Trust in the Good Shepherd
The following is the text of Bishop Rhoades’ homily on May 3, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, at a livestreamed Mass from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Fort Wayne:
I recently read about another epidemic besides the coronavirus pandemic, the epidemic of anxiety. I read that 20% of Americans suffer from anxiety disorders and millions more wrestle with worry and stress on a daily basis. I imagine that number has grown since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic because of the fear of becoming infected or because of financial distress. Those who have been laid off from work are naturally worried and anxious. Others are worried that they might get laid off.
As human beings, we all experience natural worries, but we can tend to worry too much. It is perhaps part of the human condition. We worry about our health. Parents worry about their children, and children worry about their parents. We worry about money and finances. We worry about the future. It seems we can worry about everything. And worry brings anxiety, lack of peace, sadness, and even depression. How much time do we spend worrying? We worry and ask ourselves, “what’s going to happen?” or “how will this turn out?” The big problem is not that we experience some natural worries, but that we consent consciously to anxiety. This is when we willingly worry and then our minds become troubled.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, as people of faith, we must make a conscious effort not to worry. As Christians, when our minds are troubled and we feel anxious, we should very quickly make an act of confidence in the Lord.
One of the most beautiful acts of confidence in the Bible is Psalm 23, today’s responsorial psalm. What a great prayer to say during this pandemic! “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose; beside restful waters he leads me; he refreshes my soul… Even though I walk in the dark valley, I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.” Do we believe this? We probably do in. our heads, but we also need to believe it in our hearts. We must let this truth that the Lord is our shepherd who watches over us, cares for us, and protects us penetrate our hearts as well as our minds. When we do, what happens? Worry dissipates. Anxiety lessens or disappears. The result, of course, is peace, interior peace, even in the midst of external violence, misfortunes, and suffering.
The very heart of the spiritual life is confidence or trust in the Lord. That’s the little way that St. Therese, the Little Flower, teaches us. So does her namesake, St. Teresa of Avila who famously said: “let nothing trouble you; let nothing frighten you. Everything passes; God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone is enough.”
Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is Good Shepherd Sunday. The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a beautiful image that teaches us to trust in Him. Some images have Jesus tenderly carrying a lamb in His arms and others show Jesus carrying the sheep on his shoulders, especially reminding us of Jesus finding the lost sheep. This image should be our image of God. It was an image from the Old Testament — God as the shepherd of His people Israel. And it’s an image from the New Testament — the Son of God, Jesus, as the good shepherd who not only seeks out the lost sheep, but also lays down His life for the sheep. This is the true image of God. This is who He is.
If we have faith in the true God, then we believe that He is a God of tenderness and love, of mercy and forgiveness. With this true image of God, why do we consent to worrying so much and allow ourselves to become troubled in our minds and hearts? Don’t we believe that the Lord is at our side when we walk through the dark valley, as we pray in psalm 23? We need to really trust in the Lord as our shepherd. If you struggle with worry and anxiety, I invite you to pray with psalm 23.
God does not want us to be troubled. Remember Jesus’ words to the disciples at the Last Supper: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Have faith in God. Have faith also in me.” God desires our peace. He sent us His Son, the Prince of Peace. What was the first announcement of Christmas? Peace! The angels proclaimed glory to God and peace on earth to people of good will! That was at the beginning of the Gospel. And then at the end of the Gospel, after Jesus rose from the dead, we hear the same message. When the Risen Jesus appears to the disciples, what does He always say? He says “peace,” “peace be with you!”
The Risen Lord offers us this wonderful gift of peace today. But sometimes we don’t feel it and we still worry and get stressed out and anxious. because our nature drags us down. Rather than placing our trust in our shepherd, we worry. Our minds become troubled. Maybe it’s because we don’t have an accurate view of God. I think of the Jansenist heresy. It’s still around. The Jansenists’ view of God was not as the good shepherd. They had a distorted view of God. Their view of God was not one of His holding a lamb in His arms, but a God with His arms raised to strike, a demanding God, a vengeful God. Many people were led astray by this heresy. This was a clever ploy of the devil, tempting people under the pretext of recognizing their sinfulness and unworthiness, actually leading souls away from Jesus.
The true God is the Good Shepherd who says with open arms: “Come to me; come because you are unworthy; come because you are sinful; come because you need to be saved.” The heresy of Jansenism is still around today, the heresy which turned a God of love and mercy into a cold and vengeful God. When Jansenism was rampant a few centuries ago, Jesus did not endure it — He appeared to St. Margaret Mary and revealed to her and to the world His Sacred Heart as proof of His love. It is the Heart of the Good Shepherd whose love for every one of His sheep is infinite and whose mercy has no limits, except hardened hearts that are closed to His love and refuse to believe in His mercy.
I encourage you on this Good Shepherd Sunday to throw away worry. We have no right to worry. Anxiety is not good for us. The Good Shepherd is with us. He’s always there. He watches over each one of us. He knows us each by name. He showed us His Sacred Heart, trying to convince us of His love, His tenderness, His mercy. What wounds the Heart of Jesus most is when we don’t trust in Him, when we don’t listen to Him saying to us: “Peace be with you.”
When you feel worried and anxious, I invite you to listen to the shepherd calling your name, saying to you: “I’m here with you. I love you. Don’t worry.” When things are difficult and life seems threatening, it’s natural to worry. But we shouldn’t remain with the natural but turn to the supernatural. That’s what faith is. In the midst of the storms of life, there is a peace that descends from heaven into the depths of our soul — the peace that St. Paul describes as surpassing all understanding. It’s the peace of Christ. It’s His gift to us. It’s the gift of the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us. It’s the gift of Easter. It’s the gift from the One who came so that we might have life and have it more abundantly.
When St. Therese was asked to summarize her little way, she answered: “It is to be disturbed by nothing.” How is that possible? Trust and confidence in Jesus, whom St. Peter described in the second reading today as “the shepherd and guardian of our souls.” May we follow Him who leads us to restful waters and refreshes our soul, who guides us in right paths, and who is at our side when we walk in the dark valley, with his rod and staff that give us courage!