May 2000

The Shepherd In Us All ©

There is no doubt that the quintessential pastor is Jesus. In John’s gospel, we read how he defines himself as a shepherd and attributes to himself all the best qualities of a good shepherd.

Firstly, he tells us that a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. This recalls the opening verses of the 23rd psalm: The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. In green pastures you let me graze; to safe waters you lead me; you restore my strength. You guide me along the right path for the sake of your name. Even when I walk through a dark valley, I fear no harm for you are at my side; your rod and your staff give me courage.

Secondly, a good shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. Jesus tells us that this is just as the Father knows him and he knows the Father.

Thirdly, a good shepherd is concerned about sheep that do not belong to his fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. Here Jesus spoke of Gentiles, but could also be understood to be referring to all persons who do not currently know his voice to be the voice of the only shepherd who can confront the rapacious appetite of evil. Jesus here also holds up the promise of the unity of all creatures under one God.

See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.

– 1 John 3:1

And finally, a good shepherd has the power to lay down (his) life in order to take it up again. This, like the first point, is evidence of total dedication to the welfare of the much-loved sheep. It is also a recognition that the act of freely facing the dangers of destruction, the shepherd gains for himself and for those in his charge a liberty that transcends the earthly categories of life and death; joy and suffering; freedom and fear.

Traditionally, the Church teaches us that embedded in this biblical passage is a call to ordained ministers to take up the challenge of the good shepherd – to care for the fold in selfless love, as he himself taught through his own example. It is also seen as a call to each one of us to recognise the authority of these surrogate shepherds, since their authority is rooted in the Holy Spirit of Love that animates their ministry.

But I am inclined to read a wider invitation into this passage. Surely the Lord does not expect non-ordained ministers to watch passively as our brothers and sisters are harassed by ruthless wolves. Surely the Lord does not expect lay people to refuse direction to those that are lost or comfort to those that are wounded. Surely the Lord expects each of us to affirm the shepherd in us all.

What we will shall be has not yet been revealed.
– 1John 3:2

Not surprisingly, the Church uses the occasion of the proclamation of the good news of Jesus’ model stewardship as a platform from which to launch an appeal for “vocations”. The Church, among other things, urges us to “pray for vocations”.

This is an appeal that merits a full-hearted response from each one of us. But for the God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, this appeal also merits a thoughtful response.

Firstly, it must be understood that while there is manifestly a shortage of seminarians and religious novices, our concern must not be limited to this fact. There are many more jobs that need to be filled for God’s kingdom to be realised.

Secondly, we must develop a better understanding of what it means to pray for vocations.

When I hear someone say “Pray so that God may send more workers to the harvest”, I sometimes think to myself how odd is the premise on which this request seems to be founded.

It conjures in my imagination a scene wherein I would be shouting to a distracted God, reminding him – as though he was not aware – that we need more priests, deacons, and religious brothers and sisters…as though Jesus were so distracted playing video games that he has become unaware of the state that his church is currently in.

I have no doubt God knows the precise state of affairs. Also, I have no doubt that God regularly calls suitable men and women to the harvest – enough to do the job. But I also have no doubt that it would be grossly presumptuous of me to pretend to know precisely what that job is without listening carefully to the call.

The one thing that strikes me as most evident is that the Holy Spirit rearranges things to suit changing circumstances. The bible affords us plenty of evidence of this. Therefore, I believe that nothing short of conceit could incite me to think that I can know what God needs to do to make the world a better place.

Not only am I confident that he already knows, but I am also absolutely satisfied that he is actively doing something about it. Each minute of every day, he is calling each and every man, woman and child to follow him in a mission that is unique to each person.

As certain as I am that God calls each one of us to be ordained ministers, religious, married men and women, committed celibates, members of secular institutes and on and on, I am also certain that we are only half listening, if at all.

The one distracted by “video games” is not God; it’s me.

God whispers relentlessly. He calls me to do his will and part of that will is for me to accept my assigned duties. In effect, he calls me to achieve happiness by being what I was meant to be in the first place – not a square peg jammed into a round hole. He calls me to activate the multitudinous gifts and talents accorded to me at birth and renewed each day since then.

Yes, he typically whispers because it is his gentle nature to do so. He waits patiently for a response while my ears are constricted and my heart is cluttered with the distractions of daily life. And even where I can discern the loving whisper, I often lack the courage to defy the obstacles the Prince of Illusion sets on my path.

Indeed, I must pray for vocations. But mostly, I must pray that I and others like me may hear our unique call above the din of daily existence. I must pray that we may overcome our fears and useless anxieties in order to respond in an appropriate way.

I also must pray that we may not be satisfied in knowing that we are called to religious, or married, or celibate life, but that – perhaps more importantly – we are called to perform particular tasks. It is well for me to accept the call to married life, to ordination as a permanent deacon and to profession as a secular Franciscan, but I must be still more quizzical about what assignments my Lord mandates.

In his name, this man stands before you healed.
– Acts 4:10

Always, I must be aware that God’s call is unique, which means that I must listen carefully for the ways in which my Lord invites me to serve out my vocation in his name. What is my place in the gigantic puzzle that constitutes the fullness of Creation? What use does Jesus wish to make of my hands and my words?

How am I called to be an instrument of his infinite love? What precise type of instrument is the Holy Spirit shaping when I am called to bring peace and joy to those in anguish? How am I called to bring pardon where there is injury, faith where there is doubt, hope where there is despair and light where there is darkness?

Lord, let me hear your call clearly. Let my feet follow courageously in your footsteps and let my hands willingly give birth to the great goodness you need delivered to your people.

This is not a prayer reserved only for priests, deacons and religious brothers and sisters. It is a prayer for each and every man and woman who acknowledges his or her humanity; confesses his or her need for God’s love and his or her need to be an instrument of that love. That is our nature; that is the way we were conceived and that is the way we were created. That is to purpose to which we are called; that is our true vocation.