My sheep hear my voice
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Cycle A

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

“Whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber” (John 10, 1)

A thief is one whose sole end is himself; he is not interested in the common good of the civil community as a whole. In his mind, he is the center around which everything revolves. A thief can walk into a room and see all sorts of things that do not belong to him, but belong, perhaps, to you—if it is your house he enters--, and if he sees something he desires, in his mind he’s entitled to it. The reason is that he does not see you as a center. You and everything else exist for his sake, and if he has no remote or proximate use for you, he is entirely indifferent to your existence. He alone is the center; everyone else is on the periphery. That is why if you own something that he wants, in his mind he’s entitled to it. So he will return later and steal it, and he will feel not the slightest remorse for doing so.

You might be moved to respond to his behavior with the question: “Who do you think you are?” The answer is simple: the center of the universe. Give him a picture of himself in a large group and he will immediately begin looking for himself.

What Christ is saying here is that there are thieves in the sheepfold of the Church. What this means is that there are people in the Church who are in it ultimately for themselves, not primarily for the salvation of souls. And make no mistake about it; among these can be found some clergy and bishops. The sex abuse scandals should have made this crystal clear. These are people who entered the seminaries at a time when it was easy to do so. They were able to hide their personality disorder behind the veil of an all male environment, ordination promised them the prestige they longed for, they’d be the center of attention every Sunday, and they’d have power.

But people forget that Jesus knew this would be the case and warned us: “Whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.” He knew that one of his chosen Apostles, a bishop, would betray him. Judas was a thief. And there are thieves today in the Church. They are certainly not a majority, but they stand out when they are discovered—after all, everyone knows who Judas is, but how many can name all twelve apostles? Indeed, the thieves are in the minority, but they are always among us. Some are bishops, some priests, deacons, nuns, and lay people.

When people forget that Christ warned about this, they become more vulnerable to being scandalized. Some of us expect the Church to be made up of fully formed saints; we overlook the humanness of that part of the Church that is the institution. The pilgrim Church is made up of sinful members, and, unfortunately, there are some who are opportunists who have confused the means with the end. Holidays, good food, efficient and well-managed parishes, etc., are only a means to what is the primary mission of the Church, the salvation of souls. But for some, the means have become their chief end. Such people get in by climbing over the wall, not through the gate, who is Christ himself.

But what has amazed and inspired me over the years is the number of the faithful who have stayed the course, despite the fact that they’ve discovered that their pastor or bishop, for example, is not all that genuine. Even during the sex abuse scandals of the 90s, the faithful continued to attend Mass. Why? Because they know the voice of their shepherd. Although a particular priest might really believe that it’s all about him and that the parish is his own little kingdom that he can re-organize to suit his own purposes, that the sanctuary is his personal stage and the ambo his own little podium on which are focused the eyes of the congregation who, in his mind at least, are delighting in his every word, the faithful—a good portion of them at least—know it’s not about the priest or bishop. It’s about their shepherd who works through sinful and unworthy hands, even thieves. The faithful know the voice of their shepherd and they know when it differs from the voice of a stranger, even if that stranger is wearing a bishop’s miter or a clerical collar.

That knowledge on the part of the faithful has always been for me proof positive that the Church is more than a human institution. It is the Mystical Body of Christ; for if the Church was merely a human institution, the faithful would have abandoned it, parishes would be closing everywhere. But that is not happening; the opposite is occurring. The reason is that the sheep recognize the shepherd in the Mass.

Why God allows thieves into the fold is a mystery, but we must remember that the Lord commands us not to judge the heart of an individual person. We simply don’t know for certain who’s who; only on a general level do we know that there are thieves in the sheepfold, because Christ revealed it, and although some may appear to be in it for themselves, they might in fact turn out to be quite genuine. Conversely, there are some who appear to be the genuine shepherds, but are frauds. Only God knows with certainty. And we are too often wrong when we choose to judge the heart of another, because there are so many possible combinations of a multitude of internal factors that are always beyond our purview, so if we suspect, we must suspend judgment and in the depths of our hearts say: “Lord, you are the just Judge. You take care of it.” And leave it at that. The Mass is valid regardless, not to mention the Confirmation, the ordination, etc. And think of it as another sign of Christ’s humility, that he continues to work his redemption through the unworthy hands of sinful human beings, even ecclesiastical opportunists.

I’d like to point out as well that Christ spoke of sheep that are not of “this fold” (Jn 10, 16). It is not entirely certain what this means, but it is Church teaching that there are people outside the visible Church who are invisibly part of that Church; for there are many non-Christians who recognize the voice of the shepherd, and so who belong to the one flock. Their recognition of the shepherd’s voice is not a conscious recognition, but an unconscious one. It is a recognition that is made possible by the grace of Christ that is present in their souls, but they are not necessarily conscious of that fact, even though they must have consented to that interior grace. Consider Gandhi, for example. He recognizes the voice of our shepherd; for he loved and honored Jesus, which is why he wrote so much about him. I have Muslim students in my classroom every year who, I am quite convinced, recognize the voice of the shepherd and would not follow a stranger. They love truth, they love goodness, modesty, virtue, holiness, and they are more incensed at injustice than many of our Catholic students. And if the eyes are the windows of the soul, these Muslim students have the faces to prove they know the voice of the shepherd, the author of grace. For one is not saved by having correct theology. A person who is raised with the erroneous notion that Jesus is merely a prophet, for example, can still live in the grace that Christ won for us on the cross and love Jesus far more selflessly than a baptized Catholic. The same is true of the devout Hindu, Sikh, Jew, Buddhist, and perhaps even the atheist.

How this is possible can be partly explained through a classical philosophical insight. A great deal of our knowledge is pre-conscious, and this pre-conscious knowledge is operative in every conscious act of the intellect. The first principles of speculative reason (i.e., non-contradiction, identity, sufficient reason, finality, etc) are originally known pre-consciously. When a philosophy student first learns them, he realizes that he’s known them all along and that without them knowledge would have been impossible, but he only knew them pre-consciously.

In regard many other things, it is only later that we become conscious of something we’ve always known, but only pre-consciously. Sometimes the gift of Holy Spirit called the gift of understanding works that way. A person without any theological training can hear a sermon and know that there is something wrong with it, but can’t explain exactly what. Or. we can hear a description of a personality disorder and it finally occurs to us that we’ve always known there was something wrong with such and such a person, but couldn’t put our finger on it, we didn’t have the concepts, but we recognize this person in that description.

So too, there will be people who are not visible members of the Church, but who at the end of time will recognize Christ and realize that they’ve know him all along, but pre-consciously. They will recognize his voice, and then they will know that they have loved him all along, without consciously realizing it; they’ve loved the character behind the voice. Who are these people in history? Just think of Confucius, or Lao Tzu, Socrates, or Plato, etc. They loved truth and gave up everything in pursuit of it. And after all, Christ said: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”. If a person really loves truth and lives for it, he loves Christ without necessarily consciously realizing it.

Most importantly, if Christ lives in you, and you love others with the heart of Christ, then you give people who are not visible members of the Church the opportunity to love Christ in loving you. If they live unconsciously in the grace of Christ, that is, without knowing it, they will find you appealing, because they recognize something in you that is in the depths of their pre-conscious mind, namely divine grace. Their good deeds towards you are deeds of love towards Christ, and so you help them merit an increase in divine grace through their good actions towards you, an increase that could finally bring them to a conscious recognition of their savior and to the fullness of life in him.