It was my mother’s birthday. I was far away in Rome thinking of the most appropriate way to mark her birthday in a foreign land. Still unable to understand Italian, I tuned to the BBC that morning and heard of a new catacomb that opened in Rome called the “Catacombs of Priscilla.” The newscaster had a number of women who were arguing for women’s ordination and pointing at a fresco on the ceiling in one of the vaults of the catacomb, which showed what appeared like a woman wearing priestly robes. She had her two hands extended as priests do when they celebrate Mass. “There you have it,” said one of the news analysts with a British ascent. “There were women priests in the early Church,” she concluded.
Because my mother’s name is Priscilla, and given that I was trying to do something special to mark her birthday, I pulled the map in my hotel room, and in about two hours I was able to make it to the Catacombs of St. Priscilla, located north of Rome. An archivist whom I met at the catacomb explained that the fresco at the Cappela Greca depicted rather figures of an ancient Roman funeral banquet, not Mass.
But it wasn’t the painting of the woman apparently celebrating Mass that caught my eyes. There was a fresco of mother and child that may be the oldest fresco of the Infant Jesus and Mary. Yet, the fresco that stood out most was that of Jesus, the Bonus Pastor (Good Shepherd) standing in front of a garden. He carries a lamb on His shoulder and motions to two sheep to enter, while on top of the trees at the entrance of the garden are two crowing roosters.
A number of Christian symbolisms are depicted in the fresco. The two trees symbolize the garden of paradise from which our first parents were banished. Christ’s resurrection opened again the doors of paradise shut against Adam and Eve; and in place of the expelling cherubs posted in front of the garden to prevent man from entering (Gen 3:24a), Christ stands as the Gatekeeper, lovingly inviting the two sheep, Adam and Eve (and redeemed humanity) to the sheepfold. Again, in place of the flame of flashing sword (Gen: 24b), the cross stands as the tree of the new life of resurrection. In the same fresco, Christ even carries a wounded lamb on His shoulder to show His care for humanity wounded by sin. The rooster is a sacred symbol, which in the Jewish tradition is emblematic of gallantry and honesty; but more so, temple officers were called “Rooster” as one of their titles, to show their roles as the ones who welcomed people into the temple or expelled them. Christ, too, is the “Rooster” or, as He calls Himself today, the Gatekeeper of the Heavenly Temple who welcomes His sheep to heaven. In other ancient religions, the rooster symbolizes the victory of light over darkness. The Celts saw the rooster as a messenger to the underworld calling forth the souls of the brave who died in battle. For the Igbos, the crowing of the rooster each morning wakes humanity up from sleep—a resurrection motif of calling humanity back from the death of sin to a new life. And among the Native Americans, the rooster is a symbol of the resurrection.
We can see that the “shepherd theme” pervades every aspect of our religion. One of the most prayed psalms in the Bible is Psalm 23 with the Shepherd theme. Christ, the Good Shepherd provides us through the Church shepherds (priests) who lead us to the fresh waters (Baptism) to refresh and strengthen our souls (Confirmation). They guide us in the right path with sound doctrine for His name’s sake, so that, even if we walk in the dark valley of false teachings, we’ll not fear; because assurance of His presence will give us courage. Christ feeds us with rich food (Eucharist) for our journey, and anoints us with salvation (Reconciliation) for years to come.
Can we sincerely tell Him today that with Him as our shepherd, we shall want for nothing? Not even the present day coronavirus pandemic or a walk through the valley of darkness can make us fear any evil, because we know that we’ll find repose in verdant pastures. If we truly believe that He guides us in right paths, we must reject other attractions to which our base nature directs us, knowing fully well that these attractions quickly turn to distractions. The world is the beehive of distractions, and St. Peter warns us in the first reading, “Save yourself from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40). Why? Because faith in Christ is incompatible with the mentality of the world.