Praying for Good Shepherds, Fourth Sunday of Easter (A), May 15, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry

St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA

Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

May 15, 2011

Acts 2:14, 36-41; 1Pet2:20-25; Jn 10:1-10

 

The following text guided today’s homily:

PRAYING FOR GOD TO SEND SHEPHERDS AFTER HIS SON’S OWN HEART

  • As I mention in this weekend’s bulletin, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is called Good Shepherd Sunday, because it’s on this Sunday we always hear Jesus describe himself in the Gospel as the Good Shepherd. So significant is it for us to relate to him as the Good Shepherd that the Church gives us a section of the Good Shepherd discourse every year in the heart of the Easter Season.
  • To relate to Jesus as the Good Shepherd means:
    • We recognize that with him, we have it all. We prayed in the Responsorial Psalm today, “The Lord is my Shepherd. There is nothing I shall want.” In these most famous words, we publicly confess that our treasure is in Jesus, that if we have him, but don’t have everything else in the world, we still recognize how rich we are. As St. Ignatius of Loyola said in his famous Suscipe Prayer, which is found among the prayers in the Missalette: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will. All I have and call my own. Whatever I have or hold, you have given me. I return it all to you and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will. Give me only your love and your grace, which are enough for me and I ask for nothing more.” To be a good sheep of the Good Shepherd, we recognize that his love and his grace are enough for us. In the midst of a consumerist society, in which we’re bombarded with advertisements that pretend that we’ll be happy and fulfilled only if we have what they’re selling, this aspect of relating to the Risen Christ is so important.
    • The second aspect of being a good sheep is that we recognize Christ’s voice calling us by name and we follow him. Jesus says that we don’t even acknowledge the voice of strangers. How beautiful this is. We’re not a number to Jesus. He knows our name. He calls us by the name we’ve been given in baptism. We have a personal relationship with him.
    • Third, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, lays down his life for us so that we may have life to the full. He freely sacrifices himself so that the wolves won’t get us, so that he will protect us from the evil one. Unlike other leaders who run when there’s danger, who pretend to serve in order to profit selfishly from their work, Jesus shows us how much he loves us in giving up his life for us. Just think about it for a second: if a real shepherd gave his life to save the life of one of the animals in his flock, what an incredible witness that would be, so great is the gap in dignity between man and animal. When we begin to comprehend the gap between God and man, Jesus’ giving his life for us out of personal love for each of us is all the more remarkable. German shepherds aren’t man’s best friend; the Good Shepherd is.
    • Fourth, as the Good Shepherd, he seeks to lead us through the valley of darkness along right paths to the verdant pastures where he will give us rest, spread the table before us, anoint us with oil and fill our cup to overflowing. The Good Shepherd is the guide and gate to heaven, to the eternal sheepfold, where we hope to dwell in the Lord’s very house all our days. As he says to us today, “Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” To be a good sheep is to trust in his guidance, to heed his voice, to follow him throughout life up close until we enter through his suffering and death into the full glory of his resurrection, where we hope to have life and have it to the full.”
    • Lastly, the Good Shepherd wants to form us to become good shepherds of others. In today’s second reading, St. Peter tells us that Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow in his footsteps. We had gone astray like sheep, but he gave us the grace to return to him, who is the shepherd and guardian of our souls. To be good sheep means to follow his example, laying down our life for others so that all those who have gone astray might be led by us back to Christ, the shepherd and guardian of their souls as well.
  • That brings us to the other aspect of this Sunday, which for the past 48 years has been the day that the Church throughout the world prays for vocations, especially priestly vocations. As Catholics, we recognize that Jesus shepherds us through the Church he founded. On the cover of the bulletin this week, I put the beautiful stained glass window of St. Peter, because it was to Peter that Jesus entrusted his flock, saying, “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.” Peter, the apostles, their successors and the priests they have ordained to collaborate with them in the Good Shepherd’s work of salvation, feed us not only with Jesus’ words but with his body and blood in the Eucharist, which is why our tabernacle has a sculpture of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, with us, his good sheep, as he hungers to feed us with himself, to give us his life so that we may have life to the full. In a special way we as Catholics recognize that God’s promise through the prophet Jeremiah, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart” is fulfilled through the priesthood, at least through those priests who fulfill the mission of the Good Shepherd faithfully and lay down their lives with Christ for his flock.
  • Today, therefore, is a day in which we pray for priests, that they may be good shepherds, and pray for future priests, that the Lord will give us many more shepherds after his own heart so that we may hear his voice speaking to us and receive his guidance leading us through the various valleys of darkness and suffering toward the eternal sheepfold where he seeks to give us eternal rest.
  • In Pope Benedict’s written message for this 48th World Day of Prayer for Vocations, entitled “Promoting Vocations in the Local Church”, he said something very challenging. He said that the ability to foster vocations is a “hallmark of the vitality of a local Church.” A local Church that truly is alive generates vocations; one that doesn’t produce vocations is akin to the Church of Sardis, to whom Jesus says in the Book of Revelation: “I know your works. You have the reputation for being alive, but you are dead. Awake and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death” (Rev 3:1-2). The expression “local Church” normally means a Catholic Diocese, but Pope Benedict’s point can likewise apply to a parish Church or even the domestic Church which is the family. In order to be truly spiritually alive, a Catholic family, a Catholic parish, a Catholic diocese needs to generate good sheep and good shepherds, just like a good tree produces good fruit.
  • In looking over the situation of the Church in the world, Pope Benedict is implying that there are certain places that are vocationally fertile and others that are vocationally sterile, some dioceses, parishes and families that are alive, and others that are like the Church of Sardis.
  • We need to take his words and apply them to our own situation with candor and courage. The Diocese of Fall River presently has only six seminarians from the 91 parishes of the Diocese. By 2020, there are expected to be only about 55 priests serving in all the parishes of the Diocese. We’re approaching a circumstance in which the amount of spiritual shepherds capable of giving us the Good Shepherd in the sacraments is going to decrease by half. It’s clear that our Diocese needs a spiritual reawakening. Even in terms of candidates to the priesthood, many of the parishes of our diocese seem dead. Last Year, the Diocese Vocations Office hosted the first “Quo Vadis Days” Vocations Camp for 14-18 year old boys. Of the 91 parishes in the Diocese, only six were able to find one boy interested in attending. I’m very happy to say that not only was our parish one of the six, but out of the 22 boys in attendance at last July’s camp, 8 were from here. And a few altar boys who are younger than 14 have been expressing to me for years not only an openness to a priestly vocation but a real desire to receive this gift from God. This is at least one sign, I believe, that the Catholic faith is really alive in this parish, something for which we all need to give God great gratitude.
  • In his letter, Pope Benedict focused on several of what we might call “best practices” for families, parishes and dioceses to promote vocations. These practices should come naturally to any home or church that is truly spiritually alive. I’d like to mention four of these best practices to you, asking you to examine how you can live them more as a family and how we as a parish can also put them into practice more as a parish family.
  • The first practice is prayer. Pope Benedict implied that Jesus always knew that there would be a need for vocations to be shepherds, that the harvest would “plentiful but the laborers few.” That’s why the Good Shepherd called his followers to “pray to the Harvest Master to send out laborers for his harvest” (Mk 9:36-38). In praying first for vocations, Jesus was not merely saying, “Do as I say” but “follow me,” because, as we know, before Jesus called his first apostles, he spend the night alone in prayer to his Father. Pope Benedict draws an important conclusion from Jesus’ words and example: “Vocations to the ministerial priesthood and to the consecrated life are first and foremost the fruit of constant contact with the living God and insistent prayer lifted up to the ‘Lord of the harvest,’ whether in parish communities, in Christian families or in groups specifically devoted to prayer for vocations.” We pray for priestly vocations in our afternoon Holy Hours through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of all vocations who shows us all how to say “fiat,” “yes,” “amen!”  to God’s plans. Please pray for priestly vocations when you pray individually and at home as a family, pray for them among the boys of our parish, pray for them among the boys of your family. Help young boys you know to learn how to pray so that if the Good Shepherd is calling them by name to follow him as priests, they might hear his voice, trust in him, and follow him just like the first apostles did.
  • The second practice is to show young people the example of total commitment to Christ with a willingness to sacrifice for him in ordinary familial, parochial and diocesan life. Jesus’ first disciples were able to leave their boats and tax-collecting tables because they valued Jesus more than they loved a big catch and money. They were longing for the Messiah, thought they recognized him in Jesus, and therefore were able to leave immediately to go with the one who personally called them with the words, “Follow me!” It’s no surprise that most priestly vocations come from families that are generous in loving the Lord, from parents who are totally committed to the faith and seek, despite the ordinary struggles, to raise their kids to become not just good but holy. It’s no surprise that vocations come from parishes or faith communities that make a commitment and sacrifice to adore Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, to serve him in the disguise of the poor, to listen to his voice in prayer and in Bible studies. Pope Benedict commented, “It is a challenging and uplifting invitation that Jesus addresses to those to whom he says: ‘Follow me!’ He invites them to become his friends, to listen attentively to his word and to live with him. He teaches them complete commitment to God … in accordance with the law of the Gospel: ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ He invites them to leave behind their own narrow agenda and their notions of self-fulfillment in order to immerse themselves in another will, the will of God, and to be guided by it. He gives them an experience of fraternity, one born of that total openness to God that becomes the hallmark of the community of Jesus.” If we’re going to help future good shepherds hear the Lord’s voice and respond, our families and our parish need to be distinguished by a complete commitment and a total openness to God.
  • Pope Benedict’s third point is that there really is never a “vocations” or “calling” crisis in the Church, but rather a crisis in hearing that vocation and responding to it. “The Lord does not fail to call people at every stage of life to share in his mission and to serve the Church in the ordained ministry and in the consecrated life,” he stressed. The problem is that in some areas and lives the voice of the Lord can get “drowned out by ‘other voices,’ and his invitation to follow him by the gift of one’s own life may seem too difficult.” Because of this two-fold challenge, “every Christian community, every member of the Church, needs consciously … to encourage and support those who show clear signs of a call to priestly life and religious consecration, and to enable them to feel the warmth of the whole community as they respond ‘yes’ to God and the Church.” We need to encourage them. We need to tell them we’re praying for them. When I was an altar boy and then a young Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion at St. Michael’s Parish in Lowell, I must have heard several hundred times from fellow parishioners, “I’m praying for you that you might have a vocation to be a priest,” or “I think you’d make a good priest,” or “Do you think that God might one day ask you to become a priest?” It meant a lot when older people asked me this. It meant even more when my peers did. I’d encourage you to do the same thing with those young boys, teenagers or young men who have struck you as having some of the qualities we need in priests. Don’t be afraid to pray for them. Don’t be afraid to tell them you’re praying for them. Don’t be afraid to say, “One day I hope to call you, ‘Father.’” The Holy Father says that part of this encouragement means helping the young “to grow into a genuine and affectionate friendship with the Lord, cultivated through personal and liturgical prayer; to grow in familiarity with the sacred Scriptures and thus to listen attentively and fruitfully to the word of God; to understand that entering into God’s will does not crush or destroy a person, but instead leads to the discovery of the deepest truth about ourselves; and finally to be generous and fraternal in relationships with others, since it is only in being open to the love of God that we discover true joy and the fulfillment of our aspirations.” We need to provide these opportunities for our young people, both at our home as well as at our parish home.
  • Lastly, the Pope noted that the Second Vatican Council explicitly reminded us that “the duty of fostering vocations pertains to the whole Christian community, which should exercise it above all by a fully Christian life.” Vocations, as Cardinal Sean O’Malley likes to say, are everyone’s business. In past years, Pope Benedict singled out the role of parents. This year he mentioned the role of priests, families, catechists and leaders of parish groups, reminding them that “every moment in the life of the Church community – catechesis, formation meetings, liturgical prayer, pilgrimages – can be a precious opportunity for awakening in the People of God, and in particular in children and young people, a sense of belonging to the Church and of responsibility for answering the call to priesthood and to religious life by a free and informed decision.” “Every moment in the life of the Church” is meant to be an opportunity to promote vocations, by helping others to hear the Lord’s voice and to respond to what the Lord is asking with courage and fidelity. The more we do this ourselves, and the easier we make it for others to do it, the more alive we will be spiritually.
  • “The ability to foster vocations is a hallmark of the vitality of a local Church,” of a Diocese, of a parish, of a family. Let us ask Christ the Good Shepherd to make vocations promotion a hallmark of our homes and of St. Anthony’s Parish. As we today turn to the Harvest Master, thank him for the shepherds he has sent us through the year and beg him to send us many more good shepherds after his Son’s own heart, we ask him through that Son to make our practice of the faith truly vital, the type of faith intended by His Son, who tells us today anew, “I came that you may have life and have it to the full.”

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1ACTS 2:14A, 36-41

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven,
raised his voice, and proclaimed:
“Let the whole house of Israel know for certain
that God has made both Lord and Christ,
this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart,
and they asked Peter and the other apostles,
“What are we to do, my brothers?”
Peter said to them,
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you,
in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins;
and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
For the promise is made to you and to your children
and to all those far off,
whomever the Lord our God will call.”
He testified with many other arguments, and was exhorting them,
“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
Those who accepted his message were baptized,
and about three thousand persons were added that day.

Responsorial PsalmPS 23: 1-3A, 3B4, 5, 6

R. (1) The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
or:
R. Alleluia.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
or:
R. Alleluia.
He guides me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side.
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
or:
R. Alleluia.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
or:
R. Alleluia.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
or:
R. Alleluia.

Reading 21 PT 2:20B-25

Beloved:
If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good,
this is a grace before God.
For to this you have been called,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.
He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.

When he was insulted, he returned no insult;
when he suffered, he did not threaten;
instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.
He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross,
so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness.
By his wounds you have been healed.
For you had gone astray like sheep,
but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

AlleluiaJN 10:14

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
I am the good shepherd, says the Lord;
I know my sheep, and mine know me.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

GospelJN 10:1-10

Jesus said:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”