The Heart of a Shepherd
Homily for the Memorial of St. John Bosco
Deacon Doug McManaman
These are fabulous readings, and they are so appropriate for this feast day of St. John Bosco. Just take that opening in the first reading:
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.
That’s the heart of Christ right there. He is the good shepherd who goes searching for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And if you know anything of the life of Don Bosco, you know that he too had the heart of a shepherd, the heart of Christ. Don Bosco was no “sanctuary priest”. He was not one to shelter himself in the rectory, only to come out to say Mass, and then go back in. Some young priests today choose to live out their priesthood in precisely this way, believing that all one needs to do is have a reverent liturgy with nice candles, elaborate vestments, a bit of Latin thrown in here and there, a sanctimonious countenance and nicely folded hands, and a strict observance of the rubrics, and the world will automatically be saved. Where these young men got this idea I have no clue, but that certainly was not Don Bosco’s vision of the priesthood. Like a true missionary, he went out in search of the lost, out into the streets to meet with the young and unemployed, to interact with them, to pay attention to them, to really know them.
I’ve known a lot of priests in my life, but there are three in particular who stand out, for they were widely beloved priests. The first priest was from the Archdiocese of Washington D.C., who back in 1979 picked me up hitchhiking outside of Columbus, Ohio, and who was the turning point in my life. He was a great friend from that point onwards. He witnessed our marriage, baptized our daughter, but he was murdered on June 8th, 2000. The rectory was robbed and the housekeeper found him dead the next morning, stabbed to death. I remember that day looking at the Washington Post online and seeing, on the front page, the face of Father Tom Wells. That was probably the only time the anti-Catholic Washington Post spoke positively about the Church. The headline included the caption: “Widely beloved priest…”. And he was widely loved. Going anywhere with him was always a bit of a pain, because no matter where we were, someone would know him and come up to him. The other priest friend of mine, Father Don Sanvido, is also widely loved. He’s retired, but he is still pestered by all sorts of former parishioners to do weddings, funerals, Masses, visits, etc. And the 3rd priest in my life who is also widely loved is a Salesian in this parish.
Very recently I began to reflect upon these three priests, wondering what it was that made them so widely beloved. It certainly was not any kind of theological liberalism; they are very faithful to Catholic teaching and were always willing to preach the hard and difficult truths, much more than I am. The reason they are so widely loved is that they have a genuine interest in people. When you meet them, they are genuinely interested in you. They want to know about you. They ask about you, they listen to you with great interest, about your life, what you do, how you got there, your unique gifts, and they are genuinely delighted in you. And that’s a rare quality. Not many people are like that. Many people have known you a long time, but they don’t know anything about you, because they don’t ask, and they don’t ask, because they are not interested.
But the heart of Christ is a heart that is interested in people. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who was a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church, points out that the more we pray, the more we enter the heart of God, but there in the heart of God, we discover our neighbor, who was conceived there from all eternity. At that point, we are moved to return to earth to seek out that neighbor. That’s why the more a person grows in holiness, the more interested they are in concrete individual human persons, that is, interested in their world.
And that’s why St. John Bosco was so widely loved, why he befriended countless young people and influenced the world through those young people in ways that are simply beyond our ability to conceive. He was genuinely interested in people, young people in particular.
The next portion of the readings that struck me was from the gospel:
Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones, for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.
This is the harshest thing Jesus ever said in the New Testament: it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the sea. I don’t know where people get the idea that Jesus was always nice and accepting of everyone and everything, that he’d never say an unkind or offensive word to anyone. This is what the Cardinal of Toronto refers to as the “meringue Jesus”, sweet and light, like the meringue on top of a lemon pie. Followers of the “meringue Jesus” don’t read the New Testament; if they did, they’d see that Jesus can be rather offensive at times, especially to Pharisees. In any case, what’s the issue here? The issue is scandalizing these little ones who believe in Christ. There is nothing that Jesus values more than the heart of a child, which is why he commands us to change and become as little children. That alone is the condition for entering into the kingdom of God. But the heart of a child can be corrupted by the bad influence of others.
The other day I had a Confirmation class of about 40 grade 7s. We were talking about Original Sin and I asked how many of them have a ‘sense of the divine’ (sensus divinitatis), that sense or awareness of the presence of God within your life. I wasn’t expecting many hands to go up, but many hands went up, a clear majority. There’s a remarkable innocence in these kids; they believe, they are open to the Lord, and I did tell them that they could lose that sense of the divine in their lives as they get older, that they really need to make sure they don’t lose that, but to value it, nurture it, protect it.
There are, however, adults in this world–basically the culture in which we live–who will be in the lives of these kids, perhaps their teachers, or their professors when they are old enough, or a family doctor, a next door neighbor, or even their own parents, who through their words, their demeanor, their own lack of faith and devotion, etc., might cause these little ones to stop believing, stop praying, and eventually lose that sense of the divine. This is death penalty material for Jesus. The reason is that there is nothing he values more than the heart of a child that believes in the Lord. And that’s why he commands us to change and become as little children. In the garden of Eden, after the sin of the first parents, God approaches: “When they heard the sound of the Lord God walking about in the garden … the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God among the trees”. One of the effects of Original Sin is this tendency to flee at the approach of God, which is the root of the loss of the sensus divinitatis. Man cannot tolerate the truth about himself. After the first sin, they saw that they were naked and felt shame. This is significant because children are fine with walking around naked, and they do so without shame, but the first sin was a rejection of our status as “child” dependent upon God. The first parents chose to be their own god, independent and sufficient unto themselves, and so man’s natural tendency now is towards prideful self-sufficiency.
But here, in this gospel, Christ commands us to reverse all this. We are to become as children, naked and without shame, unself-conscious like children, humble like children. Humility is a strange and interesting virtue, for so many people believe they have it; moreover, you can believe you have it, without having an ounce of it. Moreover, the truly humble will not perceive that they have it, because a virtue is a certain kind of excellence, but the truly humble do not for a minute entertain the thought that they possess such excellence. They never look at themselves in the spiritual mirror and delight in what they see; they are empty of any kind of self-satisfaction and complacency. That’s what we are called to, and the more we go down that road, the more joyful we will be, like children who are full of wonder and delight in the simplest things. So too will our lives become full of wonder, for we will begin to see the hand of God everywhere.