Sunday, May 11, 2014

The “small g, small s” good shepherds of life.

Pope St. John Paul II's tomb in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on May 11, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Peter 2: 20-25; John 10: 1-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2014]

There is only one Good Shepherd (that’s Good Shepherd with a “capital G” and a “capital S”)—but there are many good shepherds (“small g, small s”) through whom he shepherds his flock.

And when you encounter three of them at the very same time—three of them who have shepherded you personally—it can be a very powerful experience.

Which is precisely the way it was for me this past Wednesday during the pilgrimage that I was on in Italy with 28 other people—most of them from our community here in Westerly.

We began in Assisi on April 30.  We then went to Siena, where St. Catherine was born.  We also went to the monastery where St. Padre Pio lived in San Giovanni Rotondo; we saw the famous Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano, where the bread and wine visibly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ (a miracle which has been verified in recent years by scientific analysis); we went to the Abbey of Monte Cassino, which was established by St. Benedict; and, of course, we went to Rome for a papal audience and for a tour of the 4 major basilicas and some of the catacombs.

But, without question, the personal highlight for me occurred this past Wednesday, the day before we left, when I had the awesome privilege of celebrating a Mass (along with Fr. Brian Sistare and Fr. Mike Rogers) for our group at the altar which is built directly over the tomb of St. John Paul II.

It was early in the morning (7:15); St. Peter's Basilica was almost empty—the basilica that probably 10,000 people (no exaggeration) would pass through later in the day.  And I was overwhelmed.  In fact, after I reverenced the altar with Fr. Brian and Fr. Mike and turned around to everyone to begin the Mass, I had to stop—because as I looked out my eyes were immediately drawn to the opposite side of the near-empty basilica, to the altar under which another pope is buried: our own patron saint, Pius X.

So here I was in the presence of three good shepherds (“small g, small s”) who have taught me how to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd in my life (that’s Good Shepherd with a capital G and a capital S). 

Jesus makes it clear in today’s gospel that his true disciples—his true sheep—know how to recognize his voice.  But those sheep do not learn to distinguish the true voice of Jesus from the many counterfeit voices of Christ out there in the world unless other good shepherds (“small g, small s”) teach them how to do it.

Well, at that Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica the other day I felt a special bond—a special closeness—to three of the most important “small g, small s” good shepherds in my life: to St. John Paul II, who for 26 years taught me the Faith with clarity and conviction, and who is now teaching me how to carry the cross of Parkinson’s Disease (I pray I keep learning the lessons!); to St. Pius X, who by his devotion to the Eucharist and by his love for young people has been a tremendous inspiration for me in my priestly ministry; and to St. Peter himself, who has taught me that Almighty God can do the most extraordinary things through the most ordinary people; and who has also taught me what perseverance is all about!  

Through St. Peter I have learned that I must never give up in my relationship with Christ, even when I fail him.  Providentially, today’s second reading contains an encouraging word to us about perseverance from our very first pope.  Peter says there, “If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.”

Yes, it can be overwhelming (to say the least!) when you encounter three of the most powerful “small g, small s” shepherds of your life at the very same time.

And so it was for me last Wednesday morning.  It was a moment—it was a Mass—that I will never forget.


If you are a true follower of Jesus Christ, you also have had shepherds like this in your life.  And you still do.  Some of your personal shepherds (small s) may also be popes, and bishops, and priests.

And that’s great.  In fact, that’s the way it should be—since these men are the official teachers and guardians of the Gospel.  But some of your personal shepherds—perhaps many and even most of them—may be ordinary lay people who love the Lord, who embrace the fullness of God’s revealed truth themselves, and who have taught you by their words (and even more importantly by their deeds) how to live your Catholic faith.

On this Mother’s Day, we thank the Lord in a special way for all those mothers and grandmothers out there in the world who have shepherded their families in this way by their teaching and by their sacrificial love. 

I was certainly blessed with a mom like that, as many of you were—and as some of you still are.

On that note, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, recently wrote about the powerful, shepherding influence that his grandmother had upon him in the days of his youth.  Once again this week, I’ll give the last word of my Sunday homily to him.  The Holy Father said:

I had the great blessing of growing up in a family in which faith was lived in a simple, practical way.  However, it was my paternal grandmother, in particular, who influenced my journey of faith.  She was a woman who explained to us, who talked to us about Jesus, who taught us the Catechism.  I always remember that on the evening of Good Friday, she would take us to the candlelight procession, and at the end of this procession, “the dead Christ” would arrive, and our grandmother would make us—the children—kneel down, and she would say to us, “Look, he is dead, but tomorrow he will rise.”  This was how I received my first Christian proclamation, from this very woman, from my grandmother!  This is really beautiful!  The first proclamation at home, in the family!

And this makes me think of the love of so many mothers and grandmothers in the transmission of the faith.  They are the ones who pass on the faith.  This used to happen in the early Church too, for St. Paul said to Timothy, “I am reminded of the faith of your mother and grandmother” (cf. 2 Timothy 1:5).  All mothers and grandmothers who are here should think about this: passing on the faith!  Because God sets beside us people who help us on our journey of faith.  We do not find our faith in the abstract, no!  It is always a person preaching who tells us who Jesus is, who communicates faith to us and gives us the first proclamation.  And this is how I received my first experience of faith.

If Pope Francis were here this morning, I think he would end by saying to each of us, “Yes, this is how I received my first experience of faith; how did you receive yours?  Who have been—and who are—the ‘small g, small s’ good shepherds of your life?  If these men and women have truly led you to Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd (‘capital G, capital S’), then you owe these people—literally—an eternal debt of gratitude.  And not just on Mother’s Day.”