A shepherd will lead them

Categories: Around the Diocese

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

This Sunday, people in the pews will hear the words of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in the Gospel of John: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”

sheep2

Father Dan Walz holds a lamb that is under a week old at the Fitzpatrick farm near Foley April 14. Dianne Towalski / The Visitor

Pope Francis has urged priests to go out among their flocks and get to know the people they serve like “shepherds living with the smell of their sheep.”

For Father Dan Walz, pastor — a.k.a. shepherd — of St. John Parish in Foley and St. Patrick Parish in Minden Township, this request from Pope Francis means getting a little dirty, literally.

“I heard this as a challenge for priests to go out into the flock that has been entrusted to their care,” Father Walz said, “to lead, feed and protect those who stay close and to seek to bring back those who have strayed, to go out and meet them where they are at in their spiritual journey.”

Recently, Father Walz visited the farm of his parishioners Mike and Mary Jo Fitzpatrick, who also know a little about what it takes to be a good shepherd. The couple and their eight children have raised sheep for nearly 40 years, currently leading a flock of 375 in Foley.

“Mother Teresa says if you’re going to help the poor, you have to live with them,” Mike said. “I think that’s what Pope Francis means when he says priests need to smell like their sheep.”

It takes a lot of care and time to be a good shepherd, Mary Jo said, and a lot of patience.

sheep

Mike Fitzpatrick and Fr. Dan Walz. Dianne Towalski / The Visitor

“Especially during the lambing season,” she explained. “Mike really has to know what is going on with each one of them and take care of their individual needs. He gets up with them during the night and checks on them all the time. But they trust him, they recognize him, they are not as afraid. He can walk amongst them and they do not get anxious.”

“It’s just like it says in the Bible, they know me,” Mike said about his sheep. “They know my voice and they follow me.”

Father Walz hopes to get to know his parishioners as well as Mike knows his sheep.

“I try to shepherd the flock entrusted to my care and for those who wander into my pasture,” said Father Walz, who has served in his current assignment since 2011. “I also continue shepherding some of those from previous assignments and whoever I encounter on any given day.”

Just as Mike worries about the health and wellness of his sheep, Father Walz is concerned about the spiritual health of his congregation.

The daily nourishing of “the flock” happens through the celebration of Mass, caring for the wounded through the sacraments of confession and anointing of the sick, he said, as well as the day-to-day tasks in watching over the temporal goods of his parishes and St. John’s Area School.

With two parishes, a school and a limited staff, it is often difficult for Father Walz to get out and visit his parishioners as much as he would like.

“The greatest challenge in getting to know people is the amount of administration it takes to care for a parish,” he said.

The Fitzpatricks experience similar obstacles in their work, too.

“The business side can be a challenge,” Mike said. “We don’t know what the market will do and we always have to be aware of what’s going on in the world that affects what we do.”

But for both the Fitzpatricks and Father Walz, the joys of their vocation outweigh the trials.

“There is great joy in getting to know the flock and individuals especially,” Father Walz said. “Many times as priests, we have the opportunity to be part of the joys in people’s lives and to be with them during some of the most difficult times. As priests, we become part of the family, in a sense. I certainly have been blessed in those particular encounters of being able to just ‘be’ when I am around them, when I am treated just like one of the family members.”

Lending a helping hand

How can parishioners help priests become better shepherds? By being good stewards, Father Walz said.

“There are so many talented and gifted individuals within every parish that could help with the many needs that each parish encounters — to be able to take upon themselves some of the administration through volunteering and also through tithing, so that parishes can afford to pay someone to help with administration,” he said.

And most important, there’s prayer, said Father Walz. “Pray for more vocations to the priesthood. Encourage men within your family or parish to consider becoming a priest. Support those who are interested in the priesthood. Let us continue to ask the Heavenly Father to send more shepherds to care for the flock.”

In addition to Good Shepherd Sunday, April 26 is also World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Please pray that young men and women hear and respond generously to the Lord’s call to the priesthood, diaconate, religious life, societies of apostolic life or secular institutes. Visit www.worlddayofprayer forvocations.com for more resources.