Teaching Our Faith — The parish and its pastor

For this next installment of teaching editorials about the various manifestations of priestly ministry, I am writing about the special relationship between a parish and its pastor.

On the fourth Sunday of Easter, known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” the gospel reading is always about the Good Shepherd. This past year’s Gospel from John began with the verse, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

Immediately following the proclamation of the Gospel, I “disappeared” into the side sacristy at St. Michael Church in Fairfield, Ky.

After a few moments of protracted silence, and visually “hidden” from the congregation, I invited everyone to rise. I allowed them to remain standing for a few moments and then invited them to be seated. Out of sight, I could hear sounds of amusement from the congregation.

I emerged and announced that I was pleased that they recognized my voice and followed my directions even though they could not see me. They trusted the sound of my voice. I invited further reflection that standing and sitting were relatively easy things to do. But what if I had asked them to go outside? Would they have listened and followed my voice?

I believe that all priests look to Jesus as the role model for their priesthood, particularly in the role of serving as the pastor of a parish. This is true even if the priest is not assigned to a typical parish, and the “parish” is his classroom, school, hospital, military or the diocese as a whole. There is a special and holy relationship between a shepherd and his flock, between a pastor and the parish to which the priest is assigned by his bishop.

The scriptures are filled with stories of how Jesus “pastored” the people of his time and how the first disciples understood and tried to faithfully follow this example. As a pastor, a priest is given the opportunity to care for the spiritual and physical needs of his flock. Jesus was magnanimous in sharing forgiveness and healing mercy, and he was inclusive in his love and care, not only for “his own” but for all who came to him in need.

Some of the most profound moments I have had as a pastor have been in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The pastor is one who shares the joys and sorrows of his congregation, especially through the Eucharist and the other sacraments, baptisms, weddings, anointing of the sick and funerals. Jesus never hesitated to speak the truth in love and invite people to come to know God better.

Just as Jesus sent out his disciples to care for others two by two, the pastor of a parish also is the one who tends to the needs of those — whether staff or volunteers — called to share in his pastoral responsibility. No pastor can completely care for all the needs of the parish.

An image that captures the special relationship between a shepherd and the flock is one that I had observed previously in the Holy Land and that struck me again during a recent visit to Israel and Jordan with a group of pilgrims. In the town of Jericho, our bus encountered a large herd of sheep that were being tended by three young boys. The boys were in the middle of the flock, talking to the sheep and “shepherding” the flock, as they steered them out of the way of the now-stopped and waiting bus.

I have observed this phenomenon during previous visits. The goodly shepherd leads best from the midst of his flock. Just as the flock loses its way without the care of the shepherd, the shepherd loses his way if the flock does not follow and attend to the shepherd. Particularly out in the desert, the sheep provide warmth and care for the shepherd, since they sometimes sense predators before the shepherd is aware. To be life-giving and life-sustaining physically and spiritually, the relationship of a pastor and parish is mutual, just as Jesus was cared for by disciples who tended to his needs.

Nearly 33 years ago, a wise and senior priest spoke to my seminary ordination class just before ordination. He shared good advice, much of which I remember to this day. One piece of advice was this: “You will only be as effective as a pastor as the care you receive from your parishioners. Care for them and they will care for you.”

Rev. William D. Hammer, Pastor of Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral and St. Michael the Archangel Church, Fairfield

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