by Father Mike Stubbs
In addressing the bishops of the world, Pope Francis has challenged them to be “pastors, not princes.” In his words, we hear a faint echo of Sunday’s first reading, Jer 23:1-6. God addresses the leaders of Israel: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.” (The word “pastor” means “shepherd” in Latin.)
In Jeremiah’s prophecy, God is calling the kings of Israel and Judah to task. Soon, the Israelites will go into exile in Babylonia. They will be literally scattered, as the prophecy sadly attests.
God is laying the blame for this disaster on the Israelite leaders. Because of their failures, the people are scattered and disunited.
Despite the gloom of this prophecy, it also offers a glimmer of hope. God promises to restore the flock of Israel to their homeland and to their former unity: “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply.”
God also promises to raise up a new king who, unlike the former kings, “shall reign and govern wisely.”
As Christians, we see the fulfillment of this promise in Jesus Christ. He is the “righteous shoot to David” foretold by the prophecy. He is the one who can bring us to true unity, who can bring together that which is scattered.
We proclaim unity as one of the four marks of the church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. At the same time, it is not only, to a certain degree, a present reality, but also a goal toward which we strive. Pope Francis encourages us all to work toward that goal.
The bishops play an important role in that task. The pope emphasizes the responsibility of the bishops in unifying the church. Even as a cardinal, he drew attention to this concern: “It is the bishop who cares for everything that maintains the cohesion of the flock” (2001 world Synod of Bishops).
But the bishops are not alone in this task. Priests also cooperate with them to bring people together. A good pastor will work hard to keep the parish united.
And lay people are not left off the hook. We all share in that responsibility. That is why Pope Francis writes: “I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. . . . We are all in the same boat and headed to the same port! Let us ask for the grace to rejoice in the gifts of each, which belong to all” (“The Joy of the Gospel,” 98).