We recently celebrated Good Shepherd Sunday, one of those unofficial “feast days” on which the Scripture readings reflect (or at least allude to) a specific theme. In this case, it was God’s love, expressed in Jesus’ shepherd-like care for his flock.
As it does every year, Good Shepherd Sunday fell on the fourth Sunday of Easter, midway between Christ’s resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The image of the Good Shepherd has always been one of the most popular representations of Christ, because it captures the balance of courage, compassion and authority Jesus exhibited in his earthly ministry. In the Gospel reading for that day, Jesus described how, unlike a hired keeper, a truly good shepherd will sacrifice anything to protect his flock from the wolves that roam about.
“A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” he explained, because he is devoted to those in his care. “I know mine, and mine know me.”
The shepherd image has long been associated with priests. It’s the origin of the word “pastor.” And while it can’t be said that all priests exhibit those virtues implied in the title, good men do emerge whose lives demonstrate the qualities of a good shepherd.
Father Miguel Pro was a Mexican Jesuit priest caught up in the persecution of Catholics carried out after adoption of the fiercely anti-clerical constitution of 1917. Entering the novitiate in Mexico, he had to flee to the United States with his brother Jesuits, and was then sent for study in Spain and later Belgium. There, he suffered with severe gastrointestinal illness, which impeded his ministry. He underwent surgery for ulcers.
Returning to Mexico amid suppression of the church by the socialist government, Father Pro brought the sacraments to people in secret, conducting clandestine home masses. He visited hospital patients, dressed as an orderly, and even disguised himself as a prison guard to take communion to those awaiting execution for opposing the regime.
Eventually he was found out and arrested. Convicted on a trumped-up charge and put before a firing squad, he knelt in prayer, then cried defiantly “Viva Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ, the King!”). He was shot with his arms extended as if on the cross.
Father Maximilian Kolbe was a Franciscan friar from Poland. He was the founder of a worldwide evangelization movement known as the Militia of the Immaculata, which promotes devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Father Kolbe was doing mission work in Japan while Nazism was on the rise in Germany, but had returned to Poland by the time of the invasion and occupation. He criticized the Nazis in the pages of his Immaculata magazine, and became involved in hiding Jews in the Franciscan friary of which he was then the head. These activities led to his arrest, imprisonment and eventual transfer to the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp.
The story of his death is well known — how he volunteered to take the place of a man who had been selected for execution but asked to be spared because of his wife and children. His offer accepted, Father Kolbe survived for two weeks deprived of food and water, and was finally killed by an injection of carbolic acid.
Father Vincent Capodanno was the youngest of 10 children born to an Italian family on New York’s Staten Island. Educated at Fordham University, he entered the Maryknoll order, and did mission work in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
When the U.S. ramped up its involvement in Vietnam, Father Capodanno joined the Navy as a chaplain, serving for a year with the Marines in a medical battalion. After a month’s leave, he returned to Vietnam for a six-month extension.
A small Marine detachment encountered a much larger North Vietnamese force, taking extensive casualties. Father Capodanno helped drag wounded Marines from the battlefield, then stayed among them, treating injuries, giving comfort and administering last rites.
He received wounds in the hand, arms and legs, but refused evacuation. Caught in enemy machine gun fire, he was killed along with 14 Marines and two medical corpsmen. Father Capodonno received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously in 1969.
These three priests were good shepherds. And it’s important to note that their heroic acts, and the horrible conflicts that prompted them, occurred not very long ago — Father Pro’s less than a century before our own time; Father Kolbe’s during World War II, only a few years before I was born; and Father Capodanno’s while I was still in school.
We need good shepherds like them today, because there are plenty of wolves around, and the flock is under attack.
News reports and recent opinion surveys tell us that the popularity of socialism is increasing. This trend is especially evident among young people, the so-called Generation Z of the post-millennial period.
Churches have been invaded and religious displays vandalized. Public health policies related to the coronavirus have been used to limit attendance at religious services, and even to close houses of worship, both in the U.S. and in Canada.
God has been pushed out of our schools. When faith is discussed at all, it’s usually presented as a source of conflict and oppression. Students may hear about religious wars or the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem Witch Hunt. But rarely are they told about the Christian principles that underlay the American Revolution, the faith motives of the abolitionists or the crucial role of churches in the Civil Rights Movement.
The current administration has announced its intention to crush all religious objections to abortion, and to enforce “equality” in any area of law and accommodation related to sexual orientation or gender identity. The questionable outcome of the last election, along with proposals for new laws about voting and alterations of the U.S. Supreme Court, clearly suggest that fundamental changes are planned for our system of government.
All of this has vast implications for faith and religious expression. The church faces a challenge of truly historic proportions.
Are we up to the task?
The story of Father Capodanno in particular is more than a tale of heroism. It prompts us to recall that, despite great self-sacrifice such as his, the United States lost in Vietnam because we no longer had the will to carry on the fight against a committed socialist force.
Are today’s shepherds prepared to pay the price he paid, or that was paid by Father Kolbe and Father Pro against the socialist enemies of their times? Are today’s shepherds even aware that there are wolves around? Can they alert the flock to the dangers that are before us?
Pray that our shepherds may be truly good — that like Jesus, they love their flocks.
• A priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, Rev. Michael P. Orsi currently serves as parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Naples, Florida. He is host of “Action for Life TV,” a weekly cable television series devoted to pro-life issues, and his writings appear in numerous publications and online journals. His TV show episodes can be viewed online at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCyFbaLqUwPi08aHtlIR9R0g.