Driving a long a narrow stretch of Kansas highway last spring, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sunset, the narrow crescent of the moon hanging in a blue-orange sky and the emerging stars and planets. Below them however, I noticed the telltale signs of another prison: concrete boxes with narrow slits of windows surrounded by walls and barb wire.
“Another prison?” I thought, just leaving minimum security barely a half mile away.
The contrast between the private prison, stuffed with inmates, and the beautiful sky was jarring.
“What hath God wrought? What hath man wrought?” I thought.
One thing that occurs to me over and over again in prison ministry is how most of the distinguishing factors between volunteers and prisoners dissolve as we begin to discuss the readings or celebrate Mass. Sometimes, with relationships formed over many years, they dissolve as soon as we step inside the walls.
We had been discussing the Gospel for that Sunday, in which Jesus describes himself as a Good Shepherd, and distinguishes a Good Shepherd from a bad one. The difference, of course, is relational. The Good Shepherd knows and loves the sheep, and will ultimately lay down his life for them when the “wolf” arrives. The hireling, by comparison, will run away and leave the sheep to their brutal fate.
As we reflected, we figured out that the Good Shepherd is God and other-centered, the Bad Shepherd centered on self.
We reflected on the good shepherds as well as the wolves in our own lives. How sometimes the wolves leave us wounded. And how our own wounds can become sources of grace for others, in the same way that we are healed by Jesus’ wounds.
The wolves of life are many: suffering, disease, and death encroach upon any life, religious or otherwise. The Romans admired early Christians because they seemed to confront these realities with utter disregard for their own lives. When a plague hit a town for example, most everyone would leave except the Christians, who would stay behind to tend to the dying, often becoming infected themselves. They were filled with faith that Jesus Christ had conquered all of death, and even if they suffered and died, they would still be saved.
So while they found death, suffering, and illness signs of sin, they rushed headfirst towards them, confident that they were signs of an old order that had been broken and was swiftly passing away.
The Wounds and the Wolves in today’s church, in today’s world, are many. Our response, my response, has often been to run away, to turn around and march somewhere else. Or to stay silent, but we know now the damage of such silence.
Today as the Bishops continue their Synod in Rome on the topic of young people, I pray that they can run headfirst towards the wounds and the wolves in our church. That they won’t hide behind empty platitudes and the status quo. That in listening first they can stay open to the call of Christ to be and shape tomorrow’s Good Shepherds.
Following Jesus and our forebears means we can have faith and trust as we rush headlong into our struggles for justice, for peace, and for the healing of our suffering world. We can realize, that although the wounds and wolves of life are many, the Shepherd is always there, running ahead of us.