This is the unedited text of a sermon I delivered to St. Joseph Fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order at our meeting on Sunday, July 22.
My brothers and sisters in Christ: May the Lord give you Peace!
I want to reflect with you today on the readings from today’s mass, readings that have shown me that God, in his infinite goodness, has a sense of humor. As most of you know, for the past year I have been in the formation program for the permanent diaconate. And as many of you know, three weeks ago I was dismissed from the program without warning and with very little explanation. Over two months ago, feeling that preparation for preaching was not being emphasized enough, I asked Martina, our new minister, if I could practice at fraternity meetings. She agreed and asked me to preach today. But it was only after receiving the bad news that I looked up today’s readings. The first reading is from the Prophet Jeremaiah:
Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture…. (Jer 23:1)
I will appoint [new] shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble… (Jer 23:4)
As I said, God has a sense of humor.
But what can I take from these readings in light of my experience? What lesson is there for all of us? First, it is clear that there have been too many shepherds who have failed in their responsibilities: the pedophilia crisis is above all a massive failure of leadership. As Jesus said in John’s gospel:
The hireling…abandons the sheep and runs away. The wolf attacks [the flock] and scatters it. (John 10:12)
Msgr. Lynn in Philadelphia was recently convicted of child endangerment. Had he not died, Cardinal Bevilacqua would almost surely have been indicted with him. In Kansas City, Bishop Finn will go on trial in the fall for failing to report a pedophile priest. Cardinal Law of Boston was forced to resign in disgrace, yet moved on to a prominent position in Rome. Father Maciel was exposed as a religious fraud, who used the Legionnaires of Christ to further his crimes and hide his double life.
It is easy to despair: to feel scattered and lost. But even as God condemns shepherds who betray their flocks, he promises: “I will raise up new shepherds for my flock.” Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was the fulfillment of that prophecy: God told Jeremiah,
I will raise up a righteous shoot to David, As king he shall reign and govern wisely. (Jer 23:5)
And Jesus continues to raise up true shepherds for his people. As I was reflecting on this reading I read about one of these shepherds: Hipolito Reyes Larios, Archbishop of Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz in Mexico. Previously, he was bishop of Orizaba, a poor, rural diocese in Veracruz. While bishop of Orizaba, under his leadership, a miracle happened: love conquered. Let me give you some background. Orizaba is on a train line from the Guatemalan border through Mexico to the US border. Every year, thousands of migrants leaving Central America ride this train north, trying to come to America: men, women, even children as young as nine years old traveling alone. The trip is dangerous and the toll horrific: dozens fall from the train and are killed and maimed. Gangs prey upon them, stealing, beating and raping. The police do nothing except steal from them and deport them back to the border. In the first state the train passes through, Chiapas, most people turn their back on them, calling them tramps and thieves. The migrants call it El tren de muerto: the train of death.
Yet when the trains enter Orizaba, a miracle happens. Poor farmers and villagers go out to meet the trains, carrying bread, tortillas, fruit, bottled water, clothing. They stand dangerously close to the trains and throw these things to the people riding them. When migrants enter their towns to beg, they take them into their homes, feed them, give them work. In one town, led by their pastor, the people gave them sanctuary in their parish church, standing between them and the police when the police tried to arrest and beat them. Twice a year the diocese has a collection: the envelopes carry an illustration of a train, and the proceeds go to feed and shelter the migrants.
To understand the full extent of this miracle, you must remember that rural Mexico is desperately poor: 40% of Mexicans live on less than $2 a day, and 30% of rural children are so malnourished that their growth is stunted. Yet these people met strangers—illegal immigrants, people most Mexicans look down on as little more than animals—and welcomed them as brothers and sisters.
The impetus for this came from Bishop Reyes Larios, whose favorite gospel passage is Matthew 25:35:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.
Under his leadership, he and his priests preach the same message, and these poor and humble people responded with a generosity that shames me and should give all of us pause. None of us is rich, some of us have known some tough times. But none of us is as poor as these Mexicans, and I wonder: have any of us sacrificed to the same degree when we see Christ hungry and thirsty and naked in our midst? I confess that I have not.
There is something else, however, in this story of bishop Reyes Larios and the people of Orizaba, something for all of us to reflect on. While the bishops and priests spoke, it was the people themselves who took the initiative. They decided to throw food to the migrants, it was lay people who approached the bishop for permission to turn their church into a shelter. They were not shepherds, but they heard and responded to their shepherds’ call.
I am reminded of a quote from the novelist Walter Murphy. One of his characters, a long time Vatican bureaucrat, described himself this way:
I have never been a shepherd, but I have been the shepherd’s dog. And that is no small thing when the flock is the Church, and the shepherd is no hireling.
It is clear to me, now, that I shall not become a shepherd of the Church. While I believed that I had a vocation to the diaconate, it is for the bishop to discern its validity. He has decided otherwise, and I will not gainsay him. But I am still called. I may never deliver a homily at mass, but I am still called: called to preach, to teach and to serve. Perhaps I am called to be a shepherd’s dog.
I am not unique: as Secular Franciscans we are called to serve God and his people. Francis was called by Christ to “go and rebuild my church, for as you can see it is falling down.” In responding to the Spirit, in becoming Secular Franciscans, each of us heard the same call. The Lord says “I will raise up new shepherds…” These shepherds will need us; the church needs us now, with new shepherds present or not. We are not shepherds, but we are called to be the shepherd’s dogs.
This is not simply a position of subservience. Sheep dogs are not sheep. Think of how a sheep dog operates: he gets his instructions from the shepherd, but the shepherd cannot be everywhere. The shepherd trusts his dog to watch over and the sheep while he is elsewhere, to act on his behalf as it thinks necessary at the moment.
In the same way, our bishops cannot be everywhere, decide everything. We are in the world, it is we who see the hungry who must be fed, the homeless who must be sheltered, the ignorant who must be instructed, the sorrowful who must be comforted, the sinner who must be reconciled. We confront unjust institutions, structures of sin and oppression that must be changed.
So today, tomorrow and throughout this week, look at the world around you and ask yourself: right here, right now, what needs to be done? You will find something. You may think yourself unprepared. But think of the sheep dog: he only has his teeth and his bark. But he also has the trust of his master. We have no armor but our faith, no weapons but our love. And we have the grace and strength of our master, the good shepherd, renewed in the Eucharist.
So remember your calling and remember this: to be a shepherd’s dog is no small thing, when the flock is the people of God, and Jesus himself is the shepherd.
And now please join with me in asking the intercession of the Blessed Mother, than through her prayers the words of scripture may always be in our heads, in our hearts and on our lips.
Hail Mary, full of grace….