Augustine and Francis on being a Shepherd

Agnus Dei - ZurbaranAgnus Dei - Zurbaran

By Tom Palanza, Jr.

Priest Matt’s last post and article about shepherd imagery and its influence on the priesthood brought to mind a passage from the Office of Readings from last Monday and a quote from Pope Francis.  The reading was from a homily by St. Augustine and the quote was from the Pope’s 2013 Chrism Mass homily.  I would like to look at how these two quotes detail the nature of ordained ministry, especially concerning the role of shepherd.

Pope Francis’ quote comes from his 2013 Chrism Mass homily.  There the pope urges priests to be shepherds “living with the ‘smell of the sheep,’ shepherds in the midst of their flock.”  The pope urges priests to the same qualities that Augustine does; especially: concern for their sheep.  The pope’s sensuous image of “smell of the sheep” makes it clear that he expects an intimate, immediate concern from pastors.  Good shepherds are close with their sheep.  The closer, more intimate you are with your sheep, the more comfortable they are with you and the more likely they will be to follow you when you call.  The closer, more intimate you are with your sheep the better you know their needs and can give them exactly what they require to flourish.  The closer, more intimate you are with your sheep the better you are able to protect them and give of yourself for their good.  Even well meaning shepherds who want to protect their sheep but do not stay close to them will not reach them in time to save them from danger.  Good shepherds know that they must be close to their sheep in order to protect them.  Ironically, it is only by doing your job well, being close to your sheep and thus closer to danger, that you risk losing your life – and then can hope to gain it.

But it seems to me that Augustine adds yet another layer to the pope’s request of priests.  Augustine’s homily talks about what it means to be the flock of God and, while doing so, he interjects a brief comment about the difference between sheep and shepherds.

In this song we have declared that we are his flock, the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hands.  Let us listen therefore to the words he addresses to us as his sheep.  Earlier he addressed the shepherds, but now he speaks to the sheep.  We listened to those earlier words of his and we – the shepherds – trembled, but you [the assembly/sheep] listened without a qualm.

What is to happen when we hear these words today?  Are we in turn to be without a qualm while you tremble?  By no means!  We are shepherds, and the shepherd listens and trembles not only at what is said to the shepherds but also at what is said to the sheep.  If he does listen without a qualm to what is said to his sheep, he is not concerned for them.  And further, on that occasion [his previous homily] we asked you in your charity to remember two points about us [shepherds]: first, that we are Christians, and second, that we are placed in charge.  Because we are placed in charge, we are ranked among the shepherds, if we are good; but because we are Christians, we too are members of the flock with you.  Therefore, whether the Lord is addressing the shepherds or the sheep, we must listen to all his words and tremble; our hearts must always remain concerned.

Augustine brings up two important ideas here: 1 – the shepherd is also a sheep, 2 – the shepherd is only a shepherd if they are good.

As for the first point, Augustine reminds his people that he is not just their shepherd, he is not just something other than what they are.  Rather, he is both shepherd and sheep: “but because we are Christians, we too are members of the flock with you.”  Ordained ministers are not just shepherds and do not need to simply “live with” the smell of the sheep.  Instead, it seems to me, Augustine reminds clergy that they should not just recognize the smell of their sheep, but their own smell too!  Do you think your sheep smell?  How do you think you smell?

Augustine also remarks that he is only a shepherd so long as he is a good shepherd.  Thus, when shepherds fail, they are not shepherds, they are just sheep.  That is not to say that sheep are always failing.  Rather, a sheep can only be a shepherd when they live the life of the One Good Shepherd.  It seems right to ask, then, that if the ordained are still just sheep, how can they possibly live as Christ and be, as priest Matt put it, “icons” of Jesus, shepherds in charge of fellow sheep?

It is Christ who enables this possibility.  For Jesus is not just the one and only Good Shepherd, but he is also the Lamb, the smallest sheep of the flock of God.  It was the smallest sheep, the Lamb, who was made perfect through suffering and was raised up out of the midst of the flock and became the Good Shepherd.  Thus can we sheep be shepherds while still remaining sheep.  It is only so long as the shepherd lives as the lamb that they can remain a shepherd.


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