Yes, He is the Good Shepherd,
Who never leaves His Flock untended!
“I, John, saw a huge number, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language; they were standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands… These are the people who have been through the great persecution… and the One who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them… and God will wipe away all tears from their eyes.” (Apocalypse – II Reading for the 4th Sunday of Easter)
Apart from its being an obvious choice, I don’t think a better Sunday could have been chosen for the annual world day of prayer for vocations. Beyond the intention “Lord, grant us more and better vocations to the priesthood and religious life”, inspired by Jesus’ own words about the harvest being great, the laborers scarce, and his command to pray the Lord of the Harvest to send workers into His vineyard, there is so much consolation in the image of the Good Shepherd, Who never leaves His flock untended. This just had to be the Sunday; it is the only Sunday optimal to provide the backdrop for this prayer commanded by Jesus Himself.
Many people today speak gravely of an insufficiency of vocations, one which goes beyond the shortage mentioned in Jesus’ command to pray the Lord of the Harvest to send workers. In some places in our world an atmosphere of panic or despair seems to hold sway. Is the Lord indeed in charge and what is His will for His Church? Scholarly authors often write about how consoling the Book of Revelation, The Apocalypse, was to the early Church in times of persecution. I find it to be so today as well. Besides holding out hope for eternity in the face of an “in-time” which is anything but consoling, the Apocalypse shows us the ultimate implications of the glory foretold by Jesus of Himself and seen by His disciples, the glory of the Risen Christ tangible in His Exaltation upon the Cross. Life this side of heaven is truly washed and saved in the Blood of the Lamb. “Unless the Lord builds the house they labor in vain who build it.” No one but no one is going to steal the sheep out of the hands of the Shepherd to whom the Father has entrusted them. Our prayer for vocations finds its perspective in our expectation of the Dawn from on high which will break upon us. In a sense then, it almost seems folly to speak of a vocations crisis. A given person or generation may be marked by faithlessness, and thereby by a certain sterility or lack of fruitfulness, but the Lord continues to gather to Himself those who hear His voice and obey Him, even in adversity.
A territory is never evangelized once and for all time. I can remember years ago hearing from Franciscans in the Holy Land of their gratitude to the King and the Royal Family of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which had permitted and even supported the archaeological digs that uncovered countless mosaic pavements from early Christian churches buried under the sands of time throughout that land. The king was willing to allow an early chapter in the history of his territory to come to light and to be shared with the majority Moslem population of today. He was willing to find ways to avow Christianity as a part of Jordan’s national heritage. Thanks to his magnanimity the Christian minority was allowed to marvel at the glory, in a sense, which was once theirs. Monuments and milestones, however, are not what make the Church. In no sense would it be reasonable to rebuild all those churches and provide each one with a priest if there are no communities of Catholics to benefit from the reconstruction and from this ministry. You can’t measure the need or scarcity of vocations by the number of square feet of once sacred ground no longer occupied. It reminds me of a pilgrimage stop our bus group made in Galilee at Naim at the little Franciscan shrine recalling Jesus’ raising from the dead of the only son of a widowed mother of that town, a town where no Christians at all lived when we visited and where the empty little church was usually kept locked. Thinking of our First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Barnabas understood clearly, as has the Church in every day and time, what it means to fulfill the Lords command: “I have made you a light for the nations, so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” There is something fortuitous or Spirit-driven about the way the faith sprouts and grows. We can turn our backs on rocky soil and weed-choked plots, while rejoicing in the rich soil attentive to God’s word and command.
“I, John, saw a huge number, impossible to count…” The bottom line is always the same, namely to bring everyone we can before the throne and before the Lamb. We want as many as possible to share the Lord’s joy. Faith might flag for a time in a given territory or even throughout extensive parts of the world, but the seed planted grows even while the farmer sleeps. Nonetheless, we cannot remain idle. Priests and priestly vocations are a sign of the vitality of the faith; where they are lacking, so unfortunately is faith, so is the hunger for truth. St. Monica spent her whole life trying to bring her son, St. Augustine, to the saving waters of baptism. The Lord heard her prayers and granted also her husband’s conversion before his death. Her faith brought forth an abundant harvest. As much as we have a right to lament the shortages, we have a call to pray the Lord of the Harvest. May He touch hearts and lives, may those destined to be saved be drawn to our number and by the grace of God persevere!
I’m beginning to dread willfulness, that stubborn refusal to be led by God, more than any other defect. Coaches for team sports lord it over their charges and in the course of hard practices and much shouting, sort of like in the drilling of soldiers, mold a group into a team which functions as one man, as a fine-tuned instrument. There is something to be said for that kind of esprit du corps within the Church. I won’t use that image, however, because while adequate to describing the route to winning and achievement, it lacks all of the subtlety and care, the nurturing implied by the figure of the Good Shepherd. We could go on about all the shepherd does for the good of the flock, but just as important is the way he fosters the life of each and every single one of his charges.We pray today for an increase in vocations; we do so with unbounded confidence in the Good Shepherd, Who never leaves His flock untended.