I was thinking about the image of a shepherd’s crook recently and remembered a homily that I heard long ago about the symbolism of the crosier (pastoral staff) as conferred to a bishop when he receives his Episcopal consecration. The priest said that the crook was used by shepherds to draw in wayward sheep that had left the flock. The image that came to mind was a sheep standing on the edge of a precipice with the shepherd drawing him back to safety, maybe unbeknownst to the sheep. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that the episcopal staff is the symbol of that doctrinal and disciplinary power of bishops in virtue of which they may sustain the weak and faltering, confirm the wavering in faith, and lead back the erring ones into the true fold.
When I was in the Holy Land driving around the desert in a rental car with a friend and a priest in tow, we passed a gas station in the middle of nowhere that was a popular stop for trucks. The noise and the fumes were tremendous. But in the corner of the gas station parking lot was a shepherd and around him, in a perfect concentric circle, were his sheep. You couldn’t have gotten a piece of tissue paper between them, they were packed in that tightly together .
What struck me was that they couldn’t have been terrorized because then they would have been dashing about in a frenzy. The shepherd must have given them a command and so they formed in around him. They had perfect trust in their shepherd to protect them in what had to be a hostile and unnerving environment.
I thought of that image yesterday when I heard of Pope Benedict’s retirement. My first reaction was one of anxiety— Who would be our shepherd? I realized how much I had come to trust in this shepherd. The Lord said, “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:33).
In the Gospel of Matthew, it says: “When Jesus saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:26). Jesus also said to Peter: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). This was the thought that comforted me as we await the announcement of our new shepherd. God will not abandon His Church. May God grant Pope Benedict the days of prayer he so longs for.