16th Sunday OT B ~ "The View From the Back of the Flock" ~ Susan McGurgan


This past week,

a chance comment from a colleague

led me down a YouTube rabbit hole

into the world of vocations videos--

those marketing pieces created by seminaries and religious orders

to encourage young men (and their parents)

to consider a calling to the priesthood and religious life.


They were, without exception,

beautifully produced and skillfully edited--

expensive productions

designed to showcase the best of seminary life.


They incorporated dramatic camera angles,

evocative lighting,

slow motion shots that made the simplest gesture

(like buttoning a collar)

seem laden with significance,

lush musical scores (heavy on the strings),

and seminarians who looked

and sounded

like they came directly from central casting.


Clean-cut,

healthy,

athletic,

serious young men—

the kind of men you would be proud to know.


They are shown sitting alone at study carrels

surrounded by theology texts,

their determined faces

illuminated by the soft light of a reading lamp.


They pray in ornate and often empty sanctuaries,

rosaries falling from strong,

well-manicured hands.


They gaze intently into the far horizon

as they jog across a tree-lined campus

or stride down marble hallways.


They drive a ball to the basket for a lay-up,

or angle a kick to the goal on a soccer field.

And in all these vignettes,

they are either alone,

or in the company of brother priests and seminarians.


The message the videos want to convey is clear--

Embrace Purpose.

Have Value.

Be Set Apart.

Leave the Ordinary Behind

Become a Leader.

Be a Hero for Christ.


Bishop Barron’s “Word on Fire” vocation video said,

“Christ’s invitation to priesthood is an invitation to a way of life that is athletic in its intensity and heroic in its form.”


Yet, as beautiful as they are,

these videos leave me with an allergic reaction--

as if I reached for an apple,

and grasped a nettle, instead.

They smack more of marketing

than of mission--

more of vending

than vocation.


Oh, I can see the appeal.

We long for a life of purpose.

We want to dedicate ourselves to something vital,

and real,

and important.

And even the most cynical among us

yearns for a hero to admire—

and maybe even to follow.


In a world that often feels disconnected,

chaotic,

polarized,

frightening—

In a world where “heroes” lie, cheat, and manipulate—

In a world where leaders use and discard people,

use and abuse power,

mock those who follow them,

and focus solely and toxically on themselves—

the invitation to become a hero for Christ

is deeply compelling,

not only for the potential priest,

but for all of us who long for authentic leadership.


And so,

when I hit pause on YouTube

I thought,

we DO need heroic priests.

We need focused, determined leaders.


But heroic leadership is more than boldness or training.

It goes far beyond a sense of purpose or call.

True leaders

are never isolated or removed from the people they serve.

A true leader—

A Hero for Christ,

does not really leave the ordinary behind—

but rather, embraces it,

and helps the rest of us discover the extraordinary beauty

of an ordinary life lived in courage and faith.


Maybe what we really need

is a new understanding of the word, “leader,”—

a new vision of the icon, “hero.”


Today’s readings invite us

into a different world—

a world where heroes work without a symphonic soundtrack.

A world where leadership

cannot be packaged and sold like toothpaste or diet soda.

A world where there are no second takes,

no flattering camera angles,

no backlighting,

no editing software,

no consumer focus group to consult.


Today’s readings

take us to the world of sheep and shepherds and pastures—

A world of scrubby hillsides

littered with half-buried rocks and hidden gullies.

A world where water

is more precious than gold;

where predators

are lethal and real;

and where the price

for losing part of the flock

is a price you cannot afford to pay.


I grew up in cities,

and my exposure to sheep

came in the form of wool Pep Club sweaters

and Dad’s green Army blankets.

My knowledge of shepherds began and ended

with the image of Jesus,

carrying a lamb over his shoulder.

So, this past week,

I also entered into the world of herders and flocks--

of pastureland,

border collies,

stubborn animals,

and patient,

but persistent

shepherds.


My first homiletics professor,

a priest who grew up around sheep,

once said, “There are two ways to herd sheep:

leading and following.

And it’s messier,

but more effective,

if you’re walking behind the flock.”


Walking behind the flock changes your reference point

and alters your pace.

You cannot stride ahead,

a solitary figure with eyes fixed on the far horizon.

Rather,

you must walk with one eye on the flock before you,

the other on the treacherous ground beneath your feet.


Leading from behind

makes you aware of danger and attuned to risk,

because you can see--

not only the sheep,

but the path and the perils that lie ahead.


You can only travel as fast as the slowest member,

and you soon learn

which of the sheep struggle to keep up,

and which ones tend to stray.


Walking behind the flock

means that you walk in the mess they leave behind.

You cannot avoid their injuries,

their challenges,

their hunger,

their young,

their smell.


Leading from behind immerses you into the messy,

mundane,

pilgrim world of the flock.

It rips away the illusion

that heroic leadership is bestowed

rather than earned,

or that being a leader is easy, romantic, prestigious, or safe.


A champion border collie trainer said,

“These dogs herd by doing two things:

First, they aggregate the flock.

They weave back and forth behind the herd,

collecting and gathering the sheep

into a tight and cohesive group,

then, they guide them forward from behind.”


This shepherding mirrors what God does for us,

and it is no coincidence that the shepherd

is a significant symbol for many religious traditions.


God gathers a people

and guides us forward into freedom.

We are formed as a flock,

saved as a flock

and move into the future,

as a flock.


The shepherds God will call

to help us on this journey

must embrace heroic leadership.

The videos got that right.

But this heroism brings with it,

calloused hands,

sleepless nights,

furrows between the eyes,

and blistered feet

shod in messy boots that will never again look new.


So, cue the music:

A wooden flute

rather than the sound of swelling strings;

And, in place of the deep breaths of a winded athlete,

listen for the harsh gasps of a pastor in the throes of grief.

Delete the distant gaze into the far horizon

and add an intense stare into the human wreckage

of domestic violence and social injustice.

In addition to the glow of reading lamps in libraries,

include the emptiness of faces

illumined by neon lights in strip joints

and fluorescent tubes in prison visitation booth.


Let's be real.

Let's be honest.

We need shepherds that smell like sheep.

We need priests that will bleed

like the Lamb of God hung on the Cross.




(My gratitude to Fr. Jim Schmitmeyer who was a valued conversation partner in this reflection and to Fr. Mike Connors, CSC, and Fr. Scott Detisch who invited reflection on the image of "hero.")

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