My arrival in Elgin in September 2007 slightly stirred up the Polish community, both there and in the neighbouring towns and villages. They welcomed a priest from their homeland, speaking their language, and they expected him to ring-fence their national identity. A surprisingly similar view was held by many members of the local community, clearly expressed in a virtual label that read: ‘Polish priest for Polish people.’ From day one I was fiercely (though politely) fighting against such a narrow classification of myself. I didn’t want to be restricted to any particular national or cultural group of people. I considered myself to be ordained into the Church to go and preach Jesus Christ to all people. I kept on correcting people by saying: I’m not a Polish priest; I’m a Catholic priest born in Poland.’ I like to think that, had I given in to having a label stuck on me back then, I wouldn’t be here now.
Today’s gospel is part of Jesus’ sermon on his ministry, where he compares himself to the Good Shepherd. Among the main topics within the sermon, Jesus talks about those ‘sheep’ that know his voice, i.e. belong to him, as well as those ‘who are not of this fold.’ It’s unclear who the latter might be; the range of possible suspects is pretty wide, from the Jews contemporaneous with the preaching of the gospel, through pagans, to the divided Christian denominations that used to fight for religious and political supremacy. Yet such an open, general, unspecified term makes the message all the more universal and thus applicable to many varied situations and circumstances. The division into ‘us’ and ‘them’ has been, is, and always will be, an integral feature of any community or society. The division itself is not the problem; but the way we deal with that can cause some problems.
In the past these words of Jesus: ‘there will be only one flock and one shepherd’ have been interpreted as the ultimate goal of any missionary work, aimed either at indigenous peoples or at fellow-Christians from different denominations. It’s been understood as a call to fit all people into a single, one-size-fits-all uniform. As the religious wars in Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries didn’t determine any clear winner, the struggle moved from battlefields to more sublime fields of discussions and less deadly exchanges of arguments. That has led to an increasingly better understanding of others’ points of view, and eventually to mostly friendly co-existence, mutual respect and collaboration. As we can see in the likes of Libya, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, or most recently in South Africa, there are still people out there whose first and last argument in political discussion is the bullet, and whose ultimate goal is the total annihilation of their opponents.
Sadly the inability to deal with differences in a peaceful and civilised manner isn’t limited to international, political or religious matters only. It goes down to our everyday interactions with family members, workmates or neighbours. Too often we have a tendency to mould people into our own image and likeness rather than to make an effort to walk in someone else’s shoes in order to understand them. Too often we treat differences as obstacles rather than as opportunities. In the gospel Jesus compares the Good Shepherd to a hired man, and says that the latter ‘has no concern for the sheep.’ The hired man’s concern is self-centred. The Good Shepherd, however, lays down his life for the sake of the sheep; the perfect leader dies for the sake of imperfect sheep in order to win them over. Paradoxically sometimes in order to win friends we have to die to our own pride. And this is not a bad thing at all.