About a year ago I was walking across the church parking lot when an automobile driver rolled down her car window, and shouted at me, “Hey, Father, is that a coyote?” She was pointing to a suspicious looking animal standing along the border between our parking area and the electric transmission easement west of the parish property. In response to her question I shouted, “I’m not going to find out!”
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, the one who defends his flock against the wolf that “catches and scatters” the sheep. (John 10:12) He said, “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me.” (John 10:14) He contrasted the dedication of a good shepherd with the self-concern of the one who “works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.” (John 10:13)
Jesus was speaking about the difference between himself and the religious leaders of his time. At the time, some of the prominent religious leaders used their positions of leadership to serve their own interests rather than to serve the spiritual needs of God’s people. Instead of guiding God’s People in the way that a shepherd keeps watch over a flock, those leaders had failed to give the People the spiritual guidance they needed.
On a daily basis, Jesus saw the consequences of that lack of spiritual guidance. He referred to his contemporaries as a “faithless generation.” (Mark 9:19) They were people who had never been taught how to know God or to have trust in God’s Word. They were taught to perform the actions required by religion, but they were never shown the loving relationship with God that would give saving merit to those religious acts. They were people who had been scattered and caught by the “wolf” of unbelief.
A wolf is an appropriate image for unbelief; a wolf is predatory, amoral and always hungry. Faithlessness devours what is most human in us, and can turn our lives into something lacking in human dignity. The daily news is full of stories of people who act in ways that are predatory and amoral. The lack of a loving connection to God almost always is accompanied by the lack of a loving connection to human society.
There was a time when Catholicism was criticized for its attachment to its many beliefs, practices and moral injunctions. I say, “There was a time” when that was true because it is no longer true today. Today, Catholicism, and other traditional religions, are simply ignored as being irrelevant. However, to judge Christianity as irrelevant or “old-fashioned” because it insists on common practices and a strict moral code is to lose sight of what is most unique and precious about human existence: faithfulness.
Marriage stands or falls on the fidelity of marriage partners. Children grow to be decent people when they grow up in an environment of trust. Society serves the needs of all its members most effectively when citizens trust one another. All of those human relationships of trust are guided and strengthened by faith in God. To be unbelieving or untrustworthy is to fall victim to the wolf that catches and scatters.
The many rituals, practices and requirements of Catholicism exist in order to help us remain within sight of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Our weekly participation at Mass, our daily prayer, our involvement in parish activities and ministries, and all of the other things that Catholics do – these are the concrete means through which God guides us; they are the specific places where we hear the voice of our Shepherd.
There are many things required of Catholics. Those many requirements exist not to trip us up, but to keep us from tripping and falling – to keep us close to the Shepherd, and far from the wolf. Among the things I avoid assiduously, is petting animals that might be coyotes; this is because some things exist in order to be avoided. Our religion teaches many practices and beliefs, but it also teaches what is to be avoided. Chief among the things to avoid is breaking faith with God and our fellow human beings.