This fourth Sunday of Easter is known also today by another name, as we recount once more in the gospel the familiar parable of the good shepherd. Good Shepherd Sunday is marked in Rome by the ordination of men to the sacred priesthood by the Holy Father in Saint Peter’s basilica, and we keep in our minds today all those who are preparing to receive holy orders this summer, especially Brother Peter Martyr O.P., who serves in this parish. Today is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, and so we think also in more general terms about the call of the sacred priesthood, and ask ourselves what it is that we are doing to encourage and support those who may be summoned to live this life, and if we might do more to help.
The principal model for the priest, presented in this passage from the gospel according to Saint John, is that of a pastor. He is the one who guards the sheep and keeps them safely within the fold. “He walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow”, we are told, and so the life of the priest must be one of real example to his flock. When we come to Mass, the priest physically stands ahead of us, leading us to the Father in the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice. And in his own life, too, he lives – through the gift of celibacy – with an undivided heart, in order to be singularly committed to Christ and his Church in carrying out his appointed task: the care and salvation of souls.
When he stands at the altar or grants absolution in the confessional or baptizes at the font, we speak of the priest as one who does so in persona Christi, that is in the person of Christ. He speaks in the first person singular: “This is my body”; “I absolve”; “I baptize”, because he does so on behalf of Christ himself and in the name of Christ’s Church. This is an awesome task for a mere man, and so God gives the priest supernatural grace in ordination, to carry out his will in the world. As Saint John Vianney, the patron saints of parish priests says, “The priest will not understand the greatness of his office till he is in heaven. If he understood it on earth, he would die, not of fear, but of love” (Catechism on the Priesthood). This conforming of his self to Christ, as Saint Peter reminds us in this evening’s second reading, is a conforming to the passion of Christ; to his suffering and cross. It is by living this life of the cross that the priest learns to unite himself intimately to the sacrifice that Christ there offers and which, through the priest, is re-presented for us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps”.
So this great vocation, which no one is fit or capable to bear without God’s grace, is something at once supernatural and yet nevertheless something to be presented and promoted unequivocally as a realistic way of life for all Christian men. Every boy, every young man should ask, and should be asked, if he is being called by Christ to take on this awesome mission. When we talk about a vocations crisis in the Church we must admit that it is not for a lack of those called by God, but a lack of those willing to respond to that call. And so it becomes the task of each and every one of us to discern, nurture, and encourage vocations, so that we might have priests to bring Christ to us, and us to Christ.
We might reflect with some sadness that these days many parents and grandparents – even those from traditionally strong Catholic families – might dissuade their sons from this path, even if that in fact means disobeying a call directly from God. In our homes and parishes and families, then, we must create a culture where the priesthood is better understood and the true significance of its calling is recognized for what it is: not simply a lifestyle choice or career option, but the means by which certain men are called to get to heaven.
Alongside this practical task, we need also to pray for vocations to the sacred priesthood. In one parish I visited last October, every Sunday Mass hears the people pray aloud, “Lord, send us priests! Lord, send us holy priests! Lord, send us many holy priests!”. I don’t know if that was on the lips of parishioners at Saint Thomas Apostle before last summer, but you have in the Fathers of the nascent oratorian community in this parish the answer to many prayers, and a chance to build here exactly that culture of discernment and vocation that would be the envy of many-a-place. You have wonderful and exemplary priests here; pray for them, and pray earnestly that more may join this community, that it may flourish. When should not expect priests simply to appear out of thin air, but rather trust in God’s providence and so pray each and every day that the Lord will send holy, faithful, and obedient men, to serve as the pastors and shepherds of his flock.
Christ the Good Shepherd seeks to draw us all into the fullness of the fold. This, too, is the task of those ordained for service in the Church, and who configure their lives intimately to his. Let us pray that the mission of the Good Shepherd may be furthered by our own lives and actions, and most especially today by a joyous renewal and reawakening of the call to the sacred priesthood, that those who are called may hear the Lord’s summons. Lord, send us priests! Lord, send us holy priests! Lord, send us many holy priests!