“Jesus said: ‘My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.’” (John 10:27-30)
Throughout the Lenten season there is a subtle theme, “The word is near you.” Now the voice of the Lord is clear, and calling out to all who will listen, and we hear his voice.
The New Testament alone has 16 references to shepherds from those who attended Jesus at his birth, to the very last chapter of John’s gospel; and we listened to last week’s gospel and Jesus’s parting words to Peter on the shores of Lake Tiberias, “Feed my sheep.”
Interesting to note, how valuable and distinctive shepherds and sheep were to the economy of Israel. Essentially the long-term care of sheep added to the area’s wealth. I’ve been told that in today’s economy each of these animals might be valued as mini-BMW’s. The sheep were pastured mostly for their wool, and less so as a source of food.
Consequently, the shepherd’s caring for and feeding of sheep had great benefits, and Jesus draws on this particular metaphor.
Another observation about shepherds and sheep comes from a friend of mine, a young priest Kevin who in his first Mass homily of last year remarked about the powerful image of the Good Shepherd who leads us on the journey of life.
Kevin mentioned a trip that he had taken to Bethlehem, two-years ago. He was at a crosswalk with traffic lights, and there he waited as a flock of sheep crossed the intersection. Here is an ancient town, the very site of Jesus’s birth, that now must accommodate both the overlay of modern vehicular traffic and the centuries-old paths for sheep and their trusted guides.
At the time, Kevin took careful notice how a young shepherd forward these sheep – some, those in the front, were young, eager and feisty; older sheep were in the middle, with fleece ready for cutting; a ewe trailed in the back, possibly hurt and needing special attention.
As the shepherd moved back and forth, among his sheep, and the closer the sheep were to the shepherd, — the greater the flock’s direction, unity, purpose and safety.
So with us, the closer we are to the Lord, the Good Shepherd, the more his direction, unity, purpose and safety take over in our lives.
Today on this Fourth Sunday of Easter, as we reflect on the role of the shepherd who directs, values and rescues even one who strays from the flock, this Sunday is designated as “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.”
Let us pray for vocations to the permanent diaconate, the priesthood and the consecrated life to further advance the work of the “good shepherds.”
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 we will welcome most especially young priests such as Father Omar.
Pope Francis, 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.
We need talented, young priests now more than ever to carry out the work of Christ and the expectations set by Pope Francis. In the United States presently there are 3,700 seminary candidates, of which 850 represent religious orders.
Most recently, in his “Joy of Love” published a few days ago, the pope mentions the importance of seminary training for future priests in dealing with the preparation of couples for marriage, and how “Seminarians should receive a more extensive interdisciplinary, and not merely doctrinal formation…There is need to ensure that the formation process can enable them to attain the maturity and psychological balance needed for their future ministry.”
Clearly, this concern is meant for all of us in ministry, lay women and men who comprise the largest numbers of ministers today among Church members, as well as priests and women religious to best serve the needs of our parishes and faith communities.
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.”
On April 16, Pope Francis traveled to the island of Lesbos. And along with Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and Patriarch Hieronymus II, the Greek Orthodox primate met with the Syrian refugees and other “orphans of the storm” in order to provide comfort as well support for the international humanitarian workers and volunteers on that troubled island.