There’s a video online that shows a modern-day shepherd walking through a field with a line of sheep following behind him. As he’s walking, he’s explaining how these are his sheep and they follow him because they are accustomed to his voice. However, if he were to go to another farm with sheep that are not his own and begin calling out to them, the sheep would not listen to him or respond. For the other sheep to become his own sheep, they would have to be brought to his farm and hang around with his own sheep. The new sheep would instinctively follow the other sheep whenever they are on the move because they think that the other sheep are moving towards newer pasture lands. All the while, the new sheep are hearing the voice of the shepherd and becoming familiar with it. Eventually, the new sheep will be fully incorporated into the shepherd’s flock and will themselves readily respond to the shepherd’s voice without the aid of the other sheep.
This image of how new sheep are incorporated into a flock is interesting considering the intense work of evangelization taking place in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles today. How do most people after the Ascension of Christ into heaven have an encounter with the Risen Christ? How do we all come to know the voice of the Good Shepherd when we do not have the benefit of directly hearing his voice for ourselves? The original Apostles and even St. Paul had the privilege of listening to Jesus directly, witnessing his good works, and following his example. But now that Jesus is no longer physically present to our physical eyes, how do we come to know his voice and witness his example? The ordinary means of encountering Jesus must be through other human beings. Yes, we could say that the Eucharist is an encounter with the Real Presence of Jesus but that’s only accessible to those who already have faith. But for new sheep to become accustomed to the shepherd’s voice, they first must follow the other sheep, and so become accustomed to the voice of the Good Shepherd by witnessing the good example of other people. While the preaching of the Gospel is of paramount importance to the work of evangelization, it must also be incarnated in Christians especially through their good works, works of justice and charity.
If Christians merely preach Christ and proclaim the Gospel to others without seeking to live it fully in their own lives, they not only act hypocritically, but they also undermine the very message they preach. If Christians only preach those parts of the Gospel with which they agree but leave out other parts, they undermine the entire Gospel. The Gospel is not just about sin but also about forgiveness and redemption. It is not only about mercy or only about justice, but it is both mercy and justice. The Gospel is not only about the sanctity and dignity of certain human lives but the sanctity of all human lives from conception to natural death including the unborn, the sick, the elderly, immigrants, refugees, the poor, those on death row, those belonging to all religions, atheists, and so on. The Gospel is not just about the spiritual works of mercy but also the corporal works of mercy. It’s not just about charity alone but charity and justice. Evangelization requires that we Christians seek to put the entire Gospel into practice. By our good example, we must shine forth the love of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. When we act as good examples, we more effectively integrate any new sheep into the communion of the Church and help them come to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd more readily. On the other hand, our bad example could cause the sheep to scatter.
St. Francis of Assisi was very much aware of the necessity of setting a good example in the work of evangelization. On one occasion, when the friars approached St. Francis and asked him to obtain a special privilege from the pope to be able to preach anywhere they wanted without needing the permission of the local bishop, St. Francis rebuked them sternly saying, “You Friars Minor don’t understand God’s will, and won’t allow me to convert the whole world in the way God wills…When [the bishops] come to see our holy way of life and our humble respect for them, they will ask you to preach and convert the people. These things will draw people to your preaching far better than your privileges, which would only lead you into pride…For my part, the only favor that I ask of God is that I may never receive any favors from men. I wish to show respect to everyone, and by obedience to the holy Rule, to convert all men by my own example rather than by words.” I’m sure that everyone here has heard this saying attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary.” While this exact saying is not found in any of the writings about St. Francis, it might have been derived from the words I just quoted: “I wish…to convert all men by my own example rather than by words.” May we all seek to do likewise, to lead by good example, humility, and respect for all people. Thus we will become more attractive to those outside of the flock and help them to become accustomed to the voice of the Good Shepherd who gives them eternal life.
Fr. Matthew Mary