In the Catholic tradition this Fourth Sunday after Easter is called Good Shepherd Sunday and is kept as a Special Day of Prayer for Vocations to the Priesthood and the Religious Life.
In each of the Sundays in the three-year liturgical cycle we get a section from the discourse by Jesus on the Good Shepherd as recorded in Chapter Ten of John’s Gospel.
Surprisingly this idea of the Christ as a shepherd does not have many roots in the Old Testament. We shouldn’t wonder at this since Jesus is presenting himself as a quite different kind of Messiah than the people had been led to expect.
He is not principally a judging or ruling Messiah, though these aspects are not excluded. But he presents himself as above all a Shepherd Messiah; one who has come to gather his people into the Kingdom just as a shepherd gathers his flock into the sheepfold.
He defends his sheep, protecting them from predators; which besides the obvious ones like wolves also include false shepherds. For the Christian these things are important. We know we need protecting from the dangers of the world and other physical hazards we might face in life but we are also very much aware that we need protection from false prophets who would imperil our souls by leading us on the wrong path.
In the text we are given today Christ presents himself as the “Good” Shepherd and, besides the obvious interpretation of his unique holiness, by using this image he implies that he is the ideal or model shepherd.
This metaphor of the Good Shepherd is full of the kind of enigmas that we have come to expect from Jesus. For example, he tells us that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. At first this sounds passive and self-contradictory for what possible use could there be in a shepherd who lays down life? Surely then the sheep really would scatter and be lost without a shepherd to protect them?
This is what we call the “Gospel paradox”. The opposite of what we expect is what happens. It is precisely in giving his life for the sheep that they are saved and brought into that ultimate sheepfold which is the Kingdom of God. There are many aspects of this image of the Shepherd that are appealing and reassuring to us; but as usual Christ takes us beyond our comfort zone. He makes us aware of the dangers we face as well as the need for self-sacrifice as an essential element of the Christian life.
We priests also look very much to Christ the Good Shepherd as the model of how to be a good pastor. The very use of that word “pastor” clearly points us in that direction. Today we are invited to reflect on our role and to rededicate ourselves to the great vocation to which Christ has called us. In our study of today’s Gospel reading we surely ought to come to a greater appreciation that sacrifice is at the very heart of our priestly ministry.
But let me suggest that since Christian ministry is not restricted to the clergy but is the obligation of all the members of the Church then each and every one of us ought to be looking at the Good Shepherd as a model of how to life our lives and not merely the priests, deacons and religious.
Today we pray for vocations. We pray for an increase in the numbers of priests, deacons and religious in the Church. These prayers have an increased urgency today when we realise that there has been a great shortage in those answering God’s call over the last thirty years or so and we know that in the near future there will be dramatically fewer priests available for ministry. This will inevitably mean the restructuring of parishes and many changes in the life of the Church. So, we pray urgently for those who feel called by God and ask that they may be given the gift of discernment and all the courage they need to respond to him.
I think that today we ought also to pray for those priests, deacons and religious who are struggling with their vocation. It is not easy to cope with the mostly hidden stresses and strains of full-time ministry and there are many who are feel they want to relinquish their vocation or yield to temptations of one kind or another. It has been the constant teaching of the Church that the priest stands in for Christ. This is not only at the celebration of the Eucharist when he most clearly represents Christ in the breaking of bread.
He also represents him in proclaiming the Word of God through the ministry of preaching. He ministers Christ’s gift of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He acts for Christ in the celebration of the other sacraments and also in his vital role as pastor of the local community of the faithful. There is no doubt that this is a very high calling indeed. Just like anyone else, we who are called to this special ministry do not always feel up to the task. We often feel inadequate and unworthy and yet we know that it is something we simply must do, it is a call to which we simply must respond.
A vocation to ministry is one of the greatest challenges anyone could be presented with. If you experience such a call then please do put it to the test and make the necessary discernment to see if it is genuine. If you experience such a call then I urge you to talk to someone about it and have the courage in due time to respond wholeheartedly because the Church needs you. One truth that needs restating today is this: In life you can never lose by answering the call of God.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket