Sheep and shepherds

In past years here, I have spoken about sheep and shepherds. Sheep are defenseless animals; unlike most animals sheep have no natural defense mechanism against a predator. Sheep are described as "stupid" by all the farmers whom I have visited. Interestingly, Jesus calls us sheep. Shepherds lead their flocks to food and water. Shepherds protect their sheep against all harm. If one sheep becomes lost, the good shepherd provides for the safety of the other sheep, then searches for the lost sheep, and carries the recovered sheep across his shoulders back to the sheepfold. At night, the good shepherd lies down at the sheep gate, which is the unprotected opening into the otherwise protected sheep-fold. The shepherd literally, willingly lays down his life for his sheep; predators would have to pass through the shepherd to get to the sheep. What a touching image Jesus has chosen when he calls himself the Good Shepherd. We can all feel very safe under the protection of Jesus who has saved us.

Today, I'd like to speak about parents as Good Shepherds. Saturday, I celebrated a baptism for one of my nieces at her Catholic Church in Arlington, Virginia. Her two-month old son, who was being held just one foot from my left shoulder, screamed throughout the entire 20 minute service. I literally had to shout to be heard by the two dozen family members and friends who were attending. Ironically, this baby, immediately after his birth remained in the hospital for three days because his lungs had not yet completely formed. During the baptism, I assured my niece and her husband that the doctors and nurses had done a marvelous job in curing this boy. I can vouch that there is nothing wrong his lungs!!!

I look at my niece with her first child, with other friends who were present with their infants, toddlers, pre-school, and young school-age children. My niece's husband observed at the end of the baptism that his son seemed "tired, hungry, and needed a change of diaper." This infant's father and mother were as patient as could be, speaking to the child, bouncing the child, kissing the child. Their lives as good shepherds have just begun with a new intensity and profundity.

During the ceremony, I tried to involve the other children as much as possible. I asked them to help me by handing me certain oils, or the white baptismal garment, or the unlit baptismal candle. The parents watched admirably as they witnessed their children being helpful; and the parents refrained from doing everything for their young children. I remember the adage: "give them roots and give them wings." Love desires to do all that is best for the other person. Clearly, these parents loved their children dearly.

Near the baptismal font was a unique sculpture of the Holy Family. I love the Holy Family theme and artwork, but I had never seen a production quite like the one in Blessed Sacrament Church in Arlington. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were embracing. But the father was on his knees, hugging his twelve year old son who was standing, and Mary was also standing with her arms around both of them. This was the portrayal of the "Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple." The artist had etched into the father's face his anxiety-turned-into-relief. The son's strong and intense embrace of his father showed the child's happiness at being reunited with his parents, and no doubt his regret at having upset his parents so seriously. Mary looked bedraggled but relieved. I commented to the young parents at the baptism ceremony, that every age of their children, whether they are infants, toddlers, or teenagers, or adults will draw upon and draw forth the depths of parental love that parents possess for their children. Parents never cease being parents.

Today, on Good shepherd Sunday, I want to thank parents for being good shepherds: leading your children to and providing your children with food and drink, especially the sacramental food and drink; leading them and gradually letting them go of them so they can grow, protecting them and assisting them at every stage no matter what age. Parents, you who are co-creators with God in producing life, I thank you for being good parents and Good Shepherds.

At this noon Mass today, we will celebrate the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. I want to say thank you to the care-givers who are present here with family members and friends. Thank you for being Good Shepherds: self-giving, self-sacrificing for the sake of our sick persons who are in need.

And thank God for the gift of Jesus who first demonstrated to us all the model of being a Good Shepherd. Listen to Jesus' closing words in today's gospel: "I am the sheep-gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. I come so that they might have life and have it more abundantly." May God to bless each of you in your following and imitating Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Read other homilies by Father O'Malley