Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 22, 2018
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Today we read the Gospel of the Good Shepherd.
What more beloved image do we have of our Lord Jesus, than
the image of the shepherd
who lovingly tends and feeds his lambs and sheep,
who goes searching for lost sheep,
and who not only fights off the wolves that prey on his sheep,
but is willing even to lay down his life for his sheep?
Who knows and cares for each one of his sheep individually,
and whose sheep know him, and follow him where ever he leads.
It is a beautiful image, and comforting and strong image.
And to a man who is called to stand in the place of Christ in the world, a priest,
it is an inspiring image, especially a man who is called to be a “pastor,”
which is, of course, the Latin word for shepherd.
And so, while today is called “Good Shepherd Sunday,”
the Church also calls it the “World Day of Prayer for Vocations,”
vocations to the religious life, but especially to the priesthood,
as it holds out the image of the Good Shepherd
and asks young men: are you called to follow in his footsteps?
As I said, this is an inspiring image to priests and would be priests.
But it can also be an intimidating image to them.
In today’s gospel Jesus points out that not all who tend the sheep
are true shepherds:
some are mere hired hands, who only care about the pay,
and not so much about the sheep.
Any priest who’s honest with himself recognizes the temptations that exist
to be more like the hired hand, than like the good shepherd.
Not that they are priests for the money, because the money’s pretty bad.
There have been times when that wasn’t the case,
when some men treated the priesthood as just another career opportunity.
For example, in the middle ages, in the noble families,
the first son would inherit the title,
the second son would serve in the army,
and the third son serve in the church,
maybe to become a bishop or an abbot,
and earn a good living as such.
Today this kind of thing still exists in some poorer countries,
where the standard of living is poor and some see the priesthood
as a way out of poverty—not so much to riches, but to security.
And when it wasn’t money or security,
it was often the other material perks that that attracted men to the priesthood.
Not too long ago, to be a priest was a position of great honor and prestige:
to be a pastor of a parish made you a force in the community, even in politics.
People gave you all sorts of gifts,
and even non-Catholics showed your deference,
for example, standing when you entered the room.
For the most part, most of those kinds of perks are gone today
In fact, the opposite is true:
the priest is more and more disrespected,
his peers make much more money and have much more financial security,
and, in some places in the world, he is the first targeted for martyrdom.
Even among Catholics, he’s looked down upon by many
who think there must be something wrong with him to want to be celibate,
or to hide from the real world.
And now, more and more even little children who used to stand in awe of priests,
are taught that we are bigots and haters.
But if a priest, or a would-be priest, is honest with himself,
he can still recognize that there are still lots of ways
to gain favor, prestige, and even wealth.
If he tries to entertain, or he tells people what they want to hear,
especially when he challenges Church moral teaching.
He can even give speeches and write books and articles
to make a little money as well, especially if it challenges Church teaching.
So, for every priest he must decide and commit himself
to one or the other model for his priesthood:
The Good Shepherd, or the hired hand.
Mind you, hired hands can enjoy their work
—they may even really like the sheep in their care,
and the shepherd they’re working for.
And so a priest might really like the work of the priesthood,
including, especially working with the people.
But in the end, it comes down to what happens,
as Jesus says in today’s gospel,
when the wolves come–then what does he do?
Does he run and leave the sheep to be eaten by the wolves,
or does he take a stand and protect his sheep,
even if it means he might suffer or even die?
Does he run, or does he lay down his life for the sheep?
Is he a priest who is a hired hand, or a good shepherd?
The same thing is essential in discerning a vocation to the priesthood.
Many young men will understandably get all caught up in asking themselves,
what do I want to do? What will make me happy?
But the question should be, what does Jesus want you to do?
What would make Jesus happy?
Now, as I say this, you should know that in the end,
what Jesus wants and makes Him happy,
is really what will make us happy.
Because Jesus loves us more than we love ourselves,
and He knows us better than we know ourselves.
So if we follow His will, it will lead us to happiness.
Because the thing is, we get confused about what will make us happy.
For most of us, most of the time,
it is material things and human comforts
that we recognize as giving us pleasure.
But we fail to recognize that our truest happiness
lies in becoming the best we can be, the best God created us to be.
So a young man may look at marriage, a career, interesting work and money,
and say, that’s really what I want.
And none of that is bad.
But did God make you to be a hired hand, or a shepherd?
Did he make you so you could satisfy yourself,
or so that you could care for others?
In short, did he create you to be selfish, or to love.
When we approach discernment this way, things change.
For a priest, this perspective causes him
not to focus on what will make him popular or comfortable,
but what will be best for his people, his flock.
For a young man discerning a call to the priesthood,
this will cause him to focus not on what will bring him satisfaction,
but what will be best for those God seeks to entrust to him.
He asks essentially, do I love myself more, or God and His Church more?
And if he is willing to do whatever God wants,
to lay aside his concerns for himself,
then he will be open to becoming the man God calls him to be.
And that may be as a priest—or as a layman, married with children.
Because husbands and fathers can also approach their marriages and families
like a hired hand:
seeking what pleasure they can get from their wives and children,
and ignoring the hard parts of leading a family.
And then I guarantee you—no one will be happy,
as the family will fail, and fall prey to the wolves, or scatter.
So the key for all of us, young men and women, and old men and women,
priests and religious brothers and sisters,
to discerning what we should do in life
is not first and foremost what makes you happy,
but what would make God happy, what is God’s will
—because whatever that is, will, in the end, make you happy.
Even if he calls you to be a teacher, architect soldier or a construction worker,
rather than a priest.
Or a father whose wife gets cancer,
and whose children get caught up in the evils of the world.
A husband, who doesn’t run away, because he doesn’t get paid enough for this.
But a father who stays and lays down his life for his sheep.
Or if he calls you to be a priest, to do the same.
Today on this Good Shepherd Sunday,
we thank the Lord Jesus for being our true good shepherd:
for tending and feeding us,
for seeking us out when we go astray and bringing us home,
for knowing and loving each one of us so tenderly,
and for standing and fighting off the wolves,
and laying down his life for us.
But let us also pray for our priests and bishops, and our Pope,
that they may always follow the way of the Good Shepherd,
and never fall to the temptations of the hired hand.
And let us pray for vocations to the religious life and especially to the priesthood:
may all of our young people make choices
after careful and grace-filled discernment,
not of what they want, but what God wants for them.
That they may not seek to be hired hands,
but true shepherds in whatever path Christ calls them.