Here on this 4th Sunday in Easter, our diocese and the US Bishops’ conference have asked us to speak about vocations to the priestly life. To echo the voice of the Good Shepherd calling those to a life of dedicated service of the community of God – to follow Christ more closely through life as an ordained priest. And to answer this call in troubled times. A time in our life when the church faces questions about a growing worldwide crisis caused by priests and bishops that has continued to flow onto the headlines of the world’s newspaper for almost 15 years now. It is a time when the question lingers on the periphery “Why would anyone want to become or remain Catholic today?” and its more focused parallel: “Why would a man want to become or remain a priest today?”
Perhaps today you will meet an angry, confused or troubled parishioners whose faith is scarred by the sex abuse scandal? Perhaps tomorrow you will be transferred into a parish whose heart is broken over the robbed innocence of their children, to weep inside that a fellow priest could desecrate something so beautiful as a child and a something so precious as priesthood. To realize that something a simple as a child running to give you a hug is no longer a simple thing.
When someone asks what is it like to be a priest in these days I always wonder what images they are holding within. Modern priesthood is not as simple as Bing Crosby’s portrayal of Fr. O’Malley in the 1945 classic “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” We are not so glib, as handsome, or so sure of ourselves. There is rarely enough time to attend to all who come to the parish in need. The days are spent celebrating the sacraments of Eucharist, Reconciliation, meeting with people for counseling, marriage preparation, working with the homeless who come to the parish, preparing for evening meetings and formation, fixing dinner for my community of Franciscans, returning phone calls, emails, wondering when you will find time to take a day off, and then spending the night in a hospital waiting room with a distraught family whose father is unexpectedly passing into God’s bright Glory when the surgery was supposed to be routine. Why would someone spent their life energy when parishes are closing, Catholic schools struggle, every year Catholic hospitals disappear, and the Academy Award winning movie is about the scandal in the city of Boston?
No rational person would do it for a salary that is miniscule, a retirement that is tenuous, hours that are long – all knowing that the headlines of tomorrow’s paper may have another story that cuts to quick. How can one persevere in this ministry, much less invite others to join this life.
Because we have been called. Because he has been called. Because he has heard the Word of God which comes in the times of joy and sorrow, distress and discouragement. He has heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and he follows. And in that Voice is the unshakeable truth – not that all will turn out well – but that the Father, Son and Spirit will be near and we will abide in the love of God. And there it is – because he has been called to abide in the love of God – as have all believers – but to some there is a special call, a different call that arises from our common baptism. The call to be a sign of God’s love abiding in the world. A sign that God loves, heals, forgives, stirs hearts, speaks boldly of salvation, and graces us with faith, perseverance, and hope – hope even in the darkest of hours, days or even years. A sign that we will never be abandoned by the God whose unconditional love is at the very core of the gospel proclaimed. This one belief holds me safe even when hardly anything else feels secure.
Every Christian is called to the vocation of holiness and worship – called to the encounter of the abiding love of Jesus Christ. In the depths of every authentic Christian there is an echo of the experience of Peter on the shore of the Sea of Tiberius. Peter, a sinner, the one who three times denied Jesus. And then Jesus speaks to the heart “Do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Our answer of love then becomes the basis of our vocations – as mothers, fathers, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. For others, in response to “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” There are the simple words of the Good Shepherd: “Tend my sheep.” The call that you are needed for the life to shepherd of all that God holds dear – the community of the faithful.
If our love for Jesus Christ is truly genuine, then despite our own wonderment of whom-am-I to be called to tend the sheep of the Good Shepherd, fears about what I must forego and set aside, despite concerns about an unknown walk of faith, despite every hesitation, doubt – or even other voices asking, “How can you want to be a priest in this church.” Despite all this the words of Scripture ring true: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. … No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand” Those words become vocation and holy charge – for us all!
On this Sunday, we are a people asked to pray for vocations. And we are people perhaps called to speak the name of those among us whom we intuit, we sense, we perceive, we discern may have special call to follow Christ in ordained ministry. Maybe they are our brother, our cousin, our friend. God knows who they are – many times we sense who they are before they do. They are already following the Good Shepherd, but there is a road less traveled that awaits them. And on this Sunday we are called to speak their name and to ask them about that road. “Have you ever thought about….?”
Some are called to the holy and humbling task to tend the Sheep of the Good Shepherd. All of us are called to hear the voice of that Good Shepherd and to follow into the ever abiding love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To the safety of divine love, when little else may feel secure.