Pope Francis just opened up a new path for canonizing saints in the church, where someone is recognized for embracing death and a dead end in life for the sake of the good of others. It gets to the very core of the Christian life: being like Jesus.
Some years ago I was a religious ed teacher for 6th graders in a parish here in Boston. One year, I received the roster just before classes started. There were 12 boys in the class, and the first three names were Peter, James, and John. There were 5 girls in the class, and the best student was Mary. A boy named Paul joined in late, and Peter and Paul were the best students in the class. I am not making this up.
During the course of the year, we covered different themes, and these culminated in the final theme: Trading places. Jesus traded places with us in his act of salvation. When we had our final exam, there were some students that did well and some that failed. Peter and Paul and Mary were at the top. Five students had failed, and at the bottom was a boy named Jesse, who had been recovering from cancer.
Because grades don’t mean all that much in religious ed, when I gave back the tests, I said to the class, “I like to lift people up who are down. So, I am looking for students who want to help me to do that, too. I am looking for students who are willing to trade their grade. Out of everyone that participates, I will trade the highest grades with the lowest, so everything turns upside down. I’m going to hand back your tests, and you can write ‘Yes’ if you are willing to trade your grade, and ‘No’ if you are not. Next week, I’ll come back with the new grades.”
Needless to say, the decision was easy for everyone who had low grades. The higher grades, a bit different. It reached a culminating point as I watched Peter weighing back and forth. He had the 100, the highest grade. Surely if he traded, it would be with Jesse, and he would have the lowest grade. He paused, until finally I heard him say, “I want to be like Jesus.”
He wrote a big “Yes” on his paper.
Well, the next week came and it was the last class of the year. I summarized our journey from the year, all the major themes we covered. I had the real-life shepherd’s staff that I had brought in, I had the timeline of the Old Testament that we had constructed together over the course of the year. Finally, we got to the end and the final exam and the grades.
One by one, I gave back the exams and announced the new grades on them. Most of the kids had put yes, so everything was turning upside down. “Jesse, you now have the highest grade in the class. A+.” He accepted with a smile and thanked Peter. And everyone waited for the finale.
I handed Peter his test and said, “And Peter, you now have the lowest grade in the class. F.” He smiled.
I walked back to my seat, leaving a silence behind amid the whispers and soft chatter around Peter getting an F. After I sat down, I looked up at Peter and said, “And now, Peter, I am going to trade with you. I am going to take your place, and take your seat. And in return, you have my place. I am giving you the shepherd’s staff, the timeline, everything. I am giving you the whole class.”
Peter came up and I gave him the staff and the timeline, and I went to take his seat. Peter led the last 10 minutes of the year, and finished the year leading a closing prayer. At the final bell, he walked out of the classroom with his staff in hand, all the other kids together around him in a commotion. When he got to the threshold of the doorway, he stopped, and turned to me. He said, “Thank you.” Then, he turned back to leave the classroom, and I glanced out the doorway for one last view of the shepherd leading his flock down the hall.
It is a beautiful story, isn’t it?
A few years ago, I saw an email from Peter to the alumni association of his high school. After having been elected captain of his soccer team, he had been elected senior class president at one of the most prestigious high schools in the US. You can see why peers elected him: he has a beautiful heart.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as a shepherd. But not quite a good shepherd. Our translation once again limps here, because the Greek word used here is not “good”. Greek has a different word for “good”. No, Jesus calls himself, “The Beautiful Shepherd.”
Being a saint in this life isn’t so much about having holy virtues or suffering through difficulties, though those are ok. It’s more about having a beautiful heart toward others. It’s about being a beautiful shepherd, whether in a family, on a team, among friends or strangers, in a school or church or other institution, or anywhere.
Do you want to be like Jesus?
“I am the beautiful shepherd. I know my own and my own know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)