Perhaps the most ancient representations of Jesus Christ portray him as the Good Shepherd.
Small statues and wall drawings in Rome and in Jerusalem illustrate Christ as a hearty, young shepherd with a tranquil lamb around his shoulders. The synoptic parable of the lost sheep and the lengthy pastoral monologues from St. John encourage this representation of Jesus as a caring shepherd.
The Jesus in last Sunday’s Gospel passage is somewhat out of character, then, when he grows impatient with the Pharisees who do not grasp that Christ and his message are the sole path to salvation. “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.” Jesus first offers this well-focused hint that the path to salvation necessarily leads through him and his Gospel. When the religious leaders still do not get the message, a somewhat exasperated Jesus declares forcefully, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers. ...”
And to relieve all doubt, Jesus insists, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. ...” Jesus speaks elsewhere in similar, exclusive terms: “No one comes to the Father except through me . ... Apart from me you can do nothing.” Early Christian writers offered comparable statements when they wrote famously, “Outside the church there is no salvation” and “One cannot have God for a Father who does not have the church as a mother.”
Yet, the same Scriptures that can be read narrowly at times can also be understood broadly. In the first reading from the Acts of Apostles last Sunday, St. Peter boasts magnanimously, “For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” God is not stingy with his grace and Jesus is not miserly with his salvation. After all, “God desires that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of his truth,” St. Paul would instruct his readers. And Jesus’ blood was poured out “for the multitude,” as the Master noted at the Last Supper. There is nothing exclusive or restrictive about those phrases.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the church has tried to make clear that, while the church firmly believes that the richness of revealed truth is preserved fully within its own framework, other churches and ecclesial communities have served as “instruments of salvation,” leading believers through the sheepgate that is Christ into the green pastures of God’s Kingdom. After all, the Orthodox Churches possess all seven sacraments and the Protestant communities firmly accept baptism and the Bible and Jews are a people of the Book and many men and women of good will outside the Judaeo-Christian context embrace moral living in their daily lives.
The Catholic Church insists that none of these righteous ways of life is wasted. Catholics can look to the examples of recent saints like Elizabeth Ann Seton and Edith Stein who first powerfully met Christ in the Anglican tradition for Mother Seton or in the deep faith of Lutheran friends for Edith Stein. Simone Weil was led to the edge of Catholicism and certainly to the state of grace although God never opened her heart to baptism. There is indeed “a wideness in God’s mercy” as the traditional hymn celebrates.
Still, no matter how much largess God might display toward the five billion persons on this earth who do not know Jesus Christ nor his Catholic Church, Jesus might well show a bit of exasperation toward those of his sheep whom he has led to the Catholic sheepfold but who are indifferent toward its assets. History or geography might offer some human beings an excuse for not knowing Jesus Christ. But the Catholic faithful have no defense for not embracing all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge that God shares with them through Christ and his church.
Catholics know that Christ is the gate. Catholics know that Christ is the Messiah, the Savior and their Lord. “Of his fullness we have all received,” St. John rejoices, and what a shame it would be to waste that fullness. Catholics have an obligation first of all to be faithful to their own roots. And then Catholics have a duty to encourage their neighbors to look deeply at all that is truthful and moral in their own traditions. The growth of all and not just the conversion of some must be the mandate for all earnest Catholics.