This is the first Sunday in the lovely month of May. I don’t remember Santa Paula Ridge so brimming over with yellow mustard last year! It is a beautiful springtime here at TAC, and every May we turn to Our Lady, Mother of Life. Tonight, after my “farewell barbecue” by the sports fields, we will have a rosary procession to the Lourdes Grotto. My best parting gift would be for you to pray the rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary with me tonight. Thanks to our dear Legion of Mary for organizing this, as always.
Good Shepherd Sunday
We call this “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because of its Gospel: Ego sum pastor bonus. For about sixty years now the Catholic Church has designated Good Shepherd Sunday as also “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.” A vocation to the priesthood is God’s call to be a shepherd, to offer one’s life for the sheep. The day I was ordained to the deaconate, a friend asked her daughter Hanna what happened that day. “This big man with a pointed hat made Uncle Joe a shepherd,” she said. The little girl instinctively knew that Holy Orders transformed a man into a “good shepherd” who lays down his life for others.
Christ suffered for you, Peter declares in the Epistle. Why did God have to suffer? First, because we had all gone astray like sheep, and someone needed to come to earth and rescue us, to pay the price, so to speak. “By his wounds have we been healed,” St. Peter continues. But more fundamentally, Jesus Christ suffered for us because he loved us, not as a mercanarius, a “hired man,” but as a shepherd. He proved his love for his Father by obeying him, and so proved his love for us by suffering in our place. There is no authentic love without suffering.
The Vocations Crisis is a Crisis of Faith
And so Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” He is good because he knows the Father and the Father knows him. Only in knowing the Father can the good shepherd know his sheep. Only in knowing the Father can a priest know his people, and knowing, love them, and loving them, serve them. The crisis of the priesthood, which began with Judas and will continue until the Second Coming—the crisis of unfaithful, scandalous priests, shepherds who eat their sheep, is fundamentally a crisis of faith. The crisis of vocations—the fact that the world has too few priests to meet the needs of the Church—is a crisis of faith, and nothing less. It is a crisis of priests who do not pray, and therefore know neither God nor their people. Not a few priests have been trained to be “activists” in seminaries—in bad seminaries—to consider prayer as something optional for those who like that kind of thing, but not essential to the priesthood. This is not true. A priest is essentially a man of prayer, as Jesus was essentially a man of prayer.
When I was in seminary a priest told me that “nothing can touch a man of prayer.” No real harm can come to a priest who is faithful to his prayer life, even when he doesn’t want to pray, or especially when he doesn’t want to pray. John Paul II defined the “parish” as a “school of prayer” in his blueprint for the Third Millennium. But how can a priest teach others to pray if he does not know how himself? It is hard to pray if you don’t know how. We must make time for prayer, and continually work on our prayer life.
Expect your Priests to Pray
And so the key, it seems to me, of this Good Shepherd Sunday, the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, is priestly prayer. Expect your priests to pray, to pray the Mass from the heart, to pray their breviaries faithfully, to make a daily holy hour, to go to confession every few weeks, to keep up their spiritual reading, to pray the rosary every day. In 23 years of the priesthood, no bishop or layperson has ever asked me if I’m faithful to my prayer life, to the breviary, the Mass, confession, to Our Lady. A few good priest friends have asked me, but no one to whom I’m actually accountable—neither to my superiors (bishops) nor the people I serve (laity).
Pray for your priests, yes, pray for vocations, but also expect and encourage your priests to pray as good shepherds, as Jesus, who knew the Father and the Father knew him through a consistent and intense interior life.