Good Shepherd Sunday
(Readings: Acts 2:14, 36-41; 1 Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10)
Introduction to Mass
Today, the fourth Sunday in the Easter season, is also known as Good Shepherd Sunday, and traditionally the gospel reading about Jesus' role as the Shepherd caring for and watching over his flock has been used as a chance to reflect on the meaning of the ordained priesthood, to further our understanding of the priest's role in the larger Christian community, and of course to pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries....
Saint Vincent De Paul, who lived in the 17th century, wrote in one of his letters: "It is on its priests that Christianity must depend". And Saint John Vianney, two centuries later, seemed to go even further: "The priest," he said, "is the representative of God on earth".
Well, these are big claims, and I don't think these two great saints talked in those grandiose terms so as to give the clergy an inflated sense of their own importance.
They talked like that as a way of emphasising the particular role and the particular responsibility that priests have: the nature of the service and the leadership carried out by the men who are in Holy Orders, in the Church's ordained ministry.
Every community or group of people has to have leaders, but in the Christian community it's not the fact of having leaders that's important, it's the kind of leaders we have and the sort of leadership they provide.
Sometimes the priest is referred to - in the Latin expression - as an "alter Christus" - another Christ; or else there's that other Latin expression about the priest being "in loco Christi" - in the place of Christ.
And of course that's the main thing about the type of service and leadership a priest is supposed to exercise: it has to be the same type of service, and the same kind of leadership, that Jesus gave.
What was that type of leadership? I think it's fair to say that Jesus' type of leadership had two sides to it. On the one hand, there was the way he acted as a shepherd to the people who came and followed him, very much in the language that we heard him use in the gospel a minute ago. And on the other hand, there was the way he acted as a prophet of God's Kingdom, announcing that the Reign of God is here, now, for those who want to belong to it.
So maybe I could say something about those two images that are connected with Christ's ministry, and the way I think they're supposed to be reflected in the pastoral ministry that Catholic priests carry out.
To take the image of the shepherd, first of all: around Palestine at the time of Christ shepherds were well-known figures, of course.
A good shepherd was somebody who looked after the sheep in his flock carefully - looked after their best interests. He had to know what their needs were, and he had to make sure that they were kept safe from wolves or other wild animals. If any of the sheep were injured or weaker than the rest, or if some of them had a tendency to go astray and get lost, the shepherd had to look out for those ones even more carefully.
It's no surprise that the image of the conscientious shepherd is one of the images that the authors of the Bible use to describe what God was like. And when we look at Christ, we can see that he was someone who adopted that attitude in his dealings with people. He always had time for people who were wounded or crushed or broken-hearted as a result of some unhappy experience.
At the beginning of his ministry, he applied the words of the prophet Isaiah to himself: "The Lord has sent me...to bind up hearts that are broken". And in John's gospel, he says about himself: "I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep". "One by one the shepherd calls his own sheep and leads them out", he says in the passage we've got for today's gospel: "he goes ahead of them and his sheep follow because they recognise his voice”."
As we all know, today a lot of people suffer from all kinds of emotional shocks or hurts. People get used or manipulated by someone they thought loved them. Relationships fall apart. Parents can have their hearts broken by their children, for all sorts of reasons that they never dreamt of when their children were younger. Unprecedented numbers of people seem to lead lives of loneliness and isolation, cut off from the sources of love and fellowship that give most of us a sense of meaning and contentment.
And like anyone else who wants to respond like a human being to those kinds of “poverties”, priests who want to be good shepherds, the way Christ was, try to be sorrowful with those who are suffering; they try to share people's heartache, and identify with it. They try to show the same gentleness and concern that Jesus did so as to be "in the place of" Jesus the Good Shepherd, In loco Christi.
And then, at the same time, I would say that priests today are also called on to be a special kind of prophet. The Jesus who was gentle towards the weak and vulnerable was the same Jesus who welled up with anger in the face of injustice, the same Jesus who denounced the selfishness of people who exploited others or just sat back in their own satisfaction and ignored human suffering.
As well as talking about binding up hearts that are broken Jesus called his message of salvation "good news to the poor" and "liberty to captives". And in order to be good news for the poor, Jesus' message was at the same time a judgement on the rich, the comfortable, the complacent. Christ didn't dismiss those people - but he did call to them to convert their attitudes and their values as a condition of receiving salvation or entering God's Kingdom as he put it.
One of the most inspiring examples of a priest who imitated Jesus' prophetic activity - in my opinion, anyway, - was a man who became very famous among Catholics because he was shot while he was saying Mass by the security forces in El Salvador: Archbishop Oscar Romero. Some of you might remember the publicity at the time, although it was nearly thirty years ago now.
Romero had started out as a conservative churchman, very devoted to the institution and its privileges. But then he had a sort of conversion - mainly brought on by the fact that so many members of his own flock were being assaulted and killed.
Before Romero himself was killed, he had already moved out of the grand episcopal palace where the bishops of San Salvador lived, and moved into a two-apartment flat in the grounds of a hospital - a cancer hospice in fact - run by a congregation of nuns.
He realised that in a society like his, where the suffering was so widespread, he couldn't be a credible shepherd unless he started to share the same conditions of the most needy members of his flock, even if just in some small and symbolic way.
When the cathedral in San Salvador was damaged very badly by an earthquake in 1978, Romero refused to have it repaired, because he thought it was immoral to spend money on maintaining church property while so many men and women had to do without decent food, proper homes and an acceptable livelihood.
One of the Jesuit theologians, who was also killed by the government a few years later, said: "With Archbishop Romero, God has visited El Salvador" - the same idea as John Vianney - the priest is the representative of God on earth.
And the reason I mention the example of Romero is that - although our circumstances are very different and I know you can't draw very accurate comparisons between this country and South America and so on - at the end of the day, I don't think we'll have any vocations here - or the right kind of vocations, anyway - until our shepherds - our bishops and priests - make the same kind of commitment and set the same kind of example.
Then people will be able to look at Catholic priests and say, that's what it means to be a priest, that's what the vocation is about.
But if priests just want a comfortable lifestyle, a sort of luxurious bachelor type of life - never bothering with the people at the bottom of society and with the people who are suffering, everyone can see the contradiction in that, and there won't be any vocations, and we won't deserve any, because that's not giving the same kind of leadership and service that Jesus gave.
There's a lot more, of course, that you could say about the priesthood, and the role of ordained ministers, but to my mind, anyway, those are two of the ways that priests can live out the grace of the sacrament of Holy Orders and try to attract others to the vocation of the priest: by being a good shepherd who is gentle towards the weak and who helps to bind up hearts that are broken, and by being a faithful prophet of God's Kingdom and announcing the gospel message as good news to the poor.