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Do we see the scattered sheep of our 21st century world?

Archbishop Wenski's homily at 2022 convocation of deacons

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily during the annual deacons’ convocation, held Nov. 19, 2022, at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami.

I remember a story of a young priest who was celebrating Mass for the school children and the theme was the Lord is my shepherd. In his homily he decided to engage the children and ask them questions. They tell lawyers never to ask a question during a trial that you don’t know what the answer will be. This priest probably should have listened to that advice. These kids lived in the city and probably never had been on a farm or even seen a sheep – and when he asked them: “What is a shepherd?” most of the kids just looked at him with blank stares – until one kid bravely raised his hand and said, “Father, isn't a shepherd a mean dog?” The boy didn't have any experience of shepherds tending their flocks; but he obviously had not so happy experience with a German shepherd. 

Today’s Gospel reading describes the crowds pressing in on Jesus. St. Matthew says, “His heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And Jesus remarked that the harvest was great, but the laborers are few. Well, today, with this Rite of Candidacy, thanks to the fervent prayers of many, more laborers will soon be sent to work in the harvest of souls.

Sheep without shepherds. This was the reality Jesus encountered in the Gospel reading. Doesn’t this in many ways describe the reality of the world of today? In each case, scattered sheep ... or really, scattered people...

Without shepherds to guard the sheep, the wolves are loose to prey on the sheep at will — and we see the carnage all around us. Current events — whether about the Church, politics or business — show us how bad leadership, broken or failed systems result in scattered people, suffering people.

Divorce ... drug abuse ... have scattered and shattered families. But we can also list a litany of places where whole nations have been or are being scattered: the Middle East, Africa, Ukraine, and nearer to home, Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. Many of these scattered people now live among us — are they too sheep without shepherds?

As the vast crowd pressed up against Jesus and his disciples — to the point that they could not even eat — so too the scattered peoples of our times press upon us and they disturb our peace, shaking us out of our complacency.

How do we look at these scattered sheep of our 21st century world — a world in which people think they can live while pretending that God does not matter, a world in which globalization has made us neighbors but, as Pope Benedict once remarked, it hasn’t made us brothers and sisters.

Do we look at these scattered sheep with contempt? If we do, aren’t we just blaming the victims, and not the wolves? Do we regard them with indifference? But do not the Scriptures admonish us: We are our brothers’ keepers?

People do have conflicted feelings about globalization, about migratory flows and many other things. We find them within our parishes. The Gospels offer us no easy solutions to the social problems of our day. But the Gospels do not allow us to dismiss or disregard anybody as a “problem.” A reasoning that would make a person made in the image and likeness of God a “problem” offends against human dignity. Such reductive reasoning leads to giving ourselves permission to look for solutions — and will open the door yet again for “final solutions.”

Abortion, euthanasia, genocide are solutions born of contempt or of indifference to the life and dignity of the human person and our obligation to solidarity.

For those who were like sheep without a shepherd, to people scattered or even shattered by the trials and tribulations of life in the “vale of tears,” Jesus’ heart was moved with pity. Pity — or perhaps a better word, compassion — was Jesus’ response; and pity or compassion — not contempt or indifference — must be the response of Jesus’ disciples.

“Señor, ten piedad… Lord, have mercy.” This is the first thing we ask of the Lord at the beginning of Mass. Later, we say: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

You might have heard the expression, “bleeding heart.” It’s usually used today as an adjective to the noun “liberal,” as in “bleeding heart” liberal. But originally, “bleeding heart” was an anti-Catholic slur. It wasn’t meant to refer to “liberals” but to Catholics. And there is no other religious group so involved in social ministries: Catholic Charities, Catholic Legal Services, Catholic Health Services, and so on. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy “is us.” For the real bleeding heart is Jesus’ Sacred Heart pierced for us on Calvary.

As Catholics, our faith is beyond the political categories of liberal or conservative. At any rate, politics will not save us from the wolves.

Pope Francis has described the Church as a field hospital, a MASH unit near the front lines, that attends to the wounded fallen in life’s battles. And weren’t we all once scattered sheep now rescued and brought to green pastures by the Good Shepherd of our souls? And what we have received freely by grace, we should likewise give freely.

We read in Lumen Gentium, “For the shepherding and continued increase of the people of God, Christ the Lord institutes in his Church various ministries that work together for the good of the whole Body.” Thus, the divinely established ecclesial ministry is exercised at different levels by those who from antiquity have been called bishops, presbyters, and deacons.

Deacons, you have been ordained for a ministry of service, through a diakonia of liturgy, word, and charity. And God willing, our candidates will be called to this ministry as well.

“I will give you shepherds.” This was God’s promise spoken through his prophet, Jeremiah. And of course, that promise was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. “The Lord is my shepherd” we pray in the 22nd Psalm. He is our shepherd — and he is the shepherd of the least, the lost and the last, of the scattered sheep of our world. And the Lord speaks to each one of us: The harvest is great, pray that the harvest master send workers into his fields.

In the end, like that kid I spoke about at the beginning of the homily, today many people might have no idea what a shepherd is, but our task is to make sure we help them to get to know The Shepherd.