“The Shepherd Doesn’t Run at the First Sign of Danger”

Homily for Mass of Ordination to the Priesthood
June 15, 2024; St. Mary’s Cathedral


Once upon a time, a long time ago, when I was a seminarian approaching the end of my theology studies, I recall a brother seminarian from my same diocese studying in a different seminary telling about the cousin of a classmate of his, already ordained a priest from his classmate’s same diocese.  My friend told me that this priest had been a missionary in Guatemala but had to flee because he was on a government death list.  I later found out that that was because he was protecting and aiding landless peasants, not only preparing them for the sacraments and giving them other spiritual assistance, but also establishing a farmer’s co-op, building a school and a hospital, and founding the first Catholic radio station which he used for catechesis. 

Because he was wanted by the government he returned to his diocese in the United States, but later decided that he could not be away from his people.  My friend told me that this priest was going to return to his village in Guatemala, knowing full well it was likely he would be assassinated by government agents.  And that, indeed, is what happened.  We now know him as Blessed Stanley Rother, of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.  As he said about his decision to return, facing near-certain death: “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”[1]

Good Shepherd vs. Hireling

Fr. Rother exemplifies – with his life and his death, not just with words – what our Lord speaks about in the Gospel reading for this Mass of priestly ordination.  In this teaching our Lord draws a sharp contrast between the “hired man” and the “shepherd.”  The hired man, he tells us, runs away at the first sight of danger because the sheep are not his own.  The shepherd, on the other hand, knows his sheep and cares for them because they are his own, and he will care for them even to the point of laying down his life for them. 

The implications for the priest who is entrusted with the care of souls are obvious.  Pope St. Gregory the Great drew the implications of the priest acting like a hired man already back in the year 600 A.D.: “The only reason that the hireling flees,” says St. Gregory, “is that he is a hireling.  As though it were said directly: he who loves not the sheep, but worldly gain, cannot stand firm when the sheep are in danger.  For while he is aiming at honor, and rejoicing in worldly gain, he is afraid of exposing himself to danger, lest he should lose that which he loves.”[2]

It is not difficult to imagine the kind of priest who lives his life this way, even in our own time when priests do not have the social standing in society they once did.  A priest who lives his life as a hireling looks only for his own profit, comfort and convenience, and not the good of the sheep.  In doing so he not only does spiritual harm to himself because he lives in contradiction to his priestly commitment, but also to the people entrusted to his pastoral care.  He may be liked, his personality may make him popular, but he will not earn people’s respect, let alone assist them on the way to salvation.

Cardinal Sarah gave a speech just this week at the Catholic University of America where he speaks about the dangers of this kind of attitude in no uncertain terms.  In referencing a talk he recently gave to the bishops of Cameroon, he said: “many Western prelates are paralyzed by the idea of opposing the world.  They dream of being loved by the world.  They have lost the concern of being a sign of contradiction.  Perhaps too much material wealth leads to compromise with world affairs.  Poverty is a guarantee of freedom for God.”[3]

The poverty of the priest is to model his life after the Good Shepherd – a starkly different way of being a priest from those who “dream of being loved by the world.”  Notice what our Lord says about himself as the Good Shepherd: “I will lay down my life for the sheep.”  That is to say, he gives his life voluntarily, of his own free will, not under constraint or because he is forced to do so.  Thus the use of the adjective “good” here: this does not mean “good” in the sense of being good at doing something, but in the sense of “noble” or “ideal.” 

This is because the sheep are his own.  The priest who imitates Jesus as the Good Shepherd, then, proves himself to be noble, the ideal shepherd, when he takes Christ’s sheep as his own.  This comes at great sacrifice – one might call it “priestly poverty,” for it is how he lives in freedom for God.  And the true test of the priest’s authenticity is his reaction when the sheep are attacked.  The title of the biography written about Blessed Stanley Rother is, precisely, “The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run.”  The priest must freely choose to take Christ’s sheep as his own, for Christ will not constrain him to do so.  But when he does, he has the strength, courage and disposition to lay down his life for them – freely – especially when they are under attack or experiencing any kind of need or distress.

Exercise of Authority

It is in this way that we can make sense of what St. Paul teaches about the exercise of authority in his Letter to the Romans.  He speaks here about the different gifts that are given to the different members of the Body of Christ for the good functioning of the Body.  It is in this sense that one is to understand the gift of being “over others.” 

Such a view might sound harsh to people’s ears today, when we want to think of everyone as being equal.  Everyone is equal in terms of their human dignity, but not in the rank or position that they hold in society.  It is, in fact, impossible for any society to exist without some people having authority over others.  Equality does not mean eviscerating the principle of authority; it means, rather, those in authority exercising their authority with regard to the equal dignity of those under their authority.  This is why St. Paul says – and this is very important to take note of – not that “we are the Body of Christ,” but rather, “we are one Body in Christ.”  As members of the one Body of Christ we are all under him who is the head of the Body, all of us, from the Pope right down to the newly baptized baby. 

Those who exercise authority are equally under the head as those who are subject to their authority, for we are all subject to the authority of Christ.  And it is clear in the Scriptures that those who exercise authority will be held to a stricter account on the Day of Judgment for their stewardship of the responsibility God entrusted to them.  This is why St. Paul says that those who are over others are to exercise their authority “with diligence.”  To exercise authority over others means to care for, to give help.  To do so “with diligence” is what we call “zeal.”  This is the “zeal for souls” exemplified in the shepherd who freely lays down his life for the sheep – that is to say, suffers for them, sacrifices himself for them, even – and especially – in ways that are invisible to others. 

One last consideration in what it means to shepherd God’s people we see pre-figured in the Book of Numbers: the Lord commands Moses to designate seventy of the elders of Israel to assist him in the heavy burdens involved in being their leader.  Priestly ministry in the Church is not a matter of the individual priest doing good for people; rather, priestly ministry is exercised corporately, under and participating in the Priesthood of the bishop of the local church.  The Prayer of Ordination itself which the bishop pronounces after the laying on of hands makes this clear:

“Already in the earlier covenant there arose offices instituted by mystical rites ….  Thus in the desert you instilled the spirit of Moses in the minds of seventy wise men; with them as helpers he more easily governed your people ….  Now, we pray, O Lord, provide also for our weakness this helper whom we need for the exercise the Apostolic Priesthood.” 

The Prayer is indicative of the hierarchical ordering that is designed for the good functioning of the Body of Christ.  The Second Vatican Council, in its teaching on priestly life and ministry, underscored this bond of sacramental communion that priests enjoy with each other and with and in their bishop.  As the Council taught – indeed, it is one of its foundational teachings – the Church is a communion, a sharing of spiritual and temporal goods for the building up of the Body of Christ and the salvation of the world.  In tandem with this teaching is that of the Church as a sign: the Church must be to the world a sign of this communion with God that is the sacrament of our salvation.  The bond of priestly communion which priests receive at their ordination is meant for the building up of the entire priestly people of God, to be a sign and instrument of the salvation Christ has won for us.

In the Life of Priests Today

I am grateful to the priests of our Archdiocese who follow the example of Christ the Good Shepherd in laying down their lives for his – for their – sheep.  I do not need to tell you that it is not exactly a cake-walk to be a priest these days: in some quarters of society – and very powerful ones – they are maligned, slandered and mocked.  And yet, so many of our priests give themselves to the point of exhaustion, much of which is carried out unknown to the vast majority of their parishioners – caring for the sick, comforting the dying and those who mourn, meetings, appointments, managing finances, homily preparation – the list goes on.

I know, though, that you, their people, appreciate and love them.  It is also a sign: a sign that so much effort invisible to the vast majority of people is not fruitless, for this is what it means for a priest to be a shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep; and, to strive selflessly for the standard of the noble and ideal is never without fruit.  I would, then, at this same time like to thank all of those priests who have assisted our brother David in arriving at this day of his ordination: you his pastors, his priest friends, his mentors in his pastoral assignments, the faculty, staff and formatters at St. Patrick’s Seminary.  And the task is not ended here: our bond of priestly communion means that we continue to build up unity among ourselves by mutual care and companionship, and especially by consistently praying with and for each other.

“Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people,” said Fr. Stanley, “that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.” [4]  He was a shepherd, not a self-proclaimed prophet or crusader for the latest fashionable cause.  In fact, in a conversation I had with the current Archbishop of Oklahoma City just a two days ago, he told me that some of Fr. Rother’s brother priests looked down on him.  This was the 80’s, remember: he was not a brilliant theologian and, what most bothered them, he did not embrace the cause of liberation theology.  His zeal was not for revolution, but for souls, despite the sufferings – the mark of the noble, ideal shepherd


Our sufferings today may not be, thanks be to God, a matter of life or death as they were for Fr. Rother and his people.  But the threats to us are no less real: the enemy is always threatening to disperse the flock.  Let us, then, heed Blessed Stanley Rother’s call: let us make progress on the path to holiness by prayer, fasting and good works, that we may be strengthened to resist the temptations and snares of the evil one, and make ready the world for the coming of God’s Kingdom.  Amen.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Shepherd-Who-Didnt-Run-Oklahoma/dp/1612789153

[2] Quoted in The Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide, The Holy Gospel According to Saint John Thomas W. Mossman (trans.) (Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2008) p. 406.

[3] https://napa-institute.org/cardinal-sarah/

[4] https://www.amazon.com/Shepherd-Who-Didnt-Run-Oklahoma/dp/1612789153