This Sunday is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday since in each year of the Liturgical Cycle an extract from the tenth chapter of St John’s Gospel is read. This chapter gives us the teaching of Jesus to his disciples about his role as the Good Shepherd. It is a particularly wonderful image and down the centuries Christ has often been depicted in Christian art as the Good Shepherd; often he is portrayed as carrying a lamb on his shoulders or leading a flock of sheep.
This is also a day on which we pray for priests and for an increase of vocations in the Church. This is most appropriate since the Good Shepherd provides us with an excellent model for pastoral ministry. Even the use of the word pastoral in this context refers us to shepherding since that is precisely what it means.
What does a shepherd do, one might ask? Well, he guides his flock of sheep, taking them from one area of good pasture to another. He also keeps them together as a flock, making sure that none of them get separated or lost. He cares for their health and also helps individual sheep who get stuck in a bush or fall into a ravine. Above all he protects the sheep. He protects them from unsavoury characters who might want to steal them but also from wild animals who may wish to devour them. All in all, his task is to promote the welfare of the flock that has been placed in his charge.
This is an excellent and all-encompassing model for ministry in the Christian Church. Indeed, in many countries the role we call parish priest is often given the title pastor. This is the case in the USA and in several other countries. When Christ teaches us that he is the Good Shepherd he is giving all those who exercise ministry in the Church a model to look up to, an ideal on which to pattern their ministry.
Actually, the word good in the title Good Shepherd could also be translated as model or ideal. We could just as easily hear Jesus saying ‘I am the model shepherd’ or ‘I am the ideal shepherd.’ Indeed, we should not think of this idea of Christian ministry as being restricted to Bishops, priests or religious; we should think of it as something that involves us all, especially perhaps mothers and fathers. They too need to have all these same characteristics of the Good Shepherd as they do their best to raise and educate their children in a proper way.
So, Christian ministry is not confined to clerics or to professional religious people but is something that belongs to the whole Christian community. It is something that each one of us share in as we progress on our pilgrimage of faith through our life on earth. Each one of us needs to look to the Good Shepherd and to take him as our model and example of how to conduct our Christian life. We can all, each of us, draw inspiration from our kind and loving Good Shepherd. We can all, like him, become guides, unifiers and protectors of those in our care.
It is important on this day in which we think about ministry to say a few words about vocation and in particular about vocations to the priestly or religious life. Some people discover that God is calling them quite late in life but actually most of those who are chosen discover it in childhood. At quite a young age they may come to the realisation that God wants them for a specific purpose, that God desires that they become priests or religious in his Church. It may be that they do not think that they are worthy to embrace such a mission or perhaps they do not even desire to live the life of a priest or religious but at a certain point they just know that this is what is the will of God for them.
When this realisation dawns on them they face several choices; they can embrace the call wholeheartedly, they can completely reject it or they can delay it for a time. The temptation is always there to reject such a call. I myself have met a fair number of people who felt that God was calling them in this way but they decided not to go through with it. Most of them told me that they regretted making that choice and wished that they had given it a go. This was a factor in my own decision to study for the priesthood; I didn’t want to be like them, to have an unfulfilled ambition.
But, of course, no one can be the judge in his own case; while an individual may feel that they have a vocation it is up to the Church authorities to decide whether the vocation they are experiencing is truly authentic. The Bishop or Religious Superior makes the final decision after taking the advice of those involved in the training of a priest or religious. A lot of discernment and experience goes into arriving at such a conclusion and it is not done lightly.
The whole body of the Church is involved also in praying for individuals who experience God’s call. We pray that God will call many more people to ministry as priests and religious in the Church and we pray too for the proper discernment of these vocations so that we may receive a real an authentic ministry from our priests as well as from our brothers and sisters who join religious orders. It is important that parents do not block such vocations but encourage their children who might be tentatively experiencing the call of God.
Life in the priesthood or in a religious order is not easy; it is certainly challenging and many sacrifices have to be made but the rewards are great. Leading a Christian community in prayer and worship, preaching the Word of God, preparing young and old for the sacraments, counselling the confused and desperate, showing compassion to the sick, and reverently burying the dead; all these things have their own rewards. To be available to the members of the Christian community especially in times of need is always something that is going to be fulfilling.
So, we challenge those members of our community who are suitably qualified and in the right state of life to open their hearts to the fact that God may have plans for them. And, if they do come to realise that God is calling them in this way, we urge them to have the courage to step up to the plate and to embrace this unique call which comes from the Lord above.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket