(By Fr. Dexter Brereton)
I tell you most solemnly, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate, but gets in some other way is a thief and a brigand. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the flock.”
In November 1978 United States Congressman Leo Ryan was dispatched from Washington to the jungles of Guyana with an investigative team of journalists. There had been reports of serious human rights violations in “Jonestown” led by American citizen turned leftist cult leader, James Warren “Jim” Jones. The visit would end in tragedy with congressman Ryan and four other members of his party being murdered by Jones’ thugs on the tarmac of the Port Kaituma airstrip. Later that day, 918 of Jones followers died in a murder suicide pact after ingesting cool-aid flavoured with cyanide. It was the largest non-combat loss of American life, before the September 11 attacks. Jones himself is reported to have died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
In today’s Gospel reading, when Jesus speaks of those who are “thieves and brigands”, he is critiquing a certain kind of leader, much like the one in this story. On the fourth Sunday after Easter, in the Church’s tradition, she reflects on the gift of leadership, under the symbol of the shepherd. The qualities of the shepherd are highlighted throughout the length of the reading. In verses 3 and 4 St John writes: “…the gatekeeper lets him in, the sheep hear his voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. When he has brought out his flock, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice.” True leadership, the true shepherd leads in a very personal way “one by one he calls his own sheep”.
Leadership is never a ‘production line.’ True leadership is also leadership by example “when he has brought out his flock, he goes ahead of them…” The true shepherd leads “from in front”, by personal example, as Jesus did. As I reflect on this reading then, I note that one of the best superiors I have ever had in religious life, the late Fr. Neil Rodriguez, I honoured for one simple quality that he had. In general, he never asked us to do anything that he himself was not prepared to do. Here I am also reminded of the example of Pope Francis who in his simple lifestyle also “leads from in front,” by personal example.
Lord we thank you for the true shepherds we have known. Those who have taken the time to know us personally, and who have led us by their example.