Sheep clearly played a large part in the life of Jesus’ contemporaries. Shepherds were among the first to hear of the birth. Jesus was introduced as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And the image of the Good Shepherd and the search for the lost sheep appears in various ways in the Gospels. This Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday. For our society the image needs some unpacking. But we are invited to reflect on what the image says to us about who God is and who we are.
Firstly, the image is not about stupid milk- and wool-providing sheep that all look the same and who have to be driven into line. The language speaks of knowing, nourishment, recognition and protection. The shepherd has come that the flock may have life and have it to the full. Thieves and brigands wish to take advantage of the flock. But the good shepherd has another agenda. Later in the passage, Jesus says that he will lay down his life to protect the sheep. And the whole scene is set in the Gospel between attacks on Jesus from the civic and religious leaders. He clearly is contrasting himself with the leadership style of those who do have power.
Thus, the first challenge for Christians is to ask where and when church goers and non-churchgoers have experienced the Church as reflecting this image that Jesus portrays. In Ireland, we have developed ways of being Church in communities across the island – with many strengths and weaknesses. But, as we prepare to move towards some forms of ease down, we have to be asking, not ‘How do we get back to the ways things were?’ but ‘How do we confront bad habits of the past and emphasise the Good Shepherd’s knowing, nourishment, recognition and protection?’ If, in these days of emptiness, we fail to use this Sunday’s Gospel to ask to what extent communities really experience the Good Shepherd in their contact with parishes, Jesus would not want us to be standing beside him at the gate of the sheepfold. As Church we have to learn from this crisis and not relapse into bad old habits. The question is not whether church will be different after the pandemic but how we can dream of it being fitter for purpose in a changed world. It is all about Christ’s daunting dream and not just about our cosy comfort-zone.
Secondly, there are currently huge restrictions on what we can do North and South. It is important that we do all we can to protect life and halt the spread of the virus. But, as Church, we have to do more than merely promote economic and physical health. And we have to do more than just want to get our buildings open again. Yes, there are many people who want to access the Church’s rich sacramental and spiritual resources. We have to be yearning for the day when parishioners can hear the shepherd’s voice and gather in the sheepfold to celebrate Christ’s love and mercy. We have to be preparing and lobbying so that those who wish it can have children christened in the waters of baptism and have their marriage vows solemnised before the Lord. But if we want to have life to the full, we also have to keep proclaiming that people need meaning in our lives and not just money. We need peace of mind and not just pieces of silver. We need beauty and not just box sets about abnormal people. Pope Francis has been very strong in speaking about how we will look after the lost and the lame, the poor and the marginalised, after this pandemic. There are many interest groups who see this as an opportunity to further increase inequality. If I am concerned mainly with my interests and not primarily with the welfare of the little ones, then I have would need to listen to today’s Gospel again and again and again.
Thirdly, today is traditionally called ‘Vocations Sunday’. The image of the Good Shepherd is a powerful image and inspiring for ministry in Jesus’ name. The Church gathered by the Eucharist is the Body of Christ. The ministry of the Church is how Christ’s work is continued in our time. But today is much more than a recruitment drive for clergy and religious. We have seen how the generosity of health workers and others has inspired communities. Young people will similarly be encouraged to dream of doing something heroically great with their lives when they see parish communities and clergy that inspire them. Despite many bland and frail cultural role models, many young still yearn for inspiration and challenge. Jesus is still calling generous hearts to seek their deepest joy in nourishing others and not just in self-indulgence. The world will not be renewed by a philosophy that looks after number one. Sport and music can numb the pain but not free the heart to soar. Retail therapy does more for the economy that it does for the addicted shopper. We can glimpse God’s dream in those who want to serve the common good and who resist a world of self-service for the strong. Jesus has inspired people in every generation to look after the little ones. Our dreams are throttled at birth by a philosophy which says that here is as good as it gets and that I must cram as much into my short years as possible. Jesus says that life to the full comes from giving of yourself and not merely getting for yourself. The generous Good Shepherd wants to offer protection and pasture for the flock. They are the reason for his existence.
I hope that the generous service of many parishes will inspire a new generation of crazy followers of Jesus, whether to work in parishes or to live in consecrated communities. Life is difficult for most people. Good Shepherd Sunday is not merely about priesthood or religious life. Marriage and parenting are no easy option. But generous families will inspire generous young people. And self-sacrificing church personnel will inspire new heroes. We have to be mad enough to speak of God’s daunting dream and not to be trapped in our cosy comfort zone. A Church with a Good Shepherd heart will inspire people – like Jesus in the Gospel or St Peter in our second reading – to do the right thing even when that involves mockery and incomprehension. The Lamb of God is prepared to sacrifice his life for the flock, to heal us through his wounds, knowing that Resurrection is guaranteed for those who give all in the service of divine love. Good Shepherd Sunday is not just about recruitment but about promoting communities that call young people to sanctity in their different vocations and in the concrete circumstances of their generation. We older clergy are not merely calling young people to fill our shoes but to walk in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd.
As ever, the powerful Word of God can continue to fire and inspire down through the centuries. As Church, we must be open to the God who strips away much of our self-identity and remakes us in his image and likeness. That may be uncomfortable – but the Good Shepherd can see the big picture. As we prepare to celebrate Pentecost in four weeks, can we use this month of May to be inspired by Mary’s generosity and the grace of her Son – and get ready to be thrown out (like the early Church in our first reading) on Pentecost to witness to the power of the Good Shepherd’s love? That would be a powerful way to prepare for the unknown new challenges that face us and our society.
And we needn’t worry for the Good Shepherd knows what lies ahead.
For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long +353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm +353 (0) 87 310 4444.