Today we listen to Jesus who tells us: “I am the Good Shepherd…my sheep hear my voice.” (John 10:11)
We celebrate “Good Shepherd Sunday” and recall the role of the shepherd who directs, values and rescues even one who strays from the flock. The word for “pastor” is a metaphor drawn from this biblical theme of shepherd, and we values our pastors here at San Carlos Cathedral, Fathers Peter and Patrick, retired Bishop Ryan and Bishop Garcia, and shortly we will welcome to the priesthood, our deacon Jason.
Pope Francis, at his very first Holy Thursday Mass as pope, and later in his “Joy of the Gospel,” said to priests: “This is what I am asking you… be shepherds with the smell of the sheep.” In other words, the pastor must identify with his people, and even smell like them. This was the very first time I had heard such a strong statement about the relationship of pastor with his flock.
On May 2nd, Pope Francis will be celebrate Mass and be present to the seminarians the Pontifical North American College in Rome, where some three hundred men are preparing for the priesthood. On that day, the pope will attend a day-long gathering of reflection and prayer on the life of Junipero Serra, our founding pastor; as part of the pope’s forthcoming visit to the United States, Blessed Junipero Serra will be declared a saint on September 23rd in Washington, D.C.
I don’t know what the pope will say to the seminarians and those attending this conference, but I hope the pope says that all in ministry today need to reflect on the deepest aspirations of this call, and to truly “hear the Lord’s voice.”
This past January, I was at the North American College as part of my January Term course, “In the Footsteps of the Early Christians,” and I brought my group of twenty college age women and men to hear from a group of seminarians about their own calling. The several years that I have conducted this pilgrimage, this conversation with the seminarians is a highlight; we join them in prayer, at Mass, listen to a panel of seminarians, followed by a pizza party.
This past year, we heard from several of these young men. One of the seminarians told us he was from Rhode Island, and how he got the idea of becoming a priest, essentially while he worked in campus ministry when he was an undergraduate.
A fourth-year student from the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. had a most impressive background, having graduated Harvard Law School, and while working for a law firm in Washington, D.C., he discerned that he want a deeper spiritual life, and decided to join the seminary.
Interestingly, I’ve been told that lawyers account for an increasing number of men who decide for the priesthood. Also, that the Washington, D.C. Archdiocese has done research on their pool of seminarians and have discovered that many of these men come from families with a military background. Naturally there are many military personnel in Virginia and Maryland, however it speaks to the stable family ties that may attract vocations today and in the past.
Our final panelist was a seminarian Matt Murray, from the Oakland, CA diocese, who is the first son in a very large family. He told us that while in college, he worked at an “In-N-Out Burger” franchise on Rt. 80 in Fairfield, nearby the Travis Air Force Base.
Well, if we are going to use the pope’s “smell of the sheep” test for identifying with people — campus ministry is fine, a law office may have its merits, but I can smell those burgers, and that’s where real people are!
The NAC seminarians had plenty to tell my students. Each year, I’ve noticed that getting to meet these young men is a great inspiration. For my own Saint Mary’s students we live in such a climate of change where people change jobs every three years, we are “friended” on Facebook, and find our spouse on “Match.com.” Here are people really discerning whether they have an authentic calling, and trying day-by-day to “hear the Lord’s voice.”
This brings me to a second theme for this Good Shepherd Sunday, namely “My sheep hear my voice.”
John’s gospel is distinctive. We are in conversation with Christ in prayer, discernment, and based on the great conversations or discourses in John. Here, Jesus is in dialogue with the woman at the well; Nicodemus who is “born again” in John 3:16; the man born blind; Peter, and others. Perhaps the most dramatic encounter in the New Testament is Jesus’s statement before Pontius Pilate — in which Pilate asks: “So you are a King?” And Jesus’s reply: “I am a king, but not of this world!”
Some of these dialogues are among the longest passages in John’s gospel. Here you may notice that John’s gospel contrasts with Matthew, Mark and Luke who rely on teaching and parables. John present Jesus in conversation with people and we actually know their names.
So Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice.” At the heart of this statement is a challenge to each of us to listen, in prayer, and discernment – in a conversation about our own particular needs, hurts, concerns, and yes, that prayer of thanksgiving.
We listen to his voice, and gradually over time, our prayers give way to oneness in the Lord. And before a “good and gentle shepherd” who guides us into the “ways of peace.”