Being Good Shepherds

Last Sunday (May 12) was “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The Fourth Sunday of Easter always carries that distinction, due to the readings’ focus on Christ being the Good Shepherd. It was also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, as we ask the Divine “Harvest Master” to send workers out into His vineyard. Even back in Jesus’ day “the harvest [was] abundant, but the laborers are few” (Lk 10:2), so Jesus directed us to pray to Our Heavenly Father for help in bringing in the harvest of souls.

The previous day (Saturday, May 11), Bishop Edgar da Cunha ordained Steven Booth to the transitional diaconate (please see photos on page 10). God willing, he will be ordained a priest next year. In his homily, the bishop reminded Booth, “Your yes is not to honor and privilege, but to serve the Lord and the Church and all of God’s people. It is not a burden. As Psalm 100 proclaimed, ‘Serve the Lord with gladness.’”

Last week our bishop gathered with almost all of the priests serving in the Fall River Diocese for a study day at Stonehill College. At it, Bishop da Cunha addressed the priests and said, “Thank you to each of you for the work that you do, being the good shepherd in so many ways.”

In particular, the bishop thanked the many priests who accepted transfers to new assignments next month. He quoted one of them, who said to the bishop, “I am going to say yes, because I ... don’t want to be a stumbling block to the diocese.” The bishop noted that every priest said yes to his new posting.

The bishop quoted from a letter to the editor of the Attleboro Sun-Chronicle, written by parishioner Mike Murphy, who was responding to some folks who were criticizing the transfers and other pastoral planning efforts. Murphy wrote, “The Roman Catholic Church is far more than a parish or a town.” After reading that line, our bishop added, “The Roman Catholic Church is greater than Bishop da Cunha, or Father Frederici, or Father Wilson or any of us.” 

Writing about what is going on throughout the diocese, Murphy mentioned, “Under the umbrella ‘Rebuilding In Faith and Hope,’ Bishop Edgar da Cunha has been reshaping the structure of parishes to meet the needs of the faithful, the clergy and staff that serve them. He specifically has shared that he is seeking to make the best use of clerical and lay talent. He has held ‘listening sessions’ throughout the diocese and is currently overseeing the work of seven diocesan commissions involving more than 300 laypeople and priests to deal with everything from communications and finances to youth and evangelization.”

Commenting on Murphy’s letter, our bishop said, “It is very inspiring when the laypeople tell us these things. I am so grateful to so many of the laity responding to these efforts. Sometimes they are ahead of us [clergy].”

“We stand together to do God’s work. It’s not about me, it’s about Christ,” Bishop da Cunha said at Stonehill.

The priests and bishop were gathered at Stonehill to hear the reflections of Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., who gave a multimedia presentation on “Preaching the Word of God.” Bishop Coyne told everyone that the goal of preaching “is to form intentional disciples,” and he reminded them that that must “begin with ourselves.”

Bishop Coyne began with an overview of the challenges facing preachers today: tremendous demands upon priests (in terms of giving coverage at the same time to multiple parishes, hospitals, etc.); diverse, multicultural parishes; “older graying communities, loss of youth;” and the “digital culture.”

The Vermont bishop said that we’re not just losing the youth, we’re also losing people between the ages of 50 and 59. He said that the scandals are part of the reason, but not the only one. Many people say about Mass, “We don’t get anything out of it.”

Looking at younger generations, Bishop Coyne told the priests to not fall into the tendency of thinking of millennials as “junior yuppies.” He said that statistically there are also poor white millennials, as well as African-American and Latino millennials. As such, a “one size fits all” approach to ministering to millennials will be ineffective. 

Bishop Coyne also mentioned “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics,” a 2017 book from St. Mary’s Press of Minnesota. Among the sad information the bishop culled from that book was that the sixth grade was when many young people stopped believing in God and that 90 percent of the young people in the study said that “nothing” would ever bring them back to the Catholic Church.

Bishop Coyne told the priests not to give up in the face of this dismal information, but instead to see how they can respond to the “digital culture” in which almost everyone is immersed now. “Everything is influenced by it, therefore we need to market [Catholicism] according to it.”

The digital culture is one of “rapid decision making” (Bishop Coyne noted how people demand “instant response” to their text messages or emails), with very short attention spans. An effective Catholic preacher today needs to be responsive to this, using images and quick turns of focus during a homily so as to keep the congregation engaged with the message.

Bishop Coyne recalled good advice he had received in seminary preaching classes. “If you (the preacher) can’t remember your point, how can they (the congregation) remember it?” He quoted Father Jack Sullivan, a New Testament professor at St. John Seminary, who said that a preacher should ask himself, “Who was the hero of that homily?” If the hero wasn’t God, then there is a problem.

Bishop da Cunha asked Steven Booth rhetorically in his homily: “What is God’s plan for you? First, your own sanctification. Then the sanctification of all the people you are called to serve.” 

This is what a good shepherd does. Just as a shepherd of sheep equips himself with dogs and his staff to help guide the sheep into green pastures, so today’s shepherds of souls are called to use the resources that exist today to help lead people into Christ’s pasture. As we buried a good shepherd, Father John Driscoll, this week, a man who used the printed word (founding The Anchor) and his oratorical talents to bring people to Christ, we are mindful that his personal example of prayer and sacrifice were also a powerful shepherd’s staff, as he guided people to The Lord. Please pray for all of our shepherds to be successful in God’s eyes.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts