Sunday, April 29, 2007

"I know my sheep"

Jesus was walking around Heaven one day and came out by the gates where St. Peter was hard at work sorting out those who would enter Heaven from those who wouldn’t. Jesus said, “Pete, you’re at the gate a lot. When do you take a break?” Peter said, “Never. This is my job. All the time.” Jesus, feeling compassionate for his friend said, “Hey, I’ll take over for a while, why don’t you grab a cup of coffee.” Peter gladly said yes and went on his way. Jesus opened the Book of Life and looked up to the next person in line. “Name?” he said. “Mary O’Donnell,” the old woman responded. Seeing her name he said, “Ah, yes, here you are. Head right on in, we’ve been waiting for you…Next.” A middle-aged man stepped up and gave his name, “John Smith.” Jesus looked at the Book and didn’t see his name. “Sorry John, you’re not in here. You’ll have to take that elevator over there…press the down button…Next.” Suddenly an old man appeared before Jesus and he looked familiar. “And you are…” Jesus asked. The man responded, “I’m a carpenter. And, I was told that my son was in there. I’d like to see him. You’d recognize him, he’s got nail marks in his hands and in his feet.” Jesus was stunned, he leaned forward, looked at the old man, smiled and said, “Dad?” The man’s eyes widened and he looked at Jesus and said, “Pinnochio?”
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“I am the Good Shepherd, I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” We celebrate today the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. And, what a perfect day to be mindful of vocations as we hear this Gospel reading in which Jesus gives us this powerful image of Himself as the Good Shepherd.
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We first need to know a little bit about shepherds and what they do to understand what He means. In Jesus’ time, there were two kinds of shepherds. There was the hired hand for whom keeping the sheep was just the available job. He moved from flock to flock depending on the conditions of service and he would most definitely not risk his life for them. Seeing danger he would flee and leave the flock untended. Then there is the shepherd-owner of the flock who grows up with the flock and stays with the same flock all his life. He knows each and every sheep in the flock individually. He calls each one by name and knows everything about each of his sheep. He knows which ones are strong, which are weak; which ones might stray from the flock and would keep an eye on them. When in danger, he would risk his life to defend his sheep.
Jesus tells us that this is the kind of shepherd He is. He knows each one of us individually. He knows the cares and concerns of our lives. He knows our needs. He knows our strengths and weaknesses. He knows what we can be.
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And this is the heart of vocation. Discovering our best identity – who we are called to be in God’s sight. God continually calls people. We must create environments in our lives, in our families where we help and allow people to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, so that they can follow where he will lead. The Good Shepherd is calling all of us to something. He is most definitely calling someone here today to the priesthood or religious life. The question is, can we hear His voice?
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The challenge is for all of us to create environments that are supportive of people who think they might hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling them into a life of service in the church – as a priest, a deacon or religious sister or brother. It is up to us. We have to be the people who encourage our young to consider lives of dedication and service as priests and religious as something valuable. I don’t know if I would be a priest today if it weren’t for the support I received from crucial people in my life as I explored this call – Dominican sisters who taught me and encouraged a vocation in grammar school, my aunt Maureen who is a Sister of Mercy and who showed me the joy that can be found in religious life, Fr. Marc who was my first mentor and led me toward a life of priestly service, and most importantly my mother and father, who gave witness to me of what it means to live a Christian life.
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I challenge all of our young people to consider living a life dedicated to God as a priest or religious. And, even more so, I challenge everyone here today to pray for vocations and just as importantly encourage vocations. If you’ve ever thought that someone might be called to the priesthood or religious life, tell them. Maybe they’ve been waiting for someone to confirm what they’ve been feeling inside. We cannot bemoan the problem of fewer and fewer priests without recognizing our own responsibility in this regard.
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The question of vocation is all about identity. Who we are is what is important. And the only important answer to the question of our identity is who we are before God. St. Francis would remind his brothers, “You are what You are before God. That and nothing more.” The Good Shepherd helps us to see this. He knows who we are intimately and wants to help us grow to see ourselves primarily through the eyes of faith – as God’s sons and daughters. It is only when we know our true identity before God, that we discover our vocation.
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“I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and mine know me.”
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Let us pray that more young men and women will have the courage to pursue the vocation that God is calling them to; that they will follow the Good Shepherd. And let us be the people who encourage them to do so.
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May God bless the Church with many vocations and may God give you peace.

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