Homily for April 25, 2010

Father Tom’s Homily
4th Sunday of Easter – Good Shepherd Sunday
April 25, 2010

In today’s gospel the Good Shepherd says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.”
Who are examples of the Good Shepherd in modern times? I think the greatest example has been Archbishop Oscar Romero whose courageous accompaniment of the poor caused him to be assassinated in 1980. We have spoken of him on several occasions.

After Romero was murdered, it was discovered that the last thing he had written was a letter to Bishop Pedro Casadaliga of Brazil. It was a finished and signed letter found on his desk which he probably intended to mail on that March 24th, perhaps after he said the 5 pm Mass in the hospital chapel. At that Mass, however, he was shot through the heart as he had finished his homily.
This turns our attention to Pedro Casadaliga who also deserves to be an example of the Good Shepherd in his service to the poor in the Amazon for over 40 years. His people are the indigenous and mixed-race poor who live on the land.
Pedro wanted to refuse the offer of becoming a bishop, but was talked out of it by his closest friends who understood his passion for the gospel. He became a bishop at age 43 in 1971 and continues to this day (39 years later) in his diocese which extends over a vast area of the Amazon.

His strong stand on behalf of his people has brought him opposition principally from the rich landowners who continue to push the people off the land. He has also found opposition from some leaders in the Church for promoting liberation theology – but also for his style of leadership.
He has steadfastly rejected any fancy trappings and lives very simply, as do his people. Pedro reminds me of St. Francis of Assisi who said he had married Lady Poverty. And like Francis, Pedro is a poet whose writings have a special power to communicate the gospel message.

Pedro’s ordination as a bishop dramatized his commitment to Lady Poverty and his own humble people. He wrote in explanation: “My mitre (bishop’s liturgical hat) will be the straw hat of the backlander (his people who lived off the land).” He also said of his mitre, “…it is the glance of the poor with whom I walk and the glorious glance of Christ.”

The bishop uses a rather ornate sort of liturgical walking stick, meant to represent the shepherd’s staff. It is called the crosier. Pedro’s crosier is in fact a 5-foot walking stick cut from a tree in the jungle by a campesino with his machete.
The shepherds of gospel times would readily recognize Pedro’s staff. They would be puzzled by the fancy highly ornamented crosier that most (maybe all) bishops use. The high priced ones are gold or silver plated. (some costing well over $4 thousand)
He said of his crosier, “My crosier will be the gospel truth and the trust of my people.”

Try to imagine our bishop coming down the aisle of the cathedral to the accompaniment of trumpets, the grand organ and a hundred-voice choir singing “Behold our glorious bishop,” while he steps down the long aisle wearing a straw farmer hat and using a simple, wooden walking stick.
It does something to the grand image of the bishop.
The bishop also has a ring given in the ritual of ordination. Pedro wears a very simple ring. He says “My ring will be fidelity to the new covenant with God.” The word covenant can mean “marriage.” He is married to Lady Poverty and his simple ring represents his marriage to God.
Bishops also have an official coat of arms, a custom taken from royalty. Pedro does not have such a coat of arms, but he says, “My coat of arms is the power of hope and freedom of the children of God.”
Bishops wear ceremonial gloves. Pedro says, “I shall wear no other gloves than the service of love.”

Pedro Casadaliga’s manner of accompanying his people was like Romero’s. Both offer powerful examples of courageous accompaniment of the people – the work of the Good Shepherd.

On one of our delegations to El Salvador many years ago, we were taken out to the mountains in an old beat-up yellow VW van, driven by a young likeable fellow named Fermin. There was a hole in the floor under the steering wheel that suggested that the driver may have to help brake the van using his foot. On the return to the city, we had two flat tires.
But we loved that worn out VW because of its history. Many years before, Fermin had driven it in service to the FMLN. And, according to our young driver, a year prior to our use of it, the van had been used to carry Bishop Pedro Casadaliga to visit some of the poor communities around El Salvador. Our delegation was proud to be other passengers in “ole yella.”

Casadaliga’s visits were significant to the people. He brought encouragement and solidarity to the oppressed poor, and angered the oppressors.
The conservative bishops of Nicaragua had complained about Casadaliga’s visit to some poor communities in their country in 1985. As a result the Vatican forebade him to return there without the permission of the Nicaraguan bishops.

Romero’s last letter was written in response to a note of encouragement he had received from Pedro. Romero wrote, “I am very touched and grateful for your brotherly letter. Your warm support is a great encouragement to us (Romero and the poor of El Salvador). I am happy to be running the same risks Jesus did, for being identified with the just causes of the dispossessed.”
He concluded his letter, “In the light of faith, consider me closely connected with you in affection, prayer, and the victory of the resurrection.”

When he received word of Romero’s death, Pedro responded with a letter addressed to “Dear Brothers and Sisters of El Salvador.” He went on, “I have received word of the death of your beloved Archbishop Romero. This is good news in the light of the gospel, because it is a pascal event.” Pedro’s letter was sent during Easter week.
“The only thing left is to gather up Romero’s blood as a flag of paschal liberation. He has been a good shepherd who was willing to give his life for the people.”
To Romero’s grieving flock, he said, “Thank you for your Easter witness. Thank you for the blood of Archbishop Romero.” He concluded his letter, “I embrace all of you with great brotherly affection in Jesus Christ who is our Peace and the Resurrection and the Life.”
Here we lift up the memory of the bloodied Oscar Romero and we honor the faithful witness of the straw-hatted Pedro Casadaliga on this Good Shepherd Sunday. Their example is a homily fitting for this day. They encourage us to humble and faithful service after the example of our brother Jesus.