4th Sunday of Easter, John 10:11-18
A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them.
Preaching on this verse, St. Augustine once said, “The shepherd is to be loved, the hireling is to be tolerated, of the robber must we beware.” He refers these three characters to three classes of priests.
On Good Shepherd Sunday, we do well to consider the qualities of these characters and, even more, how the faithful ought to relate to their priests and bishops. Why is it that the people should tolerate the hireling?
We will rely on St. Augustine’s eighty-seventh sermon on the New Testament [here], from which the title quotation comes.
The sheep are, of course, the flock of Christ’s faithful. Put simply, the sheep are those who are foreknown and predestined by God for salvation. They are the elect.
Speaking more broadly, we may well say that the sheep are all those who are visibly united to the Church, whether or not they will persevere in this union.
But, to take the Gospel passage in its most literal sense, the sheep are those only who will be brought to salvation: My sheep hear my voice: and I know them, and they follow me. And I give them life everlasting; and they shall not perish for ever, and no man shall pluck them out of my hand. (John 10:27-28)
The wolf and the robber
The wolf and the robber is he who enters in not by the gate (that is, not by Christ) but by climbing over (that is, through self-exaltation and pride). This one comes only to destroy the sheep and to render asunder (if he could) the unity of the Church.
But we must distinguish between the robber and the wolf. For the wolf is the enemy himself: “Now the wolf is the devil, he lies in wait to deceive, and they that follow him” (St. Augustine, Sermon 87 on the New Test.). Thus, the wolf is Satan and also those in close league with him, who seek to lead souls astray out of hatred not so much for men, but for God himself.
And the wolf or the robber may even come among the sheep, dressed in sheep’s clothing. Still, they are always discovered from their lack of humility – for they gather men around themselves, not around Christ; and they preach themselves, rather than Christ.
St. Thomas, in the Catena Aurea [here], quotes this passage of St. Augustine as follows (substituting “wolf” for “robber”): “We must love the shepherd, beware of the wolf, tolerate the hireling. For the hireling is useful so long as he sees not the wolf, the thief, and the robber. When he sees them, he flees.”
The hireling does not love the sheep, but rather seeks his own gain. He is a wretch of a priest. And yet, St. Augustine tells us to tolerate him. Why?
The Doctor of Grace tells us that, although the hireling does not secure his own salvation, yet because he does at least preach the truth and administer the sacraments, he may at least bring others to salvation. For “the hireling hurts, in that he does wrong, not in that he speaks right. Many that seek temporal advantages in the Church, preach Christ, and through them Christ’s voice is heard; and the sheep follow not the hireling, but the voice of the Shepherd heard through the hireling.” (from the Catena Aurea)
The hireling, because he still preaches Christ (even though out of desire for personal gain, may be of great use to the Church and to souls. He is useful so long as the wolf does not come into the fold – for, until the wolf comes, he speaks of Christ to the sheep. But, when the wolf does come, the hireling abandons the sheep and flees.
The hireling is useful especially to those lay-persons who are already following Christ faithfully, since he will administer the sacraments to them and encourage them in the truth (not out of love for souls, but out of self-love). However, the hireling is harmful to those in sin, for he sees them in sin being pursued by the wolf, but (out of fear) fails to warn them or to call them to conversion.
But, so long as he remains a hireling and not a thief, such a priest may be tolerated. For he does not lead others astray, but only fails to call the lost back to salvation. A bishop may assign such a priest to assist in the administration of the sacraments, but ought not to surrender souls wholly into his care. For the hireling can only be trusted so long as there are other priests present who are true shepherds.
And finally, there is the shepherd. The one true Shepherd is Christ himself. However, in his goodness, he has called men to be conformed to him in his priesthood.
Earlier, our Savior said, Amen, amen I say to you, I am the door of the sheep (John 10:7). He alone is the door or the gate of the sheepfold, this he does not communicate to any other.
Consider the words of the Angelic Thomas (Commentary on John X,3):
“Note that only he is the door, because no one else is the true light, but only shars in the light. Therefore, no one else refers to himself as a door; Christ reserved this for himself. But being a shepherd he did share with others, and conferred it on his members: For Peter was a shephered, and the other apostles were shephereds, as well as ll good bishops: I will give you shepherds after my own heart (Jeremiah 3:15).
“Now, although the Church’s rulers, who are her children, are all shepherds, as Augustine says, yet he expressly says, I am the good shepherd, in order to emphasize the virtue of charity. For no one is a good shepherd, unless he has become one with Christ by love, and has become of member of the true shepherd.”
Now, the priests of the Church then are good shepherds insofar as they carry out the office of the shepherd well – and this office consists in the practice of charity, to love the sheep.
And, since no man has greater love than to die for his friends, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Hence, the true priest of Christ will sacrifice himself for his people.
And how does the priest offer his life for his flock? By sacrificing his body, his vanity, and all that he has.
By sacrificing his body: The priest offers his life for his people through fasting and mortification, through constant prayer and vigils, through hard labor on behalf of the Gospel. As the ox treads out the grain even in the heat of the sun, so too the good shepherd will spend himself to proclaim the Gospel unto the salvation of souls.
By sacrificing his vanity: The priest who preaches the truth will surely sacrifice the respect of worldly persons, and he may even lose the vainglory which can come from those within the Church. He must willingly suffer humiliations for the sake of the truth – rather than fighting back, he sacrifices all in humble obedience knowing that this suffering will bring salvation to many souls.
Let us pray daily that the good and gracious Lord will send his people true shepherds after his own heart. There is no sign more indicative of the wrath of God against his people than bad priests, as there is no greater sign of God’s mercy than holy priests.
A thought on preaching the “hard truths”
Finally, and very briefly, we consider that St. Augustine (as well as the Common Doctor, St. Thomas) see the role of shepherd as fulfilled most especially by the office of preaching.
The good shepherd preaches the truth always with love. He preaches the truth because he believes that the truth will make us free. He preaches Christ to the people; not himself, not the world, but the Lord.
Thus, the good priest will preach even the “hard truth” – consider, for example, contraception. Surely, contraception is sending hoards of Catholic souls into hell every day. Between contraception and the unworthy reception of Communion which follows, countless souls are in danger of the eternal fires. And yet, how rarely do priests (and bishops) speak out!
A friend shared with me this saying: “Contraception is the Church’s worst kept secret.” It is a “secret” because priests and bishops fail to speak of it – for these men are hirelings. But it is the “worst kept secret” because everyone still knows what the Church believes! Even without the help of good shepherds, the faithful are at least aware of the official stance of the Vatican.
Even many priests (and bishops) who believe that contraception is wrong, still fail to preach about it. Why? Because they think that the teaching is too “hard” and that it will “drive people away”. But, if we believe that the Church’s teaching is the truth, and that only the truth will make us free; then we know that even this “hard teaching” will ultimately make people much happier, perhaps after an initial period of struggle.
The shepherd will sacrifice his own reputation in order to warn the sheep, lest they lose their souls. But the hireling cares more for the approval of the sheep than he does for their lives.
Two examples of good shepherds
If you desire a good example of solid preaching, consider the homilies of Msgr. Charles Pope – these are often posted as blog articles [here].
In particular, I would recommend his words regarding preaching at funerals [here], and also his recent article about the negative affect which microphones have on preaching [here].
The best American example of which I am aware is the preaching of a certain priest of the Fraternity of St. Peter. Some of his homilies (together with those of other priests) are posted at audiosancto [here].