For several years, a story has circulated about a text said to be inscribed on the tomb of a bishop buried in Westminster Abbey. It is supposed to read:
When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world.
As I grew older, and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country. But it, too, seemed immovable.
As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it.
And now, as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realized:
If I had only changed myself first, then by example, I would have changed my family
From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country, and who knows, I may have even changed the world.
For those in ministry, especially for those entrusted with the care of souls, there is a tendency to focus on the fruits of our service—to value results over relationships and to constantly look for what needs to be changed in our communities and the world, rather than first discerning what needs to be happening inside ourselves.
This year, the Fourth Sunday of Easter (“Good Shepherd Sunday”) and the 50th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, falls on April 21, the memorial of the bishop Saint Anselm of Canterbury. As a monk, firmly grounded in the Benedictine tradition, Anselm understood the necessity of humility, discernment, and a docile spirit in living the life of faith; as a teacher and pastor, he lived in imitation of the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sake of those entrusted to his care (cf. John 10:14-15). Reflecting on these qualities, Pope Saint Pius X wrote, “in [Anselm] there existed a wonderful harmony between qualities which the world falsely judges to be irreconcilable and contradictory: simplicity and greatness, humility and magnanimity, strength and gentleness, knowledge and piety, so that both in the beginning and throughout the whole course of his religious life ‘he was singularly esteemed by all as a model of sanctity and doctrine’” (Communium rerum, 8).
Anselm, who was born of noble parents in Piedmont around the year 1033, became a monk at the Abbey of Bec when he was twenty-seven years-old; he became abbot in 1078/1079 and quickly gained renown for his preaching and reforming spirit. In 1093, he succeeded his former teacher, Blessed Lanfranc, as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Anselm soon found himself at odds with King William II, whose efforts to seize control of the administration of the Church compelled Anselm to leave England. After traveling to Cluny and Rome, he returned to Canterbury, but conflicts with the new king caused led to his exile. Anselm traveled to Rome where he sought the assistance of the pope who defended the archbishop's efforts to protect the rights and freedom of the Church in England. In 1106, Anselm was able to return the England. He died on April 21, 1109. A revered theologian and philosopher, remembered especially for his Proslogion and the Cur Deus homo, along with and a number of other commentaries, prayers, and reflections, Saint Anselm was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1720.
When reflecting on the duties of pastors (and all those who exercise ministries within the Church), the words which Pope Francis offered the cardinals during his first homily after being elected Bishop of Rome are well worth considering: “We can walk ask much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong… When we journey without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinal, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.” To journey with the Cross was the vocation of Saint Anselm. It is shared by all the Church’s pastors.
Within the Christian tradition, there are innumerable symbols and metaphors which have been used to convey truths that exceed the limits of ordinary language. The image of the Good Shepherd (taken from this Sunday's Gospel) is certainly a timeless metaphor for the Lord’s abiding concern and protection for those whom he claims as his own. Another symbol for God’s fidelity is the bear (cf. Hosea 13:8-9; Lamentations 3:10-11), an animal revered for his bravery, strength, and fiercely protective spirit. Although the image of the bear has faded from our symbolic imaginations, for centuries it was regarding as an emblem of the resurrection (emerging fully alive after a long-winter’s hibernation). Ancient minds also saw the bear as a symbol of mission, based on the belief that a bear's cubs were born without form and were shaped by being licked by their mother’s after birth. This became a symbol of the pastoral work of the Church, which formed the new Christian through the proclamation of the Word and the discipline of faith.
Successful pastors like Saint Anselm of Canterbury, Blessed John Paul II, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood that their mandate “to pray, to bless, and to preach,” flowed from directly from the witness of the Good Shepherd himself. Having humbly looked inside and confronted their own demons, struggles, temptations, and sins, these shepherds have discovered the meaning of compassion and forgiveness and learned to care for others with the same tenderness, solicitude, and (even) accountability their own wounds require. A good pastor takes to heart the words of the First Letter of Peter, “God’s flock is in your midst; give it a shepherd’s care. Watch over it willingly as God would have you do, not under constraint… Be examples to the flock, not lording it over those assigned to you, so that when the chief Shepherd appears you will win for yourselves an unfading crown of glory” (5:1-4). A good shepherd knows what it means to love with that love that is "stronger than death" (cf. Song of Songs 8:6).
The Church today, as it has in every time and place, stands in need of faithful pastors who manifest both the attentive compassion and love of the Good Shepherd and the ferocious jealousy of the bear protecting the cubs to whom it has given life and form. A true shepherd, like Saint Anselm, is one who works to gather and keep the flock together, to promote justice, peace, and unity. With this in mind, Father Richard Rohr, O.F.M., has written:
Our work and the only work of religion is to create unity wherever you go. If you are not creating unity, you are part of the problem and you are certainly not one of the children of God. You can come to Mass as much as you want and come to communion as often as you can. But you are not in communion. Our job is to live in radical communion and not just to ritualize it on Sunday.This Fourth Sunday of Easter, we are reminded that each of us, whatever our state of life, is called to promote unity, intimacy, and integrity—what Henri Nouwen called the “three spiritual qualities of the resurrected life”: “We are called to break through the boundaries of nationality, race, sexual orientation, age, and mental capacities and create a unity of love that allows the weakest among us to live well” (from The Road to Daybreak).
(From Hungry and You Fed Me, edited by Deacon Jim Knipper)
A Prayer for Church Leaders
Lord Jesus Christ,
watch over those who are leaders in your Church.
Keep them faithful to their vocation
and to the proclamation of your message.
Teach them to recognize and interpret the signs of the times.
Strengthen them with the gifts of the Spirit
and help them to serve those in their care,
especially the poor and the least.
Give them a vivid sense of your presence in the world
and a knowledge of how to show it to others. Amen.
(Adapted from The New Saint Joseph People's Prayer Book)