Reading for the Commemoration of John XXIII (Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli), Bishop of Rome
Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away. - 1 Peter 5:1-4
Think of a flock of sheep and what image comes to mind? A green hillside with a lot of fluffy white figures peacefully grazing? It's the kind of picture a person would see posted on the wall of a Sunday School room. It's comfortable, it's pretty -- and it's not terribly realistic. See a flock of sheep and they're usually dirty and a bit matted. They can't just be left alone or they'll wander off in all directions, get caught in thorn bushes and be trapped, and sometimes fall down a chasm or off a cliff. If no one is watching them, they can get into all kinds of trouble. That's why there are shepherds.
People aren't always a lot different from sheep although they have more brain power, more ability to reason and to get themselves out of most jams they get themselves into. Still, a bit of leadership, a shepherd, can often guide people and sheep away from problem areas, help them untangle themselves and get a hand up from the crevasses and from between the rocks. The shepherd has to be invested in the sheep. The shepherd has to put the welfare of the sheep first, his own wishes and wants second. If a ewe is in difficult labor, even at three o'clock in the morning on a cold hillside, the shepherd can't just push the snooze alarm and turn over. If a person is facing a crisis, they need a shepherd, someone to advise, to warn, sometimes just to listen without offering any comment. A wise shepherd knows what approach to use -- and when. That's what Paul was talking about.
The church has always used the image Jesus used for himself as the Good Shepherd as the model for leadership. First there were the disciples, then elders and deacons. The church grew and so did the hierarchy. Sometimes the hierarchy worked well, guiding the people justly and rightly. At other times, the opposite was true; there can be bad shepherds as well as good ones. Shepherds are human beings with very human faults and foibles. it's to be hoped, however, that the good will outweigh any faults and foibles.
Angelo Roncalli was born in poverty but died as one of the most powerful religious figures in the world. The world knew him as John XXIII, the 268th occupant of the Chair of Peter and Bishop of Rome. Although his pontificate was short, he is credited with opening the window of the Roman Catholic Church to changes, most notably in the areas of liturgical reform and ecumenical relations. He was an advocate for the poor and a mediator both between church factions and internationally as one of those most closely involved in the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Probably his most notable achievement, however, was calling a council of the church which involved not representatives of the Roman Catholic Church but also from other denominations and faiths, ushering in a time of increased recognition and involvement in interfaith relations. He never got to see the results of Vatican II which continued for several years after his death, but the Roman Catholic Church bears the imprint of his vision and Protestants, Anglicans, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews have benefitted from the increased collegiality and discussion.
For Roman Catholics, the Pope (Bishop of Rome) is the supreme head of the church and whose words, those spoken ex cathedra, can become doctrine binding on every Roman Catholic. His significance, though, for the remainder of Christianity is that of a shepherd. People tend to see religious leaders that way, and sometimes the leaders they choose to follow are less than good shepherds. Even Christians listen to the words of the Dalai Lama and see in him an example of humility, wisdom and exemplary living. Archbishop Desmond Tutu's teachings on forgiveness and his apparent joie de vivre earn him multitudes of followers who see him as a shepherd to follow. There are thousands and thousands of lesser- or un-known shepherds, wisely and gently leading their flocks.
A wise shepherd leads; the shepherd doesn't follow behind the sheep using a stick to strike them to get them back in line. Granted, shepherds today generally do come after the sheep and often have dogs to help keep the flock going in the right direction, but the Biblical model of Jesus as shepherd puts him in front, not behind, his flock. It's difficult if not impossible to lead from the rear. That can lead to mistakes, false directions and potential catastrophe. One who steps out in faith, with confidence and with an eye on the good of the flock, will be the best shepherd.
Angelo Roncalli undoubtedly had faults; everyone does, whether a Pope or the poorest of the poor. Yet as pope he looked at his flock and saw the need for greater conversation and a change in direction for not just a local church but a global one. He sought peace in the world and opened the door a crack for a more inclusive rather than exclusive view of Christianity.
Jesus called Roncalli to be a shepherd but that shepherd knew to keep his eyes on Christ who was his own shepherd. Jesus calls each of us to be part of his flock, not necessarily his point guard or Judas goat. He expects us to care for our neighboring flock members which might include far more than just those in our own church, neighborhood enclave or political group. We may not all become popes or archbishops, but we can serve by our leadership, no matter how small, and by following the example of the Good Shepherd.
It's that easy -- and that hard.