Shepherds among the Sheep

In the past few years two Holy Cross priests have been named bishops in the United States and ordinaries of their dioceses: Bishop Bill Wack, C.S.C., of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida, and Bishop Pat Neary, C.S.C, of the Diocese of Saint Cloud, Minnesota. Both were pastors of Holy Cross parishes — in Texas and Oregon, respectively — when named bishops and had good reputations within Holy Cross and their dioceses for their pastoral approach to their ministry.

When Bishop Wack was named bishop, there was an article in the National Catholic Reporter that suggested, “When Pope Francis exhorted priests to be ‘shepherds living with the smell of the sheep’ he might have been thinking of a priest like Holy Cross Fr. Bill Wack.” The article mentions in particular his years as director of André House in Phoenix, Arizona, named after Saint André Bessette, C.S.C, which serves the needy in the city. Bishop Neary has also been a priest with the scent of the sheep in his various ministries in the United States and Africa.

To have the smell of our sheep must be the goal of every parish priest. To a group of seminarians, Francis later explained this as the necessity of a priest: to be close to the people entrusted to his care, a person “capable of living, of laughing and crying with your people, in a word, of communicating with them.” A pastor is one who puts God’s people at the center. We must have the scent of accompanying parishioners through the most joyful and sorrowful moments of their lives, the scent of parishioners we greet before and after Mass and at parish social activities and liturgies, the scent of the children and the elderly who need our extra attention, the scent of those who come to us for assistance to feed or support their families.

Perhaps the two most fulfilling aspects of parish ministry for me are presiding at Mass and interacting with the parishioners. It is a privilege to break open the word of God for the people, in my homilies to relate the scripture readings to their lives and the life of our parish, the wider community, and the realities of the world. To then be God’s unworthy instrument in transforming the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is humbling, a privilege I do not deserve. So often after the words of institution I almost need to force myself to place the host and the chalice back onto the altar; those words and moments are so overwhelmingly powerful.

An important dimension of parish ministry for me as a pastor is pastoral planning, assisting my parish to envision where God is calling the parish community and discussing how to implement that vision. I have led each of my three pastorates through at least one pastoral planning process. In my previous parish and here in South Bend, Indiana, the pastoral plans we developed were shaped by the exhortation of Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., to “make God known, loved and served.” Our mission statement here at Holy Cross Parish in South Bend concludes with the statement, “Our welcoming and diverse community of faith, centered on the Eucharist, is committed to know, love, and serve God and neighbor,” while our vision statement begins, “Inspired by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the charism of the Holy Cross Priests, Brothers and Sisters…”

My second favorite scripture passage is from John 15:11 where Jesus tells his disciples, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” The most credible parish priests are those who bring the joy of the Gospel — of the Christian faith and lifestyle — to their parishioners and others. Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, invites every Christian to a life of missionary discipleship. Pope Francis often reminds us that only by sharing the joy of our faith can we be effective evangelizers. This has always been an aim of my ministry in my parishes. To the extent I witness to the joy of my priesthood and of ministering to the people of my parish, I am a more effective priest and pastor. In fact, it was the joy of the Holy Cross brothers and priests at Holy Cross High School in Queens, New York City, that attracted me to the religious life of Holy Cross, and it was the joy of a diocesan priest at a sports camp I attended during high school that inspired me to pursue the priesthood. I strive to be that same kind of religious and priest who brings the joy of living the Christian faith to my parishioners.

My favorite scripture passage is found in 2 Corinthians 12:9, in which Jesus assures Saint Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” I heard the Lord speak these words to me after professing my perpetual vows as a religious of Holy Cross, right after I asked God to make me a man of prayer. My experience of parish ministry has been one in which God’s grace continually makes up for my deficiencies as a priest and my weaknesses as a Christian. I am not as fully a man of prayer as I wish, but my interactions and ministry with parishioners often lead me to prayer. When I’m tempted to rely on my own limited abilities, the challenges of parish ministry prompt me to turn to God’s grace, the fruits of which can sometimes surprise me. The joy of parish ministry is found in being so close to our parishioners that we become shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.

Published on November 10, 2023

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