- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2000

Excerpts from a sermon given yesterday by the Rev. Fintan Sheeran at St. Margaret's Catholic Church in Seat Pleasant, Md.

If you take a pilgrimage to Rome, you will want to see the catacombs, a labyrinth of underground passages used as a burial grounds by the ancient Romans.
They were used by the early Christian, especially at times of persecution, for meetings, gatherings to pray and also for burials.
You can see how the early Christians worshipped by how they decorated the catacombs. Most striking is the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which appears more than any other.
Jesus walks toward us with the lamb on His shoulders. Jesus spoke of Himself as the Good Shepherd, and used the Old Testament theme, "The Lord is my Shepherd."
In Scriptures this morning, we have other images of Jesus. Peter uses an Old Testament image of a stone, saying Jesus is the rejected stone that became the cornerstone. Jesus says He is the vine and we the branches to show His intimate connection with His people.
Jesus spoke of the shepherd as the one who watches over the flock all the time, and goes out to find even one who has strayed [John 10:11-18]. The shepherd is "not for hire." His care for the sheep is not mercenary or for profit.
In these passages, Jesus is speaking to the leaders of that day and clearly was saying His mission was to care for people. For the early Christians, so often fearful of persecution, the image of the Good Shepherd gave strength and assurance.
The image also from the beginning has challenged Christians. Just as Jesus is the shepherd, He invites all His followers to be not only sheep in the flock, but shepherds in turn. An old Spanish proverb says: "The second-poorest person in the world is the one who can do nothing for anybody. The poorest person is the one who won't do anything for anybody."
The "good shepherd" is a call to stewardship, to lift our eyes from our own narrow circumstances and look out for others. No matter how bad off I am, there is someone in a worse situation. There is always somebody I can help, even in ordinary, if not dramatic, ways. The image of the good shepherds is anything but weak. It can be an extremely dangerous profession.
A contemporary example of a good shepherd is a member of my own religious family, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. We've all seen beautiful pictures of Hawaii, and for those who have been there, you know the pictures do not do justice to its real beauty as a paradise of the Pacific.
Back in the later 1800s, it was not a paradise. Leprosy broke out in 1840 and by the 1870s reached epidemic proportions. To stop its spread, the Hawaiian government quarantined all lepers on Kalaupapa Peninsula, taken there by boat because it was cut off from the island by a giant cliff. There is still a leprosarium there, which they expect to close.
The peninsula became a notorious hell, where people had nothing to hope for. The bishop had a meeting with all the priests and asked if any would go to the island. A priest named Father Damien [de Veuster] said he would, and arrived in 1873. He was 33, a happy man, a country man with many practical skills. So he built churches, dug graves, built caskets and nursed the afflicted. In his letters to state authorities, he fought constantly for housing, food and medicine.
He brought back some hope to the outcasts. Then in about 1887, he was washing his feet in boiled water and forgot to put in cold water first. But he felt nothing. He knew the truth. He had contracted leprosy. The following Sunday in his homily, he began very simply, "We lepers."
Damien has been a powerful figure of a good shepherd in modern times. Always there, always helping. The good shepherd is a source of strength for us, but also a gentle invitation and challenge.


Next week: a sermon by Charles Cannon, bishop of McLean Ward I of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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