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Christ the Good Shepherd – Mysticism & Magisterium Pt 4

April 23, 2015 by  
Filed under Church Authority, Fr. Geiger, Magisterium, The Cross

Christ, the Good Shepherd
Mysticism and Magisterium Part IV

In the Church of the first four centuries, the most common artistic representation of Christ was that of the Good Shepherd. By reflecting on the historical significance of this image we might come to a better understanding of the pastoral authority of the Church.

GoodShepherdCatacombOfPricilla3rdCFound especially in the catacombs of Rome, the Good Shepherd was not a portrait of Jesus but a symbol in which Christ was presented in the form of a Roman boy with a lamb around his neck. But this is really only half the story because what the image actually represents is the Lukan version of the parable of the lost sheep (15:4-7), whereas Our Lord refers to himself as the “Good Shepherd” within the gospel of John (10:11-16) in a somewhat different context.

Certainly that shepherd is good, who leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness in order to find the one lost sheep. Our Lord told this parable in order to silence the Pharisees who GoodShepherdHajdudorogwere scandalized that He ate with sinners. Today it is much the same: Pope Francis is a scandal to many because he is slow to condemn sinners, though he does not fail to condemn sin.

But the image that more aptly corresponds to Our Lord’s words about the Good Shepherd is not as idyllic. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (Jn 10:11). To my knowledge, this more explicit version of the Good Shepherd has ever been the subject of sacred art. Here an older, more robust shepherd stands with staff gripped firmly with both hands like a sword, his feet planted between his flock behind him and the pack of wolves advancing towards him.

Many dogs have surrounded me, a band of the wicked beset me. They tear holes in my hands and my feet and lay me in the dust of death (Ps 22:16-17).

For whatever reason, by the fifth century these images disappeared and were replaced by images of Christ as Teacher and King and did not reappear until the Middle Ages. CarlBlochSermonOnTheMount-small.jpgRestoredTraditionsREQUIRES HOT LINKIncidentally, more or less at the same time the image of the Good Shepherd disappeared, the first crucifixes arrived on the scene, which never showed Christ in death, but alive, standing upright and majestic.

These scriptural and cultural images of the Good Shepherd, and all they imply, reflect what I have asserted in previous posts, namely, that Christ, the One Teacher of All, is present in the details of ecclesiastical history.

Sometimes we are tempted to think the crisis of our times is wholly unique, when in fact the Church has always been under threat and in need of reform. Even in the glorious period of the 13th century, which gave us Saints Francis and Dominic and the Holy Doctors Bonaventure and Thomas, the orders to which they belonged arose in response to widespread infidelity among bishops, priests and religious. Not only did the Franciscans and Dominicans separate themselves from ecclesiastical worldliness, but they also had to distinguish themselves from most evangelical reform movements, such as the Cathars, Joachimites and Waldensians.

The Church is constantly beset by enemies from within and without. For this reason, history itself must be interpreted in the mystery of Christ and His cross.

The pastoral authority of the Church is often misunderstood today as having little or nothing to do with doctrine, and as more or less synonymous with “mercy without doctrine.” But in reality, the pastoral authority of the magisterium has to do with the shepherding of the Church through the uncertainties of history, which are both a matter of doctrine and the discernment of the signs of the times. For instance, the foundation of the Franciscan and Dominican Orders was of this kind: it involved a doctrine, namely, that the charisms of Francis and Dominic were not contrary to the teaching of the Church, but it also established a new kind of religious life aimed at renewing the Church’s missionary dynamism. This was an experiment that had no earthly guarantees.

In fact, within only a few decades of the death of St. Francis, the Franciscan Order was pitted against itself, with a large portion of its members adhering to the heresy of Joachim, and many others succumbing to worldliness. Without the intervention of divine providence, the whole Order may have ceased to exist within the first century of its foundation. Thus, also the Church throughout the ages.

We would all do well to remember that it is not just Christ the Teacher who is often opposed in history, but also Christ the Pastor. It was not the image of the Teacher, nor that of the quaint boy shepherd that the Twelve struggled with, but the Pastor who was leading them to Jerusalem where he was to suffer and die at the teeth of wolves. And Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” (Mt 16:22)

The Good Shepherd appeared to St. Francis from the crucifix of San Damiano, a Byzantine work already ancient at that time, in the style of those first images of the crucified King. He said: “rebuild my Church for it is being destroyed.” St. Francis did precisely that, through an evangelical form of life, whose Catholicity was guaranteed by unqualified obedience to the Church. At the end of his life, the wounds of Christ were impressed into his body as into hot wax, as a seal and sign that his form of life was truly a remedy to the uncertainties of the times.

MIrrorOfPiegutEglise02JesuEcce4In the order of divine providence, the name of our present Pope reminds us that, in times of crisis, Christ remains with His Church. Pope Francis has asked for our prayers, and for our constructive advice and criticism (Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 32), but we should not allow our concerns to shake our trust in divine providence and lead us to a spirit of schism. Loyalty stands between the extremes of optimism and pessimism.

Such trust in the Church is not a trust in man, but in God. We should pray for our leaders to be good shepherds, after the heart of Christ (cf., Jer 3:15), but we should also remember that we will never be abandoned by the Divine Good Shepherd, no matter what we are tempted to think of the men who lead us.

History is more than the sum of its parts because of the mystery of divine providence. Our Shepherd guides and defends us by the staff of the Cross.


Editor’s Note:  A listing of all the posts in the “Mysticism and Magisterium” Series can be found here.


Art:  Christ, the Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, Italy, Second half of 3rd century, unknown painter, PD-US copyright expired; The Good Shepherd, unknown painter – probably Mihály Mankovics, late 18th century, Greek Catholic Cathedral of Hajdúdorog, Hungary, CCA-SA; Mirror of Intérieur de l'église de Piégut – Jésus avec mouton (Inside the Church of Piégut – Jesus with Sheep), unknown artist, photography by Traumrune, 01/07/12, CCA-SA; Wikimedia Commons.  The Sermon on the Mount, Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1877, Restored Traditions, used with permission.  Feature Image:  Le Bon Pasteur (The Good Shepherd), Jean Baptiste de Champaigne, 17th century, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. Angelo Geiger

A native of Los Angeles, California, Father Angelo joined the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate in the Philippines in 1985, and was ordained a priest in 1991. Subsequently, he assisted in establishing the Franciscans of the Immaculate in the United States where he served as general delegate for the United States, novice master and spiritual assistant for the Marian Third Order. He has lectured extensively on Marian theology and spirituality, both in the United States and abroad. His articles have been published in "Inside the Vatican", the online edition of "The Catholic World Report" and in a number of books from the Academy of the Immaculate. Currently he is studying for a licentiate in Theology at the Angelicum in Rome. He blogs at and

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  • Camila

    Thank you for this reflection, Fr. Angelo.

    I have often thought the same thing that, “we are tempted to think the crisis of our times is wholly unique,” that is, until I studied some history and saw that,
    “in fact the Church has always been under threat and in need of reform.”

    What is also evident from studying history is that indeed, “history is more than the sum of its parts because of the mystery of divine providence.” Although both historical events and divine providence seem at odds with each other at times, neither reflects fully its fullness to our minds while we stand in the midst of the present moment. The present requires trust – utter trust. It is, however, when we gaze into the past and see, with much greater clarity, God’s providential hands in the weaving of history.

    Oh that we may be a generation of trust and not anxiety, of hope and not despair. God has brought His Church through enourmous challenges, if only we had the eyes to see and the wits to trust Him.

    • You are welcome, Camilla.

      We are also tempted to think that the truth is somehow the simplest explanation. Nestorianism is simpler than the doctrine of Chalcedon. Faith alone is simpler than the Catholic doctrine of justification. Almost every heresy is simpler than orthodoxy. So in regard to the present historical circumstances—that is, the now of every person—optimism and pessimism are simpler than divine providence—and easier . . . and wrong.

      • Camila

        (side note) Your comment reminds me of a call I made to my Christology professor last semester. A bit distressed, concluding it was easier to be a heretic than orthodox, I called my professor and said, “I am worried, I understand Nestorianism, I understand Arianism, I grasp these, they are easy to conclude, but Chalcedon!, is it just that I need to think long and hard enough and then one day I will grasp it?!” He chuckled and comforted me “no Camila, nothing in this world is like Jesus – He is unique because He truly has two natures, nothing else has two natures.” I was relieved. I could rest in the comfort of such an awesome and magnificent mystery. Faith could guide my reason and it felt so good, so certain, because of course I could never grasp Almighty God. I didn’t need to hack my brain just long enough to grasp Him.

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  • Gloria Deleon

    Many of the Venerable and Blessed, the Saints, underwent the sufferings in their time, of the Churches trials. Much of it the same as today. I feel it is the same but more widespread throughout the world. Thanks you for your beautiful explanation.

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  • Albert Fiedeldey

    Reflecting on one of fr. Angelo’s comments on the simplicity of heresy, I conclude that this must be the devil’s weakness; the ability to think in terms of “as well as”. To him everything is exclusive, He must have become the “ruler of this world” because of his contempt for material reality. This is already a form of punishment to a proud spirit

  • Sista T


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