Once I came across a sticker on the hatch of a Jeep. It read, “It’s a Jeep Thang: You Wouldn’t Understand.” I must concede: No, I do not understand. I do not understand several thangs. First, what is it about a Jeep that I or any other non-Jeep driver might not understand? Second, what is prompting the owner of this Jeep to broadcast the perceived uniqueness of that make: is he or she promoting the brand as something exclusive or special, and thereby taunting the many who are not privileged to belong to the Most August Society of Jeep Owners?
Identification with Jesus and the Church is something special that many people find hard to understand; and yet, in the face of contrary winds, Jesus and the Church continue to hold out for universal membership.
There is this archetype in which the rejected experience their comeuppance, thereby revealing the specialness they had all along, yet which nobody else understood or foresaw. “Revenge of the Nerds,” the Horatio Alger story—every generation has its examples of those who, despite unfortunate circumstances, the unfavorable judgment of peers or of the world in general, arrive at some sort of greatness and recognition. Jesus of Nazareth fulfills this archetype par excellence. Quoting the 118th psalm, Peter declares Jesus as “the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” “By you” isn’t part of the original text; Peter inserts this to personalize Jesus’ death, to locate responsibility with the audience. It’s as if Peter’s saying, “You did it; but that doesn’t stop Him from loving and redeeming you.” Jesus accepts His comeuppance, yet in His mercy, even that He uses to the advantage of the opposition. This is meant to foster in our hearts not a sense of guilt, but rather of love.
Thus He demonstrates Himself as “the Good Shepherd”—the one who does the job freely, faithfully, firmly, quietly, happily. If “shepherd” doesn’t suffice in 2012, I guess “employee” would work; or how about “parent,” “priest” or “consecrated religious”—anyone who lovingly assumes responsibility for others’ temporal or spiritual welfare, or who has a part to play in the greater whole. From this we may deduce nothing special about Jesus, except for the use of the definite article: the Good Shepherd—the gold standard for free, rational, caring, and responsible agents.
Jesus acknowledges that His authority does not compel people to identify with Him or seek His care and direction; nevertheless He carries on with His mission with confidence in the outcome of “One Flock, One Shepherd.” In his first epistle Saint John also proclaims with confidence the Father’s love for His children amid the reality that not everyone seems to know and accept that love. The Church continues to abide in that tension, aware that “the world does not know us,” because it does not know Him in whom we find identity and direction. "The world" described in John's Gospel and Epistles is that (in all and in each) which remains in need of redemption. Thus we may understand how "the world" fails to accept the relationship between, for example, the Pope/Bishops and Christ; or the relationship between the person I lied to or insulted or took advantage of, and Christ. The Church herself does not fully perceive this mystery, and for this reason she perseveres in Communion until the day when all is revealed, proceeding with equal parts gratitude and vigilance.
A FURTHER NOTE: In his ninety-first year, the death and burial of Oliver Morgan Barres, Jr., the father of (among others) John Oliver Barres, Bishop of Allentown since mid-2009. Along with his widow Marjorie, Mr. Barres was a former Congregationalist minister and a convert to the Catholic faith--someone who perceived the specialness of our way of life as the specific design of the Good Shepherd. He documented the journey to his conversion--while not yet Catholic--in a book he wrote entitled "One Shepherd, One Flock". The reverse of his commemorative card bears a poem he wrote, which I have included above for your reflecting pleasure.