When shepherds grow old

By  Fr. Damian MacPherson, Catholic Register Special
  • April 1, 2010

{mosimage}Jesus spoke fondly of shepherds. From the earliest days of His boyhood He would have been familiar with the roaming shepherds and their sheep. Eventually, He would give pastoral meaning to the image of a shepherd and thereby endear the hearts of His people to their God. That image would become inscribed forever as part of the universal language of the church.

On a recent visit to Jerusalem, in the region of Galilee, I came within arms length of a flock of sheep being cared for by a leathered-skinned shepherd, crosier-like staff and all. It was an extraordinary moment that caused biblical images and meaning to spill over into my consciousness.

The shepherd of the field and the ecclesiastical shepherd have little in common when it comes to lifestyles. But they have a great deal in common when we speak of the themes of care, responsibility, dedication and uninterrupted concern for their flock. 

It is the flock that gives the shepherd his identity. Throughout his years of service most, if not all, would agree that our former archbishop and shepherd, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic, fully embodied these shepherd-like qualities, and so many more. 

As his ecumenical and interfaith director for seven years, such proximity allowed me a closer view of him than most others. His flow of energy was electrifying. He just never seemed to power down, giving a shepherd’s response to an arms-length list of concerns that needed his daily attention. Like a shepherd, he guided his diocese with a vigourous spirit of determination, a watchful eye and a listening ear.

Today his eminence is shepherd emeritus and his flow of energy has powered down. Now each day is begun challenged by health issues — some serious, others not so serious. Very often this is what happens when shepherds grow old. The Psalmist reminds us that the sum of ones year is 70, or 80 if one is strong. Strength of mind is one of the enduring qualities of his eminence, now in his 80th year.

In his prime, and with a shepherd’s care, he laid firm foundations and has forever altered the landscape of the archdiocese of Toronto, leaving behind a legacy of fertile ground upon which others can build.
Many of us who know and have worked with the cardinal could easily speak of him in the revered term of via ecclesiasticus, “man of the church.” Though a cardinal is more properly called a Prince of the Church, I believe Cardinal Ambrozic would be more inclined to embrace the former.

This image of being a man of the church is certainly expressed in the cardinal’s unwavering commitment to being true to his faith and avoiding political correctness. It is my sense that yielding to political correctness, more often than not, involves compromising the truth. That is a type of behaviour not known by his eminence. Embracing his role as a man of the church has kept him grounded in a way that keeps him in touch with those he is called to serve, particularly as a shepherd.

These thoughts, given in the year of the priest, are inspired by the excellent tribute given to his eminence by Kitty McGilly in a recent issue of The Catholic Register. I would also like to borrow from the writing of the Jesuit historian Henri de Lubac. Though used in another context, his words aptly apply to his eminence.

“Such a person will have fallen in love with her beauty, the House of God; the church will have stolen his heart. She is his spiritual native country, his mother and his brothers, and nothing which concerns her will leave him indifferent or detached, he will root himself in her soul, form himself in her likeness and make himself one with her experience. He will feel himself rich with her wealth, he will be aware that through her and her alone he participates in the unselfish unshakableness of God. It will be from her that he learns how to live and from her that he learns how to die.”

As sure and certain as we can be, we believe that aging shepherds never forget their flock. Most often in their retiring years, their refuge is in their prayer. In these latter days, knowing that we are being remembered in the cardinal’s prayers, how equally fitting it is that we increase our prayer for him as he, like each of us, makes his journey home.

(Fr. MacPherson, SA, is Director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the archdiocese of Toronto.)

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