Homily – Senate Mass for the Australian Catholic University

Ezekiel 34:11-16, John 21: 15-17

From the readings today there are important conclusions to be drawn concerning leadership in our Catholic faith.

The word “leadership” does not occur in the scriptures.  Yet it is a word that is mentioned constantly in our modern world.  Do the scriptures have anything to say to us about leadership arising from our Baptism?  Of course they do!

In today’s Gospel Jesus may not use the word “leadership”, but he does use a primal metaphor for leadership – the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep.

Jesus gives St Peter, after evoking from him the love relationship he shares with the Lord, a commandment to “feed my sheep.”

The First Reading, to me, indicates a three dimensional aspect to leadership, using this biblical metaphor of sheep and shepherd.

First of all the leader is to lead from the front.

He or she or they are to offer vision and a way forward for the people entrusted to them. 

The prophet Ezekiel explains “I shall gather them together from foreign countries and bring them back to their own land.”  There is the vision for the upfront leader!  It is a ministry of gathering people and bringing God’s people home. 

What a wonderful word for Christian believers – “home”. 

Secondly, the leader is to give leadership from the middle.

Again, from the prophet Ezekiel, he proclaims “As a shepherd keeps all his flock in view when he stands up in the middle of his scattered sheep, so shall I keep my sheep in view.”  So here is leadership from the “middle”.

Perhaps it is a little hard for us in Australia to understand this image, given the fact that a shepherd in biblical times only had a hand full of sheep who were like pets, he knew them very well and they knew him very well.  Here in Australia we have farms of thousands and thousands of sheep.  Perhaps an image that we would understand is that of the drover’s dog.  We often see pictures of a drover’s dog gathering a huge flock of sheep.  He somehow moves towards the middle of the flock and stands on their backs and looks around.  He is clearly trying to bring them all together.  Here is an Aussie interpretation of the biblical motif!

The leader leads from the middle to ensure that the principle of unity is primordial in his leadership.  Yes, of course, we all know of extraordinary diversity of opinions within our Catholic community, and so it should be.  Yet, ultimately, nothing is to shatter the unity that Christ has given us.  We are the Body of Christ and not a dismembered Body of Christ!  We must give way to unity and never allow our Church to be broken down in disunity.

Thirdly, there is the leadership from the “back.”  Referring to the prophet Ezekiel, he proclaims “I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the week strong.” 

The Christian leader must always be most attentive to the ones who are struggling.  In the well-known expression of Pope Francis, “those who are on the peripheries.” 

We cannot have leadership that gives great visionary panoramas but totally neglects the strugglers and those that are wounded and finding it so difficult to keep up with everybody else.  We are to go together in all our diversity.  Jesus himself makes it quite clear that it is in the wounded and strugglers, the hungry and the naked, imprisoned and the lonely, that we can find His presence in a most particular way.  Our compassion towards them and our walking along with them on the road of life bears witness to Jesus as he would say “you did it to me.”

This tri-dimensional understanding of Christian leadership is briefly mentioned in a wonderful talk given by Pope Francis on the 4th of October 2013 to Clergy, Religious, Diocesan lay groups in parishes in Assisi.  He talks about Christian leadership from the front, middle and back.  I have simply applied his thoughts to this morning’s gathering of leaders of the Australian Catholic University Senate.

As we continue now with the Mass, let us pray that this multifaceted vision of Christian leadership to be in our DNA in all our decisions and discussions.  May we always, like Jesus the good shepherd and leader of us all, lead simultaneously from in front, the middle and the back.