Seeking out every lost sheep
Rev. José Mario O. Mandía
Willy Herteller was an 80-year-old homeless man who lived off charity in St Peter’s Square. According to Rome Reports, he died on December 12, 2014 at a hospital near the Vatican. Herteller happened to be a friend of an archbishop who worked at the Vatican. The prelate, Archbishop Americo Ciani, asked Pope Francis if his friend could be buried in the Teutonic Cemetery inside the Vatican. This cemetery is centuries-old, and only princes and knights are buried there. The Pope agreed, so Willy is the first homeless person to be interred in the Vatican cemetery. The Archbishop himself presided over the funeral on January 9.
Nice, huh! That’s the Church that Jesus Christ wants, the Church that pays attention to every single person. We often think that customised and personalised service is an invention of modern management gurus. Not quite.
Jesus taught: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15: 4-7)
In his Lenten Message for 2015, Pope Francis wrote that God “is not aloof from us. Each one of us has a place in his heart. He knows us by name, he cares for us and he seeks us out whenever we turn away from him. He is interested in each of us; his love does not allow him to be indifferent to what happens to us.”
“He is so great that he has time for the little things in our lives: ‘Every hair of your head is numbered’ (Matthew 10:30; Luke 12:7),” Pope Benedict told seminarians in 2010.
Each of us is unique, each one with his particular traits, strengths and weaknesses. We are not mass-produced. Each one of us has been thought of and loved. And although all of us are called to holiness, God has a specific plan for each one. Every saint retains his own personality. This is why the sacraments are given to us individually. This personalized and customized service is nowhere more clear than in the sacrament of Penance. Individual confession shows us how much God cares individually for each one of us, how he respects our uniqueness. This uniqueness is ignored when communal or mass absolutions are given, when the faithful are not afforded the chance to speak their heart out in a personal encounter with the saving grace of the sacrament. Because Jesus decreed that every single lost sheep has to be sought after, every single faithful has the right to be sought out and given time and personal attention.
Furthermore, this personal attention extends to the right of the faithful to receive spiritual guidance. If we read the lives of the great saints, we will find that many of them grew in holiness through the guidance of another person. Saint Paul, the great apostle of the Gentiles, had to follow the instructions of an unknown disciple by the name of Ananias (cf Acts 9:10). It was Ananias who, following God’s instructions, made Paul recover his sight. Spiritual direction helps us discover the path that God has marked out for us.
What are the characteristics of a good spiritual adviser? We can cite three.
First of all, he should teach what the Church teaches. If you went to a Mac store and the salesperson sold you his own brand of computer, what would you think of him? Besides you will expect him to know the product well and be able to explain how it works. If he can’t do that, and instead spoke to you of his doubts about the reliability of the product, wouldn’t you consider him dishonest and opportunistic?
Secondly, he ought to be a man or woman of prayer, a person who strives to be in constant touch with the Good Shepherd. He is not preaching himself or his ideas or theories, he ought to be preaching Christ. I am always amazed at how the words of Mother Teresa move me whenever I read them. It is not because she is super-eloquent. One can sense, however, a deep spiritual life, a knowledge that can only come from intimacy with Jesus.
Third, he should be a person who preaches more by his actions than his words. He should provide proof with his own life that what he says really works. A young man who was seeking the true faith once told me that it was the lives of the saints that convinced him that the Catholic Church was the true Church. Why? Because if the Church teachings were just nice words, no one would really become a saint. Holy men and women prove to us the effectiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A spiritual guide shows the efficacy of grace through the witness of his own life.
One final point. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd, and through Baptism, he calls each one of us also to be good shepherds to the others, to be spiritual guides. Blessed Álvaro del Portillo once said that faithfulness implies not only being good sheep, but also being a good shepherds. All of us are shepherds to one another. In his 2015 Lenten Message, Pope Francis asks us to recall the question God posed to Cain: “Where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9) We cannot retort like Cain, “I am my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) We are keepers of one another.
Let us conclude with the parting words of Pope Francis in his Message for Lent. “Let us all ask the Lord: ‘Fac cor nostrum secundum cor tuum’: Make our hearts like yours (Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). In this way we will receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, indifferent or prey to the globalization of indifference.”