Jesus still calls specific individuals to sell all they have and follow him. For the sake of the world, they are invited to dedicate their lives to being agents of God’s love and mercy –Bishop McKeown
It is now three weeks since we celebrated the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Christians everywhere still seek to be disciples of that Jesus and to make sense of their lives in the context of the strange events of Jesus’ life. Each Sunday we have gathered to celebrate different aspects of his risen life. So I welcome you here this morning as we celebrate Mass on the 4th Sunday of the Easter Season. We are united with Christians everywhere who gather to be nourished by the Word of God and by the sacramental presence among us of his saving sacrifice. Today’s readings take the theme of Jesus the Good Shepherd and, not surprisingly, for many years it has been the day of prayer for Vocations.
Jesus invites us all to listen to his voice and to be led by him into union with God the Father. We begin our Mass by acknowledging some of those things that block our hearts to hearing Christ’s voice. We open ourselves and our past to the loving and healing forgiveness of the God who has come that we may have life to the full.
When I was a young priest in Belfast over thirty years ago, I remember one phrase that a wise senior colleague used about the bible. The scripture, he said, are not so much a window on the past as a mirror for the present. Like all good literature, the Bible touches on core themes of human experience. Our environment changes rapidly – but human nature remains remarkably consistent.
So when we come to today’s reading about the Good Shepherd, some might be initially turned off by an image that is so alien to their lived experience. Shepherds, leading their flocks, are a rare sight in urban or rural Ireland. For most people, sheep are more an element in the Common Agriculture Policy than a pointer towards the transcendent.
But our Gospel passage still touches on perennial themes. In the face of a very uncertain future, people continue to hunger for security and nourishment. They still thirst for recognition and for belonging. Indeed, down through the centuries perceptive commentators have constantly wrestled with the fact that, in many people feel alienated from society or from themselves. Pope Francis, speaking from a wide experience of life in Latin America, recently wrote that The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in so called rich countries. The joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live, and, often, to live with precious little dignity. (Evangelii Gaudium 52).
In the face of that painful reality, the Gospel tells of a Jesus who wants to bring healing and hope. He spent the last three years of his life, telling people of their dignity and of the possibility of forgiveness from all that has damaged our hearts in the past. The ironic thing is that this message of concern for those who were hurting caused others to detest him. After three years, his life was cut short but – as our second reading tells us – he was willing to bear brutality in his own body so that we might be freed from the consequences of our failings. Indeed, he is described elsewhere by John the Baptist as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. This is not a carefree shepherd, leading his obedient flock while he idyllically plays his panpipes. This is Emmanuel God-with-us, who waits for the slowest and carries the lost on his shoulders. Even when people had gone astray like sheep, his only concern is that they have can have life to the full.
Pope Francis is clearly someone who is excited and motivated by the joy of the Gospel. But he is also very clear that all the followers of Jesus have only one call, namely that of sharing their own experience of healing and joy with others, especially with those whose lives are marked by pain. Thus, healthy religion is not some escapism from the pain of being human. It does not offer spiritual bling and Botox. The Church of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, cannot be concerned with its own self-preservation but rather with being and offering Good News to the world – whatever the cost to itself.
And within that people who, like God, love the world, Jesus still calls specific individuals to sell all they have and follow him. For the sake of the world, they are invited to dedicate their lives to being agents of God’s love and mercy. For some that will be through a life dedicated to the winding road of silence, prayer and contemplation. For others it will lead them to carrying heavy crosses with people and standing in helpless solidarity with those who face terrible situations of injustice or loss. For others is will include the public ministry of preaching and ministering through lives dedicated to prayer and service. But, for those who have recognised the voice of the Good Shepherd in the silence of their hearts, there is no choice but to give everything they have for the pearl of great value.
Being witnesses to the truth involves a call to heroism in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd. Ministry in Jesus’ name will never be easy. But if there is to be a healing from the pain of our society, marked by what Pope Francis calls “the economy of exclusion, the new idolatry of money, a financial system that rules rather than serves and inequality that spawns violence” (EG53-60), then it will involve working with trust in the grace of God rather than in our own talents. It will involve self-transcendence rather than mere seeking self-fulfilment. Good Shepherd Sunday is not a call to spiritual childishness but an invitation to walk the rough path to human maturity via service and generosity. It is the only way to life to the full.
Notes to Editors
- Bishop Donal McKeown is the Bishop of Derry and chair of the Bishops’ Council for Vocations. The text of Pope Francis’ Vocations Sunday message is available on www.catholicbishops.ie and the Twitter hashtag is #vocations2014
- Mass for Vocations Sunday will be broadcast from the RTÉ studios in Dublin on Sunday 11 May. Bishop McKeown will celebrate the Mass and will preach the homily. This Mass will be simulcast on RTÉ One television, RTÉ 1xtra / LW252 / digital platforms from 11.00-11.45am. Father Willie Purcell is coordinating the Mass on behalf of the Bishops’ Council for Vocations and Sister Moira Bergin rsm is musical director. The opening animation will broadcast scenes from the national seminary in Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
- Please see a special vocations feature on www.catholicbishops.ie which includes:
Three new videos for Vocations Sunday in which Bishop McKeown reflects on:
– this year’s message for Vocations Sunday from Pope Francis
– the importance of prayer for vocations
– how parishes can create a vocations culture
A series of written reflections entitled A Day in the Life of a Not So Typical Life in which a seminarian, a diocesan priest, a religious brother, a missionary brother and a religious sister share in detail what a typical day in their life is like. Seminarian Robert Smyth, Father John Coughlan, Brother Martin Bennett Ofm Cap, Brother Michael O’Donoghue and Sister Maria Sidorova offer an insight into the prayer, spirituality and practicalities of an average day.
Parish resources for Vocations Sunday prepared by the Bishops’ Council for Vocations. The Council consists of those who work to promote vocations and who strive to create a culture of vocations in the Irish Catholic Church. Members of the Council include priests, religious, seminarians and laity. Our resources are offered for use in parishes, religious houses, homes and schools. They comprise liturgical materials, the papal message for Vocations Sunday, articles, prayers, and a new Day in the Life series. The resources can also be downloaded from www.vocations.ie.
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Brenda Drumm 00353 (0) 87 310 4444