April 2005

 

Called to Live the Gospel ©

Each year, the Catholic Church sets aside one Sunday as The World Day of Prayer for Vocations. In its liturgy, it presents a reading from John’s Gospel that compares Jesus to the good shepherd who feeds and protects those in his care. (cf. John 10)

This recalls the familiar Psalm 23 from which people of faith draw so much comfort, particularly in times of trial: The Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

The Gospel narrative focuses on the qualities of the ideal shepherd, beginning with the word “good”. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we are told. This indicates that he is filled with goodness, not mere competence, because he speaks the truth and acts in love.

Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his flock. A true shepherd, in other words, is someone who cares enough about his sheep that he is willing to go to the limits of providing the protection that he promises. If necessary, he is willing to die for them.

False shepherds will make similar sounds or claims but their words are not supported by action. Only the good shepherd will lay down his life for his sheep.

The good shepherd will protect his sheep from being ravaged by wolves. This reminds us of God sending prophets to warn us of the ever-present danger posed by lifestyles and attitudes that are unwholesome.

The good shepherd not only protects the sheep from harm, he gives them life: I cam that they might have life and have it abundantly. Hired shepherds will try to protect the sheep by confining them. This saves the sheep from destruction but does not give them an opportunity to enjoy the fullness or potential of what life offers. The good shepherd, on the other hand, follows and protects the sheep wherever nourishing grasses grow.

What are we to take of this message for ourselves?

First, each of us is called by the good shepherd, Jesus the Christ. Because he loves us, because he laid down his life for us, because he came that we might have life and have it abundantly, we are called.

Second, to be called means to be significant in the eyes of the good shepherd. It also means that we are called to occupy a particular place in the flock. The abundant life that he gives us is a role that we are to occupy in the big picture of the life of the flock.

Third, each of us is called. Each of us is important. Each of us has a place to occupy and a role to fulfil. We call that our vocation and it comes from God. Each of us is blessed with a unique “name” and each life with a particular meaning or purpose. Each of us is indispensable in continuing the mission that Jesus inaugurated more than 2,000 years ago or, more precisely, at the beginning of creation.

+ + +

One thing that strikes me about Jesus’ account of what makes a good shepherd in relation to vocations is the idea that the sheep recognize his voice.

We are told that sheep will not follow false shepherds or thieves that would harm them because they know the voice: 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.

Each of us is called. Some translations say by name and others one by one. What is certain is that the call is as unique as a fingerprint, and the role to which we are called is indispensable in the construction of God’s kingdom. We are also called to be, in turn, shepherds serving to nourish and protect others in the name of Jesus. (Each time we speak the truth or act in love, we are being shepherds in that we nourish and protect others in a world starved for truth and ravaged by various forms of violence.)

When we pray for vocations, we do not pray that Jesus calls people but that people hear and attend to his call.

The idea that we follow the recognizable voice of goodness made me wonder if the problem many people have in discerning God’s plan for their lives isn’t a matter of knowing his voice.

What does this suggest?

Firstly, it is a matter of familiarity with the shepherd’s speech. In the case of Jesus, we develop this through the reading and hearing of scripture, through bible study and through careful study of Church teachings.

Secondly, it is a matter of knowing the tone of the shepherd’s voice. In the case of Jesus, the tone strikes a balance between love and truth; between justice and mercy; and between prayer and action.

Thirdly, it is a matter of recalling how the shepherd behaves when he speaks. In the case of Jesus, he demonstrates a servant attitude, a loving disposition and authority exercised through exemplary behaviour.

When most of us begin to get in touch with that deep though sometimes-fuzzy desire to move in a particular way in response to the tug we feel from God, we instinctively look to people in similar roles. For example, if we feel a call to married life, we reflect on the lives of married people around us. If we feel called to religious life, we examine the daily activities of men and women already in consecrated ministries.

What we see and experience often affects how we feel about the role we are called to play.

On the positive side, we have models such as the one offered by our late Pope John Paul II who demonstrated two essential characteristic of authentic response to God’s call, namely coherence and courage. Unquestionably, John Paul II was the good shepherd whose flock knew his voice.

At some profound and mysteriously intuitive level, the flock knew that he was a good shepherd insofar as he loved them and genuinely sought their welfare and protection. In the verses that follow, Jesus says, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, unlike the false shepherd who behaves much like a real one, save for what motivates him. Because he seeks self-interest rather than the care of the sheep in his care, he sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.

Scattered sheep are a sign of the presence of self-serving leadership. It is only to the extent that we are in God and God is in us that we can function as good shepherds. Scattered sheep are a sign that the sheep are not hearing a voice familiar to their heart. The heart knows what is true and good.

Jesus is the good shepherd and speaks truth. He does the will of the Father:

+ + +

For the sheep to know the shepherd’s voice, they must hear it. This may appear obvious. Nonetheless, we do well to recall how important it is for people to hear the word of God, to develop a familiarity with it and to know what is of God as opposed to what is not from God.

It is imperative that people hear the word of God often in order to judge whether a call is from God or from the Deceiver. So important is this that Saint Paul declares, how can (people) believe if they have not heard the message? And how can they hear if the message is not proclaimed? And how can the message be proclaimed if the messengers are not sent out? (Rom. 10:14-15)

God is truth and love. The word of God is truth and love. The spirit of God is the truth of love and the love of truth. Truth and love, therefore, are inseparable. As shepherds serving in the Lord’s name, we err if, like a hollow gong, we speak or promote truth without love. Similarly, we err if we act foolishly out of rudderless love.

+ + +

I have other sheep, says Jesus, that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.(John 10:16).
Pope Benedict XVI has assumed the work of promoting full unity among Christians separated in various churches and confessions.

During the first message of his pontificate, read in the Sistine Chapel at the conclusion of a Eucharistic concelebration with cardinals, the Holy Father vowed to work without sparing energies for the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all the followers of Christ.

“Manifestations of good sentiments are not enough,” the new Pope said. “There must be concrete gestures that penetrate spirits and move consciences, leading each one to that interior conversion that is the assumption of all progress on the path of ecumenism. Theological dialogue is necessary, in-depth knowledge of the historical reasons of choices made in the past is perhaps indispensable.

“But what is urgent in the main is that ‘purification of the memory,’ so many times recalled by John Paul II, which alone can dispose spirits to receive the full truth of Christ. It is before him, supreme Judge of every living being, that each one of us must place himself, in the awareness of one day having to render an account to him of what one has done or not done for the great good of the full and visible unity of all his disciples.”

– From ZENIT News Service