Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Good Shepherd calls His own

Fourth Sunday of Easter
“Good Shepherd Sunday” – 29 April 2007
Rosary Monastery, St. Ann’s
Port of Spain

“Paul and Barnabas urged them to remain faithful to the grace God had given them.”
“I have made you a light for the nations, so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”
“…the Lamb who is at the throne will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away all tears from their eyes.”
“The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; …they will never be lost and no one will ever steal them from me.”

Good Shepherd Sunday, as today is called, is dedicated to prayer for vocations, especially to priesthood and the religious life. We need to beseech God for religious and priestly vocations, but we also need to know why we ask this of Him.
If he were here to defend himself, Fr. Tiernan would probably correct me if I said that in the Ireland of his boyhood, the “why” of his vocation and that of so many other boys his age and older who went to the seminary was self-evident. Maybe it wasn’t. One thing however was clear still yet when my generation was hearing about such things 20 years later at school. Earlier generations had a more realistic idea of the prerequisites for a vocation to the priesthood, for example, than boys or young men do today.
We were told in religion class or catechism that the prerequisites for a priestly vocation were a sound mind and a sound body, a little better than average intelligence, and that was it. I can remember puzzling over that, because it didn’t seem all that romantic or supernatural, but it certainly was reassuring. Even I can be a priest, if God wants me.
You see, the point is that God calls. Years ago there was a brand of canned tuna which advertised on TV with a cartoon character named “Charlie, the Tuna”, who was always trying something new to get caught by the Starkist Tuna fishing boat. Sometimes he’d dress up, sometimes he’d be reading a book or playing a violin, but whenever he made a grab for the hook, it’d get away from him and come back with a note on it reading, “Sorry, Charlie, Starkist doesn’t want tuna with good taste, it wants tuna that tastes good!” It’s the same with vocations. God knows the heart, He knows us inside out and He is the one who calls us.
I was in Bermuda last weekend for the Annual Plenary Meeting of the Antilles Episcopal Conference (AEC). One of the big concerns which all the bishops shared was the scarcity of vocations to the priesthood here in the region. Aren’t there any? Aren’t there any young men around for the seminary? Isn’t God calling? Is He silent for some reason? The fact that we raise our prayer to God for vocations on Good Shepherd Sunday is in and of itself a partial answer to such questions. Of course there are vocations; of course God still calls and calls in sufficient numbers for the needs of the local Church and perhaps even for a mission outreach to people elsewhere; God does not leave His flock untended. He continues in our day and time to lead us to everlasting life in the community of the Church. Servants of His altar cannot be lacking. But…? But what?
In today’s Gospel we have the same thought: “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; …they will never be lost and no one will ever steal them from me.”
The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church and one of the practical applications of that teaching is the assurance that God will call sufficient men to serve at His altars.
Lots of times people will try to tell you that priests and bishops are the key to calling forth the next generation of vocations and the crisis of identity of priests is at the heart of the vocations crisis. Needless to say, this observation has some merit, but it does not contain the whole truth. As a little boy, I think I learned my appreciation for the priests, my respect and even awe for them at home. Until I became a priest myself at 25 years of age, I can count on one hand the number of priests who visited our family at home. Back then, Father didn’t greet at the door of the church after Mass either. There wasn’t much personal contact. But before he even spoke, I knew Father was important and he had a special part to play in God’s Universe. I learned that as a small child at home and the message was confirmed for me at school. Add to that the fact that even as a ten year old I could see I was healthy and everybody told me I had a better than average intelligence, and well, God did call me and He continues to call us from our mother’s womb as it is said.
I’ve read books that recount the story of so called belated or adult vocations. They’ll always talk about how they honestly fought their vocation, not because they didn’t want to be a priest, but because they couldn’t imagine themselves that way or felt themselves unworthy. They were stopping their ears, in a sense, and refusing to listen to God’s call as it came forth ever so subtly from their hearts and was confirmed by family, friends and teachers, who didn’t necessarily push, but pointed to a real possibility in life for them.
Faithfulness/perseverance in the priesthood or in the religious life is also rooted in lessons learned at home from Mommy and Daddy. Parents and their happiness in marriage are positive input for a call to celibacy or virginity. The Sacrament of Matrimony mirrors divine love and offers most of us the only experience of the sacrificial love of Jesus that we might readily have in life as young persons.
TV, Internet, certain types of live entertainment and music tend to drown silence out of our lives and fill our heads sometimes with wrong things and too often with distractions. What to do? Pray for yourself! Lord, help me to clear my ears, eyes and head.
The other day, in the gate area of Terminal A in Miami, waiting for my flight back to Port of Spain, I looked up from my book for a moment and everyone around me was talking on a cell phone, all ages, shapes and sizes. Truth to be told, I’d wished I’d had a cell phone the day before in New York where I couldn’t find a pay phone that worked. But back to our prayer: Lord, open my ears and my heart. Lord, touch the heart of that boy in the pew in front of me! Lord, call my grandson, if it be your will!
I can remember getting a little kind of sticker, slightly bigger than a bookmark that someone gave me when I was about ten which had the prayer on it: “Oh Lord, grant that I might become a priest after Thine own Heart.” I dare any boy or man here who has not committed himself yet in life to kneel down each night before you climb into bed and see if God doesn’t take you up on your offer if you sincerely recite that prayer, all other things (sound mind and body, better than average intelligence) being equal!

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