“It is easy for us to become distracted by all the commitments, obligations, passions and interests that preoccupy us. However, life can be lived with greater purpose, direction, happiness and fulfillment if we are able to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us to serve.”
While we do not want to think of ourselves as being sheep, most of us have a fondness for Good Shepherd Sunday. It comes up every Easter Season and offers a comforting image of Jesus who gave his life for his sheep, for us. On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we find that there are about 20 references in our readings and prayers to shepherd, sheep, fold and flock. There are more than 500 references to sheep in the bible. The image of the shepherd has a long history in Israel. Key people in the Old Testament were shepherds. They include Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve, keeper of the flock. Abraham and his family who identified themselves as shepherds like our ancestors (Gen 47:3); Moses was a shepherd and David the most popular and powerful King of Israel was a simple shepherd boy. The prophet Ezekiel denounced the treachery of the hired shepherds and promised that God himself would come to shepherd the flock. Psalm 23, the most familiar of the 150 psalms boldly declares, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall not want.”
Jesus was quite fond of the shepherd image and he used it often. The New Testament picks up and continues the simple yet profound imagery of the shepherd and the flock. It was to the shepherds of Bethlehem that the angel of the Lord appeared with news of great joy that today in the city of David a Saviour has been born who is Christ the Lord.
The climax of this shepherd comparison is reached when Jesus declares in the gospel, “I am the good shepherd.” This metaphor speaks of Jesus’ unconditional love for us, the sheep of his flock. Jesus reviews for us his job description as a good shepherd. At the top of the list, he says, “a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd is not a hired hand motivated by self-interest who may abandon the flock amid difficulty or lead it to destruction. The Good Shepherd willingly lays down his life for the flock. As Jesus said, no one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. This shepherd-sheep theme does not end with Jesus’ identification as a good shepherd. We recall what Jesus said to Peter during his Easter appearance, three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him and with each response Jesus said, “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep”.
Making use of this image of the Good Shepherd on Sunday, April 25, the Church designates this day as a World Day of Prayer for Vocations. As baptized Christians, we all have a vocation. All of us are called to be modern day shepherds in the way that we help to guide and assist others. Ultimately, we all have to take some responsibility for the overall care of the flock. We all must help to bring back those who have strayed. We all must help defend the flock from the modern day wolves who threaten its well-being. Most definitely, we all must help to make the voice of the Good Shepherd heard in our day.
When listening to stories of how people are called to a particular vocation of service, a somewhat familiar pattern is found; someone is challenged, there is an initial rejection, then some event, circumstance, intervention, happens that enables the person to respond. Moses objected to his call to go to Pharaoh. Jonah refused to go to the Nineveh and preach repentance. Jeremiah considered himself too young to be a prophet, and Isaiah claimed he had unclean lips. At times, it may be parents who do not grasp what is taking place in the lives of their children. Everyone has a vocation story. The Holy Spirit was at work in my life for a long time before I finally responded. I lived only a few blocks from my home parish and so growing up, I went to Mass most every day. Throughout my high school years, I received a number of invitations from several religious communities suggesting a possible vocation. My long time pastor once approached me directly and asked if I had ever considered a vocation to the priesthood since one day he would need a replacement when he retired. I was always involved around my home parish. I was a Reader, a member of the choir and I helped doing all sorts of chores around the church including assisting the caretaker. Growing up, the Church remained an important part of my life but along the way, there needed to be people who would encourage me, people who would help me to hear that call to service within the Church. The Second Vatican Council reminds us that, “the duty of fostering vocations pertains to the whole Christian community.” (Decree on the Training of Priests Optatam Totius, n. 2)
Parents, families and parish communities need to be involved to help young people hear that call because it is everyone’s responsibility. Over the years, our Diocese has enriched the Church with many vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Presently, we are fortunate to have one candidate in the seminary and another candidate preparing to attend in September. We have one candidate in preparation for the diaconate. We need to continue to pray for vocations to priesthood, religious life and the diaconate.
In his message for the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, Pope Francis urges all religious and clergy to look to St. Joseph as a model of fidelity to God’s invitation to service.
Speaking about St. Joseph, the Pope said, “He was not famous or even noteworthy: the Gospels do not report even a single word of his. Still, through his ordinary life, he accomplished something extraordinary in the eyes of God.” “God looks on the heart (1 Sam 16:7), and in Saint Joseph he recognized the heart of a father, able to give and generate life in the midst of daily routines. Vocations have this same goal: to beget and renew lives every day.” “Saint Joseph suggests to us three key words for each individual’s vocation. The first is dream. Everyone dreams of finding fulfilment in life.” “A second word marks the journey of Saint Joseph and that of vocation: service. The Gospels show how Joseph lived entirely for others and never for himself.” “There is a third characteristic of Saint Joseph’s daily life and our Christian vocation, namely fidelity. Joseph is the “righteous man” (Mt 1:19) who daily perseveres in quietly serving God and his plans.”
“What a beautiful example of Christian life we give when we refuse to pursue our ambitions or indulge in our illusions, but instead care for what the Lord has entrusted to us through the Church! God then pours out his Spirit and creativity upon us; he works wonders in us, as he did in Joseph.” Pope Francis concludes his letter by saying, “a hymn in the liturgy speaks of the ‘transparent joy’ present in the home of Nazareth. It is the joy of simplicity, the joy experienced daily by those who care for what truly matters: faithful closeness to God and to our neighbour.”
“I pray that you will experience this same joy, dear brothers and sisters who have generously made God the dream of your lives, serving him in your brothers and sisters through a fidelity that is a powerful testimony in an age of ephemeral choices and emotions that bring no lasting joy.”
On this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, may we be reminded to encourage, affirm and pray for those who have responded to the call to serve the Church. Pray that they may be good and faithful servants, watchful and attentive to the needs of the flock so that others may be influenced by their service and by their witness to Christ.
This year we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the diaconate ministry in our Diocese. We are blessed to have 18 permanent deacons serving here. Throughout this coming year we will have various celebrations. Our deacons will be preaching in our parishes during May and June.
Several years ago, our Diocese designated the Fifth Sunday of Easter as a time to recognize the ministry and vocation of the deacon. It is also a wonderful opportunity for us to acknowledge, affirm and encourage the vocation of our deacons and their ministry in our diocese.
There are so many voices in our world competing for our attention. It is easy for us to become distracted by all the commitments, obligations, passions and interests that preoccupy us. However, life can be lived with greater purpose, direction, happiness and fulfillment if we are able to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us to serve. May we be attuned to the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us – follow me and I will lead you along the right path.