TEXT: Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2024

April 21, 2024 Father De Celles Homily

Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 21, 2024

Homily by Fr. John De Celles

St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church

Springfield, VA

One of the most cherished images that Scripture gives of Jesus

is the image of the Good Shepherd.

This is a shepherd who not only goes out seeking

and bringing home the lost sheep,

but who, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel,

“lays down his life for his sheep.”

Of course, when Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,”

He’s reminding us that He’s fulfilling God’s promise

in the Old Testament book of the prophet Ezekiel:

         “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.”

God the Son Himself has come as the perfectly Good Shepherd

to care for His people.

Of course, in the Old Testament God also promises,

through the prophet Jeremiah,

“And I will give you shepherds after my own heart.”

So, before Christ ascended bodily into heaven,

He left His sheep with shepherds to continue His work–

men close to His heart;

men He had trained and given special grace—His apostles.

In particular He gave the role of chief shepherd to St. Peter

when, after the resurrection, He gave him the trifold command,

“Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.”

We find Peter in today’s first reading taking up that command.

Remembering the words of the prophet Jeremiah,

“I will give you shepherds after my own heart,

who will feed you with knowledge and understanding,”

Peter begins to feed Christ’s sheep with the knowledge and understanding

of Christ’s salvific death and resurrection.

Of course, this is just the beginning of Peter’s thirty years

of shepherding Christ’s sheep.

And before he and the other apostles died,

they appointed new shepherds to take their place.

So, the promise of the one Divine Good Shepherd lives on in the Church

in every generation since then in the office of pope, bishop, and priest.

Unfortunately, as Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel,

some of those shepherds have acted like

“A hired man, who is not a shepherd…

because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.”

History is full of examples of this.

We look back to the very beginning to Judas,

who cared more for thirty pieces of silver than for the flock.

Or to the 15th century

to men like the greedy, profligate, hedonist Giovanni de’ Medici,

who, when he became Pope Leo X, infamously told his brother:

“Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.”

Sadly, though, we don’t have to look back centuries to find bad shepherds.

In these last few years we have been all too aware

that some priests today have behaved

like wolves in shepherds clothing, preying on the lambs;

and some bishops have been more than willing to

lay down the lives of their sheep rather

than to lay down their lives for their sheep.

There’s also another kind of false shepherd we see today

whose devastation we don’t read about in the press.

The primary role of the shepherds of the Church is a spiritual one:

         to feed their flocks “with knowledge and understanding”

         of the truth of Jesus Christ.

And they are to tend their flocks by protecting them from lies and false teaching.

This is what Christ did, what Peter did,

and what so many good and holy popes, bishops, and priests,

         over the centuries did as well.

Yet, there have always been pastors in the Church

who have failed to do this,

from the infamous heretical bishops and priests of the early Church

like Nestorius and Arius,

to the false reforming bishops and priests like

Thomas Cranmer and Martin Luther in the 16th century.

And today, sadly, it continues.

You know this as well as I do.

You read the papers and internet,

and you can’t help but hear about priests or bishops

defending such sins as pre-marital sex, contraception,

and the whole LGBTQ agenda;

or denying dogmas like the Resurrection,

the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist,

or even the divinity of Christ.

Sad but true.

But there’s also another, even more subtle way

that shepherds fail the flock.

When we talk about the “teaching of the Church,”

what we’re normally talking about is dogma or doctrine.

These are things that are definitively taught by the Church

as certainty, unchangeable, and always true

things that, as Catholics, we cannot deny.

These are not imposed on us,

but are gifts given to us by Christ the Good Shepherd.

On the other hand,

         not every situation in life is directly addressed by the magisterium,

the teaching authority of the Church.

Everyday you and I make decisions

on what the right thing to do is in a particular situation.

For instance, there is no dogma that tells priests,

“This is how thou shall always respond

when someone gets angry at you about a homily.”

Instead, I apply the doctrine that is clear–

things we know to be true about charity and humility,

as well as justice and fraternal correction.

We don’t reinvent, ignore, or manipulate that truth,

but once we learn it, we have to apply it

as best and as honestly as we can to the particular facts at hand.

This is what we call “the conscience.”

And in applying our consciences, we make what we call

“prudential judgments”:

Given the truth of Christ taught by His Church,

we judge what would be prudent, or best, in a particular situation.

Now, here’s where the problem with some shepherds comes in.

Sometimes shepherds teach things

that are their own prudential judgments,

the conclusion of their own consciences,

as if they were, in fact, the doctrine of the Church.

For example, the Church clearly teaches

that killing through direct abortion is always gravely sinful.

On the other hand, the Church also teaches that

defending ourselves from an unjust aggressor, even killing him,

is not a sin at all.

This right to self defense also extends to war

and, partially, to capital punishment.

So, the Church would teach that while abortion is always wrong,

some wars and some executions

are just and necessary depending on the facts in the case.

Just before he was elected to be Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

“There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion,

even among Catholics,

about waging war and applying the death penalty,

but not however with regard to abortion.”

The fact is that most decisions in life—large and small—

are the matter of individual consciences.  

Not consciences independent of the truth or doctrine,

but conscience formed and bound by the unchanging truth

taught by Christ’s Church.

Unfortunately, sometimes the shepherds of the Church,

either out of zeal to be helpful or out of self-centered self-importance,

go beyond teaching truth and try to override consciences.

We’ve seen this on issues like the death penalty and war, but also economics, immigration, healthcare…on and on…even climate change.

Bishops and priests act as if you are bound by their personal judgments.

Let me be clear, my point is not specifically about war, or the death penalty,

or any particular issue.

What this is about is confusing doctrine with personal judgment,

and vice versa,

because if we aren’t careful, it will lead, as it always does,

to all sorts of problems.

For example, it will inevitably lead to some people

—even some good and well-meaning Catholics–

treating all doctrine as mere opinion,

or treating some mere opinions as if they were doctrinally certain.

In the end this will undermine the Church’s credibility:

When bishops and priests express

conflicting opinions as if they were doctrine, who’s right?

And it will also reinforce the credibility

of those who dissent from church doctrine:

The bishops disagree, so why can’t I?

Not only that, but sometimes the bishops’ opinions are wrong

—even nonsensical.

How does that add to the credibility of doctrine

if people are confused between doctrine and opinion?

Last, but not least, how many times have good Catholics

come to me burdened with heavy feelings of guilt

         just because they disagree with the mere opinion of some priest?

How many times have sheep wandered away from the flock

in confusion and distress

because some false shepherd tried to impose his opinion as dogma?


There is no clearer image of the love of Jesus for each of us

 than the image of Christ the Good Shepherd.

And there is no greater sign of the Good Shepherd’s love for His Church

today, and in every generation,

         than the good and faithful shepherds

Christ continues to send to tend and feed His sheep.

Today, let us thank the Good Shepherd for giving us

all the bishops and priests who faithfully help Him

in his pastoral ministry.

And let us pray for them and for all the pastors of the Church,

         that they may keep their eyes and hearts fixed on Christ

         and lay down their own lives

–laying aside their sins, dissenting theologies, and personal opinions—

         and be lifted up in the grace of the Risen Christ

to feed and tend His sheep with the love and truth

of the one Good Shepherd.