Posted April 30, 2020
The fourth Sunday of Easter has come to be known as Good Shepherd Sunday, obviously because the Gospel reading is taken from that chapter in St John’s Gospel where Jesus presents himself as the Good Shepherd (Jn 10: 1-10). As well as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’, this Sunday has also come to be known as ‘Vocations Sunday’, and has been declared the ‘World Day of Prayer for Vocations’. The reason for this is also obvious: ‘Vocations’ is taken to mean vocations to the priesthood. Priesthood is about sharing in the role of Christ the Shepherd in giving spiritual nourishment and guidance to God’s people. A priest is called to be a pastor; and ‘pastor’, in Latin, means ‘shepherd’.
There is a wonderful nobility about dedicating your life to enriching the lives of other people in the way that Jesus the Good Shepherd sought to enrich the lives of his disciples. It is an immense responsibility, for it means that you are called to share in God’s desire to bless and enrich every individual soul. And it requires great generosity, for it means putting the welfare of other people above all considerations of self, even to the extent of giving one’s own life – literally, in certain unusual circumstances, or, more commonly, in some other painful way: as St Paul says: ‘I die daily.’ For that is what his pastoral commitment led him to.
There is, however, something impoverishing in restricting the notion of a pastoral vocation to priests. For every Christian has a pastoral vocation. Every Christian shares in the role of Jesus the Shepherd. This is a profound and immensely important truth. Certainly, let this day recall to mind the importance of the priesthood. But it is equally important that each of us acknowledges the pastoral responsibility given to us; that each of us opens our eyes to the opportunity given to us to enrich the lives of people entrusted to our care, to be channels of that ‘life in abundance’ that Jesus the Good Shepherd came to impart.
It is unfortunate that the metaphor of the shepherd (other than when applied to Jesus) perhaps suggests to us an element of paternalism, or something that does not quite mesh with our modern notions of equality and self-sufficiency. If the metaphor does that to you, then try to look underneath it. The same Jesus who says that he is the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep also says, elsewhere in St John’s Gospel, that he is the friend who lays down his life for his friends. We can all empathize with that. Not that friendship in normal circumstances is about laying down your life. But friendship should be, and must be, about contributing to your friend’s spiritual welfare. This will mean seeing your friend in the light of their ultimate calling, seeking to encourage, to give and to share spiritual blessings, rather than to look for what you can get out of friendship: to be a shepherd in that sense – to be a friend in Jesus’ sense.
There will be some among you who by the very profession you have chosen have a special calling to share in the role of the Good Shepherd who shepherds God’s people to rich pastures and to life in abundance. In particular, teachers, counsellors and carers have souls in their charge to pasture and protect, to encourage and lead on to high destinies, not necessarily by explicit talk, and certainly not by plugging a message, nor by any kind of crusading, but simply by seeing their charges in the light of eternity, hence silently affirming and enhancing them as persons, leading them, perhaps unconsciously, into the pastures that God intends for them. I think that apart from my parents, the people who had the most influence on me as a child and a teenager were some of the teachers who taught me, lay people, who never preached at me but just taught their subjects. I saw what kind of people they were, I saw and espoused their values, and I recognized in them the voice of the Shepherd who calls us to vast horizons.
Then there are many among you who share in Jesus’ role as shepherd to a unique degree of intensity, I mean those of you who are spouses and parents. I cannot imagine a more vivid or a more intimate way of sharing this responsibility and maximizing this opportunity than in the context of marriage. ‘Father, they were yours and you have given them to me’, is Jesus’ own definition of his mission in life: and so it should be of yours, as a spouse and a parent. Husbands and wives are called to shepherd each other towards eternity, to encourage and enable each other to realize the purpose for which they were created; and to do the same for their children. It must be an amazingly beautiful part of your eternal happiness to contemplate a spouse or a child in whom God’s intentions have come to perfection in heaven and to be able to say: I dedicated my life to enabling that. And, conversely, it must be a cause of eternal disappointment to know that it has all happened in spite of you; or that it has not happened because of you. Shepherd each other towards complete fulfilment. It is what marriage is for. Your wedding day is your acceptance of a new, divine commission, which is about sharing responsibility for each other’s destinies. That is the heart of the matter.
In speaking of a pastoral responsibility, and a pastoral opportunity, within the family, I do not mean that spouses should preach religion at each other, or parents at their children, or that the fun of family life should be spoilt by pious nagging. Of course, when spouses have in view not just each other’s day to day contentment but their complete spiritual and moral fulfilment in Christ, they will pray together and in their conversations share a spiritual vision of things: and no doubt a judicious use of pious nagging might occasionally be appropriate. But the opportunity of sharing Jesus’ mission as eternal shepherd is not confined to shared prayer or explicit instruction. It consists more in a constant attitude of mind and heart, a quiet yearning for each other’s spiritual good, which will show itself spontaneously in your unspoken priorities, your choices, your decisions, your everyday casual remarks and gestures. That mysterious affinity between the sheep and the Shepherd, by which the sheep recognize the Shepherd’s voice and follow him, is something that is nurtured within the home. It comes from the fact that spouses already have this spiritual instinct, nurture it, and somehow impart it to each other and to their children. The children of such a marriage will not follow anything that is alien to Christ, because their emotions and their values are attuned to Christ, and all this through the gentle, unpretentious shepherding of spouses and parents.
On this Sunday may the Good Shepherd renew in each one of us an appreciation of the beauty and seriousness of our pastoral vocation.
Fr Tom Deidun
*A homily for 5th Easter Yr A, is to be found on this website under the title Seeing the Father.