This reflection traces the relationship between the priest, who is called to be like Christ the Shepherd of souls and his role distinctive role in making the Synod real. Pope Francis called the Synod on Synodality which in our context is already on the continental stage. The theme of the Synod is “Communion, Participation and mission.” The synod continues Pope Francis ecclesiology which seeks to build an inclusive church, which is decentralized and at the same time missionary. This ecclesiological vision is fully expounded in Evagelii Gaudium and some of his other writings and preaching. This reflection will analyse the biblical data departing from John 10: 1-10, not exclusively to deduce qualities of a good shepherd relevant for the Synodal Process. It will further shed light on the kind of Church that is likely to emerge from the synod. This reflection will rely heavily on the Gospel of Joy and the story of the Good Shepherd to argue that, to implement the Synod and realize its fruits, one must be a Shepherd.
2. The God shepherd in the Scriptures (John 10: 1-10)
The gospel above which was written at the end of the first century is not as clear as we think. Jesus uses illustrations sometimes parables to make a point. This gospel is a clear indication of how he uses common images to express reality. Jesus uses two metaphors for himself in this passage. He is the shepherd who enters by the gate which the gatekeeper opens for him (v. 2-6), and he is the gate (or door) by which the sheep enter salvation and go out to find pasture (v. 7-9). Jesus says that thieves and bandits enter the sheepfold by another way (v. 1). The thieves and bandits are “all who came before me” (v. 8), and the thief who “comes to steal, kill, and destroy” (v. 10). What Jesus does in this gospel is to compare two realities, himself who is a true shepherd and others who are false the shepherds lamented about in Ezekiel 34: 2-10. “One who doesn’t enter by the door into the sheep fold, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber” (v. 1b). This suggests Ezekiel 34:11, 15-16, in which God rebuked the shepherds of Israel (religious leaders) who fed themselves rather than their flocks. God stopped their exploitation and took on the role of shepherd. Jeremiah 23:1-4 has much the same emphasis. The Old Testament includes several references to God as shepherd and the people as flock (Psalm 23:1; 77:20; 79:13; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3; Isaiah 40:11). We sometimes refer to ordained clergy as pastors or shepherds. There are other passages that support such terminology (John 21:15-19; Acts 20:28-29; 1 Peter 5:2-3) but John 10 does not. Verses 11-18, which go beyond this Gospel lesson, emphasize the Christological nature of this passage and the inappropriateness of applying its imagery to anyone but Christ. Christ remains the ideal if we want to be pastors, we must be other Christs.
3. Qualities of a Good Shepherd
“He calls his own sheep by name” (v. 3b). “His own” reflects the personal nature of the relationship between shepherd and sheep. Shepherding is not just a job for this shepherd, and the sheep are more than an asset.
In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name––that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character. The point of this verse is that the good shepherd knows the sheep with the same kind of intimacy that we have with friends and neighbours. G. A. Smith tells of watching shepherds in Judea. Several shepherds would converge on a water hole and the flocks would get intermixed. Smith wondered how the shepherds would separate them once again into their individual flocks. The answer came when it was time for a shepherd to move on. He would use his distinctive call, and the sheep from his flock would make their way to him (G. A. Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 210-11, quoted in Beasley-Murray, 168).
“And leads them out” (v. 3c). While inside the sheepfold, the sheep have the protection of its walls. When the shepherd leads them out of the sheepfold, the shepherd is their only protection—and all the protection that they need if he is a good shepherd.
There are three: the good shepherd enters by the gate; the good shepherd knows and cares for the sheep; and the life of the good shepherd is laid down for the sheep. Meanwhile the shepherd’s purpose is to bring the sheep abundant life. In just fifteen verses, John’s gospel gives us Jesus’s description of what he wants for us and his formula for leadership. The goal of leadership is that your people find abundant life. The leader to take them there is one who attains authority by appropriate and recognised means, who profoundly knows and is known by the community, and who has no goal in mind other than its flourishing.
4. The purpose of the Synod
In October 2021, Pope Francis announced a two-year process of listening and dialogue of the Catholic Church, known as the “Synod on Synodality.” During the Synod on Synodality, all Catholics are invited to listen with open hearts and minds, to share from their own lived experiences, and to make space for the voices of those often marginalized or excluded. Pope Francis in fact argues that the “church recognizes that synodality is an integral part of her very nature.” (Vademecum). The Pope through this exercise wants to bring the whole church to a reflection about the church desired by Vatican II expressed in its theology of communion. “It is precisely this path of synodality which God expects of the Church of the third millennium.” Following in the wake of the renewal of the Church proposed by the Second Vatican Council, this common journey together is both a gift and a task. By reflecting together on the journey that has been made so far, the diverse members of the Church will be able to learn from one another’s experiences and perspectives, guided by the Holy Spirit (PD, 1). In this sense, the purpose of this Synod is not to produce more documents. Rather, it is intended to inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make people’s hopes flourish, to stimulate trust, to bind up wounds, to weave new and deeper relationships, to learn from one another, to build bridges, to enlighten minds, warm hearts, and restore strength to our hands for our common mission (PD, 32). Thus, the objective of this Synodal Process is not only a series of exercises that start and stop, but rather a journey of growing authentically towards the communion and mission that God calls the Church to live out in the third millennium.
5. Pope Francis Ecclesiology of Mission
Pope Francis Ecclesiology of mission has roots in the Scriptures and the vision of Vatican II. Theologian Christoph Theobald, in one of his speeches affirms that with EG we are faced with an outline of the rewriting of Vatican II. He claims that Pope Francis, compared to his predecessors, seems to have a freer relationship with the Council, a relationship characterized by having fully assumed the perspective but by feeling the need to reformulate some basic lines for the today’s deeply changed context. It defines EG as “an original interpretation of the council”. Given “the cultural distance from the council,” he writes, “and without the prospect of a new council, it is necessary to find a type of “rewriting” that is sufficiently anchored in the last normative expression of universal Catholicism and at the same time sufficiently free with respect to it to respond to the ‘today of God’ with sufficient creativity.
Empowered by a rich tradition of the Jesuits on discernment of spirits he invites all the people to journey together towards discovering Vatican II and implementing it. The Church of Vatican II is a church of community, evangelization and mission. In fact, Pope Francis focuses the church on the Sensus Fidelis of the People of God, that is why he emphasises missionary conversion. He says:
I dream of a “missionary option”, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion, can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. » (EG 27).
Accordingly, the synod cannot be understood without the above radical approach which demands a Good Shepherd. The Church exists to evangelize, Paul VI said in Evangelii nuntiandi. However, the condition indicated by EG is unprecedented: missionary “conversion” is required not only for pastoral organisation, but for all dimensions of Church life. The church is here one which focuses on the world, a church of disciples. This is a church of disciples capable of discipling. A self-evangelizing church.
6. A priest of synodality, a Shepherd
For us to evangelize in a synodal way we need to look at Jesus as the one who teaches us how to evangelize the world. Pope Francis again brings this to the fore:
Jesus himself is the model of this method of evangelization which brings us to the very heart of his people. Moved by his example, we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world. However, we do so not from a sense of obligation, not as a burdensome duty, but as the result of a personal decision, which brings us joy and gives meaning to our lives. (EG 269).
Returning to the story of the Good Shepherd we the synodal priest must be both the gate and shepherd. The gate and the shepherd work together for the well-being of the sheep, so that the flock thrives. Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd at the same time; he guards and protects his sheep from danger, and he provides for their nourishment, for their life in abundance. “Priests therefore, as educators in the faith, must see to it either by themselves or through others that the faithful are led individually in the Holy Spirit to a development of their own vocation according to the Gospel, to a sincere and practical charity, and to that freedom with which Christ has made us free.(25) Ceremonies however beautiful, or associations however flourishing, will be of little value if they are not directed toward the education of men to Christian maturity.”(PO #6) “No Christian community, however, is built up unless it has its basis and centre in the celebration of the most Holy Eucharist; from this, therefore, all education to the spirit of community must take its origin.(31) This celebration, if it is to be genuine and complete, should lead to various works of charity and mutual help, as well as to missionary activity and to different forms of Christian witness.”(Ibid). therefore, the priest in this model is a:
Builder of unity
A listener rather a dominant and arrogant
A facilitator rather than a boss
A witness rather than an instructor
A protector rather an exploiter