Commentary on Acts 13:14,43-52, Revelation 7:9,14b-17, John 10:27-30
[This Sunday, also known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” and “Vocations Sunday”, is normally devoted to praying that people may answer the call to dedicate their lives in a special way to the ministry of the Church community. The Gospel is always chosen from John chapter 10 where Jesus speaks of himself as the “good shepherd”.]
“I have made you a light for the nations, so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”
TODAY IS KNOWN AS ‘GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY’. It always falls on this Fourth Sunday of the Easter season.
The image of the shepherd and his sheep is very old in Scripture. Like all scriptural images, it is not to be taken too literally or in its totality. Anyone who has observed the behaviour of sheep at close quarters for any length of time realises that they can be quite silly. They are crowd-followers. When one panics – often for no real reason – they all panic. They are timid, fearful, curious and without initiative. Maybe, after all, they are not so different from us!
The good shepherd
The emphasis, of course, in the Scripture images is on the shepherd. There are beautiful images given in the Hebrew Testament (e.g. in Ezekiel) and in the Christian Testament, especially the Gospel. The image implies someone who gives caring, compassionate leadership. It is a situation where there is mutual recognition between shepherd and sheep, where there is voluntary following and total trust. The Middle East shepherd does not drive the sheep or use dogs (as, say, they do in Scotland) or horses (as they do in Australia). He walks in front of the sheep. They follow the shepherd freely; they are not driven.
Those who stay with the shepherd, Jesus says, will never be lost. How could they be? Our Shepherd is the Way, he is Truth and Life. And when one does happen to go astray, he leaves the ninety-nine and goes in search of the one who has wandered off to bring it back.
And so the Gospel today says that we have been given to Jesus by the Father. For it is in and through Jesus, the Way, that we find our way to the Father. Jesus is Truth and Life and can only lead us to the source of all Truth and Life, God himself.
The sheep listen to and recognise the voice of their shepherd and that is why they continue to follow him rather than another. It is important for us also to recognise the voice of Jesus as it comes to us in our daily life. And, in our Christian life, the voice of Christ can take many forms. Most of the time, it is in the voices of those people who come into our daily lives. If we do not recognise Christ in the voices we hear, we are likely to get lost and perhaps many, including Christians, do lose their way. They do not know where their Shepherd is – or perhaps they do not have shepherds.
And this brings us to Good Shepherd Sunday, which is also Vocations Sunday. In particular we are asked to pray that more people will consider whether they are being called to join the ranks of priest-shepherds or to the dedicated life of brothers and sisters.
There is a very unbalanced situation in our Church today. In some countries seminaries and novitiates are overflowing with candidates. In some Asian countries this is the case. Korea, Indonesia and south India are some examples. In parts of Africa, too, there are many candidates. In other places, figures have dropped alarmingly, especially in the more prosperous and technologically advanced countries of both East and West, North and South. In countries of Latin America, there is a critical shortage of priests. Catholics often have to go for long periods without celebrating the Eucharist. It is difficult to believe that this is the will of God. And, if it is not, then it incumbent on us to reflect on how we are to tackle the problem effectively. It would seem that there is a need for a radical rethinking of conventional methods and structures.
Who has a vocation?
We are asked today to pray but perhaps we need to do more. Part of the problem is that we need to realise that every Christian, indeed every person, has a vocation. No one can say, “I don’t have a vocation” and that today’s theme does not concern him or her. Every single one of us has been and is still being called to find God by serving each other in truth and love and to help make this world a better place for all to live in. As in today’s reading from the Acts, today, too, there are “religious” people bickering among themselves while “out there” there are untold numbers waiting to hear the message of Truth and Love for their lives.
The fact that I am already committed to a way of life does not mean I do not have a vocation nor that I do not have a responsibility to consider seriously now what that vocation is or should be. Many, for instance first get married and choose a career and then, almost as an afterthought, say, “Oh, I must do a retreat and find out what God wants me to do.” Even if that is what we have done, it not too late. Whatever situation we find ourselves in, if it was through bad choices or no choice, God is still calling us from where we are. There are vocations within vocations. Are we listening?
Mother Teresa originally responded to a vocation to be a Loreto Sister but the sight of so many poor dying on the streets outside her own convent led her to re-think what God really wanted her to do with her life. She left the convent and started a new congregation devoted to the destitute and dying.
Called to make a difference
My work, my profession, my job must be fully impregnated with a Christian commitment. I am not just a doctor, a teacher, a parent who happens to be a Catholic.
I am first of all a Christian, a follower of Jesus’ Way, who exercises my Christian calling, my vocation, through my medical practise, my teaching, my parenting... Beyond that there is a general need – according to my gifts and abilities – to be more deeply involved in the well-being of my society and of my Christian community which serves that society.
It is easy for us to have a “supermarket” mentality towards society and towards the Church. We expect our governments to provide all kinds of services without our having to pay our share in having those services provided.
We often talk about an entity called “the Church” which is supposed to provide priests, sisters, churches, schools and the religious, educational and social services we want and need. But we need to remember that that “Church” is not something “out there”; it is you and me. It is we and only we who, by pitching in together, can provide the service personnel and the operations, the ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ by which our Church community can continue to function.
We lived in a world where, on the one hand, we have governments which tend to take charge of many social needs but do not always do a very good job where those in greatest need are concerned. On the other hand, we also live in a highly competitive society which drives home the message that one has to devote all one’s energies in taking care of oneself and one’s family.
If we take such a situation for granted as being the “normal” state of affairs, it will not be easy for us to see what active role there is for us to play. Even where our Christian faith is concerned it is easy for us to adopt a passive attitude – “pray, pay and obey”. We can see our faith as expecting conformity in certain fringe areas of our life such as attending Mass once a week. But even that attendance can be a very passive experience – we endure the homily, we let the priest “say” the Mass for us and the choir to sing for us and a commentator to pray for us. We may arrive late and leave early. Is that how I live my vocation?
Include me in
The next time we are asked to “pray for vocations”, let us ask ourselves, What is this saying to me? Am I always praying for other people and other people’s children to have ‘vocations’? But what is mine?
Maybe I cannot be a priest or sister but maybe one of my children is thinking along those lines. Do I encourage this or immediately block it?
There is no free lunch, as they say. And there is no free Mass. We get the Church that we deserve and we cannot pass the buck on to some entity “out there”. It is no good asking, “What is the Church doing about vocations?” We are that Church and what are we doing in this very parish or community? If there is a shortage of priests and other church ministers in our part of the world, who is going to solve the problem? It has to be us.
All pulling their weight
Vocation means, first of all, a realisation that every one of us has a definite call from God to serve, based on the circumstances of our life and the particular gifts we can use to benefit others. As Christians, some or much of that service needs to be done in co-operation with fellow-Christians. That means, in practice, deeper involvement in some area of service that the local church is engaged in. For some, it will clearly mean service on a more committed level, through full-time service either as a lay person, a religious, or a priest.
But it seems that the first level of awareness that is essential is the realisation that I do have a vocation and then, with God’s help, to identify the particular way in which I am to live that vocation. If we were all to do that conscientiously, we would be going a long way to solving the shortage of Eucharistic shepherds.
Surely we all want to belong to that “huge number” of martyr-witnesses who have identified their lives with that of the Lamb, Jesus, who offered himself in love for the world. Let all of us join with Jesus so that, in the words of the Second Reading, we and others will never hunger or thirst again, nor be plagued by sun or scorching wind but be led to the springs of living water where God will wipe away all tears from our eyes.