Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk
St. Peter in Chains Cathedral
The gospel reading we have just heard is from the very end of the gospel according to John (Jn. 21.15-17). This is the last appearance of Jesus that John records. Before He leaves His apostles, Jesus wants to get the leadership of the Church squared away. He asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?”, and each time that Peter says he does love the Lord, Jesus answers, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.”
What Jesus is doing here is giving Peter a chance to make up for his triple denial during Jesus’s passion. But Jesus is also giving the outline of what leadership in the Church involves, what it involves not only for Peter but for all the apostles, and for their successors in the Church who would be known as bishops and for the collaborators in the ministry of bishops, who would be known as priests.
The basis on which these ministries of leadership would be founded is love for Jesus. That’s what Jesus asks first: “Do you love me?” Only when Peter answers that he does, does Jesus entrust him with the care of the flock. That’s the first requirement for anyone who would be bishop or priest: a personal love for the Lord Jesus. Jesus doesn’t ask if they have learned all that He taught them. He doesn’t ask if they have personal leadership skills. He doesn’t ask if they are willing to work hard in His service. All those things are important, but they are all secondary to their love for Him. Unless the potential leader in the Church is deeply in love with the Lord, all his knowledge and skill and dedication to ministry is useless, perhaps even harmful. Today, Jesus asks these eight candidates for priesthood the same question He asked Peter, “Do you love Me?”
Once Peter and his successors in ministry have given voice to their love for Him, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep.” He doesn’t say feed your lambs and sheep, but my lambs and sheep. The flock does not belong to Peter, it doesn’t belong to the bishops and priests of the Church. It belongs to Christ and it must be fed and pastured and cared for precisely as Christ’s. No bishop or priest should think of my diocese or my people. All ordained ministers are agents and representatives of Christ. They work for Him. They work not for their own benefit but for the benefit of Christ’s loved ones. They are secondary agents of the love of Christ. This is why ordained ministers must stay in close personal touch with Christ in prayer and reflection. This is why they must remain absolutely faithful to the teaching that Christ has committed to His Church. To do otherwise is really an attempt to steal the flock of Christ and make it their own.
The ordained minister is, therefore, one who is in love with Christ and who is willing to express that love in a lifetime of service to Christ’s flock.
That service is a rich and deep service. Elsewhere in the gospel (Luke 4:17 f.) Jesus outlines that service in greater detail: to bring glad tidings to the lowly and to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to those in chains, to announce the Lord’s grace and love. It’s a very satisfying service, but not for that reason an easy one. The glad tidings that the minister of the gospel brings are not always welcome, because, glad though they be, they are also demanding. Often people don’t want to be freed of their chains. Sometimes the announcement of the Lord’s grace and love will be welcomed with indifference. And in all this, the minister of the gospel will work in the context of his own limited human resources. He will get tired. He will be disappointed. He will wonder whether what he does is making any difference. But the ordained minister dare not slack off when the going gets tough. He dare not diminish his efforts if they do not prove to be immediately fulfilling. He must continue to offer the service to which he has been called, because of his love for the Lord and because of the responsibility which he has been given for the Lord’s flock.
My brothers, as we proceed in this sacred rite of ordination, I offer to you the same direction that Jesus offered to Peter: love the Lord. Feed His lambs. Feed His sheep.