Fourth Sunday of Easter
Theme: new ways of ministry
The saving message of Jesus needs to be announced vigorously, in the language of today. For this many volunteers are needed, with various outlooks and personalities, to share the Good Shepherd’s work. In the current crisis in vocations to administer Word and Sacrament and promote Christ’s message in our world, we pray God to provide wise and caring pastors for his church. But we pray that our church leaders, too, will be open to promoting new ways of priestly ministry, including a wider range of prospective candidates, many of them married, and, who knows, the vocation of women to ministry may soon be given fuller scope.
Acts 2:14, 36-41. Jesus, once rejected, now offers salvation to those who are willing to repent and believe in him. Faith in him as Lord brings with it forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit.
1 Pt 2:20-25. The Christian is called to share in the sufferings of Christ. The pattern of Christians living is to prefer Christ to oneself.
Jn 10:1-10. Jesus is a shepherd leading his followers to salvation. He personally invites them to a life of companionship with him.
– that by listening to the Gospel our sense of vocation may be revived, so that we may know what work the Lord wants us to do, within our state of life.
– that the example of those early Christians may also help us to a more personal sense of Jesus, alive among us and calling us to work with him.
– that whatever crosses we may have to bear in our life at this time may be borne as our share in the sufferings of Christ, for the salvation of all.
– that as a Christian society we may show compassion to the outsiders, the marginalised, and those who fall foul of convention, in one way or other.
No More Outsiders (Joseph Cassidy)
“The harvest is rich but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers to his harvest.” (Mt 9:37). When I was growing up, the average preacher, having quoted that text, would talk exclusively about vocations to priesthood and religious life. And maybe on this Sunday, in Ireland and elsewhere, a lot of preachers will do the same. I think the vast majority won’t, because we all realise a bit better now, that when Our Lord talked about labourers, he meant everybody who would believe in his message and be prepared to spread it around.
That means that the vast majority of those labourers Our Lord wants and needs are bound to be lay-people. And that means as well that he’s calling on every individual in this congregation to come across the ditch, roll up the sleeves, put the back into it and get saving the harvest. He’s calling on every single one of us to play an individual part.
For a long time, when people talked about the Church they meant clerics and religious. You all know the story about the preacher during the mission who was warning his listeners that one day they’d have to die. “Remember this,” he roared, “everybody in this parish will one day have to die.” The people were taking it seriously – all except one fellow under the pulpit who was smiling away. “What are you smiling at?” Aw, I’m alright father. I don’t belong to this parish at all.” All of us, old and young, religious and lay, belong to Christ’s parish. When it comes to spreading the Gospel, there are no outsiders at all. Bonded in Baptism, commissioned in Confirmation, nourished by the Eucharist, individually challenged by the will of God and Christ’s commandment, we have a common responsibility to embrace the faith and share it with all mankind. In one short sentence: All of us are Church.
When I think of it, some of the best harvesters, the best missionaries I ever met, were lay-people who never left town. There was an old woman who lived across the road from us, a retired school.teacher. She would say to me: “I’ll put you on the paten and into the chalice, agrá, whenever I go to Mass.” She helped me to understand, even as a little child, that in the Mass we offer our lives, our whole selves, with Jesus Christ to the Father. There were three men I remember who used to walk up to eight o’clock Mass and back again together every morning. One of them had shortish trousers; the bottom of the trousers never reached his shoes. Well, he might have been short of trouser leg but he certainly wasn’t short on faith.
The three wise men from the East were there in my imagination. They helped me believe in the Saviour. The three local men were there in the flesh. They helped me believe in him too. Not all the spreading of the gospel was confined to Mass either. It had to do with daily life and the way to inject it with Christian values. So, as I say, some of the best missionaries I ever met never left town. Two that were better than most never left home. We learn more about the Gospel from believing parents than we do from anybody else. The biggest share of the-harvest is saved at home. So, this morning, in response to Christ’s appeal, what we are doing is praying for one another, that we’ll all continue to live and practise our faith, that we’ll take personal responsibility for the spreading of the gospel, and that we’ll make our biggest effort at home, living our faith in such a way that our children will be encouraged to make it their own.
But we should pray for vocations to priesthood and religious life too, because although Our Lord’s labourers weren’t meant exclusively to be priests and nuns, they certainly include them. Again when I was a child, the Marist Sisters established a convent in our town. They made an enormous contribution to community life in terms of education, drama, music, visitation of the sick, prayer, you name it. Because they had no family commitments they could work full-time in different areas at spreading the gospel.
It doesn’t look as if we’ll have the same numbers of Sisters again – although they do have in mission countries – but we need the quality all the time; we need the full-time commitment. So don’t rule it out. Believe in it and pray for it; the Lord will take it from there.
It’s the source of the greatest sadness and shame that some priests have been convicted of offending against children. Behaviour like that is indefensible. Although it’s particularly reprehensible in priests, it’s certainly not confined to them; it’s a weakness that is spread throughout the community, Original Sin in one of its most abhorrent forms. Abusive behaviour by a particular priest, or priests, however, should not be attributed to all. Nor does the terrible weakness that we find in human nature invalidate the vocation to priesthood. Even though some fail, or perhaps because some fail, the good priest is needed all the more. The priest is called to three things: he’s called to Word, Sacrament and Service. He’s called to preach the word of God, to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, and to model himself on Christ in the service of his people. That’s it in a nutshell. And that will always be needed.
As it happens, two priests who are natives of the parish are home on holidays at the moment. They got their vocations here. They say that themselves. Please God there will be priests coming home on holidays in years to come saying the same thing. Let’s believe in that. Let’s pray for it. What’s going to happen in the future depends on us now!
Who will answer his Call? (John Walsh)
There is at present a greater sense of urgency than at any time during the last century, about the need for men and women who will carry on the Church’s tradition in Holy Orders, in the Foreign Missions, and in the different religious congregations and secular institutes that have been so much to the forefront in bringing the gospel message to people throughout the world. Each year on this day, which has been designated Vocations Sunday, we are all asked to reflect on this situation, and on what we can do in any way towards improving it.
A vocation to the priesthood or Religious life is a mysterious and sublime reality which can only come from God himself. And yet the prayers of all of us have an important part to play in God’s plans for the salvation of the world. No one should ever say such a role is not for me, for God oftentimes chooses the most unlikely candidates to fill it. In the first years of the Church, when its members were being actively persecuted, when many had to flee for their lives or go into hiding, who could ever possibly imagine that one of their most fanatical persecutors would become the greatest missionary of all in spreading the gospel message among the gentiles?
Yet, as the liturgy has been recalling for us during the last week, this precisely is what happened in the case of Paul, or Saul as he was originally named. Here was a man who fully agreed with the stoning of St Stephen for his Christian faith, an act which was in contravention of Roman law at the time, the one who held the garments of those engaged in carrying out the killing, the one who afterwards proceeded to round up and bring to trial more members of the Christian communities, from as far away as Damascus, one hundred and forty miles from Jerusalem. And yet this was the man destined to become God’s chosen instrument in bringing the name of Christ before gentiles and Jews alike, both in Asia Minor and southern Europe. So extraordinary and sudden was the change in Saul that for a time many Christians mistrusted him. Apart from the vision granted him on the road to Damascus, the ground for this conversion must have been prepared by the heroic witness of St Stephen and the prayer offered to God by the saint for his executioners. However hard Paul tried, he could not blot out from his mind the manner in which Stephen died. The blood of the martyrs was already becoming the seed of converts to the infant Church. Of course, it is true that we are not called upon to be martyrs in order to promote the spread of the faith, although the kind of life each one of us leads can be a powerful influence in drawing others to Christ. But there is one thing we can do, and that is pray. Christ himself said to his followers, “Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest” (Mt 9:38). Without specific, habitual, insistent prayer, there can be no success in gaining vocations. We must ask not only for an increase in vocations, but also for the perseverance of those who have been called, for their sanctification, and for the success of their missionary endeavours.
If parents pray with their children, and are seen praying by their children, then they are most certainly sowing the seeds of those vocations which will be needed to minister full-time to the spiritual needs of the future. But it is not only families, it is the whole community which should be involved in this task. For a community which is poor in vocations makes the whole Church poorer, but a community rich in vocations makes the entire Church richer.
We should remember, also, that the concern of the Virgin Mary for the infant Church after the Ascension of her divine Son is something which continues to this day. We commend to her care the needs of our missionaries, the needs of religious engaged in teaching, nursing, looking after the disabled and orphaned, the need for more dedicated souls to live lives of faith and love within the cloister, praying for the salvation of the whole world. May there always be men and women, within the Church, who are willing to carry on such works of service for others.
Hearing Voices (Liam Swords)
I once worked with Radharc, an Irish television team specialising in religious documentaries, and went to film with them in Spain. One day we stopped for a picnic lunch somewhere in the sierras. It was a bleak mountainous countryside and the midday sun beat down mercilessly. There we witnessed what was for me a strange encounter. A shepherd approached, leading his flock of some few hundred sheep. Another shepherd approached from the opposite direction with a similar flock. Their paths crossed about a hundred yards in front of us, where the shepherds stopped for a chat. We watched in fascination, as the two flocks mingled. There must have been close to a thousand sheep in all. “Boy! Are they going to have a problem separating that lot!” my colleague remarked. Ten minutes later, the two shepherds shook hands and parted, each moving off in the opposite direction. The sheep too separated, each following his own shepherd, who after making a few calls, scarcely looked over their shoulders to check on their flocks, leaving a modern television crew gazing after them in amazement. Our only regret was that we hadn’t filmed the scene.
My only experience in Ireland of sheep was seeing them driven to fairs and markets by a stick-wielding farmer with his equally irritable dog snapping at their heels. It may explain why our pastors used to have a reputation for browbeating their flocks into conformity. The big stick was more in evidence than the shepherd’s staff. A “belt of an episcopal crozier” was every reforming politician’s greatest fear. Courting couples, lurking behind bushes after a dance, went in fear of their parish priest and his probing stick.
Sheep, like other domestic animals, come to know their master and especially his voice. They depend on him to find “fresh and green” pastures. Far from threatening them, his “crook and his staff” are there to pull them out when occasionally they fall into creeks and gullies. The worst fate that can befall them is to stray from the right path. Even then, the shepherd will go in search of him, clambering over rocks and crags, calling out and listening to the answering bleat that will lead him to the stray.
We live in a media age, far removed from that idyllic pastoral scene in the Spanish sierras. The only bleating we hear is far more likely to be pop-music from the earplugs of a Walkman or the bleeping of the cellphone in our pockets. All sorts of voices are competing for our attention, blaring at us from transistors on the beaches and TV commercials in our sitting-rooms. “Please, turn down the volume!” is the almost constant plea of a deafened parent to its wired-up offspring. Sound-free zones are as important for our health as “no smoking” zones and there is a case to be made for putting a health-warning sign on all that sound-producing gadgetry. And things are getting worse rather than better. We are now going to be deluged with information from personal computers. The cyberspace age has arrived with the Internet and e-mail. Information is not synonymous with knowledge; technique is no substitute for wisdom. Wherever else it may lead us, it will not lead us to the promised land.
Today, the feast of the Good Shepherd, is Vocations Sunday. The church is experiencing a crisis in vocations which is likely to deepen following painful disclosures about clerical scandals. Like their mountainy brothers, they are becoming a threatened species. More than ever the church needs wise and good pastors to guide what must be by now a bewildered flock. Father, eternal shepherd, watch over the flock, redeemed by the blood of Christ and lead us to the promised land.
Gate of the Sheepfold (Alex McAllister)
In our tradition this Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday and we keep it as a special day of prayer for vocations to the priesthood. Like yourselves who use the Revised Common Lectionary on the Third Sunday after Easter we always have a section of John’s great Chapter 10 on the Good Shepherd.
This year we have the first part of that chapter in which Jesus says I am the gate of the sheepfold. Jesus presents himself not only as the gatekeeper of heaven but as the gate itself. No one can enter without going through Jesus. All others are thieves and brigands and the true sheep of the flock will take no notice of them.
We might be tempted to think that this is a bit exclusive and not much in line with our modern way of thinking. We might not be entirely comfortable with the thought that Jesus parks himself firmly at gates of heaven-even insisting that he is the gate itself.
Nowadays we tend to think that any good person deserves to enter heaven even if he is not led by Christ but perhaps by Buddha, Mohammed or the Hindu pantheon of God’s. We have no problem imagining that a good pagan could enter heaven by the front door-even someone who expressly denied Christ as long as they lived a moral life.
This is in fact quite a recent development in our way of thinking. After all, it is only in the last few years that our two Churches could contemplate exchanging pulpits. Forty or fifty years ago most Catholics couldn’t imagine meeting a Methodist in heaven! Where it was you went we weren’t quite sure, but certainly not to a Catholic heaven! And I suppose it was just the same vice versa.
We have come a long way and thank God for that, but we must be cautious and not go too far; certainly not so far that we violate the teaching of Christ. We must be careful not to regard all religions whatever their theology are of equal status. As Christians we believe that God has revealed himself definitively in the person of Jesus Christ. As far as we are concerned Jesus is the revelation of the Father.
Now, while there are many good and wise spiritual guides none of these can compare with Christ. There are many shepherds but only one Good Shepherd. Actually a better translation for the word Good in this context would be ideal or model. Christ is the ideal shepherd, he is the model shepherd, he is the shepherd and all other shepherds, good though they might be in all sorts of ways, are not to be compared with him.
Of course, the others who try to lead the flock and whom in our text today are referred to by Jesus as thieves and brigands are the particular Jewish leaders of the time. They don’t have the interest of the flock at heart; they merely wish to satisfy their own thirst for power. Such people are to be found in every age.
Christ’s true interest is the flock, as he says: I have come that they may have life and have it to the full. And this greatest of all shepherds is willing to give his own life for the sheep. Indeed it is from his death that they draw salvation and will in due time rise to everlasting life.
The way we look at other world religions today is not to consider them as rivals or enemies but also as mediums by which God gradually reveals himself to the world. What we have in common is our basic humanity which at its root necessarily includes the thirst for God. As Augustine says: Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.
So we do not regard other world faiths as the thieves and brigands referred to by Jesus at least not as long as they aim towards that which is good and true. Marginal sects and other groups whose chief concern is to control and exploit the vulnerable are another matter entirely.
I mentioned before that in our Church on this particular Sunday we pray for vocations to the priesthood. We pray that many more good men will be called to ministry in our Church and we pray for those priests who are in difficulty and falling short in their calling. With the drastic decline in numbers of practicing Christians in the Western World and the many stresses and strains of modern society these are relevant needs.
On this Sunday we look to Christ as the true shepherd on whom all those who are called to ministry should model themselves. He is, of course, the only one who can care for his flock and we priests and other ministers in the Churches are merely carrying out his wishes-acting as his delegates, of you like.
You might already be feeling uncomfortable when I referred only to men as priests and be saying to yourself-well if you Catholics are short of priests why don’t you ordain women? It is a good question and one not yet definitively answered. We have the experience of working with the other Christian Denominations including yourselves who have women in high positions in the ordained ministry. I myself work closely with an Anglican woman priest in Eastwood Park Prison-so it is not something we are afraid of or think is bad. I think that we Catholics are just a bit cautious and want to think long and hard before we throw over 2000 years of tradition. We don’t want to be pushed by other ideologies and we are concerned not to diverge from the actions of Christ and the practice and customs of the Church of the Apostles.
First Reading: Acts 2:14, 36-41
Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. … Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.
Second Reading: First Letter of St Peter 2:20-25
If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
Gospel: John 10:1-10
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.