The image of the shepherd is pretty strong in the readings –
that’s why this is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
But did you also notice how much we heard from Saint Peter?
That’s appropriate, since he was the first pope,
the first shepherd appointed by Christ to guard and teach the Church.
This is a good opportunity to talk about what we do, and do not,
believe about the pope and the nature of the Church.
At one extreme, there are people who think
we treat the pope as if he were the oracle of God;
whatever he says or does is almost like Scripture.
At the other extreme are those who say,
well there have been bad popes and bad bishops,
so how can you believe there is anything special about the pope,
or for that matter, the Church?
And the answer is this: what makes the Church special,
and the pope in particular, isn’t anything about us;
it isn’t anything about Pope Francis as a man.
What is special is what Christ does, in his power.
So we do believe, as Catholics,
that there is something special about the Church.
The Church is the Body of Christ; and therefore,
the Church, while made up of human beings,
nevertheless, the Church is divine.
Jesus is human and Jesus is divine.
The Church, which is his Body, is likewise, both human and divine.
Unlike Jesus, we members of his Body do sin.
That reality of the Church is on full display, sometimes to our shame.
But the supernatural reality is also there, if we look for it.
We can see it in a couple of ways.
First, we can see it in the work of Providence.
There’s a quote by G.K. Chesterton, from his book called Orthodoxy,
in which he paints a picture of the Church moving through history,
always in peril, always on the edge of disaster,
and yet, somehow it all works out.
In her early days, the Church, Chesterton said,
“went fierce and fast with any warhorse,”
yet had to maneuver past the error of “Arianism,
buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly.
The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism,
which would have made (the Church) too unworldly” –
and so it has been, all these centuries.
Again, Chesterton said,
To have fallen into any one of the fads
from Gnosticism to Christian Science
would indeed have been obvious and tame.
But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure;
and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages,
the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate,
the wild truth reeling but erect.
In other words, this is the work of the Holy Spirit,
safeguarding the Church in all these dangers.
And it is the same for the pope in particular.
Pope Francis, or any pope, can make mistakes
and can show weakness or worldliness.
And to be clear, what we believe about the pope
is not that he is uniquely holy or wise or courageous
or anything of that sort. We hope for that;
and as it happens, we have been blessed
with many men of extraordinary courage and wisdom and saintliness.
But none of that is automatic.
Instead, what we believe – and please listen carefully to this:
what we believe is that God will protect the pope, in certain moments,
to ensure that he does not teach error to the Church.
That’s what we call “infallibility.”
It is not a promise that everything will be smooth sailing;
but rather, that when the Bark of Peter faces storms,
she may take on water and suffer damage – but she will not sink.
This is the work of the Good Shepherd,
the True Shepherd, Jesus Christ himself.
Why isn’t it easier? Notice what Pope Peter said:
Jesus suffered for us…but we follow in his footsteps.
We go where Jesus has gone – and that includes the Cross.
That includes the valley of the shadow of death.
But we never go there alone.
Meanwhile, if you and I want the Church to be all we dream of,
there is something we can do instead of complaining.
Be that shining example of a Christian! Be a saint!
That is the other way we see the supernatural reality of the Church,
in the lives of saints and in the way grace shines in them.
If you and I are busy about becoming saints,
we won’t have any time to worry about what others are, or aren’t doing.
If a bishop or a priest has let you down – if I have let you down –
I am deeply sorry.
But they – I – can’t keep you from being a saint.
You stay on that path!