Even our Lord agrees with Aristotle that “leisure liberates man from the oppression of the useful.” And so, today he invites his apostles who were basking with novice fervor after their return from their first missionary expedition to “come away to some lonely place and rest for a while” (Mk 6: 31). This evangelical imperative is exercised through the practice of days off, retreats, and sabbaticals. We need to recharge, regroup, and reposition in order to refill used energy, as well as our mental and spiritual constructions. How wisely the first chapter of Genesis made a command of the Sabbath day rest. We know how sluggish we feel after a sleepless or restless night and how our bodies get back at us. American tourists to Rome are often “scandalized” and sometimes frustrated that Romans take siesta daily between 2 and 4 pm. Some of us judge them as lazy and unbusiness-like, but the Romans would quip: “Lavoriamo per vivere, non vivere per lavorare” (we work to live, not live to work). Fueled sometimes by greed, we often become slaves to work. The industrial complexes have sucked the humanity from us, making us into automatons.
The exercise of pastoral oversight is, however, an exception. Hence, rest should not be an excuse to leave the flock of God untended. Legitimate leisure and days off for pastors shouldn’t create a “Father-tarmac” who spends every Monday on wheels and takes seven vacations a year. Nor should lawful recreation produce a “Father-can” who can’t keep his elbow straight. The oracle of God pronounced by Jeremiah condemns self-serving shepherds who have allowed the flock of God to scatter. God calls shepherds (pastors) to be servants, teachers, and rulers of his people. These three ministries are enshrined in the priestly life for the purpose of sanctifying God’s people (Presbyterorum Ordinis, 4-6). God himself is the Eternal Shepherd through whom, and in whom these ministries take their origin, are exercised, and find their fulfilment.
Hence, in today’s Responsorial Psalm, we sang of the virtues of the Good Shepherd, which every other shepherd must emulate. First among these virtues is trust in the shepherd. Thus the Psalmist expresses: “With God as my Shepherd, I shall not want.” I would like you to know that: With me as your pastor you shall not want for sound teaching, moral guidance, and strong spiritual support. Your children and grandchildren should be able to say so about you, too.
The shepherd-priest must always look ahead to find fresh and green pastures of truth to feed his flock when the terrain becomes infested as it is today with rotten and dry pasturage of error and decay. He should know and lead the way to restful waters of rebirth and reconciliation to revive the flocks’ drooping spirit. Hence, with right and informed judgment the pastor should be able to guide the flock of God today along the right path. He must know the truth and be courageous enough to tell his flock the truth, whether they bear or forebear, whether it makes them comfortable or not. Here’s how Fr. Jaki puts it: “The words of a true shepherd do not bubble up through honey. He is not an ecclesiastical butler serving at the table of expediency, neither is he a currier or popularity.” Many hills and valleys of darkness exist today that would tire the sheep or cause them to wander. The pastor must apply, when necessary, the crook and staff to save the sheep from falling into the puddle and gently lead straying ones back. He is to prepare a banquet of rich spiritual food, because the ignorance of the average Catholic has become deeply concerning—who knows little about the faith by which they’re supposed to live and hope to die. For, how can the goodness and kindness of the Lord follow them when they have not learned to walk in his ways? And how can they dwell in the house of the Lord forever when they are rather firmly attached to the havens they have erected for themselves in this passing world?
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo