men is loathsome in the sight of God”. When we think that the Church is under pressure, we need to discern as to whether such pressure comes from external critics, or whether the real roots of the crisis lies within us ourselves and the quality of our Christian witness. I am not saying the criticism has no place in the Church, but criticism of the Church must be a function of love for the Church and not simply hostile criticism from its margins.
“I am the good shepherd”, we have heard in today’s Gospel. We have many wonderful images of Jesus the Good Shepherd and we have many images of the Good Shepherd which for me are far too sweet. The image of the Good Shepherd is not a sweet pious image, but a very tough one. The image of the Good Shepherd is not a vague pleasant smile, but a strenuous and at times tear-filled face. The Shepherd is one who lays down his life. He lays it down voluntarily. The Gospel is abundantly clear: No one takes it from him. He lays down his life of his own free will. The Good Shepherd is not a sweet, soft image, but very much a call to follow a tough path of discipleship.
The image of the Good Shepherd is one which inspires priests in a special way to follow the path of Jesus, the Shepherd. It is a consoling image for Christians at times of distress and at moments when they have fallen into the path of sin. It is an attractive image, one which shows goodness and mercy. But it is also useful to turn back and look at how the hearers of this message of Jesus reacted as they heard it. We can see in Saint John’s Gospel, in the verse immediately after today’s Gospel text, what that reaction was: “These words once again caused a split among the Jews”. What appears as a caring image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, causes rejection and division? How can this be?
Being a shepherd after the model of Jesus is not just about being vaguely kind and thoughtful to all. It is not about politically correct language which leaves everyone happy. It is a task which requires a radically different way of living. Shepherd is not a position of privilege or honour. The love of the Good Shepherd is not about Hollywood style love; it is about a lifetime of commitment and identification with those entrusted to the care of the Shepherd. It involves a renunciation of comforts and self-centeredness and a response which witnesses to the toughness of love, a love which does not count the cost. It means being with those entrusted to your care in times of uncertainty and threat, in fine weather and in inclement. It means more than superficial emotion, but establishing a personal relationship with each individual, by name.
One must inevitably ask why there is today such criticism, indeed rejection, of those who bear responsibility as shepherds in the ministry of the Church. Many people reject what they call the institutional Church. At times, they would propose as an answer a doing away with the institution as it is and a restructuring of the Church; perhaps holding a large assembly and re-discussing everything producing a different Church by consensus bringing our Church into line with modern times and thought patterns.
The history of the Church shows us that reform in the Church comes from a different source. It begins with conversion and a turning back to Gospel message interpreted as Jesus interpreted that message and as it has been interpreted in the tradition of the Church.
Reform and renewal in the Church comes in a very special way from reform of the Shepherds. It is they who must lead the way through the witness of their own lives. Today, when one talks about reforms in society one of the first words to emerge is transparent. In reform of the Church the primary transparency must be the transparency of the message of Jesus Christ. That message must be transparent in the lives of the Shepherds of the Church.
This year the Church is celebrating a Year of the Priest. It is a moment in which all of us priests are called to renewal and repentance so that we can be truly good shepherds. There are many changes which are facing us in the Archdiocese of Dublin. The average age of priests is growing. We have 46 priests over 80 and only 2 less than 35 years of age. In a very short time we will just have the bare number of priests required to have one active priest for each of our 199 parishes.
This will require very different ways in which priests will have to exercise their ministry and interact with each other. Priesthood is not an individual gift; it is always a fellowship of priests around the Bishop. The future will require different structures and different planning. Parishes will have to work more closely with each other and share facilities. The number of Masses will have to be rationalised. Some of these changes will cause pain.
Change requires renewal and conversion on the part of all. Change in the Church is never just about new structures. It is too glib to think that change in the Church will come about primarily through debate in a secular environment about Church discipline. This is all the more so in the light of the fact that more and more today the terms of the debate – especially concerning marriage and conjugal morality – have different meanings in society and in the Church.
Change in the Church is always about conversion, renewal and fidelity to the message and the mission of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. The characteristic of that mission is tenacity even at the cost of giving one’s life. It will require a different way of working with each other and with the lay faithful of the diocese. The relationship must be marked by those special gifts of compassion, kindness, humility, patience and forgiveness, all of which represent dimensions of what represents the love of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
The diocese has to repent for the failings of its own members who betrayed their mission of shepherd. Shepherds have failed through a sheer lukewarmness, through negligence, through lack of real commitment the Jesus and his message. The abuse of children is a heinous crime, especially when it was perpetrated by those entrusted with the mission of the Good Shepherd.
The Church and its institutions must repent, but that repentance must result in renewal and in a renewal which may not produce conformity and symbioses with the thought patterns of the day. Renewal of the Church will always lead to a church which is countercultural, at times to be misunderstood, but one always open to the guidance of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who will guide us towards a realisation of our inner selves, and lead us along a tough path of renunciation to what is alien to our humanity, to that new life which comes alone through identification with the Lord.