16th Sun [B] 2009

Fr. Charles Irvin

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Ephesians 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34
It’s no secret that we live in a divided and broken world, a world in which our leaders have been dividers more than unifiers. The partisan politics of Washington continues, Republicans and Democrats giving only lip service to bipartisanship. And as for the Church? It is infected by the cancer as well, suffering, as it does, from shepherds who have abused their flocks. Presently we are enduring war of words over who is genuinely Catholic and who is not. The readings in today’s Mass confront us with this work of the devil whose favorite tactic is to divide and then conquer, as generals do in wars.
It is evident that in many areas of our lives we must deal with division vs. unity and scattering vs. wholeness. How do we develop individual characters in the unity of one family? How do we achieve unity while respecting diversity? How do we marry faith and reason, science and religion, globalization and national sovereignty? Leadership is not an easy task; good leadership is critically important.
In biblical terms, leadership is presented to us as good shepherding. We don’t like to think of ourselves as sheep but when you stop and reflect on it a bit, isn’t it true that people flock together when they see others going a certain way? The humbling truth is that we want to be lead and we uncritically follow many who present themselves to us as leaders. Buying waves follow certain leader stocks on stock exchanges. People flock to movies that critics have acclaimed, the critics themselves using standards that warrant some close examination themselves. Flocking occurs on Interstate highways; flocking occurs in the Internet. Many of us pursue what is popular; we want to know what’s “in” and what’s “out.” When you spend some time thinking about it you can see many areas in your own experiences where people engage in flocking like sheep. 
In today’s Gospel account we find Jesus taking His apostles to a leadership-training seminar. By taking them out into a deserted place, He removes His apostles from the distractions and concerns they’ve been experiencing. They needed a break. They needed to reflect. Were people being spiritually healed or only physically healed? We people being in fact drawn closer to God or were they only being dazzled by miraculous healings?
When one goes out into a deserted place and stays there long enough, one begins to see what really matters and what doesn’t. Eventually, when all of the ordinary routines and supports have been removed from one’s life, one begins to experience reliance on God, on God’s loving care. One begins to realize that the most important gift we need is the recognition of and experience of God’s care for us.
This journey, made by many saints, seers, and holy ones, invariably brings us to the awareness of God’s compassion for us, God’s mercy and forgiveness, God’s love for us.
Compassion is found in all of our great leaders. Think, for instance, of Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Winston Churchill. Think of those unpublicized great people in your own life. Their hearts were all grounded in the virtue, the power of compassion. Compassion is the key to good shepherding, to good leadership.
I want to note something special here by picking apart the word “compassion.” What does it mean? It means to share the feelings of others, to stand in their shoes, to “feel with” them. What causes their fears? Anger and division are the by-products of fear. What makes them feel secure? Pope John Paul II comes immediately to my mind. In his life he experienced loss, pain, and suffering. In the last years and months of his life he did not hide from us the debilitating effects of his disease. In his own heart he knew, and knew well, what is in our human hearts. 
Listening with understanding is the key to compassion, to having a compassionate heart. Notice, I didn’t say listening with agreement, I said listening with understanding. Many times when I have been told: “Father, you just don’t understand!” And there have been many times, too, when I have responded: “Yes, I do understand you, I just don’t agree with you.” But the fact that I listened and understood has, in most instances, been enough. Leadership, after all, is impossible if one agrees with what everyone is saying.
St. Paul had to deal with an enormous problem. How can Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians come together in true unity? In today’s second reading we heard from a letter he wrote to Christians in Ephesus. Ephesus was a seat of learning, much like one of our university towns. It was filled with a wide range of intellectual thought, with believers and unbelievers, with Christians drawn from a wide range of beliefs. Listen once again to what St. Paul had to say to them:
Brothers and sisters:
In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ.
For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace,
and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it. He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
We recognize Jesus Christ as The Good Shepherd, the One who leads us back home to our Father in heaven. He leads us with compassion because He suffers with us. He knows and understands what is in our hearts. He knows and understands not what we want but what we need. Above all, Jesus brings us the gift of wholeness in our fracturing, unity in place of division, loving concern for others out of our self-concerns, and holiness in place of our sinfulness.
All of these gifts are given to us, as they were given to His apostles, not only for our own salvation, but for the healing salvation for others amongst whom we find ourselves. Apart from our Blessed Lord we cannot accomplish anything much at all, but with Him we, along with those apostles, can work miracles, miracles of healing in this fractured world of ours.

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”