Fourth Sunday of Easter: the Good Shepherd

Last Sunday celebrated the Good Shepherd.  The first three Sundays of Easter remember the Resurrection, the fourth turns to the Good Shepherd, and then as we move toward the Ascension and Pentecost, we recall Christ’s promises to stay with his Church, in the Last Supper discourse in John’s Gospel (13-17).  Together these Gospels summarize the Acts of the Apostles and the foundation of the Church.

This year, our readings for Good Shepherd emphasize the strange way Jesus continues his Incarnation through the Apostles.


In our first reading, from Acts, Paul and Barnabas proclaim, “the Lord has commanded us, I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.” 

Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church begins with the same dynamic.  “Christ is the Light of nations [Lumen Gentium]. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church.”  Christ is the light.  His Gospel is the light.  But the Holy Spirit is present in the Church, so that the light of Christ’s face is reflected on the face of the Church. 

The same confusion between the prophet and the messiah—which one is “the light of the nations”—is in the texts Paul and Barnabas are quoting, from Isaiah 42, 49, and 60.

The Fathers of the Church call this “the mystery of the moon.”  The moon shines with a light not its own, reflecting the light of the sun. 

Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  Anyone else can be a good shepherd only by reflecting his light.


Our second reading, from Revelation, takes us deeper into the strange confusion between Jesus and the Church.  The Shepherd is the Lamb (that’s a paradox).  The righteous are those who have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb (another paradox).  “The Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water.”

He is the shepherd because he is the lamb, who knows the suffering of his sheep and dies for them.  They are his people when their purity is not to hide from suffering, but to immerse themselves in his blood.


And so we come to our short Gospel, from John 10. 

The Good Shepherd discourse in chapter 10 is as strange as they come.  In vv. 1-5, Jesus introduces the door, the shepherd, the gatekeeper, and the sheep.  Which one is he?  In vv. 7-10, he is the door.  In vv. 11-13, he is the good shepherd, who lays down his life.  In vv. 14-16, he is the good shepherd who knows his sheep, and whose sheep know him.  In vv. 17-18, he again lays down his life. 

Verse 22 begins a new discourse, when “The Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem.  It was winter” (or more literally, at “the renewal,” Hanukkah, the celebration of when they renewed religious services in the Temple, after the Antiochene persecution, “in the rainy season”).  But he picks up the same theme again: “You do not believe because you are not my sheep,” he says.  “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”  It is there that our reading picks up.

“No one can take them out of my hand,” he says.  Without the previous verses, it is less clear that he has just said that some of the Jews of Jerusalem, God’s chosen people, have taken themselves out of his hand, though we got that message in Acts: “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.”  The message is not that everyone is fine.

Rather, the message is that we are fine, if we are in Jesus’s hands.  It’s not that we don’t need a Shepherd, but that we have one. 

Thus the short reading quickly takes a new turn.  From his sheep knowing his voice, he segues to them never perishing, and then to the Father: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.  The Father and I are one.”

He is pointing forward to chapter seventeen, where Jesus will say to the Father, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them,” and he prays, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus and the Father are one.  Jesus and the Church are one.  Jesus preaches through the Church, when the Church clings to Jesus.  The Church is united to the Father, when the Church is united to Jesus.  And the Church can have good shepherds only when they cling to the Good Shepherd.  It all depends on union with Jesus.

Do you find yourself searching for security apart from Jesus?

Why Are They So Nervous about Pope Francis?

Another group is out calling Pope Francis a heretic.  That group’s

claims are truly outrageous, but they fit into a pattern of nervousness about Pope Francis’s orthodoxy.  But we shouldn’t be nervous.

First, because that’s Protestant.  For me, a central part of becoming Catholic was deciding that, when my opinions clash with the Magisterium, I assume I’m wrong.  I believe in Christ’s promises to Peter.

Second, there are lots of factually incorrect assertions about Francis.  I know the temptation we all have—including theologians—to skim a document and claim we’ve read it closely.  But I teach Francis’s main documents, and every time I see a new controversy, I check his words carefully.  He isn’t saying the things people are afraid he’s saying. 

Third, what I find when I read him is that he’s saying really important things.  It’s not just that I tolerate him because he’s the Pope.  I think he’s a great, much-needed Pope.  It’s too bad people aren’t reading him.


There are a lot of parallels between Francis and Vatican II—and the problems in how people (don’t) read both.  St. John Paul II spent his great papacy uncovering Vatican II, showing that the actual teaching of the Council was way richer than the politicized stuff a lot of people say about it.  JPII said, read the documents, and what you will find is the riches of the Catholic faith.

Benedict XVI was a great teacher, too, on how to read Vatican II.  One of his most important teachings was his lecture on the “hermeneutic of rupture.”  Hermeneutics is a fancy way to say that often what we get out of someone’s teaching says more about us than about the teaching.  We tend to hear what we want to hear, or what we expect to hear.  If you approach Pope Francis, or Vatican II, with the assumption that they’re saying something wrong, you’re going to tend to hear something wrong even where it isn’t being spoken.  People even did that to JPII.

That’s what Benedict XVI meant by “hermeneutic of rupture.”  Without even having read Vatican II, a lot of people assumed it was a break with the

Francis Inauguration fc04.jpg

traditional Catholic faith.  But people don’t get that idea from Vatican II, they bring that idea with them, and it can keep us from reading what the Council actually says.  Ironically, that’s true of both liberals and conservatives: liberals are delighted to think that Vatican II is a break from the past, conservatives are horrified—and neither of them are reading what Vatican II actually says, they’re just bringing their assumptions.

The same is true with Pope Francis.  If you read what he says, there’s no rupture.  There is, as Benedict XVI says of Vatican II, reform, an effort at rediscovery and living things better—Benedict says the proper “hermeneutic” for Vatican II is not just “continuity,” but “reform in continuity.”  Reform is significant, and difficult, but it is not rupture.  But we can be so eager to find rupture that we never read what Francis actually says.


So why do we bring that assumption of rupture to Francis?  A reforming Pope—it was true of JPII, also—can be challenging, and there are legitimately difficult ideas that Francis talks about.  I need to find time to talk about those ideas, too. 

But for now, I just want to suggest some alternative explanations, to suggest why we might be imposing a “hermeneutic of rupture” on a good Pope.  I want to emphasize at the beginning that the following suggestions are very different from one another.

1. Separation anxiety.  St. John Paul II spent several years dying.  We knew we would have to move on.  When he died, there was a funeral, a huge

mourning experience.  But when Benedict XVI resigned, he just walked away, quickly—we only had a month—and we didn’t get to mourn.  Instead, we have the weird situation of the previous pope still sitting there, walking-distance from the new pope.  Popes are different—Benedict XVI was very different from John Paul II, despite their friendship—and it’s hard to adjust to a new one.  We’re emotionally invested in Popes: that’s why they announce a new one with “Gaudium magnum, great joy,” and why we have a mourning period before the conclave.  We should have an emotional attachment to Pope Benedict—but we shouldn’t let it prevent us from reading what Pope Francis says.

2. The 24/7 media.  We see a lot more than we used to see, and spend a lot more time dissecting it.  Take Cardinal Kasper’s infamous contributions to the Synods on marriage.  Cardinals have always had a lot of opinions, but we didn’t use to hear them quite so much; part of the problem with Vatican II was that people weren’t used to so much press coverage—and now we have the internet.  The sausage was always made, but not we watch it over and over again on the internet.  On the personal level, even popes make mistakes—but the internet, like People magazine, makes us focus on that personal level more than on the level of actual papal teaching, which is much better.  In between the personal level and the doctrinal is the way of expressing things.  In any dialogue or writing process (this is my second draft of this post!) the first version won’t be the best.  But where we used to only hear the final statement, the official papal document, now we’ve spent so much time discussing the first, clumsier statement that we have trouble setting it aside to read the official version.  A perfect example is Kasper’s initial statement on communion for the divorced and remarried: it was riddled with theological problems.  What Francis finally said in Amoris Laetitia is NOT what Kasper said—but by the time the real document came out, we were all so exhausted and invested in the Kasper argument that we didn’t have the energy for a clear discussion of what the Pope really said.

3. The new media.  As recently as when John Paul II died, media was handled by massive centralized companies, including the big Catholic newspapers and EWTN.  Those centralized companies had their own dangers: they tended to promote centralization, from the New York Times’s big government to EWTN’s big papacy or the Wall Street Journal’s big business.  But in the blogosphere, there’s something almost Darwinian about the most negative, outlandish sources rising to the top: why click on responsible reporting when you can click on something exciting, true or untrue.  (Trump, of course, is a genius at manipulating this system, getting media exposure by being outlandish.)  And just as big media is inherently centralizing, the new media is inherently anti-authoritarian.  Again, this has more to do with media than with Francis: no matter who is Pope, outlandish and anti-authoritarian things on the internet are going to get a lot of clicks.  Readers need to be savvy.  So do writers: it’s awfully tempting to be flattered by the traffic, and think that if people are clicking on us, we must be saying something important.  Pray for your new-media authors.

4. Us vs. them.  As to the substance of what he says, Francis is harder on people inside the Church than on people outside.  We are a tribal race, and we live in tribalist times: we all prefer to hear that we are right and everyone else is wrong.  When Pope Benedict said “dictatorship of relativism,” it felt great to us who oppose relativism.  (Though if you read what he actually said, it’s not as tribalist as people think.)  Francis is kind to non-Catholics and hard on Catholics—and he has been more successful than JPII and Benedict XVI at making us hear that criticism.  But if you read the prophets, or the saints, or the Gospels, you realize that God’s word is always harder on “us” than it is on “them.”  The prophets who said, “we are fine and everyone else is bad” were false prophets, whom the true prophets condemn.  Whereas Jesus constantly warns us against being Pharisees.  Francis is in the best prophetic tradition—but none of us like to hear the message that we need to be better Catholics than we are.

5. Poverty.  Opposition to Pope Francis did not begin when he started talking about marriage.  It was strong from day one, when all we knew was that as a cardinal, he rode the bus and cooked his own dinner, and that as Pope he said, “How I long for a Church that is poor and for the poor!”  The

Church’s teaching on money is hard for us to accept.  When Francis was elected, I had only just come around to those ideas.  When Benedict XVI wrote his encyclical on economics, I was one of the many people who rejected it—until I had to teach it, and discovered that Church teaching on economics is (a) presented by the Magisterium as magisterial, not optional, (b) about moral obligations: not macroeconomics, and not an endorsement of one secular political party or economic system over another, but the moral responsibility of each of us to care more about other people than about money, and (c) not trying to replace personal prudence, or microeconomics: the Church doesn’t tell a businessman exactly what wage to pay his employees, any more than it tells a father what to feed his children or how exactly to teach them—though it does assert, contrary to the secular world, that a businessman has a moral responsibility to his employees and customers, just as a father has a responsibility for his children.  Unfortunately, our hostility to misrepresentations of Church teaching on economics often makes us close our ears to the real teaching of the popes.  Pope Francis has been more successful than Benedict XVI, John Paul II, and other recent popes at making sure we know that he is talking about economics, but because we still don’t know what the Church teaches about economics, he makes people nervous.  (The same could be said about mercy, or clericalism.)  So ironically, because Francis is boldly proclaiming traditional, orthodox Church teaching on an issue that makes American Catholics nervous, too many of us fear him, instead of welcoming his magisterial voice.

Poverty, us vs. them, the new media, the 24/7 media, and separation anxiety: some of the opposition to Francis is rooted in rejection of previous papal teaching, but I think much of the opposition is from people who just haven’t thought through their emotional attachment to the last pope.  We should pray for all of them, and recognize our own tendencies to thoughtlessness and self-righteousness.

I love the Pope because he’s the Pope.  I love Pope Francis.  And I’m sad that all these issues are keeping people from hearing the important things he has to say to us.

Third Sunday of Easter: Torn from Our Nets

The Third Sunday of Easter rounds out the Resurrection stories: Easter Vigil is from the Year of Matthew, Mark, or Luke, Easter morning is John (or optional Luke), and the Second Sunday is the appearance to Doubting Thomas, which John tells us occurs a week after.  The Fourth Sunday will be Good Shepherd, and the rest of Easter is from the farewell discourse in John 13-17.

This year our story is Peter and the guys out fishing.  Peter puts his clothes on and jumps in the water when he hears Jesus call.  It’s one of my family’s favorite slapstick moments in the Gospels—Peter’s enthusiasm is infectious—and I have been thinking about the humor of John’s Gospel, which returns again and again to the confusions of fleshy people trying to think about Jesus’s words.


But I did a little research about fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and what strikes me even more than the humor is Peter’s vocation.

Peter is a fisherman.  Jesus sends them home to Galilee, and Peter says, “I am going fishing”—all night.  It’s who he is.

He has no luck that night.  But Jesus’s ability to give them fish points to how much providence there is in fishing.  I don’t think it suggests that Peter was a bad fisherman.

Our translation says, “He tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad.”  That’s polite.  It’s more like, “he pulled on a pull-over, and tied a belt around it”—casual fishing clothes, I think—“because he was naked.” 

Modern fishermen in Galilee, from

Now, it’s fair enough to conjecture that “naked” just meant “under-dressed.”  Okay.  But it sounds like the way this kind of fishing worked, you’d throw a net in the water with weights on one side and floats on the other, and then use your boat to pull it around in a circle, so you have a kind of cylinder.  Then someone has to dive down and pull the bottom of the net closed: my favorite Bible dictionary describes seeing fishermen do this in late nineteenth century Galilee, so it’s not impossible, and it might just be the traditional way to do it.  It would explain why Peter was naked—swim trunks are a new thing—and why he thinks nothing of jumping back in.  Peter was a serious swimmer.

Then we hear that Peter swam to land, while the others rowed.  Yes, Peter’s swimming is enthusiastic.  But it’s also athletic.  It says they were a hundred yards from shore, which was short for their little boat.  But for a swimmer, that’s two lengths of an Olympic-size pool, or four lengths in a normal pool—fully clothed, just after grabbing that net from the bottom.  That’s athletic.

Then Peter rushes over and single handedly drags ashore a net full of one hundred fifty-three large fish—these were probably Mango Tilapias, about eighteen inches long and three and a half pounds each, so five hundred thirty-five pounds of fish, plus soaking wet netting: no wonder the guys couldn’t get that net into the boat.  Peter is really athletic.  Perhaps he has the miraculous strength of the Resurrected One, but he is really athletic.

“St. Peter’s fish,” in Galilee today

Then they eat fish and bread over a seaside fire, as if to drive home Peter’s natural environment.  Peter was a fisherman, the kind who fished with big nets.


But the Lectionary, always brilliant, pairs that story with the next one, “Do you love me?”  People are right to focus on the love part—and perhaps that love is the perfect explanation for Peter’s swimming enthusiasm. 

But I’m interested in the fisherman.  It’s fascinating that in such a fisherman context, Jesus changes the subject, mixes the metaphor.  He


doesn’t tell Peter to be a fisherman.  He says, “Feed my lambs.”  (The threefold repetition brings out three parts of shepherding: food for the baby lambs, watch over the big sheep, and feed the big sheep.)  Peter is not a shepherd, he’s a fisherman.  I imagine shepherds and fishermen didn’t understand each other.

And then the punchline: “When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted.”  In fact, we have just seen Peter’s athletic youthfulness, his dressing himself and freedom with his clothes—naked, wet clothes, he does whatever he wants—and his going where he wants: fishing, not shepherding. 

Nice that Jesus calls him, “Simon, Son of John,” pointing to his origin—and tearing him from it. 


John tells us this was Jesus’s third appearance to the apostles.  He had appeared to Mary Magdalene (not the apostles) and said, “Do not touch me.”  He appeard to the Apostles the first time in the Upper Room, and showed them his hands.  He appeard to Thomas and the Apostles the second time and let Thomas touch his hands.  And now he is helping them fish and eating with them.  He gets fleshier and fleshier.

And the more real he is, the more the power of the Resurrection tears Peter from his comfortable home place and drags him out, to pastoral concern for others instead of fishing with the guys whenever he wants—“I am going fishing!”—and to his own crucifixion.

Where is the power of the Resurrection drawing you?