Gospel reflections – Fourth Sunday of Easter
3 May 2020
The Shepherd and Guardian of our souls
Each year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the church marks Vocation Sunday. It is a day in which the church throughout the world promotes vocations to the priesthood taking after the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Today’s Scripture readings make use of two images of the shepherd to illustrate God as the Good shepherd. The first image is taken from today’s Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 22, which speaks of the Lord as the shepherd in whom we find security. This image of the Lord as the Good Shepherd takes after the real life experience of the shepherds who spent their lives with their sheep, searching for pastures to feed them, places for them to drink, shelter from the elements and protection from the heat and their enemies.
The second image from the Gospel of St John shows Jesus proclaiming himself to be ‘the gate of the sheepfold’. In calling himself the ‘gate of the sheepfold’, Jesus was using an example that his listeners understood. The sheepfold is a small enclosure, surrounded by walls of thorn bushes or a cave, with an opening or door. Through this door, the shepherd leads the sheep out every morning, and through it he leads them home again at night. Once the sheep are inside, the shepherd sleeps in that opening or door all night. During the night, neither the thief can come in nor the sheep go out without stepping over the shepherd’s body. This is what Jesus meant when he said that he is the ‘gate of the sheepfold’.
With these images of Jesus as the Good Shepherd or the ‘gate of the sheepfold’, the church calls on us today to pray for more vocations to the priesthood. In his message on this 57th World Day of Prayer for Vocations (8.3.20), Pope Francis chose four key words – pain, gratitude, encouragement and praise – as a way of thanking priests and supporting their ministry.
The four key words can be used in this image of the Good Shepherd. However, before one can become a shepherd, one has to learn how to be a sheep. This applies not just to priests alone but to any lay leaders in the Christian community.
The first is gratitude. A sheep depends on the shepherd for everything from finding the right path, the pasture to graze on, to protecting the sheep. The role of the sheep is to listen and follow the voice of the shepherd. The role of the shepherd is more demanding. He is to lead, guide, accompany and protect the sheep and the whole herd. A vocation is to respond to the Lord’s call. It is a call to follow the Lord like sheep. It is a call to love lovingly at the Lord, open our heart in gratitude to him and perceive the passage of God in our lives. All these are completed in love and humility. When a person is able to listen to the Lord and follow, can he learn the way of the shepherd. In addition, when a sheep is able to listen and respond in love and humility, can he be a shepherd who serves the sheep in love and humility.
The second is encouragement. Pope Francis speaks of certain “ghosts” that trouble our hearts. As sheep who is called to listen and respond, there may be present the “ghost of disbelief”. Questions and doubts may arise. “Surely, this vocation is not for me! Can this really be the right path? Is the Lord really asking me to do this?” The sheep has to learn to overcome these “ghosts” which may hamper one’s determination and leave one hesitant and powerless. A fundamental life choice is called for; this call for courage. In overcoming these “ghosts”, the sheep learns the strength of the shepherd which are wisdom and understanding. Shepherds need to possess the wisdom to lead the sheep and the wisdom of understanding the “ghosts” of his sheep. Shepherds will also need to have the courage to know in faith that the Lord is present and will come to meet him and his flock.
The third is pain or fatigue. “This is when the demands of the day, the hard work, the sense of isolation, the risk of falling into a rut that can gradually make the ardent flame of our vocation die down, the burden of the uncertainty and insecurity of the times, and worry about the future set in”. It is like the image of a lost sheep or the image of sheep without their shepherd. It is in those times that we sincerely rely on no-one else to help but the Lord. The sheep have to learn and know that the shepherd will take care of them and that the forces of evil, fear and resignation have power over them. Only in learning to overcome the pain of temptations and sin, can one learn to be a shepherd who leads and protects the flock.
The fourth is praise. Under the loving gaze and care of the shepherd, can the sheep be grateful and be full of praise for the shepherd. The shepherd is always there for his sheep. The gratitude of the sheep is expressed in praise of the shepherd, even in the difficult moments. Pope Francis says, “This is the last of our vocation words, and it is an invitation to cultivate the interior disposition of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.
May Mary, the Mother of the Good Shepherd, pray for us.
Fr Patrick Heng
Blessed Sacrament Church, BDC, Kuching