Today we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, and that title, of course, is taken from the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. Jesus announces to the people of Israel, and to all of us, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
That title for Christ may be very familiar to us as Christians, but for the people of Israel the image of a shepherd would have been literally charged with meaning. Remember it was Moses who led the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, across the desert, and into the Promised Land. But long before that, he had been a shepherd, “tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro” (Exodus 3:1).
King David, the greatest king in the history of Israel, was called by God when he was just a shepherd boy; God called him to be the shepherd and leader of the people. He would later reflect on the tender care and providence of God in his own life, and write “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”
Yet it was the prophets who would eventually connect that image of shepherd not to a single man—Jacob, or Moses, or David—but to all the leaders of the people of Israel. One of the great promises of God in the Old Testament comes to us through the prophet Jeremiah, regarding the shepherds whom God will always provide for His people. God says, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart” (Jeremiah 3:15).
But Ezekiel brings into sharp contrast, around the time of the Babylonian Exile, how those shepherds of Israel, which God had appointed, were bad shepherds. They had not cared for the flock or looked after the people. Instead, they had only looked after themselves. God cries out to them, through the prophet Ezekiel:
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost…
They had not led the people; as shepherds, they had not fed the people. Instead, they had only fed themselves. With a deep and haunting sense of justice, God says, “I swear I am coming against these shepherds.” No longer will they lead this people. Instead, God says, “I myself will do it!” I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep (Ezekiel 34:11).
I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled and I will strengthen the weak (Ezekiel 34:16).
And then He offers, through the prophet, a promise that would have been breathtaking to the people of Israel: I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd (Ezekiel 34:23). It was the promise of the Messiah, born of the house of David.
Into this context Jesus Christ comes and announces to the people of Israel: “I am the Good Shepherd.” It was the fulfillment of everything they had hoped for, everything God had promised.
In Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, they saw a man totally committed to the people of Israel, to feeding not Himself but the people with the word of God and the Bread of Life. Thousands came out to hear Him explain the Scriptures and proclaim the kingdom of God. He was totally committed to the people, and gave them His own body and His own blood in the Eucharist.
And in Jesus Christ they saw a shepherd willing to sacrifice Himself for the sheep. In that same tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
He was willing to sacrifice His own life on the cross, to suffer and die so that we could be forgiven, and so that He could say what we heard in the gospel this weekend:
I give them eternal life and they shall never perish (John 10:28).
That is the fullness of what Jesus means when He says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” and it is at the heart of what we celebrate today. It is also why the Church throughout the world today observes the 44th World Day of Prayer for Vocations. We believe that the same God who cared for and lovingly guided the Church at its foundation will continue to do so in our own day by providing the vocations to the priesthood and religious life that sustain the Church in every age.
In 1993, Pope John Paul II wrote the foundational Apostolic Exhortation on priestly formation called Pastores Dabo Vobis: I Will Give You Shepherds. He begins that document by quoting God’s great promise from the prophet Jeremiah: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart” (Jeremiah 3:15). It is a promise we can count on, and one that gives us tremendous hope. In fact, says Pope John Paul II, the commandments of God depend upon Him answering our prayers for more vocations!
God has commanded the Church to preach the gospel to all nations and to celebrate the Eucharist; to “do this in memory of me.” Those commandments are dependent upon the gift of the priesthood, which God has given, and will continue to give, to the Church (Pastores Dabo Vobis, #1). And in many places throughout the world, the Church is teeming with vocations.
In Africa, parts of Asia and South America, and in countries like Poland, there are so many priests that some are sent here to the United States to lead and guide our churches. In reality, we are experiencing here in our country what has often been called a “vocations crisis.” Why is that?
I do not think there are any easy answers to this question, but I would suggest that part of the problem has to do with the lack of value we place in our culture at this time on two of the things so evident in Christ, the Good Shepherd: commitment and sacrifice.
There is a lack of commitment in the culture we live in, and not just in relation to the priesthood. There is a lack of commitment in marriage between a man and a woman, “until death do us part.” There is a lack of commitment in relationships, in business, and in many other areas. Where there is a crisis in commitment, there is bound to be a crisis in vocations.
Secondly, our culture places a very low value on sacrifice. We live in a hedonistic society that places pleasure on a pedestal. It’s me first, and sacrifice second. It should not surprise us in the least that in a country where sacrifice and commitment are not valued enough, neither will there be much regard for vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
With that said, I would like to bring things to a much more personal level. I love being a Catholic priest! I love everything about it. Each day I thank God for the gift and call of the priesthood in my life. There are a thousand things about the priesthood that I love, but today I would like to share with you only two of them (I'll try to cover the other 998 next week!).
The first is commitment. I love being totally committed to Jesus Christ, and His Bride, the Church. I love being committed to teaching at the school next door, to visiting the hospitals and the homes of the people of this parish whenever I am called upon to do that. I love being totally committed to celebrating the Eucharist and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ here in this place, day in and day out, week after week. I love that commitment. I am not constrained by that in the least. In fact, to be committed to those things gives me tremendous freedom and an indescribable joy!
The second thing I love about the priesthood? Sacrifice. I love the fact that my sacrifice means something to God. I love the fact that my “Yes” to God’s call in my life, and all the challenges that sometimes entails, that means something to God and to the people I serve. I love the fact that my struggles, my difficulties, my sufferings, together with your struggles, your difficulties, and your sufferings, can be united on that altar and joined together with the one sacrifice of Christ, and that means something.
I love the priesthood because that commitment and sacrifice gives meaning and purpose to my life and to the lives of those I am called to serve. And so today we join the Church throughout the world in praying to God for an increase in vocations to the priesthood, for all of the men whom God is calling to make that same commitment and that same sacrifice, which leads in the end to freedom and joy in Christ.
We also pray for all the men and women that God is calling to serve Him in religious life. In a particular way, we pray that God would continue His promise of providing the Church with “shepherds after [His] own heart,” and that He would help us all to place a greater value on commitment and sacrifice in our Church, our families, and in our own personal lives as we continue to listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow Him to eternal life.