Once upon a time, a long time ago, when I was a seminarian approaching the end of my theology studies, I recall a brother seminarian from my same diocese studying in a different seminary telling about the cousin of a classmate of his, already ordained a priest from his classmate’s same diocese. My friend told me that this priest had been a missionary in Guatemala but had to flee because he was on a government death list. I later found out that that was because he was protecting and aiding landless peasants, not only preparing them for the sacraments and giving them other spiritual assistance, but also establishing a farmer’s co-op, building a school and a hospital, and founding the first Catholic radio station which he used for catechesis.

Because he was wanted by the government he returned to his diocese in the United States, but later decided that he could not be away from his people. My friend told me that this priest was going to return to his village in Guatemala, knowing full well it was likely he would be assassinated by government agents. And that, indeed, is what happened. We now know him as Blessed Stanley Rother, of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City. As he said about his decision to return, facing near-certain death: “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.”

Father Rother exemplifies – with his life and his death, not just with words – what our Lord speaks about in the Gospel reading for this Mass of priestly ordination. In this teaching our Lord draws a sharp contrast between the “hired man” and the “shepherd.” The hired man, he tells us, runs away at the first sight of danger because the sheep are not his own. The shepherd, on the other hand, knows his sheep and cares for them because they are his own, and he will care for them even to the point of laying down his life for them.

The implications for the priest who is entrusted with the care of souls are obvious. Pope St. Gregory the Great drew the implications of the priest acting like a hired man already back in the year 600 A.D.: “The only reason that the hireling flees,” says St. Gregory, “is that he is a hireling. As though it were said directly: he who loves not the sheep, but worldly gain, cannot stand firm when the sheep are in danger. For while he is aiming at honor, and rejoicing in worldly gain, he is afraid of exposing himself to danger, lest he should lose that which he loves.”

It is not difficult to imagine the kind of priest who lives his life this way, even in our own time when priests do not have the social standing in society they once did. A priest who lives his life as a hireling looks only for his own profit, comfort and convenience, and not the good of the sheep. In doing so he not only does spiritual harm to himself because he lives in contradiction to his priestly commitment, but also to the people entrusted to his pastoral care. He may be liked, his personality may make him popular, but he will not earn people’s respect, let alone assist them on the way to salvation.

Cardinal Sarah gave a speech just this week at the Catholic University of America where he speaks about the dangers of this kind of attitude in no uncertain terms. In referencing a talk he recently gave to the bishops of Cameroon, he said: “many Western prelates are paralyzed by the idea of opposing the world. They dream of being loved by the world. They have lost the concern of being a sign of contradiction. Perhaps too much material wealth leads to compromise with world affairs. Poverty is a guarantee of freedom for God.”

The poverty of the priest is to model his life after the Good Shepherd – a starkly different way of being a priest from those who “dream of being loved by the world.” Notice what our Lord says about himself as the Good Shepherd: “I will lay down my life for the sheep.” That is to say, he gives his life voluntarily, of his own free will, not under constraint or because he is forced to do so. Thus the use of the adjective “good” here: this does not mean “good” in the sense of being good at doing something, but in the sense of “noble” or “ideal….”

I am grateful to the priests of our archdiocese who follow the example of Christ the Good Shepherd in laying down their lives for his – for their – sheep. I do not need to tell you that it is not exactly a cake-walk to be a priest these days: in some quarters of society – and very powerful ones – they are maligned, slandered and mocked. And yet, so many of our priests give themselves to the point of exhaustion, much of which is carried out unknown to the vast majority of their parishioners – caring for the sick, comforting the dying and those who mourn, meetings, appointments, managing finances, homily preparation – the list goes on….

“Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people,” said Father Stanley, “that our presence among them will fortify them to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.” He was a shepherd, not a self-proclaimed prophet or crusader for the latest fashionable cause. In fact, in a conversation I had with the current Archbishop of Oklahoma City just a two days ago, he told me that some of Father Rother’s brother priests looked down on him. This was the 80s, remember: he was not a brilliant theologian and, what most bothered them, he did not embrace the cause of liberation theology. His zeal was not for revolution, but for souls, despite the sufferings – the mark of the noble, ideal shepherd….

From Archbishop Cordileone talk at ordination Mass via the Archdiocese of San Francisco