Christ the King Catholic Church
For obvious reasons, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is called Good Shepherd Sunday. Each year on this Sunday, the Church presents us with a Gospel passage from Saint John in which Jesus uses an image that is rich in meaning. It is an image we find throughout the Bible and an image that spoke volumes to the people of Jesus' day, who lived in a very pastoral setting. The image, of course, is the image of the shepherd and, more precisely, the 'Good Shepherd'.
Most of us at Christ the King are city folk, and we are removed from our pastoral roots in which sheep and shepherds are part and parcel of everyday life. Our experience of sheep may be limited to nursery rhymes like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" or the fluffy little stuffed animal that a child might bring to church with her.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, the image of 'shepherd' refers primarily to God who 'shepherds' his people. Nowhere is that imagery more beautifully presented than in the 23rd psalm: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want." God is presented as a faithful and good shepherd who leads the flock to good pastures and keeps it safe from every danger. "I fear no evil for you are at my side."
When the children of Israel wanted to be like everyone else and wanted a king like everyone else, God, reluctantly allowed it and kings, from that time on, were called to be shepherds to God' people. And while a few of the kings of Israel lived up to that call to be shepherds to God's people, the majority of the kings misused their power and instead of feeding the sheep, they fed on the sheep.
Through the Prophet Ezekiel, God addressed these stinging words to the leaders of Israel: "Thus says the Lord, God, 'Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So, they were scattered and, because they had no shepherd, they became food for all the wild
animals. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek them."'
It was a stinging indictment of the leaders of God's people who had failed miserably in their role as shepherds. But through that same prophet, God made a promise that he, himself, would shepherd his people. He would shepherd them as a Good Shepherd, a shepherd who would even lay down his life for his sheep.
And in Jesus that promise is fulfilled as Jesus tells us in today's Gospel. He is the 'gate' to the sheepfold. In Palestine in the time of Jesus shepherds would corral the sheep together at night in an enclosure made of twigs and brush and then the shepherd would literally lay across the entrance to the sheepfold so that the thief or the wolf could only get to the sheep by passing over the shepherd. The shepherd was so close and so protective of the sheep that the sheep recognized the voice of their shepherd and that was the only voice they would follow. Jesus is that Good Shepherd. Jesus is our Good Shepherd.
The Church today calls its leaders shepherds. The bishops of the Church carry the shepherd's staff as an emblem of their office. Priests are called 'pastors' from the Latin word for 'shepherd'. The very word 'deacon' means 'servant'. Leaders in the Church are called to be shepherds, good shepherds, following in the footsteps of Jesus.
When Pope Francis was called to be the 266th successor of Saint Peter in 2013, he must have been thinking of the words of the Prophet Ezekiel because in his very first address to the bishops and priests of the world, he called us to task. He decried a clericalism in which priest use their office for their own benefit and a 'careerism' among priests and bishops in which titles are more important than the people entrusted to their care. He called bishops and priests to live simple lives. And, in that talk, he used the memorable expression that the leaders of God's people should have 'the smell of the sheep on them'. They should be close to their people, as a shepherd is close to his sheep. They should be ready to lay down their lives for their flock.
Not by accident, Good Shepherd Sunday is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. We are called to pray for vocations - all vocations that stem from our baptism. By virtue of our baptism, we are all called to be good shepherds to one
another. But in a special way we pray for the gift of vocations to the ordained ministry - the priesthood and the diaconate, and vocations to the consecrated life.
After his death and resurrection, Jesus appeared to Peter and entrusted him with a special mission to feed his sheep and tend his lambs - to care for the People of God as Jesus himself cared for them.
Jesus once looked out at the people of his day with great compassion and said that they were like sheep without a shepherd. He taught us to ask the Master of the Harvest to send workers into the field because the harvest is great, but the laborers are few. We ask Jesus to look at us today with that same compassion and to send shepherds for his Church after his own heart. Shepherds who will lay down their lives for their flock. Shepherds made in the image and likeness of the one who is the Good Shepherd.
The need is great. If ever there was a time to pray for vocations, this is the time. The number of priests retiring in our Archdiocese far exceeds the number of men entering the seminary. Could it be that God is no longer calling men and women to service in the Church? I doubt that very much especially by the fact that Jesus told us to pray for vocations. In these weeks since we have been celebrating the 'virtual' Masses, Deacon Michael, Fr. Bonke and I have the opportunity after Mass to enjoy Sunday brunch together. Deacon Michael can attest to the fact that almost every week Fr. Bonke and I mention by name young men and women in the parish in whom we see the gifts for service to the Church and we wonder if God might be calling them.
Why are there fewer vocations today? Certainly, not because God is no longer calling. Certainly, it is not because God no longer looks with compassion on his world. The problem may be that we are no longer hearing. We live in a world that is very noisy and very busy. We are bombarded with noise and activity from the time we get up until the time we go to bed. And, amidst all this noise and activity, we risk not being attuned to the voice of Jesus. We risk not hearing his call.
Jesus tells us in today's Gospel that his sheep know his voice. And anyone who has been around sheep and shepherds know how true that is. Sheep will only follow the voice of their shepherd. It takes time for sheep to learn the shepherd's
voice, to distinguish the shepherd's voice from other voices. But once they learn that voice, that is the voice they follow.
Let us pray that we may all give time to listen to Jesus each day and be able to distinguish the voice of our Good Shepherd from all the other voices we hear each day. And in a special way on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, let us pray for the youth of Christ the King and the youth of our world that they may be attuned to the voice of Jesus in their lives and that they may follow that voice wherever it may lead them - even to the priesthood and the religious life!
May God continue to bless his Church with shepherds who will follow the example of the One who is the Good Shepherd!