The first reading and the Gospel text chosen for our Sunday liturgies are usually connected in some way but today this does not at first sight appear to be the case. We are given an extract from the speech Peter made to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost in which we are told that about three thousand were added to their number. The Gospel text is the first part of chapter ten of John’s Gospel telling us about the Good Shepherd.
The first reading is a speech given by the Apostles to the crowd in which they explain what happened to Jesus and with a plea for the people to repent and the Gospel is an explanation by Jesus of his role as the shepherd of his flock. It focusses on his role of protecting and guiding his sheep and expresses the deep love that he has for them.
The Pentecost reading needs to be seen in context and we ought to recognise that it came directly after the great sound of wind and tongues of fire coming to rest on the heads of the Apostles who then go out to the people miraculously preaching in various languages. So then what we have before us is part of the text of the first attempt at evangelisation which we are told was extraordinarily effective.
Although they appear to be very different the two texts are, of course, linked. They are linked because the Good Shepherd who leads and guides the flock works through the words and actions of the Apostles. And on the Day of Pentecost those Apostles were teaching and leading and guiding the people, which are the very actions spoken about in that chapter from John’s Gospel. They were acting as delegated shepherds of the people on behalf of Jesus Christ.
Of course, we know that this continues in the Church right down to the present day. It is the role of the Pope and the Bishops to continue the work of the Apostles as it is of their co-workers, the priests and the deacons.
The role of the Bishops and the priests is to carry on Christ’s work of shepherding his flock. They lead and guide and protect the flock which is the Church but they don’t do this in any authoritarian kind of way but rather with patience and care and concern. It is their duty to explain the scriptures and the doctrine of the Church to the community. It is also their role to warn the people of error and to comfort them in times of need and difficulty.
We see that the role of the ordained leaders of the Church is to help the faithful people to remain close to the Gospel values of love, justice and peace. It is to enable them to grow in their love and knowledge of God. It is to guide them in the ways of truth. They also, of course, lead the people in the worship and adoration of the one true God.
This role of leading and guiding the people of God means also enabling leaders within the Christian community to emerge at every level. It means encouraging those with ability to use their talents in the service of others so that the whole community can grow in the love and service of God.
You can see why then this Sunday is chosen as one on which we stress vocations to the priesthood, the diaconate and the religious life. This shepherding function is essential to the life and healthy growth of the Church which is why we take the opportunity to point out that the numbers coming forward to fulfil these positions in the Church is declining and that this presents us all with a problem.
If our leadership is being spread thinner and thinner and if it is aging rapidly then we are approaching a crisis in the Church. It will mean that Parishes will have to be merged and masses reduced and ministry limited.
Some people believe that there are easy solutions to this problem such as to ordain married men or to permit women to become priests. Some Churches have already done both of these things but they are still facing a decline in the numbers of those in the ordained ministry. So, there are no easy answers.
The Catholic Church has not taken this approach because it believes that making the sacrifice not to marry is of great value to priests and that the ordination of women was not sanctioned by Christ. This determination to stick to traditional values has actually meant that the vocation crisis has not devastated our Church as much as it might have otherwise. Nevertheless, there is still a sharp decline in numbers of priests and especially religious and this is a problem we need to solve.
What is needed I believe is greater fidelity on behalf of the whole Church. If we were all stronger in our faith, if we were all a bit better at inculcating the faith in our children, if we were all more fervent in our Christian duties then I believe that more vocations would come. If our young people grew up in circumstances which enabled them to be firm and lasting believers then undoubtedly more would be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to express a priestly or religious vocation.
What is needed, in my view, is a deepening of the culture of faith. Above everything I believe that this means we need to pray and talk about the faith together. In how many Catholic families have we forgotten how to pray together? In how few Catholic families do we actively encourage discussion about matters of faith? I think that there is a lot of work to be done in both of those areas.
Let me give you two simple suggestions: The first is to make sure you do not start a meal without a grace and a couple of bidding prayers. The second is to discuss what the priest said in his sermon over your Sunday lunch. If not the sermon, then talk about those little quotes I put in the bulletin each week; those little gems of knowledge surely speak to us all.
The problem is that the values of modern day society are so prevalent and all-encompassing that it is hard to resist them. We want to live good, fulfilling and prosperous lives and often we are led to believe that this only goes with worldly success.
The world tells us that success is measured by the amount in our bank account and the size of our property but we Christians know that this is not so. We know that true fulfilment is found in depth of faith and the extent of our sacrifices. We know that true value is not to be found in selfishness but in generosity and love.
So, today let us ask God to bless us with more priests, deacons and religious. And let us support those who are discerning God’s call with our prayers during these days.