Jesus calls people from among us
Fourth Sunday of Easter (Easter4B), Apr. 29, 2012
By Fr. Alex McAllister SDS
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Jesus says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’ We hear this phrase so often, we frequently see images of Jesus with a sheep on his shoulders. But do we know what it means. Is Jesus simply the good shepherd? What do we mean by good? Do we mean sinless? Do we mean kind? Do we mean just a vague sort of caring or loving?
Actually, if we look to the original Greek, the word used was kalos. And we have to say that the word good is not a very adequate translation. Really it should be something more like model or ideal. He is the model shepherd. He is the ideal shepherd. He is the very best of shepherds. He is the archetypal shepherd.
Jesus is our best possible shepherd because he is the only one fully qualified to be this for us. This is first of all because he is God. But just as importantly because he is at the same time fully human.
A shepherd, in order to know his sheep and care for them, has to live among them. He has to be close to them. Jesus not only came from heaven to earth to be near his sheep, he actually became like them.
The shepherd became a sheep, took on our nature, and lived life in the same way as we do (except without sin). This is why he is the good shepherd, perfectly qualified to know us and to care for us. He is like us in our flesh. There is no shepherd like this Jesus.
And he lays down his life for his sheep—for us. He is, in one of those marvellous paradoxes of the Gospel, at the same time both the lamb and the shepherd—the victim and the priest.
We call today Good Shepherd Sunday and we traditionally use this commemoration to speak particularly about vocations to the priesthood. You might think that this is something we do each year on a routine basis and therefore isn’t really worth bothering about.
Let me suggest that vocations are actually something rather urgent and indeed something that we certainly ought to bother ourselves about.
We ought to consider the problem of vocations as urgent because the Church is heading for a crisis, and one which is already upon us. The shortage of priests is now beginning to bite. Just look at our own Order, the Salvatorians, here in Britain for an example; we are very glad to have three students for the prtiesthood but we will need many more if we are to retain all our commitments.
There is indeed a crisis and if it were not for the very many elderly priests soldiering on long after retirement age then a lot more parishes would have to merge and masses would be drastically reduced in number.
There are several different responses to this crisis in vocations. One is to recognise the many other vocations in the Church. And this we have done through the revival of the permanent diaconate and the development of many different lay ministries.
In my last parish we had two deacons and benefited greatly from their ministry. I would certainly like to encourage vocations to the Diaconate at St Joseph’s. We already have many first-rate Eucharistic ministers, readers and catechists as well as lay people serving in many other capacities. As a Church we have never been more lay-oriented since the very earliest times.
So we are certainly recognising and developing the many different vocations in the Church. But no matter how we alleviate the many tasks that used to fall on the parish clergy and no matter how thinly they are spread among the parishes we have to acknowledge that we still really need priests. You could say that the ministry of priests is an essential element in the life of the Church.
Many arguments are put forward which say that if only priests were given permission to marry or if the Church authorities permitted allowed women to be ordained then there would be no shortage.
But these assertions are very debatable. Just look at the Protestant Churches, all of which now have both of these things, and ask yourself how they have got on. The answer is that they are still short of clergy and some of them are now in very serious decline.
The truth is that God calls particular people to the ordained ministry. He calls. But then two other things have to happen. One is that the individuals concerned have to hear and respond to that call. And the other is that the Church has to discern whether that call is genuine.
I don’t think that our young people today are any less courageous than people of earlier generations. I think that if certain individuals do hear the call of God they will surely respond to it. The question therefore is whether they are hearing it? That might be where we come in.
We have to ask ourselves whether we as a parish are cooperating with God in his intention to call people from among us to ministry in the Church? Do we transmit this call to those of our parish we think might be suitable candidates? Or do we say just say nothing and stay quiet out of a false shyness?
The discernment that must be done by the Church to be sure that a person is really chosen by God need not be done only by the Vocations Director or the Rector of the Seminary. It can also be done by us now. We can look around and see potential candidates and ask them if they have considered whether God is calling them.
It doesn’t take much to see that this would be very encouraging to a person considering their vocation; even if it might be just as disquieting to a person who has never given it any consideration at all!
Yes, prayer for vocations is essential but we shouldn’t leave it at that. I happen to be the first priest to be ordained from my own town for hundreds of years but I certainly do not believe that I am the last. And I openly acknowledge that my own vocation depended on the prayer and encouragement that I received from you, the parishioners.
So let us not leave it to some far-away Vocations Director. Let us have a stake in our own future and let each one of us think who among us would make a good priest. Then let us pray for that individual and take the courage to let them know what we think.
We are not looking for perfect priests; Jesus himself is the Ideal Shepherd, the only truly Good Shepherd.
We just need some good men who hear the call of God and who have the courage to respond to their vocation. God will surely work through them to guide us his flock and protect us his sheep.