Nova’s Ordo: Reflections on Jeremiah 23:1-6

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)

Or again,

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….

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  • danielimburgia

    Thanks for the great sermon. We don’t have to look very hard or travel to Mexico to find ‘trains of death,’ they are everywhere. Your submissive graciousness even in your disappointment is admirable. I pray that you can find that even the ‘no of God is a form of God’s yes.‘ obliged.

  • Melody

    David, I’m very sorry to hear that you are no longer in deacon formation. It seems to me that it would only be common courtesy for those making decisions about these matters to discuss and explain in a meaningful way the reasons for cutting someone from the program. But apparently that much transparency is more than some can manage.
    I apologize that my next sentence is going to sound like such a cliche: “When God closes a door, He opens a window…” But I have found that to be true in my life. May you soon feel the wind of the Spirit through the window that has opened.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you Melody: while at times overused it is still a profound truth.

  • Ronald King

    I am very impressed with your faith David. God Bless You. Their loss.

  • Rat-biter

    “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.”

    ## But….

    *Can* we take that promise, for our situation ? The M.’s position has always been: “I teach this, I cannot err, my teaching is irreformable, so you are rebel against the authority of God if you have the effrontery & the pride to doubt that my doctrine, incomplete as the statement of it may be, is an inerrant echo of the Will of Christ”. Try reading Denzinger if that seems like a misrepresentation. I don’t have the 1988 edition, which AFAIK is the first to include extracts from Vatican II, because the edition is German, which I don’t read :( – but the 1976 edition is clear enough: Catholics are bound to accept with docility *all* that “the Church” teaches, has taught, and will teach. The M. gets to say what being Catholic means: therefore, if the M. (which has come to mean, the Pope, says, “Jump”, there had better be a *very good* reason for the Catholic not to jump. Otherwise, trouble. And the M., by saying in such detail what Catholics must do – unless they wish to be ex-Catholics – has defined Catholicism so precisely, so minutely, that it it has painted itself into a corner. That is the point. By the standards of “Denzinger Catholicism”, despair is an appropriate reaction – because “DC” has broken down. The problem with despair is that it is reasonable; so the M. also needs to re-examine the assumption that faith & reason are never contradictory.

    The bishops are one thing according to DC – something sadly different, in reality. DC describes, and takes account of, a Catholicism in which everything works as described, and does not break down. But the reality of Catholic life is different – it’s broken. The sheep *are* “scattered”, they *are* “lost”. Instead of “I will give you shepherd after My own Heart”, we have “idle shepherds”, at times even “hirelings”. This is not just any discrepancy between the Kingship of Christ the Good Shepherd OTOH, and the sin-prone “shepherds of the flock” OTO – this is a systems crash on a massive scale: the computer isn’t damaged, it’s wrecked. A New Pentecost that involves the leaving of millions of Catholics, the death of the missions, the wrecking of the Liturgy, & *only* God knows what other evils, is “New”, right enough – but it is no Pentecost. “New Babel” would be far accurate. A few things – like the blossoming of relations with non-Catholics – that are to a considerable good (not entirely so !), are no compensation for the enormous evils that have happened. BTW, I’m well aware that Arianism did very nicely, TY v. much, for centuries after 325 – but the troubles after V2 are on a far larger scale, include far more issues, & raise questions about the CC’s self-understanding that Nicea did not.

    The point is *not* that the worst that can be said, even if fully true in every respect, cannot justify lack or loss of faith in Christ – it can’t, but that not the point: were there countless proofs of the non-existence or wickedness of Christ, they would have no weight at all, beside the reality of Christ as known by faith in Him. No number of truths of reason can stand against the One in Whom we must have infinite trust. It is not possible to trust the M. – it has proved unworthy of trust. (As I’ve said before…) So it cannot have what it wants. It must make do with being believed with reservations; when it is believed at all. Christ is worthy of all belief – but “all men are liars”.

    The point is this: the Church, not Christ or God, has broken down. What it says on the M.’s tin, & how it actually tastes, are not the same. Christ has not – but Catholicism, DC & the newer kind, requires us to put our faith not in Christ, or not alone, but in the Church. And it has snapped under the weight of such an impossible requirement. So there is no CC as such, left – just the shattered remains of what used to be a Church :( And unless the M. does something about the dissonance between its claims for the CC, and the CC’s real character, for it is often more Catholic than Christian. We may be in for a “smaller, purer Church” – but there is no reason to take for granted it will have a Papacy or Sacraments or a M. – it may be very different indeed from anything anyone can imagine. If the Church survives at all.

    • bpeters1

      You wrote, “The M.’s position has always been: ‘I teach this, I cannot err, my teaching is irreformable, so you are rebel against the authority of God if you have the effrontery & the pride to doubt that my doctrine, incomplete as the statement of it may be, is an inerrant echo of the Will of Christ.’ Try reading Denzinger if that seems like a misrepresentation .” Where in Denzinger can I read that every teaching of the magisterium is “irreformable” and “inerrant”? Those sounds like characteristics of defined dogmas (which comprise a small subset the magisterium’s teachings).

      Catholicism, DC & the newer kind, requires us to put our faith not in Christ, or not alone, but in the Church. And it has snapped under the weight of such an impossible requirement. So there is no CC as such, left – just the shattered remains of what used to be a Church :(” This seems to fly in the face of almost every assessment of Vatican II I have ever read. It’s pretty much a trite commonplace to read that Vatican II marked a shift within the Catholic Church from “ecclesiocentrism” to “Christocentrism,” and so many of the constitutions, decrees, and declarations back it up. Passages center on the saving power of Christ, even outside of the visible Church (e.g. LG n. 16, GS n. 22), and, unlike the common pre-conciliar identification of the Church with the Kingdom of God, Vatican II describes that Church as the Kingdom’s “initial budding forth” (LG n. 5). And even pre-conciliar Catholic theology, ecclesiocentric as it was, never required Catholics put their faith in the Church and “not in Christ”. Any faithfulness to the Church cannot be falsely opposed to “faith in Christ”; the two are two sides of the same coin, the former completely at the service of the latter. For as LG n. 1 teaches, the Church itself is a sacrament/mysterium, and, more specifically, is a sacrament of Christ himself, at once his “Mystical Body” and a “community of faith” which is filled with sinners and “always in need of being purified” (LG n. 8).